As humans, it is our nature to seek meaningful connection with one another, to extend love and receive love in return, and to engage in life in a way that feels embodied and real. And even when life doesn’t feel that way, our imagination and our dreams will turn us toward this innate inclination. We are wired to seek relationship and we all yearn for that sense of “you and me.”
When we can’t access that sense of “you and me,” our neurophysiology moves out of a state of safety. Our spontaneous impulse to connect recedes and life carries us along in a feeling of urgency, one task following another. We may feel a sense of dread, loneliness, or persistent worry. Our relationships may lack vitality and depth. Our children can feel like a burden where we worry that something is wrong, either with them or us.
For those of us who have had early childhood adversity, we may struggle all the more to maintain a sense of “you and me,” a state of being that neuroscience refers to as neuroceptive safety.
When our nervous system moves into a state of defense, we become preoccupied with physical security and comfort, rather than relational security and comfort. This allows us to deal with emergencies, but if we don’t return to a neuroceptive state of safety, we can’t reconnect with others and experience joy and security. We can get stuck in a state of defense. Without that sense of “you and me,” we can’t access the meaning that arises within relationship that helps us more deeply experience life and endure its inevitable suffering.
So what exactly is neuroceptive safety? It is our spontaneous inclination to be vulnerable with others.
This spontaneity is an emergent property of our physiology. Our spontaneous relationship-seeking tendency doesn’t arise from our thoughts or feelings. Rather, it arises from a physiological state. For example, we might think or feel, “I’m fine,” but be in a physiological state of defense. Others will hear the words, “I’m fine,” but will respond to the urgent message of our physiological state. This is especially true with children. Children listen almost exclusively to our neuorceptive communication. When we are in a state of safety, children feel safe with us and become more regulated and connected.
Our state of safety can be wobbly if we’ve been raised in families that did not cultivate a sense of safety, where our bodies or emotions were not respected. Other significant life stressors can tax our system and move us out of a state of safety, including parenting. Interestingly, there is emerging research to suggest that becoming a parent has a profound effect on the aspects of the brain responsible for empathy, social engagement and self-regulation. This is true for adoptive parents and grandparents who are the primary parent, as well. If we have a history of early stress, these neural pathways can become strained making parenting much harder. What if we also are raising a child who is neurodivergent, or perhaps we are struggling with health problems, or we are responsible for caring for a complex family system with aging parents. Cultivating a sense of presence and being in a zen physiological state may feel unattainable.
When our bodies struggle to return to a state of safety and are chronically activated, we can suffer chronic problems such as:
- attentional problems
- frequent emotional reactivity
- feeling distant from others or lonely
- somatic complaints
- working and/or tasking despite a feeling of fatigue and yearning for rest
- difficulty feeling trust in close or intimate relationships
In children, this distress presents as “stress behaviors” and looks like:
- irritability and tantrums
- preponderance of solo play (less likely to play with others)
- overly dependent on screens (iPads, etc)
- Compulsively jumping on furniture, hanging on others, constantly moving
- repetitive vocalization and making sounds (also audio sensitivity)
- very little singing, laughter, physical touch or eye contact
My approach to consultation, therapy, the safe sound treatment, and child activism is fundamentally the same. I believe that we all seek safety in relationship, even when we can’t tolerate relationship and act out in hurtful ways or withdraw into ourselves. Our apparent struggles and short comings are in large part adaptations for our own survival. And yet, the inclination to move toward loving connection is always there. The inclination for connection shows up in our dreams, in our innermost yearning, and in modest attempts to share or connect with others. Our nervous system is always seeking the safety of nonjudgmental receptivity and when we experience it, we take a little step closer to each other.
Join our discussion about helping parents stay sane in Shelter-in-Place during the COVID19 crisis! Robbyn Peters Bennett moderates a discussion with Dr. Bruce Perry and positive parenting advocates Trina Greene Brown, Amy Bryant and Leslie Hillenbrand to talk about neuro-developmentally informed ways to cope, to connect, and to help our children, each other and our community.
Areas of Interest
Therapeutically Guided Safe Sound Treatment
Robbyn provides a therapeutic, trauma sensitive approach to administering the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) within the safety of a therapeutic relationship. Based upon the research of memory reconsolidation, social baseline theory, and the neurosequential model of therapeutics, Robbyn has created a structured approach that supports optimal efficacy of the protocol.
Clinical Consultation for Psychotherapists
Robbyn is a phase II trainer in the ChildTrauma Academy NMT (nuero-sequential model of therapeutics) and provides consultation to professionals and professional groups on how to connect with and respond to children, especially traumatized children, from a neurologically attuned perspective.
Robbyn has a private practice in Portland, OR where she works with adults and children from a depth and imaginal perspective, with a sensitivity for the relevance of interpersonal neurobiology within relationship.
Robbyn is an expert on the relationship between harsh discipline, child development and long-term health and speaks nationally on the topic. She is a leader in the growing movement to end sanctioned violence against children (corporal punishment) in the US.