Nervous System and Body Response to PTSD

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Let's take a closer look at the impact of trauma on your mind and body. In order to do so, we need to better understand the nervous system. your nervous system is going to respond to your environment with and without conscious awareness. When you are experiencing something that's threatening, you will respond by activating in a way that engages your self protection mechanisms. This is called the sympathetic nervous system. And it's typically referred to as the fight or flight system in the body.

In other words, you want to either run away or you want to fight for your survival. When you're for example, in a car and you have to suddenly press on the brake and you come to a sudden stop, your body is still in fight flight, but you're sitting still at that moment. So you might be feeling an elevated heart rate or shakiness in your Arms are in your legs. If you did indeed get in an accident and you don't have a way to move that out through your body, that can feel very overwhelming, it can feel stuck. We can't necessarily think our way through that process, we have to have a way to actually allow that experience to move all the way through the body. As you can see, I'm moving my arms as I talk about this.

That's one of those ways that we can actually shake that out another autonomic nervous system process. Let me be clear on that the autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that is responding without you having to think about it. So the second part of the autonomic nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part that in an ideal world can come back to homeostasis can can come back to a sense of safety and relaxation. It's your ability to rest and digest. If you've experienced a threat, the first line of defense is to seek a sense of safety.

Often we do that by trying to find a sense of connection with another person. However, if we cannot achieve that sense of safety and connection, then we will resort to the sympathetic nervous system, our fight flight system. Again, if that is not successful, the parasympathetic nervous system can come online here and lead us to actually shut down for self preservation. This will become more clear now as we speak about the four F's of the trauma response. The first of these is the freeze response. You can think of this like the deer in the headlights in initial freezing to scan your environment.

What's threatening, where am I? What do I need to do? Is there a way out? The second F is the flight response. You will attempt to flee a dangerous situation and blood gets sent out to the arms and the legs through the autonomic nervous system in preparation for that flight. If you scan your environment and there is no way out, the next line of defense is to attempt to fight.

The problem here is that sometimes the assault is either not a person because it's a flood or it's a fire or the assault is coming in the form of someone that's twice your size in which to fight is not a viable option. Especially if this occurs in the context of childhood trauma, where the parents are also the source of protection and the people that you depend on for your very survival. At which point, the fourth f can come online and that is the faint response. Again, this is associated with the Paris sympathy Nervous System, and it's a nervous system shut down. That can lead you to feel dizzy, nauseous, fatigued, and some people will literally think. If you have experienced an immobilization or faint response, one of the first things that you lose is a sense of having your own voice.

It can be hard to speak up in the moment because it stands in contrast to the biological shutdown that is occurring. So often, people will say, I wish I had done more I wish I had said more to protect myself. And if that's you, if you can relate to this, I want you to bring in a sense of self compassion, rather than blaming yourself or getting stuck in shame. One metaphor that I often use to think about the four F's in the trauma response is thinking about a mouse that is getting chased by a cat. Initially, the mouse is going to Run, it's going to seek safety, it's going to look for a way to escape. However, if the mouse gets caught in the jaws of the cat, that mouse cannot fight, and it will resort on that parasympathetic shut down.

Sometimes the mouse will play dead in hopes that the cat will release the mouse no longer interested in the dead animal. When we look at the impact of PTSD on the mind and body, we'll see that often we can develop what we call cognitive distortions. This refers to the inaccurate beliefs that you might develop about yourself. For example, if you were not safe, then sometimes that feeling that belief might linger and you might still say, I'm not safe now or I won't be safe in the future. We can use the past to define the present or our future in a way that's not correct. When we're looking at treatment of PTSD, reading Finding and clearing up some of those cognitive errors can be very important.

The second symptom is related to your emotions. This is where we start to see experiences of emotional overwhelm, be at panic and anxiety on the high end or feelings of depression, despair or hopelessness on the low end. It's common with PTSD that goes on for a long time untreated to flip flop between those emotions of feeling panicked and then fatigued and shut down. The next symptom that it's important to know about is hyper vigilance. hyper vigilance refers to a an intense tracking of your environment, you might be watching other people's body language or facial expressions. You might be observing your environment constantly tracking for what might be the next threat.

The problem with hyper vigilance is that it's exhausting to try and stay that alert all of the time. And it's keeping you up in that sympathetic nervous system, often unnecessarily when understanding hyper vigilance, sometimes this is a symptom that is lingering from the experience of childhood trauma. And if that childhood trauma happened when you were very young, that vigilant approach to the world might be all that, you know, you might not have another reference point of how to look at the world or perceive the world differently. There isn't a ground of safety. So sometimes that experience of being on guard or on high alert all of the time is something that you just assume is a character trait of yours, rather than something that developed as the result of trauma. So if you are going through life feeling chronically unsafe, if you have a very easy trigger, where you get angry easily or you're startled easily, if you are woken up easily out of a deep sleep and have a hard time falling back asleep.

It's really worthwhile looking deeper into these symptoms and seeing if there might be a traumatic origin. It is common with PTSD to have disturbing somatic sensations. This can come in the form of feeling like you have butterflies in your stomach or not in your stomach, chronic tightness in your chest, feeling like you lose your voice or you get sick. Often, this kind of summarization is actually quite common. And, again, we don't want to dismiss that experience, it's important to look deeper into those symptoms and become curious. We don't ever want to look at our symptoms of PTSD as a way to blame ourselves.

What we want to do is actually come in with as much curiosity and non judgement so that we can develop that sense of self compassion as a way to start to unwind the lingering effects of trauma. However, because the somatic sensations can be active really uncomfortable, even intolerable to feel? Often, we will develop avoidance strategies. This is one of the cornerstone symptoms of PTSD. And we develop avoidance as a way to push away what we cannot feel. We cannot feel it because we don't have the necessary support.

Yet. Once you feel safe in the context of a healing therapeutic relationship, you are able to turn toward those difficult emotions and sensations slowly and at a pace that works for you. I'll give another example that I often use when we're looking at working with the uncomfortable emotions and sensations with PTSD. You can think of this like a beach ball that you're holding underwater. It takes a lot of effort to push that ball down, and you have to consciously Remember to hold that underwater but if you get tired. If you have a long day at work if you have an argument with your spouse, if you have too much to drink, you're not going to be able to remember to push that down.

And often at that point, the ball will shoot up out of the water creating a big splash. In other words, the emotions come rushing out and can be flooding and overwhelming. we as human beings are very complex, we can develop incredible ways to compartmentalize ourselves to push away our emotions, our unwanted thoughts or unwanted memories. This is referred to as either dissociation or a way of minimizing our distress. When we dissociate, we might say that didn't happen to me or it didn't happen at all. Other defenses we might say, it's no big deal.

So be it that my father hit me a lot as a kid. I survived. I'm fine, I think can handle it. The truth is often we say those things because we need to in order to survive, but when we're really honest with ourselves, there's actually something deeper underneath that needs attending to

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