square bulletThe Power of Positive, Buffering Relationships

March 30, 2020

From Ana Hristić, MA, LCSW, Director of Education & Workforce Strategies, Trauma Informed Oregon

One difference between an experience being marked as a tolerable stress rather than a toxic stress in our lives is the presence of a positive, buffering relationship. What we know about toxic stress is that certain functions of our brain–include planning, critical thinking, and problem solving–are impacted when we are in survival mode. Through the presence of a supportive, buffering relationship and the power of coregulation, however, belonging can become contagious in our workplace during a time of stress! 

Let’s consider ways we can promote supportive, buffering relationships for ourselves, our colleagues, and our programs, thus inviting our brains and physiology to remain present and responsive rather than reactive. This video is 12:16 minutes.

We created this TIP sheet, Staying Connected while Physically Distancing, which might help you maintain your supportive, buffering relationships.

Hi everybody. This is Ana Hristić. I am coming to you from northeast Portland and I am the Director of Education and Workforce Strategy at Trauma Informed Oregon. I am excited to share the second video with you of a series of videos that we are putting out during this time of incident response. And this video is going to be talking a little bit more about the power of positive buffering relationships. 

So today I want to briefly unpack the notion that one difference between tolerable and toxic stress is the presence of a positive buffering relationship. So I want to use the lens of trauma informed care, and more specifically suggest a few strategies for possible ways to support positive buffering relationships for you, both on an intrapersonal level, so for you within yourself, interpersonal level, for you with your colleagues, and organizational level of course. So make sure you stay tuned to the end of the video when we’ll be talking about the organizational level. Because ultimately that’s what trauma informed care is, right? 

So what do we know about toxic stress and how it impacts the brain? Certain functions of the brain are impacted and during that survival mode that we sometimes find ourselves in the thick of toxic stress. More specifically, the prefrontal cortex functions, including functions like planning and problem solving, both of which will be useful to us during these times, sort of go offline or are deeply impacted. And the research shows that the presence of a positive buffering relationship actually allows the full brain to become fully available and online, at least some of the time, so that we could be more responsive. And in that sense, we could also digest our experience and potentially prevent longer term impacts of the experience that we’re going through. 

One way I like to think about this is that through the presence of a supportive buffering relationship and the power of co-regulation, and the really cool research that’s out there around co-regulation. A sense of belonging can actually become contagious. So let’s unpack it a little more. On an intrapersonal level, I’m curious to explore ways, that ONE, you might notice that you’re in constant relationship with yourself and your experience, right? And, TWO, what are some of those strategies that support a positive way of relating to yourself? 

On some level this is lifetime of work, isn’t it? But on another level, I guess I would suggest that some basic mindfulness strategies could be useful to simply notice and host our experience, facilitating a positive buffering relationship within ourselves during kinds of unrest. It’s not uncommon for many of our experiences and emotions to go unnoticed. To sort of be unconscious for us. Many survivors will tell you though that those emotions live on. They live in our bodies and our dreams and our future relationships. And so the invitation during a time like now is to actually allow your awareness, your attention, the heart of you, to be a host, to be a positive buffering relationship to all that arises within you. Kind of like hosting a friend for tea. 

Yeah, some of the emotions and experiences you might be handling our quote-unquote negative or difficult, but they too can be hosted and noticed. This sense of groundedness, 

belonging, and agency, really, the sense of relationship that we could experience within ourselves and intrapersonal level could really reinforce this notion of a positive buffering relationship. So I’m curious to hear about what you’re doing on an intrapersonal level to support a positive buffering relationship with yourself. Go ahead and write it down in the comments below. 

On an interpersonal level, so in the ways that we interact with each other, including our colleagues, it’s been wonderful to see the sort of reclaiming of staying in place rather than social distancing, if you will. It’s a way of reinforcing that relationship is still possible and important during this time. So I’m glad that that’s happening. I want to honor though, that for many of us, these new ways of maintaining social connection are not yet positive or buffering for that matter. Many of the communication tools that are now being used, including virtual platforms and hosting meetings with videos and check-in cameras, and family phone calls that are over and above what you usually get, and all of the social connectedness that is sort of being enacted these days may actually be. experience that’s pretty stressful to many of us. 

Maybe it’s due to the high degree of sensory stimulation which needs to be noted. Maybe it’s because of a perceived lack of boundary. Regardless though, mutually supporting and hosting each other’s experience and expression of emotion during this time is critical. It reinforces a sense of belonging, a sense of okayness, just the way I am. Maybe I’m a mess one day, maybe I got it together another day. Either way, I am quote-unquote, okay to be just the way I am and really reinforces and sense of “we” in this, a sense of “we-ness”. 

Allowing that prefrontal cortex, allowing that level of functioning for problem-solving and planning to actually come online and in some sense to be that for each other. So one day when my prefrontal cortex seems to be way offline because I’m in survival mode, it’s nice to be talking to a colleague who is in the sense of quote-unquote okayness and belonging. And that kind of contagion is pretty powerful during this time. 

One research line that’s pretty interesting and I find inspiring is called Social Baseline Theory. And it actually tells us that we tend to- The more we feel together in this, so the more we feel a sense of support and belonging, the more it empowers our experience of the stress to be less activating. So for example, you would perceive the incline of a mountain as less steep if you were in the presence of a supportive and buffering relationship. Similarly, there are some other research that shows that your experience of pain and discomfort is actually lessened when you are in the presence of a supportive and buffering relationship. That’s pretty profound. 

So the invitation is to explore ways in which your current situation is hindering or supporting the presence of a positive buffering relationship in your life. Human beings are naturally relational. And let’s not forget that many of us are finding ways to honor the strive with our coworkers, with our loved ones, with our community. How are you doing that right now? Go ahead and write it down in the comments below so that we can share some ideas with each other. 

Finally, I want to get to the organizational piece. What we mean by supporting practices and procedures and policies that in this case are promoting positive buffering relationships for your team and your program. Not doing this, not supporting a meaningful reality is re-traumatizing and oppressive. So not supporting positive buffering relationships during this time, not honoring the power of relation rather than transaction is a way of othering each other and a way of not actually organizationally supporting the incredible resilience that we have when we’re in connection with each other. 

So everybody experiences stress differently. And so for some of us, we’re deeply impacted by our roles and identities in ways that our stresses are digested and experienced by others. So the way to find relief and affinity toward each other maybe to actually base it on identity. So what we’re realizing is that many organizations are actually noticing that people are beginning to get together through affinity groups as a way to digest this experience. So the unique affinity of being apparent during this time, or being a person with a disability during this time, or be queer, or being a person of color. What does it mean for us as a community within that affinity group to digest and find peer support and share stories to help develop meaning? 

What survivors will tell you is that meaning-making during this time is really critical, not just for the way in which that we aren’t digesting the experience, but in the way that the experience will live on once it’s over. So we often talk about the power of relation rather than transaction, and during a time of incident response this is more true than ever. So while it’s really important to keep getting the work done organizationally, it’s really critical that we maintain a full view of the trauma lens and support ways of relational practices to remain intact. 

So “How are you?” and actually hearing the answer is a key to that interaction that you’re about to have with your team mates, for example. So some have done hosting zoom happy hours, if you will. Some trauma-informed care work groups have been taking on a leadership role in doing 30 minute check-ins with sort of open 30-minute check-in on a daily basis for anybody to show up with no agenda, just to share your experience of how you’re doing today. And some other teams have been supporting a sort of check-in phone tree, if you will. So I call Maria and then she is tagged to call the next person, and the next person, and the next person. 

So I’m curious, organizationally, have you been supporting the power of relationships on your team? How have you fostered a sense of inclusion and belonging during this time? During our trauma informed care trainings, we often talk about this in lens of trauma informed care that says that at a time of interaction, we really have an opportunity for three different things. One is to traumatize, re-traumatize, or be a healing presence. So if you examine your intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational ways of being during this time, particularly through the lens of supportive and buffering relationships, and the incredible power that they have during a time of stress, to move from a toxic stress to a tolerable stress, keep in mind that there are three opportunities. The opportunity is to traumatize, re-traumatize, or be a healing presence. 

And what we’d like to suggest during our video today is that uplifting and supporting practices and procedures that are supporting positive buffering relationships is the way to go. Stay in touch.