Coherence and the Social Animal

In Somatic Experiencing, we talk a lot about “coherence” as a measure of physiological health.  It means that biological systems cooperate effortlessly with each other.  Muscles gently expand and contract with the inbreath and outbreath.  The heartbeat increases and decreases with the flow of respiration.  On an experiential level, someone with a coherent system feels relaxed yet alert, capable of taking in their environment and responding to the situation in the present moment.  They are not easily overwhelmed.  This is not to say that someone with a coherent system is never stressed out, but they bounce back from stress with resilience. They may even come out with a sense of accomplishment for having weathered the storm.

Chronic stress or trauma can lead to decreased coherence, which can manifest as uneven breath or muscle constriction.   In some cases, this can show up as anxiety attacks or physical pain.  The good news is that SE can help.  An SE practitioner supports clients to notice moments of coherence when they show up in session, and encourages them to stay with the experience. Eventually, the client’s nervous system “learns” to notice those moments on its own, resulting in the person feeling more balanced, whole and alive.  Everyone has the capacity for healing within them.  An SEP’s job is just to pay attention to the healing as it unfolds.

Coherence is a social experience.   Individually, we know that our physiological systems are constantly in communication with each other.  Similarly, our systems are constantly in communication with other beings.  When we receive a hug from someone who cares for us, feelings of relaxation arise as our heart rate and blood pressure decrease.  Our mirror neurons are constantly firing in response to the actions of those around us.   Empathy is biologically wired, and sometimes its power can surprise us.

I recall a time when I was working with someone, and I suddenly felt a tingling sensation running through my body.  It wasn’t a shiver. The temperature was fine. Besides, it didn’t quite feel like a response to cold.  It felt more like the type of tingle that comes from an emotionally stirring poem, or a beautiful piece of music.  Letting go of interpretation, I simply let the experience occur.  My client then told me that they had just experienced a strong wave of emotion. While their gave no obvious signs of what they were feeling, I somehow sensed that something important was happening.

People have these experiences all the time, where we somehow just “know” things, without knowing how or why.  Some may call it biology, and some may call it magic.  I call it “being human.”

There are times when I have walked into a room, and felt coherence in the air.  This has happened to me at clinical trainings, or in groups that I have facilitated.  The rhythm of conversation and silence flows in beautiful harmony, as softly as resting breath.  There is a sense of warmth, as if everyone is sitting around a fire together, sharing their stories.  When this feeling is present, it seems as if any experience can arise, and be honored, because acceptance is unconditional.  The group, in its coherence, is not easily overwhelmed.  Upsets happen, but the group usually recovers, because upsets happen within a container of safety.  There is almost a sense that there is a benevolent presence, quietly hovering in the air.  One could interpret that as coming from some supernatural source…or not.  It may just be our own mirror neurons responding to the emotional state of everyone in the room.  Either way, I cannot help but feel a sense of wonder.

We can shape these loving environments for ourselves.  This is what happens when we notice how our physiology responds to the people around us.  We may notice a lot of constriction or tension when we are around certain people, but not others.  What we are sensing is a lack of coherence in their system.  We have a choice about how to respond to that.  One option is to limit the time we spend with those people.  Now, that may not always be possible, or even desirable.  It may be that these people are important to us, and we know it is not their fault that they are struggling.  The good news is that when we engage in good self-care, their physiology responds to that.  While we cannot “fix” anyone, we can show them that there are healthier ways of being in the world…and that starts by becoming healthier people, ourselves.  Even if our loved ones cannot or will not choose a healthier path, at least WE have healed ourselves.  Then, we will start to attract people who are good for us.  Eventually, we start to feel the gentle hum of coherence when we walk into a room full of loved ones, and we can truly say “this is my family.”

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