How trauma gets trapped in the body
Trauma is generally considered a psychological event, but it is just as much a physical event. Those with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) experience physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, trembling, a pounding heart, dizziness, or numbness.
Trauma can become trapped in the body when a perceived danger puts our Autonomic Nervous System into fight, flight, or freeze. This sudden shift of the nervous system into Survival Mode is a powerful neurological experience.
As a result, we develop the neuroplasticity — the brain pathways — for being in Survival Mode. PTSD results in our brain habitually taking those pathways and repeating the feelings of the initial trauma.
In other words, PTSD occurs when the nervous system shifts into Survival Mode and then gets stuck there, even in safe surroundings.
To heal trauma, we must re-train the nervous system to be in a state of healing and regeneration, rather than Survival Mode.
Functions of the autonomic nervous system
To understand trauma, one must grasp the basics of the Autonomic Nervous System.
This is the part of our nervous system that regulates heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, respiration, immune, stress responses, and inflammation.
Remember it this way: Autonomic = Automatic Functions.
The traditional teaching of the ANS presented a reciprocal, see-saw action between the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic branches. See how the Sympathetic deals with speeding up the heart, while Parasympathetic slows it? That’s an example of see-saw action.
We know now there are 3 branches of the ANS, and this understanding allows a new approach to releasing trauma from the body.
The Polyvagal Theory and trauma
The Polyvagal Theory explains why trauma is trapped in the body and how we can release it. This widely-accepted theory is now changing the way therapists treat and understand trauma, anxiety, and depression.
A bit of biology is required to understand this, but please bear with me. If you are a therapist, counselor, or individual struggling with PTSD, this is critical information for you.
The Polyvagal Theory, created by Dr. Stephen Porges, presents three branches to our autonomic nervous system:
- Parasympathetic/ Old Vagal Circuit
- Social Parasympathetic/ New Vagal Circuit
The Old Vagal Circuit is so-called because we inherited it from our reptilian ancestors. It engages “gut-down” functions like digestion and elimination. It also triggers the Freeze Response to danger, a defense mechanism we inherited from our reptilian roots.
Can you remember a time when fear put you into such shock that you felt numb and immobilized? That was a Freeze Response, thanks to over-activation of the Old Vagal Circuit.
Therapists often see clients who feel shame because they did not take action in a dangerous situation. For example, rape victims often feel guilty for not fighting or fleeing from their aggressor.
But the victim was experiencing the evolutionary, biological Freeze Response. The nervous system, not the conscious mind, was making the decisions.
The New Vagal Circuit evolved more recently in mammals. It engages “heart-up” functions that deal with interactions with others: quality of voice, expressivity of facial muscles, and breath rate. When activated, this Vagal Circuit puts us in a social, healing mode rather than Survival Mode.
|Branch of the Autonomic Nervous System||Role in Trauma|
|Sympathetic||In an emergency, it puts us into Fight or Flight Response.|
|Parasympathetic / Old Vagal Circuit||In an emergency, it puts us into a Freeze Response. In non-emergencies, it turns on healing processes.|
|Social-Parasympathetic / New Vagal Circuit||When activated, it prevents us from having chronic Fight/Flight/Freeze responses and turns on social/healing processes.|
Vagal tone and trauma recovery
At the beginning, I said trauma can become stuck in the body, when the nervous system remains in the defense mechanism of fight, flight, or paralysis. So how do we heal trauma? How do we help the nervous system shift into balance after a fight, flight or freeze response?
We strengthen vagal tone.
Vagal tone is the degree of activity happening in the parasympathetic nervous system. It supports the regenerative, healing state of our nervous system. Strong vagal tone means we can shift into Healing Mode rather than being stuck in Survival Mode.
Although vagal tone activates both Parasympathetic states of the nervous system, it is critical in recovering from a Freeze Response. Strengthening vagal tone helps us be present to the moment, to our bodies and to others. This sense of embodiment and safety can prevent future Freeze Responses.
How to support vagal tone for releasing trauma
Here are three ways to build stronger vagal tone:
Meo Energetics Vagal Tone™ — John developed our best-selling blend Vagal Tone, available here, because he realized that most of his clients struggled to shift from Sympathetic into Parasympathetic. He originally created it to support his clients with digestion, detoxification, and anti-inflammation. As we delved into researching the vagal nerve, however, we learned that vagal tone plays an important role in accessing intuition and healing trauma.
Receiving tenderness — A tender touch or a hug communicates primal safety directly into our nervous system. This stimulates the New Vagal Circuit. In the same way, calm tones of voice or seeing a genuine smile literally tells our nervous system to chill out. Animal therapy is powerful for this reason, as tenderness shared with any mammal delivers messages of safety directly to the nervous system.
Accessing play — If you watch puppies or kittens wrestle, you are watching these mammals engage their New Vagal Circuit. Playfulness fosters connection and growth, and is just as important for human animals. Dancing, singing, playing music, cuddling, and being with an animal can all shift us into using our New Vagal Circuit.
More Information on Vagal Tone and Trauma Healing
I highly recommend that clinicians, particularly therapists, learn more about the Polyvagal Theory as it applies to trauma healing. Here are two resources: