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Trauma: How your body keeps the score

When you hear the word trauma, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it veterans or war? Is it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.

Trauma has an incredibly unique way of dysregulating your bodies central nervous system. Your Central Nervous System (CNS) is comprised of the brain, cerebellum, and spinal cord. The Nervous System has 3 broad functions: sensory input, information processing, and motor output. When you have been affected by trauma, your body’s natural protective reaction is to fight, flight or freeze, which in return is controlled by your Central Nervous System.

Three Nervous System Functions

Fight & Flight (aka hyper-arousal): Our bodies natural fight or flight response refers to a psychological reaction that occurs when we are in the presence of something terrifying. The bodies natural reaction to threat is activated through your bodies parasympathetic nervous system which releases hormones from your adrenal glands called catecholamines (aka adrenaline). This response will create a chain of reactions within your body which will increase your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate.

Did you know: After the initial threat is gone, it takes your body 20-60 minutes to return back to it pre-arousal state.

Fight or flight state may look like this: A woman who was previously abused by her spouse, years later is walking through a parking lot to the grocery store when she hears a man and woman walking out of the store having a disagreement. Due to the woman’s past trauma history, she may begin to have physiological symptoms of stress which trigger her body’s natural reaction to threat. She has trouble breathing, an urge to run away and increased heart rate. For the next hour, she has a difficult time controlling her emotions, rationalizing, and even becomes frustrated easily.

Freeze (aka our dorsal vagal state/hypo-arousal): Our bodies have a natural shut down state that has been tracked back to our primitive years. This natural shut down state is caused by such an intense threat that our bodies naturally shut down to preserve fuel and brain power to keep you alive. In this state, your body has surpassed the fight or flight stage and feels the only way to stay safe is to completely shut down. In some cases, animals are also affected by this stage called tonic immobility.

Did you know: Tonic Immobility describes a state of involuntary paralysis in which individuals cannot move or in many cases speak. This reaction is called evolutionary adaptive defense in animals who are being attacked by predators and no other forms of defense are possible.

Animals who utilize tonic immobility for safety include: Possums

Rest & Digest (aka our ventral vagal state/baseline): Just like the other 2 states, our bodies have a state where we feel safe and what I like to call our “baseline”. This baseline is where you feel the most at peace, no threat, just happiness or joy. This state allows us to connect with others and be compassionate or to have empathy.

The Window of Tolerance

When an individual has experienced trauma, they experience bodily sensations that throw them outside their window of tolerance. The window of tolerance was developed by Dan Siegl, a clinical professor of psychiatry, who said the window of tolerance describes the best state of 'arousal' or stimulation in which we are able to function and thrive in everyday life. When your body and mind are functioning within the window of tolerance, you may find yourself thinking rationally or making decisions without feeling overwhelmed.

As I describe to my clients, think of the window of tolerance as two parallel lines. Between these two parallel lines is when you feel the most at your so called “baseline” or homeostasis (aka rest & digest). You are functioning well, you are connecting with others, and you are feeling joy. When you are thrown outside of those parallel lines, your body is no longer functioning at a state that is calm or rational. If you go above the top line, your body is now functioning in a hyperarousal state (Aka fight or flight). If you go below the bottom line, your body is now functioning in a hypo-arousal state (Aka freeze).

When stress or trauma shrink your window of tolerance or your rest & digest state, it does not take much to throw you off balance. You may feel yourself experiencing fight, flight or freeze more often than your natural baseline. No one wants to feel on edge all of the time and live in a state where their stress levels are at an all time high but there are ways to retrain your central nervous system to remain in that window of tolerance.

Come back to learn more about how somatic experiencing can help your body get back to its natural baseline!


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