We Are Wired for Connection
by Lucille Zimmerman
“We forget those with whom we have laughed, but we can never forget those with whom we have cried.” -Kahil Gibran
One of the most important healing agents for trauma is human connection. My friend Katy was in Paris when terrorists struck the city. Being a news junky, I knew about the attacks almost immediately, even before seeing a single status on Facebook. A few minutes later I saw my friend Katy’s terrified post asking for prayer. I told her I would pray and asked if she wanted information. Even though some of her friends thought it would make her more fearful, she said she couldn’t find a television station in English, she was hearing screams on the street four stories below, and couldn’t get anyone to tell her what was going on. She was in the apartment with her husband, watching their grandchildren while her grown kids were having a nice dinner on a warm Parisian night. For hours I typed updates and talked with her online. So did a bunch of her friends. Think about what you did the last time you faced a crisis.
When my dad died, when the 9/11 events happened, when I was bitten by a dog, the first thing I had to do was make contact with my people. After the Columbine tragedy happened in my hometown, scores of counselors showed up to talk to the kids. Parents sobbed and hugged their children. Teams of counselors were summoned. But what many of the kids wanted was just to be around their friends. They piled into the churches so they could hang out and eat food that area restaurants provided.
Despite our western society’s Lone Ranger mentality, and its pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mantra, God created us to be deeply connected to others. Those who are not connected to others have likely been wounded, probably at an early age. They learned not to share, need, or love. But don’t be fooled, inside they are suffering.
One of the most primal fears for humans is the threat of abandonment. These types of research studies would not be permitted today, but we know from Harry Harlow’s attachment studies performed on monkeys in the 1950s just how painful separation is. When an infant monkey is left alone, it seeks to cope with the disappearance of its mother by frantically running back and forth in the cage. The infant gives off one distress call after another, hoping its mother will return. Within hours the baby monkey learns that all the frenzy will not bring its mother back. The videos of monkeys chewing on their arms or curling up in a ball are almost unbearable to watch. Anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “One of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder where you are when you don’t come home at night.” What is trauma but an encounter with our own personal night?
Psychologist Jim Coan and his colleagues conducted an experiment with married couples called “Lending a Hand.” The couples were carefully selected as highly satisfied in their marriage. In the experiment, the women were exposed to a stressful situation: They had electrodes fastened to their ankles and periodically were given electric shocks. Before the shocks, they were given one of two signals: Either a safety signal indicating that they would not be shocked or a threat signal indicating that there was a 20 percent chance of being shocked (and they were shocked on some trials). This procedure enabled the researchers to compare patterns of the women’s brain activity (with functional magnetic resonance imaging) under two conditions: When they were feeling threatened or when they were feeling safe.
The more the woman was on her own while she was feeling threatened, the greater the number of brain areas showing elevated activity. The brain was least active when the woman was holding her husband’s hand and most active when she had no hand to hold. Even though all the couples in the study had a good relationship, the women who were in a less satisfying relationship showed more elevated brain activity when holding their husband’s hand than those who were in a more satisfying relationship.
When we are threatened, a feeling of connection with a person to whom we are securely attached is our most efficient way of regulating distress. Coan’s theory proposes that we humans are hard-wired to use social proximity as a default strategy for regulating emotional stress. In fact, the way an inner circle of family, friends, and professionals responds to one’s nightmare experience (e.g. their comfort with the discussion of stress and trauma) correlates to a person’s ability to move successfully through stress and trauma and their ability to potentially experience growth.
Supportive relationships are so important in rough times that even the perception of close relationships as being unreceptive to disclosure about stress or trauma has been found to be associated with decreased well-being. So it’s not just about what supports do, but about our beliefs about what supports will do, that helps. Perhaps the perception of support from our inner circles protects our sense of well-being by encouraging useful forms of coping, and by increasing a person’s belief in his or her ability to cope successfully. Oxytocin and endorphins are released and the stressed brain calms when positive social contact is made. In addition to calming the brain, friends can help us think through problems, consider solutions, and maintain objectivity. The happiest people are those who learn how to trust, reveal themselves to, reach, need, and create safety with others.
Lucille Zimmerman has a passion to help hurting people. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Littleton, CO. She also teaches psychology and counseling courses at Colorado Christian University. She is the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World and What Does God Say About Suffering? Learn more at www.LucilleZimmerman.com
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