Let’s talk about how trauma affects the body. We know that in a healthy nervous system, we move easily between the three states of sympathetic, slow parasympathetic (ventral vagal), and quick shutdown (dorsal vagal).
In a nervous system that has undergone trauma (or overloads of stress), the nervous system can become fixated in one or more process. It can become stuck in high sympathetic tone (fight/ flight) or stuck in the dorsal vagal response (freeze).
When the body has been through trauma or an overload of stress, the nervous system can get out of balance. It’s possible for a nervous system that’s out of whack to continually fire off the sympathetic response; or to continually go into freeze. It’s also possible to be stuck in a freeze state for years or decades. This is called a “functional freeze”, when the person is able to move through their day to day life and perform basic functions- but at a deep level, the nervous system is in a state of shutdown.
Under stress, some folks tend towards sympathetic dominance, and some tend towards parasympathetic dominance.
A nervous system that is stuck in high sympathetic tone might manifest symptoms such as anxiety, panic, ADD or ADHD, insomnia, or emotional “flooding”.
A system that is stuck in “freeze” might exhibit symptoms such as depression, apathy, or low blood pressure. Complex syndromal conditions such as Fibromyalgia and Myalgic Encephalitis/ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome are also associated with a nervous system stuck in freeze.
Digestive issues can be associated with either high sympathetic or high dorsal vagal tone.
As humans, we are incredibly resilient. It is possible to function, move through our lives, hold down jobs and create families and creative projects, all while operating from a nervous system stuck in fight/ flight or in freeze. The problem is that a good amount of our energy is tied up in maintaining the dysfunctional pattern.
Understanding how our system is functioning can be a helpful first step in re-wiring our systems. Take a moment to notice and think about where you habitually “go”, under stress. Does you tend towards high sympathetic: hyperactivity, racing thoughts, insomnia, and anxiety? Or do you experience a sense of “shutdown” in the form of apathy, depression, a vague “stuck” sensation, or being unable to think? Perhaps, there is a mix of both, or a sense of bouncing between the two responses.
The good news is that our bodies, brains, and nervous systems are not only resilient but malleable and flexible. We can literally rewire our brains and nervous systems to create responses in our bodies that support our health and well being.