By Michael Reddy, Ph.D.
When we are working with Family and Systemic Constellations, let’s begin by suggesting that there are two sources of trauma: the threatening overwhelms that affect your nervous system personally and those that affected a parent or ancestor’s but were never dealt with.
After-effects of the second kind do show up in you or your clients, even though they never actually happened to you. What are we coming to understand about these? How are they similar or different?
Consider five foundational facts about trauma. The whole trauma response, often referred to as “fight/flight/freeze,” actually has not just three, but five stages. Think of them as “fight-or-flight, friends, freeze, and forget.” Easy to remember as the “5 F’s.”
Remember also – trauma is highly individual. One person’s experience of overwhelm is another person’s “so what” – or even triumph.
Fight? Or Flight?
The limbic midbrain, triggered by what psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk calls the “smoke detector” amygdala, sets in motion an array of autonomic responses. They prepare, more or less as needed, our whole organism for possibly extreme efforts to recreate safety. All processes not immediately relevant to that are slowed down or completely stopped. These include digestion, the immune system, more rationally oriented presence of mind, and more.
Threat level detection in the brain, blood and hormone flow to muscles, everything important to choosing and carrying out actions that will recreate safety—all these become primed and super coordinated for possibly lightning fast response.
In modern life, we most often experience “fight-or-flight” more as “resist-or-evade.” It’s slower, but just as real. And we can stay in milder forms of this stage for hours, days, or years -- too bad for digestion and the immune system.
Notice we haven’t said a word about ancestral trauma yet. So let’s start in that direction by noting what Stephen Porges discovered in his landmark study of the vagus nerve, The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation. Yes, one branch of this nerve handles the priming and shut-downs, but the other one interfaces directly with face, eyes, and voice. We are social, collective organisms, and really, even as “fight-or-flight” gets going – we’re also looking for other humans to stand with us.
And what if these other humans are family, and they can’t support us because they are still stuck themselves in some freeze or forget stages? When threats come along similar to those our family members did not process, aren’t they going to be more helpless? Aren’t we going to have a much harder time learning successful responses to these?
Following failure of “friends” and “fight-or-flight,” freeze moves us towards complete autonomic shutdown. It’s like our ship is under heavy bombardment. We’re sealing off different compartments, shutting down electrical systems to prevent fires, and heading towards “every part for itself.” Blood moves inward from the muscles, endorphins flood to numb pain, and everything is done to localize damage.
This can be such a violent shift from overstimulation to paralysis that a huge overcharge is left locked in and lingering across the entire, now disconnected, organism. As Peter Levine describes so eloquently in his book In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Stores Goodness, these emergency isolations (think “exclusions”), which can be “shaken off” in wild animals—persist in humans. Many forms of PTSD and chronic emotional or physical illness arise later on because the body memories remain in shock.
But we are nested in the larger biological, psychological, and psychic organism of the family soul. So when disconnects in the individual seriously affect bonding, parenting, and functioning in that family, related incoherencies and exclusions are embodied now in it.
The major difference is this: individual trauma tends to show up for healing later in a single life; traumatic effects of unhealed ancestral trauma show up across generations in descendants. That is, later in the larger life of a continuous, collective, family intelligence.
Again, now days, we can be in lesser stages of “freeze” often or else continuously. But milder forms that repeat over and over build up chronic disconnects very much like the emergency shut-downs do. Obviously, these entire-body, exclusionary after-effects are already one form of “forgetting.” But let’s look at this fifth stage now in more detail.
Both individuals and families have to start coping again, usually as fast as possible. So they start limping. In particular, something huge has happened not onlly in the individual but also linked-together limbic brains. It’s explained in Dan Siegel’s book Mindsight: The Science of Personal Transformation. The "left brain," which forms our biographical memories of what is over and in the past, was shut down and cut off from input, more or less, during the loss of safety.
Yet raw implicit memories of the threat persist repressed and unprocessed in the “right brain.” When similar events trigger them, our conscious selves start to relive the past overwhelm—parts of which we have never fully understood as PAST. So we initiate the whole “5 F’s” sequence again, more or less, and over react or under react.
Just as trauma in the larger ancestral system disconnects what really happened from the “family story,” so in the individual it severs unconscious memories from what can be known, understood, and spoken. Like a fractal, these display similar behaviors on different scales, one held inside the other.
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