Can trauma haunt the body the same way it haunts memories?
According to Stephen Porges, PhD, and polyvagal theory, not only does the body remember a traumatic experience, but it can actually get stuck in the trauma response mode.
So even when the threat is gone, the body still perceives danger and its defenses stay engaged.
Why does this happen and how can we help patients with it? Stephen shares some background on polyvagal theory, and gives his own personal experience to illustrate how this works.
Check it out, it’s just 4 minutes.
Dr. Porges: What polyvagal theory proposes is that when an individual is in the situation of a severe life threat and is unable to utilize mobilization strategies or social engagement strategies to get out of that, the neuroleptic features of that challenge may put that person in this very shut down condition that is characterized by that old unmyelinated vagus, and coupled with that would be reduced blood flow, especially blood flow to the brain, and then one might get dissociative features with that. The issue is really not the horrendous experience of the trauma, but trying to make sense of the physiological response that that traumatic event triggered. For many people who have been traumatized, the event is bad enough but the consequences of that event on their physiology and on the nervous system is really what is profoundly changing their ability to adapt in the world.
Dr. Buczynski: If the body experiences physiological change in response to trauma, what might that look like and how could a practitioner help patients recognize and work with those kinds of changes? Well fortunately for me, unfortunately for Stephen, he’s had personal experience with this. Here’s what happened to him.
Dr. Porges: You see, once we use the word “choose” we are getting into this whole idea that there’s some almost option that we have. The answer is once we realize that our body is in our nervous system, it’s making decisions and it’s not allowing us to the table to to argue our point. The example I always like to use is my experience getting an MRI and on a psychological level I was extraordinarily curious. My friends do research on MRI’s and fMRI’s. I thought, “Well this is a really a good opportunity, so I went down. I had to go in to get this brain scan and it was the for a clinical issue. I got on to the into the MRI and I got exactly up to my eyes and I said, “Wait a moment, I need a glass of water.” So I took the glass of water and went back in and they pushed me into the magnet and got up to my nose. I said, “I’m out of here.” I had no idea that my body would respond with a panic attack from being in the enclosed space. People’s bodies respond in different ways and sometimes they respond without them even anticipating, so I had no idea that I had that type of vulnerability. I felt that in the sense my nervous system totally failed me because I wanted to get this test done and for me to get this test done I had to immobilize without fear, which is a very complex situation for the mammal and that’s really the critical point of life is our ability to immobilize without fear near other mammals, me, or other people in situations. I couldn’t do that in the medical environment and I was shocked.
Dr. Buczynski: If we can understand the impact of trauma at the polyvagal level, it can shed a whole new light on how to approach treatment with patience. The key is to recognize how a patient’s body behaves in response to the traumatic experience. That can go a long way toward helping them begin to heal. now I’d like to hear from you. How have you worked with patients who felt immobilized by fear without understanding what happened? What techniques did you find most helpful? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below and thanks for watching.
How have you worked with patients who felt immobilized by fear without understanding the reason for it? What techniques did you find most helpful? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.