Last month my wife stepped into a hole, fell and twisted her ankle while I stood by and did nothing; never offered her a helping hand or asked after her well-being. Nothing. Which seems totally out of character for someone who thinks of himself as kind, considerate and compassionate. Even rats trapped in a cage will help one another. Not only that, but I’ve personally treated rattlesnakes better than I did her. We were out together walking our dogs at the local dog park, and as you might expect, my response – or really a lack of one – was not especially well-received. To put it mildly.
We’re Rarely Upset for the Reasons We Think
Before I go any further with this story, I want to talk a little bit about the dynamics of learned helplessness and dissociation. Often when we encounter new or unexpected situations in the world, our brains tend to scope them out for dangers as well as for creative possibilities.
If our body – using the polyvagal nerve network – neuroceptively senses even the slightest hint of danger, several options become available – social engagement, fight, flight or freeze. Without training and repeated practice in moving towards dangerous situations, e.g. the training that soldiers, police or firefighters receive, most of us would prudently choose the flight option. If fleeing isn’t possible, and social engagement doesn’t work, then fighting becomes the next option (Never corner a wild animal in a cave or a professional football player or a rap mogul in an elevator). Take away those two options and all that remains is dissociative freezing – i.e. learned helplessness.
Everything changes when an unfamiliar situation triggers a traumatic memory. Frequently the neurons holding the memory will take center stage, often without language attached – all dissociation is pre-verbal. Whatever behavioral dynamics were present during the earlier, overwhelming situation – fight, flight or freeze oftentimes going all the way back to infancy – will tend to show up.
Dreaming in the Service of Healing
The day after the episode at the dog park, I took a nap and had a dream: I’m a small boy – around 6 or 7 years old – hanging out at McGowan’s Tavern, a beer bar in the Westville section of New Haven, Connecticut. My mother’s there, completely drunk. She begins walking towards the lady’s room because she has to throw up. On the way there she stumbles and falls. I feel great waves of shame, embarrassment and disgust. I also feel totally helpless. In reality this is more of an actual childhood memory than it is a dream.
At the dog park the day previously with my wife, the moment she stepped into the hole and fell, those very same feelings flashed through my brain and body almost below the level of awareness. Along with those feelings came a whole host of blaming and sarcastic thoughts at the sight of her on the ground, which I thankfully had the impulse control not to utter. Beyond that however, no other action potentials seemed to be firing in my brain. A stranger without my traumatic history, would have very likely rushed to my wife’s aid and immediately helped her to her feet.
As you might expect, it took several days for all the elements of “healing wanting to happen” to surface and be worked through between us.
Unlearning Learned Helplessness
No matter how ideal our childhood, we all have traumatic experiences buried in the unconscious, implicit memory fibers of our neural network. None of us escapes childhood unscathed. By virtue of the simple fact of being children, with stress-regulating mechanisms still developing, we inevitably encounter experiences where we feel overwhelmed and helpless. Our first haircut, a playground bully, a visit to the dentist – any of them can turn out to be more than a stress match for our developing neural network to be able to easily emotionally regulate. Because the body and brain are primarily built for movement, anytime as children we find ourselves feeling stuck and unable to move, the risk of forming a traumatic memory is significantly increased. Assemble a large collection of such memories and we end up with a brain severely compromised in its ability to process energy and information, especially under stress.
And reliably doing so skillfully, can sometimes make for a challenging walk in the park.