The importance of experience, relationship and connection – in laying down our core patterns – as well as changing them
Our nervous system learns through experience. And our brain and wider nervous system pathways are grown and shaped by our experiences when we were really little. We all have a basic sequence in which we grow, but it is our early experiences in relationship/connection with our primary caregiver (typically our mother), that actually determines how our brain and nervous system actually grow – what pathways and templates we lay down.
This has big implications for what it takes to heal from difficult experience, stress, overwhelm, or traumatic events, and to grow greater resiliency.
As well as working with the reptilian survival brain, we also need to include and understand the important role that our emotional brain and our attachment experiences and patterns have in shaping not just our bodily experience, but our fundamental sense of self, and our perceptions and beliefs about who we are and what the world is like.
To get out of overwhelm, it’s helpful to be aware of 2 key things:
- It’s all about connection – and we’re all interconnected
Our ability to connect with our own body, as well as our ability to connect in safe, mutually supportive relationship with others – and our autonomic nervous system regulation, our physiological health (neuroendocrine system, cardiovascular health, immune system), our capacity and way of responding to stress, our ability to regulate our emotions – these are not separate things. They’re all intimately connected – and were all shaped by our early experiences in relationship.
We are truly all connected. Depending on on early experiences though, we may not feel that to be true. We may feel isolated, lack support, and feel that the world in general and other people in it, are fundamentally not safe.
2. Our early experiences in relationship lay down our fundamental templates – our default settings/pathways in the brain and wider nervous system
This isn’t just about nervous system regulation, actually ALL our basic templates for physiological health, ability to respond to stress, our ability and capacity to regulate affect (emotions), and our ability to form supportive relationships with others – are shaped in relationship when we are really young, including pre-natally.
This is a big topic – but here are a few key facts:
- Even before we are born, before we are even conceived in fact, the genes in the cells that become us, are selecting for what would be the most helpful adaptations to survive in the particular environment we are going to grow into (our mother’s body, our family, our society, the environment – as well as ancestral and intra-generational influences)
- As an infant, our brain is growing in response to our mother’s ability to regulate her emotions, her heart-brain connections, and how coherent all her non-verbal behaviours are in relation to what emotions we feel from her heart field
- By the age of 3 months old, the amygdala (the fear processing centre in our brain), has already made a determination one way or the other – a +ve or -ve setting has been coded – either the world is basically safe, and I am fundamentally OK, OR I need to be afraid, and I am not OK: there is something wrong with me
- By the age of about 18 months old, our basic templates and patterns in our brain and wider nervous system have already been laid down – we’ve created the basic maps that organise our experience and our responses
What does this mean about what we need to do to recover from difficult experience or get out of overwhelm?
We need to include all levels of our experience
It’s really been my experience both in my life, and in working with clients that working this way with the body and the nervous system ‘bottom up’, is often the missing link that can finally get people out of being stuck, and moving towards greater choice and a new sense of possibilities.
But just as we could work with talk therapies, ‘top down’ from the thinking brain for a long time, and still feel stuck, so it is equally true that we could work with sensation and movement (kinaesthetic pathways) ‘bottom up’ til the cows come home – and still find ourselves going round in old familiar loops when it comes to how we are in our everyday lives.
If we miss out the core emotional brain patterns and attachment glue that holds it all together, we miss what lies at the heart of being human. And we won’t be able to shift those formative templates into a new more helpful place.
Real lasting change, comes from building new pathways both bottom up AND top down, and including the relational pieces. It’s about integrating all these different levels of our experience. And the more complex and long-standing our symptoms, the more it’s the case that we need to take a multi-pronged and a multi-layered approach.
We need to create experiences of connection, to build new pathways
The way we grew the pathways in our brain and body was through experience and connection, and so that’s what we need in order to change those pathways. We need to create and absorb new experiences – felt sense experiences, not theoretical concepts or ideas.
Experiences of safe connection – with our own bodies, as well as experiences of safe mutually supportive connections with others, are key to being able to change these underlying ‘settings’ and pathways in our brain and our body that determine our wellness on all levels.
It takes time to shift our fundamental patterns – but it is totally possible!
Patterns in our brain and body that were laid down so early on, are resistant to change – they are so foundational. And so it takes time to shift them. It does take persistence, and the right support, but the good news is, it is totally possible! These patterns may be tough to change, but they can be shifted.
The ‘neuroplastic’ quality we have to soak up our experiences and grow new pathways is on our side even as adults. We can change and grow new pathways, we are inherently able to adapt and learn. And our underlying life force and health is always underneath whatever patterns and imprints we have due to difficult experiences.
What’s the most important message of all?
Our history does not have to determine how things turn out.
Just like this beautiful tree that I was delighted by in the Adirondacks, we can still grow tall and strong, and take our place in the forest even if we have challenges to overcome.
It’s not what happened to us, but how we’ve been able to digest our experience, integrate and ‘make sense of it’, that matters.
And that is what determines how and who we can be in the here and now.
We are wonderfully, incredibly complex beings, part of the beautiful web of interconnected life on this planet. This is big stuff…
Time to plant our feet firmly on the earth.
Time to root like a tree and grow new branches to meet the sky.
Time to reconnect.
Experiencing the Top 10 Tips for Troubled Times:
Armed with this information, we’re set to get started on the Top 10 Tips for Troubled Times. As we go through each of them, I’ll keep fleshing out these themes of connection and experience – and tie each in to important tit-bits of understanding about the body and the nervous system as we go. Your don’t have to get all this stuff now… the exercises that accompany each Tip are designed to be experiential, so that you can learn this from the inside out. And that is what really matters.
But if you’re chomping at the bit to read more about all this stuff….I’m including a few choice resources below!
There are a number of great, informative videos on Myrna Martin’s website here:
I particularly recommend the 6 minute excerpt from The Moving Child film
And if you are a practitioner or interesting in studying more on this early development, I can’t recommend highly enough Myrna’s Online Video training which synthesises over 45 years of her work in this field. Module 1 alone on Attachment is an absolute treasure trove of knowledge and perspective shifting wisdom and experiences.
Connections to wider societal and ecological aspects – a fascinating interview with Gabor Mate
Adverse Childhood Experiences – how our physical health is shaped by childhood experiences – a popular Ted Talk by Paediatrician Nadine Burke:
Link to the ACES Study: https://acestoohigh.com/aces-101/
Honouring my teachers and sources: With gratitude and thanks to the teachers from whose work I have adapted and shared understanding. I particularly want to recognise Myrna Martin whose work on early attachment and pre and peri-natal development has elucidated things for me and connected things for me in a way I only dreamed of before!