Research shows us that there are significant long-term effects of unresolved childhood trauma on our mental and physical health. There is not enough education and discussion about the physiological effects such as chronic pain, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular issues, chronic sleep issues, inability to maintain intimate relationships and friendships, and the difficulty of being able to give and receive love.
When individuals experience unresolved childhood trauma they tend to struggle with a deep rooted fear of feeling and experiencing pleasure, joy and ease… these experiences do not feel naturally safe. Instead they feel unfamiliar, uncomfortable and unreal… leaving the individual waiting for the “other shoe to drop.” With this constant state of heightened awareness and activation comes the inability to rest. It creates a difficulty learning and increases the risk of developmental delays, addiction and chronic mental health issues. All of these struggles affect basic functioning in daily life and therefore increase tthe susceptibility to financial struggles and poverty.
Understanding the effects of this chronic stress and unresolved trauma on the body can inform us how to support and begin to heal the body, mind and spirit. A one dimensional approach to healing is ineffective and short sighted, leaving individuals seeking help ping-ponging from one specialist to another, taking a list of medications to reduce symptoms without ever looking at the root cause of the physical symptoms.
The polyvagal theory was developed by Stephen Proges and it suggests that the autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates three essential physiological states: the Social Engagement System or Ventral Vagal, the Sympathetic Nervous System of “fight or flight” and the Dorsal Vagal Response of “freeze or collapse.”
Our nervous system makes decisions for us and instinctively enacts the state it perceives is required for our survival. This occurs out of consciousness. Trauma can cause to become stuck in “fight or flight” or in chronic shut down (freeze). Only when the social engagement system (ventral vagal state) is on, can the brain and body work together.
How these experiences lead to a disconnect within the body
Essentially, the brain wires differently when you experience high levels of chronic stress throughout your development. Therefore the absence of stress can then become the very thing that increases feelings of unease and even boredom. Staying busy is a way you might be trying to regulate your nervous system, but a body that is always busy is a body stuck in a chronic stress response with more chances to develop gut and hormonal issues. The body is never allowed to enter rest and recovery.
The connections between unresolved trauma and the immune system provide insight into a wide array of medical symptoms. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are meant to work in a rhythmic alternation that supports healthy digestion, sleep and immune system functioning. However, this chronic stress and unresolved trauma interfere with the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. As a result, unresolved trauma can take a significant toll on our physical health.
When our vital systems are slowed down, chronic illness happens. GI issues, chronic pain, fatigue, food allergies and overall disease can begin to make their appearance. Emotions will show up before ailments. All too often, the emotional toll from suppressed trauma shows up first, sometimes presenting itself for years before chronic symptoms. This is why we sometimes feel like chronic illness “came out of nowhere.” It feels like we were physically “fine” but really our body was sending us emotional cues first.
If our nervous system has to operate in dysregulation for long enough, our body will at some point need help to support all the energy required to stay in active self protection. As a result, the body may ask the digestive system, the immune system, etc to give up some of its own energy to support our active state.
Regulation turns the lights back on. “Fight or Flight” and “freeze” states require interventions that assist the body to regulate. In order to find physical and emotional ease, our body must experience safety. When our body no longer perceives threat at every corner, our other internal systems get to rest and work their normal jobs again. This is why bringing regulations back into our body supports us in healing not only emotionally but physically as well.
What is the polyvagal nerve?
The vagus nerve passes through the belly, diaphragm, lungs, inner ear, and facial muscles. 80 percent of vagus nerve fibers are sensory nerves which means that they communicate messages from your body back up to your central nervous system. That means that when you move and breathe into these areas of the body you can influence the functioning of your vagus nerve.
In order to sustain life, the body has complementary nervous systems: the sympathetic (arousing) and the parasympathetic (calming). Both are needed not only for psychological balance but for survival. Without a parasympathetic intervention, the heart would beat too quickly to sustain life. I often use the analogy of a gas pedal and a break, both are vital for balance and function.
Ideally there is a smooth balance between the two, a gentle collaboration. The sympathetic is dominant in exertion, exercise, athletics, emotional and sexual arousal, as well as stressful situations. The parasympathetic takes over in relaxation, sleep, meditation, massage, gentle touch, connecting deeply with another person and nurturing - both for the nurture and the nurtured.
When stress is very great, the sympathetic system automatically goes into fight or flight responses. This is built into the system. It can happen in response to external threat or perception of threat. Either fighting or fleeing can resolve the stress. If neither is possible or successful, the sympathetic arousal can get so extreme that it is too much for the body to handle.
At this point, we have a failsafe survival mechanism. The parasympathetic system spikes. It comes in so strongly that it overwhelms the sympathetic arousal and sends the person into a state of freeze. This can be full collapse, dissociation, or a more partial freeze such as an inability to think clearly or access words or emotions, or to move parts of the body. This can be momentary, short term—such as a possum freezing and becoming reanimated after the predator leaves, or, in humans, it can continue indefinitely.
Stephen Porges has focused his attention on the vagus nerve, one of the largest nerves in the body and a major part of the parasympathetic system. The vagus has two branches: dorsal (back) and ventral (front). The dorsal vagus is a large, primitive nerve that is common to all animals, including fish. It goes down the spine and has a role in controlling our lungs, hearts (moderating heartbeats so they don't get too rapid) and stomach (where it actually aids digestion). It is prominent in sleep and relaxation. Normally, the dorsal vagus serves a very positive function. It helps the body gently pendulate between arousal and relaxation. However, when the sympathetic system is too aroused, the dorsal vagus nerve can shut down the entire system and we go into freeze. This is most common in trauma and in shame, which is developmental trauma.
The ventral or front vagus nerve goes directly to the muscles of the face and helps determine expression and is active in social engagement. When the ventral vagal nerve is active we seek and initiate social contact. Social engagement for mammals is a way of activating the parasympathetic system.Ventral vagal social engagement—or attachment behavior—is a way to prevent and come out of dorsal vagal shutdown.
How to know which nervous system state you are in
You may be wondering how to tell which nervous system state you are in. When we become more aware of our nervous system, we can better learn how to regulate ourselves. The nervous system acts as the filter through which we experience life and the world around us. It is responsible for how we think, feel and (re)act. It has three main modes: Sympathetic (your gas pedal/activation/fight or flight, Ventral Vagal (your footbrake/safe mode/rest & digest) and your Dorsal Vagal (your emergency handbrake/freeze/shutdown/collapse). The two ingredients needed to assess you nervous system state are
#1. Somatic awareness and interceptive skills to notice your internal state. Interoceptive signals play an important role in how you feel and what you think.
#2. A Basic understanding of the nervous system and its functioning. We also call this autonomic awareness and literacy.
Here are a few easy to check in with what your body is telling you, giving clues to what nervous system state you may be experiencing:
Pay attention to your body’s physical cues and your posture…
Do you feel relaxed, settled, expanded? Is your posture open and inviting? Then you may be in a ventral state.
Does your body feel tense, antsy, activated, or contracted? Is your posture protective and tight? Then you may be in a sympathetic state.
Do you feel sluggish, exhausted, numb, depressed, or shut down? Is your posture collapsed and/or your shoulders rounded forward? Then you may be in a dorsal vagal state.
Be mindful of your emotions…
Are you feeling calm, peaceful, at ease, joyful, safe, playful, curious, connected? Then you may be in a ventral vagal state.
Are you feeling anxious, angry, scared, stressed, impulsive, reactive, under pressure, irritable? Then you may be in a sympathetic state.
Areyou feeling overwhelmed, lonely, numb, sad, invisible, not good enouhg, stuck, empty, disconnected, worthless, depressed, or ashamed? Then you may be in a dorsal vagal state.
Listen to your thoughts and check your awareness…
Are your thoughts clear, focused, rational, creative or responsive? Is your awareness expanded? Then you may be in a ventral vagal state
Are your thoughts scattered or racing? Is your awareness narrow? Then you may be in a sympathetic state.
Are your thoughts critical, foggy and negative? Are you unable to think or respond? Is your awareness contracted and protective? Then you may be in a dorsal vagal state.
Observe your breathing…
Is it calm, relaxed, slow and predominantly utilizing your diaphragm and nose-breathing? Then you may be in a ventral vagal state
Is your breathing fast and shallow with more movement in the chest and potentially through the mouth? Do you sigh often? You may be in a sympathetic state.
Is your breathing shallow with more movement in the chest? Do you yawn often? Then you may be in a dorsal state.
Monitor your heart rate…
Is your heart beat slow and in a steady rhythm? You may be in a ventral state.
Is your heart rate fast? You may be in a sympathetic state
Is your heart beat slow and barely noticeable? You may be in dorsal state.
How does understanding the polyvagal theory help?
Understanding this theory can help unlock the symptoms of PTSD and other traumatic responses. One of the most painful outcomes of PTSD is the experience of a lack of control that can occur when you feel trapped by feelings of anxiety, panic, overwhelm, or despair. The Polyvagal theory describes how our autonomic nervous system is influenced by the central nervous system and it offers a valuable framework for understanding and effectively responding to the intense emotional and physiological symptoms of PTSD.
Mental health disorders like anxiety, panic attacks, depression, addiction, OCD, social anxiety disorder, and borderline personality disorder are on the rise. However, all too often, when a person is diagnosed with having one of these mental health disorders, our health system fails to address the root cause of the issues - dysregulation of the nervous system. The mind and body are connected, you CANNOT effectively heal one, without also healing the other.
Trauma keeps us in a state of self protection. When we have unresolved trauma, our body is left to feel like whatever happened in the past is still happening, or might happen at any moment. As a result, our nervous system comes to support us by staying in a state of active self protection or dysregulation (fight/flight/freeze). Therefore we can get “stuck on” or “stuck off.”
So what does all this mean for you?
It’s essential to understand why healing our nervous systems is the key to living our fullest life in the present. Our autonomic state creates our story…
Our “Lens” for life when we are in a ventral vagal state (our state of safety, presence, and connection) might be….
- I feel safe and present in this moment
- I am capable of doing that
- I am not rushed and feel that it’s okay to take my time
- I can connect with others or I can be on my own and both are okay
Our “lens” for life when we are in a sympathetic state (our mobilized state of fight/flight) might be…
- I need to do something now or this won’t be okay
- I can’t slow down, if I do, everything will fall apart
- People are in my way or making things harder! Why can’t they just figure it out!
Our “lens” for life when we are in a dorsal state (our immobilized state of shut down) might be…
- Nothing is ever going to change
- I can’t fix anything, I’m so powerless
- People don’t care about me so what’s the point?
Our “lens” for life when we are in a freeze state (our blended state of tonic mobility) might be…
- I need to do something but I can’t!
- There’s so much energy in my body but I’m stuck
- I really need to text that person back but it feels too overwhelming to do
Our autonomic state creates our story. Our thoughts are a result of where we are in our nervous system. The more we listen to our thoughts, the more they increase the activation of the state we’re in.
Instead of battling our thoughts, we want to notice them and turn toward regulation, the more we regulate the more the activating thoughts go away and we build new neural pathways for thoughts based in a ventral state of being.