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The Biology of Trauma

Trauma isn’t just an emotional experience; it profoundly affects our bodies at the cellular and physiological levels. Here's a brief introduction.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is when something happens to you that you feel is harmful or life-threatening, you feel isolated and powerless, and experience adverse effects.

For a more in-depth definition of trauma, as well as a brief list of some of the physical, psychological and behavioural effects of trauma, read my previous blog, Is EFT Trauma-Informed?

Understanding Trauma at the Biological Level

It is a well-known phenomenon that when an animal of prey such as a deer manages to escape its attacker, it will involuntarily shake for a minute or two before carrying on its life without any trouble at all. (If you search on Youtube for “deer shakes off trauma,” you will find a number of videos showing this fascinating process.)

It is thought that the deer rids itself of all that unused energy and the stress chemicals produced by its body for “fight or flight” by shaking vigorously so that the stress is not stored in its nervous system.

Humans are mammals just like deer, with the same fight/flight/freeze responses to danger or perceived danger. However, with our far more complex brains, lifestyles and social relationships, we seem to have lost the ability to simply shake off stress. Instead, stress can get stuck in our nervous system as trauma, causing physical, psychological and/or behavioural effects.

Trauma Capsules

The idea of a “trauma capsule” is used in psychology to describe a phenomenon where a person’s traumatic memories and emotions are separated from their everyday consciousness and metaphorically stored in a capsule. This encapsulation helps individuals cope with overwhelming stress arising from childhood adversity, trauma, or abuse.

If something happens to trigger the person’s trauma – for example, a war veteran may be triggered into a trauma response when the sound of fireworks recalls the sound of gunshots and bombs – then the capsule is activated or “opened.” The person may become flooded with flashbacks, visual and sensory memories, and a whole chain of physical effects such as sweating, pains, trembling, dizziness, and others.

The trauma capsule not only “locks away” mental memories and emotions, but also contains biological information which is activated whenever the trauma capsule is triggered to open. Trauma is thought to be stored in our cells, tissues and nervous system, as well as impacting our brain structure and function.

Polyvagal Theory

Developed by Dr Stephen Porges, polyvagal theory is essentially an explanation of the fight/flight stress responses system in the body. Each is rooted in a biological pathway involving the vagus nerve, which passes through the brain, heart, lungs, and many organs of digestion. There are 3 main states in the polyvagal model:

Safety
In this state we are safe, calm and happy, able to laugh and engage with others socially. We can rest our bodies and digest our food, sleep well and enjoy life.

Action
In this state we are ready for “fight or flight,” perhaps hypervigilant, perhaps feeling angry or anxious. This state can be triggered by something (for example, the veteran being triggered by fireworks) or may be a constant state, where someone has trouble sleeping, suffers from flashbacks, headaches or digestive issues on a daily basis.

Collapse
In this state we freeze and shut down. It is a state where (unconsciously) we realise there is no point running or fighting, and so hunker down to get through life with as little thinking or movement as possible. We conserve energy as the heartrate slows and blood pressure drops. While in animals, this state is a “feigning death” state to avoid predators, in humans it can show as depression, dissociation, and feeling numb and hopeless.

Just as the deer first runs (action state) and then freezes (collapse state) before getting up and shaking off the stress (returning to the safety state), a healthy human switches between these necessary survival states easily. However, due to the complexities of modern life and human brains, people often get stuck in the Action or Collapse state.

How EFT can help

EFT is an extremely effective way to release trauma. When we tap, the physical aspects of the trauma capsule can be released, just as the deer shakes off the stress of being in danger. Tapping soothes the body, brain and nervous system, and has been shown to reduce levels of cortisol (a major stress hormone) by up to 40% after only one hour of tapping. Including the body in trauma recovery treatments is crucial, as trauma is essentially a biological storage of stress.

If you’d like to explore how EFT can help us deal with life’s challenges contact me to set up a free 20 minute chat to see how I could help you!

Do join my free Facebook group where I regularly offer free group tapping sessions.

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