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May 13, 2020 |
News,  |

Life in a Homicidal Environment

When the container turns bad it is, in a very real way, our worst nightmare. It brings up our most primitive responses and, specifically, our most primitive responses to threat. We rely on our container(s) to both keep us safe and help us deal with these responses ...

I will describe these most primitive reactions in terms of the neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp’s, primary emotional systems. These are not just about affects but are ‘action systems’ that put a whole set of reactions in train. This is because, on the primitive level, these reactions are intimately related to our autonomic nervous system which deals with threat (amongst other things); so, when they are triggered, we have an array of primal, affective, bodily and behavioural responses. Whilst many people have found their way to yoga, meditation and exercise to address some of the somatic elements, I will also describe how analysis is invaluable in helping us deal with these reactions. I will keep it brief.
Panksepp describes 7 primary affective systems, of which 4 develop very early and 3 come online a little later; all can be, in different ways, compromised by threat. I will enumerate some of the ways here:
Our SEEKING system is the most primary of all the systems, it is the one that motivates us to engage with the world, to explore, to go out and find what we need and want. For many, their ability to do that has been called into question in a fundamental way – will our jobs and livelihoods be safe? How do we deal with not being able to physically go out to explore and ‘forage’? As we move forward through this crisis, we have had to adapt to the new situation and find new ways to work or plan to work when that becomes possible, to find new goals, new things to do (maybe even learn that language/instrument that we have always been meaning to?). If these new avenues emerge, we immediately begin to feel somewhat better, we are not trapped, powerless in a potentially terrifying on-going present, we can unfreeze and move forward into a future, even if that is, in the immediate term, about developing new routines.
Our FEAR system puts us on hyper-alert – will this virus kill us, will we survive economically, how will we deal with being disempowered by the restrictions? This system can really diminish us, make us freeze, it can easily call up old wounds. This is one of the (many) opportunities for therapeutic work - to revisit old wounds whilst we attend to the fresh ones and usefully tease them apart. And as analysts it is our job to help our patients accept these natural reactions and to know that there is nothing wrong with having them (this may be done implicitly of course, as well as explicitly). The positive side of the FEAR system is that it is trying to keep us safe: it makes us to buckle down and follow the guidelines, to cooperate with others, to be ‘social’ in that sense.
The PANIC/GRIEF system largely corresponds to the attachment system (the CARE system is the other half). For those of us who generally trust in the world, in our containers of whatever form, it comes as a shock (or worse) to feel that it is not safe. For some of us it has never felt safe. This is where our primitive fears about the virus can get confused with that most terrifying thing of all – the infanticidal caregiver, a homicidal container. Together with the FEAR system, this is why the comparison with being at war is so resonant. This is also where analysis comes in as a vital safe space.
Stephen Porges has speculated that it is the development of oxytocin receptors in the parasympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system that allowed us to escape the fight-flight binary and move to a third position of quiescence with a safe other. Of course, many of our patients struggle with that transition, but again, seizing the moment, it can be an opportunity to focus on the analytic relationship: how well is the patient allowing themselves to turn to you, to rely on you, to share things with you, to value you and feel safe with you? I have found, particularly with those who have dreaded the use of Skype or Zoom, and who feel they can’t do without your physical presence in the room, that it is an opportunity to challenge those concrete ways of being and to acknowledge all the symbolic connections between us, which are ultimately much more important – the ‘being together with’ in other ways, the attunement, the care, the bond between us.
This is also where I think that Jungian analysis is particularly helpful, recognising the joint project - that we are both deeply involved in the process together; that we accompany our patients through these dark places. I know that I often get a great deal from the sessions as well, to visit these primal anxieties with another person works both ways. Ed Tronick calls this a ‘dyadically expanded state of consciousness’ where, together, things are better borne, contained and held than alone. So, together with my patients, we have been able to recognise, think about and bear these reactions, to know we are both affected, and that, with our connection, we can manage (again, much of this is implicit).
The RAGE – fight response can also be very useful. I have known many people who are just irritated by the whole crisis, who declare that it will not touch them, that they are ‘fighters’ and will come through; it is not only a great defence but also helps us address and rise to the challenges, of which there will likely be many. I also notice however, amongst those whose fight response is primary, that they are a bit more reactive and jumpy, and you don’t have to dig very deep to find the fearful child behind the defiant, brash adult. Not that I want to challenge that too much, unless, of course, they are taking their fears and anxieties out on others. But it can be an opportunity to work on denied vulnerabilities as well as fighting strengths.
The CARE response is the other side of the attachment system, being able to be there for someone else, and people who can move into this are completing that benevolent circle. It is important they don’t overdo it however, and get flooded by the need or distress they come into contact with – turning off the news sometimes, or making sure they can touch base with their safe space, in whatever form that may take (and I am talking about analysts as well as our caring patients here).
As for PLAY and LUST, the final two of Panksepp’s systems; whilst both of these can be inhibited by threat, there has been an explosion in online games, quizzes, competitions, challenges and so on … and I gather that a baby boom is expected for the early part of next year!
I will end with a quote my friend, the analyst, Christopher Perry who says, discussing fears in the present situation, ‘I have found the way to cope best is to give them house-room, and then they diminish or leave’.

Marcus West


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