“Why Can’t I Calm Down?” Overcoming Trauma and Healing

Let’s talk about overcoming trauma and healing. Starting with some things that happen in the body during and in response to traumatic events/situations.

Most people have heard of the “fight or flight” response, an automatic reaction to perceived threats or dangers. However, newer research has brought attention to the “freeze or fawn” response (previously called “fold”), which provides a more in-depth understanding of how our threat detection systems have evolved. In this article, we will discuss these responses in relation to trauma.

The Impact of Trauma on Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn Responses

Trauma can result from various events, such as physical or emotional abuse, sexual abuse/assault, and accidents, or natural disasters. From my clinical experience, trauma is typically the result of witnessing or experiencing malevolence.

Whatever the trauma, it often leads to feelings of overwhelm, shutdown, disassociation, or disconnection from the present moment due to intrusive thoughts from the past. These emotional states can trigger fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses that occur even after the traumatic events stop occurring.

Dorsal Vagal Activation

When a perceived threat becomes potentially life-threatening, dorsal vagal activation occurs. This ancient defense system triggers a shift in the ANS, primarily affecting organs below the diaphragm. It slows metabolic rates, immobilizes the body, and induces a state of numbness, shutdown, and collapse.

The Four Responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn

The inclusion of dorsal vagal mode allows for a more comprehensive understanding of our defense system when faced with stress or danger. The four evolutionary states are:

  1. Fight: Controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, the fight response results in increased heart rate, heavier breathing, and heightened emotions such as anger and irritation.
  2. Flight: The flight response also engages the sympathetic mode, with fear and anxiety as the driving emotions.
  3. Freeze: The freeze response is a combination of sympathetic mode and dorsal vagal activation, characterized by immobilization and numbness.
  4. Fawn: In the fawn response, complete dorsal vagal shutdown occurs, leading to physical and emotional collapse, dissociation, and depersonalization.

Chronic Trauma (Continued Trauma or Reliving it Mentally) and Its Implications

When exposed to chronic stress or trauma, individuals can become stuck in fight or flight or freeze and fold modes. This can lead to disruptions in essential life skills and result in anxiety, depression, and withdrawal from daily activities.

Physical Effects

  1. Immune System Suppression: Chronic stress weakens the immune system, making it less effective in fighting off infections and diseases. This leaves us more susceptible to illnesses, including common colds, the flu, and even more severe conditions such as autoimmune diseases and cancer.
  2. Cardiovascular Issues: Prolonged stress increases the risk of developing heart-related problems. It can lead to high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and the buildup of plaque in the arteries, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
  3. Digestive Problems: Chronic stress can cause a range of digestive issues, including acid reflux, indigestion, and irritable bowel syndrome. It can also slow down the digestive process, leading to constipation or diarrhea.
  4. Sleep Disruptions: High levels of stress can interfere with our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. This results in sleep disturbances, insomnia, and overall poorer sleep quality, which can exacerbate existing health problems and contribute to the development of new ones.
  5. Weight Gain/Loss: Stress can lead to hormonal imbalances, causing an increase in cortisol levels. High cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, particularly around the abdominal area. Additionally, stress may lead to emotional eating, further contributing to weight gain and obesity. Alternately, stress can cause gut issues leading to low appetite and nausea/other gastrointestinal issues.
  6. Mental Health Issues: Chronic stress can have a significant impact on mental health, contributing to the development of anxiety and depression. It can also exacerbate existing mental health conditions, making it more challenging to cope with everyday life.
  7. Musculoskeletal Problems: Persistent stress can cause muscle tension and pain, especially in the neck, shoulders, and back. This can lead to chronic pain, headaches, and a decreased range of motion.
  8. Reproductive System Issues: In both men and women, chronic stress can negatively impact the reproductive system. It can lead to irregular menstrual cycles, reduced libido, and even fertility issues.

Beginning to Heal

To begin the healing process, it is essential to ensure that the individual is removed from the traumatic situation or has access to a safe environment and a way to work through the trauma. This allows the neurological system to reset and adapt and for the person to process what has happened.

Stay posted for future articles. I hope to discuss healing from trauma more in the future.

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