Is trauma the cause of a dysregulated nervous system in the body, mind, and heart?
This presents differently for everyone. When someone is well regulated, we refer to this as ‘functioning within their window of tolerance’. This term is used to describe the zone of arousal in which a person is able to function most effectively. When we are in our window of tolerance, we are able to receive, process and integrate information in a healthy way. This allows us to respond to the challenges and demands of everyday life without too much difficulty. We process external stimuli in a productive manner and can respond in the way we would like to.
When we become dysregulated, often due to a tragic event, trauma or extreme stress – we often fall into two different categories.
1. Hyper Arousal
A fight/flight response; is often characterized by an accelerated heart rate, hyper-vigilance, feelings of anxiety and/or panic, and racing thoughts along with being aggressive or defensive.
2. Hypo Arousal
A freeze response; may cause feelings of emotional numbness, emptiness or paralysis, as well as isolating yourself, and dissociation, and can be linked to depression.
Both of these nervous system states can include disconnection, and provoke fear from the event or stimuli in front of us, as well as from our body.
When we are disconnected from our bodies, we often have more intense physiological responses to things eg. anxiety, depression, and fatigue as our mind is in control of what is happening to us. Our prefrontal cortex often “shuts down” in a manner of speaking. Sometimes, we might even regress to acting childlike or throw a tantrum as a way to try and protect ourselves or regain control over what is happening. We lose the ability to act logically, rationally and digest new information and can respond chaotically.
Everyone’s window of tolerance is different. Those with a smaller window of tolerance might experience their emotions as being intense and difficult to manage. Those with a wider window of tolerance might be able to handle more intense or complex emotions and situations without feeling as significantly impacted. Often, our environment, how safe and supported we feel, will deeply impact our ability to regulate our own window of tolerance.
The importance of Somatic Embodiment
Something I have found to be effective in helping a person process an event, trauma or stress response, is somatic embodiment. This refers to a holistic therapeutic approach that addresses the physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual aspects of experience.
Our thoughts are physiological as well as sensory, and occur within both the body and the mind.
Therapeutically, if you are able to support someone in connecting back into their body and to help them regulate the nervous system, then they will be better able to engage with you from their window of tolerance. They are also more likely to identify feelings in their body before they become too overwhelming (for example, a tight chest before it reaches a full panic attack). This allows for strategies to be introduced to help re-regulate and calm the nervous system when someone is reaching the limits of their window of tolerance.
If someone is outside of their window of tolerance, it is easy to re-trigger the person or increase the stress response. It is harder for the person to process the tools, information and support you are giving them. They are also less likely to remember the information being given to them and can have trouble with memory.
The beauty of somatic embodiment and nervous system regulation is that it is all about providing tools for the individual to support themselves, that they can apply in therapy and also in their day-to-day life. The process allows us to understand how to create safety for ourselves both in our mind and body.
We learn to recognise our triggers, traumas and unhealthy patterns of behaviours. We can move emotional energy through our bodies, working with techniques to self-soothe when we have experiences that take us outside of our window of tolerance.
It is the ultimate process of self-empowerment and healing.
Self-awareness and understanding is power. It allows us to understand our limits and capacity. To set healthy boundaries for ourselves and others. To practice non-violent communication and to re-pattern limiting beliefs or patterns of behavior that are no longer serving us.