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?
1. 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.
2. The Para-Sympathetic 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 two of them and the result 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 :
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.
THE CASE OF THE BRAKE AND THE ACCELERATOR (GAS PEDAL) BEING LOCKED ON AT THE SAME TIME:
Levine has compared the sympathetic nervous system to our inbuilt accelerator (or gas-pedal in the U.S.) in as far as it ‘speeds us up’ and energizes us and the parasympathetic nervous system us out internal ‘braking system’ (in effect, it ‘slows us down’). He also states that not only can ONE of the systems be locked on (as explained above) but, sometimes, they can BOTH (i.e. the sympathetic AND parasympathetic) be locked on at the same time. The analogy that Levine uses to illustrate this is that, when our nervous system is in this ‘double-locked-on’ state it is rather like having both the brake and the accelerator (gas pedal) pressed down AT THE SAME TIME.
This state can occur, states Levine, when a traumatic experience affects us in such a way that it cannot be resolved by the nervous system’s ‘fight or flight’ response (i.e. we can neither resist it with aggression nor flee from it or escape it) causing us, instead, to take refuge in a state of frozen immobility. This means that energy generated by the sympathetic nervous system cannot be discharged through the acts of either ‘fighting’ or ‘fleeing’ and, in effect, becomes ‘trapped’ in the body’s nervous system causing a myriad of unpleasant symptoms.
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).