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  • Writer's pictureSam Alvis

Context is Key: The Power of Context in Fostering Safety, Consistency, and (Ideally) Healing

(In this series, we’ll learn about the power of context and how it impacts our experiences of the world, others, and ourselves. We’ll then look at the “why” behind the power of context, talk through some of the neuroscience informing this principle, and provide examples of certain life experiences that make the need for context even more imperative. Finally, we’ll see how being provided context can foster our experiences of safety, consistency, and healing within therapy and other other relational experiences.)

Context clues are our nervous systems’ shortcut for understanding what to expect and how to prepare for our interactions with the world. They allow our brains to anticipate and predict exactly what and how to manage our daily experiences.

For example: Let’s say you’ve found your way into my counseling office. About halfway through our session, all of the sudden it sounds like something incredibly big and extremely loud has crashed onto the roof of the building we are in. I’m guessing we’d both freak out and have a pretty strong startle response. Depending on your personal history and experiences, you might think there’s an earthquake, a rave, or maybe even a war happening outside.

Now- instead- suppose that the morning of our session, I was told that there would be a crew doing some repairs to the roof today. When you first come into my office, I prepare you for the possibility of some loud sounds and jolts coming from the roof due to the construction. Now, this time when we feel and hear the crash on the roof, we might still startle, but our brains will quickly be able to identify what is actually happening, because we have the right context to allow our nervous system to more accurately identify the reality that is occuring (i.e., NOT an earthquake, rave, or a war…just some workers repairing a leaky roof).

As we can see above, the same exact experience, when given or not given proper context, can yield wildly different reactions and responses.

In order to showcase how this is further played out in a psychological, neurobiological, and relational sense, I’m going to share an example from my personal story.

**Disclaimer: In my counseling training program, whenever we used examples from our own lives (i.e., in a paper, in a mock-counseling session with classmates, etc.), we were encouraged to share a “level 5” experience or story from a scale of 1 to 10. If a level 1 might be how you struggled to decide between oatmeal and yogurt this morning for breakfast, then a level 10 might be the most traumatic thing you’ve experienced; so then, a level 5 would be somewhere between those two extremes. Remember: our scales might be different. My level 5 might be your level 10 or your level 10 might be my level 5. Therefore, for the purpose of this illustration, I’m going to share with you an example of my level 5.

Ok, time for the actual story:

I lost all of my grandparents at a very young age. I share this not to induce pity, but to speak factually and to provide context for this story. Around the time I was 8 or so, the school secretary called my classroom and told me to come down to the principal’s office, because my mom was there to see me. When I got to the principal’s office, my mom informed me that one of my grandparents had died.

Fast forward a year or two later: I was in the middle of class, and once again, my school secretary called my teacher and informed me that I needed to come down to the principal’s office, because my mom was there to see me. Can you imagine where my mind went? During what felt like The. Longest. Walk. Ever. down to the principal’s office, I was wracking my mind wondering who else could have died and anticipating the news of yet another death. I get to the office and what do I find? My mom standing there, smiling, and holding my lunchbox because I had left it in the car. Of course, she then quickly became confused as to why I looked so panicked and terrified at the sight of my lunchbox and of being called down to the office.

Now, the point of this story isn’t to blame my mom, my teacher, or the school secretary for not giving me enough context (i.e. your mom just wants to give you your lunch) when sending me down to the principal’s office. But the point is to show just how drastically different an experience can be for a person and their nervous system when given the appropriate context to a situation.

Imagine how different #thelongestwalkever could have been had I known that I would be greeting my smiling mom with a lunchbox rather than potentially receiving the news of another death?

Likewise, if I (or you) have the ability to easily provide someone context to help mitigate someone’s fear, terror, or hypervigiliance, why wouldn’t we take the opportunity to do so?

A similar version of this same experience gets played out in a multitude of ways on a daily basis for all people everywhere whose lives have been filled with experiences of trauma, chaos, and unpredictability.

The lack of context can wreak havoc for…

  • The combat veteran who knows to leave his neighborhood around the Fourth of the July, but who didn’t know to prepare for his neighbors randomly lighting off fireworks in the middle of October at 2am in the morning.

  • The woman who has experienced sexual assault and jumps out of her skin when someone she knows approaches her from behind at the grocery store and touches the small of her back.

  • The boy with a terminal illness who isn’t told by his parents or medical team what exactly they are going to be doing to his body at today’s appointment.

  • The man who lost a family member to a car cash when he was a child, who panics when his fiancée is 15-minutes late to a dinner date on a snowy, winter’s night.

  • The wife who grew up with an alcoholic and angry father who experiences terror when her husband came home just slightly tipsy, because he had just one too many drinks while out with friends.

…I think you get my point.

Providing context can help people avoid the unnecessary experience of feeling fear and hypervigilance that is leftover from past experiences of trauma, chaos, and unpredictability.

Now, you might think that I’m some weak, “tolerant”, or snowflake-like-individual who is trying to coddle people because I think we all need to cater to one another.

I’m so sorry you think that way- I’m guessing you yourself were never given permission to be impacted by something hard and to know that your pain matters. I am sorry that has been your experience.

I’m not saying that we need to all walk around in metaphorical bubble-wrap because we’re so easily bruised and wounded by the world. What I am saying, is that if we have the ability to help mitigate these extremely terrifying experiences for people, shouldn’t we do what is within our ability to help offer others a sense of calm, predictability, and context?

Friends, the world is hard and scary and unpredictable enough. If we have even the slightest ability to bring just a bit of comfort in this world to another human soul, why wouldn’t we take it?

So today’s takeaway is this: what is one, small way that you might be able to offer someone the experience of comfort and predictability by simply providing some context today?

(Stay tuned for next week’s article in this series, where we’ll take a look at the “why” behind the power of context, talk through some of the neuroscience informing this principle, and provide examples of certain life experiences that make the need for context even more imperative).


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