Dr. Mary Mollway, Ed.D.
You are carrying your trauma with you
Trauma has a very broad definition and can be any experience that the brain and/or body find overwhelming. This includes a wide variety of experiences, including birth complications, significant illness, neglect, grief, physical injury, assault, prolonged exposure to high levels of stress, life-endangering situations such as combat or domestic violence, car accidents, etc. Our brain only has a select number of ways to process and move through trauma.
Our vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body and extends from our brain, to every organ, and to our gut. It is the gut-brain connection. Ever feel nauseous when you are anxious? Vagus nerve? Accelerated heart rate when you are upset? Vagus nerve. Dr. Stephen Porgess, the author of polyvagal theory, purports that our vagus nerve has different branches and our state of emotional well-being is determined by what branch is dominant at the time.
According to Porgess, we have the ventral vagal state which is our “rest and digest” state. In this state, we are calm and able to engage with others. We have good relationships, are open to new experiences, and our digestion is working effectively. Then, we have the sympathetic state or dorsal vagal. This state is broken into fight-or-flight and fear paralysis.
Initially, we might move into a fight or flight response (FOF) in our sympathetic state. In this state, our cortisol and adrenaline levels rise, our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow, and our muscles tense up. We have a hard time processing language because our brain has moved into a survival state. In FOF, a person may feel on edge all the time and perceive that any little thing may send them into tears or an emotional outburst. We may feel like we just have to “push through” and relaxing is not an option. We are in overdrive 24/7.
Our other response is Fear Paralysis (FP). We move into FP when the stress or situation is so great that we have to shut down and go into protection mode. When we move into the dorsal vagal state, we mostly lose access to communicative speech. Our breathing becomes shallow, we withdraw socially and can disconnect from the world. One may feel like they have “lost their voice” or are “powerless” in the world. We may feel unmotivated, depressed, or helpless. This is a common state for victims of sexual assault or molestation.
In an adult, the impact of moving into a sympathetic state of our nervous system is more obvious than in children. In adults, it will affect our relationships, our emotional health, our motivation, and our physical well-being. In children, however, it is less obvious sometimes. Because a young child’s brain is still developing, it may present as ADD/HD, dyslexia, or other learning differences. Children may have eye-tracking deficits or auditory processing challenges. Many children with birth trauma have coordination and balance delays, which in turn, create learning challenges.
The great news about this is that we can move out of a sympathetic state into our parasympathetic state of “rest and digest”. How can we do this?
Deep measured breathing. Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth slowly and deliberating calms the vagus nerve and actually raises our brain wave activity.
Walking. Walking activates our sacral spinal pump and pushes cerebral spinal fluid up around our brain. And, do you know what you do more of when you walk? Yup. Breathing. It lowers cortisol levels as well.
Tapping. Facial tapping and other tapping protocols can be a very effective way to deactivate our parasympathetic responses.
Listening therapy, specifically Safe and Sound Protocol. Developed by Stephen Porgess who created Polyvagal theory, SSP uses our auditory system as an avenue to calm the vagus nerve. I offer this in my practice and remotely.
EMDR, or Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, is a technique that uses eye movements when processing traumatic or stressful memories.
Humming and Chanting. These create a vibration in the ear that, like SSP, calms the vagus nerve.