Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Psychology traditionally approaches trauma through its affects on the mind. This is at best only half the story and a wholly inadequate one. -Peter Levine
Trauma needs to be discussed in a biological perspective and psychological.
But we need:
a clearer understanding of what trauma is
to understand that our thinking mind is an extension of our physical bodies
to understand the relevance of psychology in getting unstuck
1. WHAT TRAUMA IS
Trauma isn’t a thing that is survived and then becomes a psychology issue. Trauma is the biological result of surviving something(s). Trauma is the autonomic nervous system being stuck in a defensive state: sympathetic flight/fight, dorsal shutdown or the mixed freeze state. Trauma is the impact of what our bodies survive and is different from one nervous system to the next.
We drop down our polyvagal ladders and into defensive states in order to increase our chances of survival. As we drop down the ladder and lose access to our safety state, we unlock the ability to run, fight or collapse.
This shift up and down the polyvagal ladder is called "neuroception" and directly involves the unconscious detection of safety or danger. We are biologically hardwired to react to danger cues. Cues that have been imprinted within us through evolution. Cues that cause a neuroceptive shift into a defensive state before we've even become consciously aware of the cue itself or of the shift. Again, this is different from one nervous system to the next.
If you and I survived a car crash, we would walk away from that with potentially very different results. I may be in a very traumatized state, stuck in a freeze response; while you could potentially self-regulate and be more or less fine. Your ANS didn't get stuck in a defensive state like mine did.
Even though we both survived a car crash, it wouldn't make sense to say we were both traumatized or to say that we went through a trauma. What we went through is a car crash. Whether or not we are traumatized from the car crash event is dependent on each of our nervous systems and the strength of our vagal brakes.
Yes, some things are probably more likely to result in a traumatized state. Sexual assault, war, child abuse in all its forms are probably more likely to result in a stuck autonomic nervous system.
There are actually two paths to trauma -
an acute life threat reaction, likely resulting in a freeze state
chronic disruption of connectedness, likely resulting in a flight, fight or shutdown state
As you can see, trauma isn't just some psychological issue that is the result of a traumatic event. It's a fundamental hijacking of the autonomic nervous system, which then gets stuck in that state even when the body is otherwise safe and no longer needs defensive behaviors.
2. MIND & BODY
They go together. In particular, I am discussing your thinking mind and your autonomic nervous system.
We know from the Polyvagal Theory that our biological autonomic state is the driver of our thoughts. That "story follows state" as Deb Dana says. Depending on our ANS state, our thoughts and their intensity alter, even about the same thing, like our own children:
ventral vagal safety - "My child needs some extra love and support."
sympathetic flight - "My kid is going to grow up and be a criminal!
sympathetic fight - "You're going to listen to me whether you like it or not!"
dorsal vagal shutdown - "I give up."
As our polyvagal state changes, our thoughts change and so does the intensity of those thoughts:
ventral vagal safety - calm, peaceful or playful thoughts
sympathetic flight - intense , evasive thoughts
sympathetic fight - intense, aggressive thoughts
dorsal vagal shutdown - small, hopeless thoughts
And as our polyvgal state changes, how much access we have to our higher brain functions changes as well. Our ability to think clearly and critically, to plan, to weigh pros and cons is entirely dependent on the access that we have to our ventral vagal pathways. When we neurocept safety, we activate the ventral pathways and unlock access to our prefrontal cortex responsible for critical thinking.
When in defensive states, survival is prioritized, not critical thinking. In defensive states, priority is placed on identifying, evading or combating danger. We become much better at scanning for danger, though not necessarily better at identifying actual danger. As you can see, this directly impacts our day to day functioning and our very own fundamental experience of the overall sense of "self".
So it's not as if you have your thinking self which is somehow independent of your bodily self. They go together and directly impact each other.
We can alter our thoughts from top down cognitive shifts, but also from bottom up somatic shifts. If we can utilize and discharge that stuck defensive energy, we can climb our polyvagal ladders. If we do that, our thoughts change along with the autonomic shifts.
Likewise, altering our thoughts can help to self-regulate our biology. Thinking more positively or seeing another angle can help our defensive energy to calm itself. Yes, much easier said than done. And this is where the field of psychology becomes significant.
3. THE RELEVANCE OF PSYCHOLOGY
A big big part of being stuck is the detaching of the conscious mind from the physical body. In a defensive state, we might not be aware of anything below the neck - feelings, emotions, bodily sensations and movements. We get stuck in our thoughts. We ruminate, obsess, dwell, anticipate and more. This detaching ensures that our bodies remain stuck in a defensive state.
We need to reattach the conscious mind to the physical body in order to get unstuck. Not that body and mind were ever separate. I'm talking more metaphorically. Even if they feel separate, they're still very much together and influencing each other. We're just not cognitively aware of it.
Conscious awareness accessed through the felt sense provides us with a gentle energetic discharge just as effective as that which the animal accesses through action. -Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger
Psychology becomes important because we can mindfully attune to our biology and begin the process of getting unstuck. Only then, when attempting to use our conscious mind to get unstuck, does psychology become relevant and a driving force for change. But it's combining the psychological with the somatic.
The psychology field looks at the cognitive/emotional/behavioral obstacles to getting unstuck in the nervous system.
Psychology can assess and treat the cognitions in our mind. We know that thoughts stem from the autonomic state. The field of psychology has come up with many cognitive grounding skills and therapeutic modalities like CBT and DBT. If the thoughts can be addressed, it's possible to begin a top-down method of getting unstuck. Addressing the thoughts first, then reattaching to the body.
Psychology can assess and treat the emotional experiences that we have. In a stuck defensive state, emotions become much more difficult, chaotic and long-lasting. Depression, anxiety, rage, panic, overwhelm, shame and guilt are examples. Noticing and discussing the emotions we have can open an opportunity to feel more deeply into the bodily feelings. We can see that the emotions are just extensions of the stuck and frustrated autonomic state. And then attune to the state.
Psychology can assess and treat the behaviors that we do to cope with the autonomic state, what Dr Porges calls "behavioral adaptations." The coping behaviors ultimately end up reinforcing the autonomic state, not helping. Things like addictions, self-harm and compulsive picking. All of these (and many more) are ways to attempt to handle the defensive energy that is in the body, but detached from the mind. Eliminating the behavioral adaptations opens an avenue for feeling and then appropriately utilizing the defensive energy.
Doing these pieces can often times look like therapy. In therapy, the client can discuss the cognitive, emotional and somatic impacts of their traumatized state in the here and now. Not only discuss these things, but feel them. Be with them. Develop a fuller and more present felt sense through reattaching the conscious, thinking mind with the body.
Doing so in a safe environment with a safe person can help to re-regulate the autonomic nervous system back to where it functions the best - the ventral vagal social engagement system.
But self-regulating the nervous system doesn’t have to come only from therapy. Other methods can be helpful, but they all require mindfulness of our biology while in the present moment. Things like yoga and meditation can be helpful. There are also other things to help self-regulate: dance, art, music, breathing techniques, socializing and more. All of these things help to re-regulate the autonomic nervous system.
In short, trauma is a stuck autonomic nervous system defensive response to something(s). To get unstuck, the individual needs to bring their conscious, mindful awareness to their bodily sensations. The field of psychology and the practice of therapy can be valuable in that process. Psychology helps to identify thoughts, emotions and behaviors that are keeping the individual in their stuck defensive state, then treat those identified problems. Doing so opens up the opportunity to bring the conscious to the somatic.