Understanding Systemic and Collective Trauma

Nov 11, 2020Constellations, Power, Privilege + Oppression

Once we understand how individual nervous systems respond to trauma, we can apply those understandings to larger bodies (family systems, cultural systems, political systems).


When we allow ourselves to zoom out and think systemically, we can take steps toward justice and healing on a personal level that are more deeply transformational than the steps we would take if we only perceive trauma in individual bodies.

What does neurobiology have to do with collective liberation?

Over the last ten years or so, the understanding of childhood trauma (adverse childhood experiences) has reached a critical mass. It is now very common place for most doctors, psychologists and public health officials, for example, to have a basic understanding that adverse childhood experiences lead to measurable health and well-being impacts over time, for instance mental health, addiction, obesity, etc.

What is less commonly discussed are the systemic forces that also lead to trauma and intersect with the ancestral and epigenetic wounds that are carried from generation to generation.

Family constellations are one tool that supports us to see the impact of poverty, systemic racism and the legacy of the transatlantic slave project, patriarchy, forced cultural assimilation and ancestral migration, genocide of indigenous peoples, coercive gender binaries, persistent institutional traumas related to class, race and gender, and a zillion other ways that human beings are affected in ways far beyond the scope of individual childhood traumas.

As a part of my work healing trauma, I speak about both the personal and the systemic, and the complex intersection of how systems of oppression affect bodies of individuals and cultures over time.

The video below gives an overview of some of the helpful ways we can apply the neuroscience of trauma to our healing work at a systemic level, and how we can use relational neuroscience to serve peace, collective well-being and trauma healing at a planetary level.

How do we merge systems thinking and the body with trauma healing?

In this video, Miki Kashtan and I discuss how we might make collective changes to heal traumatized brains, to serve social justice and collective liberation.

Here are some of the content highlights:

  • 3:37: Predatory Aggression and the ‘Seeking Circuit’ – sometimes called the hunting circuit, is driven by the left-hemisphere and is the home of contempt, the movement into bullying, disgust with weakness. It takes us out of relationship and into objectification when this circuit is active alone, without other circuits.
  • 16:24: Research about liberals and conservatives, and how, once the conservative participants imagined they lived in a world where they were safe and could not be harmed, they began to express more liberal views on social issues.
  • 19:14: How to empathize when people express “not feeling safe” emotionally, although they appear to be not in physical danger, and the idea of replacing protective needs guesses (eg, “are you longing for safety?”) with needs that move people toward life, such as well-being and trust.
  • 25:37: The connection between fight/flight/freeze and left-hemisphere, and how letting go of outcome helps us move into the relational space, out of the seeking circuit and into the “we” space where we can come to a collaborative decision.
  • 35:29: Abandonment and the loneliness of western culture, and how NVC’s designation of abandonment as a “faux feeling” means we eclipse an entire swath of agitated grief, leaving it unacknowledged and unknown.

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About Sarah

Sarah Peyton

Sarah Peyton

Sarah Peyton, international speaker and facilitator, has a passion for weaving together neuroscience knowledge and experiences of healing that unify people with their brains and bodies.

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