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The (Dis)Connection Drive

April 1, 2014
Lost in a Crowd by Keoni Cabral via

Lost in a Crowd by Keoni Cabral via

Too many people were crowded into too little space, jostling one another. Kids were talking, squealing, parents yelling, couples laughing. I didn’t like it and I could feel my body reacting, becoming tense.  It was dark, crowded, and loud – three conditions I never like separately and can scarcely tolerate in combination. I let go of Colin and hung back as he joined the crowd around the octopus tank. My senses were open wide, as though I were trying to track everything going on all at once, but it was overwhelming. I tried to focus on some colorful sea anemones, but then felt vulnerably unaware of everything else, so I gave up. I tried to feel my breathing, but quickly became distracted when I  lost track of Colin in the dark crowd. Every nerve felt wired, every cell on high alert. We’d only been in the aquarium ten minutes.

I have too many memories like this. More than I can count. I don’t remember when they began. There was no singular formative experience. My entire family avoids crowds, so it may be inherited, either genetically or culturally (likely both). I’ve read some of the latest research on Highly Sensitive People (HSP) and introverts, and it sounds a lot like me. It tells me what is happening in my brain during those experiences, but it doesn’t make them stop.

Dr. Alane Daugherty said we have two main drives, the fear drive and the connection drive (or bonding drive). They can operate consecutively but not concurrently.  The fear drive is ruled by cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone. The connection drive is ruled by oxytocin, known as the love or trust hormone. Both are rooted in the limbic system, the older parts of our brain. The fear drive protects us and prevents harm. It kicks in quicker and stronger because it needs to. The connection drive restores us and creates a supportive social structure. It is slow, but steady, the was communities are built. Each drive only works when used at exactly the right time. When we try to connect with someone who is not trustworthy, we get hurt. When we unnecessarily avoid something out of fear, we hurt ourselves.

All my life I’ve reacted to crowds with the fear response. They are a threat. I am driven to dis-connection, to get away or make myself smaller and hide. What must it be like for people who feed off the excitement of others, like sports fans and concert goers, people who feel connected to the group or the team? Is it the same kind of energy coursing through their nerve endings, but with the opposite charge? Is that sense of belonging healing to them? I want to know and it makes me sad to think that I may never find out because my brain came out of the factory wired backwards.

I’m not afraid of people. I love people. I’m very social and I love connecting, which helps me in my work. I just prefer smaller groups, one-on-one settings, quiet gatherings, and orderly classes. In those settings, my fear drive can relax and my connection drive kicks in. In Susan Cain’s book on introverts, she points out that it is a mistake to call introverts ‘antisocial.’ We’re just ‘differently social,’ and, actually, that’s a good thing. The trait would not have survived so long if it were not useful. This makes me wonder. Maybe I have a strong fear drive in response to crowds, but maybe it also means I have a stronger connection drive in more intimate situations?

These are the things I try to remember when I’m standing in the corner with all my nerves on end. Not broken or backward, just different. I can’t play football either, but I can analyze a spreadsheet full of data better than anyone’s business. Just different. These are the things that get me out of the corner, that get me over the otter exhibit at feeding time despite the crowds pressed up against the glass. That, and a boyfriend who, after losing me once, refuses to let go of my hand and stands directly behind me as a buffer against my own fear response. Connection beating dis-connection.

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