Moving From Nervous System States of Protection to the Nervous System States of Growth

The Conflict Cycle for Educators

Today’s guest author is Lori Desautels PhD. Lori is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Butler University College of Education, a former special education teacher and school counselor and currently teaching applied educational neuroscience / brain and trauma to undergraduates and graduate candidates in the certification program. For the past six years, Lori has returned to the classroom co-teaching in multiple grade levels bringing these strategies and practices into the classroom preparing the brain to learn while dampening down our stress responses systems and attuning to the developing brain states of our children and youth. Author of several publications and writer for Edutopia. Recently Lori published her fourth book, Connections Over Compliance, Rewiring Our Perceptions of Discipline.

In 1988, Dr. Nicholas Long founded Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI) Institute in order to train professionals in effective, strength-based approaches to working with seriously emotionally disturbed children and youth. The “Conflict Cycle” is a part of this creation and has assisted clinicians, educators, and parents in understanding emotional contagion and the co-regulation practices that when integrated well, become “embodied shared experiences. The awareness of our embodied experiences interrupts cycles of conflict inside stories of trauma infected with learned beliefs, that began with survival patterns held in the stress response systems that have become maladaptive.

We are introducing an augmentation of the Conflict Cycle because of the recent evolving research in trauma-responsive practices that are studying the nervous system and brain development and the effects of adversity, and trauma, along with the potential for repair/ resiliency of the developing brain and body. These advances in research have occurred since the original creation of the Conflict Cycle in the late 1980s.  We believe this augmented revision of LSCI’s Conflict Cycle will be mutually beneficial for all students, educators, and parents in this time, as mental and emotional health challenges of our youth and children are growing rapidly across the country and world as we move through a global pandemic.

What we now understand, is that most of these children and youth are carrying significant trauma and adversity in their nervous systems, creating pain-based behaviors. Trauma therapist Dr. Peter Levine describes trauma in this way.

“Trauma happens when any experience stuns us like a bolt out of the blue: it overwhelms us, leaving us altered and disconnected from our bodies. Any coping mechanisms we may have had are undermined, and we feel utterly helpless and hopeless.”

Developmental trauma occurs when there is chronic unpredictability in a child or adolescent’s life and the caregivers may be unavailable, inconsistent, and not accessible. It can disrupt our ability and capacity to form and maintain relationships. Developmental trauma impairs the brain and nervous system as very young children are the most at risk from stress and trauma due to their underdeveloped nervous, immune, cardiovascular, digestive, motor, and perceptual systems!  As Dr. Bruce Perry states, “Belonging is biology.”

When the people who are supposed to love and protect us are the ones that hurt us, this weakens the basic sense of self and trust in our own gut and instincts, and therefore a child or adolescent’s sense of safety and stability erodes, and unexpressed energy becomes trapped in the tissues of the body.  

When we are born, we need the instructions and directions from our caregivers to build healthy brain architecture. We require connection – as attachment is the carrier of all nervous system development.  When our basic needs are chronically neglected, our bodies cue threat and danger, and survival is a priority. We do not know how and are unable to release the survival responses that live in our nervous systems creating sensations of constriction, tightness, sweating, rapid heartbeat, and restriction.  It is as if our legs are knocked out from under us in all moments. Trauma is not the event itself, but trauma can continue to live in the nervous system for days, months, or years after the chronic adversity and traumatic events have passed! Our present moment perceptions become distorted and murky impacting our everyday experiences even when the traumatic event(s) is over.

Our behaviors are misunderstood. Behaviors communicate the state of our nervous systems and this why the conflict cycle needs to address the physiological states of the children and youth we label as emotionally disturbed, behavior disordered, troubled, or dysfunctional in some way.  

New research in relational, social and affective neurosciences share that our bodies hold the rage, frustration, anxiety, abandonment and so many other feelings through the millions of bits of sensory information from past experiences with little to no narrative or cohesive understanding. Through chronic conditions of adversity and trauma, we may often lose connection with ourselves and the deep attachment to others that assists in healthy brain and body development.  We lose ourselves, in that there is a separation or loss of connection to self and to others. Our brains process information in a sequential way and the lower brain regions may interpret sensory information inaccurately. Dr. Bruce Perry explains that if any of the input is a match to a stored memory from past experiences, the lower brain regions react as if the past experience is the one happening in the present moment.  Deep massaging or discharging of these sensations with another can help to re-experience and re-frame present moment events where past patterns of survival no longer serve us or our students. 

Human beings create “perceptual maps of the world” based on their embodied experiences, and therefore we harvest and digest feelings, thoughts, and belief systems that form our maps of what feels safe and what feels dangerous.  Brains and nervous systems predict future experiences based on past experiences.  When children, youth, and adults are confronted with traumatic events, the trauma can live on in the nervous system, and because the event has passed, the trauma and adversity may linger inside our cells and alter the way our DNA functions and is read.

Trauma can cause our nervous systems to have trouble telling the difference between our unsafe pasts and our now-safe present.

New research is addressing the generational and intergenerational trauma and adversity that influences our lives originating from four or more generations where experiences that impacted our ancestors travel across generations and can land in our nervous systems changing the way our genomes function! Transgenerational Epigenetic Inheritance tells us what we pass down to the next generation is more than just our genes. It is the influences that express or suppress the gene’s readability or expression as well. Without knowledge of what the generations before us experienced, we run the risk of those patterns and cycles repeating and expressing themselves in our lives with feelings of lost control and hopelessness.

For educators and parents, it is important to understand how our “lived experiences, perceptions, and beliefs” can become activated or triggered when there is a conflict with a student or one of our own children. Inside this awareness, we can begin to break the cycle of conflict as we look beneath the behavior of one another understanding that nervous systems are running the show!  As we explore the conflict, cycle, we will explain each of the passages we move through, the opportunities to break this cycle, the role of co-regulation as we move towards post-traumatic growth.  As we explore the conflict cycle, we’ve created a cycle where adults and students share the space in-between!

  1. Perceptual and Learned Beliefs Become Irrational Beliefs when we continue to recycle past trauma and adversity. In other words, when we continue to live inside and within past experiences in the present moment, our beliefs keep us in a state of protection and therefore survival. 

  2. Intergenerational trauma is carried in our nervous systems. The experiences of our ancestors can impact our own lived experiences without awareness, reflection and discharge. With one another, we can begin to explore our sensations, feelings, and thoughts inside an environment and relationship of felt safety.

  3. Our social-cultural, physical, and economic environments may create communities in chaos with individuals, families, and neighborhood populations living in protection and survival! These environments may carry collective trauma and dysregulated nervous system states, affecting our children and youth and their developing nervous systems from the instability and unpredictability of these living systems.  

  4. Embodied lived experiences shape our thoughts and feelings, and therefore our belief systems. Trauma and adversity land in our bodies, possibly creating fragmented sensory information leading to rigidity or chaos of our lived experiences, as different patterns of stress can lead to either sensitization or resilience. Dr. Perry states, “Epigenetic changes are involved in altering the sensitivity of our regulatory networks and this is another remarkable flexibility of the body to make changes to keep us in balance.”     

  5. Neuroception is our reflexive and automatic intuition that scans our environments in all moments for safety or danger and this continual process eventually leads to our perceptions of the world. Our neuroception becomes our perception which leads to our most dominant autonomic states, producing feelings that serve to preserve our perceptions and thoughts that can activate those feelings that can reinforce our thoughts!

  6. Our behaviors are signals. They are indicators of our autonomic state functioning and provide a quick and often superficial and misunderstood glimpse into our nervous systems that are always trying to protect us and find a healthy neurological balance. When we only address behaviors, we are missing the mark! We find compliance for a minute or two, a day or a week and then we return to the toxicity of the conflict cycle once again!  

It is our hope that the augmentation of the LSCI conflict cycle will address how the student and adult cycles can open, allowing co-regulation and shared emotional availability while dampening down the stress response systems in our children and youth, creating a pathway to the cortex so we are able to access the learning that produces social, emotional, and cognitive well-being. We also understand that breaking these cycles is an endurance event and with patterned repetitive co-regulatory experiences we can help our children move from states of protection to states of growth.   


  • Guest Blogger

    This post was written by a guest blogger for the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. Views and opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not represent the views and opinions of AASR.

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