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Unstuck: Understanding Trauma & the Autonomic Nervous System

What does it mean to be "unstuck"? And what is the relevance to understanding trauma and the autonomic nervous system? I'll cover what it means to be "stuck" in a defensive state, the two paths to trauma, and the process of becoming "unstuck."


Defining "Stuck"

Before we can understand "unstuck," we must first define what it means to be "stuck." "Stuck" refers to the autonomic nervous system being unable to shift out of a defensive state. It's when the autonomic nervous system is stuck down the Polyvagal Ladder (a concept from Deb Dana) in a defensive state and cannot self-regulate up the ladder back into its safety state.

Being "stuck" is a biological phenomenon, and it occurs when the autonomic nervous system is primarily in a defensive state and unable to regulate to the Polyvagal safety state. This is what trauma is - having an autonomic nervous system that is stuck in a defensive state. Stuckness can manifest in emotions like sadness and anger or in cognitive processes like self-blame or self-judgment.


Two Paths to Trauma

There are two paths to being in a traumatic state.


The first path is an acute life threat reaction, which comes from surviving a one-time event like an assault, explosion, surgery, fall, or accident. In this path, the body neurocepts that its life is in danger, and the autonomic nervous system gets stuck by not being able to complete its survival response.

The second path is a chronic disruption of connectedness, which comes from multiple events that sever one's impulse to connect and attach to safe others. This can include abuse and neglect in childhood or domestic violence.


Children are more prone to this path of trauma because they have an attachment impulse. When adults in a child's life repeatedly cut off that natural impulse to connect, that directly negatively influences the strength of their safety state or the strength of their vagal brake. The state does not develop as it would if the child were in an environment with good enough attachment, good enough predictability, good enough basic needs being met and good enough environmental safety.



Unstucking from Trauma

The process of becoming "unstuck" from trauma involves building the capacity to stay anchored in the body's Polyvagal safety state and allowing the autonomic nervous system to climb the Polyvagal Ladder.


In the acute life threat reaction path of trauma, you get unstuck by building the strength of the safety state and allowing the body to complete its survival impulse through mindful experience and then discharging the stuck defensive state. The immobility aspect of freeze needs to be thawed first, then the stuck flight/fight state can be completed.


In the chronic disruption of connectedness path of trauma, you get unstuck by building the capacity to exist in and stay anchored in the body's safety state and allowing the autonomic nervous system to climb the Polyvagal Ladder. There is a natural capacity for self-regulation that will kick in with mindful attunement to the body's inner sensations and impulses.


The processes for unstucking from both of these paths of trauma is taught in much more depth in Unstucking Defensive States and also includes guides and practice on how to do so.


What Does "Unstuck" Mean?

"Unstuck" is the process of the autonomic nervous system shifting out of a defensive state, specifically accessing the safety state. It's first and foremost a biological process.


As you practice and time goes on, you will notice changes in your emotional, impulsive, cognitive, and sensation experiences. You will experience greater distress tolerance, and things that used to be very triggering might not be as triggering. But again, change is essentially a biological process that drives these experiences. Change your state, change the other domains of your SSIEC.



Realistic Unstucking Goals

The goal is not to have a hundred percent constant safety. I don't think that's realistic. Being "unstuck" is staying anchored in your safety state and being able to tolerate the stuck defensive energy you have within you.


Unstuck means that you have enough capacity to handle life's obstacles, like disagreements with a spouse or being cut off on the freeway. These relatively minor challenges won't be as dysregulating for an unstuck ANS. They are manageable and your safety state is still accessible.


Being unstuck also means that you will be able to navigate new things that come up for you in life, like job opportunities or difficult discussions that need to take place.


Maybe it's just me, but 100% safety states sounds kind of... boring. Is it just me? Don't we need to be challenged, dysregulated and then to re-regulate in order to grow? Let me know what you think in the description!



 

FAQ

Q: Is it actually possible to relieve my trauma?

A: I generally think so. I created my entire Polyvagal Trauma Relief System with this very hope in mind!


Q: What is the autonomic nervous system?

A: The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system responsible for regulating automatic bodily functions like heart rate, digestion, and breathing.

Q: What are the two paths to being in a traumatic state?

A: The two paths are an acute life threat reaction and a chronic disruption of connectedness. The path of trauma will affect the process of getting unstuck, but there are similarities in getting unstuck for both paths.


 

Author Bio:

Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He is the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast, and author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states.


 

Justin's Quotes:

  • "The goal is not to have a hundred percent constant safety. I don't think that's realistic."

  • Being "stuck" is a biological phenomenon, and it occurs when the autonomic nervous system is primarily in a defensive state and unable to regulate to the Polyvagal safety state."

  • "The process of becoming "unstuck" from trauma involves building the capacity to stay anchored in the body's Polyvagal safety state and allowing the autonomic nervous system to climb the Polyvagal Ladder."


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