Nervous System 101 & Regulation Tools for Trauma Survivors

dysregulated nervous system nervous system 101 nervous system basics regulation self regulation survival mode tools for trauma survivors trauma survivor Jan 20, 2023

We created a Free Nervous System Guide for those who are just beginning to understand how trauma is stored in the body and the ways in which unhealed trauma manifests in our behaviors and relationships. This guide will walk you through the how, what, and why of the nervous system - with easy tools you can start using today to help come back to a place of calm and safety within your body. While we will share some of the content in this blog post, download the free guide here for all of the tips, tools, examples and information!

 First, we want to acknowledge that healing can be messy and feel overwhelmingly confusing as you try to make your way back to yourself, but knowing how your body works can make that journey much easier to navigate. 

This blog post and guide offers the basic understanding of your nervous system and the impact trauma has on it, as well as tools to support you in reconnecting with yourself. This may all seem very unfamiliar to you, and that’s ok (it was unfamiliar to us when we began as well). Allow yourself some compassion for what you do not yet know and take it at your own pace. We will walk you through it.

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN IN THIS GUIDE

  • A basic explanation of the nervous system
  • States of the nervous system
  • How trauma is stored in the body
  • What trauma really is
  • The different types of trauma responses
  • Tools to regulate when you’re in survival mode

NERVOUS SYSTEM 101

First, let’s establish an understanding of what the nervous system is. The nervous system is a very sophisticated network of nerve tissues in the body that operates with the intention of ensuring your survival. It is responsible for all your voluntary actions, such as intentional movement, as well as your involuntary actions, like breathing and heartbeat. It is essentially the electrical wiring of your body. It is composed of nerves and neurons that transmit information throughout the body, and are responsible for the communication between the body and the brain. Of this communication, 80% of the neurons take information from the body to the brain, and 20% take information from the brain to the body, via the vagus nerve. This is to say that the nervous system operates on a predominantly bottom-up approach.

There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system that we refer to as the sympathetic branch (activation) and the parasympathetic branch (rest and relaxation). A well regulated nervous system is able to balance a harmonious rhythm between these two branches as it navigates the world for survival. However, trauma will disrupt this rhythm and leave your system feeling “stuck”.

Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “The Body Keeps the Score” and that couldn’t be more true. When the body has detected that it is unsafe and must act to get safe, rational thought, reasoning, speech, explicit memory, and other higher-order functioning goes offline, because they are not essential for survival. The reptilian and mammalian parts of the brain are firing to get you to safety. Herein lies implicit memory - the memory of the body. Your body remembers what it did to survive and what it felt in the trauma to protect itself in the future. It then operates from a survival state moving forward.

 STATES OF THE NERVOUS SYSTEM

Ventral Vagal (Parasympathetic) – Our ventral state is where we experience both safety and
connection. In daily function, this is the state where we find ourselves existing in healthy
homeostasis, ready to engage, socialize, and connect with others, the world around us, and
ourselves. Examples of behaviors and emotions in Vagal: connection to yourself and others, safety, resourced and resourceful, creativity, open-mindedness, social, engaged


Sympathetic – Our sympathetic state is a state of mobilization where we experience the
protective responses of fight and flight. When someone experiences a trigger and the survival responses are activated, the nervous system will employ adaptive protection through action: aggression (flight) or active escape (flight). Examples of behaviors and emotions in Sympathetic: anxious, hyper vigilant, irritable, angry,
high energy, over-productivity, perfectionism, lashing out


Dorsal Vagal (Parasympathetic) – Our dorsal state is a state of immobilization where we
experience disconnection and shut down. In this state, our nervous system protects us by
conserving energy and resources. As a result, we disconnect from others, the world around us, and ourselves. Examples of behaviors and emotions in Dorsal: zoning out, dissociating, numbness, low energy, exhaustion, feeling foggy or out of it, disconnection from yourself and others, feeling invisible


HOW TRAUMA IS STORED IN THE BODY

Trauma is any experience that overwhelms our capacity to cope. It is anything that is too much, too little too soon, or too fast. 

From the famous words of Dr. Gabor Mate: “Trauma is not what happens to you, trauma is what happens inside of you, as a result of what happened to you."

When we experience a traumatic event, the autonomic nervous system can get stuck in a state of dysregulation. The body’s response to trauma can show up in a few different ways. Next we will share the different trauma responses we can experience in the body and a few tools that can support your nervous system in coming back into regulation; otherwise known as your “range of resiliency.”

THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF TRAUMA RESPONSES

Sympathetic / Fight or Flight – 

When you are experiencing a trauma response or dysregulation in the sympathetic branch of your ANS, this can feel like being “stuck on ON.” This is because the sympathetic branch of your nervous system oversees mobilization. When we are in a sympathetic state, our heart rate increases and we produce an abundance of neurochemicals such as epinephrine, cortisol, dopamine, and ATHC which increase our alertness and focus and assist us in escaping the perceived threat. 

What it looks like:

Being stuck in a state of fight or flight can make it seem difficult to slow down and rest. You may feel things like restlessness, anxiety, hypervigilance, hyperactivity, worry, rage, anger, or increased irritability. 

Fawn or Appease – 

The definition of the word “appease” is “active pacification to de-escalate a threatening situation.” This trauma response is more common when the aggressor or threat is someone you know or if the engagement of the fight or flight response could threaten your sense of safety and belonging within your family or community.

What it looks like:

This response can look like doing or saying something that doesn’t align with your truth or values in order to de-escalate a situation that your nervous system perceives to be dangerous or life-threatening. Other ways this response can show up are codependency, having lack of boundaries, or identifying as a people pleaser.

High-tone Dorsal Vagal Complex – 

High-tone dorsal is the trauma response that you experience when your fight or flight response becomes inhibited. This part of your system is in charge of immobilization and can feel like being stuck on “OFF.” It aims to help you minimize the pain of what it perceives to be a life-threatening situation by numbing you and helping you disassociate from your body. This is a slower heart rate and low oxygen state where you release neurochemicals such as GABA, dopamine, adenosine, and endorphins.

What it looks like:

In this state you may experience tonic immobility, shut down, collapse, disassociation, depression, and shame.

Freeze – 

Freeze is a blended state. In the freeze trauma response, you experience equal parts sympathetic energy and equal parts dorsal energy. 

What it looks like: 

This can feel like a combination of symptoms. For example, feeling anxious and stuck at the same time. Feeling like a “deer in the headlights” or shutting down when experiencing high amounts of arousal or overwhelm. 

 

HOW TO REGULATE YOURSELF & COME OUT OF SURVIVAL MODE

As a team of somatic practitioners, we teach clients tools they can use to come out of survival mode. Here are a few techniques you can try. Download our free nervous system guide for examples and instructions for how to do these exercises.

  • Vooing  
  • Orienting 
  • Swaying 
  • Gentle Movement 
  • Co-regulation 

TOOLS FOR EACH NERVOUS SYSTEM STATE

Fight or Flight:

  • Orienting 
  • Vagus Nerve Stimulation
  • Co-regulation

 Freeze:

  • Gentle Movement
  • Vagus Nerve Stimulation
  • Co-regulation
  • Swaying

Thank you for taking the time to learn more about self-regulation tools to come out of flight, fight or freeze states. We hope this blog post gives you a simple yet effective place to start using somatic experiencing techniques. But as you can imagine, there’s so much more to learn and many more modalities to explore. Remember, the free nervous system downloadable has more activities, examples and insight, so we recommend downloading it here for free!

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