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Our brilliant brains and nervous systems help us survive moment by moment. Survival mode impacts what and how we engage in learning.

When we are threatened, frightened, or hurt, so many systems designed to keep us safe spring into action. A cocktail of hormones spike, making us faster and stronger – ready to fight, or flee a tiger. They also shut down the pathways to our frontal lobes, (parts of our brain where we think through what to do) so that we will react instantly to stay alive. Though immediately lifesaving, these mechanisms are also damaging, leading us to develop physical illnesses if we remain in alert mode too long.

We must have curiosity, or we are lost – lost in judgment of ourselves or others, entangled in shame or blame. Without curiosity we might think we can diagnose and use accurate labels for what is wrong.

When the stress continues, with no relief, often called toxic stress, these physical reactions can become our way of being in the world, not a conscious choice/habit, just what grows to feel like the very self. If we are powerless, too small or vulnerable, to fight or flee, or when all else has failed, the freeze response is the alternative. The vagal nerve closes us down for a last-ditch attempt at survival. This too becomes entrenched, unconscious, leaving us absent, feeling stupid, or lost.

Different paradigms, especially medical ones, use words like dissociation, mental illness, behavioural problems, conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, borderline personality disorder, PTSD, ADHD, DID, learning disabilities, depression and anxiety to describe how they see what’s getting in the way of people’s learning. These labels can at times be helpful in accessing services and supports, and many people choose to identify with them.

But based in the neuroscience and in decades of practice, we perceive and describe all these things as simply crucial for survival and required by conditions. They are brilliant and necessary but unfortunately are too often seen as weaknesses, judged as pathologies or moral failures. We see the transformation that occurs when these reactions are honoured, and the creativity that is unleashed.

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