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The Relationship Between Trauma & the Hierarchy of Needs



"What was given to us by the past is adapted to the possibilities of the future."

            -Carl Jung


Question: What is trauma?

Trauma can be thought of as a kind of automatic protective memory or nervous system response to a profound past danger. It's our amygdala's way of saying, "That was so dangerous or impactful that I can never let you forget it. I will frequently remind you of this thing, even things that remind us of that thing, so you can be mindful enough to protect yourself from potential future similar experiences. 


Trauma "storage" or "trauma response" is a good thing according to evolution and our CNS. It's an insurance policy. It's an alarm system. It's a reminder. 


The problem is that the brain doesn't have a brain of its own, and it hasn't fully worked out the kinks of this old evolutionary feature we call fight or flight response. Even now, most scientists would argue that our world has evolved and changed so much that the human mind is undergoing a powerful change. It's moving from a default base of "fear" to a new, safer, and more fulfilling base of "love."


You've heard of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, right? 


It looks something like this...



As you can see, in terms of the CNS's grand mode of operation, it all starts from the bottom and works its way up. One cannot ascend until their base needs are met. Basic psychological needs come first. If you were lost in the woods all alone with no phone, your first instinct for survival would be to build a shelter, perhaps start a fire, and then you'd begin searching for food and water. At this base stage, everything is focused on immediate survival needs. For example, one will put off searching for food to the point of starvation if there is a threatening bear outside the cave! However, if a person is at risk of dying from hunger or thirst, they will risk fighting the bear to survive. Again. Survival is paramount.


After you secure those needs, your survival instincts switch to self-preservation and "safety." At this point, you might start looking for ways to reinforce your shelter or build a weapon, perhaps a spear. You might search for other resources that could enhance your safety and security. You might begin stockpiling food, firewood, or water. You might start considering your daily routine and how to utilize your time and energy best. You might scout the area for other resources or possible help. 



            Once those needs are met, your instinct switches again to a new focus because its survival duty/needs have been met. It can now free itself a bit. At this point, we begin to focus on personal and social needs. We begin to search for friendship, family, and intimacy. We search for groups and tribes, a sense of belonging. In this analogy, we are alone in the woods. You might think this stage of needs would apply, but it does. That need likely won’t be met, at least not fully. Perhaps we can get creative, though. In the film Castaway, Tom Hanks’ character found a volleyball and painted a face on it. He eventually came to befriend the ball strangely and was devastated when it eventually got lost.




            Assuming we could somehow meet that criteria of needs, we could then ascend to the next tier, Esteem. Now, as I’m going through the hierarchy of needs, we are entertaining the analogy of being lost all alone in the woods. In reality, I’m sure you can already begin to see how these needs might relate to your own life. Before we can ascend to working on our love life, on meaningful friendships, and finding our tribe, we must first feel safe and have basic security and safety needs met. Many of us literally get stuck in this tier of survival needs and, therefore, find it so very challenging, nearly impossible, to reach that next tier that holds so many things we yearn for.


            Esteem is quite important. Not only do we need family, friends, and tribes, but we have an instinct to seek out respect, dignity, achievement, purpose, and recognition. We need to build our own self-esteem. This is where things truly begin to change, and we begin to exemplify what it means to be human. At this tier of the hierarchy, we are working on ourselves. We are building off of our purpose. By the way, this is usually the last stage acknowledged, let alone achieved by most people.


            Using the analogy of survival alone in the woods, this might be a place where the person has safety, security, food, water, shelter, perhaps a little furry friend or a Wilson Volleyball. Now, they may begin focusing on how they live and behave, taking a closer look at what their situation means. They may search for purpose or seek to strengthen their sense of purpose. Naturally, the purpose is likely to one day find their way out of the woods and return home. Or they may wrestle with acceptance of the idea that they may never find their way out of the woods. They stop living just day to day and begin to plan for the future.

      

      The final stage/tier, the one that rarely anyone achieves, is self-actualization. Here, a person begins to focus inwardly on spirit, unity, beauty, expression, and exploration. Some of the greatest minds have long held that within the human instinct is the drive for self-growth, knowledge, and to become one's own individual—in other words, to actualize one's own potential. This is the seat of true morality, acceptance, and spirit. It’s the seat of the third eye. It’s enlightenment.




            There’s a lot here to unpack, isn’t there?


            Let’s come full circle and talk about healing from trauma. The key to healing from trauma is learning to let it go, but one must also be able to meet their needs enough to continue to grow. The good news is that one can still achieve enlightenment even when their basic needs haven’t been met. There’s a fast track between the ground floor and the penthouse. In fact, it’s beautifully designed to inspire itself, to dangle a carrot in front of the horse. People often truly become awakened once they are in the darkest of places. When they’re starving. When they’re sad. When their hearts are broken. When they question their own existence. It happens. They are found.


            Learning to let go of it all is an art form and an instinct, and it’s not the same as becoming jaded, carefree, or indifferent. It certainly isn’t the same as becoming angry.


            My message to any of you that is processing trauma is to continue to focus on self-work. Change what you can change, accept everything else, and keep moving forward. We may not have the money we truly need. We may not have the family, friends, or support we truly deserve. We may be in a situation where we can’t greatly work on our esteem, but we can always work on ourselves. Self-growth has a powerful way of pulling us up to those higher tiers. By working on yourself, you will become a magnet for all of those other things you’re after.

 

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