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Traumatized without a traumatizing event?

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

What do we mean by "trauma"?

First, we have to discuss what "trauma" actually is. When we use the word "trauma" in the world of the polyvagal theory and psychophysiology, we're referring to the condition of the autonomic nervous system. We mean that the ANS is stuck (not broken!) in a defensive state of flight, fight, shutdown or freeze. The ANS is functioning day in and day out a rung or two down the polyvagal ladder.

So it's not the event(s) we're referring to when we say "trauma". More accurately, it's the impact of the event. If we were involved in the same bus crash, we would potentially walk away from that accident with very different reactions in our ANS. One of us might have gone into a freeze response in reaction to the crash and stay there for months and months. Self-regulation back into the ventral vagal state of safety may not be an option. The other one of us may have been able to self-regulate back into our ventral pathways.

Our differing capacities for self-regulation is what determines whether or not we are in a traumatized state. The person who is stuck in a freeze state can be said to be traumatized. The person who is able to self-regulate is simply not traumatized. Same event with different outcomes. It wouldn't make sense to say both people are traumatized because they went through the same event.

Some events are probably going to be more likely to result in a traumatized autonomic nervous system. Probably. But the severity of the state is going to differ. The capacity for self-regulation before the event is going to differ. The persons' history of having and accepting co-regulation before the event is going to differ. The individuals' available co-regulative support group is going to differ. Many factors obviously come into play.

Stuck state without the event(s)?

So it begs the question - can someone have a stuck autonomic nervous system without having a preceding event that may have caused the stuck state? And to be clear, I am not talking in reference to things like repressed traumatic memories. It's simply a discussion of whether or not the ANS can be stuck in a defensive state without a specific antecedent event causing that stuck state.

And I think the answer is yes. Mainly because trauma is not simply some event happening to us. Trauma is also the lack of necessary events and conditions being provided as we age. Babies have less self-regulative access to their ventral pathways and no access (I would assume) to their prefrontal cortex. These things develop over time with good enough conditions in upbringing. But this is honestly not what I'm even interested in for this conversation. So to refine the question further -

Can someone's autonomic nervous system be stuck in a defensive state even if they received good enough care and did not survive some potentially traumatizing event?

And again, there is an obvious answer of yes. Those on the autism spectrum seem to be biologically hardwired to have less access to their ventral vagal safety and social engagement pathways. Dr. Porges does some interesting work with autistic kids and his Safe and Sound Protocol. So there could be an argument here that perhaps someone is simply born with less access to those pathways, independent of upbringing or other factors, which autism might be evidence for. So we have to refine the question further -

Can someone's autonomic nervous system be stuck in a defensive state even if they received good enough care, did not survive some potentially traumatizing event and would otherwise have the capability to regulate itself?

I don't think so.

If someone would "otherwise have the capability to regulate" themselves, then no, there would not be a stuck defensive state. I don't think being stuck in a defensive state comes out of nowhere. If there is a significant stuck defensive state, then they probably went through something that got them stuck.

If this individual survived a sexual assault, then that individual could potentially be stuck in a defensive state. Though if they had "good enough" upbringing and could otherwise self-regulate, then their potential to be stuck in a defensive state is probably going to be significantly less, because their vagal brake is probably going to be stronger. Especially if they also have people (and pets) in their lives that provide co-regulation, live in a safe environment and can get adequate help for what they went through.

Nervous System Capacity

Now let's say that a non-traumatized person, with good-enough parenting and the capacity to self-regulate set out to do something new. Like start a business. Or create an Instagram account to showcase their artwork. Or ask for a raise from their boss. Or go to a dinner party with their friends that would have new people there.

For this non-traumatized individual, any of these new pursuits could trigger their defensive flight sympathetic energy. I would assume not the fight sympathetic energy, since this person is otherwise pretty well-anchored in their safety state. But these scenarios could bring them out of their safety state and down one rung into their flight energy. They might feel extremely anxious about these situations. They would experience it as anxiety, worry, nervousness.

So they would still access their defensive state, but they wouldn't be stuck there. After they accomplish their goal, they would be able to self-regulate back to their safety state. They aren't traumatized, they're simply accessing their defensive energy. Not because there's actual danger. But because it's an experience that's new. They don't have the vagal brake strength developed for these specific situations.

The nervous system capacity for the traumatized individual is going to be less. This individual is going to need to build the strength of their vagal brake, something I had in mind when developing Building Safety Anchors.

Trauma vs Vagal Brake Strength

"Trauma" refers to the individual's inability to self-regulate and get to the top of their Polyvagal Ladder. Their inability to access their ventral vagal state of safety and social engagement.

The vagal brake is the influence of the safety state on the heart. A traumatized individual will have less access to their safety state, and therefore a weaker vagal brake. A non-traumatized individual is going to have more access to their safety state, and therefore a stronger vagal brake. Their ability to tolerate distress is going to be greater since they have a stronger vagal brake. The non-traumatized person's window of tolerance (or 'distress tolerance') is going to be greater for this reason.

But even the non-traumatized person is going to access their defensive states when they are confronted with or confront a novel situation they have not yet built the capacity for. These polyvagal biological pathways evolved within human beings and still function within every single one of us. They switch off and on throughout the day. So well all access them. But we don't all get stuck in one of them, depending on many factors.

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