One view of psychological healing … and what can get in the way of it

Having Time Out

Mother and infant

At the top of this page, is an example of two mammals healing as they are immobilised without fear ……

I say ‘mammals’, as human beings are one line of mammal. Most mammals share ways of healing and possess similar psycho-neurological responses to hurt and damage.

Compare this state of being with facing immobilisation by fear.

An Impala gets a lucky break

I had a YouTube clip in which an impala gets a lucky break. I regret that this is no longer available, but at the beginning of the video we saw show how the impala reacted when death was near. When things changed, and good fortune was on the impala’s side, you could see the process of recovery as the animal moved from Dorsal Vagal responses to Ventral Vagal activity – social engagement – and prepared to re-join his troop.

Both responses are illustrating the operation of the tenth cranial nerve – the Vagus nerve.

All mammals possess this Vagus nerve – the second longest nerve in the body. It runs down from our brain into the spinal column, right down to our bottoms.  However, it is not just one nerve; through millions of years of evolution, it has split into different routes, and that has presented its own difficulties.

An evolutionary development in the Vagus Nerve

This evolution split in the Vagus nerve – from Reptilians to Mammals – produced advantages and disadvantages. One line of development, the Ventral Vagus, impacts on the upper torso and the face of humans. Over time, this adaptation has been termed the ‘social engagement system’. It helps make human beings – social beings  –  efficient non-verbal communicators. 

At the same time, the Dorsal Vegus, running into the lower body, and impacting on the gastric system in particular, provides a call of last resort when our lives are seriously threatened.  As I understand it, it helps us to die with grace by flooding the body with pain relief. In human beings, at least, it appears to have the ability to detach ourselves from our demise. If, by chance, we do not die, then other things can happen to humans.

In the impala, and other mammals, there is a natural process of recovery in the unusual event that the animal survives – as the YouTube clip shows. When the ventral Vagus nerve re-engages there are specific stages of ‘return to normal’ that you can see in the film; a slow and measured recovery, shivering and re-orientation, followed by a search for safety – often toward the mother, the herd or some-one/someplace that is familiar.

The impala does this very efficiently. Human beings are not always able to complete this process with the same efficiency. Their systems of healing and recovery are more complicated and their dependency on others continues for a very long time.  Put simply, most mammals separate from their carers within days, weeks or months. Human beings take years.

It is during this period of development that the potential for conflict between the social engagement system of the Ventral Vagus can grate with the life-protecting processes of the Dorsal Vagus.

A split intending to help, but with consequences

In particular, there is a problem arising from the ability of the Dorsal Vagus to respond instantly, whereas the social engagement system takes micro-seconds to respond and react.  This contributes to a built-in tendency – called a negative bias – that prompts human beings to be alert in order to compensate for that very small, but rather crucial, time lag.

Allowing immobilisation without fear, easy for most infants, becomes less spontaneous over the years. If there is bonding and attachment between human infant and carer, then that spontaneity is more feasible.

When that process of attachment is disrupted – for any number of reasons – then obstacles to attachment multiply.

Disrupted attachments create high stress levels. Specific incidents arising from our relationship with our carers can create trauma. That can disrupt our neurochemistry in ways that can become chronic.

For anyone interested in the technicalities, Louis Cozolino (2002), in his book The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, summarises some typical disruptions as:

  • high noradrenaline accompanies fight-flight reactions: if it remains high, we’re prone to anxiety, irritability and being easily startled
  • high dopamine, correlating with hyper-vigilance, paranoia, and perceptual distortions
  • low serotonin, correlating with high arousal, irritability, violence and depression
  • high cortisol disrupts the hippocampus and therefore memory, as well as the immune system
  • high levels of endorphins cease their feel-good effects and undermine cognition, memory and reality-testing, and may mean emotional blunting and dissociation.

In short, psychological healing is not straightforward for human beings.  There are too many things that can go wrong over a long period of time.  More troubling is the fact that some obstacles are not intended. They just happen. Furthermore, some obstacles to security are seen by some people, and not by others.

Can an obstacle become an opportunity?

Those that experience an obstacle can learn to overcome it; others may not.  Recovery from grief and loss is just one pathway and that is described more fully on one page. Those that do not notice the obstacle may find it more difficult to overcome as it is a ‘problem’ not seen to exist.  That is fine, as long as the obstacle does not manifest in some other fashion. Often it does that very thing and therapy is there to locate it and help us talk to our experience in a different way.

Too often an obstacle can take on a different form.  An obvious one is to struggle with control of our lives. In my view, most disruptions of emotional health are unrecognised or unnamed obstacles. There are too many manifestations to name here but, to make my point,  let me identify responses such as high anxiety, post-traumatic symptoms and obsessional behaviour, as just three categories I often observe.

Now this might sound rather pessimistic and I like to think this is not like ‘me’.  So let me end by saying that the intricacies of lengthy human child rearing and the ‘negative bias’ I have mentioned here are not cast in stone. Older psychological models tended to take that view. Modern psychology, aided by our improving knowledge of neurology, is enabling therapists to provide improved systems of healing. Much of this depends on an ‘adult’ approach to revisiting those disrupted attachment processes I have described elsewhere. 

This process has been labelled ‘re-parenting’ in some quarters. It is an  controversial term as my understanding is that parenting is a permanent state of being. I am still the parent of two 50 year olds and yet I still need my own ‘re-parenting’ sometimes, if that is the right word!

What therapy can do and should not do

Effective therapy is a ‘revisiting’ of those obstacles. It involves a temporary exploration of the risk-taking that goes into the evolution of a secure attachment style. Some models do make the distinction, describing re-parenting as the act of giving yourself what you didn’t receive as a child but it can be a ‘mangle’ of the English language worth looking out for.

Another view of the process is ‘re-storying’ or re-scripting’.  The words are ‘jargony’, but the idea that our life stories can be edited does it for me! It rather assumes I’m in charge, without assuming it will go hunky dory.

Effective change requires me not to be wrapped in cotton-wool.  I need to make mistakes and still return to recovery, via the scenic route,  by having another ‘go’ – until I get close to what I want or, indeed, until I die.

That’s why, as a parent, you cannot get it right. Our children learn from their own mistakes, and from the mistakes of their caretakers.  I’d argue we learn more from the cock-ups, whenever and wherever they come.

I hope my own children and grandchildren agree with me as there were a good few of them.

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What is a nudge?

Models of change

Designing safe experiments

What is seen as helpful?

An Index of pages on Your Nudge