HOW TRAUMA EFFECTS OUR NERVOUS SYSTEM
In the previous article on the functioning and development of our nervous system , we explained why it is crucial to delve deeper into the impact of trauma on our ability to perceive danger accurately. Essentially, when trauma enters the picture, our internal “alarm system” for detecting threats can become compromised.
For people who have experienced traumatic events, developmental or complex trauma, the ability to scan the environment for danger may be somewhat skewed.
Detecting of danger in world is changed by trauma
Since our bodies are wise and try to protect us from ever experiencing something horrific or being treated as before, they may start scanning and evaluating many stimuli in our environment as dangerous (stimuli that others perceive as neutral).
Most of the time, these individuals alternate between two states – freezing (dorsal branch of the parasympathetic system) and activation of the sympathetic system.
Our system has stored previous stress response and constantly tries to protect us with these two reactions, forcing us to live in a “cage” in control of the dorsal vagus nerve. Our nervous system is dysregulated which is not healthy. It is alright to spent minutes in this state but many people live there for years or even decades.
LIVING IN THE HEAD, DISCONNECTING FROM BODY AND EMOTIONS
Most of us in today’s world spend a lot time “in our heads.” We rely on our intellectual abilities and rational control because we may have lacked a relational figure in childhood who was fully attuned to our emotional needs. We didn’t receive so called “emotional holding.”
There is no point in blaming our parents. Often, even their nervous systems were already locked in a dysregulated state, preventing them from providing sensitive responses to our emotional needs in childhood.
When our body experiences a hint of danger in interaction with others, it reacts.
Even mild changes in facial expression, tone and pitch of voice, gestures, or body posture can induce immobilization.
This happens because the parasympathetic nervous system has two branches, two so-called braking systems, and they are often confused.
SIGNS OF DISCONNECTING FROM ONESELF
Dissociation (disconnecting from the body and feelings), stoicism, and withdrawal into calmness are often confused. An individual may appear calm on the surface.
But in reality, it is a sign of engaging the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve, which tries to take control to prevent our body to get overwhelmed.
There is a difference in the two positions of the dorsal branch. The lower part allows us to induce calmness, digestion, lower heart rate, etc. We can get into this state after eating or during restorative sleep, allowing our cells and the immune system to regenerate.
Therefore, saying the parasympathetic system is responsible for calming, digestion, and regeneration is not entirely accurate as only its one part is in charge.
True calm comes from engaging the front/ventral part of the vagus nerve – from social connection. This follows the deactivation of the fight-or-flight stress response or after discharging higher states of activation.
THE INFLUENCE OF THE NERVOUS SYSTEM ON CHRONIC ILLNESSES
States present in chronic illnesses result from the nervous system becoming trapped in a state of dysregulation. This can manifest as fight-or-flight responses or the engagement of the dorsal vagus nerve (leading to parasympathetic freeze, immobilization, and withdrawal).
For instance, individuals with chronic fatigue frequently express a sense of emotional closure or disconnection.
In any other state, such as freeze (activation of the dorsal vagus nerve) or fight-or-flight, the chances for healing and recuperation are compromised.
“Renegotiation is not about simply reliving a traumatic experience. It is, rather, the gradual and titrated revisiting of various sensory-motor elements comprising a particular trauma.
Renegotiation occurs primarily by accessing procedural memories associated with the two dysregulated states of the autonomic nervous system (hyper/hypo-arousal) and then restoring and completing the associated active responses. As this progresses, the client moves towards equilibrium, relaxed alertness, and here-and-now orientation.”Levine (2015, p. 44)
HOW TO ACHIEVE A SENSE OF SAFETY AND IMPROVE HEALTH?
The initial requirement is the activation of the front/ventral segment of the vagus nerve. This is the most advanced component that facilitates our interactions with others.
This is why we tend to heal and prosper much better within communities than in isolation. These social bonds enable us to access support from others during stressful moments or when we are feeling unwell.
To facilitate further healing, it is also essential to involve the most ancient (dorsal) part of the vagus nerve, responsible for our withdrawal response. This may be challenging for persons with a history of early trauma, as their vagus nerve segment may not be adequately “tuned,” making it harder to reach a state of calmness.
Let’s take a closer look at potential complications that may arise in response to significant stress.
The dorsal part enables the rest, digestion, and also regeneration of our tissues; it also supports our immune system in eliminating any obstructions or unnecessary elements from our blood and cells.
Additionally, it contributes to the construction of a protective barrier within our intestines, assuring their regeneration and overall health.
However, individuals who have encountered substantial stress in life, leading to the prolonged immobilization of their nervous systems in the dorsal freeze mode, often experience compromised digestion. They frequently suffer from a condition known as heightened gut permeability or “leaky gut.”
We also want a modest level of engagement of the sympathetic division of the NS, ensuring that we remain alert and attentive, thanks to adequate oxygen supply to our muscles. Otherwise, we could become lethargic.
In summary, to achieve optimal healing and overall health, all three of these branches require moderate engagement and effective synchronization and cooperation.
TRAUMA AS NERVOUS SYSTEM DYSREGULATION
Trauma isn’t solely about what happened to us; it is about our nervous system getting “stuck” somewhere as a result.
Hence, trauma encompasses not just the events and our responses to them but also how our system is configured, based on whether our basic needs were met during childhood.
To achieve healing and optimal health, it is essential to engage the ventral (frontal) branch of the vagus nerve, which enables our connection, both with the environment and with ourselves.
The aim is to acquire self-regulation skills, enabling the parasympathetic segment of the vagus nerve to exit the heightened alert state.
THE ROLE OF UNDERSTANDING AND COMPASSION IN HEALING
It’s equally essential to recognize that all these states serve a purpose.
Often, we use protective mechanisms to shield ourselves from overwhelming emotions and feelings, leading us to a withdrawal into our minds.
Trauma becomes entrenched in our physiology, affecting all our organs, including the brain. This determines how we establish physiological relationships with both ourselves and our environment.
Gradually, we can examine and understand our patterns and parts of ourselves by engaging in a dialogue with them.
Many protective or adaptive facets of ourselves may not even realize that we’ve grown into adults. This is often the focus of therapy: discovering which aspects of our identities, self-perceptions, and worldviews are shaped by these parts.
We have the power to alter our physiology and our settings by addressing the areas within our bodies where trauma is stored, and by actively engaging with our minds, which often influence our lives through unconscious beliefs.
We can “liberate” unconscious aspects that have been controlling us from the shadows for many years. Given that the manifestation of the unconscious is our health and body, the process of resetting and understanding our system has a genuinely life-changing impact.
If you feel drawn to embark on this deeper self-inquiry, I invite you to experience the power of Compassionate Inquiry (CI), an approach developed by Gabor Maté and Sat Dharam Kaur. I am certified practitioner of CI and would be honored to create a safe space for all your inner parts to be acknowledged, guiding you in exploring what might be hindering your ability to achieve your desires.
Additionally, if you’re interested in working with dysregulation in your nervous system, you can download my Self love & Inner child workshop.
In these 5 videos, you can experience the power of Kundalini yoga and imagination.
Wishing you the best of luck on your healing journey.