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 there 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 but, instead, becomes ‘trapped in the body’, rather like steam trapped in a pressure cooker.
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
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).