Nervous System: Before and After
TW: trauma, childhood trauma. If this topic presents a challenge for you, perhaps this piece isn’t for you.
While writing the third part of this series, it occurred to me it would be helpful to offer a foundation of understanding around trauma and how it affects the nervous system/body, the various signs of a dysregulated nervous system and some of the practices used to regulate it.
This is not the first time I got excited about something and later realized I’d gotten ahead of myself, so I appreciate your understanding. Let’s back this bus up…
What is trauma?
The definition of trauma that I connect with most is from Dr. Gabor Mate, a Canadian physician who spent years working with people suffering from addiction. What he learned through doing this is that “Trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside you, as a result of what happens to you.”
The results of an experience that makes you feel overwhelmed and unsafe vary depending on a multitude of factors. If something happens and afterwards you have the support to deal with it, the impact won’t be anywhere near as great as when you feel you’re on your own. Whether you have a single experience (rape) versus multiple experiences spread out over years (domestic violence) is another factor.
Another aspect that isn’t discussed much is whether the trauma is in the macrocosm, your microcosm or both. Something you endured as a child exists in your microcosm. Systemic oppression, which includes racism, discrimination, and collective suffering exists in both the macro and individual microcosms, making it a much more complex wound to heal.
How trauma shows up
All trauma – be it developmental, historical, or even caused by a single experience – results in nervous system dysregulation: a state where the body feels overwhelmed and not safe.
The first thing the body does when it doesn’t feel safe is to kick into fight or flight. If the trauma is chronic, it often escalates to freeze where a lockdown of sorts occurs. There is a fourth stage that’s been identified as fawn, which is the act of people pleasing to keep yourself safe.
There are subtle behaviors of a dysregulated nervous system that indicate the various stages and I now look at my own actions, and those of others, through a fight/flight/freeze/fawn lens. It helps me to adjust my own behavior and depersonalize (not excuse) someone’s actions when they negatively affect me.
Here are a few examples. Behavior that indicates you’re in fight can be constant irritability, the need to be contrary (always taking the other side for no reason) or the impulse to protect yourself. Flight can appear as rarely taking time to be still, always working late, or avoiding conflict. Freeze can show up as endless social media scrolling, mentally checking out when you’re with people or spending excessive time alone. The act of fawning can appear as never being able to say no and sacrificing what’s important to you so someone else gets their needs met.
I recognized all four stages in myself, and began to study the work of Dr. Stephen Porges, who created Polyvagal Theory, Irene Lyon, Deb Dana, and others. What I learned is that a healthy, regulated nervous system leaves very little room for those dysregulated behaviors. I also realized that I’d put myself on a hook, often feeling awful inside when I behaved in a certain way. Understanding why I acted the way I did gave me hope that I could change. And it freed me from the chains of guilt and the questions of “what is wrong with me?” And “why can’t I be different no matter how hard I try?”
The only way I’ve found to change
A regulated nervous system can move flexibly through different states of arousal and stress. Someone with no trauma history of feeling extremely overwhelmed and unsafe has a nervous system that can deal with a good amount of stress without losing their shit. On the other hand, a person whose system is on high alert from accumulated unresolved trauma, might overreact to bad drivers or a simple customer service mistake, throwing a fit or lashing out.
There are many things that help keep a nervous system regulated. Exercise, spending time in nature, good sleep, having fun regularly, and breathing mindfully all contribute to its stability. The longer the trauma goes unresolved – the more one is hypervigilant, people pleasing, and practicing behaviors you believe will keep you safe – the more stuck in dysregulation the system becomes. The more stuck you are, the less likely you are to participate in activities that support regulation like the ones listed above.
To bring the nervous system back into balance under these circumstances requires a more focused practice to achieve what’s known as the Window of Tolerance, a place of resilience where we can manage stress in a way that is healthy for us and others.
There are a number of ways to do this, but almost all involve the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in the body that runs from the base of the skull to the bottom of the spine. It extends throughout the body affecting several organ systems as well as the immune system, along with various regions of the body, such as the tongue, pharynx, heart, and gastrointestinal system. Stimulating this nerve has been shown to help regulate the nervous system.
I will link a few videos at the end if you’re interested in learning more about how to stimulate your vagus nerve. From the work of Wim Hof, who endorses cold therapy (cold showers, plunge pools, etc.) and techniques like Havening and EFT Tapping to neuro drills and breathing practices, there are a plethora of choices.
The one caveat I must insist on is that only you can decide what works for you. If you have experienced long-term trauma, I encourage you to work with a practitioner at first. Those of us who experienced chronic trauma often can find some of these practices to be overwhelming and in fact, they can end up having the opposite impact of the one we desire. It is critical to take it slowly, especially with intense practices like certain types of deep breathing, to make sure your nervous system reacts in a positive way.
If you have any questions, please let me know and I will do my best to answer or refer you to someone who can. I’m thinking about doing a live event to discuss all of this if there is enough interest, so if this is something you’d like to know more about, please comment below.
Vagus nerve stimulation and nervous system regulation techniques:
I hope you found this useful. I’ll be back next month with the next in the series to show exactly what a dysregulated nervous system can look like and the possibilities that exist when you do the work to bring it back to calm.