In neuroscience they’re called neural networks. In yoga they’re called samskaras and vasanas. In everyday life, we know them as ruts or deep grooves of habit.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Dr Rick Hanson
In our healing work, we have AHA moments of deep insight into how our nervous system and brain work. We see how things arose and we see how we are affected by old patterns. We see how our fourteen-year-old struggled to figure out life on their own and feel a rush of compassion. We had no one guiding us. No one to see us. No one to protect us then.
When we learn through experience that we are on our own, we develop strategies to try to protect ourselves from harm. Some of us came out fighting. Others fawned and gained protection by people pleasing. Others took off emotionally and sometimes physically. We numbed our pain to a tolerable level and ended up disconnected and unhappy as adults.
We repeat what works to keep us safer. We do it again, and again, and again. If we can get away with it, a fight response is more energizing and less paralyzing than flight or freeze but they all have consequences. With a fight response, we gain a sense of control and avoid feeling powerless. Each time we “go off” on someone, our brain lights up. It likes electrical activity. As we continue down this road, our anger flares more easily and often. We’re triggered into a response that no longer fits with our current circumstances. At first we don’t see our patterns and don’t the see damage it causes. When we do find clarity, we may still feel helpless to stop it or change direction.
Here is the “fire together wire together” dilemma. Many of the deep grooves and patterns in our mind developed when we were children and had limited agency and power. The prefrontal cortex or thinking/ rational part of our brain had not yet developed fully. We closed down our heart to compassion as we struggled to make it through. We disconnected. Now we want to connect with ourselves and others but our neurobiology is working against us.
Awareness is always the first step, then we have to train our brains to respond in socially connecting ways. When our backs are no longer against the wall, we can afford to see clearly and with compassion. This is the situation. This is the superhighway in my brain. I am more than my animal brain. This is not how I want to live.
Our primitive brain and nervous system are not much convinced by logic. They respond to direct experience. Fortunately, we can provide a more optimal environment and provide what we need in a variety of ways. See these Emergency Practices.
We need to first reduce the frequency and intensity of our unhelpful primitive brain responses. Mindfulness helps us track activation in our nervous system and intervene earlier so we don’t go into a full blown fight response. We do some box breathing or long exhales, we shake it out physically or put our hand on our heart. We gradually experience more stability and resilience and our old patterns loosen their grip.
We commit to treating ourselves and others with kindness. We practice self-regulating our nervous system and gain confidence that we can recover from the effects of earlier life trauma. We are more interested in healing than we are in justifying our behavior or feeding the drama. We had the AHA. We saw the truth. Now we are patiently giving ourselves the kind of experiences we need to deeply heal.
We meet Sundays at 10AM Eastern to explore and support each other in healing. Last week we inquired into the many ways we can feel like an outsider. This Sunday we are continuing with that theme. You are welcome to join us.