Mammalian Attachment System Heals Trauma

Stephen Porges magesDr. Stephen Porges writes in his groundbreaking “Polyvagal Theory” that mammals like us aren’t made for trauma.  We’re made primarily to attach to other mammals, which makes us feel safe, secure and good.  When that fails, we’re also made to go into a secondary fall-back option of fight/flight; we get aggressive or at least defensive. And it feels bad; we know something’s wrong.

But we’re not made to be in fight/flight for a long time, so when we’re caught in fight/flight and can’t get out, mammals are forced back into a third, even more primitive system: reptilian freeze, aka immobilization or dissociation.

“If you go to a pet store and look at the reptiles, you don’t see much behavior, because immobilization is the primary defense system for reptiles,” says Porges. “But if you look at the small mammals, hamsters and mice, they are running around. They are socializing.”

“Some reptiles can shut down and go underwater for several hours and be fine. The shut-down system works well if you are a reptile, because reptiles don’t need much oxygen and don’t need to support a big brain…

“But this immobilization reaction… is potentially lethal for mammals. If a life threat triggers a biobehavioral response that puts a human into this state, it may be very difficult to reorganize to become ‘normal’ again,”  he warns. [FN]

I talked about that kind of trauma last blog.  I was suddenly thrust into a medical system that ignored all these mammalian basics.  No matter to whom I turned for communication and  information, nobody saw me, nobody heard my questions, nobody seemed to care what happened. No mammalian response.

So instead of being about to simply sit and be “Present” with the sudden survival threat of a surgical knife coming at me, I had to take all the perfectly normal fight/flight feelings which that causes, and “stuff  it.”  Because I had to push myself into hunting and gathering all that info alone. Which threw me into reptilian freeze, just as my body was designed by the Manufacturer to do.  That’s trauma.

Mammals Should Be Seen – And Heard

Cats Bad Day, I fix itBut, good news: I got out of that trauma in under a week, thanks to Dr. Porges’ primary state: mammalian attachment.

The first thing that happened was I took a step myself, to get myself “seen” and “heard” – I wrote that blog.  It went out to almost a thousand readers, and the response was terrific.  In particular, lots of nice warm mammals in my Life Team support system started to call and write to me, and wow did that feel good.

“Dearest Kathy,” wrote one reader, “I just read your latest blog post, and it sounds rough.  I hope things are calming down and straightening out, and I wish I could be there to help. Do call if you want. – A big, warm, long hug….”

Now this gal and I go way back decades, though she’s on the east coast where I haven’t seen her since 2009. But we were attached mammals for so long, that in 2011 I woke up one morning dreaming I’d been singing Handel’s  Messiah, things went terribly wrong – but suddenly there at the foot of the stage, she appeared – to give me a big hug. “Oh!  It’s her!  She knows me. She sees me — the real me, the me who really is.”

And about three hours later that same day in 2011, my cell phone rang and…. it was her.  Across 3,000 miles.

“The evolution of the nervous system starts with the un-myelinated vagus nerve, which does immobilization. Reptiles have this oldest defensive system,“ says Porges.

“With mammals, a newer circuit, a uniquely mammalian vagus which is myelinated, comes online.  So mammals have two vagal circuits, which originate in different areas of the brain stem. The new mammalian vagus is linked in the brain stem to areas that regulates the muscles of the face and head.  Every clinician knows that if they look at people’s faces and listen to their voices, which are controlled by muscles of the face and head, they will know the physiological state of their client.

“If we are protected with the newer mammalian vagal circuit, we do fine. When our mammalian social engagement system is working, we feel calm, we hug people, we look at them and we feel good.

“These mammalian part of our  nervous system  enables social interactions to calm our physiology and to support health, growth, and restoration.  When a person is facially expressive, has vocal intonation, has an expressive face and whose eyes are open when we talk to them,”  then we feel seen, heard, and connected.

“Thank you for actually ‘seeing’ me and knowing me,” I wrote back to my gal pal last week after she saw my blog. “It’s got everything to do with plain old simple mammalian attachment, in which we  just ‘be with’ each other, and feel safe.

“And just this morning, it hit me: Oh, Mom again. I was under survival threat as an infant because I was raised in a glass box, which is interpreted by the infant brain stem as a survival threat. Google ‘Still Face Experiment’  – it shows how infants go nuts when nobody sees them, nobody hears them – nobody responds.

“So today, survival threat  (surgical knife) will cause me to over-react.  ‘Of course’ says my wonderful attachment-based psychotherapist,  ‘it’s baked into your brain stem.  Give yourself some grace, have your reaction, and then do the reality check.’   So when the doctors exhibit the same reptilian behavior as Mom: nobody hears me, nobody sees me, nobody responds?   ‘Of course’ — bam, it  triggers the whole infant deep neurological experience.

“The minute I put that together, I had a good cry, then started to feel absolutely fantastic.  Because suddenly I knew: it’s not about the doctors or the surgery — it’s about my mammalian attachment system.  No matter what happens with the surgery or the doctors, it won’t matter – as long as I get with mammals.  And what a relief.

“Because now I do have mammalian attachment to my friends, my therapist, and a few other important people – like God – now I do have “Safe People.”

“So suddenly now the surgery is no big deal because the doctors will do a great technical job like well-trained reptiles, and back to what really counts, my mammalian support system is taking care of my mammal needs big time.  Which brought me an enormous relief of tension, and feeling of support.”

And no sooner did I figure this out, than my email dings –  and it’s her again.


Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.


FN  Porges, Stephen, PhD, “The Polyvagal Theory for Treating Trauma,” 2011,
—“Body, Brain, Behavior: How Polyvagal Theory Expands Our Healing Paradigm,” 2013,
“Beyond the Brain: Vagal System Holds the Secret to Treating Trauma,” 2013,
—”Polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system,” International Journal of Psycho-physiology 42, 2001,  Dept. of Psychiatry, Univ. Illinois Chicago,

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9 responses to “Mammalian Attachment System Heals Trauma

  1. As I perused “A General Theory of Love” in the Featured Books and Quotes, I thought about a conversation I had when I went back to upstate New York to visit, and someone asked me: “So How Do You Like it in Northern New England with all those “Rugged, Self-Reliant, Yankee Individualists”?, and I responded: ” Ain’t seen one yet put up a barn all by hisself”! ! !

  2. Years ago, while working on a [dairy] farm, a calf was born to one of the cows on my “string”. At three days old, it contracted Mange, and had to be “isolated” (away from its mother and other cows/calves) in a separate pen in the barn. I had to scrub it all over its frail and sensitive young body/skin, with an iodine/phosphorous solution using a wire brush. I also had to teach it how to drink its mother’s milk from a pail (I’d dip my finger in its mothers milk, dip my moistened finger in powdered sugar, put it in the calf’s mouth, and draw my finger down into the pail, under the milk, until it started to drink. Fortunately, it did start to drink, and it eventually recovered from the Mange, and Thrived, but I didn’t enjoy scrubbing behind its sensitive ears and skin, and the calf didn’t seem to enjoy that either. I did enjoy teaching it how to drink its mother’s milk from a pail, though, and by the third or fourth day, it seemed to get excited sucking on my finger as I drew it down into the bucket, under the milk, and heard it slurping…somewhat enthusiastically!
    Prior to that, but after my mother’s suicide, I “decided” to become “Stoic”, as if that was “mature”, and “not feel” (as though feelings were Irrational), but the calf inadvertently helped me recover a part of myself, too!

  3. Thank you! Yes it makes sense that if we have developmental trauma (old name “complex grief”) then the death of any beloved being, especially mammals like warm loving pets, would bring up any unresolved grief. Here’s my blog on developmental trauma:
    I have developmental trauma and I wept for weeks when my cat died. Here’s my blog on that:
    I also know my developmental trauma’s pre-conscious grief from age 0-3 will diminish over time, but never disappear.
    Whenever sad things happen, especially death, I will feel again a little bit of the terrible death of my longing for my mother, who no matter how I longed, could not relate. I had no mother and to an infant that feels like death. The grief is enormous.
    BUT I also know that all this is OK – precisely because as you say, now I’m allowing myself to FEEL for the first time! So I’m SO glad you’re allowing yourself to feel – that is the key to all the healing.
    All my life I was in reptilian freeze, so I didn’t feel, so the feelings got shoved down and compounded, creating more and more trauma. But now that I worked Dr. Peter A. Levine’s book “Healing Trauma” and got out of reptile freeze, I can feel. So when my developmental trauma feelings come up, I just call a safe mammal and talk it through, and then I feel terrific.. Just as I described in this blog we’re commenting on here.

    • Thank You Kathy, for this item, and the links. I had done some “Somatic Experiencing” (SE) years back, and found it helpful, while I could afford to do it, and still use Peter Levine’s “Waking the Tiger: Healing trauma…” as a reference text. I also attended a SE training seminar, and found that reassuring, too. I was blessed that a [very wise] Reiki practitioner, who I was seeing initially, referred me to the SE practitioner.

  4. I saw your note about grief work, on one of the Mammalian Attachment, and wondered if I could brainstorm. One of my neighbors who had a delightful Corgi dog, told me this
    morning that he had to put him down–the cancer “Scout” was diagnosed with last April got to him.
    I used to walk “Scout” when my neighbor was recovering from a fall/not ambulatory. I couldn’t believe the intensity of the grief I felt when my neighbor told me. I could barely offer condolences/ shake hands.
    It is similar to when a friend I was doing some work for a year ago, asked me to drive her and her cat to the vet, where I was present in the room as the vet put the cat down.
    Is it likely that my own [not completely resolved] traumatic/complicated grief is resurfacing, or that I am letting myself feel again ? ? ? Thanks, Kathy

  5. What do you do if your attachment system doesn’t know how to attach?
    I think this area is still being studied. Maybe it is just like exercise… Find something you are passionate about (like preventing ACEs) and use that to get yourself out there.
    Love your posts. Maybe do some research on Jaak Panskeep and TST and cat hair cleaners… just my thought… Thanks so much.

    • Thank you! Great question: “Where do we start?” I had no idea what attachment meant either in 2009 when I started this “grief” work.
      Yes, it’s exactly like exercise. And it’s a really bad idea to do the wrong exercise for us! I thought that “attachment” meant romance — exactly the wrong exercise for me. Because when we’re abused as kids, we’re romantically attracted to 100% abusive people, no exceptions — so we get re-traumatized.
      So yeah it’s like exercise:
      First we have to go to an expert and get help picking the right exercise specifically for us. I went to Drs. John Townsend and Henry Cloud and found out romance is exactly the wrong thing for traumatees, which shocked the heck out of me. So I resisted their ideas, and kept up my romance addiction for another two years, which really retarded my recovery. Finally I got sober from “love addiction” and that was when my healing started.
      So that was the first step: giving up the wrong exercise, and shifting to the right exercise. I had to internalize their book “Safe People,” which told me how to get attached withOUT romance, in a platonic (aka Godly) situation.
      Basically we need to get attached to people who will treat us as a good parent would have: just let us be heard and seen; give us acceptance; and never ask for anything — except to be heard, seen, and accepted in return. Certainly not ask for sex! And we also don’t need them to be our parent or re-parent us, that’s bs. We just need them to behave like decent human beings! So “Safe People” taught me to whom are the right people to get attached. Like picking the right machine at the gym.
      Next the expert has to tell us (we can’t know) at how strenuous a level to start the right exercise. I started by writing my grief letters per the “Grief Recovery Handbook,” and then finding “Safe People” who agreed to be my “Grief Partner” — and behavior for a Partner is laid out in detail in the Handbook. So important to have such a book with written rules for both sides to agree to for behavior, so we don’t get re-traumatized.
      Basically the rules are the same as in “Safe People”: just let us be heard and seen; give us acceptance; and never ask for anything. I read my Grief Letter to my partner for 1 hour, and bawl like a baby — while they just sit and be “a heart with ears.” While I’m reading, they’re like Hello Kitty, they have no mouth; they just listen, and give me a lot of eye contact (google Limbic Resonance from General Theory of Love on eye contact.)
      Then we switch; they read their Grief Letter to me, and I just sit in total silence, like a heart with ears. Just let them be heard and seen; give acceptance; and never ask for anything.
      The eye contact is THE most crucial, that’s why google Limbic Resonances. It’s the opposite of the Still Face Experiment experience, which was all I got from birth.
      Eye contact was torture for me at first — that was the key paradigm challange. I had never had eye contact in my life until a boy went to kiss me at 16 — so I had NO idea what “Safe” eye contact could possibly be. It was TERRIFYING to do it in a non-sexual setting.
      But just like exercise, we have to just start and also rigorously do it regularly, no blocking or stopping. We did this 2-hour routine once and sometimes twice a week for 5 years. Eventually I learned to keep eye contact. It was excruciating the first year; learning to hold eye contact nearly killed me. It took months. But now it’s my favorite thing to do on the planet!
      And boy does Limbic Resonance do the job – it literally did re-wire my brain.

  6. Yes, I have often felt that myself, but only after I did the exercises in Dr. Peter A. Levine’s book “Healing Trauma,” which I call “that Levine book.” Prior to that, I was so traumatized from birth, that my un-myelinated vagus nerve put large chunks of me into freeze. As a kid the vagus shut down much of my eyesight; in my 40s it shut down my digestive tract and put my cholesterol (produced by stress hormones) through the roof. And ground up my teeth with all-night grinding so I lost 3 molars.
    After Levine’s exercises un-froze me, all these began to reverse. I could really feel it; it felt like an iron band was being released that had gripped my jaw closed, the back of my neck tight, my shoulders clenched up, my lower back in spasm, which reached around and grabbed my belly with an iron grip.
    And then it all began to relax… That was in 2013. Now I feel like a million bucks!

  7. Well, that description of vagus nerve development sent me back to memories my college courses in physiological psych and various physiology and anatomy courses. I recall that the vagus nerve is also involved in aspects of hearing, eating and breathing as well as facial expressions and voice. That’s why when I would have a breakthrough in my own psychotherapy years ago, I could literally feel the tension dissolving out of my inner core, literally “a moving experience”.

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