In recent years, health care researchers in the West have looked to medicine and technology for fast solutions to mental health issues. Interestingly, researchers in interpersonal psychology have also found increasing evidence that links mental health to our fundamental need to connect with one another and be part of a healthy community. The developing field of interpersonal neurobiology studies the connections between emotions, relationships, and health in a way that teaches us the immense value of human connection in scientific terms.
In trauma recovery, it is important to remember our basic needs for human contact, belonging, and social support. We are social beings, and the process of trauma recovery happens largely in relationship.
Here are three key ways relationships can help us overcome traumatic experiences:
Trauma often involves a violation of our physical or emotional sense of safety. Those who have a sense of safety in community will benefit from reconnecting with family, friends, and communities who can help them find healthy ways to soothe the mental and emotional imprints of posttraumatic stress.
For those who didn’t have a supportive network of relationships prior to the trauma, it can be particularly challenging to build safety and trust in new relationships following the traumatic experience. In this case, relationship building becomes a key piece of trauma recovery.
While this may be daunting, it is an effort worthy of the trauma survivor’s attention. Building trust with a friend or therapist may bring up feelings of vulnerability, but with this vulnerability comes an immense capacity for healing. One of the most beneficial things for someone seeking to recover from trauma is to build a trusting, healthy connection with another human being—someone he or she can share thoughts and feelings with and process the feelings and thoughts related to traumatic experiences.
You may have heard of attachment theory in psychotherapy. Attachment speaks to your experience of connection with parents, and how these early relationships impacted your feelings of connection to others. Were your caregivers engaged with you? Did they meet your needs? Attachment theory outlines four primary types of attachment, the healthiest being called secure attachment.
Search for those who help you feel seen, safe, soothed, secure, and stable, and cultivate those feelings in your environment and in relationship to yourself.
There are ways therapy can help if you feel you had challenges with attachment in your early relationships. There is also an immense amount we can learn from healthy attachment. Dr. Dan Siegel, a neuropsychiatrist at UCLA, outlines four primary needs of children that help foster secure attachment and healthy brain development. He describes these as the “four S’s,” which are helping a child feel:
- Seen: Feeling an empathic, deep connection
- Safe: Avoiding actions that are frightening or scary
- Soothed: Helping to calm when disturbed
- Secure: Helping to develop an internal sense of well-being
I would add an additional “S” for stable: creating a sense of predictability, order, and right in the household. Encouraging these experiences is helpful for all people, but particularly for the trauma survivor, who may feel alienation, shame, or isolation as a result of his or her experience with trauma. These themes provide opportunities to experience positive connection and emotions and prevent negative feelings from taking root or overtaking the experience of a trauma survivor.
In the field of trauma treatment and recovery, interpersonal biology plays a significant role in recovery. Interpersonal neurobiology brings together research and theories in an interdisciplinary manner to explore the impact of relationships on neurological functioning. Mirror neurons are neurons that fire when we see or are connected with someone who experiences an event that we do not experience. They help us create a sense of connection and shared experience. This can be part of what helps us feel seen and that our experience, positive or negative, is being shared with those we care about (or care about us).
Related studies of psychoneuroimmunology go deeper to explore the relationship between psychology, neuroscience, and immune system function. Much of what we learn in these overlapping fields is the effect of social and emotional stress on the body and its ability to fight off infection. When we can soothe stress and feel supported by family, friends, and/or community in efforts to meet the challenge of a problem or respond to a crisis, our bodies are able to self-regulate better and access not only a felt sense of resilience but biological indicators of health.
If you are experiencing trauma and are feeling alone, do not give up efforts to foster connection with others. Search for those who help you feel seen, safe, soothed, secure, and stable, and cultivate those feelings in your environment and in relationship to yourself. While reaching out may seem difficult, there are significant opportunities for healing in connecting with those who care. Make seeking social support a conscious part of your healing journey, a journey best taken with the guidance of a therapist, and discover how this information can serve you best.
© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lisa Danylchuk, MEd, LMFT, E-RYT, therapist in Oakland, California
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