Our emotions are shaped by the emotions of other people around us. When I come home from a day at work and my daughter gives me a hug, both of us relax, breathe more slowly, and get in sync. We all face big and small challenges in our lives. One thing that can help us move through these tough times is our connection to one another. While there are benefits from mindfulness and self-soothing, our bodies are designed for emotional regulation and calming in the context of relationships. Moments of positive interactions, whether it is a comforting hand on our shoulder or an empathetic conversation, help us go through a process of mutual calming called co-regulation. This biological reaction not only has an impact on our individual health and behaviors; it also affects the health of our society and democracy at large.
Amid the growing discord, stress, and disconnection across our country – from political division to marginalization – it is hard to imagine a thriving society built upon meaningful relationships, rooted in a full range of emotional connection, with people who have different backgrounds and beliefs from us. But addressing our crisis of connection is not only urgent; it is possible. Some may believe that this type of conflict is just human nature, but the truth is much more complicated. The desire for belonging and togetherness is in our biology, and our bodies are wired for interdependence.
To reach our aspirations for a pluralistic democracy that functions not in spite of, but because of, our differences, we need to cultivate authentic, trust-based relationships from the first days of a child’s life and throughout adulthood. These connections are the vehicle for co-regulation and calming, enabling us to engage with others to tackle big challenges and build a harmonious society.
The Link Between Relationships and the Brain
Our earliest relationships wire us for connection and re-connection. That is because co-regulation begins in utero where our hearts and bodies send signals from the womb to our brains. After birth, our relationships continue to influence our heart rate, breathing, and other body functions, which change our emotional energy and behavior. Those crucial signals get transmitted to the brain via the autonomic nervous system. This is the language our body uses to tell us how to feel and what to do.
Importantly, our autonomic nervous systems interact with each other. Our relationships with one another are what keep us safe and alive. They modulate our heart rate which keeps our brain functioning.
“Caregiving interactions help build the infant’s capacity to love. The attentive loving behaviors grow the neural networks that allow us to feel love, and then act in loving ways towards others. If you are loved, you learn to love. Caring for the infant in this loving way also changes the brain of the caregiving adult. These interactions regulate and reward both child and caregiver.”
— Dr. Bruce Perry in What Happened to You?
Human connections, especially our early interactions with those closest to us and responsible for our caregiving, shape the trajectory of our lives. While adversity in childhood certainly affects future well-being, studies have shown that safe, stable, and nurturing relationships can buffer the effects of adversity even in extreme cases, paving the way for improved development and success in life.
The power of relationships continues beyond the early years of life. According to Dr. Perry, the repetition and rhythm of sensory stimulation, like rocking a baby or walking with a friend holding hands, brings the body back to a calm state that allows the brain to function most effectively.
Even when our lives are rich with relationships and connection, disconnection is part of every interaction and is inevitable. From technology to pressures of daily life, distractions exist all around us. Moreover, people, no matter how close they are to us, can ultimately say or do things that may push us away or alert our bodies of potential danger or disagreement. This is why it is critical to remember that the states of emotional connection and disconnection are not permanent.
Our brains and bodies can draw on the pattern of pairing emotional expression and shared stimulation of our senses (e.g., soothing touch, eye contact, and deep listening) to reconnect and restore a state of emotional connection time and again. Practice makes perfect – not because of memory like studying a vocabulary list, but from the conditioning that comes from experience. Think about the way your hands just move across a piano to play a song you know by heart or riding a bicycle after decades of not doing so. Furthermore, Ed Tronick, a well-known developmental psychologist, has demonstrated that this repetition of repairing minor ruptures from childhood through adulthood builds resilience in our brains and bodies.
Relationships are the Glue for Bonding and Bridging
As we come across new experiences throughout our lives, our brains respond to those encounters in multiple stages. Our hearts speed up or slow down, in conversation with the lower brain. Dr. Perry says that the lower brain processes the new interaction "through the filter of prior experiences." This is how the lower brain determines the danger or comfort of the situation, influencing our fight/flight response.
Only if we are calm and regulated does the signaling move beyond the lower brain to the upper brain, called the cortex, where higher level processing takes place. This is why trying to reason with someone who is upset or scared is not effective. First you need to relate in order to regulate; then you can reason.
“[If a] person is regulated, you can connect with them in ways that will facilitate rational communication,” notes Dr. Bruce Perry. “But if they’re dysregulated, nothing you say will really get to their cortex. And nothing already in their cortex will be easy for them to access.” This is true of children in the classroom, colleagues at your workplace, and policy makers on the other side of the political aisle. Relationships pave the way to the cortex.
At Einhorn Collaborative, the primacy of relationships connects our Bonding work to our Bridging work. Bridging activities that change our values are important, but our values reside in our cortex. When we interact with a person who is different from us, our lower brains get activated and look at prior experiences to determine how we react before our values can be referenced. This knowledge informs the focus of our Bridging strategy which supports younger generations in creating deep, authentic relationships with people across difference.
Repeated interactions over time with those who are different from us changes how we react to people who are different in the future. This re-programming of our lower brain through the power of experiences leads to long-lasting change in a way that is not possible through just teaching ourselves new values and perspectives.
As Dr. Perry writes in What Happened to You?, “The capacity to love is at the core of the success of humankind. The reason we have survived on this planet, is that we have been able to form and maintain effective groups. Isolated and disconnected, we are vulnerable. In community, we can protect one another, cooperatively hunt and gather, share with the dependents of our family and our clan. Relational glue is what keeps our species alive. And love is relational superglue.”
Our lives are full of big and small moments of stress, discord, and disconnection. As a result, the quilt of connection we have with our communities gets torn, and our own security blanket that shields us from harm and pressure gets tattered. We are in constant need of repair. The foundational relationships in early childhood and new connections in adulthood can heal the tears in our social fabric.
Mutual, reciprocal relationships are essential to optimal health and well-being throughout our lives, and are equally integral to a functioning diverse democracy. Our yearnings to feel seen, to belong, and to live in a harmonious society are fulfilled when we realize that our individual and collective needs are met relationally. Emotional connection facilitates mutual calming that allows true bridging across difference and improved health of individuals and communities.