Trauma is any experience that overwhelms our bodies and minds. It’s an experience that makes us feel unsafe, and changes how we see the world, others, and/or ourselves. These experiences can leave us incredibly vulnerable and can lead to physiological changes in our nervous system that affect our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
Traumatic experiences can essentially leave us “stuck” in what evolutionary psychologists call our “threat system.” This if often at the core of many mental health issues such as anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse issues, PTSD, and others. So why does this happen? Well in short, our bodies have really good reason for keeping our threat system’s activated following traumatic experiences. We want to stay safe and protect ourselves. Our bodies and internal systems are actually on our side, despite how it may seem at times. They operate on a “better safe than sorry” basis, ensuring safety at any cost (e.g., anxiety, depression, behavioural issues, etc.). Let’s break this down… We experience something traumatic and our bodies think “Wow, the world can be a really scary place. We definitely don’t want anything like that to happen again.” This leads our internal systems to organize themselves to be primed for identifying threats and enabling protective mechanisms. Our core motivation becomes to avoid danger. Motivations of connecting with others, simply enjoying life, and working toward personal goals get pushed aside. This is why we will often find ourselves seeking isolation, struggling to get out of bed, and unable to experience the same joy we once did from the things we used to enjoy. When we are in survival mode, our bodies have little room left for our other needs.
Our threat system organizes our attention, memory, emotions, and behavior. It causes us to be biased toward interpreting ambiguous information as threatening (which can lead to over-reactions, overthinking, activation of other defense mechanisms), and also impacts how we remember situations in the past. We are more likely to pay attention to and recall information to confirm negative beliefs we hold (again, operating on a better safe than sorry basis). Our threat system also attempts to keep us safe with the help of some difficult to ignore emotions, such as anger, fear, and anxiety. Our emotions are clever messengers that our body uses to communicate with us- to tell us that there is a potential threat that we need to be watchful for, or that we need to avoid people and/or situations that might harm us. Then our behavior is the last link in the chain, as it is driven by our thought processes and emotions, so much so that we can often times feel as if our behavior is out of our control.
This internal organization was very helpful for our hunter/gatherer ancestors as it allowed them to better sense and stay away from very real physical dangers. But with the evolution of our species and society, increasingly new and nuanced threats/dangers are present, and our primal emotion regulation systems have not adjusted so well. Our new brain abilities of meaning-making, reflection and rumination, fantasy and imagination, etc. have allowed us to keep our threat systems running even in the absence of any genuine external threat. This is further complicated by advances in society which have created a digital world where new types of threats exist, and escape is difficult. Unlike our hunter/gatherer ancestors, we are more concerned with threats of social and economic status, and threats to our self-concept and self-esteem. When we find ourselves stuck in our threat system, the fear and anxiety can seem endless.
The good news is that we have two other emotion regulation systems that we can rely on to help us live more pleasant, meaningful lives. Those are the soothing/safeness system, and the drive system. Ideally, each of our emotion regulation systems would be balanced and in harmony, in which each system is activated when it is able to serve us best.
Like the threat system, the drive system also helps activate us, but in a very different way. The drive system is associated with feelings of excitement, lust, and ambition, and its primary motivator is to pursue goals and acquire resources. Our drive system can be very activating and motivating, allowing us to powerfully focus our attention on what we are pursuing, and experience positive feelings of pleasure when goals are reached. When individuals struggle with depression in particular, they are often very disconnected from their drive system. Reactivating this system is certainly unique to the individual, but can look like finding a new job which brings a sense of reward and accomplishment or working toward a promotion, making progress in a sport or other skill, building your social network, etc.
Importantly, the drive system must also be balanced with our safeness system. This is the system that helps us the most when we are struggling with stress, anxiety, depression, shame, grief, anger, etc. Unlike the threat and drive systems, the safeness system is associated with feelings of peace, calm, contentment, and safety. When this system is activated, space is made within us to enjoy the simple things in life. We feel at ease enough to make space for mindfulness, in which we savor the simple pleasures that life has to offer- allowing us to feel joyful and at peace. We are motivated to meet our needs for love and connection, and have space for rest and creativity.
The primary pathway to activate this system is through relationships, with ourselves and others. Interactions that help us feel safe and accepted, characterized by kindness and affection, release chemicals in our bodies such as oxytocin and endorphins. These chemicals affect stress levels and pain thresholds, improve immune and digestive functioning, and de-activate of the threat system. Unlike the mind that is narrowly focused on threats or goals, when our safeness system is activated, we tend to experience a relaxed reflective attention, and become more exploratory, prosocial, and altruistic.
Activating this system can be very difficult for individuals who’ve experienced relational trauma and have consequently learned to associate connection with threat. This is why counselling and therapy can be an essential part of healing, as it allows individuals to begin to experience safety in relationships, and subsequently reap the benefits of their safeness system. Importantly, we can activate our safeness system ourselves as well by spending time with ourselves, and cultivating an internal relationship steeped in self-compassion.