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Fraser Trevor Fraser Trevor Author
Title: Why do we so often feel better after attending a twelve step meeting? Twelve step programs offer the opportunity to revise and re-pattern .
Author: Fraser Trevor
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Why do we so often feel better after attending a twelve step meeting? Why, even on days when we don’t have any huge “ahas” do we still kn...
Brain lobes on medial surface with limbic lobe.
Why do we so often feel better after attending a twelve step meeting? Why, even on days when we don’t have any huge “ahas” do we still know we are somehow better off, calmer and more balanced emotionally just because we had our “soles” in the room?  Some of that answer lies in neurobiology. Because of the way our nervous systems are put together, going to meetings can actually restructure our limbic systems.

We, as humans, are physiologically patterned to resonate to each other at a deep neural level through a phenomenon called limbic resonance. Like it or not, we are wired to pick up on and process other people’s emotions through our own neurological  networks. Daniel Stern, an American scientist working at the University of Geneva has long been exploring these subtle interactions. “Our nervous systems, says Stern, are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others, so that we can experience others as if from within their skin.”  Thomas Lewis, author of A General Theory of Love says, “Our neural architecture places relationships at the crux of our lives, where, blazing and warm, they have the power to stabilize. When people are hurting and out of balance, they turn to regulating affiliations: groups, clubs, pets, marriages, friendships, masseuses, chiropractors, the Internet. All carry at least the potential for emotional connection. Together those bonds do more good than all the psychotherapies on the planet”. He goes on to connect parenting with emotional stability and strength, “ a parent who rejects a child’s desire to depend raises a fragile person. Those children, grown into adulthood, are frequently those who come for help.”

Those of us who have lived with addiction can find it difficult to allow ourselves to depend on other people. We have learned to go it alone. The idea of dependency brings up anxiety, resentment and fear of being disappointed or let down. It becomes fraught with fear and mistrust. Therefore, instead of being able to enter into a trusting and balanced sort of dependency, we may tend towards alternating between anxious clinging to relationships for respite and relief and avoiding emotional intimacy and closeness, a direct result of relationship trauma. The rooms let us take baby steps toward a new way of relating. In the rooms we can depend on the program and the healing energy of the group rather than any one person. This less threatening form of dependency can lead us gradually toward increased trust and  more manageable and meaningful connection with others.

So how does that happen? As we come close to each other’s limbic worlds, we find ourselves subtly affected, drawn in by and even changed through limbic resonance. We sit, we are stirred emotionally, we listen, we identify or notice that we do not identify. We neither affirm nor deny what is said nor do we shout back, give advice, attack or run out the door. We’re aware of feelings long forgotten, we experience their effect on us as we move through them to the other side, as we peel away layers of the onion. Over time, as this process repeats and repeats itself, something within us shifts into a more aware and understanding position, a more healed place. As this process, quiet on the outside but often noisy on the inside reoccurs countless times, we slowly and over time become new on the inside. Gradually we feel more whole, capable and confident as we internalize new skills of emotional regulation from those around us until eventually, we’re ready for independence and self-regulation. We’ve been, in a sense, re-parented.

Twelve step programs offer the opportunity to revise and re-pattern our limbic systems. Simply to experience powerful emotions in the presence of others and get from the beginning to the end of them without acting out or triggering a crisis or collapsing into helplessness is re-patterning and rewiring. Slowly, over time, it re-regulates our own emotional responses. It helps us to learn to listen to someone else while still tuning into our own inner voice; to be in connection with someone else while staying connected to ourselves. We learn how to be in the presence of other human beings without losing ourselves or wanting to annihilate someone else.

The relational patterns encoded into the limbic system do not necessarily respond to insight alone. Instead they respond to the slow re-patterning or recoding of the complex brain and body systems that hold the story of who we are. We cannot rush our own limbic re-regulation. Wishing someone “a slow recovery” carries with it this innate program wisdom.
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