The Developmental Impulse to Reach: Healing Trauma through Completing this Long-Held Survival Response

The Developmental Impulse to Reach: Healing Trauma through Completing this Long-Held Survival Response

Trauma is often defined as an incomplete survival response – fight or flight that could not happen. The body had the impulse to protect or run away, but was overpowered. It could not do what it instinctively knew it had to do to survive. The vital energy driving the biological fight / flight impulse was truncated, impeding the survival response and causing trauma.

There is another survival response discussed not nearly as often – reaching. Desiring or needing connection, a child instinctively reaches for her primary attachment figure. Biologically, we are wired to connect. And so we are naturally wired to reach for that connection, particularly in pre-verbal stages of development. We long to have our hand received with gentleness and love.

Yet, when that reaching motion is not met with regularity (neglect) or experienced as dangerous (abuse), the child is likely to incur developmental trauma. The life force moving that impulse gets suppressed, trapped in the nervous system and musculature, causing emotional and physical pain. The child learns it’s not safe to reach, to avail herself to her biological needs and the possible touch of another.

Of course, later in life, without her necessarily knowing why, her fear affects her ability and willingness to enter the unsure waters of intimacy and connection. She wants to reach for another and receive loving touch but is simultaneously scared of it. She learned very young that intimacy or connection is dangerous, unpredictable.

Despite this withdrawal or unconscious caution, the need to reach, to connect still remains. The body cannot fully extinguish what it’s biologically wired for. And so thirty, forty, fifty years later the body still reaches. I see this with my clients. Talking about their parent, the hands start to make small gestures of reaching out. They tremble slightly, open an inch or two, the fingers extending outward like a flower trying desperately to bloom.

The client is not aware of this old movement still wanting to happen. The client is not aware of the body’s longing to free itself through relationship.

When given the chance to fulfill this impulse, to slowly reach and in a safe container, powerful healing happens. My client moves from a long held passive state to an active one. Stuck energy can move freely. The contracted musculature unravels and the nervous system re-organizes. The client reaches and this old incomplete survival response, or circuit, finally completes.

Suddenly, relationship, namely intimacy and connection, is not as much as a threat as it used to be. Suddenly the individual feels less alone in the world. 

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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults

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