When I was a little girl growing up in the 60’s my mother was diagnosed as having a nervous break-down. That’s what they called it back then. We don’t use that term as often today rather we use burnout, stressed out, or PTSD. But actually having a nervous breakdown is probably the best description that we can use because what happened is that my mother’s nervous system literally broke down.

It happened after my brother died, three days after he was born.  My mother had no support and to time to grieve as she had to care for two other kids. In addition, her marriage deteriorated as my father blamed her for having taken Thalidomide (a drug used in the 60’s for nausea that created malformations). My brother was born handicapped from the drug.

My mother had nowhere to turn in those days, other than to Valium and alcohol to bury the pain of her losses.  She was stuck in overwhelming grief, that made her unable to engage effectively with others and in day-to-day living activities for the rest of her life.

More than ever before in history, we understand the impact of trauma, and what is clear today, is that trauma is not just a psychological issue that affects our mind; it’s also a physiological issue that happens in our body.

The work of Dr. Stephen Porges a distinguished scientist at the Kinsey Institute, who first put forth the concept of the Polyvagal Theory, has helped us understand the impact of trauma on the body, and specifically on our nervous system.

Let me explain how this works. The nervous system is composed of three parts:  The central, peripheral and autonomic nervous systems (ANS).

The ANS can be thought of as the “automatic system”.  It circulates the blood through our heart, the oxygen through our lungs, and helps our bodies digest and excrete foods.  In essence it runs the functions of the body we never have to think about.  It also has the rols of keeping us safe and alive.  It does this by continually scanning for cues of safety, danger, and life-threat continuously listening to what is happening around us and in interaction with others.  It processes all this information far below the thinking parts of our brain.  We can think of our ANS as our personal surveillance system, always on guard, asking the question “is this safe?”

In response to this information our ANS will respond in one of three ways:

The first is referred to as the Social Engagement state: where we are safely engaged and socially connected, the second is the Fight/Flight state where we are energized to move in response to danger and the third state is the Freeze response, where we shut down and collapse if we can’t escape the danger.

In each of these modes we respond in characteristic ways.

When the “Social Engagement State” is activated we feel calm, relaxed, connected, outgoing and social.  We see the world as a safe, fun and peaceful place.

This Social Engagement State is activated through our Parasympathetic System, more specifically through the Ventral part of the Vagus Nerve.

The Vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves that run from our brain through our face and thorax and interacts with most of the vital organs in our body including the heart, kidney, liver, spleen, gut and lungs.

In this state of Social Engagement our heart rate is regulated, our breath is full, we take in the faces of friends, we can tune into conversations and tune out distracting noises.  Most of all we can keep the ‘big picture’ of our life in perspective.

Living primarily in this state will translate in daily life as the ability to be organized, and manage our time effectively.  We feel productive and are able to follow through with plans. We take time to play, and care for ourselves. We feel resourceful and enjoy an overall sense of well-being. We can be there for others who need us or want to be with us.

For many of us who have had adverse and traumatic life experiences, staying grounded in this state for long periods of time can be quite challenging.  Feeling safe in our body and in the world is often a foreign concept.

If, on the other hand, our ANS determines we are in danger – one of two things will happen:

First, the Fight/Flight State may be activated, through the Sympathetic System.

In this state, we feel the rush of adrenalin, our heart rate speeds up, our breath is short and shallow, and we are “on the move”.  We might be anxious, angry or frustrated.

We scan our environment looking for danger, and the world may feel like a dangerous place from which we need to protect ourselves.

In daily life, living in this state for long periods of time may result in anxiety, panic attacks, anger, inability to focus or follow through on tasks, and elevated conflict in relationships.

We may suffer from high blood pressure, sleep problems, memory impairment, headache, chronic neck, shoulder, and back tension, stomach problems, and increased vulnerability to illness.

On the other hand if the threat is significant enough that our actual survival may be at risk we may move into a Freeze response.  This can happen when we are in shock, or in a serious accident, being abused or if our life feels threatened in some way.

This is known as the Dorsal Vagal response of the Parasympathetic System, because it is the dorsal part of the Vagus nerve that gets engaged.

This is when our organs really shut down, our breathing decreases significantly, and we are immobilized.  When all else fails, when we feel trapped, alone and feel there is no way out, we go into shut down, collapse, and dissociation.

If we live for long periods of time in this state, we may feel lost, hopeless, abandoned, foggy, too tired to think or act.   We may see the world as empty, dead and dark.

In daily living, being in this state can show up as:  dissociation, always feeling overwhelmed, problems with memory, depression, isolation, complete lack of energy.

Health consequences of this state can include chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, stomach problems, low blood pressure, type II diabetes, weight gain.

Throughout the day we are constantly moving from one state to another.  Nobody stays in one system continuously.

For example, you may be driving to work, feeling good, and looking forward to your meeting, when suddenly you have to put on the brakes to avoid an accident.  In that moment you have moved into Fight/Flight, but as you get to work and see happy faces, you move back into the Social Engagement system.  Like this all day long, we move in and through different states.

It’s important to understand that these two reactions of Fight/Flight or Freeze are healthy, adaptive responses, from which we should recover and bounce out of into a calm and safe place – once the scary event is over.

However, when overwhelming trauma has occurred, or ongoing stress is relentless, our nervous system can get stuck in either of or both of these two survival modes for very long periods of time, which makes it very difficult to engage socially with others.

As an adult I came to understand that clearly my mother had been immobilized in the freeze response most of her adult life.  She was overwhelmed by the tasks of daily living and was depressed.

Contrary to how people think, trauma is not some thing that happened to you a long time ago.   It is what’s happening in your nervous system day after day “as a result” of what happened in the past.

Trauma is the result of our nervous system being stuck longer than in needs to, in the alarm modes.

The good news is that our brain and nervous system are plastic. With specific types of therapy, we can actually rewire the brain to become more flexible emotionally and better at processing and responding to our environment.  This is the kind of work we do at the Alpine Counselling Clinic through Direct Neurofeedback and Counselling.

So anxiety and depression, is not a pathology, but rather is the intelligent and amazing capacity of our nervous system, signaling to us that something isn’t right inside, and that we need to pay attention.

When we’re trying to heal from anxiety and depression we have to understand that it’s not just a psychological issue.  Since it first started as a physiological response it also needs to be addressed at the physical level not just at the mental level.  Both are equally important.  To heal we need to activate the Social Engagement part of the Vagus nerve so we can deescalate the Fight/Flight/Freeze responses.

How we experience the events and people of our day-to-day life is based on how well our nervous system can respond.

Written by:
Claire Maisonneuve, MA,
Registered Clinical Counsellor
Director, Alpine Counselling Clinic