As humans, it is our nature to seek meaningful connection with one other, to extend love and receive love in return, and 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.”
Sometimes, our inclination to reach out to each other can be overridden by a kind of urgency or anxiety that may leave us feeling lonely, disconnected, or unsupported. Our marriage or our friendships can lose vitality and depth. Our children may feel like a burden leaving us exhausted or leaving us with a feeling that something is wrong, either with them or us. When we cannot access that sense of “you and me,” our neurophysiology moves out of a state of safety. We may feel a sense of dread or loneliness or persistent worry that casts a shadow over our relationships and cuts us off from the deep sense of meaning that arises within relationship.
For those of us who have had early childhood adversity, we may struggle all the more to sustain that sense of “you and me,” what neuroscience refers to as neuroceptive safety. We may more easily fall into this state of defense where we feel alone. This defensive state is highly adaptive for our survival. It has an amazing way of armoring us against the world. In this survival state, we become preoccupied with physical security and comfort, rather than relational security and comfort. Of course, this is appropriate in moments of danger, but doesn’t support our ability to flourish in relationship. We need to feel connected with others in order to experience joy, and feel deep security and sustaining comfort. It is within relationship where meaning arises that helps us more deeply experience life, and endure its inevitable suffering.
So what exactly is neuroceptive safety? It is our natural 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, nor does it emerge from our feelings. It arises from a physiological state. Physiological state has a profound influence on what we think and how we feel. We might think or feel, “I’m fine,” but be in a physiological state of defense. Others may hear the words, “I’m fine,” but will ignore them and will listen and respond instead to the message of our physiological state. This is especially true with children. Children listen almost exclusively to our neuorceptive communication or our physiological state. 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. Add to that the demand of raising a child who may be 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 cannot return to a state of safety and are chronically activated, we can struggle with chronic problems such as
- attentional problems
- frequent emotional reactivity or feeling distant or lonely
- somatic complaints
- working and/or tasking despite a feeling of fatigue and yearning for rest
In children, this distress presents as “stress behaviors” and looks like:
- irritability and tantrums
- poor sleep
- inability to recognize hunger or satiety
- preponderance of solo play (less likely to play with others)
- dependence on sugar, screens (iPads, etc)
- 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 protocol, and child activism is fundamentally all 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, 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.
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 consolidation, social baseline theory, the seven emotional-motivational systems, and the neurosequential model of therapeutics, Robbyn has created a structured approach that supports optimal efficacy of the protocol.
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 neuro-sensitive 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 effect of interpersonal neurobiology on relationship.
Robbyn is an expert on the relationship between harsh discipline, child development and long-term health. She is a leader in the growing movement to end sanctioned violence against children (corporal punishment) in the US.