I am a snowflake

And so are you.

When I am not with other therapists or clients, I stop using terms like ‘microaggression’ and ‘safe space’ because they have become trigger words in our divided political and cultural climate. In fact, if I dare to say them, I am almost assured to be labeled a snowflake. Here’s the thing. I am a snowflake, and so are you. Here’s why.

300 million years ago, mammals came on the scene. To work together, care for each other and die for each other, mammals needed to make some edits to the 500 million-year-old, threat response that we inherited from our reptilian ancestors. Biology takes a “waste not, want not” approach to evolution; so, mammals simply built a new pathway from the reptilian defense system to our newly minted, social engagement system, comprised of cranial nerves associated with inputs like facial muscle tension, tone of voice and head position. The rules were simple: Use the social engagement branch of the vagus nerve when available. If unavailable, revert to the old-school system. Meaning, if you come in contact with a stranger who smiles and speaks in a non-menacing tone, downregulate your fight/flight response. If you come across a tiger, run! (1)

For the most part, this system update is serving us well. Unfortunately, there is one feature that is proving tricky. The newer branch (e.g. the social branch) is inhibitory to the older branch; meaning, we rely on constant, positive inputs from the social branch to inhibit both the flight/flight and the freeze responses of our older, vagus pathway. Basically, our nervous system needs to scan for and find safety in our environment in order to stay balanced. That means, when people speak to us in menacing tones, turn their faces away when we solicit eye contact, or clench their jaw and widen their eyes at what we say, our nervous system loses the ability to stay balanced. (1) Here’s why. Finding our place in society is a core task of survival; thus, simply losing positive feedback from our family or community is deeply distressing, just ask this kid:

Over the long-haul, if we live in an environment where safety cues are chronically unavailable (e.g. we’re a working class, white male who’s community is dissolving under the pressure of job loss and fewer economic prospects, or we’re an African American professional trying to fit in at a predominantly white school or business); our nervous system begins to suffer from the types of illnesses that result from chronic dysregulation, like heart disease, IBS, hypertension, or fibromyalgia. If simply not getting constant, positive feedback can cause chronic dysregulation, trauma at the hands of those around us adds massive amounts of fuel to the fire.

But wait, there’s more. Because one system is intended to override the other; when our older, fight/flight/freeze system is activated, we cannot engage in social behaviors. So, the more traumatized and unsafe we are, the less capable we become to remedy the discord we’re experiencing with the “other” in question (1). Said plainly:

Whether angry, scared or disconnected, the remedy is a safe and cohesive community.

The data to support this assertion are compelling. The strongest predictors of longevity are: 1. Social bonds; and 2. Close relationships. In fact, social disconnection is far more likely to kill you than smoking (2)! So, how do we build strong communities? Each community is different and repairing a fractured social structure is a challenge; however, if I have (hopefully) inspired you to invest in making your community stronger, please consider these points along the way:

  1. A strong community is a safe community. Remember when I said that our capacity to engage in prosocial behavior is contingent upon the downregulation of our fight/flight or freeze response? We are literally unable to be good citizens if we aren’t safe. So, if you’re upset about the state of your community and you react by clenching your jaw, yelling at people or turning away, just know that you’re moving away from (not toward) creating communal safety (1).

  2. The more diverse a community, the more safety it needs. We are born with both unconscious biases and the capacity to overcome them. In fact, our ability to override the inherent fear and suspicion of those who do not share our skin color or language is one of the evolutionary mutations that made us the dominant species that we are today (3). That said, overriding the amygdala’s release of cortisol when we see an “other” requires using all three parts of our triune brain. As you might have guessed by now, this amazing feat is impossible when our fight/flight or freeze response has been activated (4). So, we not only need to be taught the ideas that bond us (like human rights and equal opportunity); we also need to be safe and secure enough to execute this highly sophisticated brain capability in our day-to-day lives.

  3. Consider changing the system. While invisible, the social structures in which we live have a deep impact on our health. In fact, there is a direct (and as this hardcore statistician dares to claim, causal) relationship between inequality and 200, key health indicators (5). The more unequal a society becomes, the less healthy its citizens become; and, not just the citizens at the bottom. Whether it is a lack of purpose and connection at the very top, or systemic racism and poverty at the bottom, those who live in unequal social structures suffer more illnesses and live shorter lives. So, as you evaluate how your economy and your government are functioning, know that health care isn’t the only policy that will impact your health.

    © Galyn Burke, 2018