The importance of safety and reciprocity in mental health

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D, author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

In my last Healing Blog, I recommended highly a book by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz entitled The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And other Stories From a Child Psychiatrists Notebook. Another seminal book about the healing of trauma is The Body Keep the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by leading expert Bessel van der Kolk.

Here is an important section from the book [pp. 79 – 80] about factors that influence mental health, or social and emotional wellbeing [with my bold and paragraphing – DC]:

Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives. Numerous studies of disaster response around the globe have shown that social support is the most powerful protection against being overwhelmed by stress and trauma.

Social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.

For our physiology to to calm down, heal and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety. No doctor can write a prescription for friendship and love: These are complex and hard-earned capacities. You don’t need a history of trauma to feel conscious and even panicked at a party with strangers – but trauma can turn the whole world into a gathering of aliens.

Many traumatised people find themselves chronically out of sync with the people around them. Some of them feel comfort in groups where they can replay their combat experiences, rape, or torture with others who have similar background or experiences. Focusing on a shared experience of trauma victimisation alleviates their searing sense of isolation, but usually at a price of having to deny their individual differences: members can belong only if they conform to the common code.

Isolating oneself into a narrowly defined victim group promotes a view of others as irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst, which eventually only leads to further alienation. Gangs, extremist political parties, and religious cults may provide solace, but they rarely foster the mental flexibility needed to be fully open to what life has to offer and as such cannot liberate their members from their traumas. Well-functioning people are able to accept individual differences and acknowledge the humanity of others.

In the past two decades it has become widely recognised that when adults and children are too skittish or shut down to derive contact from human being, relationships with other mammals can help. Dogs and horses and even dolphins offer less complicated companionship while providing the necessary sense of safety. Dogs and horses in particular, are now extensively used to treat some groups of trauma patients.’

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