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Trauma And the Nervous System

Imagine you are on a train, similar to the one from the popular movie, The Polar Express. Now imagine this 12-cylinder engine ramping up to top speed. You may feel terrified, unsafe, and threatened. This is our sympathetic nervous system being activated, and its job is to keep us safe. Our ability to think becomes clouded, and we will automatically choose the option with the highest chances of survival.


Train analogy related to movement in life.

Now, imagine you are on a different train, and everything is moving along smoothly, you reach your destination safely, and all is fine and dandy. This calm and safe feeling is when our parasympathetic nervous system is activated.


Our reaction to a perceived threat is directly linked to the sensitivity of the nervous system. When our brain senses a threat, no matter the size, there is an unconscious reaction happening that activates the amygdala. The amygdala does not know the difference between a small threat, such as a traffic jam, or a large threat, such as being chased by a bear in the woods (Bremner, 2006).


I’m sure we have all heard of the “flight, fight, or freeze” response, but here is a quick overview of what each of these looks like according to an article written by Kristin Nunez, a health journalist with a Master of Science in nutrition background:  


The Fight Response: Breathing becomes quick and shallow, followed by anger or a short temper, and then ‘butterflies’ in our stomach, are all signs that our body is redirecting blood flow to our muscles so we can fight.   


The Flight Response: If the threat is too big to fight off, often the next best option is to run away. Feeling sweaty, having shaky legs, or breathing quickly are all ways our body can send oxygen to our legs signaling us to run or flee. I’d like to add that often this response results in uncomfortable feelings of embarrassment and shame. This can reinforce negative self-talk such as “I am weak” or “I can’t protect myself”. This couldn’t be far enough from the truth. Deciding to leave a threatening situation IS protecting yourself.


The Freeze Response: Think of a rabbit who sees a fox, they immediately play dead to avoid being eaten by the fox. In this case, the amygdala has chosen that this response increases our chance of survival. We tend to hold our breath, feel dizzy, feel hyper-alert of our surroundings, or feel stuck. Since we can’t run away, and we can’t fight, our amygdala has decided that it’s best to ‘play dead’, or from a more relatable standpoint, stay still and pray the threat does not see us and goes away.


Human brain showing the location of Amygdala.

So how does this relate to trauma? We all have something called a “defensive response cycle”, also known as the “defense cascade” according to the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. When we complete the cycle, our parasympathetic nervous system lets our brain know that we are safe, and can move on with daily living. On the other hand, if we do not complete this cycle, our body will still respond as though the threat is present. This results in trauma which can be carried with us for years.


As trauma persists, something called our “window of tolerance” begins to narrow. The narrower our window of tolerance is, the more likely our sympathetic nervous system will take over making us feel like we are still under some sort of threat.


The wider our window of tolerance, the more likely we are to ground ourselves, feel in control, regulate our emotions, and navigate stressful events.


In cases involving ongoing and significant trauma, the nervous system becomes sensitive to a wide variety of stimuli, leading to an almost constant feeling of anxiousness and hyperarousal.


There is no way I am ending this blog post here, so take a deep breathe, and continue reading.


Let me introduce you to “The Vagus Nerve”. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in our body and is connected directly to the parasympathetic nervous system, better known as our calm, relaxing, happy state of being. The vagus nerve is also connected to other organs in our body such as the heart, stomach, intestines, and lungs. Simply put, the more you stimulate your vagus nerve, the more your physical and mental health can improve following a traumatic event or multiple traumatic events.


Vagus Nerve
Vagus Nerve as shown on www.meddists.com
The vagus nerve (from Latin, wandering, due to its tortuous path that reaches all the way down to the abdomen) is the main parasympathetic nerve of the head.

The below list of effective practices comes from the Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. These rituals are proven ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. If this list feels overwhelming, try one practice at a time, and be aware of how you feel both physically and mentally. Play around with this, find what works for you. Implement at least one activity to stimulate your vagus nerve at least once per day, working your way up from there. Here are some examples:


Cold Exposure: I’m not talking about filling your bathtub with ice or sitting in your deep freezer in the garage, I promise! After taking a shower, turn the water to cold for just 30 seconds, or as long as you can tolerate it, and then boom, you have increased parasympathetic activity in your body and stimulated the vagus nerve. Attempt to do this every day, and you might find that it becomes quite refreshing, especially in the morning.


Humming, Singing, or Chanting: Interestingly, the vagus nerve is attached to your vocal cords and the muscles in the back of your throat. Feel free to sing your favorite tune, or hum while doing chores, this will increase vagus nerve activity and tone. Not to mention, it’s quite therapeutic.  


Massage: Any relaxation exercise will stimulate vagus nerve activity. Try giving yourself a foot rub or rubbing your shoulders when you feel tense. This could even involve lying flat on the floor and feeling every part of your body being held up by the earth, which is also known as ‘grounding’.  


Laughter: Here’s a joke for you, what did sushi A say to sushi B?.................. Wasa-b! If that didn’t make you laugh, I’m only slightly offended 😉. Watching your favorite comedy or listening to your favorite podcast that you know will make you laugh out loud. This will reduce your body’s overall stress hormone, stimulate the vagus nerve, and activate your parasympathetic nervous system.  


These are only a few of many tips to stimulate the vagus nerve. My goal is to make you aware of some that you may not have tried before. Alternatively, you can try deep breathing exercises, physical exercise, and meditation as other great ways of to widen your window of tolerance. This will help greatly at managing your trauma symptoms more effectively over time.


A medical advisor featured in the Journal of Virology explained that physical symptoms related to vagus nerve issues involve heart palpitations, digestive issues, and reflux symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, or vomiting. If you are experiencing these symptoms, it would be best to seek treatment from a medical professional.


If you are easily startled, have trouble relaxing, experience insomnia, or feeling anxious more often than not, fear not I can help. Reach out to me to learn about more ways to balance a sensitive or activated nervous system and how this can help to work through trauma, improve stress responses, and giving you an overall feeling of relaxation and ease.  


 

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