Risking connection is the most challenging task for people who have experienced trauma—that is, any event so overwhelming that it causes the inability to cope resets expectations for the world and can adjust your opinion of what people are capable of. Trauma can big “big” or “small,” and being overwhelmed is being overwhelmed. It’s subjective, because “it” (trauma) is measured by its impact on the person who experiences it. That varies hugely based on age, development, and all manner of factors. But this is known: once disconnected by trauma, risking connection with others is incredibly challenging.
That’s because relationships are what help us learn how to be human. They help us learn who responds to us how, and how to respond to ourselves, how to soothe when we are distressed. When we are unable to do so, or when our brains get stuck in alarm states, life can seem like an anxiety-filled experience of stumbling from one panic to the next; the moment your brain registers threat, everything goes on alert.
In response, you do whatever you know to do if it appears there is no safety in sight. Some of us fuzz up like the Halloween cat, our mask of fear making it look as if we are ready to take on the world. Others take flight and leave our bodies behind. (In this way, dissociation can be a wonderful gift.) Some turn to drugs, drink, sex, work, or other things. But no one stands their ground in the face of being overwhelmed without awful consequences to our body, brain, feelings. It’s totally contrary to survival.
What we need is relationships. We need to relearn how to assess levels and types of danger or safety or collaboration and health in other people. We need to learn how to help our brains and bodies recover from being startled, perceiving threat. We need places—with people in them– to practice doing things differently. Relationships it allows us to be around people we think cope a little better than we think we do. We need connections to others that are sturdy enough we can fuzz up like that cat, space out, reach for something—and then change our minds. Do something different. And still be connected, paying our dues for being human in ways that lift us up instead of tear us down.
Relational processes—how we are as we encounter each other—are the lifeblood of community, healing and hope. Every day, we take the risk and connect with others—or we end up living in isolation, deliberately working to make ourselves invisible to reduce the threats from being known and from our histories.
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Elizabeth Power’s firm, EPower & Associates, is an authorized provider for Sidran Institute’s model, Risking Connection.® She helps organizations of all types (including faith communities) learn and adopt trauma responsive practices based on relational processes as a trainer, speaker, and consultant.
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