Peter Levine, an expert on the effects of trauma on the body, states that as a result of severe and prolonged trauma, the functioning of our nervous systems can become seriously disrupted. More specifically, traumatized individuals can suffer from dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system.
What Is The Autonomic Nervous System?
The autonomic nervous system operates below the level of conscious awareness (i.e. it functions involuntarily) and consists of two sub-systems : the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
What Are The Sympathetic And Parasympathetic Sub-Systems?
The Sympathetic Sub-System :
This sub-system of the autonomic nervous system is ‘switched on’ when we are faced with threat/danger/emergencies in order to mobilize extra energy that the body may require for fight/flight.
The Parasympathetic Sub-System :
This sub-system of the autonomic nervous system is ‘switched on’ when we are in a state of relaxation.
How Does The Autonomic Nervous System Become Dysregulated And What Effect Does Such Dysregulation Have On The Individual?
Trauma can cause the autonomic nervous system to become dysregulated in two main ways :
- The sympathetic sub-system can become ‘stuck’ / ‘locked on’
- The parasympathetic sub-system can become ‘stuck’ / ‘locked on’
A traumatized individual, whose traumatic experiences remain unprocessed, may become ‘stuck’ / ‘locked into’ one of the above two extremes or may oscillate back and forth between the them ; their is a loss of homeostasis (i.e. healthy balance between the two systems). In the absence of effective therapy, such dysregulation can persist for months, or, as in my own case, for years. I briefly outline the effects of these two types of dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system below :
Above : Effects of the activation of each of the two sub-systems on heart rate. Other effects of the two sub-systems shown below :
EFFECTS OF THE SYMPATHETIC SUB-SYSTEM BEING ‘LOCKED ON’ :
- increased heart rate
- anger / rage / hostility
- chronic pain
- emotional flooding
- digestion inhibited
- adrenal glands secrete epinephrine and norepinephrine
- bronchioles are dilated
EFFECTS OF THE PARASYMPATHETIC SUB-SYSTEM BEING ‘LOCKED ON’ :
- decreased heart rate
- flatness of affect / emotional numbness
- lethargy / exhaustion / chronic fatigue
- low blood pressure
NB. The normal function of the parasympathetic sub-system is to facilitate rest and recovery after the sympathetic sub-system has been activated and the danger has passed – however, severe trauma can lead to the body ‘shutting down’ too much leading to symptoms such as those shown above.
A therapy that has been specifically designed for individuals who have experienced trauma leading to dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system (as described above) is called SOMATIC EXPERIENCING THERAPY.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).