What is trauma: its effects and how to recover

This article is based on a lecture by Dr Stephen Porges at the recent Action Trauma Summit. I love this man’s work and had so many ‘aha’ moments. There’s probably still some scientific language in here. It will probably take me reading over my notes and writing out various aspects of the lecture before I fully integrate the knowledge and am able to say it completely in my own words.

Trauma, Covid 19, The LockDown and the long term effects on our mental and physical health

Human beings have a biological imperative to connect with other people. We NEED to interact with others. This is why the Coronavirus Pandemic and the Lockdown has been so disruptive and destructive to our psyche and our physiology.

Our nervous system likes expectancy, it likes knowing what’s happening around us and what’s going to happen next. Expectancy = Safety in our biological system. And when expectancy is disrupted, we feel anxious.

Human Beings need others, we are not a solitary species.

The whole world is going through a type of trauma. The consequences of this period are going to effect many, especially those who have already been traumatised by their life events.

The enforced  and encouraged self quarantine (optional self quarantine only available to Government special advisors) also forces people into other dangerous situations, especially some women and children who are forced into quarantine in situations that hostile and aggressive.

If someone comes into quarantine with a trauma history already in place, then the Corona crisis affects them much more in terms of anxiety and negativity, they wonder what’s going to happen to them and they’re already having great difficulty coping now, so how can they possibly feel okay thinking about what might happen next?

How do you gauge whether you’re suffering from the effects of trauma? Here’s a few questions to answer:

  • Do you feel safe with others?
  • Can you be hugged by others?
  • Are you okay to be in close proximity with others?
  • Do you trust other people?

Trauma creates all these difficulties for us. Remember, we are a social species, we have a biological imperative to be with others. Covid 19 and the LockDown have also disrupted that biological need.

Safety makes the best human experience possible. And safety in this instance is based on social connectedness providing a neural expectancy which promotes both mental and physical health. In our social groups, families, friends, colleagues and what have you, our nervous system knows what’s happening, what’s going to happen and is able to stay in the rest, relax, digest and heal body systems.

Neural expectancy is knowing what is going to happen next. Knowing what is going to happen next, having that expectancy allows our nervous system to feel safe.

Expectancy = Safety.

Violations of Expectancy = THREAT

With Covid 19, there have been many unknowns and inconsistent Public Health messaging which makes it hard for anyone to feel safe.

Its the responsibility of our political leaders to craft a message that shows us there is safety, that there is structure, and a path to get to that safety.

As a species, human beings are talented at problem solving. But we need to understand the problem to be able to solve it. The uncertainty of Covid 19 and the LockDown messaging signals chaos to our nervous system and our nervous system hates chaos.

To feel safe we need to be aware of what’s going on, we need to be able to trust the messaging and then we can allow our sense of expectancy to work for us again.

What was worrying about the initial Covid 19 messaging was that they didn’t give us the opportunity to feel safe. Rather, the messaging was designed to frighten us into complying with the Public Health plan.

The problem with that is that people may not contract the virus but may well face the secondary threat of TRAUMA and of re-tuning our autonomic nervous into a threat bias system which then disrupts how we relate to each other.

The messaging during the Coronavirus crisis has ignored the need for cues of safety and trust and has been too disruptive, uneven and unsatisfactory.

Social connections promote nervous system states that support both mental and physical health. We are both a body and a cognitive system and Trauma affects both.

Trauma disrupts our ability to feel socially connected and to have the capacity to co-regulate with others.

Neuroscience shows that humans develop their abilities for emotional self-regulation through connections with reliable caregivers who soothe and model in a process called “co-regulation.” https://www.acesconnection.com

Co-regulation also happens in peer groups and any group where we are welcomed, included and feel safe with others.

Trauma disrupts our face to face interactions which in turn disrupts our opportunity to co-regulate with others, potentially triggering biobehavioural states of defense. Biobehavioural states relate to the relationships amongst behavioural, psychosocial and biological processes.

Trauma dampens our spontaneous social engagement behaviour and we don’t reach out to others for help which increases our sense of isolation which then further disrupts our ability to feel safe.

Chronic disconnectedness, that feeling of having shut down, is an adaptive post traumatic state, which is horrific to witness and worse to feel.

Trauma shifts our autonomic nervous system out of its usual state that promotes rest, relaxation and healing. It distorts our social awareness and it displaces our social engagement behaviours, like meeting other people’s eyes when meeting them or when talking to them, leaning in, smiling, gesticulating, touching.

All of these are stopped in favour of defensive reactions that come from the lower nervous systems; the flight/fight response and the immobilisation/dissociation response.

Trauma disrupts our neurophysical regulation and can cause what doctors call Medically Unexplained Symptoms (MUS) such as IBS, fibromyalgia, and some cardio/vascular symptoms. Doctors don’t know why these occur, but these functions are part of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) using its regulatory capacity. When these symptoms occur it means the ANS has lost its ability to support homeostasis and has instead shifted into a state of defence.

A healthy person has the ability to move into different physiological states depending on environmental demands but when we’re triggered into a life threat reaction, our nervous system did not evolve to easily come out of that.

Many people who have experienced severe trauma have nervous systems that interpreted that traumatic event as if they were going to die.

Trauma triggers dissolution of our evolved state, its evolution in reverse!

We go from beings who can support our own homeostasis through social communications. with social interaction to regulate our physiology and promote health, growth and restoration (Stage 3 of our evolution) to flight/fight behaviours (Stage 2) to our most primitive nervous system state (Stage 1) which promotes immobilisation behaviours;fainting, shutdown and dissociation.

Oldest Stage 1 – Primitive unmyelinated vagus (DVC) Immobilisation behaviours

Newer Stage 2 – Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) Flight/Fight behaviours

Newest Stage 3 – Myelinated Mammalian Vagus (VVC) Enables social communication which supports homeostasis, enables social interactions to regulate physiology and promote health, growth and restoration.

Overcoming Trauma means brining the autonomic nervous system back into homeostasis activity.

Observable Trauma Effects

  • Lack of intonation of voice
  • Poor eye contact and difficulties in social communication
  • Blunted facial expression
  • Hyper vigilant, anxious, distractible, impulsive, tantrums
  • Compromised bodily functions
  • Difficulties in listening, following verbal commands, speech, language delays
  • Sound senitivites
  • Health, growth and restoration are disrupted (auto-immune disorders)
  • Loss of social engagement system
  • Medically Unexplained Symptoms
  • Displaying inappropriate asocial behaviours and defensive reactions
  • Maintain social behaviours when defensive strategies would be more appropriate (putting oneself in harm’s way)

To find a path to recovery we have to focus on the autonomic state as as the intervening variable, a portal to communicate safety cues to the body so that it may become calm, relaxed and engaged, encouraging optimal regulation, social communication and physiological state regulation.

Mental and physical health require the turning off of the autonomic nervous system defenses. Therefore we need to understand and appreciate the cues our nervous system needs to feel safe.

Feeling safe is at the core of recovery from Trauma.

We then need to reconnect the body and mind systems so they are working together at their optimal state, neither one impaired by the threat or actual harm we previously experienced.

Exercises that reconnect the Brain and body are:

  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness/Meditation
  • Breathing exercises
  • Singing/Chanting
  • Listening
  • Playing
  • Team Sports
  • Other Mind/Body tools such as hypnosis, EDRM, acupuncture, EFT, guided meditation, reflexology among many

Its obvious that the whole world had suffered something incredible in 2020, whether you believe one theory of the virus origins, its contagiousness, its impact on our health or another, whether you supported isolation policies for public health or not.

We’ve all felt its impact and we all now have to find a way to recover and return to our mental, emotional and physical state of wellbeing.

THe one thing I can say for sure, is that we won’t bounce back without help and support. The science tells us this, our biology demands help and support from others.

The problem is that it still feels unsafe to many to allow the close contact we need for recovery to start.

I don’t have the answers, but I’m looking for them because I simply know we have to find a way.





Read more here:

Click to access beginners_guide-_polyvagal_theory.pdf

The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation

For People Who Want to Understand Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory

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