STEP 1: ATTUNE
The exercises found in the ATTUNE library focus on gently and slowly re-building a person’s capacity to attune to the flow of one’s internal and external information and energy sources, leading to increased self-awareness. The human body is already hardwired to recover from its birth trauma through its attuning process. At birth, an infant suddenly enters a stimulating environment with no skills in differentiating or understanding what is happening. Overwhelmed, the infant typically responds by quickly falling asleep.
The infant experiences their internal feelings responding to the various external sources as an emergent and fluid flow of confusing and frightening information and energy. Science now understands that when neurons fire together, they wire together, forming neural pathways. Thus, as the days turn into weeks, then months, the infant’s brain is busy developing neural pathways as his or her mind attunes to various sources of input and begins to learn to differentiate between them. By learning to differentiate between these input sources, the infant learns to identify whether a particular input source makes it feel either safe or afraid. Doing this in a consistent emotional holding environment, the infant is laying down the neural pathways that allows the infant to trust. In an inconsistent environment, the infant’s neural pathways are backed by their implicit memories, often leaving them vulnerable and not sure of what or who to trust.
When the infant suddenly experiences an event that is threatening, it triggers a spike in adrenaline that overwhelms the infant’s ability to attune to and differentiate between various sources. This disruption begins to wire together neural pathways that when repeated too often, leaves the infant stuck in negative emotions, unable to reset its reactive behavior back to the more pleasant responsive behavior. In an infant, this situation can lead to an uncontrollable tantrum, during which the infant exhausts itself until it falls asleep.
When the infant awakes and feels safe, their mind can turn to entertaining experience of attuning to various external sources of information and emotional energy that it is drawn to, building neural pathways back to those positive experiences.
Any intervention needs to focus on building or restoring the mental skills to differentiate all the different sources of information that informs a person’s experience in the now. This is why an attuning exercise is the first part of an intervention. However, it is critical to begin with attuning exercises that are short in duration and gentle in their approach.
Over time, repeating these attuning exercises can help reinforce a person’s embodied and relational empathetic hardwiring which makes it easier for the body’s autonomic system to shift from a “fight/flight” sympathetic state to a safe para-sympathetic state. The brain is firing and wiring new neural pathways that strengthen the mind’s skill to differentiate and process the embodied and relational flow of information and energy.
With repeated practice that builds this most basic mental skill, the brain is drawing on its neural plasticity to re-wire itself. The outcome is that a person develops greater self-awareness. This greater awareness and ability to stay present in the flow of information and energy helps a person to become more confident in regulating and responding to their mental flow. Various extenuating developmental factors, unique to each person’s life story, determine how quickly attuning exercises develops this regulatory skill.
STEP 2: RESONANT
There are only a small number of exercises found in the RESONANT
library. They are very simple and help transition from the ATTUNE step to the RESONANT step. Let’s return to an infant’s experience to understand why resonating is important. The body’s attuning dynamic exists to serve the infant’s instinct to survive by finding a source of warmth and food, usually with the mother. At birth, both in the infant and the mother experience an enormous release of oxytocin that amplifies and drives this bonding instinct.
Mirror neurons are another hardwired mechanism in our brains that fires and wires new neural pathways to help the infant attune to its primary source of safety, warmth and food. Part of mirror neurons’ role is to shift the infant’s mental attention from attuning to resonating with its primary caregiver. Mirror neurons encourage a safe holding environment to form between the mother and infant.
There are different mirror neurons that stimulate the development of different kinds of neural pathways. The set of mirror neurons important to trauma recovery are those that enable the infant to sense it is “feeling felt”. “Feeling felt” empathetic experiences trigger the release of more oxytocin, the neuro-transmitters serotonin and dopamine that encode these experiences as positive neural memories. The brain instinctually draws on positive memories to help re-stabilize itself when under stress. A traumatic event overwhelms a person’s ability to reset the mind’s capacity to regulate the flow of its thoughts. This means those neural pathways wired to positive memories encouraging the release oxytocin cannot be accessed at will. The empathetic part of the brain is critical in helping a person to connect or reconnect with people.
It is important to clarify the term “feeling felt”. Aggressive empathetic interactions where one person seeks to resonate with another’s feelings often backfire, creating more distance between the two. Rather, “feeling felt” refers to the positive experience of “being held” without judgment by completely attending to the other person as the person shares their thoughts and feelings. Thus, resonating exercises invite a person to share their feelings, if they wish, by simply describing the feelings and what is causing them without interruption nor feedback. In the context of a group intervention, no one can respond to what another person expresses.
The second step wants to foster a safe non-judgmental holding environment in which each person can begin to experience “feeling felt”. The goal of creating a holding environment is to fire the brain’s empathetic mirror neurons to stimulate the release of oxytocin. Over time, by repeating the “ATTUNE” & “RESONANT” steps again and again, 6 to 8 individuals grow their intimacy with each other, which leads to greater safety and trust. The group has formed itself into a healing community in which they can learn to cultivate mental health skills in regulating their mental flow towards positive goals.
STEP 3: CULTIVATE
The ATTUNE and RESONANT steps describe the neurobiological dynamics that evolution has hardwired into us to help us to move past our birth trauma. These two facets are critical in helping an infant to form an attachment with a person who can nurture the infant’s emotional skills in positive ways. Thus, these dynamics are foundational for how “deep” adaptative learning process occurs within an interpersonal neurobiological framework and their impact on what we know as the “mind’s” role in growing neural pathways, both positive and negative. Dr. Daniel Siegal, a recognized psychiatrist whose area of expertise is in childhood attachment theory, offers this definition of the mind.
The mind is a fluid and emerging process, both embodied and relational that regulates the flow of information and energy.
Where the first two steps in the ARC Process focus on the mind’s embodied and relational process, the CULTIVATE step focuses on helping a person develop the mental skills to regulate the flow and focus of one’s ongoing mental experience in positive ways. Where the first two steps involve experiential and self-reflective exercises, the CULTIVATE step uses exercises intended to grow a person’s self-awareness of their mental flow. In this sense, a person is developing the skill to get on the balcony in their mind where the person is able to see their behavior in the moment, thus, also can readjust their behavior to engage with the moment in a more positive manner.
During the CULTIVATE step, a wide variety of exercises, such as trauma informed Cognitive Behavior Techniques (CBT) or other evidence-based techniques, can be selected based on what is most culturally valid and contextually appropriate for the persons involved in the small group process. The ARC Process offers to a person(s) a number of exercises in six CBT domains as a beginning point to help build a recovery program: strengths of character, optimism, self-regulation, self-awareness, mental agility, and connection. Professional therapists can add other domains along with exercises that cultivate skills in that domain to the ARC Process’ library after a vetting exercise to ensure the exercises are trauma-informed ones that would not further traumatize a person working to recover.
After selecting an exercise for each step of the process, the person(s) will need to think through how much time each exercise should receive within a predetermined time period. In the early stages of a recovery program, each step’s exercise should be gentle and somewhat open-ended, in that the participants feel no pressure for their involvement and moving from one step to the next is more a flow rather that hard break points between steps. As a group grows familiar with the process’ flow as well as the intended purpose for each step, the process begins to cultivate a group experience that helps participants to feel safe.
Trust begins to grow, and in the flow of the group’s program, the therapeutic goal is for participants to share their own trauma stories. There is no timeline or artificial expectation that group members must share their trauma story or when. Different groups will feel a sense of safety at a pace unique to that group. During the course of a program, the group has the right to repeat a particular lesson or change the amount of time dedicated to each step within a lesson.