This is a section from my free e-book - Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. Make sure you're signed up for my email list to get access to this and future ebooks. There's a signup at the top and bottom of this page.
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Trauma is not the event(s) that you went through, like surviving a disaster. Nor is it the events that you didn’t go through that you should have, like developing a healthy attachment with a parent. Trauma is being stuck in an autonomic nervous system state of defense. Trauma is being stuck in flight/fight, shutdown or freeze. Trauma is having the inability to regulate back up to the top of the Polyvagal ladder.
This is significant in light of the paradigm that we have already built around the Polyvagal Theory. This new understanding of trauma can provide an additional layer to that paradigm and new opportunities for narrative building for your own personal story.
2 paths to trauma
There are two distinct paths to being stuck in a traumatized state. These paths can take many different forms in how we get to the traumatized state, but these are the two paths in essence. Meaning, to get to point B, you start at point A. But there are two paths from A to B; you could take path 1 or path 2. You can choose any mode of transportation you like, but you need to stay on path 1 or 2.
Trauma works the same way. There are 2 paths to trauma, just like path 1 and path 2 from point A to point B. Point B is traumatized and point A is not traumatized. There are two different potential paths from being not traumatized to being trumatized. But the way you travel those 2 paths can look different. And the two paths can potentially intersect as well.
Path 1 - Acute Life Threat Reaction
An “acute life threat reaction” is one where the autonomic nervous system goes into a defensive state due to the neuroception of potential death, while also unsuccessfully utilizing impulsive flight/fight energy. "Trauma occurs when we are intensely frightened and are either physically restrained or perceive that we are trapped" (Levine 48).
In this path to trauma, the person is neurocepting that their life is under threat, not that they are “just” in danger. It’s beyond the risk of bodily harm. This is also sometimes referred to as “shock trauma” and is more associated with “Big T” trauma as well.
This type of response is going to be more closely associated with the freeze mixed state. The individual’s shutdown state and their flight/fight state is activated at the same time. There is more of a likelihood of the individual immobilizing in a tense, rigid way. This could be because they are perceiving that immobilization is necessary while they are in flight/fight. Or it could be that they are in flight/fight and then are forced to immobilize. Some obvious and not so obvious examples:
Surviving a sexual assault
Surviving a car crash
Surviving an explosion
Surgeries and other procedures
Falls in childhood
Being strapped down or anesthetized
Yes, even falls in childhood and routine medical procedures. I was dismissive of this myself when I first heard it. “That’s just normal childhood stuff!” But that’s not the point, whether it’s normal or not. If the body goes into a defensive state and cannot utilize the energy, this could result in a stuck defensive state. You can read more about this in Peter Levine's Trauma Through a Child's Eyes.
Even things like routine surgeries or medical procedures where the individual is immobilized while in a sympathetic state. This includes being held or strapped down and anaesthetized. I’ve heard from nurses in surgical units that people will often come out of surgery flailing and in a panic. The sympathetic energy was stuck in their system, then chaotically erupts at the first chance.
Thawing the freeze
When I was discussing thawing the freeze energy back in the Mixed States section, this trauma path is when that would be important. The stuck freeze energy cannot typically be utilized all at once for someone who is traumatized. The sensations of releasing this stuck flight/fight energy is intense. When the freeze energy is activated, it often will result in not just anxiety, but panic. Not just anger, but rage. Not just stress, but overwhelm.
The flight/fight energy is in the system, never having been allowed to complete the impulse to run or fight. It may have been compounded with years of traumatic events, like ongoing childhood sexual abuse.
If it’s more of a frozen fight state, the stuck energy could explode when triggered. This looks like uncontrollable, blackout anger. Rage. This person becomes highly mobilized, aggressive, lashing out at whatever it is perceiving to be the threat. But there is no control; it is not an ownership of their feelings and a mindful experiencing of their stuck state.
If the frozen energy is more flight, then it will look like an anxiety or panic attack when triggered, immobilizing the individual. They could first become frantic, the anxiety building to a crescendo and then into a panic. The panic is immobilizing, paralyzing them in fear.
Therapy can be a great context for doing one's thawing. The therapist should be able to provide safety, both environmentally and interpersonally. Then can gradually assist the client through their stuck defensive states.
However, if the client is not ready, then talking about and feeling their defensive state can be retraumatizing. Thinking about, sharing and feeling the events bring up the potential to shatter the freeze, again resulting in panic, rage or overwhelm. The strength of the vagal brake must be developed before delving into trauma work.
I focus first and foremost on safety and maintaining safety when working as a therapist with my clients. We can absolutely discuss the painful memories, but the client needs to be anchored in safety for that discussion to be effective. From there, they can mindfully discuss and feel their stuck traumatic state.
Freeze & PTSD
I would argue that this first path of trauma is closely associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Just like with PTSD, the individual is stuck in a certain moment of time. That stuck defensive reaction can be triggered by aspects of the event. The person who was molested as a child jumps when someone unexpectedly touches them. The person that survives a car crash is triggered into intense anxiety when getting into a car.
The event was never processed on a somatic level. These people had an impulse to run or fight, but were not able to complete the impulse. The energy stays dormant, triggered by aspects of the event, even otherwise benign ones.
The body and brain take stock of sensory stimuli during these life-threatening or dangerous events. During an attack, the individual may focus on one thing, like a texture or an object. This probably has some survival benefit to it. Aspects of what is life-threatening get "tattooed" into our consciousness. "At the moment a trauma takes place, all of a person's senses automatically focus on the most salient aspect of the threat... they become the intrusive image or imprint" (Levine 142). And the next time we are near that stimulus, the same defensive reaction is triggered, preparing us for another possible survival scenario.
With PTSD, there is a reliving of the event. Daydreams, nightmares and flashbacks are ways that the event lives on, because the impulse to survive was not completed. The flight/fight energy is frozen in the system, the body existing with an obvious or not-so-obvious underlying freeze state. Story follows state, so the mind creates an explanation for what is happening in the moment of being triggered. The brain conjures images of what it associates with the freeze, like the events that lead to the freeze.
When the traumatic state is successfully relieved and the individual can access their safety state, then the memories don't hold the same level of charge. They become renegotiated into the body and working memory of the person and come to represent something else. Instead of a moment they are frozen in paralysis in, the events are a piece of their journey. Instead of fear, the person might feel respect for their past self and see a survivor, not a victim.
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