Are you experiencing ongoing health issues that just can’t seem to be resolved—autoimmune disease, chronic gut issues, maybe things like neurodegenerative disease? Maybe you’ve experienced trauma as a child or as an adult, and you know that it might be affecting your body physically, but you’re just not sure how?
In this blog, we’re going to talk about the biology of trauma—how trauma can affect our physiology.
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Why understanding the biology of trauma is important
I’m interested in trauma because I have experienced a fair amount of trauma in my life, just like so many of us have. One of the things that I’ve learned, however, is how movement has healed my body. Understanding the science of why movement is so powerful in healing and being able to discharge energy is so important. Also, understanding how, without addressing repressed and suppressed emotions and trauma, it can result in physical issues, such as cancer and other chronic health conditions.
The Polyvagal Theory and how it relates to trauma
I think it’s always helpful to start with the Polyvagal Theory. This theory is by Dr. Steven Porges, and it really gives us a great visual representation of our nervous system.
Ventral vagal state (social engagement/safety)
As we break down the three aspects of our responses to our nervous system, let’s start with the state of social engagement. I like to refer to that as our state of safety, our state of connection, and our ability to relate. This is where we can connect to ourselves, connect to the greater world, and be compassionate, grounded, and mindful. From a physiological standpoint, this is where we’re able to rest and digest and have optimal immunity, mobility, and digestion in our gut.
Sympathetic state (mobilization/activation)
When we think about our fight or flight response, which many of us are familiar with, we consider it as our survival mechanism. In the fight or flight state, we’re primed to survive. Blood rushes to our extremities, our pupils dilate, and our blood pressure and heart rate elevate. We’re preparing to either fight or flee to ensure our survival.
Dorsal vagal state (immobilization/collapse/emergency)
Then, there’s our freeze state, also referred to as the dorsal vagal state, while the state of social engagement is known as the ventral vagal state.
In this freeze state, we can become overwhelmed, disconnected, and even experience shutdown or suicidal thoughts. From a physiological standpoint, you can think of it as our emergency state. Our body doesn’t know what else to do and simply can’t continue. This is where trauma comes into play.
When we’re in a fight or flight state, we activate the HPA axis, our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is our body’s stress pathway. This is when cortisol and adrenaline are released, and it’s meant to protect us. It’s not inherently a bad state, as we often think. However, if this state persists for an extended period, with continuous stressors, we reach a point where we just can’t go on anymore.
When we haven’t dealt with these things, we can’t even process them. Additionally, consider that when we don’t have enough in the tank to keep going—not enough nutrients due to the damage caused by constant cortisol and adrenaline release—we become depleted. In either of these two cases, we move into a freeze state, which is our dorsal vagal response, our emergency state. This is when physical issues start to manifest.
In this state, we might receive a new diagnosis of an autoimmune disease. We might begin to experience dysautonomia, a dysregulation of our nervous system, which includes heart rate fluctuations such as bradycardia (low heart rate) or tachycardia (high heart rate). We could also experience symptoms like dizziness and blood pressure dysregulation.
Additionally, we could develop conditions like cancer or persistent gut issues that we keep trying to treat but just can’t seem to get better. Often, this is where the biology of trauma begins to reveal itself. When trauma hasn’t been addressed or discharged, it leads to physiological changes that ultimately alter our biology. These changes affect how our physical being copes with life’s stressors and continue to function.
The role of fascia in trauma response
Additionally, we also need to consider the fascial aspect of our physical response to trauma. When we’ve experienced any kind of trauma, it can look very different for each person, as it’s filtered through our own unique lenses, including our belief systems, values, and biases. Two individuals exposed to the same event might have entirely different responses due to these factors.
Regarding fascia, think of it as our three-dimensional network surrounding our organs and muscles, acting like the glue that holds everything together and serving as our force transmission system. However, when we have patterns of trauma, whether physical or emotional, it can ultimately impact all the information traveling to the brain. In our fascia, we have more interoceptors than proprioceptors. Interoceptors are the receptors responsible for providing us with internal awareness of self, like hunger, pain, heart rate, and breathing rate.
So, information from our internal environment is constantly signaling to the brain. These cues are consistently directed to the insular cortex of the brain, which is another major factor in how we hold these patterns in our body.
To illustrate, consider if you’ve ever had a scar, whether it’s from a c-section, thyroid tracheotomy, or any other type of scar on your body. A scar is essentially fascia with collagen fibers that typically have a certain arrangement but become cross-linked, making the tissue strong but less elastic. When we begin to address these scars, we often experience emotional releases. This is because a scar is connected to many things, including our physical tissue and the traumatic events related to surgery, falls, or injuries.
Working on a scar can lead to significant emotional releases, shedding light on how our fascia and tissue influence our emotions. By considering all this information, there is a path to healing your body both physically and emotionally.
How you can heal your body
So, how can you heal your body?
1. Address your health conditions
First, you want to address your health conditions. This might sound counterintuitive, as you may have expected me to say to address the trauma first. However, when your body is simply unable to cope any longer and you’re completely depleted, addressing these physical issues becomes crucial.
This depletion can manifest as nutrient deficiencies, such as magnesium and zinc, especially when you’re under significant stress, which depletes these essential nutrients needed for overall function. You also need to address physical issues like gut problems, including parasites, SIBO, or leaky gut. If you’re dealing with mitochondrial issues leading to chronic fatigue, chronic pain, and similar problems, these must be addressed as well.
Addressing these physical issues allows your body to start processing some of the emotions and provides the opportunity for your body to feel safe again. In the state of social engagement, we need to feel safe and connected. Unresolved past traumas that haven’t been processed leave us feeling unsafe as if we’re in a constant emergency state. Therefore, it’s important to address physical issues to kickstart the journey of healing from trauma.
2. Bottom-up approach
We often think about dealing with our trauma and emotions, in general, from a cognitive perspective. We try to rationalize and talk ourselves out of feeling a certain way in various circumstances, which can be quite challenging. When we consider a bottom-up approach, we focus on somatics, which essentially means movement.
Somatic practices involve utilizing the body to process and discharge emotional energy. One key aspect is working with the fascial tissue. It’s important to move the body in a safe way, allowing ourselves to release and process this energy literally. Various practices can help on this journey, such as somatic experiencing and Dance Movement therapy, which is considered one of the original somatic practices. The core idea in somatics is a movement-based approach.
For example, you can try a simple exercise like the butterfly hug. Bring your arms over your chest, interlace your fingers, and let your hands rest gently on your chest. Just this act can bring comfort, soothe your feelings, and make you feel safe and supported. Begin to alternate and create a slight vibration in your body, providing sensory information and allowing your body to settle in.
It’s important to stay in the exercise until you genuinely feel a response. Often, we cut such practices too short. Don’t rush it. Allow yourself the gift of time to feel comforted and safe. Whether that takes 1 minute, 3 minutes, or 5 minutes, it’s okay.
3. Integrate everything together
Third, it’s essential to integrate everything together because we must ensure that we’re addressing the physical issues comprehensively. We can’t simply attribute a physical health condition solely to trauma. Instead, we need to examine the physical condition in isolation and make sure we’re managing all aspects of it. This includes treating symptoms and addressing the underlying causes while simultaneously working on the journey of learning to regulate your nervous system.
Understanding the power of the autonomic nervous system is crucial. You can find more information on this in my blogs and videos about the vagus nerve. There are numerous ways to examine how our nervous system functions and regulates our autonomic functions, which encompass everything from our breathing and heart rate to digestion and swallowing. When we can address all these aspects, we create a more comprehensive approach to healing.
We learn how to regulate our nervous system throughout the day, enabling us to return to a resilient zone. This allows us to navigate any stressors that come our way, whether they’re flying at us rapidly or occasionally. However, it takes time, practice, and a deep understanding of your nervous system.
When you truly understand your nervous system, you realize that you have significant control over it, and you gain the power to choose what to do, when to do it, and how to do it for yourself. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. In my online vagus nerve course and somatic course, I provide various exercises, but you have to find what resonates with you personally.
By addressing this through a movement-based approach, taking care of physical issues, and understanding the connection between your physical health and trauma, we can truly help you heal your body and live your best, thriving life.
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