Immobilization/shutdown/dissociation/frozen, a trauma response built into the nervous system

Back in March 2012, I posted that I had started reading Peter A. Levine’s latest book, In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. My post included excerpts from Levine’s description of being hit by a car and his experience afterwards.

His experience serves as a useful model for being and staying present through trauma and recovery. He knew how to allow his body and emotions to process naturally so that he did not get stuck in a traumatic state (i.e., PTSD).

Well, I am still reading that book. It’s very, very rich. Some parts are rather scientific. I’m taking my time to really understand it.

Levine uses polyvagal theory (I just posted an interview with Stephen Porges, who came up with the theory) to explain the states that people experience and can get stuck in from traumatic experiences.

Because Somatic Experiencing Practitioners and other therapists (as well as astute loved ones) who are helping someone recovery from trauma need to know which layer of the nervous system is dominant at any given time in a traumatized individual, I am going to describe them.

First, the primary job of our nervous system is to protect us. We have senses that alert us to danger. We may react to a perception of a threat in our bodies before it ever becomes conscious in the mind. That’s because the autonomic nervous system (which is not under our control) is involved when trauma occurs. We react instinctually.

This is good to know. It means that your trauma reactions are automatic, not something you can control, so there’s no need to feel shame or blame yourself. You were doing the best you could.

There are two defensive states that occur when encountering trauma: immobility/dissociation/shutdown (freeze) and sympathetic hyperarousal (fight or flight).

I’m going to write about them in separate posts to avoid being too lengthy.

The more primitive nervous system state is immobility. (Primitive in that evolutionarily it comes from jawless and cartilaginous fish and precedes sympathetic hyperarousal.)

It is triggered when a person perceives that death is imminent, from an external or internal threat.

Levine also uses the terms dissociation, shutdown, and freeze/frozen to describe this state. Note: If you’re an NLPer, dissociation means the separation of components of subjective experience from one another, such as cutting off the emotional component of a memory and simply remembering the visual and/or auditory components. (Source: Encyclopedia of NLP)

Keep in mind that Levine is talking about dissociation as an involuntary post-traumatic physiological state that trauma victims can sometimes get stuck with. There may be some overlap. According to Levine, symptoms of being in this state include frequent spaciness, unreality, depersonalization, and/or various somatic and health complaints, including gastrointestinal problems, migraines, some forms of asthma, persistent pain, chronic fatigue, and general disengagement from life.

Levine notes:

This last-ditch immobilization system is meant to function acutely and only for brief periods. When chronically activated, humans become trapped in the gray limbo of nonexistence, where one is neither really living nor actually dying. The 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 more primitive the operative system, the more power it has to take over the overall function of the organism. It does this by inhibiting the more recent and more refined neurological subsystems, effectively preventing them from functioning. In particular, the immobilization system all but completely suppresses the social engagement/attachment system.

Highly traumatized and chronically neglected or abused individuals are dominated by the immobilization/shutdown system.

Signs that someone is operating from this state include:

  • constricted pupils
  • fixed or spaced-out eyes
  • collapsed posture (slumped forward)
  • markedly reduced breathing
  • abrupt slowing and feebleness of the heart rate
  • skin color that is a pasty, sickly white or even gray in color

Brainwise, volunteers in the immobility state exhibited a decrease in activity of the insula and the cingulate cortex. In one study, about 30% of PTSD sufferers experienced immobility and 70% experienced hyperarousal, with a dramatic increase of activity in these brain areas. Most traumatized people exhibit some symptoms from both nervous systems, Levine says.

I feel the deepest compassion for people in this state, because I have experienced it myself: the spaciness, depersonalization, sense of unreality, and passive, disengaged attitude toward life. It was many years ago. If I could, I would reach back in time to that injured woman and give her resources she just didn’t have back then.

I feel so grateful for the trauma recovery work I’ve done, both with a therapist and on my own. I haven’t experienced immobilization for years, except briefly.

Next up: sympathetic hyperarousal/fight or flight.

An interview with Stephen Porges: polyvagal theory, or how the nervous system is affected in autism, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, and trauma

Nexus, Colorado’s Holistic Health and Spirituality Journal.

This interview with Dr. Stephen Porges, whose career is based on understanding the evolution of the human nervous system, outlines some of the basics of polyvagal theory.

This theory is being tested in trauma recovery sessions. It’s exciting because it helps explain how and why people freeze or experience fight-flight reactions in response to trauma — and the route back to normal, healthy functioning, no matter how long ago the trauma occurred or how often it happened.

Polyvagal theory is increasingly becoming part of the training of bodyworkers, therapists, and educators. In a future post, I will describe how to tell which nervous system (freeze, fight or flight, or parasympathetic) is dominant at any given moment.

This theory is based on an in-depth understanding of the vagus nerve, also known as the 10th cranial nerve, which wanders (the Latin word vagus means wandering, like vagabond and vagrant) from the brain stem down through the body, affecting the face, heart, lungs, and gut.

The brain evolved hierarchically in vertebrates, and the neural circuits of the older nervous systems are still present, accessed hierarchically.

RD: So one thing happens then another thing happens then another thing?

SP: Right. This influences how we react to the world. The hierarchy is composed of three neural circuits. One circuit may override another. We usually react with our newest system, and if that doesn’t work, we try an older one, then the oldest. We start with our most modern systems, and work our way backward.

So polyvagal theory considers the evolution of the autonomic nervous system and its organization; but it also emphasizes that the vagal system is not a single unit, as we have long thought. There are actually two vagal systems, an old one and a new one. That’s where the name polyvagal comes from.

The final, or newest stage, which is unique to mammals, is characterized by a vagus having myelinated pathways. The vagus is the major nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. There are two major branches. The most recent is myelinated and is linked to the cranial nerves that control facial expression and vocalization.

Here’s how it works in action:

SP: Let’s say you’re a therapist or a parent or a teacher, and one of your clients, students or children’s faces is flat, with no facial expression. The face has no muscle tone, the eyelids droop and gaze averts. It is highly likely that individual will also have auditory hypersensitivities and difficulty regulating his or her bodily state. These are common features of several psychiatric disorders, including anxiety disorders, borderline personality, bipolar, autism and hyperactivity. The neural system that regulates both bodily state and the muscles of the face goes off-line. Thus, people with these disorders often lack affect in their faces and are jittery, because their nervous system is not providing information to calm them down.

RD: How will polyvagal theory change treatment options for people with these disorders?

SP: Once we understand the mechanisms mediating the disorder, there will be ways to treat it. For example, you would no longer say “sit still” or punish a person because they can’t sit still. You would never say, “Why aren’t you smiling?” or “Try to listen better” or “Look in my eyes,” when these behaviors are absent. Often treatment programs attempt to teach clients to make eye contact. But teaching someone to make eye contact is often virtually impossible when the individual has a disorder, such as autism or bipolar disorder, because the neural system controlling spontaneous eye gaze is turned off. This newer, social engagement system can only be expressed when the nervous system detects the environment as safe.

There’s much more fascinating information you can read by clicking the link at the top of this post.

Starting the process of brainwave optimization

Yesterday I did something I’ve wanted to do ever since I learned about it. I had an assessment of how my brainwaves are working.

I learned that I still have traces of fight-or-flight activity stemming from PTSD. Forty something years after the trauma, after nearly 20 years of yoga, psychotherapy, releasing the traumatic energy block a la Waking the Tiger, over 5 years of meditation, learning NLP, and doing the trauma releasing exercises, this pattern (although much less than it was) is still present in my energy field. All of those healing modalities have helped and been completely worthwhile, to be sure.

Fight-or-flight is a wonderful instinct to have — when there’s something to fight or flee from. The problem is when there’s nothing in the environment to fear, but I am still tense or jumpy. It’s a brainwave pattern.

I’ve wondered how can I know I’ve completely recovered from trauma. The trauma happened when I was young, so I don’t have an adult baseline of well-being to compare to. I’d really like to know that I’m over it and don’t need to spend any more energy on it. Ever.

The aftereffects of a trauma can last a lifetime. I’d like to experience what it is like to be untraumatized. I can’t change the past, but I can change my brain wave patterns and therefore my life.  

Here’s how the process has gone so far. I made an appointment with Gigi Turner at NeuroBeginnings. That is one of three Austin affiliates offering brainwave optimization using the equipment and software and training provided by Brain State Technologies (BST).

The founder of BST, Lee Gerdes, has written a book, Limitless You: The Infinite Possibilities of a Balanced Brain. I have just gotten the book myself. One of the testimonials on the back cover mentions “restoring … humans to a joyful and highly functional state in their daily life.” Yeah.

All of these companies are staying busy, from what I hear, and I’m sure they are all very competent at doing what they do. I connected well with Gigi on the phone and identified with her as a working woman, so I chose her. She’s also the most highly trained BST certified technician in town.

At my first appointment, she had me fill out an extensive online questionnaire. I’m pretty sure they ask about so many issues because BST wants to collect as much data as it can. All in the name of compassionate science. This is a fascinating frontier that I’ve blogged about before.

At the end of the questionnaire, I identified my top reasons for wanting to do this. I listed well-being and happiness first. And, oh yeah, I wouldn’t mind having better spiritual development and meditation, cognitive improvement, social interactions, etc.

Gigi had me sit in a recliner. She put some electrodes on my earlobes and scalp. She then asked me to close my eyes for 2-3 minutes. Then she asked me to open my eyes partially. Then she asked me to open my eyes completely. With eyes open, she had me do an exercise like repeat strings of numbers.

Meanwhile, a big computer monitor with a split screen is showing my left and right hemisphere activity as colors — blues, green, red, each color representing a range of brainwaves like beta, alpha, theta, delta — streaming by.

Pretty and fascinating. I wonder what this means.

Then she’d move the electrodes and repeat the process for a different area of my brain, getting readings for the frontal lobe, parietal, temporal, occipital, cingulate gyrus, and midline, if I remember accurately.

With my eyes open, I’d do a different exercise for each area. I solved math problems aloud, read to myself and answered a question, listened to Gigi reading and answered a question, and just looked around the room.

At the end, she removed the electrodes and showed me a summary on the computer of my assessment. (It’s proprietary, so I didn’t get a copy. Darn! I love looking at data, seeing what pops out.)

Basically for each area of the brain, there’s data about the left and right hemispheres, about each brainwave type, and about ratios between types (such as between beta and theta), as far as I could tell. I bet there’s also data about the brain’s flexibility in moving from eyes closed, partly open, to wide open, and how well it functions doing each assigned task.

From experience, the BST-trained technicians have come to recognize “brainwave signatures” for various conditions like PTSD, ADHD, and so on. But it’s really not meant as a diagnostic tool. It’s meant to be used to harmonize and balance the brain, and this is the starting place.

They also can tell what range the numbers “should” be in for optimal functioning. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with being out of range. I imagine some gifts and talents that people have developed (math prodigy, psychic) rely on being out of normal range while doing that activity. The question is, are they happy and healthy? Can their brainwaves change to meet the situation, or are they in a dysfunctional pattern?

Even if you don’t have anything like PTSD, you can probably benefit from tuning up your brain. The literature says it can help with addictions, anger, anxiety, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, compulsive behaviors, eating disorders, learning difficulties, obsessive thinking, panic attacks, poor memory, sleeping difficulties, stress, and a host of other issues.

So it is possible that with the training, I can completely retrain my brain to operate as if I never had PTSD.

I can be less jumpy and experience even more well-being. I’m looking forward to that.

I can also learn to focus better on reading material that is, ahem, less than compelling. Like textbooks and other dry material.

I’m a pretty good sleeper, but Gigi says that optimizing my brain waves will help me sleep even better, waking up even more refreshed. Wow. I’ve had insomnia before and have great compassion for people with sleep problems. I’m looking forward to sleeping more restfully.

BST affiliates can also do things like increase beta in the left hemisphere and increase alpha in the right hemisphere. Yeah, let those hemispheres specialize even more! I imagine this would make someone more cognitively adept when they need to be and happier the rest of the time. I’ll have some of that, too!

So I’m going to do it later this month, when my contract job is completely done. You need to be able to come in for a couple of hours a day every day, or even twice a day, which is why I’ve waited until now.

I understand the process uses sound, and that you actually “observe” your brain waves and optimize them yourself, creating the balance and harmony you desire, rather than matching an external norm.

I will report back here at Well:bodymindheartspirit.

Recovering from a virus, recovering from adrenal exhaustion

I awoke sick Saturday morning with a sore throat. I thought maybe it was strep throat. Drank lemon echinacea Throat Coat tea, sprayed a throat numbing liquid, and took two Alleves. Ate breakfast.

As the day progressed, I began to feel achy and chilled. Not much nasal congestion, and my throat became less sore, so it was probably not a cold. Pretty sure this was some type of influenza. The first battle of an invader with the immune system takes place in the tonsils, right? They fought hard, thank you very much, but were overpowered by a virus.

Sigh. Who knows how long this will last?

I did whatever I could think of to boost my immune system. I drank Tulsi tea, then made tea from fresh ginger steeped in hot filtered water and drank that. I ate a clove of garlic. (Slice thinly and swallow quickly, don’t chew.)

I did EFT three times. I did the thymus thump several times. I took three long naps. I had no appetite at all but stayed hydrated with the teas and water.

I finally remembered I owned a thermometer and took my temperature Saturday night. It was 102.2 degrees F.

That evening was the worst of it. I couldn’t lie still. Kept needing to flex and point my feet and circle my ankles, changing position often. Weird, huh? All I can figure out is that these movements were activating meridians (several of which begin or end at the feet) and moving lymph.

(Lymph is a fluid that contains infection-fighting white blood cells. The lymphatic system clears the toxins, waste, and other stuff  your body no longer needs. It’s a key part of the body’s immune system. Since the lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump, it works better when you take measures to help it circulate: by moving the body, dry-brushing, and lymphatic drainage, a type of light massage.)

I’ve learned in my studies of trauma recovery to allow the body to move as it needs to, unless it’s dangerous. So on with the foot movements.

Sunday morning I felt a bit better. Took my temperature twice that day, 99 in a.m., 100 in p.m. Aches and chills were gone, and my appetite came back somewhat later in the day, but my energy was low. I decided to stay home yesterday (Monday), believing that resting would speed my full recovery.

It seems I had a mini-virus, a two-day bout of illness. I have no idea if what I did shortened the duration of it, or if it would have been a 48-hour bug no matter what. You’d need a scientific experiment with a control group to determine that, and there could still be variables unaccounted for.

Still, it just feels better to know that I did what I could to strengthen my immune system.

Today (Tuesday) my temperature was normal. I went out and did a few things that couldn’t be postponed (I’m moving on Friday, after all), but I still feel weak and not quite back to myself.  I’m accustomed to feeling well and having a nice level of energy.

I have so much to do this week, it’s imperative that I recover quickly. I need to clean out my shed, get boxes, pack, and work three days this week. I need to get well. I made an acupuncture appointment because it helps.

~~~

Postscript, July 9, 2012. Hindsight is such a great teacher, bringing the gifts of perspective and insight.

When I look back on the time when I originally wrote this post a year and a half ago, I can see that I was stressed. I was selling my house, moving, and starting a new contract job. That’s when I got sick.

Stress weakens the immune system. If it goes on too long, you can suffer from adrenal depletion or exhaustion.

That happened to me this spring. I had just just studied for and passed the national certification exam for massage and bodywork, not exercising or resting enough, and I was stressing about money and work. A friend suddenly showed distinct signs of mental illness, which freaked me out. I experienced a fight-or-flight reaction, which means the adrenals are producing copious amounts of stress hormones that keep the sympathetic nervous system dominant.

I took different contract job at a technology company, working in a group that was experiencing a lot of chaos, with an hour-long commute. Much more stress and misery.

No wonder, when I saw my acupuncturist after the job ended, she told me I was suffering from adrenal exhaustion.

She advised me to take over-the-counter high quality rhodiola and eleuthero as directed on the bottles to recover from the adrenal exhaustion. I’ve been doing that for about a month now, and I feel much better. (These are also listed on my Products I Recommend page.)

As a massage therapist, I recommend frequent massage to help the body release stress and tension. A relaxing massage helps the nervous system begin to regulate itself again instead of being stuck in sympathetic mode, which helps you recover from stress more quickly and experience the deep relaxation (and strong immune system, better digestion, better sleep, stronger sex drive, more playful attitude) that occur when the parasympathetic nervous system comes back online. I also recommend Epsom salt baths for stress relief.

Related: See my post about preventing illness and recovering quickly.