Jennifer: Welcome back y’all to our holiday release series. We’re starting with Complex Trauma is an Attachment Wound, originally released as episode 3 in season 3. We’re revisiting this one because it really helps set the tone for the season to come. So we hope you enjoy giving it another listen. Maybe pulling something new from it or if you are joining us later on the season, maybe this is your first time exploring it. Either way, please enjoy.
Elisabeth: Welcome to Trauma Rewired, the podcast that teaches you about your nervous system, how trauma lives in the body and what you can do to heal. I’m your co-host Elisabeth Kristof, founder of BrainBased.com an online community where we used evidence-based neuro somatic exercises to create resilience, change behavior and repattern trauma. I’m also the founder of Neuro Somatic Intelligence Coaching Certification, an ICF accredited course that equips therapists and coaches with a framework and tools to create transformation from the level of the nervous system.
Elisabeth: I’m so excited for today’s episode. As we were recording season 2, I kept thinking about complex trauma and I just kept thinking, man, this is relational. This has to do with our attachment and this has to do with the way our nervous system developed to be in relationship and what happens inside of our body as we experience connection to other people. And there’s just this huge component of trauma that affects our relationship and attachment, and I’m really excited to dive into all of it today.
Jennifer: Me too, I am excited about it too, because when you brought this to my attention last season, or in between our recording seasons, and I started to reflect on it, I could really see the almost multi dimensional way that complex trauma begins to shape and form our lives, our social connections, our relationship to others, to self. And I guess I never really looked at it as an attachment wound before. And so I think today is going to be pretty eye opening for people and I hope a really exploratory and fun conversation that offers people a little bit more compassion for themselves and maybe some…
Elisabeth: Compassion and hope! Hope for relationship change. That affects so much of our life. I think with complex trauma you have this deep desire to create relationships that you never had before and the attempt to do that can be so chaotic and dysregulating inside the body it can lead to harm. So I think there’s real hope in learning how to repattern that.
Jennifer: Absolutely. And to offer people tools for support as well.
Elisabeth: Research shows that the holidays come with an increase in maladaptive behaviors, addiction patterns, social isolation, depression, and burnout. And all of you coaches, healers, therapists out here listening, you’re on the front lines helping your clients to navigate family dynamics, financial stress, emotional flashbacks, anxiety. This takes a toll on your nervous system and the secret to navigating the holiday season with presence and connection to better serve your clients and avoid burnout, really to enter into the new year with the energy you need to grow your business is nervous system health. So we’re offering a free live Neuro Somatic Intelligence workshop to create a self care practice for your own nervous system that will change your holiday experience. Matt Bush, Melanie Weller, and myself, we’re leaders in the field of applied neurology and vagus nerve health, and we’ve created a simple framework and practical tools that will increase your capacity to handle stress and create resilience from the level of your nervous system. We’d love for you to join us. The link is in the show notes to register for the workshop on December 15th. You’ll learn practical tools and a framework for your own self care so that you can enter into 2024 resilient and ready to expand your business and show up fully for those you serve. We’d love to see you live, but a recording will also be sent out to anyone who can’t make the live workshop. And again, the link is in the show notes to register for the December 15th NSI workshop.
Elisabeth: As I was researching for this episode, I came across a quote that I think sums up a lot of this nicely, and it’s by clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, Dan Siegler. And he says, “The brain is structured with an innate capacity to transcend the boundaries of its own body and integrate itself within the world of other brains.” I think this season what we’re really looking at is that big collective relational nervous system and how it impacts each of us individually. So when we think about all of this from a neuro somatic perspective, you know, we have billions of neurons and trillions of connections. that is really a living system designed by evolution for learning, for communication, for memory. And the brain and the nervous system are constantly changing, right?
Elisabeth: We talk about neuroplasticity on here all of the time. Pulsing with chemical and electrical activity, expanding, contracting, adapting, and that’s happening not just on an individual level, but because of the way that we interact with each other, right? Our brains are social organs crisscrossed with neural networks dedicated to communicating and receiving the messages between one another. Not only did our brains develop for communication through language, but through bodily processes, emotions, physiological reactions. And our brain structures are really built to convey messages across the social synapse. We talked about that social synapse in episode one, which is the space between each other, where we communicate through subconscious and nonverbal messages. Nervous system to nervous system.
Elisabeth: And so when we interact with each other, we’re really impacting each other’s biological state and influencing the long term construction of each other’s brains. And if we think about all of that, how we are constantly interacting with each other and impacting our brain function in this way, we can really see how our attachment patterns play such a huge role in our current, past, and future brain function, right? The health of our nervous system, our stress load. And in some ways, self regulation is not really an accurate term- that doesn’t really exist because it’s always regulation and relationship, whether that’s regulation with nature or our senses or parts of ourselves as human beings, other parts of ourselves as human beings.
Elisabeth: And did we develop in a way where relationships feel safe where connection is regulating? Or are we primed for protection over connection and our relationships, by and large- and I know this is changing on an individual basis all the time- but are relationships dysregulating? Do our patterns drive us to develop relationships and support networks that are conducive to our health and our growth, to feeling safe exploring the world around us or towards enmeshed, dysregulating, stressful relationships? And in that way, complex trauma is at its root an attachment wound. And the long term effects of developmental trauma on our health, our ACE scores, disease, mental health, addiction, all of this can stem from deficits and/or hypervigilance or a lens of threat in our social brain and nervous system.
So when we interact with this web of human connection, how we are primed for attachment really changes what we’re experiencing inside of our physiology inside of our body. And so human beings aren’t isolated. Part of being a human being is in being in a relationship. And with complex trauma, maintaining connection and relationship can be inherently dysregulating with a heavy increase and chronic stress. So you have both this deep need for social interaction, for development, for co regulation, for stress release, and social safety, but you also have a need for protection against the threat and the stress that that attachment caused historically. The intimacy and connection have caused us on an individual level and really primed us for threat in that connection.
Matt: Something Elisabeth said there kind of sticks out well, several things, but the brain really is a social organ. Like one of the things you alluded to that I want to kind of pull out is that our brain doesn’t evolve in a vacuum or in a petri dish. From our very first moments, whether you want to think of that as embryological development or fetal development or first moments after birth, they’re social, right? The human body and brain can’t develop without another human being. And as our brain grows and develops through infancy and early childhood, a lot of the developmental processes that occur are initiated by social interactions or social bonds. And it’s like our brain is gathering repetitions or experiences and interactions in order to actually create the inputs that will drive the growth and development that has to happen. And so even from infancy, there’s no way to separate brain development from social interaction. They always go together.
Matt: We’ve talked about this in a previous season of Trauma Rewired, about how I learn anatomy in these compartmented silos. Like, here’s my somatic body, and here’s my nervous system, and here’s my emotions. And we pull them apart in order to examine them from an academic way. But in reality, they’re never separated. They always are integrating and feeding one another. And I think the way that the brain works with social interactions can never actually be separated. So everything is social about how the brain works. You could go through all the different brain areas and talk about how each one of them contributes to social perception, to social interpretation.
Matt: And then to our own brain’s prediction of whether we’re going to be safe or unsafe in the relationships and the situations that we’re in. So, it’s like… Literally, all of the brain is wired to be part of this social structure and these relationships that you talked about. So when we get down to like what part of the brain is either leading us towards safe relationships where we can relax and be grounded and Present or what part of the brain is leading us toward dysregulation and protecting our self from this intimacy and connection because of previous experiences, the dividing point or the threshold where it all comes together is this area called the insular cortex. This is such a cool area because it does so many things. It’s responsible for our sense of interoception and how we’re feeling inside of our own body. It helps us to feel grounded and Present. It has a little bit of vestibular input, some visceral organ input, some emotional input, some visual input.
Matt: It brings everything together. And it’s the great integration area of the cortex. So what’s really cool about this, cause we’ve talked about your cognitive brain versus your survival brain before, right? When your survival brain gets triggered and you’re either in like amygdala hijacking or limbic escape or just in survival mode the back bottom part of your brain is taking over and your survival brain is kind of running the show.
Matt: So this insular cortex kind of sits on the threshold between the back bottom part of the brain and the top front of the brain. It is the dividing line of the cortex. And so the posterior part of the insular cortex goes with the survival brain and limbic system. So when we’re in protective mode or survival mode, or when we’re triggered or dysregulated, the posterior insula is interpreting and integrating the social cues that we receive, like visual, auditory, tactile sensation, energy cues from another person and it’s integrating those with our limbic system and survival brain so that our survival brain can run the show. When we’re calm and grounded and regulated and we feel safe, now the forward, the anterior portion of the insula, takes over to work with the frontal lobe to keep us in that kind of logical cognitive space where we can function at a higher level.
Matt: And we are not reverting back to our survival patterns and protective mechanisms. But we’re really engaging with the best version of ourself. So, that area, we’ll talk about it a little bit later in the call as well, but that area kind of receives, integrates, and interprets, should I be more in my limbic brain right now or should I be more in my frontal brain right now? And it’s what’s helping us to distinguish where we stand within a social interaction, how we should act, how we should protect ourselves, or how we should engage. with whatever situation we find ourselves in. So super cool area, but like I said before, I just think we can’t really separate brain function from social function. They always go together.
Jennifer: I have a nervous system that was primed for protection over connection, and I, I really have always yearned for deeper connection within my whole life, but at the same time been very scared of it and really didn’t feel safe for me, and I think stemming from misattunement and an environment that couldn’t help me regulate, I found myself under a lot of threat, which led to a lot of protective mechanisms like binge eating, anxiety and depression, a lot of TV numbing out, like it would just all around it was just too much before, during and after social engagement. And the pendulum swung really hard with the internal chaos and dysregulation. And even now to this day, when I feel unseen or unheard, it will activate and trigger a Fight trauma response that’s often disproportionate to what’s actually happening.
Jennifer: You know, we talked about in season two, the developmental brain, and I have felt the real repercussions of this attachment wound, and it’s impeding on those certain developmental windows that we talk about. The environment always pulls with a certain amount of threat, physical or, you know, emotional, social. I was very hypervigilant and food was my go to. The ACE scores were very stressful to my little body, and those wounds have been playing out in loops around me, around in my life that had been affecting all of relationship scope that we talk about here, particularly the connection to self was very distant for some time. And I see complex traumas, relational effects in all relationships in my life, as well as my working and professional relationship, activating particular areas of my brain with our NSI tools has been massively beneficial to the production of my life. I’m also working to heal a visual deficit, which has had a huge impact on my life. Matt, you talked earlier about interoception, which was key to me working to support my healing. through disordered eating, as well as that deeper connection I was able to foster to myself, the embodiment. The NSI supports my nervous system and having more capacity in general to stay Present and to take in the stimulus coming into me and, and have a trust that it’s being integrated better than what I have experienced in my earlier years.
Elisabeth: Yeah, I will say as someone with a high ACE score and some complex PTSD, and I find myself activated and in protective mode in relationship a lot. One of the biggest tools that I’ve gotten from neuro somatic training is finding ways to stimulate and train and activate my insular cortex and my interceptive system. And I’ll tell you guys right now, I am wearing compression around my midsection so that I’m getting a boost of interceptive stimulus as we do this podcast, because I’m engaging in relationship with you. I’m also engaging in relationship with our audience and being pretty vulnerable and putting myself out there. And so I have all these little tools now to help that part of my brain specifically function better and drive me more toward my higher order thinking systems as I dive into all of this work and have this conversation. And so I think It’s really important to remember that the part of this work is creating change in those systems and in those structures that you talked about.
Elisabeth: And then I think it’s also really important to remember why connection needs are so critical to our felt sense of safety in the world, why social connection is so important. And that it really is a survival need. And even if we trace it back all the way to infancy, if we think about what is most important to our survival as an infant, as a very young child, it’s not survival of the fittest and who can run fastest or hit hardest. It’s who has a caregiver that’s most attuned to their needs and can provide them with the things that they need, not only food and shelter, but also co-regulation and a safe place to express emotion, to explore the world, right? And the first thing that we learn about our caregivers is the ability of our caregivers to make us feel safe, whether that exists or not.
Elisabeth: And our nervous system and our brains start adapting to that immediately because it is critical to our survival brain, to our ability to stay alive. And then that patterning and those adaptations are happening at a really important time in our development and have long lasting impacts into how we then feel inside of our body in other relationships and other intimate relationships around other human beings, intimate or not. And so we can really replay those and be driven into stress responses or protective behaviors, or we can feel safe and be able to communicate and be open and express ourselves. And all of that is patterned pretty early from a survival perspective.
Jennifer: We support people in the reshaping of their nervous systems with tools to experience a new way of being in our bodies and out in the world. We understand that we can create new outputs and shift the brain and body into integrated spaces with clear internal communication and a big embodied life. And we want you to experience the same thing so join us for 2 weeks of live, free neuro training at RewireTrial.com.
Jennifer: For the first recording that we talked about in and in the trailer we talked a little bit about attachment theory, John Bowlby. He was a British development psychologist and he’s best known as the originator of attachment theory which was an evolutionary theory rooted in the innate need of very young children to develop a close emotional bond with primaries and caregivers. He explored the behavioral and psychological consequences of both strong and weak emotional bonds between mothers and their young children. And although through the course of his work Bowlby does talk about the network that could become the caregivers, but he really puts a huge focus on the bond between mothers and their young children.
Jennifer: Early on in his research he worked at the London Child Guidance Clinic. This was a school for maladjusted children with the viewpoint that children’s problems stem from past adverse experiences with their families. This approach struck a really big chord with Bowlby. He then goes on to work at another institute in London where he establishes a research unit to examine effects on young children of separation from their primary caregivers. This is when he develops attachment theory. One of the tenants of which is that very young children who fail to develop close emotional bonds with a caregiver will experience deep behavioral problems in their life.
Jennifer: Over the course of this evolutionary theory of attachment Bowlby studied many different demographics and controlled studies. His maternal deprivation hypothesis was a large contributor to attachment theory. This suggests that continual attachment disruption between the incent and primary caregiver could result in long term cognitive, social and emotional difficulties for that incent. Bowlby has this internal working model that works as a cognitive framework. It comprises mental representations for understanding the world, the self and others. It’s based on a relationship, again, with the primary caregiver. It becomes the prototype for all future social relationships, allowing individuals to predict, control and manipulate interaction with others.
Jennifer: For example, the extent to which an individual perceives himself or herself as worthy of love and care and information regarding the availability and reliability of others. This framework is the emotional representation of the infant’s first attachment relationship and forms the basis of the individual’s attachment style. A person’s interaction with others is guided by memories and expectations from their internal model which influence and helps evaluate their contact with others. So as we look at complex trauma as an attachment wound we can see how the extent of this person’s perception of themselves as they are worthy of love and care or whatever information they are getting from their mental representations for understanding the world, we can see that as complex trauma begins to take it’s hold and effects on a young person’s body how it would be a disruptor to the primary caregiver if the primary caregiver is maybe emotionally unavailable, physically unavailable or is maybe even harmful to that infant as they are growing up and viewing the world and beginning to form these attachment bonds with the social world.
Jennifer: I’ve heard Matt say before, I think in one of our NSI classes, that from an NSI perspective attachment style is basically the way a young nervous system seeks to regulate and feel safe in the room after a chaotic event. And that basically we can look at attachment styles as all different ways to regulate the nervous system. Do I engage more? Do I dissociate more? And that a child is always searching, acting certain ways for the love and care that they need. And in the end, that could be through food through objects. We basically try many things until we get there. Or could go that we rebel against things along the way as well from people that maybe we should think that we’re supposed to replicate. But in turn we rebel against it. Matt, do you want to speak to how a mother’s nervous system impacts a child’s?
Matt: Absolutely. So I’ll kind of tie this into some of the attachment theory thoughts and then kind of talk about the science as well. So the brain of an infant, like as babies we’re born with immature brains, right? We’re not little adult brains that are miniature in size. There’s all of these connections, hundreds of thousands of connections, that exist upon birth that are going to be pruned away over the next months and years. And there’s a great need and even dependence on that primary caregiver for physical safety, for nurturing and care, and for social safety, right?
Matt: And so all of those have to be present for that brain to develop the way that it’s supposed to. So, the quote that kind of goes along with this is we say that a parent’s unconscious becomes a child’s first reality. Like, the primary caregiver, which if we’re talking about the mother or whoever’s there, their unconscious, their availability, their emotional state, their physical nearness to the child, all of that becomes the reality that that child is first exposed to. Whether they want it or not. And their brain is going to begin to develop within those circumstances whether they want it to or not. So what happens is that all of those things begin to mold and shape how that little brain develops.
Matt: And so to kind of put a few different words on it, I’m going to pull a different model here and kind of layer it with attachment theory. It’s a model that was created in the military much, much later, but it’s called the OODA loop. And the OODA is O O D A. And just very briefly, what this stands for is Observe. Orient, Decide, and Act. It creates a cycle. So after you act, it creates new observations, which you have to orient to, make a new decision, and then act again.
Matt: So, whenever this child is growing up in this situation where the primary caregiver may or may not be emotionally available, may or may not be physically available, may or may not be providing the nurture that’s required. And that goes to speak to everything from physical sustenance and food to safety of the physical environment, particular sights and sounds that the baby will need to develop. All of that stuff we’re kind of putting under the umbrella of nurture. For everything that is or is not present and provided for, the baby’s brain we’re going through this cycle of observing what’s the state that we’re in, orienting to it, making decisions and acting upon it. And we build on previous experiences, right?
Matt: So that immature brain doesn’t have the same reasoning ability as an adult brain. It can’t go, Oh, mom’s not available because she has to work two or three jobs. Mom’s not emotionally available because she’s in threat from a relationship or lack of support or a lack of resources. The nurturing resources are not there because there are either financial struggles, economic issues, family issues going on, loss of other social support. Like there’s all these things that a baby can’t rationalize any of that. Right? That immature brain doesn’t understand any of those things. So, all it has to go on, all it can build upon, this is so cool because we’ve said this about the adult brain in previous seasons, but all that little brain has to go on is the inputs that it’s receiving, or not receiving in this situation.
Matt: And the whole point of this episode and this idea of attachment theory is that the majority of inputs that are received during those early months are social inputs, right? The brain is not as focused on the actual sensory data, like do I see it? Do I hear it? Do I feel it? It’s actually starting to put in layers of social meaning and interpretation. So where the mother’s nervous system can begin to impact the child in this situation is- what state is the mother’s or the primary caregiver’s nervous system in? Are they constantly in stress and threat like cortisol into the system? The baby’s nervous system is going to perceive those things. And it will start to predict and respond in kind, right?
Matt: So from a very early age, if you have an infant nervous system that begins to have this, I guess you could call it adrenal response. Like activating that HPA axis of dumping adrenaline into the system, dumping cortisol, increasing survival hormones. That’s gonna slow or modify brain development, right? We know that as adults, if we’re stuck in our survival brain and our limbic system is kind of running the show that our frontal lobe and cognitive brain are not as engaged. We’ll take the same concept and apply it to a baby’s brain who’s actually growing and developing through the months and years.
Matt: And the more often that that little infant brain is in survival mode, then you could say the less frequently it’s actually in a really strong growth phase or strong developmental phase of those cognitive areas because they’re not being utilized as much as the limbic and survival areas. So that little brain may develop over the years to have more of a lean toward that limbic protection or survival protection, maybe less trusting, maybe more protective.
Matt: And eventually we’ll start to think about it as dysregulated or as Jennifer was talking about, to have more behavior issues. But all of those things, they’re just outputs. There’s outputs of that little nervous system in that little brain not having enough safe inputs to make it feel that it can let down its guard and just be present and engage socially. So it kind of takes it on another path as it goes through the developmental timeline. So fast forward to childhood, young adolescence, teenage years, and you’re going to have a nervous system that has built up years of experience of protective mechanisms and safety survival that is probably going to get labeled as misbehaving.
Jennifer: Something interesting that came up as you were talking, because in Bowlby’s research he says that the first up to five years are really critical for a child’s development, but it’s really the first two years that are very critical. He claimed that mothering is pretty much useless if it’s delayed after two, two and a half to three years- between that two and three year period. So it’s not only just like the separation or loss of the mother or primary, but it’s the failure to develop that attachment and you really only have those first couple of years to make that safe before the risk goes up and then you really only have until five to save it. And then after you will just never get that bond back.
Jennifer: We’re talking about a lot of behaviors and outputs that can come of that, but- and I know this isn’t on our outline but- it’s the emotional implications of a nervous system that doesn’t have love. That doesn’t feel safe. The emotional body can get severely dysregulated during these times when attachment is supposed to be formed. It’s not just the risk of cancer and autoimmune and whatever behavioral addictions and that sort of stuff comes up, but the emotional body is really affected.
Matt: Absolutely. Having worked with a lot of youth who are challenged by some of those things, yeah it shows up by the time they hit age 5, 6, 7. You’re like, ‘oh, behavior is challenging’. You want to give love and support cuz you recognize that it hasn’t been there. I don’t know what Bowlby says about this in the long term. I don’t think that all hope is lost. I think that that nervous system and that person can learn to love and to be loved, but it’s a process at that point. It’s not a natural easy thing. It’s kind of like they’re actually having to relearn and fight against their own nervous system’s instinctual behaviors to allow that to occur rather than just stepping right into it. So it’s a more difficult process if it doesn’t happen in those early years.
Elisabeth: Yeah, I think at the crux of a lot of Bowly’s work is this idea of like, do you have a safe place from which to go out and explore the world and grow and develop? How safe do you feel doing that? And then that really drives so much development and just like Jen was talking about too, emotional development as well as brain function development.
Elisabeth: And I do think it’s important as we’re talking about all of this, like we hear a lot about attachment styles. You know secure, disorganized, anxious avoidant. And we’re not just talking about this in terms of ‘in partnership’, but like you were talking about working with teens, as kids, as the way our behavior plays out in all human interactions and just interactions with the world, interactions with parts of ourselves is really broad reaching. And then I think, too, from a neuro somatic perspective, it is important to remember that yes, these are really critical times in our development and in shaping our nervous system. And also we are fluid and changing all of the time in response to the stimulus that we give ourselves. And so an attachment schema is built on these thousands of experiences with caretakers that become subconscious, reflective predictions of the behaviors of others.
Elisabeth: And these schema can become activated in all of our subsequent relationships and lead us to seek other people that fit that pattern and replay those relationships in life. But at the same time, even though these are reflective and deeply ingrained, from personal experience, I know that can change with intentional training and intentional stimulus to the nervous system. It is a process, like you were talking about, but I don’t think anyone falls into, like, just one particular attachment style. Like, I’m disorganized, or I’m anxious, or I’m avoidant. I think that’s always changing, depending on the relationship that we’re in, depending on our stress load at the time, depending on the relationship that we have with ourselves.
Elisabeth: And then I also think that that changes not just like in the moment, but over time as we can have some agency in developing a healthier nervous system through intentional training and through safe emotional expression and developing intentionally safe relationships and partnerships. Like I have with you guys, like I have with Jen. We get to practice expressing emotion together, having that be safe, regulating around it, that gives me those good reps to then take out into the world and practice in other experiences. So I do think that though there are patterns that are definitely evident and we can lean more one way than the other, and I’ll get into the different types of attachment styles later, I do think that that’s a little bit like cut and dry, or black and white, when you really think about how a nervous system works. I’m not just disorganized attachment.
Matt: I mean, the power of neuroplasticity tells us that the brain and nervous system can change over time. And that’s what we’re trying to do with neuro somatics. I mean, everyone who’s trying to do their own work is basically engaging in neuroplasticity, right? But what the nervous system will sometimes do, or I should say and what the nervous system will sometimes do, is that when we’ve been dealing with one particular type of protective mechanism for a while, and we get fed up with it and tired of it ruining relationships or making things hard or creating pain points.
And we start to look into deeply changing that pattern of perception and behavior, the nervous system, if we could kind of step back, it goes, okay, so you don’t want to do that anymore. I’m going to use this other way to protect you. And it kind of switches it’s mechanism of perception and response. It goes, Oh, you’ve addressed that pattern. Okay. We won’t use that one anymore. Now we’ll use this one, but I’m still going to protect you because I still don’t think we’re safe. And then when you go and address that one and the nervous system, it goes, Oh, you address that one. Okay. Well, now I’m going to use this other protective mechanism because I still don’t think you’re safe. Right. So until we get to the root cause of safety. and rebuilding that ability to feel safe in intimate relationships or interpersonal relationships. The nervous system can ping pong its way through different symptoms or different outputs. And it’ll look like different attachment styles, but the same root cause may still be present where it’s still just not feeling safe. So eventually we want to get in a little deeper.
Elisabeth: Yeah. I see that so much and I feel that in my own lived experience. And then it is about getting beneath that to why is this unsafe in the first place? And repatterning that sense of safety inside with myself, with my body, and then letting that branch out into the world. And I think that it comes with myself and it also comes with others. And then as I start to reshape those positive attachment schema, that leads to more growth, to more regulation, to better immune function.
Elisabeth: And it kind of feeds on itself as I create that safety. Just like when we train the nervous system, it starts out really slow in the beginning because our nervous system can only handle so much and then as it becomes more resilient, we have the capacity to handle more stimulus and so that training can progress in a different way. I feel like that same thing happens relationally when I start to make changes at some of those deep core levels, creating safety in partnership, in family relations then it trickles out into the rest of my life pretty quickly and exponentially.
Elisabeth: But then also at the same time, like negative attachment schemas can have the opposite effect. So those are correlated with higher frequency of physical and emotional illness throughout life. And I feel like that can also be a spiral that gets worse and deeper and drives more isolation, deterioration in health, more reaction, all of that. And so it is something that we do want to think about really intentionally starting to look at and deconstruct.
Elisabeth: So when we talk about attachment styles, the broad categories are secure, avoidant anxious, ambivalent, and disorganized. And so secure are folks who grew up with pretty stable caregivers that were rated as free or autonomous. And what they did in the experiment was they would separate the child from the mother and then observe how the child reacted when reunited with the mother after experiencing a stressful situation, which was being exposed to a stranger. And then they would bring the mother back in. How does the child react? And so secure children were really easily soothed and then they would go back out and explore the world and their environment and they weren’t disrupted by the presence of the mother. They felt safe disconnecting from her and knew that they had a good safe base to come back to.
Elisabeth: Avoidant children had dismissive mothers and when their mothers returned the child often ignored them because connecting to the mother was often more stressful than staying away from them. And so the nervous system became primed to avoid relationship connection and intimacy.
Elisabeth: Anxious ambivalent was these children would want to have proximity to the mother, but they weren’t easily soothed, they would be slow to return to play and they would often be more clingy and less likely to explore their environment. And so there’s this real need to cling, but also a lot of dysregulation in that attachment.
And then disorganized insecure is really when we experience both pain from attachment, usually pretty strong pain, and a need for attachment. When I read this definition from the book, Neuroscience of Human Relationship, describing the disorganized attachment style children, it really hit me because I really relate. I really relate to this child.
Elisabeth: It said they would engage in chaotic or self injurious behavior. They would spin, they would fall down, they would hit themselves, not knowing how to calm themselves. They would be overcome by trans-like expressions, freeze in place, maintain uncomfortable body positions. They would both attempt to approach the mother for comfort and avoid her for safety. So there was this inner turmoil and dysregulation to the point where adaptation, coping, and motor abilities appeared to crumble. And this was often seen with mothers who themselves had unresolved trauma and grief. And/or also in a relationship where there was a lot of pain and strain that came from the caregivers, but also a deep need to attach.
Elisabeth: And that pretty much sums me up as a kiddo. I engaged in a lot of self harm from an early age. I feel like I was just wild, flailing around, trying to find some way to feel better inside and I just couldn’t. I couldn’t regulate. And yeah, and it talks about the chaos of the mother’s internal world being witnessed in the child’s behavior, even when it’s not evident in the behavior of the mother. And that really hit me hard too.
Jennifer: It’s pretty jarring because we can see how our attachment styles were developed without going too far. And so those changes that are occurring in our nervous system causing all of these imbalances in a system that keeps us from adapting to stress and integrating memories appropriately and having a solid emotional foundation, it’s really limiting. And when you are chronically dissociating from your childhood experience, because you don’t feel safe, you don’t feel protected, you’re not encoding the memories, your amygdala function or your amygdala development gets totally off course. We’ve talked about amygdala hijacking and many other things about brain development within developmental trauma.
Jennifer: You can see even from the diminished self expression that people who have complex trauma already feel. Ram Dass has an interesting quote. He says something like, if you think that you are spiritually evolved, go spend a week with your parents, go spend a week with your family, and it will immediately propel you back into old unwanted patterns you can’t even help yourself from going into. And so back to the NSI and the tools that we use here are priceless. They provide a high value to a situation where you can frequently feel lost and unstable.
Matt: Yeah, so if I can put together a couple of ideas, because for me, it makes it a little more linear. So I can understand A leads to B, and then that leads me to C and then I get D which is what’s really bugging me. Like, that’s what really bothers me about my behavior. So then I can trace it back. So I view an attachment schema as like a lens or a paradigm of how I see the world socially. It’s my glasses that I’m looking through. How do I perceive other people’s behavior, their actions, their intentions even though my brain is supplying what I assume is the intention sometimes, that’s still kind of how I view it.
Matt: So that attachment scheme is like my lens, how I view. And then whether I get either positive or negative attachment scheme of my own behavior, that’s like the output, that’s the response. So I have my perception and then I have my response. And that could be both positive or negative. Where we get into the complex trauma thing, is when we have complex trauma, it’s this repeated exposure to lack of safety. Especially when we’re talking about cPTSD, right, we know it’s usually an ongoing environmental or social lack of safety. This repeated, again and again and again and again. It’s usually not one big thing that happens. Like, there can be big things, but it’s not just one. It’s a repetitive pattern of unsafe behavior or unsafe environments.
Matt: So if I grew up in that type of environment, naturally, that’s going to shape my lens of how I view social interactions. It’s going to change my perception, not only of intimate connection or family relationships, but all relationships are going to be affected by that. And so, the complex trauma is kind of what has informed my attachment schema. It’s what has created my lens. Then back to the output side one more time. This is where we actually get cPTSD. So, when I’m thinking of a neuro somatic definition of cPTSD, I replace PTSD with the word output. I think we have a list of five characteristics that we’re going to go through in a minute.
Matt: But when I look at these five characteristics of cPTSD I go, Oh, these are five outputs. And the C, it just means chronic. So if I have cPTSD, these are my chronic outputs that I’m using over and over and over again to try to protect myself socially or interpersonally. So I always just in my brain, I try to simplify things to go, if I want to change the output, oh yeah, I have that model that says I have to go back and either change the input or change the interpretation. So, changing the interpretation would be starting to change my lens, change how I view it, right? And so, we could possibly do mindset work around that, meditations, positive psychology, like all of these cool techniques- somatic experiencing, cognitive behavioral therapy, plant medicine. There’s lots of ways to change the interpretation, or change the lens.
But at some point we also want to change the input and that’s where Jennifer was talking about our NSI tools. We have the ability to kind of buffer the inputs we’re receiving from the environment by using our NSI tools at the same time. Full circle back to Elisabeth going ‘Hey, I’m wearing some compression right now in order to do this podcast.’ That’s a perfect example. We know we’re getting into some vulnerable conversation. So let’s utilize a tool that’s going to help buffer the inputs of the nervous system and lower the threat so that we can stay engaged.
Matt: And I did the same thing. Before we got on the podcast, I did my nervous system tools first because I wanted to regulate before I jumped on. So I know it may be oversimplifying it a little bit. In my head, if I pull it all the way back to inputs, create a schema of how I look at the world and that schema creates my chronic outputs. Now I can see it as a model that’s more linear and I can understand what do I need to do about it. Or what could I possibly do about it, right? I can go back and use my tools on my inputs. I can start changing my lens and my interpretation. And I can monitor those outputs and go, ‘hey, let’s watch how they improve. Or let’s watch where I need to bring more awareness and more Presence into my relationships’. Then we can start to change it over time. So hopefully that is helpful and not too far off of the actual real definitions. I don’t want to oversimplify too much, but that’s just how I think about things is how do I get it to a point where I can do something with it?
Jennifer: Matt, I think you really started to answer the question like what happens now and how do we rewire attachment from the perspective of neuro somatic intelligence? First and foremost, we have to establish safety within ourselves and within our own nervous systems and bodies. It’s learning the protective responses and asking the questions of how and why do I feel unsafe within this relationship to self, with a relationship to others, and really at the society at large.
Jennifer: And it is a slow process in the beginning, like Elisabeth was saying, but we have to cultivate the capacity to understand ourselves and to create that safety so that that capacity can then expand and grow. And this curiosity of why and how begins to uncover subconscious patterns, which encompass limiting beliefs and behavior patterns that we don’t really want to engage in, that may have become maladaptive over time as a protective output from our complex trauma.
Jennifer: So as we uncover these patterns, once again, from the framework of safety, we can begin to make new moves and take new actions and how we are wired to create those new subconscious patterns in the way that we just ultimately move through the world. And with our NSI tools, we have the ability to override the subconscious mind and many of our brains getting up into that insular cortex that you talked about earlier and just completely bypassing the subconscious mind so that our higher order systems of thinking can do what they are intended to do. And that is to inhibit. So that the higher order systems of thinking can inhibit the back brain and that survival brain that has us running in these limiting beliefs and patterns.
Matt: Perfectly said. One of my favorite things to do is when we can take the time to do that introspection that you talked about Jennifer and asked how and why did I respond the way I did or behave the way I did? My favorite follow up question is to ask what could I try differently next time? I want to answer this in a positive aspect, a building up way, not a destructive way But the coolest thing about the nervous system seeks novelty that if I can come up with even one idea of how I could handle something differently next time, when I get to that point in the future, there’s a pretty good chance my nervous system is going to try that new idea just because it’s new.
Matt: And it wants to go, hey, let’s see what happens. And it can really open up new doors and create new experiences, because even though we might have a thousand experiences that went one way, if we plant this little seed of maybe I could do it different when we get to that moment, sometimes our brain will choose the one instead of the thousands, just because it’s new and it’ll go, Ooh, this is going to be fun. Because it wants to experience something different.
Elisabeth: Yeah. I will say in line with everything that you guys have been saying, it is really helpful for me to think of relationship patterns as outputs of my nervous system. To speak really personally, I’m 40 years old and I’m right now in the only safe, intimate partnership that I’ve experienced in my entire life. It’s very new for me. And as I have been navigating this over the past few years of being in safe partnership, a lot of these patterns have come to the surface, because they have the safe foundation to start to rise up. And it was really difficult for me in the beginning. It was really difficult for me to look at that in myself, to see my own reactions, to feel it in my own body now that I’ve come out of dissociation more through neuro training. I can actually feel what’s going on inside of myself and to have to sit with that and be with those emotions. It’s been a real process and what I know has been true for me is that at some point I knew I want this for myself.
Elisabeth: I don’t want to live a life for myself. Where I can’t have these intimate relationships, this partnership and these connections just because of my past. And I really made a commitment to my nervous system training to implementing it in relationship and Presence in relationship and in working with my nervous system. Like I really upped my game to increase my capacity so that I could grow in this particular way and not end up getting really sick, stressed out, shut down and overwhelmed by trying to have this relationship. And I will say it’s changed, like it’s changing all the time. It’s still work. I’m putting the reps in, I’m putting the work in, doing all the things, the therapy, and then this and that and the somatics.
But with the neuro training, I feel and I see this tremendously deep level of healing becomes possible for me. And I watch that in myself and with my clients. And it really gives me a lot of hope about how when we create capacity in our nervous system, capacity for safety and connection and Presence. The healing for that little girl, that disorganized little girl, that was thrashing around and hurting herself. Like so much healing is possible because of this work.
Matt: Thank you for having me on again. Really appreciate being here.
Elisabeth: Thank you!
Elisabeth: If you’re a coach, a therapist and a practitioner, and you’re seeing how these relational patterns and this state of nervous system regulation really impacts your clients and your ability to successfully carry out your work, then join us for a free workshop. You can register for that at neurosomaticintelligence.com. The link will be in the show notes. And explore how you can back your coaching with leading edge neuro somatic tools that really help your clients harness the power of the brain and the nervous system for lasting change, for personal growth, and for performance that maybe seemed impossible at one point because of the outputs that they were experiencing.
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