The traumatized state has been likened to the effects of the simultaneous depression of both a car’s gas pedal (accelerator) and brake. I explain why below:
Our physiological state of arousal is determined by the interplay between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and these two systems have the following functions :
THE SYMPATHETIC AND PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEMS
THE SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM: Activation of the sympathetic nervous system induces in us the state of ‘fight or flight.‘ To do this, it ENERGIZES us by, for example, increasing the heart rate so more blood can be pumped to our muscles so we can run away faster or fight more powerfully. In this sense, using the above car analogy, the sympathetic nervous system can be likened to the car’s gas pedal/accelerator.
THE PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM: In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system, when activated, acts to calm us down and induces a restful state; so, to again use the car analogy, the parasympathetic nervous system can be likened to the car’s braking system.
COMPARING HUMAN PHYSIOLOGICAL RESPONSES TO THOSE OF ANIMALS LIVING IN THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT:
Peter Levine, a leading expert on trauma and the developer of somatic experiencing therapy, explains that traumatized individuals are in a dysfunctional physiological state due to the nervous system entering a state of non-equilibrium which he illustrates by explaining why animals living in their natural environment do not tend to become traumatized as I explain below.
LIONS AND ZEBRAS:
To give a simple example: a zebra threatened by a lion will take flight (i.e. run away’) aided by the extra energy its muscles receive due to activation of its sympathetic nervous system. Assuming it lives to get away, the energy supplied by the activation of the aforementioned sympathetic nervous system will have been naturally discharged during the chase.
A second example is that of two lions fighting each other. Both are given extra energy due to the activation of their respective sympathetic nervous systems and, assuming neither is killed, this energy is naturally discharged during the fight.
Now contrast the above two examples from the animal kingdom with an example involving a human being. In modern-day society, the majority of traumatic experiences we face do not allow us to deal with them by literally running away or physically fighting.
Because of this, the energy generated by the ‘fight or flight’ response (via activation of the sympathetic nervous system) cannot be properly discharged (because often, especially in the case of young children, running away or fighting are not possible) but, instead, becomes ‘trapped in the body,’ rather like steam trapped in a pressure cooker. This can result in a third type of stress response, sometimes referred to as the FREEZE response.
In the FREEZE RESPONSE, this trapped, undischarged energy is stored in the body as neuropeptides and, if these chemicals remain unprocessed, they give rise to symptoms of posttraumatic stress which include feeling constantly unsafe, being unable to properly relax, and being hypersensitive to any perceived threat (also referred to as hypervigilance).
SOMATIC EXPERIENCING THERAPY:
Somatic Experiencing Therapy was developed by Peter Levine in order to treat the conditions described above and other trauma-related conditions (such as anxiety, grief, and depression). Its aim is to release the nervous energy produced by the traumatic experience (e.g. domestic abuse) during the fight/flight state that has been trapped in the body and created stress-related problems such as hypervigilance, dissociation, and feeling disconnected from one’s body.
Somatic experiencing, based on the idea of a powerful ‘mind-body’ connection, helps give people a better awareness of their internal experiences, including kinesthetic, proprioceptive, and interoceptive experiences, and helps the person in therapy make use of this new awareness to process and ameliorate sensations causing pain and distress. The idea is that by first reducing physical symptoms such as extreme muscle tension (see: Is Your Chronic Pain Linked To Muscle Armouring?) it is easier for the individual who is being treated to respond positively to therapy targetting emotional and psychological conditions. Somatic experiencing therapy is, for this reason, known as a ‘bottom-up’ (as opposed to ‘top-down’) therapy.
You can find much more about this by visiting traumahealing.org (external link).
Overcome Hypervigilance | Self Hypnosis Downloads
Payne P, Levine PA, Crane-Godreau MA. Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy. Frontiers in Psychology. 2015;6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00093