Autonomic Nervous System and Trauma

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Traumatic or stressful events were thought to affect our emotional and mental health in isolation. However, newer research and studies have revealed that the trauma response is not limited to our emotions but also influences our body physically. 

nervous system trauma

This response is mainly due to the influence of trauma on our brain, or more specifically, our autonomic nervous system.

What Is The Autonomic Nervous System?

There are two main branches of the nervous system: autonomic and somatic. The somatic nervous system controls movement and actions that we consciously control, while the autonomic nervous system controls actions that we don’t control but happen in our body 24/7.

The ANS includes the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) nervous systems. Both play vital roles in managing our body’s functions and allowing our body to adapt to its environment. These systems can influence digestion, heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure.

The sympathetic nervous system controls stress responses in a dangerous situation, commonly known as the flight or fight response. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system controls our body in a normal, relaxed state.

Understanding the Nervous System’s Role in Trauma Response

The nervous system’s response to trauma is complex and involves multiple factors, including genetic conditions, developmental trauma, and environmental stressors. The spinal cord and network of nerves transmit signals that trigger the body’s defensive state during stress. At the same time, the brain structure and prefrontal cortex play key roles in processing traumatic memories and regulating emotions.

nervous system and trauma

Let’s read a little into the basic science behind this response:

The HPA Axis and Stress Hormones

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is central to the body’s complex trauma response system. It regulates the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can affect the immune response and overall body functions explained above.

Chronic activation of the HPA axis due to ongoing stress or trauma can lead to health problems like metabolic disorders and immune system dysregulation by disruption of normal hormonal functions, increased inflammatory markers, etc.

Understanding how trauma affects the ANS can provide valuable insights into improving mental health and addressing nervous system dysregulation.

The Impact of Traumatic Events on the Autonomic Nervous System

Traumatic events, such as natural disasters, accidents, loss of a loved one, domestic violence, and adverse childhood experiences, can trigger a series of physiological and psychological responses within our brains. 

The ANS is mainly controlled by the hypothalamus, which orchestrates these responses through its two main branches: the SNS and the PNS. The SNS is responsible for the flight response, while the PNS helps restore balance and calm after the threat has passed.

Several theories explain how trauma influences our ANS in different ways. These include the polyvagal theory and the window of tolerance theory.

The Role of the Vagus Nerve and Polyvagal Theory

Dr. Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory highlights the significance of the vagus nerve in regulating the ANS. This theory suggests that the vagus nerve plays a crucial role in social interactions and emotional regulation. Lower vagal tone is associated with a higher risk of stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety disorders. 

This knowledge has led to discovering methods that help increase vagal tone and allow individuals to switch off their SNS and signal their body to relax. Vagal tone can be improved through deep breathing and massaging certain body areas. This helps enhance feelings of safety and consequently slows your heart rate, eases your breathing, and allows your body to relax.

The Window of Tolerance Theory

The window of tolerance refers to the optimal arousal zone where individuals can function effectively despite stress. Traumatic experiences or repetitive stressors like childhood trauma can shrink this window, leading to nervous system dysregulation and difficulty in managing stress. 

Expanding the window of tolerance is possible through therapeutic interventions. Interventions like somatic therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy can help individuals better cope and improve their overall mental health.

How ANS Response Manifests: Emotional and Physical Responses to Trauma

Trauma can elicit a wide range of emotional and physical responses in our body, which the ANS mediates. Common emotional responses include: 

  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Anger outbursts
  • Confusion
  • Guilt
  • Hopelessness
  • Social withdrawal
  • Inability to communicate feelings or needs
  • Depressed moods
  • Lack of trust 
  • Shame 

Physically, trauma can manifest as 

  • Chronic pain in muscles of the back or neck 
  • High blood pressure
  • Problems with the digestive system
  • Skin problems such as eczema flares
  • Asthma attacks
  • Panic attacks
  • Poor overall health due to decreased immunity

Not only this, but trauma also affects our lives beyond this by affecting our social life and our long-term health.

Emotional Response and Social Engagement

Trauma can disrupt social interactions and cause isolation. The ANS’s response to stress can affect facial expressions, eye contact, and overall social engagement ability. This is because triggers can rapidly activate the sympathetic nervous system, which tells your brain that even a mundane social gathering is a threat.

This may cause individuals to eventually stay in out of fear of being triggered and acting embarrassingly or cowardly.

Physical Health and Chronic Conditions

Chronic stressors and long-term trauma can lead to permanent effects on physical health, including chronic conditions such as autoimmune diseases and cardiovascular problems. The ANS regulates vital functions like blood flow, heart rate, and digestion, all of which can be impacted by prolonged stress and trauma. 

For instance, continuously increased blood pressure due to stress can cause your body to keep your blood pressure high, permanently causing hypertension. Similarly, the flight-and-fight response slows your digestion, which may become a routine problem, leading to gut issues.

Healing the Dysregulated Nervous System

The influence of trauma on our brain chemistry has led to the understanding that healing is a multi-faceted process and requires more than just getting away from triggers. Healing from trauma involves resetting the dysregulated nervous system and restoring balance between the SNS and PNS. 

Thankfully, various treatment options and therapeutic approaches are now available to effectively aid this process.

Brain Retraining Therapy

Brain retraining programs, like those offered by re-origin, focus on rewiring the brain to replace negative thought patterns with positive ones. The therapy begins by providing insight into the brain’s healing process, then uses techniques that allow the brain to disassociate negative emotions around a certain experience and react more calmly instead.

Somatic Experiencing Therapy

Somatic therapy, created by Dr. Peter Levine, emphasizes the mind-body connection. It helps individuals process their body’s response to trauma by increasing awareness around it and then helping them control these responses in a way that is less harmful to the body.

Physical Activity and Self-Care

Engaging in regular physical activity can improve symptoms of PTSD and promote overall well-being. Exercise releases endorphins and supports the body’s natural healing processes. 

Similarly, using self-care routines, such as mindfulness and relaxation techniques, can also help reduce stress and support nervous system regulation.

Nutritional Support and Correcting Vitamin Deficiencies

Diet plays a significant role in supporting nervous system health. Consuming anti-inflammatory foods and probiotics and ensuring adequate intake of vitamins B and C can help manage stress hormones and down-regulate the neurotransmitters responsible for a stress response.

Addressing vitamin deficiencies, particularly B12, is essential for maintaining optimal nervous system function and preventing nerve damage in the future.

Psychotherapy and EMDR

Psychotherapy, including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), is effective in treating trauma-related disorders, especially post-traumatic stress disorder. EMDR helps reprocess traumatic memories and reduce their emotional impact, facilitating the recovery process.

Support Systems and Social Connections

Building a strong support system is crucial for recovery from any trauma. Reach out to family members, friends, and mental health professionals. They can provide the necessary support and encouragement to motivate you to do better and stay consistent on your path to recovery.

Know that social connection plays a vital role in one’s healing journey and can help individuals regain a sense of safety and belonging. You can also seek support groups that closely relate to your experience to feel like you’re not alone.

In Summary

To summarize, individuals need to realize that healing from trauma is a complex and lengthy process that requires a lot of commitment and patience. By understanding the relationship between trauma and the autonomic nervous system, we can discover therapies and methods that allow us to take proactive steps to reset our nervous system and improve our mental and physical health.

An efficient and sustainable healing process involves addressing both the emotional and physical aspects of trauma. Doing just that with the right treatment options, support systems, and lifestyle changes is possible. You can not only overcome the debilitating effects of trauma but also achieve a life transformation that feels truly rewarding. 

All you need to do is take the first step towards reclaiming your life from the chains of your past trauma and put in a little effort to turn it around. Do your research, seek support from friends and experts, and begin your journey to happiness today.