Trauma and the body
A somatic print
We can all be exposed to events that go beyond our capacity for processing and our tolerance capacity.
An accident, a catastrophe, a violence, they are all traumatic events. Potentially, because psychic trauma assumes a definite mental state: impotence.
For this reason, when we talk about individual events, is very important to consider mediation through subjective states of mind. Moreover, when these experiences are isolated cases, when they are followed by adequate support, we possess the ability to overcome them. To integrate them into our history despite their destructive potential.
When the traumatic events are repeated over time, if we did not have an optimal affective development at the base or we did not have any caregivers to provide protection, these events can leave a mark.
This sign is the reactivation of an implicit memory, written on the body.
We don’t have to think about trauma just in extreme terms.
Even an emotional neglect in childhood constitutes a trauma. Expecially because cognitive abilities in a child are undeveloped, and dependence on parental figures are at maximum level. Meaning maximum impotence.
Traumatic memories occur in the form of a change in the level of activation, or arousal. These changes are related to the triggering of defensive responses, mediated by the autonomic nervous system. Let’s see how this happens.
The window of tolerance and arousal
The activation state is at an optimum level when it is within a certain range. Above or below this, we enter a state of alert, or arousal. The alert reports a danger.
This does not imply that we should only experience neutral or positive experiences. It would not be possible to avoid any negative event.
However, we should have such flexibility that we can withstand some stressful events if they do not exceed the tolerance range in an imposing way.
In the face of activating situations, or resembling those at the origin of the trauma itself, the body reenact the same activation stored in past events.
Unlike other animals, humans can perceive as threatening stimuli that are not only real physical threats, but also stimuli that we have learned to consider dangerous, such as beeing yelled at, or the emerging of a negative memory.
Based on our history of attachment, even receiving a hug or asking for help or to be comforted can pose a threat and activate our defense systems.
During these states of disregulation of the level of arousal (hyper-or hypo-activation) the mind has no possibility of processing and integrating such events in our personality.
We simply witness a reissue of the traumatic experience and the bodily response of fear or terror.
The contribution of Porges
The Polyvagal Theory of Stephen Porges describes three subsystems of the autonomic nervous system, that is that part of the nervous system that controls vegetative, involuntary functions, such as breathing and heartbeat. The three subsystems are organized in a hierarchy and govern our neurobiological reactions of arousal to environmental stimuli. They are:
- The parasympathetic ventral branch of the vagus nerve (active during social engagement)
- The sympathetic system (active during mobilization, in responses such as fight/flight)
- The dorsal parasympathetic branch of the vagus nerve (active in extreme immobilization by terror)
Each of these three subsystems corresponds to each of the three zones of our tolerance window: the first one corresponds to the optimal activation, the sympathetic system activates with the hyperactivation, and the parasympathetic dorsal nucleus instead corresponds to the hypo-activation. The most recent system in brain evolution is the ventral vagal branch. This is active when we are in the optimum spectrum of the tolerance window, facilitating social interaction, establishing attachment bonding and social ties in general. The system is disabled when, for reasons related to survival, quick responses of fight/flight are required. In case of danger. The response of immobilization by hypo-arousal corresponds to the states of fake death that the mammals stage as extreme defense from the predators.
In our daily life, when our level of activation is within the optimum area, the arousal fluctuates naturally in response to environmental stimuli. The activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system remains in equilibrium. Each system is in slight dominance over the other at any given time. These adjustments are used to modulate the arousal properly.
Hyperactivation responses, linked to excessive activity of the parasympathetic system, produce what we commonly know as an fight/flight responses. The brain structures responsible for behavioral planning are functionally disconnected from those that process the emotions, that is, there is no more communication between these areas. This functional dis-integration does not allow to regulate the fear response in an inhibitory sense. These therefore become extreme (freezing, flight, active avoidance, or explosive rage).
The dis-regulation by hypoactivation manifest itself by a freezing and immobility state, called cataplexy, by numbing and dissociation of consciousness. The person can feel detached from himself, feel a sense of mental blurring or feel isolated and/or separated from others and the context, de-realized.
Each individual has a particular amplitude of its optimal arousal area. On the basis of this, the processing capacity of the environmental information changes at a given time. The ability to plan, organize daily activities and manage social relationships. People with a wider window of tolerance can also overcome changes in important arousal and manage to integrate information and environmental stimuli in an effective way. Those who instead have a narrower tolerance window live the fluctuations as unsettling events. They can perceive stimuli as being more activating. They run more frequently in states of hypo or hyper arousal.
What are the factors that affect the tolerance of each individual?
There are several variables that determining our tolerance to events capable of activating the defense systems, in particular mong these are temperament and life experiences. Many people are more “excitable” or sensitive from their birth. On this biological basis, environment and our history of attachment act, along with and subsequent experiences over the years. These can in fact get an individual sensitized.
What is the use of all this in therapy?
In therapy it is important becoming aware of our own thresholds linked to arousal and to identify somatic signals of arousal that pass the optimal area.
It is also important to expand the threshold of the tolerance window to prevent emotional disregulation states. This allows the person to live more functional relationships and to be more effective in the relationships themselves. Improve metacognitive skills, or the ability to use thought to reflect on their own and other mental states. To know how to regulate and modulate emotions without being overwhelmed.
In the light of a traumatic life history, a psychotherapy oriented to the stabilization of defense responses plays a central role. As far as we have said, in fact, if the person is in a state of hypo or hyper arousal while talking about his experience, this can hinder the process of integration and reprocessing of experiences.
Therefore to intervene starting from bottom-up interventions can be the key, passing through the body and the somatic traces of the trauma.
Only at a later time it would be possible to work on a higher functioning level (reasoning, inferences etc…) and that is from top to bottom. Pat Ogden’s sensorimotor psychotherapy is one of the therapeutic approaches that acts through this pathway, intervening to rewrite the bodily traces of trauma in people’s history.
For further information: