When we experience danger, stress or trauma our threat response system fires up and moves us to toward fight, flight or freeze. However, because betrayal trauma is a relational phenomenon our threat response system is not the only system impacted. Our attachment system is also a primary factor in how we respond and react to experiencing betrayal.
In this series of posts, I want to bring together our understanding of our threat response systems and our attachment systems and the way these two systems interweave to create the behaviors and reactions that we experience after betrayal. To help us understand these rather complex dynamics, we are going take it one conceptual building block at a time. In this first post we are going to focus on the building blocks about defining trauma and understanding affect and the body, brain, mind connection.
Building Block #1: Defining Trauma
One of the simplest definitions of trauma comes from Dr. Norman Wright who defined trauma as a separation from safety. This elegantly sums up what happens when we experience betrayal. We are instantly separated from our sense of safe connection with our significant other who has suddenly become dangerous and painful. Author Tara Brach (2011) offers another definition saying, “Trauma is when we have encountered an out of control, frightening experience that has disconnected us from all sense of resourcefulness or safety or coping or love.” This expands our understanding by pointing out that trauma both separates us from safety with our partner, but it also separates us from ourselves as we are suddenly disconnected from our usual resources and coping skills.
When we experience separation from safety, our bodies, brains and minds react in a predictable if chaotic manner. Understanding this process is key to being able to influence and direct ourselves toward healing.
Building Block #2: Affect & the Body-Brain-Mind Connection
Our brains and our bodies are in a co-regulating dance every minute of every day. Our brain sends signals down through our Central Nervous System (CNS) and our Autonomic Nervous Systems (ANS). The ANS connects information about our internal body (our organs and gut) to the CNS which controls thought processes, guides movement and registers sensation through our body. When we become emotionally activated, whether through fear, excitement or something else, the ANS signals changes to our breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, etc. As a result, emotions are felt first in the body through the changes that take place when the ANS registers activation of some kind. This delicate dance between the systems of the brain and the central and autonomic nervous systems is the starting point for what is called affect.
Affect is important to understand because we can lose sight of the fact that emotions begin in the body. We are so programmed to live in our mental minds that we often forget that before our minds even recognize that we are feeling something, our bodies have already responded.
For example, I have a phobia of spiders. I can handle the little guys but if they get past a certain size I am unable to function in the face of them. If I were to see a big spider crawling across my desk, I would respond as though someone had just pulled the pin on a grenade under me. My brain would immediately send signals to my body that I am in danger! My body would respond. My heart would pound, my face would flush, my breathing would elevate, I would scream and I would jump as far away as possible (can you tell this has happened before?) Only then would I consciously register fear and panic as the emotions I am feeling. This would all happen in a split second but notice the order in which it happens. The brain registers danger, the body responds, and then the mind registers what is happening and gives it the meaning of, “I’m terrified of spiders.”
Betrayal creates distressing and disruptive affective states that interrupt our normal functioning. This is called dysregulation. Once we are dysregulated, our minds get involved by interpreting our body’s distress and giving it meaning. A stomach full of butterflies may be interpreted as, “I’m afraid,” by one person and, “I’m excited,” by another. The meaning we give to the sensations and signals our body sends us in the aftermath of betrayal are based on what we already believe about ourselves, our partner, our relationships and our place in the world.
This interplay between the body, brain and mind is what drives our responses and reactions to betrayal. But this is only the beginning. Each side of our brain also contains a walnut sized area called the Amygdala. One of the primary functions of the Amygdala is to scan for threat and to alert us when we are in danger.
In next week’s post we will continue our discussion by looking at building blocks three and four: understanding our threat response system and our window of tolerance.