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The Vagus Nerve and Trauma

This blog looks at the vagus nerve and trauma. My last blog looked at the key role of the vagus nerve on how we think, feel and behave and in particular at Stephen Porge’s Polyvagal Theory. 

I described how moment by moment, our neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life threatening. We can be feeling safe and comfortable in a group, and then a comment or a glance or snigger that we interpret as a threat or a criticism can completely hijack us and we are pulled out of our ventral vagal state into sympathetic state, into a state of fight or flight. 

This reaction happens below the level of awareness – we start to feel a bit uncomfortable but we can usually recover, realise we may have misinterpreted what just happened and carry on. It can happen when we are happily driving the car and another driver recklessly overtakes us – instantly into fight or flight. A few moments later, rather than descending into full blown road rage, we are able to shrug it off as “just another idiot”!

The vagus nerve and trauma

However this ability to quickly recover may be seriously compromised after trauma. When someone has experienced trauma, particularly in experiences where they were left immobilised, their ability to scan their environment for danger cues can become skewed. If we grew up in a home with a lot of anger and unpredictability, for example, when we experience a situation later in life that feels similar, our nervous system can respond exactly as it did when we were young and unable to protect ourselves. Of course, our body’s goal is to help us never experience a terrifying moment like that again, so it will do whatever it needs to do in order to help protect us.

The polyvagal theory is useful firstly because it allows people with trauma to understand what our body does to protect us. With this knowledge, people with PTSD are often able to forgive themselves and to understand why they continue to experience so much activation and/or dissociation. Secondly, learners realise that we CAN assert control over our nervous systems, helping ourselves complete defensive cycles and move back into our ventral, social state.

Understanding our nervous system in this way can change the way we think of these states in ourselves.  Therefore there can be less self-judgement and more compassion for ourselves.

Knowing what helps

By recognising what state we are in a given moment, and understanding how we shift between states, we can potentially change our state so we can feel connected and safer more of the time.  We can feel less hopeless when we’re in the dorsal vagal shut down state, but bit by bit we’ll start to learn and practice ways to help ourselves out of it. We can also more easily enlist the help of others in this, since as mammals we know we NEED connection with others to feel safe

My next blog will look at ways we can calm ourselves when we are triggered into fight, flight, freeze or shutdown. 

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!


See also: Trauma and the BrainAll you Need to Know about Traumatic Stress and PTSD Polyvagal Theory

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