How Past Experiences Affect Relationships

My ability to track the sensations of heat in my stomach alerted me that I was experiencing some nervous system activation. Activation or arousal are words used to describe the physiological and psychological state of our sensory organs being stimulated by a point of perception. In a sense, it’s our amygdala waking up to see if there is danger, and to prepare our system for protection against that danger.

This danger radar system is an evolutionary and biological response that is geared toward protecting us from dangerous experiences we’ve had in the past. In our partnerships, the “danger” that we experience in the present is often, though not always, connected to hurtful and wounding experiences from childhood or other former experiences.

This reflexive response is our nervous system playing out its adaptive reaction to our earliest childhood caregivers, namely those who were inconsistent in practicing attunement and providing co-regulated safety for our bodies. As a result, most of our intimate partnerships will trigger some kind of danger activation in us. When our system perceives a “rupture”—that is, some intrusion or abandoning movement toward or away from our somatic and relational boundary—our systems respond reflexively to alert us.

Learning to feel sensations in your body is the foundational process in many “bottom-up” forms of therapy, such as Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, Sensitometer, Hakomi, and other somatic-based modalities. The more we are able to sense into our bodies, feel, and track the patterns of our physiological reactions to different stimuli, the more insight we get into the historical programming that lives in our bodies.

Our neurophysiology is formed in our earliest environments in biological and relational coordination with our early caregivers, and all of our “states of being,” both past states and current states, reside inside our bodies. Therefore, all humans basically move between present and past states of being throughout the day. With individuals who have experienced high degrees of trauma, there is a likelihood that their physiological systems contain more past states than present awareness. However, almost all of us have experienced some degree of relational trauma in our early development, which means that the invisible roots of our physiology that were formed in the past will be triggered by the people we are in relationship with in the present.

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