Thoughts on Deepening our Relational Capacities in the Midst of Social Movements

To engage in social movements, activism or frontline work is to engage directly with the injustices of this world. To witness, participate, and to support each other during these painful times is a heroic act of nervous system disregulation. What we sacrifice and endure to be a part of justice moments needs to be held carefully and collectively. Restoring our capacity for relational connection — with ourselves and others — can be a potent resource for building resiliency in our movements for a more just world.

From a neurophysiology view, exposure to sensory information like injustice & harm doing, can shift our neuroception (nervous systems assessment of safety) out of social engagement and relational capacities (right brain, ventral vagal states), and into orienting and survival responses (left brain processing & dorsal vagal states). We may start to find that with our attunement and co-regulation abilities switched off (ability to connect and join nervous systems with others safely), that we start to feel isolated, feelings of fear arise, anger and anxiety increase, or the need to consume more media to try to rationalize our experience into safety. This can be further emphasized if you have a history of trauma or attachment wounds, as these neuro-pathways may already be deeply embedded, awakening our implicit experiences and bringing them to the surface.

With our survival instincts on guard, implicit memories awakened and relational capacity muted, we may be triggered more easily, move into anger before compassion with loved ones, or generally disconnected with the emotional states of people we encounter in our daily lives. This is normal and adaptive and a sign that your nervous system is trying to keep you safe the best way it knows how. But it is also for this reason, that we need to be mindful of the ways in which we participate in cultural somatics and the ability for us to perpetuate systemic oppression within interpersonal relationships or within our justice movements, in times of trauma and stress.

Some examples of what may shift you out of relational capacity may already be in your awareness and extend beyond your activism or frontline work: witnessing suffering, violence or injustice (directly & indirectly), experiencing personal harms, or structural oppressions like racism & sexism. Some experiences may be more subtlety embedding: increased external stimuli — loud noises, flashing lights, crowds. Media consumption like scrolling apps, news/tv, radio (as information floods the brain it shifts into left brain processes to file), basic needs not being met- food insecurity, financial stress, isolation, or being around others/in relationship with those who are dis-regulated.

Restoring our relational capacity should be at the forefront of our activism and justice movements because within that lies our individual and collective resiliency. Becoming relational — meaning in connection with others and our bodies — is simply a way to shift our brains orienting from survival to safety. The beautiful thing about this is that when we restore our nervous systems social engagement system, we are able to share and extend that felt sense of safety (ventral vagal state) with others (co-regulation) which impacts our relationships and communities, widening the window of tolerance all around us.

There are many ways to do this, and the resources you call on may change from situation to situation. Coming back to embodiment and relational states is a practice and should be approached with an openness and curiosity as to what is called for in the moment. You likely already have tools and practices through your innate wisdom, as we are all wired for connection. I like to think of these practices as two categories although both categories are overlapping and guide your nervous system to the same end .

  1. Relational practices — i.e. co-regulation & joining nervous systems with others to broaden your window of tolerance. These can be simple practices in your day to day interactions like being kind to others, making eye contact, smiling. Or more intentional practices like joined breathing exercises, physical touch and affection, hand holding, cuddling, joined pleasure & sex, eye gazing, dancing or movement with others, bodywork & acupuncture.

  2. Embodied practices: i.e.- Connecting us to our felt sense of safety in our bodies. Sometimes this can be harder for folks, especially if there is a history of trauma. If that feels true for you, start first with relational practices, to expand your window of tolerance in the presence of a trusted other. From there, try tapping into moments of your felt sense of safety while in connection. Embodied practices might include movement exploration or exercise, dance, stretching, mindful body scans, breathing exercises, bodywork, acupuncture, self touch & self pleasure.

Coming back to relational states can help us build resiliency, resist burn out, restore optimism and make community care more accessible. It can be centered in joy and celebration. It can feel like the antidote to the grief and uncertainty of working within justice movements. Over time, I hope it can become more central to our movement work.