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Trauma Therapy and the Nervous System

A key starting point of trauma therapy is developing an understanding of how trauma can impact the nervous system. Traumatic experiences can interfere with our ability to regulate emotional intensity and result in a chronic pattern of alternating hyper-arousal (fight/fight, anxiety & panic) and hypo-arousal (freeze & dissociation). Understanding this process and how to recognise and respond to what is happening with our nervous system is crucial for stabilising and, ultimately, processing and integrating trauma.

A metaphor of the nervous system called the window of tolerance, developed by neuroscientist Dan Siegal in his book The Developing Mind, is a helpful way of understanding the different functions of the nervous system, what can happen to our nervous system if we experience trauma and how to use this information in trauma therapy to support our recovery and healing. 

It can be helpful to think of our window of tolerance as a river. On one side are jagged rocks and rapids (hyperarousal) and on the other, mud and reeds (hypoarousal). People who haven’t been impacted by trauma or adversity may have a nice wide river where they can drift towards the rocky side and feel energised, excited or motivated as they rush down the rapids and go back over to the muddy side when they need to slow down, rest or sleep. They can move through life, drifting to either side when needed, and make their way safely down the river.

For those who have experienced trauma or adversity, their river might look more like a creek. They might find themselves crashing into the rocks on the hyperarousal side of their river and experiencing fear, anxiety and panic. They might push themselves away only to get stuck in the mud and reeds on the other side of their river. When stuck in the hypoarousal side of their river, they feel stuck, flat, depressed and checked out, and it’s challenging to keep moving down the river. They might then push themselves out of the reeds only to find themselves crashing back into the rocks.

They might stay on the rocky side even though the rapids are dangerous, and they feel afraid and anxious because at least they are still moving down the river. Or they might push away again, get stuck back in the reeds, and find themselves bouncing back and forth between crashing into the rocks and getting stuck in the mud and reeds as they manage to make their way down their river.

Living in a state of fear, anxiety and panic, being numb & dissociated, or bouncing between the two may allow trauma survivors to keep going and, in many cases, has kept them alive. Still, it is a stressful and exhausting way to live.

Life is much easier to navigate when we have a nice wide river. Luckily, we can widen our river by learning to recognise where we are in our river and using strategies to help us navigate and regulate our nervous system. 

What does it look like when we are getting close to the rocks? Do we feel our heart race or our hands shake? Is it harder for us to fall asleep at night? Do we have a short fuse and feel overwhelmed quickly? 

What about when we start getting close to the mud and reeds? Do we feel slow and sluggish, sad or empty? Do we find ourselves spacing out, losing time or having the frightening experience of feeling disconnected from our body or like we are not real? When we learn to notice the signs that we are heading out of our window, we can begin to find and use strategies that bring us back and, over time, widen our window. 

One of the most powerful things we can do to widen our river is to spend time with others who have nice wide windows, but there are also a lot of things we can do ourselves, such as finding hobbies we enjoy, moving our bodies and learning to calm them through grounding and breathing techniques. 

 A simple technique is to breathe in through the nose for four counts and out through the mouth for six counts. Breathing with a longer outbreath stimulates the part of the nervous system that helps us to come back into our window. It can also be helpful for trauma survivors to have a mantra or affirmation to focus on while breathing to help focus attention away from intense feelings or possible intrusions. For example, we might breathe in the quality or state of mind we need (such as “I breathe in safety” or “I breathe in calm”) and breathe out the feeling or sensation that is overwhelming (“I breathe out pain” or “I breathe out fear”). 

For some people impacted by trauma, breathing techniques might raise hypervigilance and escalate anxiety, as relaxation can be equated with being unprotected and vulnerable to harm. If this is the case, it can be helpful to use a mantra that emphasises that relaxation is not incompatible with alertness, such as “I breathe in alertness” or “I can calm my body and alert my mind.” 

Another practice that can be helpful is the Safe Place Practice, which you can read about here. The breathing practice above and the safe place practice are great starting points in healing and recovering from trauma. If you feel you might benefit from support in this process, trauma therapy can help you develop these in a safe and tailored way. 

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