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Trauma & Emotional Development

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

This article first appeared in my quarterly book, SnB Quarterly. You have to be in my email list to get it, so sign up at the bottom of the page after you're done reading the article.

The Impact vs the Event

The key here is the impact of the event on the autonomic nervous system. Not the event itself, but the immediate and potentially long-lasting impact. When anyone survives something, they may have to shift down their “polyvagal ladder” into a defensive state: flight, fight, shutdown or freeze.

Typically, when people say "trauma" they are referring to the event itself - the war or the car crash or the abuse. But this is not entirely accurate. Some events are probably more likely to result in a stuck autonomic nervous system. But every individual will walk away from these events with different levels of stuck defensive autonomic states, including not at all. Again - some events are probably more likely to result in a stuck defensive state.

If the strength of their social engagement system (ventral vagal pathways) are not strong enough, the potential to be left in a traumatized state increases. Meaning, their chances of being stuck in one of those defensive states. Luckily, the strength of the ventral system can be exercised and strengthened, which will eventually result in the capacity to allow, tolerate and channel the stuck defensive energy.

This is called the "vagal brake." The vagal brake is the influence of the safety system on the heart. A stronger vagal brake results in a calmer heartbeat. Building the safety system and thus the vagal brake is a core concept of my course - Building Safety Anchors.

How the World is Filtered

If someone is stuck in a defensive state, their perception of the world significantly shifts. The world - to them - becomes a lot more dangerous. They filter the world through danger-colored glasses. Because their very biology is primed to do so.

When stuck in a flight sympathetic energy, the world is scarier. It's something to be avoided. To run from. In a fight sympathetic energy, the world is now something to attack, retaliate against or blame. In a shutdown state, the world is something to hide from or collapse in fear from.

The inner world is experienced as a threat as well, not just the outside world. As just a factual matter, there is no value to the polyvagal states. They are not good or bad. They just are. And they are a response to neuroceptions of safety or danger. But the energy of the defensive state can be experienced as "bad" or "painful" or "too much." When there is a strong enough hold in the ventral safety system, the experience of the sympathetic energy will be welcomed and thanked. It's a much different experience.

In a world experienced in the more fearful and defensive way, the capacity to be with a wider range of feelings is obviously very compromised. Because it's now a danger. Without the safety system active enough, it's experienced as a danger and something to be avoided, pushed away or numbed.

So emotional development swirls around avoiding “danger,” aggressing “danger” and shutting down or freezing in the face of “danger.”


On top of this, making safe, trusting connections becomes a lot more difficult. The ability to notice safety in others is compromised. Neurocepting safety becomes a lot more difficult. When stuck in a defensive state, there is a higher chance of detecting danger, even if it's not there. So when in the company of someone who is actually safe, it could be experienced as danger. Because the feelings of safety are uncomfortable, vulnerable and therefore dangerous. It's not the other person. It's the neuroception of safety and the foreign feelings of safety when the ventral system is accessed.

The ability to function at a healthy level in a relationship then is compromised. If you can’t be in a co-regulative relationship with a safe other, climbing your own polyvagal ladder and back into your own safety system becomes a lot more difficult.

So if we are not handling the feelings of safety and aren't accepting co-regulation, then the ability to stay in the ventral system is compromised. Again, it needs to be exercised.

Someone who is not accessing these things is not going to have a full range of emotional experience. They are not accessing their safety state in order to experience the broader range of human emotional experience.

Behavioral Adaptations

And finally, the person stuck in a defensive state will engage in “behavioral adaptations.” These are things that they do to cope with the intensity of their defensive state. Addiction, abuse, skin picking, obsessions and more. These coping behaviors might help with the immediate pain/discomfort, but prevent them from feeling and releasing their defensive state energy.

These behavioral adaptations don't actually help in the long term. They are only immediate answers to high distress. They flatline the range of emotional experience possible. They ensure that the individual stays stuck. They are a result of not having enough tolerance to the somatic experiences. They are a result of not having built the strength of the ventral pathways.

Access Safety and the Present Moment

As you can see, these and other factors make life a lot more difficult and will stunt that person’s capacity to feel and to be with their wider range of feelings. They need to have access to their ventral pathways - their own safety and social engagement biological system. But these three factors get in the way of developing that. So they perpetually are stuck in their defensive state, brought on by the event(s).

The answer is to continually practice accessing the ventral vagal pathways and building the strength of that system. It might take a long time. But the individual may notice changes happening within them. What was previously an emotionally highly upsetting situation with a co-worker is now more tolerable. They can notice their anxious flight energy and be with it instead of escaping the situation and engaging in some sort of self-soothing behavioral adaptation.

Being more in the present moment through the ventral pathways results in a greater range of human emotion, experience and connection. From the ventral pathways, the individual can now tap into and actually mindfully experience their full range of emotion.

Again, this is something that can be exercised and strengthened. I created a 30 day course/challenge for people to help with exactly that. The Building Safety Anchors course has learning and practicing steps. It's spread out over 30 days so it's not overwhelming. But it's a 30 day commitment to learning and practicing change. It's really for those that want to get a firmer hold on the present moment and maybe even experience a fuller range of their emotional potential.

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