Trauma and its effect when it gets stuck in your nervous system

Trauma can get stuck in our nervous systems. Believe me, l know this from a personal and visceral perspective as well as knowing this intellectually!


It’s great to "know" stuff because it gives us choice and in choice, there is freedom and a "road home" to a more relaxed, safe state of being and that safe state becoming your everyday visceral experience – there’s that word, once again – post-trauma, and it’s grisly aftermath that clings on and is ignited by triggers.

This can rob us of our "now", where a relaxed demeanour can seem like a distant memory and we believe that its shadow makes the sense of danger ubiquitous, as it narrows and limits our freedom, and in doing so also our ability to feel joy and be joyous.

This is a labyrinth where, exhausted, we long for exit.  

So where do we begin? To believe that being free of the effects of trauma might be wonderfully possible.

I think with, and in, recognising what your trauma state is, as well as what triggers it and also what caused it and continues to cause it when we are in situations that mirror its origin.

I had an experience a year ago with a caller who was trying to hoodwink me pretending to be interested in my work. I knew in my gut that something wasn’t quite right, and subsequently went into a "freeze" response, which l discussed with a close friend who is a homeopath who knew my history and we both realised that, although the event was different, it mirrored in its treachery something that was a trauma l had experienced as a child. The trauma of origin locked inside recognised the mirror of the similar experience and my response was very physical. In my practice, l have also seen this occur with others too. Many many times.

Although the triggers can be entirely different for everyone l will wager, that within everyone who has been affected by trauma, a common denominator will be a lack of connection that is felt. Again and again, l will stress both here and in other articles l write and have written that we are wired to belong. It is indeed essential to our very biology and survival. A biological imperative. Humans are born helpless. Without the connection that feeds us, holds us, shelters us and also nurtures us, we cannot exist.

In trauma, we feel cut off and alone. We are assaulted.

For me, after many years of learning, l know what my triggers are and where they came from. Many have an early origin which l had to play detective in to recognise and this is also what l do with patients... l investigate. Each one of us is unique.

Stephen Porges and the polyvagal theory teaches techniques to soothe stress responses that get stuck in our nervous system, and Deb Dana’s work and observations simplify the theory. 

We have to also know, though, which state we are in to employ the correct technique to soften and soothe the state that is the causation.

This is where the PTSD state can feel like a humiliating prison to those who suffer from it. There is still shame around it that will often prevent the person/s suffering from it from sharing the truth with anyone for fear of being judged. We don’t want to appear as if we have something "wrong" with us or different in a way that is not either understood or seen as weak.

When you get stuck in your nervous system, it is a lonely place to be. You long to be "like everybody else". Those going about their days, those interacting and laughing and being "normal". Your interactions become singular and also bodily felt. Embedded, the stuck trauma state needs to be retuned, to return to a feeling of safety and belonging.

The vagal nerve and its relevance in trauma

The vagal nerve is the longest nerve in the body, from the brain to the pelvis. It regulates breathing digestion and your immune system. It communicates from the brain to the body and from the body to the brain. The message you get has a lot to do with what the situation you are in represents to you.

Something safe or something that feels dangerous? The interplay of what you see and what you find yourself in and your thoughts are binary. One thing goes with another and your body responds with a "state". The key is having more control over your nervous system so that you are in a desired state of safety and the soothe that creates for you.

So on this "ladder," at the top, there is:

The ventral vagal state

Here you feel connected, calm, joyful, engaged and safe. In this state you are more relaxed, the digestive system and immune system work well, and you have room for curiosity. Here it feels good. It feels grounded. You can connect and learn.


The sympathetic state

This sounds good but actually, it isn’t! When we are in our sympathetic brain, we are in an activated triggered state. This is where our fight, freeze, or fight state kicks in!

This is a "survival" state. Great for acute situations like the classic one – being chased by a tiger – you are not going to calmly think about what you are making for dinner or whether to buy those shoes after all, but more like, "l need to get the hell out of here!" Here we are anxious and triggered. Our digestion slows down as well as our immune system. We panic, we don’t think or reason, we react, and we feel in danger.

The dorsal vagal response

This one is our most primal part of our nervous system, our oldest response. It is shut down when we feel faced with an overwhelming state of threat. We may feel frozen, nervous, depressed, or a sense of depersonalisation. We might feel disconnected from the self and being able to identify our feelings, or lost in overwhelm or terror.

Fair here to mention that each state, in small bursts, can and does serve a purpose but not when this is felt all the time. Apart from the ventral feel-good one. Great to be in that and the joy or normal.

So if we can identify the state and what caused it, this is the road home to regulation and feeling safe rather than anxious.

Here it helps to work with a therapist. Also doing exercise like dance or yoga or somatic work. Working with someone to calm our nervous system will take and mirror their calm and we can then feel, through the connection, not so trapped within our own state. Almost as if we co-regulate when we are seen, known and understood through the connection.

It is not the original trauma alone, please believe me here. Not either though to minimise it and its effect at the time and what that did to us. But it is the wound within that lives on that disallows our nervous system to be regulated that turns our world upside down internally, alienating us from our sense of belonging, even to ourselves. 

Once again, it is in our belonging. This sharing is in itself such medicine, the hands we hold, the arms around us.

It is both our right and our need and indeed our deepest desire. This gives us our joy of life, and living. 

It is through the anchors where we feel safe and moored, not where the corrupt lives, but in our own truth and in the sharing of that with the truth.

Suggested reading – Deb Dana: 'Anchored'

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, N8
Written by Gail Berry, Emotional and Relationship Coach
London, N8

Written by Gail Berry Emotional Coach - both a therapist and an alternative medical practitioner who works with healing people’s core wounds and uses Bach Flower Remedies alongside talking and behavioural therapy to make real change and transformation possible.
07771 715072
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