Trauma, negative experiences (real or perceived) and chronic stress, create a dysregulated nervous system.

Our automatic nervous system (ANS) takes care of a lot of our automatic functions like heart beat, digestion and body temperature. Our automatic nervous system also takes care of our stress response, working to keep you alive when your life is in danger. Our ANS functions is our built-in detection system constantly scanning our environment for cues of safety and danger.

A healthy automatic nervous system

When our ANS functions well it moves fluidly from mobilised and ready for action to resting and recovering.

When our ANS remains flexible it helps us to remain resilient to stress and negative events.

Unfortunately when we experience trauma and chronic stress it can keep our ANS from functioning in a healthy, regulated and resilient way and can keep us stuck in states of survival. A friendly get together can become frightening; a simple meeting at work can become threatening. At these moments the ANS detection system becomes faulty, constantly signalling danger, even when we are safe. In these moments your ANS becomes an alarm system, constantly signalling fire, even when there’s no smoke and no flames.

Constantly living in these conditions can be debilitating, and we often develop adaptive strategies in an attempt to bring regulation and temporary relief.

Understanding how trauma impacts us, and those around us, is critically important. In the past we used to think of trauma as something that happened to us, we now know that trauma is an experience, not an event.

A chronically dysregulated nervous system is often the root cause of several emotional and physical symptoms. When our ANS gets stuck in survival states, our biology shifts focus from the tasks that keep us healthy, happy and thriving to surviving the immediate perceived threat. Many conditions and symptoms that are chronic, difficult to diagnose and treat, can be attributed to a dysfunctional ANS.

Trauma compromises our ability to engage with others, replacing the need for connection with the need for protection.

Fortunately we can retrain our ANS to feel safe again. When engaged in activities with others we can co-regulate. Activities such as being in contact with nature, yoga, mindfulness can also help.

There is an emerging field of innovative clinical therapies like Somatic Experiencing® that can contribute to (re-) finding a healthy, flexible and resilient nervous system.

Adapted from: The trauma foundation – Trauma and the Nervous System: A Polyvagal Perspective


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