In the hero’s journey, threat is always present and activates our response for protection. Sometimes this threat is distant, and we are safe from harm. Other times in life, we face challenges that threaten our well-being. Currently, our world is facing a worldwide pandemic with the COVID-19 threat impacting not only our medical safety, but our financial and emotional safety. No one is left unaffected, not even in other countries. The threat is real. People will react to this threat based on the real and/or perceived understanding of the threat, which will activate a continuum of threat responses within our body and our brain based on that real and/or perceived level of threat. For example- if I am the sole provider in my family and I lost my job due to the impact of social distancing, then the threat for the safety of my family is real. The level of severity of my perception for the threat will influence the severity of my response to the threat. If I have no social support network, such as family and friends and I have been a low wage earner, then my financial and social resources are limited and I may be forced into homelessness. On the other hand, if I have a high paying job and have substantial financial and social support available to me, then I will likely experience a different outcome for my family. The severity of my response to the threat will likely be higher in the first scenario than the second one.
Many factors influence our threat response system- past history of challenges, inherent resiliency, quality and availability of one’s social support system, mental health and well-being, age, physical health and well-being, level of cognitive functioning, and substance misuse to name a few. All of these factors influence our response to life’s challenges that threaten our stability because they will influence our vulnerability to harm, which activates our threat system for protection. Vulnerability in challenging circumstances tends to increase a protective response. Vulnerability guru, Brene Brown, has researched shame and vulnerability extensively and its influence in our daily lives. In her book, Daring Greatly, Brown shares her insights and research about the importance of overcoming shame and risking vulnerability to live an authentic life (Brown, 2012).
When feelings and beliefs of vulnerability activate our threat system, our body and brain will respond on a neurological level to protect us from harm to the best of our ability in that moment. This is true in the natural world as well. We see the role of defenses and protection in nature. In nature we see that when a threat is perceived then a safety response is activated in the form of defenses. Defenses are meant to protect us. They provide armour. There are many flora and fauna species where we see this. Brightly colored frogs in the rainforest call attention to themselves to warn predators against attack. In a similar manner, humans may use bravado to warn attackers away when feeling threatened. I live in the desert where this principle is demonstrated. The harsh desert climate requires species to develop survival mechanisms. What I find most fascinating is that their protection mechanisms not only ensure their survival, they also allow their beauty to survive. The desert cactus displays menacing spikes that demand we
use caution when approaching, while also exhibiting some of the most beautiful flowers and shapes. These plants also are a source of water in the desert and as such are a symbol of resiliency and life. The desert horned lizard lives in the harsh desert climate here in southern Nevada. It has two protective features – its ability to camouflage and the small spike-like structures on the back of its head. It can blend into its environment for protection from harm, and if needed, use its spike-like scales.
Brown (2012) discusses ways in which humans try to “camouflage” themselves to avoid the perceived threat of exposure. To live the hero’s life requires courage and steadfast conviction to use our armour for protection when facing challenges, but not to let our armour diminish our quality of life, our relationships, or our sense of self. Life will be challenging for all of us at varying degrees in our lives. Our defenses are an indication that a threat is perceived and needs to be assessed.
From infancy, our brain works to keep us alive and ensure the survival of our species. The earliest brain circuits that come online for infants occur in the right brain areas of the brain to begin reading cues from their caregivers. Infants begin learning to recognize facial expression, voice tone, quality of touch, and body language of caregivers. Pioneering researcher, Alan Schore (2000; 2001) has shown that the right hemisphere plays a critical role in attachment from infancy, since the right hemisphere has a central role in recognizing and processing facial cues and nonverbal information. Human infants depend on their caregivers for their survival much longer than most other species for food and protection. It makes sense, then, that our brain is a social brain which begins its development of neural pathways in utero and continues development throughout human life with it’s fastest growth during the first three years of life. We need to learn to read the intentions of others to maintain our safety and stability.
Within the social brain are neural networks that are critical to facilitate understanding of another. According to Daniel Siegel (2011) in his groundbreaking theory of what he calls Mindsight, Siegel discusses the concept of internal mind maps in which mirror neuron systems help us to experience one another mind to mind and understanding one another more fully. These mirror neurons were discovered in 1992 when scientists were conducting research on monkeys to understand neural circuits in the brain (Rodrigues 2018; Seigel, 2011). What they discovered is that our brain can develop the ability to understand the intentions of others due to specific neural circuits. Based on their research with monkeys, scientists discovered that visual information received by our brain is linked to motor action. Mirror neurons in one person’s brain are activated when that person sees another person’s intentional, goal-directed action. The sequence of the behavior not only activates neural pathways in the person engaging in the action, it also activates the neural pathway in the brain of the person observing the sequenced, goal-directed behavior. How cool is that? I can watch you perform a predictable behavior and the same neural pathways will light up in my mind to give me greater understanding of your behavior. Siegel (2011) states:
beginning from the perception of a basic behavioral intention, our more elaborated human prefrontal cortex enables us to map out the minds of others. Our brains use sensory information to create representations of others’ minds, just as they use sensory input to create images of the physical world. (p. 61)
Stephen Porges (2011) identified the neural processes involved when assessing threats and coined the term, neurception circuits, to describe how our protective behaviors of flight, flight, and freeze are activated to defend against harm. When our brain perceives a threat, then these circuits are activated to protect us, which will disengage our ability to engage our social engagement brain systems. In order to protect ourselves from harm we cannot simultaneously engage those brain circuits that allow us to experience emotional connection, which makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. The problem is that if our defense systems do not disengage then we cannot engage in healthy, satisfying emotional connection with those we love. The dialectical dilemma here is that in order to feel safe I need to be able to disengage my neuroception circuits and I cannot disconnect my neuroception circuits unless I feel safe. My “armour” has both a protective and a destructive aspect. The hero’s journey requires that we learn to use our “armour” wisely so that we can, as Brene Brown (2012) encourages, learn to get in the “arena” of life and be victorious. She cites a favorite quote by Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
This is the hero’s journey. To allow ourselves to be a warrior and use our protective defense systems, while also allowing ourselves to fully engage in life and risk harm to display our humanity in its greatest form- love, courage, and authentic connection with others.
Written by Cathi Spooner, LCSW, RPT/S
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Avery.
Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, self-regulation. New York, NY: W.W Norton & Company.
Rodrigues, P. R. G. (2018). The visual neuropsychology of the other. Psychology & Neuroscience, 11(3), 231-237. doi:10.1037/pne0000131
Schore, A.N. (2000). Attachment and the regulation of the right brain. Attachment and Human Development, 2(1), 23-47.
Schore, A.N. (2001). Effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal. 22(1-2), 7-66.
Siegel, D.J. (2011). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books.