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  • Writer's pictureKesley Cage

Understanding Trauma & Post-Traumatic Stress

Updated: Jan 17

According to polyvagal theory, traumatic stress has the impact of locking energy into split branches of the autonomic nervous system. Based on painful past experiences, such as social disconnection, abuse or accident/injury, the body's neuromuscular memory unconsciously perceives a state of threat in the environment, and responds by becoming dysedulated which can create serious life and health problems.

For example, people with whiplash have no physical damage to the muscle; it is a muscle tissue memory that holds the pattern of the impact due to neurological messages that tell the muscles to brace for impact. Another more complex example is a child who experiences abuse from an adult whereby their needs go unmet. They, therefore, may feel that the world is difficult to survive in and an unsafe place to be. Their nervous system struggles with the painful overwhelm of unprocessed emotion, such as anger and fear that signals unmet needs; this also leaves an unconscious protective shell of hardness and tension in the body, and the mind may become anxious and depressed. You can see in both these examples that somatic tension is the result of trauma.

Fight or Flight

Many trauma survivors spend their lives locked in a hypervigilant state of arousal experienced via the sympathetic nervous system, which is a primer to the 'fight' or 'flight' response to fear. The muscular tension is a kind of constant bracing to run and hide from an unsafe situation, or trying to fight hard to survive. The effects of a fight or flight response may be shaken off after the event, or if the person is young, vulnerable, highly-sensitive or has a high level of background life stress, then the may be triggered even when there is no current threat.

What about fawning?

Fawning is another relational trauma response, when the mind and body attempts to diminish danger and stay safe by trying to befriend or comply with an abuser, in order to survive. This means that the harm may be permitted as a way for the person to meet their needs and stay alive. The pain of recovering from trauma may be unbearable, and contain a lot of shame because how the person reacted to stay safe was not the kind of behaviour they would like from themselves, and they may blame themselves and feel low self worth. Fawning has a dysredulating effect on the nervous system, meaning that the social connection nervous system may be blended with neurological responses to threat, even when there is no longer any threat, years after the experience.

And - the most deadly of all - the freeze response:

Alternatively, our body may 'freeze' i.e. shut down in fear, operating only at the bare minimum of energy with the parasympathetic dorsal nervous system; this is when we may experience numbness, overwhelm, stuckness or fatigue because our body is caught in a post-traumatic stress response to a serious threat. The body doesn't feel able to fight or flee, so it starts to shut down, reduce its energy and the mind becomes, dormant or vacant and the body stiff, frozen and inert. All trauma is dangerous, however the feeze response can be the most dangerous for overall health, as it shuts off important energy in the body's system, which may last long after the event.

How Triggers link to Retraumatisation and Chronic Health Conditions

If they experienced trauma in the past, then any of the stresses and strains of everyday life such as a loud noise, an image, busy office, a person who brushes us in the street may trigger the perceived threat of a traumatic incident. Furthermore, if not processed safely, unintegrated trauma energy can rush up to the surface, which causes people to project and internally re-live the experiences of the past, even if they are only in our implicit and not explicit memory, meaning the person may feel overpowred by memories, flashbacks or just a feelings-based recollection in the body. This is known as post-traumatic stress. These kinds of energetic phenomena in the body are often at the root of many physical and mental health problems.

I share the opinion that anxiety and depression, the world's most common mental health conditions, are most frequently symptoms of impact of trauma on the nervous system. Anxiety may be symptomatic of the activating fear response, based on conditions experienced in the past creating negative expectations of the present/future. Depression, the experience of prolonged low mood, may be based on cumulative moments and life events where we felt overwhelmed, stuck and unsafe to process emotional pain such as sorrow and anger.

Recommended resources:

Dr Gabor Mate's articles on trauma

Articles on polyvagal theory by Stephen Porges PhD

Deb Dana's Rhythym of Regulation

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