Understanding the nervous system in order to heal and regulate.
When I started in this healing journey, I did a lot of research and I came across trauma informed theories and they really offered me a new understanding and perspective. They allowed me to see my own situation through new lenses, from a different place of love, compassion and understanding.
What is trauma?
Deb Dana defines trauma in her book Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection as "what happens to a person where there is either too much too soon, too much for too long or not enough for too long". These traumatic events end up shaping the nervous system for protection, as if we are in a constant state of threat.
Keep in mind that when I talk about trauma I’m not just referring to the big T but also small t form of trauma. I believe what really matters is not just the event itself but how the person responded to this event.
How can trauma impact us?
Trauma can shape the nervous system in a way that is not looking for connection (which is natural and intrinsic in human beings) but for protection. It creates a gap, a disconnection between the mind, the body and he behavioural response. The body is constantly looking for signs of danger and it might perceive any situation as a threat. Which means it makes it difficult to find peace and relaxation. I mean, how could we relax if we feel like we are in danger?
The problem is the trauma is stored in the body. When we experience a traumatic event, autonomic pathways are created and when we experience something similar, something that triggers us, something that we identify or relate with a previous situation, we respond in the same way. Pathways that were created in the original situation are triggered again in the present. In a way the body lives in the past.
These kind of responses are normally unpredictable. intense and prolonged. Besides, they can certainly cause health problems like immune problems, digestive problems, respiratory problems, heart disease, diabetes, etc.
Furthermore, there are also emotional and psychological consequences to trauma. We might believe that we are not enough, that we need to be someone else, or have something else, to be loved by someone, we might struggle with self-trust, we might engage in unhelpful relationship dynamics, we might harshly judge ourselves or compare ourselves to others, we might feel anxious or nervous all the time, we might suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, etc.
Before you keep reading, you might be thinking that this doesn’t apply to you. Maybe you are thinking that had a normal childhood and a normal life. But as I mentioned before, a big event doesn’t necessary have to take place. Childhood wounding can definitely have a huge impact. Here you have some examples of what trauma might have looked like for you:
a parent (or caregiver) not being emotional available for you,
a parent (or caregiver) being mentally or physical ill,
a home without boundaries,
having to be the emotional support for a caregiver,
arguments between your family,
a parent (or caregiver) denying your reality,
not being seen or heard,
having parents (caregivers) that are overly focused on appearance,
parents (or caregivers) that told you that you shouldn’t feel certain emotions.
This list is not exclusive.
I want to offer you some hope with this post. I know that some of us believe that we are broken, that there’s something wrong with us. We don’t understand our symptoms, we can’t explain or understand why we respond or feel in a certain way. However, the reality is that we are far from broken, we are just stuck in the nervous system. Our experiences have shaped us, we are just acting the ways that we've learnt in order to survive. I need you to read this: there’s nothing wrong with you. I was told for so many years that I was too sensitive, too dramatic, that I was living in a movie. Because of that I had a rooted believe that I was broken and crazy. When I understood more about trauma and the impact that is has, I started seeing myself with compassion . It brought an inner sense of peace.
One of the reasons I’m telling you that is because of the trauma informed approaches that I found my way.
The reasons why I love trauma-informed approaches:
They consider the impact of trauma on each individual and how those traumatic experiences shape the nervous system. They are not solely focused on the behaviour. Instead they look at the origin of this behaviour and how certain experiences might determine our way to cope with life. They look at behavioural pattern as a form of defensive accommodation.
They take into account the mind-body connection as they are aware of the impact of trauma on physical and emotional level.
They work on creating physical and emotional safe. As well as they focus on creating a safe environment where healing can occur.
They focus on helping the client reshape the nervous system and developing new skills for better resilience.
As you can see, this kind of perspective can be really welcoming. Trauma informed approaches do not shame the individual or neither consider their behaviour the main focus. These approaches understand how we develop, understand how our nervous system are shaped for survival. I personally love the compassion and kindness that this already implies. Knowing that I am seen and understood helps me feel safe and at peace.
What is the Polyvagal Theory?
The Polyvagal theory is one approach that addresses the impact of trauma in a really interesting way. This theory was first published by Dr. Stephen Porges in 1994.
It offers us information about how we find safety, how we find connection with others, how we shut down, how we go into fight or flight and how we survive.
What makes it really interesting is that this theory breaks with the normal classification of the nervous system: fight or flight and rest and digest. Porges states that we have one sympathetic system and 2 parasympathetic nervous systems.
Mobilisation or fight or flight: It allows other body to fight or to run away from the aggression. When we are in this system we are feeling scared, we feel we need to escape or to run away from that situation, we might feel anxiety, our heart beating quick, maybe we can’t sleep, we don’t remember things, we feel tension in the whole body. But also this is the system that we use to be active and exercise, follow a workout, or clean the house, basically to keep moving.
Immobilisation or shut down (dorsal vagal): responsible for the shut down or collapse responses. When we are in this system we might feel lonely, like we are small and fragile, hopeless, we might feel like there’s nothing we can do, we might feel abandoned, or foggy, we might think the world doesn’t love us, we might feel depressed, isolated, silent, exhausted, disassociated or numb, we might feel like we have no energy left in our body.
Safety and connection (ventral vagal): This is the social and connection system. It’s the system that activates when we are feeling safe and that it allows us to socially connect and engage with others. When this system is activated we feel safe, we feel joy and free, we are calmed and relaxed, we feel social, we laugh, we feel connected, we feel like we belong.
The reason why I am explaining each one of these states is because the first step for healing is to become aware. When we start observing our responses, when we start connecting with our body’s messages, we can have more knowledge. Knowledge gives us power. Once we are aware of the the ways our nervous system has been shaped or the situations that move us along all the different system, we can take action in order to reshape our nervous system.
This is what I love from the Polyvagal Theory. It gives us hope because it states that the nervous system can be reshaped. It gives us the power to heal.
Besides, being aware of those situations where we are disregulated will help us find a plan of action that will allow us to go back to regulation. This is the essence of resilience.
Neuroception is a concept that Porges created and it means unconsciously detecting cues of safety or danger from the internal or the external world. You can think of it like a radar that is constantly scanning outside and inside yourself for signs of threat or safety. So your brain uses your senses to collect all this information without you being aware of it.
This concept it extremely important because bringing awareness to neuroception we can start reshaping the nervous system. When we do that, we are able to see from another perspective how our bodies and minds are responding to different situation. We are looking at the situation from a different place of discernment. We doing through grounding and bringing attention to the present moment, to our physical bodies. Once we have observed without judgement we can incorporate some questions like “Have I been triggered by a situation that has similarity to a past experience? How did my body react?, what did I start thinking? What did I start feeling? While in the past this response was needed, is is serving me now?”.
Being able to observe, to add another layer of consciousness and ask powerful questions can bring us a lot of power back. When we start observing and identifying the situation that either disregulate or make us feel safe, we can take inspired action in order to promote activities, people and situations that help us reach that safety and connection.
The Polyvagal ladder:
The Polyvagal Theory offers a term called the polyvagal ladder in order to be able to visualise the different states of our nervous system. The term that we use in this approach is called polyvagal ladder. Here you have an example:
Top of the ladder: state of social engagement and safety, feeling good, joyfull and calm. Maybe you are having dinner with friends and you are enjoying, feeling supported and seen by them.
Middle ladder: fight or flight response. Maybe you are fighting with your partner, you feel anxious and nervous, you are angry at them, you can feel how your heart is beating faster, you are feeling really activated.
Bottom of the ladder: shut down system. Imagine that after that fight you have lost your energy, you feel depressed. You lie down and make yourself a little ball. You feel lonely, numb, unseen and hopeless.
This is an example of how we navigate through that ladder.We can bring awareness throughout our day to notice what moments and situations make us move through the ladder, what makes us stay in a certain state and what help us move to another state. The end goal is to be as much as possible into that social, safe state.
My invitation for you today is to draw a ladder on a piece of paper as the one you have in the image. Keep it close to you and start writing down next to it what situations help you move to the top into that safe and social state. For example: if I’m in fight or flight, I like to go for a run or call a friend. By engaging in those activities or with certain people we can start reshaping the nervous system with compassion and understanding.
If you try this exercise, I would love to know. Reach out to me. I want to hear your story.
The most important take always of this post are:
Trauma has a big impact on how we feel, think and behave in the present. It can affect our mental and physical health. Remember that trauma doesn’t necessary need to be a big event. Situations that you see as “normal” might have wounded your beautiful inner self.
You are not broken. Your behaviours are just adaptive defence mechanisms that you had to adopt to survive in the past. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you.
Start noticing, observing without judgement and seeing how your body and mind respond to each situation. Identify your own ladder and check what you can do to move you to safety.
Thank you for reading,
[DISCLAIMER: I’m not a doctor and this is not a substitute for medical treatment. Also, this is just my opinion and my own experience and I truly invite you to find what feels good for you. You don’t have to agree with everything that I say. Please connect with the space in your womb and find your own truth. I truly love and honour whatever your opinion is on the subject because is yours]