‘Trauma’ describes an experience of significant distress and is often thought of to involve a form of violence to the self or witness done to others. It does not have to be limited to violence and may involve an experience of distress such as deprivation in childhood or a life stressor such as forced migration. When trauma happens, our natural psychological and biological rhythms are affected. Essentially, the nervous system is disrupted. 

The human nervous system, similar to all mammals, is genetically wired to protect us against threats to survival. We scan the social environment via our senses to determine safe or unsafe situations. After trauma, this process of scanning may become extra sensitive. Our nervous system not only connects our brain, organs, and movement systems to allow us to get away quickly but is also closely linked to our emotion regulation. When disrupted, it may impact our adaptive ability, hamper our ability to form relationships due to mistrust of others as well as impacting our ability to regulate emotions. We may get stuck in particular feeling states.

Dr Stephen Porges (PhD), a well-known trauma researcher, proposed that our body may respond in one of three ways to trauma. At a basic level, the body experiences a ‘freeze’ state which is similar to reptilians playing dead. At a variation of this level when the body is in a constant state of distress, we may experience depressed feelings, helplessness, and low energy. At the secondary level, we may experience fight or flight tendencies. This means the body is trying to prepare itself to either get away from the threat or move towards it. From a mood perspective, we may experience anger, aggression, irritability, or frustration. When we enter flight mode, we may feel fear, panic, anxiety, worry, or concern and try to escape this by soothing with food and alcohol. The third state is the social engagement system (SES). In this state, the nervous system is able to adaptively respond to stress by self-soothing, social connection, socially or engaging in meaningful activities such as play. When we have experienced trauma, this state may not be accessible.

The good news is, that we are able to make changes in our nervous systems and learn how to change our physiological and emotional responses. This happens by reactivating the social engagement system. In this interview with some of the world’s leading experts on trauma, the trauma response is discussed, as well as new research on ways to help the nervous system cope with stress. 

Re-creating safety with the SES, may occur with the help of both internal and external means. External means could include predictability and structure in the environment. It could also involve creating an environment that exudes sensory safety such as soothing music, warming comfort (i.e. a hot water bottle or a soft blanket). Safety could also be created by accessing the body’s internal state. This includes mindfulness – intentional focus on the present moment – which may help shift the focus from past unpleasant experiences to observing the here-and-now experience. 

Another internal strategy is deep belly breaths, with one hand on the stomach and one on the chest – nothing is more present than our breath. Lastly, movement of the body in space, via for example yoga or dance have also been found to be supportive of positive shifts in the nervous system facilitating connection to the body.

Most importantly, remember self-compassion – the nervous system takes time to heal.

written by Lize Ligthelm, Clinical psychologist.