As a trauma therapist, I work with people who have been seriously traumatized in life.  Broken in ways that are unthinkable to most of us. In this work I have come to know two things for sure:  

  1. We are broken by others who are broken.
  2.  We require connection to heal from that brokenness.    

In fact, when we look at the functioning of the human brain we see that it functions best when there is connection, support, compassion.  The good chemicals in the brain like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin are all at their peak and the stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol lower when we are connected.  The brain begins to hum along like a finely tuned sports car and we feel better.  It becomes easier to work out the simple stresses of life and enjoy the moments that are full.

Attunement is the ability of a child (or adult) to sync their nervous systems with another person’s nervous system.  It is what children learn when they cry out of their discomfort and mother picks them up and they feel soothed.  Their heartbeat feels the calmness of the caregiver’s heartbeat and the two nervous systems begin to sync.  Baby is able to regulate.  

In cases of abuse and neglect, this never occurs.  The baby is left feeling out of attunement and unsafe and the brain resorts to functioning from the fight, flight or freeze state.  Much of the damage done by abuse, especially abuse and neglect that occurs early in life, is damage to the functioning of the brain and the ability of a person to trust. 

When attunement is damaged so is the ability to attach.  Attachment is secure bonding and the lack of early attunement leads to adults who do not trust attachment.  They begin to pull close to the other and then do something to damage the relationship, or simply run away at full speed (ghosting is the modern form of this).

This is why and how friendship can be so reparative in our world.  It teaches our brain in a very real way that connection can be trusted and attunement can be found.  

Friendship can actually change our brain chemistry for the better when it is real and connected.

Due to the work of people like Dr. Bruce Perry and the Child Trauma Academy, we are starting to see the very real importance of connection in repairing this damage.  His work and the work of others in the field are beginning to provide the research showing that early connections to even non-related adults can make a world of difference in the child’s developing brain.  

But there are some fundamental rules that should apply to “real” friendship.  Here are a few;

  1. Friendship that is deeply connected will not provide solutions for all of life’s problems.  It will provide a holding space for those problems where we find support, compassion, empathy in the process of finding our own way.
  2. Worthy friendship should always allow boundaries.
  3. Good friends will not be wounded by or reactive to our emotions, but provide space for them.
  4. The best friends are attuned to us enough to know when sitting in silence with us is the best support.

Good friends, the best of them, the ones we travel with, share our darkness and fears with, often know when saying nothing is best.  In that space, we often simply need a presence that we can trust.  In scientific terms, we need an autonomic nervous system we can attune to….a calming presence.  

Relationship and attunement are the best gifts that we can give our brains.  But we need to choose wisely, we need to be and become that healthy connection for it to work.  Rumi put it best:

Be with those who help your being.
Don’t sit with indifferent people, whose breath
comes cold out of their mouths.
Not these visible forms, your work is deeper.
A chunk of dirt thrown in the air breaks to pieces.
If you don’t try to fly,
and so break yourself apart,
you will be broken open by death,
when it’s too late for all you could become.
Leaves get yellow. The tree puts out fresh roots
and makes them green.
Why are you so content with a love that turns you yellow?

Choose connection, choose attunement, choose friendship and choose wisely.  It makes all the difference.


  • Robert Cox, LPC

    The caterpillar is often unaware of the butterfly within.

    Robert is a therapist in the Kansas City area specializing in trauma, addictions, and autism. His research over the past decade has led him to begin treating the emotional dysregulation underlying these disorders with mindfulness practices. His passion is treating severe trauma and the resulting dissociative and personality disorders by using mindfulness to create a stable and emotionally regulated self, from which the true person springs.