On Thursday March 30th, facilitator Abigail shared with us her most recent presentation entitled “ Mind and Body, Body and Mind”
Abigail began by asking us the question, who has heard the phrase “ the body keeps the score” ?
She shared that it’s a phrase coined by a famous trauma focused psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolkata.
The meaning…frequently for people with PTSD, their minds desperately try to leave trauma behind, but their bodies keep them trapped in the past.
Abigail shared that the history of psychology has mostly been focused on our thoughts and feelings. It’s only been recently that researchers have started to explore the connection between our brains and our bodies.
She also shared some thoughts on somatic experiencing by sharing a definition.
Somatic…means relating to the body. So what happens in our bodies when we experience trauma? Why do our bodies keep the score?
When we experience trauma and are exposed to things like violence and abuse, it creates an inner car alarm system inside us. And this constructs a body that gets stuck in fight or flight, and eventually freeze. This happens whether the danger is real or just perceived.
When this inner alarm is going off in our bodies, our bodies will then create and release a stress hormone called cortisol. Over time elevated release of stress hormones in our body can cause damage at a cellular level.
A public health researcher by the name of Arline Geronimus, calls this process “weathering “ which she says” literally wears down your heart, arteries, and your neuroendocrine systems.
Polyvagal Theory…..is the theory of our nervous system and the science of safety. It’s the science behind our inner car alarm. Our central nervous system consists of two parts. The first is our brain and spinal cord. The other is our peripheral nervous system, which consists of nerves that connect the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. Our nervous system controls so many things, how we feel safe, and how we interact with the world.
Ventral vagal… a healthy nervous system has three levels of activation. The first, ventral vagal, is a state of us being grounded, connected to your body, calm, safe and open to learning new things. This is where we feel curious and open.
The second state in polyvagal theory is our sympathetic nervous system. A lot of people have heard of this, because this is where you have fight or flight. When there’s danger or risk in our environment, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in, and we go into fight or flight. During a flight response we feel panic, fear, anxiety and worries. During a fight response, we feel frustration, irritation and anger. Our car alarm is is in full effect during this time.
The third state is dorsal vagal…this is shut down mode. This is when we freeze. When we go into dorsal vagal we shut down, feel numb, collapsed and frozen. What’s happening in this state, is the threat of emotional disturbance is so great, and we have been fighting it for so long, we shut down.
When we’re in Dorsal vagal, the feeling is “ I can’t “
Abigail shared that when she is in Dorsal vagal, is when she starts to isolate, she stops eating, she stops taking her meds, and stops showering.
Sound like depression or disassociation?
Abigail also shared a little bit about what happens in complex trauma, to the nervous system, when we get stuck in any of these phases.
Our nervous systems can get damaged if over a long time an adult stays in fight or flight, and not able to feel safe or relaxed in their body. The nervous system becomes hard wired into hyperarousal. It damages that person’s ability to tell the difference between real danger and perceived danger.
A damaged nervous system looks like chronic anxiety, chronic depression, and chronic mental and physical health symptoms. It’s exhausting for the body to always be on high alert, and to never feel safe or relaxed. It’s been linked to cancer, heart attacks and stroke.
The Body Keeps the Score…
Another sign of a damaged nervous system are emotional flashbacks. This is also one of the signs of complex trauma. An emotional flashback is something that happens when a trigger- either external or internal- brings you back to a time in your life where you felt powerless and helpless, and the body reacts and shuts down the same way. What’s happening in those moments is the nervous system is taking in a stimulus, a stress response, and interpreting it as danger.
Mentally a damaged nervous system can look like chronic anxiety, a hard time navigating emotions, and emotional regulation. You might go back and forth between highs and lows and have a hard time finding that middle ground.
You might go back and forth between hyper vigilant and really anxious and on edge, and crashing and feeling depressed and tired.
A damaged nervous system will also impact our cognition, and we often can’t think clearly or make rational decisions. It affects our ability to make connections with others. It impacts our emotional regulation and our ability to manage triggers. It’s a pretty big deal!
Don’t let yourself feel bad for a second. Your nervous system has probably been working overtime for your whole life, compared to someone who hasn’t undergone the same adverse experience.
Top down vs Bottom up therapy…
If you’re struggling with a damaged nervous system, how do you treat this?
Top down therapy focuses on how the mind interprets information.
Bottom up therapy refers to therapy which targets the lower part of the brain,
which would include automatic emotional responses, subconscious core beliefs, and our defense survival strategies. Some of the most effective bottom up therapies are experiential therapies, where clients are guided to actually experience their emotional inner worlds in the therapy session. Such as EMDR, brain spotting, and somatic experiencing.
One of the most common types of top down therapy is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This is where you’re focusing on the link between your thoughts and behaviors and trying to question unbalanced thinking, and learn to form healthier thinking patterns.
Finally, Abigail shared with us some tips if we may feel like we’re stuck in a sympathetic nervous state or in the middle of fight or flight. We will want to do our best to ground and connect with our body.
She suggested the first step is to breathe. Breathing has a huge impact.
When we breath we want to inhale through our nose and we want to exhale longer than our inhale. If your inhaling for four seconds, your exhale should be for six seconds.
The second tool you can employ is singing! I like this idea. Singing or humming stimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve when it’s stimulated one of the immediate effects is our heart rate slows down very quickly.
Another great grounding tool is the 5 4 3 2 1 technique. This is where you find five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
This type of technique is called orienting.
Abigail shared that it took her ten years of trying and feeling stuck and working hard to heal her trauma. She shared that the best thing she has done for her recovery is to seek out a provider who understands trauma and practices somatic therapy.
This was an amazing presentation from Abigail, leaving us plenty to think about!