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Retraining Our Nervous System: The Caribbean-American Daughter's Journey to Healing


by Ann Dillard, LMFT


The complex dance between biology and upbringing has far-reaching effects on our psyche. For Caribbean-American daughters, this intricate interplay is magnified by the unique cultural and familial dynamics we navigate daily. Our brains, wired to detect threats, often act as vigilant guardians, especially when our childhood lacked predictability and consistency.


Growing up in environments where stability was a luxury, not a given, the pendulum of our nervous system perpetually swung towards hyper-vigilance. We were always on the alert, ready to defend, and braced for the next unpredictable shift. Consequently, this heightened alertness often translates into our relationships, especially with our Caribbean mothers.


For many, the very presence of our mothers, irrespective of the current dynamics, might trigger feelings of unsafety. It's not necessarily because our mothers pose an immediate threat or inflict pain. It's the residual effect of past traumas, reverberating through time. Our body remembers, even if our conscious mind has moved on.


Understanding this phenomenon is essential. While our mothers may have recognized their past actions' impacts, offered apologies, or taken steps toward reconciliation, our internal defense systems might still be up, shields at the ready. The lingering sensations, memories, and triggers from past incidents keep us armored, even in moments of peace.


So, we must introspect: “Am I punishing my Caribbean mother for actions and beliefs deeply rooted in culture?”


If you find that the answer is 'YES,' it calls for a profound reflection. While it doesn't mean disregarding the past or neglecting self-protection, it's crucial to discern between genuine current offenses and reactions stemming from old wounds.


Retraining our nervous system is not a journey we undertake overnight. It requires patience, persistence, and often professional guidance. It's about learning to differentiate between past traumas and present realities and then actively choosing how to respond.


The first step is awareness. Recognizing and acknowledging the internal triggers when they arise is half the battle. Once we're conscious of these reactions, we can actively work on deconstructing them. Ask yourself: Is my response proportionate to the current situation, or is it amplified by past traumas? This differentiation can prevent us from inadvertently superimposing old narratives on new situations.


Next, we must cultivate safe spaces for ourselves. These can be physical, emotional, or mental sanctuaries where we feel protected and can process our feelings without judgment or interruption. Whether “through therapy, meditation, journaling, or even simple self-reflection, these spaces provide us with the environment to heal, grow, and evolve.


Another critical component is communication. Open dialogue with our mothers, where we express our feelings, fears, and triggers, can be transformative. It educates them about our experiences and fosters mutual understanding and respect. Remember, many of our Caribbean mothers have their traumas shaped by societal norms, cultural expectations, and their personal journeys. Sharing, listening, and understanding can bridge generational and cultural gaps, paving the way for a healthier relationship.


Lastly, continual self-assessment is crucial. As we evolve, so do our triggers, responses, and needs. Regularly checking in with ourselves ensures that we remain attuned to our emotions and can adjust our healing strategies accordingly.


In conclusion, the journey to retrain our nervous system and heal from past traumas is a deeply personal one. It demands patience, understanding, and a lot of self-love. While our past might have shaped us, it doesn't have to define our present or future. By actively working on understanding our triggers and responses, communicating our needs, and seeking support, we can forge a path toward a balanced, healthy relationship with our Caribbean mothers. Embracing this healing journey benefits our relationship with our mothers and enriches our overall well-being, allowing us to navigate life with a renewed sense of purpose and peace.

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