Transforming Trauma Episode 096: Social Baseline Theory and the Power of Connection with Dr. Jim Coan
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In this episode of Transforming Trauma, Emily is joined by Dr. Jim Coan, a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia. Dr. Coan is well known for his Social Baseline Theory which resulted from his research on the psychological and physical health benefits of strong friend and family networks. His theory states that the human brain depends on relationships to coordinate the body’s resources. Dr. Coan and Emily dive into how these body and brain functions support the healing of complex trauma.
When asked how he got into the work of Social Baseline Theory, Dr. Coan reflects on his time working in Dr. John Gottman’s marriage lab where his curiosity around conflict and relationships was piqued. He shares the story of a pivotal moment that came when working with a World War II veteran with delayed PTSD. The veteran struggled with telling his story until the day that his wife accompanied him to therapy. It was the act of the wife holding the veteran’s hand that helped the veteran finally push past a barrier that allowed him to tell his story. He recalls the moment of realization that this act was not about emotional regulation, but rather facilitation. Dr. Coan wanted to know what caused the veteran to open up more fully with his wife present than without her present. As Dr. Coan shares, “Don’t discount the power of being around others who you love and trust.”
Through his research, Dr. Coan has found that the brain assumes it should have access to other people who will help and support. The brain does not treat the body as if it is the only one coping when it knows there are others there to help. The brain’s job is to pay close attention to the demands and affordances in the environment, something that it’s constantly monitoring in order to budget the body’s resources.
Dr. Coan and Emily work through an example of lifting a table and see how the task connects with brain function, support factors, and the acts of connecting and disconnecting. Through the example, they highlight how important it is for humans to receive social support, including professional assistance from helping professionals. Dr. Coan’s research has found that people who are good at contributing to and drawing from their social networks have the sense of increased resiliency.
We are grateful to Dr. Coan for sharing his passion and research with us that brings a unique perspective of overcoming challenges such as those presented by complex trauma. We invite you to listen to the full episode to learn more about Dr. Coan’s work and his advocacy for strong human relationships.
Dr. Jim Coan is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia. Dr. Coan has worked with diverse groups, consulting for clinicians, businesses and researchers as part of his Social Baseline Theory. He is co-editor of the Handbook of Emotion Elicitation and Assessment and has authored more than eighty peer-reviewed articles. His work has been covered in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, the New Yorker, NPR, and several other major media outlets.
Dr. Coan is also a fellow of the Mind and Life Institute, and produces the podcast Circle of Willis.
Website – Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory
Book – Handbook of Emotion Elicitation and Assessment
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