Here we are in the second post of a series on “a dinosaur, a cow, and Einstein.” Today, it’s all about social engagement, aka. the cow. Well, maybe not a cow. To be honest, my memory of this illustration is only clear about the dinosaur and Einstein. In between them was… some kind of furry animal.
It doesn’t matter. Any mammal will do. It could be a monkey, or a horse, or a dog. Personally, I’d go with a dog.
The cow or puppy dog represents the parts of our nervous system and brain which sit between the most primitive parts (aka dinosaur) and the most sophisticated (aka Einstein). This section of nervous system has to do with emotions (yes, dogs do have emotions) as well as my focus for today: “social engagment.”
See, mammals are social critters. True, some adult mammals can be solitary; but lots of mammals live in groups, and all are born into social relationships. Mammals find safety and security in relationships. This is why sharks — scary as they might be — stay the heck away from dolphins. Dolphin pods work together to beat up sharks.
Oh. I suppose I should make sure to point out that humans are mammals. That’s kind of the point.
Social relationships in mammals (including humans) are not just about protection from predators. They also have the ability to stimulate feelings of peace, comfort and calm. Safety.
A child with a skinned knee doesn’t run to mama because she has some kind of magical power to heal the cuts and pain. The child just feels safer with mama. Her presence is calming and soothing. (Dads are pretty good, too.)
Social Engagement Can Soothe Distress
Last week, I talked about how the primitive section of the nervous system can – like a dinosaur – run amok and crush things like reason and emotional regulation. When it freaks out, thinking positively or controlling your feelings can be about as effective as trying to snuff a forest fire with a squirt gun.
Strong social engagement with friends and family members is like a fire-fighting team; dousing that forest fire and soothing the rampaging dinosaur. Think about a time you felt upset, and then — after spending a bit of time with a close friend or relative — felt better. We are drawn to hang-out and/or talk with people we trust, when we feel off-balance and distressed.
Sadly, some of us trust few to none. That’s a problem. When I say “social engagement” I do not mean chitter-chatting with just anyone. I’m talking about interactions with someone(s) with whom you feel safe; which trigger the body and mind to feel at ease and secure. If you don’t trust anyone, you can’t do this. It robs you of one of the best ways to experience feelings of safety and security.
You can imagine the result. A life spent on edge; feeling such pleasant things as dread, panic, rage and despair.
That’s an important part of what makes therapy work. A relationship of trust is built, offering the person in therapy a safe haven in which to benefit from the experience of feeling safe and secure. There is no replacement for this kind of experience. Talking about it is is not the same as feeling it. If you have not experienced what this feels like, it’s very difficult to believe that it’s actually possible. Having experienced it, the future can begin to seem a bit brighter.
Next week, I’ll introduce Einstein. After that, I’ll tie it all together with more detail about how the cow (or doggie) and Einstein can work on that poor, distressed dinosaur, to help it live a bit more calmly.