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Trauma / SNB108

Updated: Mar 19, 2023


  • In this episode, we put together all of the pieces that we’ve covered so far in the Polyvagal 101 series and how they relate to trauma. What it is. How we get there. And what to do about it.

  • My name is Justin Sunseri.

  • I’m a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist obsessed with the polyvagal theory.

  • Welcome to Stuck Not Broken.


But before I get into things -put yourself first. I keep every episode as safe as I can, but just by the nature of the topics, you may experience some stuff come up. Take a break if you need to. This episode could prove to be challenging for you, I’ll be naming a few things, though won’t go into specific details of events.

This podcast is not therapy, nor intended to be a replacement for therapy.


Widely used, possibly overused.

It’s more than the pieces of a diagnosis.

Being overwhelmed in a moment of danger? Yeah.

Too much too soon? Sure.

Something to do with the ‘reptilian brain’?

According to PVT and SE, tying together PVT101

  • Being stuck in an autonomic state of defense

  • flight/fight, shutdown or freeze

  • Not having access to the state of safety

    • This is what keeps the defensive states from becoming defensive

    • They become tolerable or mixed states


The influence of the social engagement system on the heart

When the vagal brake is not strong enough:

  • We exist in a defensive state

The vagal brake calms the heart beat, taking us out of mobile defense or allowing mobility to return

Important for daily functioning so we don’t exist in defensive states

  • We’d be running, fighting or shutting down all the time

Probably has a lot to do with who gets traumatized or not

  • Surviving the same incident will result in different impacts on the individuals

Stronger VB comes from exercising the social engagement system more

  • Good enough parenting

  • Healthy relationships

  • Safe environments

  • Healthy history of play


How do we get stuck in a defensive state?

  1. Surviving an acute event (freeze, PTSD); “shock trauma”

    1. Sexual assault

    2. War

    3. Natural disaster

    4. Neurocepting danger and life threat simultaneously

    5. Mobilizing while shutting down

    6. Social engagement system can still develop and the individual can potentially live a functional life, have healthy friendships

      1. Someone with a healthy enough childhood, sees success in life, could survive something and be traumatized, but still have a healthy life overall

        1. If proper supports are in place, have access to necessary self care resources

    7. Will have triggering experiences

  2. Chronic disruption of connectedness (shutdown, freeze, CPTSD)

    1. Neglect

      1. Social engagement system does not develop

      2. Never meeting developmental milestones, including necessary social engagement

      3. Loneliness, abandonment, rejection, isolation

        1. Left in a shutdown state

    2. Ongoing abuse, lack of safety relief

      1. Student that would dissociate during Father’s sexual abuse - had both freeze and shutdown, especially when grandparent died

    3. Individual less likely to be able to identify healthy relationships


Humans are spooked by the bodily sensations of coming out of immobility

  • We get sent back down the ladder when our bodies attempt to go up

  • Our bodies are stuck in a state of defense

  • The experience, the pain, the sadness, the humiliation, disgust, embarrassment, the loneliness that stems from the traumatic event itself

  • We avoid these because it’s vulnerable, scary and we literally might feel like we’re dying

  • Stories and beliefs we create about the event or ourselves keep us stuck in trauma

  • Isolating ourselves keep us stuck in trauma

  • Keeping it secret keeps us struck in trauma


It’s possible.

Animals can come out of trauma easily

  • They shake it off and move on

  • Humans can, but don’t really

  • Crying can be an avenue to do so

  • Laughter can also be an avenue to do so

Essential to the process is developing the strength of your vagal brake

  • BSA is helpful for this

  • Doesn’t solve the problem of the stuck energy, but helps to lay the foundation for climbing the polyvagal ladder

Understanding the Polyvagal Ladder

  • Knowing what will happen next so it’s not a surprise when one attempts to resolve their stuck energy

Feeling into the somatic pieces of the stuck state

  • Under the emotions, the somatic feelings and sensations

  • Being with the sensations and allowing them to do what they need to, while maintaining access to safety and present moment

  • Peter Levine does a lot of great work around the shock type of trauma and being with the sensations and allowing them to discharge


  • I hope you’ve learned something new to help you climb your polyvagal ladder and got a clearer or more comprehensive understanding of how trauma and the PVT relate.

  • Bye!

This week’s Patreon episode -

Intro/Outro music & Transition Sounds by Benjo Beats -

Polyvagal Ladder episode and blog -

Deb Dana and other books -

National Suicide Prevention Hotline - 1 (800) 273-8255

National Domestic Violence Hotline -1 (800) 799-7233

LGBT Trevor Project Lifeline - 1 (866) 488-7386

National Sexual Assault Hotline - 1 (800) 656-4673

Crisis Text Line - Text “HOME” to 741741

Call 911 for emergency

This podcast is not therapy, not intended to be therapy or be a replacement for therapy. Nothing in this creates or indicates a therapeutic relationship. Please consult with your therapist or seek for one in your area if you are experiencing mental health sx. Nothing in this podcast should be construed to be specific life advice; it is for educational and entertainment purposes only.

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