Trauma and the Nervous System: What is Trauma?
We often think of trauma as emotional and psychological scars, but trauma also manifests in the body. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), trauma is both an emotional and physical response to harmful or life-threatening events, leaving lasting impacts on our mental and physical well-being. People respond to situations in their own way, and what may have a lasting impact on one person may be different for someone else. It all comes down to how our brains and emotions interpret these events. Many people continue to feel the effects of traumatic events—known as post-traumatic stress—for years after a traumatic experience.
Why am I sharing this as a holistic life coach? Great question!
Well, after spending years in traditional talk therapy and still feeling stuck, I decided it was time for a different approach to tackle my trauma. So, I dove into a ton of research on trauma and the nervous system, and it hit me why talk therapy alone wasn't cutting it for me. Don't get me wrong, talk therapy has its place, but when it comes to trauma, especially the long-lasting kind, addressing just the thoughts was like having only one piece of the puzzle. Even though my mind knew that the trauma was not happening, it felt like my body was stuck in the past. Even the littlest things, like someone giving me a certain look or using a tone of voice that reminded me of past experiences (not necessarily consciously at the time), could really throw me for a loop. For instance, I would suddenly feel very panicky or dissociated. I didn't quite understand it back then, but looking back, it's as if my body was holding onto those past traumas like they were still happening today.
One of my biggest sources of inspiration when it comes to incorporating tools for nervous system regulation to better support my clients as a holistic coach is Victoria Albina. Having done my own nervous system regulation work and listening to Victoria's podcast, I was inspired to switch from being a counselor at an agency to being a holistic coach, incorporating nervous system regulation techniques into my practice at JSAbramson Coaching.
Let's dive in a bit more, shall we?
Fight-Flight-Freeze-Fawn-Collapse: Survival Responses
Have you ever been startled by a sudden, loud noise? What did you feel in your body when that happened? Did your heart race or did you jump out of your seat? Maybe you froze for a second. These are all involuntary physiological responses that prepare us to respond to any perceived threats in our environment.
There are five main survival responses, which are:
Fight responses: These can manifest as irritability, anger, aggressiveness, self-harm, being explosive, and narcissism.
Flight responses: Anxiety, fear, panic, avoidance, chronic worry, perfectionism, workaholic, obsessive-compulsive disorder, hyperactivity.
Freeze responses: Stuckness, immobilization, spacing out, dissociation, depression, shame, difficulty making decisions, isolation, numbness, exhaustion, indecision, and sleeping a lot.
Fawn responses: People pleasing, avoiding conflict, prioritizing others’ needs before own, difficulty saying no, hard setting boundaries, lack of identity, codependence, and self-criticizing.
Flop (Collapse) responses: The body goes into a state of freeze and collapse.
Trauma can disrupt the body's natural balance system, called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Normally, this system helps us switch between being alert and ready for action (fight-or-flight) and feeling calm and relaxed (rest and digest). However, trauma makes the system go haywire, leaving us feeling super jumpy all the time (hyperarousal) or like we're kind of spaced out (hypoarousal).
These feelings can stick around for a long time and impact us both physically and mentally. Even years after a traumatic event, a person may still experience physical sensations and intense emotions connected to those traumatic events. It's as if their body remembers those memories (even if they do not specifically remember the event itself), influencing their daily lives and how they respond to various situations.
Therapeutic Approaches for Trauma Recovery
Many talk therapies often start with a ‘top-down’ approach, mainly focusing on our thoughts. Sometimes, though, it can be a bit tricky to get our logical brain into gear when our body feels all out of sorts. But guess what? Recognizing and addressing those fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and collapse responses is an essential part of trauma recovery. A bottom-up approach to therapy focuses on the limbic system of our brain, where all those memories are stored. This bottom-up approach is especially helpful for those who struggle with complex trauma (CPTSD).
Some bottom-up therapeutic approaches include:
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is designed to target these somatic (body-based) responses. Through the careful and gradual processing of these responses, individuals can release the trapped energy associated with them and move toward healing.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) involves bilateral stimulation by rapid back-and-forth eye movement, which stimulates the brain to process and integrate traumatic memories.
Internal Family System (IFS) promotes healing by accessing and healing your inner parts
When bottom-up approaches are incorporated into therapy, it opens the door for the stored trauma in our body to be processed and released. In turn, this paves the way for our nervous system to regain its balance and become regulated.
Moving Forward with Trauma Healing
If any of this sounds familiar, know that you are not alone. These responses are entirely normal, and healing is possible. Healing from trauma is a journey that isn’t linear and takes time. Remember to practice self-compassion and be patient with yourself. You are doing the best you can, and with the right guidance, you can heal those wounds.
Remember, you are not broken; you're incredibly resilient, and you deserve all the support and kindness in the world!
If you have any questions, please feel free to email me and I'd be more than happy to do my best to answer:) You can find my contact information below.
Shoshana Abramson, Holistic Life Coach Work With Me
About Shoshana: I’m Shoshana, a holistic life coach and the founder of JSAbramson Coaching. Before transitioning to holistic coaching, I worked in the fields of mental health and addiction. With over a decade of experience in mental health, counseling, and holistic life coaching, I have had the privilege of guiding and supporting many people on their path to healing. My educational background includes a B.A. in psychology, a certificate in addiction counseling, and a certificate in NLP coaching (Neuro-Linguistic Programming). I take pride in staying updated with the latest research in mental health and holistic living, ensuring that the information I share is not only reliable but also backed by credible sources. My aim is to provide you with valuable information, insights, practical tips, and effective strategies dedicated to promoting mental health and overall well-being. Feel free to explore my other blog posts, and don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions.