So often the word “trauma” freaks people out. Just the mention of the word can feel triggering to those who have it and it can also trigger those who are scared at the thought of having it. It gains a bad wrap because it is often portrayed as something HUGE, SCARY and PERMANENT. But the key to moving on from trauma is to understanding what it is, where it is and how to work WITH it, not against it.
Let’s lay some foundations first as to what trauma is, how common it is and how most of us living on this planet have experienced it. Much to peoples surprise, Trauma is NOT the event of what happened. It is the body’s REACTION to overwhelming stimulation that happened at the time the event occurred or was continuously occurring.
For example, take the instance of two people being involved in the same event. One can be deeply affected by the event, and yet the other isn’t. That event continues to have a lasting effect on the first person, yet the second person can move forward in life seemingly unaffected.
This is as a result of how the body reacted to the event at the time it happened or was continuously
happening. This demonstrates that trauma does not occur in what happened but is as a result of the internal response of each individual.
What this then means is, we have power in shifting and moving on from the trauma as we can change our bodies response as opposed to needing to change the event that happened, which is
Here are some examples of what trauma can be :
Having a childhood where you are more the parent than the child
Not having your emotional needs met as a child
Not having your physical needs met as a child
Death of a parent or close family member
Divorce of parents
Having to move a lot as a child
Having a parent that was chronically ill
Having a parent that was mentally or emotionally ill
Living in an environment where parents fought regularly.
Not having been communicated with regularly as a child
Not feeling safe in your environment
Being denied your reality or feelings ie – “stop that crying, get over it, oh that didn’t hurt.”
High stress work environment
Child of chronically stressed parents
Physical illness or injury
As you can see there are quite few items in that list that are commonly experienced by many. Often those experiences aren’t realised to be the cause of trauma and are not associated with symptoms that show up as a result of that trauma later on in life.
The power in awareness is that once we know something we have the choice to change it. Once we are aware that what we are experiencing is as a result of trauma, we can work with our bodies to heal it and in turn move forward and experience life in a completely different way.
So how do we know if we are experiencing trauma in our lives now ?
The answer here is …it shows up in our bodies.
At the time of a stressful event or continuous stressful event, our autonomic nervous system switches on and assesses the safety of the situation. The autonomic nervous system controls our internal environment automatically, working beneath our awareness and level of consciousness.
It is a primitive, natural and organic system.
There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system. Sympathetic: Activates the flight & fight response. Parasympathetic: Also called rest & digest, is the system that conserves our energy. But there is also a separate branch of the Parasympathetic that is called the Dorsal response and this ultimately activates the freeze or shut down response when the sympathetic response can not be activated. The above responses happen in service of our safety.
These branches work together and in response to safety and danger. That means, we automatically adjust to cues of safety or danger. Interestingly, these cues can be from the external environment, within our own bodies, or simply from our perception. And the thing here is our perception beats reality. So even if the situation was safe, if we FELT unsafe in the situation we will react accordingly.
Often at the time of the event or continuous event when our cues of danger come on line into our body we can not do the thing we needed to do at the time to find safety, as it wasn’t safe to do so.
Maybe we wanted to run, but froze. Maybe we wanted fight, but it wasn’t safe to act out. When we can’t act out the thing we need to do at the time in order to bring ourselves to true safety and nervous system regulation then we have an incomplete nervous system response in our body, also know as a dis-regulated nervous system.
This is how the trauma response gets TRAPPED in the body. We get stuck in a survival response, where our body is always perceiving a threat and acting accordingly. What then happens is, every time we perceive threat or danger or we are experiencing a stressful situation (which even these days can be the pinging of notifications on our phone), even if the event isn’t actually unsafe, our body will react as it did back at the time of that main instigating event/s from the past and will go into the response in the body as if it is actually still happening in real time. Often we are unaware our current actions have to do with the reaction to a past event.
Here are some ways trauma responses may show up continually in our lives
through the Sympathetic Response:
• Feeling out of synch with others..this may feel like you can’t connect with people.
• Feeling alarmed, always on the defence at the smallest of things.
• Feeling anxious, heart racing, throughs racing, overwhelm, panic, doing and not resting.
• Hyper vigilant, hyper aware of your surroundings and everyone in it. Can also be seen
• Misreading cues – inability to read social cues or jumping to conclusions.
• Listening for sounds of danger, can often feel jumpy at the sudden noises.
• Bursts of anger, flying off the handle for the smallest of reasons, responses are out of
proportion for the incident.
• Comparing ourselves to others.
• Judging others.
• Driving to compete.
• Anger, rage, fear, frustration, body wants to move, increased adrenaline and cortisol.
• Anxiety, panic attacks, the need to control external circumstances.
• Disrupted sleep, bursts of energy and then fatigue.
• Common sensations: increased heart rate, heavy breathing, muscle rigidity, tightness in
chest, shaking, perspiration, dizziness, fainting, sweaty palms, overall tightness, heat,
shaking, fidgety, too much energy, light headed, clenching, exploding like sensations,
Here are some ways trauma responses may show up continually in our lives
through the Parasympathetic Dorsal Response:
• Withdrawal, isolating self and not wanting to interact with others.
• Shut down, depression and wanting to sleep the majority of the time.
• Feeling foggy or numb, not feeling present in any given moment.
• Going through the motions without awareness, lights are on and functioning but no-one
• Disconnected from self, others, the world and spirit.
• Feeling lost, abandoned, or invisible.
• Disappearing into a state of not knowing, not being and not feeling, just giving up.
• Feeling like you will never measure up.
• Difficulties with memory.
• Numbness, heaviness, low energy, difficulty focusing, flat facial expressions, fogginess,
difficulty speaking, your body does not want to move.
• Apathy, depression, hopelessness, aloneness, slow shallow breathing, difficulty making
• Common sensations: numb, cold, limp, low energy, foggy, weightless, slow, short
breaths, inability to talk, jello-like, heavy, etc.
So often when people don’t understand their autonomic nervous systems responses to stressful events we can live day after day just feeling like we are STUCK in life. Like this is just what life has to offer. There is no hope. It’s just WHO we are. There is no way out. And so often the common long lasting effects of this stuck traumatic response is anxiety and depression.
Anxiety is having the foot stuck on the sympathetic peddle and depression is having the foot stuck on the parasympathetic dorsal pedal. Those responses don’t switch off and as a result we live a life stuck in these responses.
Now another piece to this puzzle is….EMOTION.
And so often it is not realised that the emotions we feel at the time of a traumatic event IS the thing that felt unsafe. For instance….. in the case of a death, the emotion of grief or sadness can arise in the body.
We feel it through the sense of overwhelming sensation rising up through our body and we perceive that if we have to feel it in its entirety it might eat us alive. We won’t be able to cope, we will fall apart and not be able to carry on. So in this instance the danger is the emotion. The emotion is not safe to feel because if we do we may not be able to go on.
In service of survival, our autonomic nervous system flies into protective mode and activates a response to that emotion so that we do not have to feel that emotion in its entirety at the time. The emotion then gets stuck in our body through sensation. However, it sits underneath the response of the nervous system and we are often unaware it even exists. Until a similar event or another event that brings up the same emotion occurs again and instead of feeling that emotion we simply respond to it with examples of the above
sympathetic or parasympathetic responses.
For example ever noted that you fly off the handle when someone cuts you off in traffic?! Initially you get a fright, that cold heart feeling for a second but instead of feeling the entirety of that sensation in your body you go into an anger response but it feels completely disproportionate to what actually happened?
Or perhaps you noted this in a partner or friend when they were driving? Well that is a result of the sympathetic response to the fear emotion that is felt. It didn’t feel “safe” to actually feel that fear in the moment…maybe because you were driving or maybe because that fear remained in your body from another time when it felt that same fear and it wasn’t willing to go into feeling the intensity of that emotion again.
So in a way to protect you from feeling that fear, it activated the sympathetic nervous system response of rage or fight. Aren’t we complex yet fascinating beings?
Our body is constantly working for us in service of survival. But if we are not aware of ourselves, our experiences and our responses to experiences we can often become stuck in this state of survival. So the biggest takeaway that I would love to gift you from reading all of this is the gift of curiosity and self inquiry?
How much of what you feel or what your symptoms are may be from your past experiences? And with that in mind, and learning how you tick, how empowering do you think it would be to actually start to investigate yourself? To go deeper into your body, your being and your nervous system to start to unravel and recreate yourself in a regulated way. The good news ……… you don’t have to stay stuck in these responses. There is another way to live. Our amazing bodies also have a system which is part of the parasympathetic branch, called the SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT SYSTEM.
The social engagement system is responsible for:
• Self compassion
• Comparison for others
When the social engagement system is on we can feel:
• Laughter, safety, being in the present moment, experiencing flow.
• Creativity, childlike wonder, play, intuition, desire, contentment.
• Homeostasis in mind/body.
• Purpose, empathy, love, compassion, joyful sexuality, intimacy.
• Relaxation in the body, energy levels are full but not over stimulated.
• Connection to self, others, nature, your own form of spirituality, and grounded in your
sense of truth.
When we feel safe in the world we can activate our social engagement system. When we feel safe in our bodies we can connect to, feel and move through the emotion that is stored within. When we start to do the “ME-search”, the research of getting to know how we tick, and how we can feel safe not only in our lives but in our bodies….. anything is possible. True change can occur. And this is the work I do with my clients. I provide safety, connection, regulation and collaboration with my clients so they can do the “ME-search”.
Together we can get curious, start to inquire within and find that sense of self that is not governed from the past but is a TRUE expression of WHO they really are despite your life experiences.
You can start to understand yourself at a deeper level and really reach towards a life of true purpose and meaning, not suffering. Does something resonate here for you? If so, feel free to get in contact with me for a free 15 minute discovery call, or you can book in via the NBIP website for an Initial Kinesiology session to get started. I am here in clinic every Thursday.