I’ve written about different “layers” of the nervous system being activated by trauma. I posted earlier about the most primitive (in terms of evolution) layer, which experiences immobilization/shutdown/dissociation/freezing, as described in Peter A. Levine’s book In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.
The next layer, according to Levine, experiences sympathetic hyperarousal, commonly known as “fight or flight,” in response to a trauma. In evolutionary time, this system began developing in bony fish and continued through amphibians and reptiles and is often called the “reptilian brain.”
People who experience a single traumatic event without a history of repeated trauma, neglect, or abuse tend to be dominated by this system rather than immobilization. Sympathetic hyperarousal is involuntarily activated in response to danger, while immobilization occurs involuntarily in response to doom.
Levine says in his long experience, many, maybe even a majority, of people exhibit symptoms of both systems, and that symptoms change over time and can even change within a single therapeutic session.
Signs of sympathetic hyperarousal include:
- racing hearts (visible in the carotid artery in the front of the neck)
- tightened neck muscles (anterior scalenes, sternocleidomastoids, and upper shoulder muscles)
- choppy breathing
- stiffened posture
- general jumpiness
- darting eyes
- dilated pupils
- cold hands
- pale skin
- cold sweat in hands and forehead
Somatic experiencing therapy is based on recognizing which system is activated at the time and responding accordingly.
This makes sense to me. If someone is experiencing immobilization, their social engagement system is shut down. (This most recent layer of the nervous system is the “mammalian brain” that reads social cues.) People who are immobilized/dissociated/shut down/frozen cannot read faces and postures, and they may not be aware of their own emotions. They don’t know whether they can trust others.
The way out of immobilization is helping the traumatized person move from shutdown to sympathetic arousal while learning to recognize and manage their physical sensations. Sensations are the only language the reptilian brain speaks, and working with sensations is a way out of the wordless terror of a traumatic experience.
A therapist’s first job in reaching such shut-down clients is to help them mobilize their energy: to help them, first, to become aware of their physiological paralysis and shutdown in a way that normalizes it, and to shift toward (sympathetic) mobilization. The next step is to gently guide a client through the sudden defensive/self-protective activation that underlies the sympathetic state and back to equilibrium, to the here-and-now and a reengagement in life.
Levine says that the most important task in this stage of recovery is for the therapist to “ensure a client contains these intense arousal sensations without becoming overwhelmed,” experiencing them “as intense but manageable waves of energy as well as sensations associated with aggression and self-protection.”
In this state, the trauma survivor may complete their defensive actions by activating running muscles or making protective gestures as well as experiencing vibration, tingling, and waves of heat and cold.
So when I made those spontaneous running movements and felt tingling in my legs and forearms and hands way back when I first read Waking the Tiger, I was completing defensive actions (which would have been running away from a murderer).
From doing David Berceli’s trauma releasing exercises, besides the tremors and shaking I experience, I sometimes find myself making a repeated swatting gesture with my left arm. I have no clue what gave rise to that. I trust that my body needs to move that way to release something. I just let it happen. My body is wise beyond my mind in so many ways.
By befriending these arousal sensations in a slow and steady way, the trauma survivor gradually discharges the energy of hyperarousal.
This is the way out of limbo and back into life. Only after this does the social engagement nervous system (“the mammalian brain”) come back online. The individual experiences restorative, deepening calm, sensations of being okay and being good, and an urge or hunger for face-to-face contact.
Levine states that many traumatized individuals then need guidance to negotiate intimacy, which can occur only when the social engagement nervous system is no longer being hijacked by immobilization and hyperarousal systems.
The key here is body awareness, both to coming out of immobilization and to experiencing the sensational roller coaster ride of sympathetic hyperarousal.
It’s important not to mistake immobilization for calm. From my own experience, people used to say I seemed calm, when actually I was shut down. People also used to think I was high because my eyes were dilated. I wasn’t high. I was in sympathetic hyperarousal.
Which by the way, if you interact in person with me, I invite you to tell me if you notice whether my pupils are pinpoints (immobilized) or dilated (hyperaroused). I’d like to know. I’ve been looking in the mirror at various times since I learned about this! ; ) So far, I haven’t seen either.
Much of my trauma healing over the last decade has been experiencing that restorative calmness through meditation, cranio-sacral therapy, esoteric acupuncture, yoga, trance. It’s about feeling deep relaxation, peace, and safety in my body. It’s about literally feeling and trusting my own innate goodness and worthiness. It’s about well-being of body, mind, heart, and spirit. How can anyone get enough of that?
It’s also been about social engagement: about relating, making and keeping friends, connecting with people, and being part of a community. I do best with people who are expressive, who have a range of emotions, who are skilled at verbal and nonverbal communication, who enjoy play and humor and affection.
Sometimes someone does something disturbing that throws me out of my well-deserved, hard-earned, beloved state of well-being because they have been hijacked by trauma and are beginners on the recovery path.
I understand cognitively that they don’t know any better, but I trust my body. If my body says be ready to flee, I take note and respond accordingly. If it says confront, I show anger. These are built-in, automatic instincts that I’m glad to have operational, and they aren’t just happening for no good reason.
I know that they’ve been hijacked by trauma and don’t even know who they really are without it. I just set the boundary I need, love them from afar, and feel glad that’s over. I feel safer already.
So interesting that you post about this today, the same day I posted about the sympathetic nervous system with regards to eating! Our bodies are so amazing, but we need to learn how to work better with them for sure. Great post!
If ones responds to a trauma by freezing, numbing, dissociating, does that suggest there has already been trauma in the past?
Thanks for your time, Su.
Su, thanks for asking this great question. I believe that a person could easily respond to a trauma in any of those ways regardless of whether they’ve experienced trauma in the past. The most important thing is for the person to allow their body and emotions to change and flow as they process the trauma. This will help them return to their normal resilience. If someone needs support during this transformative and healing process, I recommend seeking a Somatic Experiencing practitioner. You can search for one by location at this link: http://sepractitioner.membergrove.com.