Trauma, Surrender and the Survival Instinct

Trauma, Surrender and the Survival Instinct.

Surrender is a concept widely used within the spiritual community, within 12 step programs, and many other groups. It is an ancient concept. Surrender means to give up our personal will, to allow the moment to be exactly as it is without resistance.

The issue that occurs with trauma and surrender is one that goes right down to our very survival instinct. Asking someone who has a traumatised nervous system to allow, to surrender, or to fully accept is like asking someone to allow a tiger to eat them. It cannot be done.

If you have ever attempted to hold your breath to the point of passing out you will know that you cannot do it, the survival instinct will not let you. The survival instinct is stronger than the personal will of than the one that wants to hold his breath.

Someone who has a traumatised nervous system and who is attempting to surrender is like someone who is trying to hold their breath to pass out. Their nervous system is so adapted to feeling unsafe, so adapted to needing to protect itself, so adapted to being in survival mode that resting as awareness and truly surrendering feels far, far to vulnerable. The survival instinct will hijack this every single time and the attempt to do it will probably cause more distress and more activation.

If this is the case, partial surrenders are absolutely necessary. The nervous system has to readapt, it has to learn that it is safe to let go. And we can do this gradually by seeing all the thoughts we are still believing that are telling us we are unsafe.

This cannot be forced, and if an unripe nervous system is attempting to surrender to soon we run the risk of retraumatisation. If we come down into sensation to soon without seeing through the beliefs that tell us we are unsafe we again run the risk of retraumatisation.

Healing trauma is a lifestyle and it takes time to readapt our nervous system. These partial surrenders, the gradual seeing through all the beliefs systems and the gradual processing of the sensations will eventually bring about deeper and deeper surrenders naturally, our system gradually feels more and more safe to rest and fall into the void of God, into total trust, into being held completely by the moment. This is a natural result of healing trauma. But it takes time, sometimes a long time.

We over time build resource and ground ourselves in safety. We retrain our system and our survival instinct into seeing clearly that it is safe to surrender, that we are safe, that the threat is over.

I see lots of misunderstanding out there and lots of damage being caused by misunderstanding trauma. Trauma is an adaptation of the nervous system. And the nervous system has to readapt, slowly, gently and safely.

Our whole system needs to know that there is no lion trying to eat us before it will let go.


Matt Nettleton

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