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Trauma Recovery: trusting in your power to self-regulate

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

In the journey of trauma recovery, understanding the concept of self-regulation and building trust in our body's natural capacity for healing is crucial, though very difficult.

In this blog, I will make the case that your body is compelled to self-regulate and that trauma stops this natural process. I will also describe how you can get unstuck from trauma by allowing your natural capacity for self-regulation to happen. And finally, I will give you starting points on what you can do today.

In this blog:


Understanding Trauma and the Journey of Trauma Recovery

What is trauma?

This is the general understanding of trauma - an experience that overwhelms a person's ability to cope, leaving them feeling helpless, powerless, and vulnerable. It can be a single event or a series of events that cause significant distress. This understanding of trauma is very much focused on the event(s) as the primary factor.

But we can do better when we understand trauma through the Polyvagal Theory lens.

Trauma is not an event that someone went through (like an assault) or events that should have happened that didn't happen (healthy attachment with a caregiver). Instead, it is the impact of those on that person. More specifically, how the event impacts the state of their autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS can be in one of 3 basic states:

  • social engagement

  • flight/fight mobility

  • shutdown immobility

The Polyvagal Theory explains that trauma is being stuck in one of the defensive states. Trauma is the inability to shift out of that defensive state and into the body's state of safety and social connection. Someone who is traumatized lives in a perpetual state of defense or is easily triggered into that state of defense by things familiar to what they went through.


How trauma recovery works

Therapists use many modalities to help their clients recover from trauma. In my Polyvagal Trauma Relief System and my client work, I have a very specific 3-phase system for helping people recover from their traumatic state. The three phases are:

  1. learn the science of the Polyvagal Theory to normalize and build a new narrative, which will reduce self-judgment, blame, and shame.

  2. increase the ability to access and maintain your safety state, which will increase distress tolerance and prepare you for phase 3.

  3. directly unstuck the defensive state and self-regulate through mindful attuning to the dysregulation.

This blog addresses phase 1, helping you to learn new Polyvagal-informed information. It also touches upon phase 2 and the importance of building your safety state. And it lightly graces phase 3 and allowing the stuck defensive state to exist.


Regulation: Our Biological Compulsion

A moment of biological nerdery is needed to continue.

Our bodies are compelled to regulate. Our bodies must be regulated to function optimally. Remember learning homeostasis in grade school?

homeostasis, any self-regulating process by which biological systems tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are optimal for survival. If homeostasis is successful, life continues; if unsuccessful, disaster or death ensues. (Britannica)

Regulation optimizes an organism's "self-maintenance" and potential for reproduction. Regulation and self-maintenance occur when the ventral vagal safety state pathways are active for mammals. The Polyvagal Theory...

"... links our biological imperative to connect with others to neural pathways that calm our autonomic nervous system. These systems, in the context of mammalian physiology, are foundational processes through which behavioral experiences can lead to sociality and optimal health, growth, and restoration." (PVI)


Trauma disrupts self-regulation

However, trauma can disrupt this natural process. Remember, trauma is being stuck in one of the body's defensive states: flight/fight, shutdown, or freeze. If the ANS is stuck in a defensive state, it has less access to its state of safety, which is necessary for regulation.

If the body remains stuck in a traumatized state, and thus unable to follow the natural compulsion to self-regulate, numerous potential health problems result. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study proved this to be the case, saying " the number of ACEs increases so does the risk for negative outcomes." These negative outcomes are not just behavioral and psychological, but also physical.

Basically, the more traumatic experiences one has, the more negative effects one lives with across all of life's domains. This is due to the body's inability to regulate itself and access its safety state. Optimal homeostatic functioning is lost when one is traumatized.

Return to self-regulation to recover from trauma.

The high-level answer to recovering from trauma is to allow the body's natural ability to self-regulate. If someone can do so, self-regulation will result in the ANS shifting out of the stuck defensive state and more into its safety state.

That's the high-level answer. For now, it may be helpful to understand what is preventing self-regulation and learn more about what steps you can take in the right direction.


What prevents self-regulation to recover from trauma?

Numerous things prevent trauma recovery but can be grouped into ways you keep yourself stuck and ways that we keep each other stuck. I'll focus on how you are generally keeping yourself stuck.

Behavioral adaptations prevent self-regulation.

A behavioral adaptation is a behavior that we engage in as an adaptation to stuck defensive energy. It's something we do to avoid feeling the discomfort of shifting up the Polyvagal ladder or of existing in a defensive state. Examples of behavioral adaptations are:

  • substance use

  • self-harm

  • disordered eating

  • bullying


Cognitive adaptations prevent self-regulation.

Cognitive adaptations are top-down skills implemented to cope with the pains of a stuck defensive state. Same as a behavioral adaptation. But rather than being body-based, it's brain-based. (The PVT's creator, Dr. Porges, does not specifically differentiate cognitive or behavioral adaptations, so this is my insertion into the theory.)

These cognitive adaptations serve as a distraction to the state or a means of coping, reducing the intensity of the state activation. Examples of cognitive adaptations could be:

  • rationalizing

  • minimizing or ignoring

  • maximizing or catastrophizing

  • denial or projection

  • ruminations

  • obsessions

To begin to allow self-regulation to recover from trauma, the next step is understanding the role of mindfulness.


The Role of Mindfulness in Trauma Recovery

The behavioral and cognitive adaptations are things you might be doing to reduce the amount of defensive activation. You're probably not doing these things purposefully but instead reflexively and out of habit. And in a sense, they've worked!

In some real way, these adaptations may have successfully reduced your emotional dysregulation. They have thwarted a panic attack or gotten your mind off of something painful.

But it might be time to try something different. And that would be to experience the things you are trying to avoid more mindfully. Not directly, not right now! But eventually. Hear me out. (Read me out?)

Mindfulness can help.

To self-regulate out of a stuck traumatized state, you must first be able to allow defensive activation and actually feel your feelings. And to do that, mindfulness is needed. Mindfulness is basically the ability to exist in the present moment in curiosity. But you need to be anchored in your Polyvagal safety state to exist in the present moment in curiosity.

After being anchored in safety, you can exist in the present moment in curiosity. By being present in the moment, we can connect our cognitive processes with our bottom-up experiences, fostering a deeper understanding of our felt experiences. As the interference from thoughts and behavioral adaptations diminishes, self-regulation can naturally unfold.

This might sound scary, I know. It requires trust in your natural capacity to self-regulate.


Trusting in Your Body's Natural Capacity for Trauma Recovery

Self-regulation is not a conscious choice but a biological mechanism that requires trust in our body's inherent ability to heal.

Yes, we can create a situation where self-regulation is more likely. For example, we can create the right environment, set the right mood, be with safe people, and practice breathing skills. However, trust in self-regulation is also needed.

Because when your traumatized state begins to emerge and unstuck itself, the experience might be overwhelming. Especially if you are not prepared for it!

When you state attempts to release trauma or climb the Polyvagal ladder, difficult emotions, memories, sensations, and impulses will emerge. In particular, you will likely feel the fear of freeze immobility. Not just fear but overwhelm, panic, or even rage.


Trust & Allow Self-Regulation

Even in the face of these difficult emotions, trust is necessary. You need to trust that your body can navigate these emotions. Not just the emotions but the sensations and impulses that lie underneath them.

If you can successfully mindfully experience your emotions, this will open up an avenue for self-regulation to unfold. As your body goes through natural self-regulation, there will be sensations and impulses.

Allow & Act on Impulses

As impulses arise, they need to be acted upon mindfully. If there is an impulse to slowly emerge from shutdown through reorienting to the environment, allow it and mindfully experience it. From fight, there may be an impulse to squeeze. Allow it and mindfully experience it safely, like with a fidget.

I recommend rubber hedgehog rings. I use them for squeezing and pulling, which is fantastic for fight activation. At least, for my body, it is! (the link below will take you to Amazon, if you purchase I will get a portion of the sale at no extra cost to you)

If you are unable to allow or act on impulses, then it's probably not time yet to continue with mindfully allowing your defensive activation. Instead, you will probably benefit most from building the strength of your safety state, which I will discuss next.



SSIEC: name & connect all of your inner experiences

I created a free resource for you called SSIEC. This simple one-sheet provides the vocabulary for your domains: Polyvagal State, Sensations, Impulses, Emotions, and Cognitions. Sign up for my email list, download the sheet, and start naming what you're going through. It also gives you an idea of what to expect as you climb your Polyvagal ladder.


The Importance of the Polyvagal Safety State in Trauma Recovery

Safety leads to recovery.

I mentioned that you need to eventually allow the stuck defensive state to exist in the present moment consciously. Eventually, to welcome it and experience it in all of the SSIEC (State, Sensation, Impulse, Emotion, Cognition) domains. You might be recoiling in fear at the idea. But I can make this manageable.

To allow defensive activation, first anchor in safety.

That's the key. The safety state is vital for self-regulation to occur effectively. When you first anchor in your safety state, you will then have the curiosity to observe your stuck defensive state without judgment.


Anchor & Repeat.

Anchoring in safety and then feeling defense is not enough. It's something you will need to return to continually. This is a long process and won't be done all at once. Instead, think of this like you are building the strength of your safety state.

Traumatized individuals have a safety state that is compromised. The ventral vagal safety state biological pathways are not strong enough, leading to a compromised ability to feel defensive state activation. They must continually exercise their safety by anchoring in safety and feeling defense. At first, it may simply be anchoring in safety. As they are ready to, they can allow some defense, then re-anchor in safety.


Building Tolerance for Defensive Activation During Trauma Recovery

Practice being in your safety state to build tolerance.

Practicing being in the safety state will help build tolerance for defensive state activation. It helps build your capacity to access and exist in your safety state. Simply practicing this will help to build your tolerance level and prepare you for direct trauma work.

However, there is more to it.

Practice feeling defense to build tolerance for trauma recovery.

Practice feeling defensive activation. It can be an overwhelming experience, so I recommend allowing a little bit at a time. This is the overall sequence you could follow:

  1. anchor in your safety state.

  2. mindfully allow small amounts of defensive activation.

  3. re-anchor in your safety state to recover.

This simple process can help to further build your tolerance level for trauma recovery. This helps you to build a reference point for defensive activation and to build a sense of control over the process. The goal is not to allow all of your defensive activation as this may prove to be re-traumatizing.

If you remain anchored in your safety state, this will continually give you access to the trust that you need to allow self-regulation to happen.


Balancing Safety and Defense in Trauma Recovery

Welcoming your defensive state activation is not only okay but necessary in the trauma recovery process. You can live a much more meaningful and functional life simply by building the strength of your safety state.

But to truly recover from trauma, the next step is to allow the defensive activation mindfully. But not by itself and not all at once. Instead, do so when anchored in your safety state. When anchored, you should feel curiosity or interest. I call this the safety state's "interest impulse." This is a sign that you are ready to begin self-regulation.

Remain anchored in your safety state to allow defense. Although the purpose is to allow defense and self-regulation, maintaining access to the safety state is the priority. If you lose access and spiral into a dysregulated state, there probably won't be much benefit.

My Polyvagal Trauma Relief System teaches you to do all this and more. This blog teaches you what is necessary for trauma recovery, but PTRS teaches you how to implement it. Clear ideas, clear language, and practical techniques. PTRS makes trauma recovery possible in a comprehensive package that addresses all 3 of the necessary recovery phases.


Something you can do right now to aid in your trauma recovery

Right now, or as soon as possible, check your immediate environment, like at work or home. And ask yourself how you feel in that environment.

Then, I want you to alter one thing in the environment to increase the passive safety cues entering your system. Pick one thing you can change, like opening the blinds, letting in fresh air, cleaning up clutter, tidying the space, or removing knick-knacks that you don't need and aren't benefitting you.

This small step doesn't heal your trauma, I know. However, it provides more safety cues and reminds your body that you're safe.

Do more things like this when you can. Not just in your environment but also in the music you listen to, the movements you do, the things you spend your time doing, and much more. Increase the safety experiences to help build the strength of your safety state.



23 Surprising Impacts of Trauma

If you live in a traumatized state, you might be surprised at how your past experiences still shape who you are today and how you experience your daily life.



Q: How does trauma impact our ability to self-regulate?

A: Trauma can disrupt our self-regulating ability by creating a misalignment between our thoughts and our emotional, sensory, and impulsive experiences. It can result in dysregulation, where our autonomic nervous system becomes stuck in defensive responses. This interference prevents us from accessing our body's natural healing mechanisms and maintaining balance.

Q: Can mindfulness practices help in self-regulation and building trust?

A: Yes, mindfulness practices can be crucial in self-regulation and building trust. By cultivating present-moment awareness and enhancing our connection with internal experiences, mindfulness enables us to align our cognitive processes with our bottom-up experiences. This alignment reduces the interference from thoughts and adaptations, allowing self-regulation to unfold naturally and fostering trust in our body's innate capacity for healing.

Q: Why is developing my safety state necessary for self-regulation?

A: Developing your safety state is essential for effective self-regulation. It involves establishing a deep sense of safety, trust, and the ability to navigate through defensive states. When we feel physically and emotionally safe, our nervous system can shift out of survival mode and enter a state conducive to healing.


3 Quotes from this blog:

Trauma is not an event that someone went through; it is the impact of those events on that person's autonomic nervous system.
Self-regulation is not a conscious choice but a biological mechanism that requires trust in our body's inherent ability to heal.
Balancing safety and defense in trauma recovery allows us to welcome defensive activation mindfully, fostering self-regulation and a more meaningful life.


I am having a hard time recovery from all the trauma I have been through..

Justin Sunseri, LMFT
Justin Sunseri, LMFT

It’s not an easy or short process, Bonnie. I have tons of resources on my site that might be helpful for you as starting points.