Understanding Trauma and h0w to heal your nervous system
When you think about ‘trauma,’ what do you imagine?
Many people think trauma is a single and specific traumatic event – for example, being in a car accident or being physically or sexually assaulted. This is one type of experience that can create trauma, and there are many others that can be much more subtle and can happen over time.
We have all experienced one kind of trauma or another – simply being in a physical body exposes us to experiences that can result in trauma.
How is trauma defined?
Trauma expert Peter Levine says, “Trauma occurs when an event creates an unresolved impact on an organism.” Said another way, it’s an inescapable experience that overwhelms our ability to cope. Trauma happens when we don’t have a choice. And these experiences can have lasting impacts on our physical and emotional health and well-being.
There are different types of trauma.
A few examples of trauma include shock trauma, which is a big single event (this is how most of us define trauma). There is also developmental trauma, which happens through ongoing traumatic experiences in our early childhood development; secondary trauma, which results in close association with someone who is actively traumatized; or micro-traumas, which can be subtle and hurtful patterns of engaging with another that diminish our self-worth and well-being.
Trauma responses and the nervous system.
Levine states, “Trauma is in the nervous system, not the event.” Our nervous system is constantly monitoring our environment to determine if we are safe or not safe. Dr. Stephen Porges, neuroscientist and author of the Polyvagal Theory, calls this neuroception.
When we perceive a threat, which is anything that makes us feel unsafe (such as a loud noise, receiving unwanted touch, or not getting attention when we want it), our body reacts and tries to get us back to a place of safety. If we can’t get back to a sense of safety, which looks different for all of us, we protect and defend.
We might FAWN – trying to please and appease the offender to avoid being harmed (think Stockholm Syndrome);
We might FIGHT – getting angry and aggressive as a form of self-protection;
We might FLEE – getting out of the situation as fast as possible;
We might FREEZE –getting stuck between mobilizing and immobilizing; or
We might FLOP – moving into shutdown and dissociation.
When our fear response is triggered, we instinctively move down one of these paths. This is what our nervous system is designed for. We don’t consciously choose any of these responses. It happens before we can think about it. In fact, the cognitive functioning in our brain shuts down. We move into the limbic or reptilian brain.
This involuntary response is based on many factors, from how our caretakers responded to our needs as infants, to birth order and genetic predisposition. Understanding this alone can bring a sense of relief and self-compassion.
If you think you should be reacting differently when your fear response is triggered, or you should be able to control your response in any situation, think again. This is how your body is wired. And it is meant to keep us safe.
The response itself is less important than our ability to resolve the response once it has been set in motion. The good news is that you can learn to recognize your trauma response and rewire your brain to respond with more flexibility. It all comes back to creating a sense of safety, which looks different for every individual, and from there having access to choice.
But first, it’s helpful to understand a bit more about the nervous system and how it works.
There is more to the nervous system than meets the eye. Stephen Porges is revolutionizing our understanding of the nervous system and how it functions, which he describes as a three-tiered structure with different neurological states. The top tier is our Social Engagement System. This is where we connect and create a sense of safety – through eye contact, breath, and the soothing sound of another person’s voice.
The second tier of the nervous system is our sympathetic response, where we go into mobilization. This is the limbic brain. When we don’t feel safe, this is where we access our fight or flight response. And when we feel safe, this is where we can experience the freedom of movement doing things we enjoy – walking, running, dancing, or playing.
The third tier of the nervous system is our parasympathetic response, where we go into immobilization. It’s the oldest part of the nervous system and connected to the reptilian brain. When we feel threatened, this is where the body goes into a shutdown response and disassociates. This is so we don’t feel pain if we are eaten by a lion.
But when we feel safe, this can be a very pleasurable and nurturing place to be – imagine shivasana at the end of a yoga practice, or merging with a lover into a state of oneness, or feelings of bliss and ecstasy after a deep breathing practice. This is where we rest and rejuvenate, and it is also where we go when we sleep.
Healing and becoming whole.
Besel van der Kolk, MD, who has spent his life and career studying trauma, states, “To feel and know your body safely is an essential ingredient of healing.”
Most of us, if not all – at one time or another – have experienced our bodies as an unsafe place to be. So how do we come to know our body safely? The secret lies in becoming a witness to our experience. Not in the sense of leaving our body and dissociating, but in being with our body and noticing what is happening moment to moment. This includes noticing the sensations that arise, noticing the emotions associated with those sensations, and noticing the thoughts that emerge.
Noticing our experience is a lifetime practice.
When we understand the map of our nervous system, and we can slow down and notice our neurological state in any given moment, then we can start to make choices that move us toward safety when faced with danger (either real or perceived).
For example, if I am driving down the street and a cat runs across the road in front of me, my impulse will be to slam on the brakes. Then I might get mad and yell and scream at the cat for doing something so stupid (fight response). I might feel a flood of sensation through my body – heat in my face, tingling in my legs.
The key is to witness the sensations and emotions and let the body complete its process. By allowing the response and not trying to minimize, change or control it, we can resolve the response and let it pass. We might assist the process by bringing our attention to and slowing down the breath. This process is called self-regulation or emotional regulation. It’s learning to be calm, aware and present, even in stressful situations.
It sounds simple, yet can be very challenging when we are in a fear response and flooded with emotion. Another aspect that makes it difficult to slow down and notice is that we are not taught to feel our emotions, nor is it modeled very well in our society. What is modeled is to move faster, do more, numb, distract, and look for quick fixes.
Another way to emotionally regulate is through others. This is in fact our first experience of down-regulating, or calming, our nervous system. As infants, we depended on our caregivers for safety and soothing – did they pick us up when we cried, did they smile at us, did they speak softly to us? These exchanges influenced the development of our parasympathetic nervous system and ability to regulate.
This ability to co-regulate continues throughout our life. Our nervous system can calm down simply by being in proximity to another person with a down-regulated nervous system, by sharing touch, hearing their soothing voice and seeing warm facial expressions.
What throws you off and how do you come back to ease?
Start to notice and pay attention to what throws you off balance in your day-to-day life. Is it feeling like you don’t have enough time in the day to take care of everything? Is it the way your partner speaks to you? Is it feeling quick to anger or sadness? Is it feeling stronger emotions than what the situation calls for?
As you become more aware of your triggers – those events that create intense physical or emotional reactions – also pay attention to what brings you back to a place of ease.
Does it help to slow down and take a few deep breaths? Maybe for you it helps to talk through your day with a friend and have them listen. Do you feel better when you move your body? Maybe for you it helps to release pent up anger. You might try placing your hands over your mouth and scream into your hands for a few minutes.
If you slow down and pay attention, you might be surprised to see the number of tools you already have at hand to support your nervous system. Or you might notice that you get stuck in a particular trauma response and can’t seem to move through it. The noticing itself is the first step to changing this pattern.
Take inventory of the tools you could use to help you release tension and make a list. You can add to the list any time.
Sometimes we wrestle when we get stuck in a conversation and end up laughing. Sometimes I need a good cry with a friend, or a cup of tea and put my feet in the grass. Meditation is a great way to calm the mind. Find what works for you.
There are many recommended interventions to support trauma healing through somatic practices. A few include:
Breathwork, which is a supported therapeutic breathing practice to support emotional release;
Somatic Experiencing, developed by Peter Levine, which focuses on releasing tension on trauma by focusing on perceived body sensations; and
TRE –Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercise, developed by David Bercelli, which is a series of exercises that assist the body in releasing deep muscular patterns of stress, tension and trauma.
Coming back to choice.
Living a healthy, joyful life and being able to adapt and respond to stress is an ongoing learning process. As I said earlier, trauma happens when we are not at choice. Therefore, learning that we have a choice and exercising that choice is an important part of rewiring our brain.
This includes learning where our boundaries are, and saying ‘yes’ when we mean ‘yes’ and ‘no’ when we mean ‘no’.
How aware are you of your needs when you experience stress? How comfortable are you asking for help? How often do you put the needs of others ahead of your own? Is it easier to give to others than to ask for what you want?
One of the most powerful tools I have come across to establish clear boundaries and create conscious agreements for relating is the Wheel of Consent® developed by Dr. Betty Martin. The Wheel of Consent® is a framework that takes apart ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’ and distinguishes between who is ‘doing’ and who it is for.
With this distinction, two dynamics and four distinct aspects of relating become possible:
The first dynamic is when the GIVER takes action:
This is when the giving person SERVES the receiving person and does what the receiver wants, while staying responsible for their (the giver’s) limits; and the receiving person ACCEPTS the gift of service, while respecting the giver’s limits.
The second dynamic is when the RECEIVER takes action:
This is when the receiving person TAKES for their own enjoyment, where they do what they want, while respecting the limits of the person giving; and the giving person ALLOWS the receiver to take from them, giving the gift of access, while staying responsible for their limits.
Unless you take apart and experience each of these four aspects independently, it is hard to know what they really are.
When we can ask for what we want and respect the person giving to us, whether it is a yes or a no, we resolve behaviors such as stealing and assault, as well as more subtle behaviors such as expecting others to know what we need and feeling entitled.
And when we become aware of where we give without a request, we can clean up pleasing behaviors, martyrdom and burnout from giving more than we have. We stop going along with things we don’t like and speak up when our boundaries are crossed. This is essential for clearing old trauma and creating new patterns for healthy, conscious relating.
Robyn Dalzen is a transformational coach and facilitator. She is co-founder of the School of Consent with Dr. Betty Martin, creator of the Wheel of Consent. She works with individuals, couples and groups on topics related to touch, intimacy, conscious sexuality and relating. Her work integrates head, heart and body. Robyn’s desire is for individuals to feel empowered in all areas of life and love – to be able to identify, value and ask for what they want from the bedroom to the boardroom. Robyn holds degrees in Anthropology, Communications and Sustainable International Development. She is a certified Transformational Leadership Coach, Wheel of Consent Facilitator, and TRE provider.