How Trauma/Freeze/Nervous System Dysregulation causes Syndromal symptoms

 This explanation is based on the Polyvagal theory which says that there are 3 branches of the nervous system:
Dorsal Vagal, which is responsible for sleep and freeze. The way this system responds to threat is to freeze – “play dead” more or less – slow everything way down.
Sympathetic, which is responsible for activity, getting things done. The way this system responds to thread is to fight or flee – ramp everything up.
“Social Engagement nervous system”, which includes the Ventral Vagal system plus several muscle groups in the head and neck, is responsible for pleasant, authentic and collaborative interactions between humans (all mammals actually). 

And this explanation is also based on the understanding of how traumatic memories or programs get implanted into our body systems:
When there’s a threat, and we can’t negotiate out of it using our social engagement system, then we go into fight or flight mode. But if for whatever reason or set of reasons, we can’t successfully fight or flee (we might not even try because we are so outgunned, as if I am a young child under threat by a caregiver) then at some point our system engages the Freeze response. However, since the threat is still real, our sympathetic fight/flight system is still running full tilt. This would allow us to quickly respond in an act of attack or escape if an opportunity presented itself. So the Sympathetic system is running full tilt and the Freeze is also running full tilt.

Now, if there is never a satisfactory and comprehensive enough resolution to this traumatic experience, wherein I am seen and heard and can feel and release all of the fear, helplessness, terror, anger, and overwhelm that showed up in me, if that safe resolution does not happen, then we get the ingredients for PTSD, or generally for unresolved trauma. In this case, the reality of the threat continues to live in the body even when the threat is far away geographically and/or far gone in the past. That means that inside my system, my flight/flight system continues to run full tilt and my freeze system also continues to run full tilt.

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Don’t Go Faster, Go Slower

One of the ways that my trauma pattern shows up is that I feel a constant nagging pressure to “Do something, get things done!” If I am sitting still, there is a voice, perhaps even a chorus of voices, shouting at me, “You are failing! You are letting yourself and everyone else down!”


And part of what makes things tricky is that there is definitely truth in that self-accusation. There are many things that need to be done, with real world consequences when they are not done.


But the pattern of pushing myself to work, work, work, do, do, do – that pattern is not actually effective. I can push, work, and do to some extent but frequently I just stop. Or I push myself to get moving but then I can’t even get started because I am overwhelmed by all of it.

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The Light and Dark Poetry Process

One of the goals of trauma healing is to allow what is hidden in our bodies to be felt, expressed, and released, as safely and gently as possible. We have hidden feelings, emotions and impulses leftover from past traumas and stresses. We also hide some or many of our current feelings, emotions and impulses from ourselves, out of a self-protective habit.

This Poetry Process is one way that I have found to incrementally surface hidden experiences. The process is simple. I give myself the assignment to create a Dark Poem, and then to create a Light Poem. [or vice versa, either can come first.] “Create” is not exactly the right word. My intention is to allow some of my uncomfortable – or pleasant – feelings or experiences to surface. So in a way I am allowing the poem, more than creating it. “Poem” in this context does not mean structured verse – it simply means free-flowing non-structured language that expresses an inner experience, often in metaphor.
At the time, I may be feeling neutral – neither joyful nor upset. I may not be aware that I am feeling anything at all. When the poetry comes out, it can sometimes be surprising, enlivening, or tender.

Here are examples of a Light and Dark Poem that have arisen in response to this process over the past months.

LIGHT:

There are little light energy beings
Inside of me or around me.
Perhaps they are me.
But no matter what
They scurry about playfully 

Little Skittle Scurry Furry Feet


DARK:

Gravity is too much
Entropy is too much
Gravity
Entropy
Falling down a long flight of stairs into a dark dank basement
It’s like that.

Polyvagal Theory and Emotional Amnesia

What is Emotional Amnesia?

I have noticed in myself and others a tendency to forget.
When I feel really good, I think – or at least feel – that my life has taken a turn for the better, and that it will continue to be good indefinitely. Whatever it is that happened has changed me, or changed the course of my life somehow. When I feel really bad, I know that I felt good sometime before, but I don’t see any path to that good feeling now, and I feel helpless to get back there.

Neither of these are accurate emotional conclusions, of course. Even when I have a truly life-altering experience – and I have personally had many – still, it is a guarantee that there will be a time in the future when I will feel lost, alone, discouraged, confused, helpless and overwhelmed. And whenever I am in that place of helplessness and overwhelm, there will be a time in the future when I feel good again, as good as my baseline for feeling good, which varies from person to person.

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Turtle Day

Two days ago I used the bluebird energy to enliven and empower my day, but yesterday it didn’t work.

Is it possible, every day, to find a new organic inspiration?

I’m going to try today.

I am scanning my body, looking for and inviting anything that seems like a spark or current of hope, excitement, eagerness, or some other similar sort of energy.

But what is showing up is more like a sweet melancholy; a tender feeling of love. It is rising from my belly to my throat.

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When Clutter Attacks!!

This is interesting.
I need some id and password information. I just lost my job, so now my husband needs to apply for Medicare and to do that he needs to open a social security account. I froze our credit reporting accounts after the Equifax breach in September. Creating a Social Security account online requires an unfrozen Experian account. Now, we could just drive to the Social Security office. But we prefer just doing things online. So I need the id and password information that will allow me to unfreeze our Experian accounts. But I don’t remember where I put it, since I did this three months ago.

That is the opening scene in today’s blog. Middle-aged post-traumatic woman who just lost her job sits in the recliner in her living room shouting “Where are those papers!?”

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Bluebird Day

I let myself sleep in this morning. It wasn’t my intention to actually sleep. I wanted to use my semi-awake state to do some healing work with myself. Whenever I woke up, I iterated through my new BEST CARING acronym, test driving that resource.

B = Body/Breath. Let the body lead, don’t let the freaked out nervous system or the obsessive thoughts lead. And breathe.

E = Environment. Be aware of what is safe, supportive, unsafe, un-supportive in the physical environment.

S = Support. Create images of the support from people and communities who care about me, call on those images even if I can’t palpably feel the support. Also includes the support of Divine beings and of objects, like a roof and a locked door and a bank account.

T = Thoughts. Coach my thoughts. Intentionally think supportive and reassuring thoughts: “You can do this.”

C = Contact. Touch my own body, my arm, leg, or heart. Or make contact with another person or animal who is safe and supportive. 

A = Allow the expression of anything that is organically arising from inside myself (but not from the freak-out, from deeper in the system.) The Dark and Light poetry process can also fit here

R = Respiration. Breathe. Notice my breath.

I = Image. Bring up images of things that are pleasing and comforting. For me: flowers, bunnies, waterfalls.

N = Nice. Image is a subset of this. Think of things that are pleasing. Look around and find things in my visual field that are pleasing to look at. Do things that are pleasant (drink tea, walk outside, take a bath, play music, stroke my own hair…)

G = Gratitude. Give Thanks. 

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Navigating Mitigations or “Medications”

As I am learning more about the nervous system and about trauma, I am better able to see, notice, and understand what happens in my body. Basically I almost never really feel ok. Sometimes I feel pretty ok, but I’m still not whole-heartedly enthusiastic or joyfully or fully embodied. And much of the time, whatever level of ok I feel, it’s fragile, it can easily be derailed by conflict, stress or confusion. One way of explaining this is that I can get thrown off balance by something that is a trigger of a past trauma. And sometimes that’s clealy what happens – I notice my whole body moving rather quickly from relative stability into being wired, alert, concerned, distressed, and unable to feel calm.

But I believe that there is a different dynamic that also occurs. Here is what I think is going on. My post-traumatic nervous system is never actually at ease. When I feel pretty ok it is because the combination of mitigations that I have put in place is working. I’m not organically ok; rather, I’ve arranged to feel and function ok because of the various things I’m doing to take care of myself. Here are some examples of things I do to take care of myself; that is, to regulate my nervous system.

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I need an Owner’s Manual

I’m coming to understand more of the neurology and psychology of post-trauma, bit by bit. I understand that I have a pattern of being in chronic freeze mode – that any sort of challenge or conflict sends me directly into freeze, where I am in a state of continuously actively numbing myself. And I understand that underneath the freeze or numbness are powerful urges to flee and/or fight. And those urges for positive action are in conflict with the urge to remain motionless at all costs. And that this exhausting battle and stalemate continues perpetually in my bodymind. And I understand that I do not have the required neurological hardware to easily or organically develop and sustain healthy connected safe relationships with anyone – that the lack of healthy attachment bonding as an infant left me without the infrastructure I needed, so I’m working at a deficit in my efforts and wishes to build relationships. And I understand that there is a whole complex of unresolved trauma in my system, which produces a range of neurological and physical symptoms. And that some kinds of activities can mitigate and sometimes suspend those symptoms but that they tend to just keep showing up day by day and hour by hour.

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Making Friends with the Discomfort

I’ve had a difficult few weeks – physical discomfort, intense procrastination patterns, unease: moderately intense post-traumatic stress.

Last weekend I completed the second Somatic Experiencing class session, Beginning II. It was a good class, and I felt more regulated at the end of it than when I started. But even then I did not feel great, more like “pretty much ok”.

My realization today is that the discomfort of post-traumatic stress is not going to go away quickly or easily. I should already know that. But my focus has been around finding various tools, resources, approaches to make that discomfort go away. That’s a reasonable approach but I’m thinking that it may not be enough. Because the discomfort is not going to go away quickly, so in addition to trying to get rid of it, I also need to work out how to live with it in a way that works better than what I have done so far.

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