Healing The Nervous System from Trauma: A Beginner’s Guide
To live life with an overactive nervous system is to exist in a permanent state of alert.
Your body rarely feels calm or at ease.
It makes it hard to think clearly, function, or connect meaningfully with others. It’s also incredibly exhausting and makes us sick.
What’s the solution?
How can we go about healing the nervous system from trauma?
I’ll dive into the available research and techniques some mental health practitioners use to treat trauma survivors, as well as the limitations of those methods.
But first, let’s do a quick breakdown of the parts of our nervous system and how trauma completely disrupts it.
Or, if you prefer, use the table of contents below to skip ahead.
- What is the autonomic nervous system?
- What happens to our nervous system when we experience trauma?
- Neurological Health and Trauma
- What is emotional dysregulation?
- Ways To Heal The Nervous System From Trauma
- Somatic Experiencing
- Shaking Therapy
- Critiques of Shaking Therapy
- Additional Tips To Calm Your Nervous System
- Bottom Line on Healing the Nervous System from Trauma
What is the autonomic nervous system?
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the part of the nervous system that controls involuntary bodily functions, such as the heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and respiration.
The ANS is divided into two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These two systems work together to maintain homeostasis (the body’s internal stability).
What is the sympathetic nervous system?
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the body’s “fight-or-flight” response, which is triggered by stress or danger. This response increases heart rate and blood pressure and diverts blood flow to the muscles and away from the digestive system.
What is the parasympathetic nervous system?
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body’s “rest-and-digest” response, which slows the heart rate and blood pressure and increases blood flow to the digestive system.
Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are essential for maintaining the body’s homeostasis.
What happens to our nervous system when we experience trauma?
Emma McAdam, of Therapy in a Nutshell fame, has an insightful take on this process. I’ll paraphrase her explanation here:
Emotions happen in the more primal, limbic part of the brain. But they can get stuck.
When we experience trauma, our “fight-or-flight” response kicks in. But then our trauma response gets trapped in our nervous system, which is an adaptive response to perceived danger.
Unfortunately, when it gets stuck in that place, it makes us sick.
We might see threats everywhere or feel overwhelmed. Our immune system is unable to work correctly, which makes us more susceptible to chronic diseases.
Getting stuck in these cycles means we can’t return to a sense of safety. So we exist in a constant state of high alert.
We’re always “activated.”
And that’s where big problems start to happen.
For more on this, watch the full clip here:
Neurological Health and Trauma
Living with trauma, PTSD, or complex PTSD can mean existing in a state of constant high alert. Our bodies are not designed to be in a state of hypervigilance.
Trauma sometimes traps us in survival mode. When that happens, the trauma rewires our brains in ways that make healing far more complex.
The reptilian part of our brain stays primed for an attack. When your brain is in constant stress mode, it trickles down and impacts other parts of the body.
If the brain does not reset, we risk developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Anna Runkle of The Crappy Childhood Fairy explains what happens to an over-stimulated, traumatized brain.
She talks about how childhood trauma changes the shape of the brain.
It makes your alarm system go off super easily. When someone perceives a threat, the emotional part of the brain gets launched into high alert, which shuts down rational thinking.
You might feel:
- Ready to flee
- Numb or frozen in place
This might last for days or hours or be chronic for people with childhood trauma, which is highly disruptive to our ability to exist in the world.
Emotional dysregulation can make it feel impossible to function in our personal, romantic, and professional lives.
What is emotional dysregulation?
Dysregulation is an inability to regulate emotions or manage emotional responses in a typical way.
It feels like getting flooded with emotions, adrenaline racing, feeling numb, or overwhelmed by emotions like panic or rage in the face of triggers that wouldn’t typically warrant such intense emotional reactions.
Even if you intellectually know that the situation isn’t that serious, your brain and body react as if it is a five-alarm fire.
This, of course, is untenable.
Unfortunately, too many people suffer in silence and turn to drugs or alcohol, or self-harm for relief.
This is why we need ways to heal our nervous system from trauma, learn strategies for emotional regulation, and feel safe inside our bodies.
Ways To Heal The Nervous System From Trauma
There are tools and strategies we can implement both in the short term and long term to heal our nervous system and return our brains and bodies to homeostasis.
But first, some caveats.
Trauma, like people, is complicated. You’ll want to work with a trained medical professional throughout your journey.
Additionally, the research on the efficacy of these strategies is limited.
While we may have anecdotal evidence from mental health practitioners, the jury is still out as to whether any of it is scientifically sound.
With that said, the following strategies are tools that some mental health professionals use with their clients to help them heal from trauma.
Your doctor or therapist can help you determine which methodology might work best for you.
As always, this is for informational purposes only and should not replace or be construed as medical advice.
Let’s get into it!
If you Google “how to heal the nervous system from trauma,” you’ll come across several strategies and methodologies that fall under this larger umbrella called “somatic therapy.”
Somatic means “of the body.”
Somatic experiencing is a type of somatic therapy that focuses on the mind-body connection to heal the physical and psychological effects of trauma, grief, anxiety, and depression.
It’s a therapeutic approach developed by Dr. Peter Levine. The goal is to help you notice the bodily sensations associated with your trauma to work through them.
Whereas traditional talk therapy might try to tackle trauma by talking about it and understanding it intellectually, somatic experiencing focuses on working through trauma at the physical level.
It is a body-first approach.
More>> How to Use Shadow Work to Unpack Trauma
Why Somatic Experiencing?
Somatic experiencing centers around relieving the physical symptoms of the “freeze” response.
Your body usually prepares to fight or flee when you experience a physical threat (real or perceived).
In the body, this looks like muscles tensing, heart rate increasing, breath rate increasing, and glands flooding your body with hormones like epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol.
But sometimes, your body chooses a third option: freeze.
When faced with a threat, you freeze if you recognize that you have no chance to fight or flee. This is a typical threat response in children facing a larger, stronger aggressor.
When you freeze, the energy stays trapped in your body, which prevents you from recovering.
More>> What Chronic Stress Does to Your Body
How does Somatic Experiencing work?
Somatic experiencing guides patients who have experienced a traumatic event through the bodily sensations associated with that event.
Practitioners do this through a variety of tools.
In resourcing, clients learn to draw on happy memories, places, or loved ones in the face of difficult or triggering encounters. It’s a strategy to help you stay calm and in the present moment as those traumatic sensations start to rise up in the body.
Remember that earlier point about feeling flooded and overwhelmed by an intense emotional reaction?
Resourcing is a tool you can use against that.
Titration is utilized after resourcing and is done during a therapy session (not alone). It’s the process the therapist uses to slowly revisit the traumatic event with you.
Titration is a slow and gradual process.
As it’s happening, your therapist will help guide you (slowly) through each aspect of the event and track your responses and bodily sensations.
By watching your physical responses and also checking in with you to see if you’re experiencing any symptoms like dizziness or hot or cold sensations.
From there, you’ll move into pendulation.
The sensations you experience during titration are meant to be cathartic and may spark other physical reactions like shaking, shivering, or crying.
In somatic experiencing, the idea is to release blocked energy out of the body.
After that release, your therapist will give you breathing or relaxation techniques to help bring you back into a calmer state.
Hence the name; you are swinging like a pendulum from a state of traumatic sensing back to calm.
It helps you release some of that trauma from your body and learn how to move from an alert, triggered state into a calm, safe one.
You don’t have to figure this out on your own.
Shaking therapy is a type of somatic experiencing exercise.
It is pretty much what it sounds like – shaking to release muscle tension and burn off adrenaline to help your nervous system return to a calm, neutral state.
Why would shaking help heal your nervous system?
The premise of shaking therapy is based on how animals react to the freeze response in nature.
Beth Shaw discusses this phenomenon for Psychology Today. She writes:
“In the animal world, animals’ shake off’ the freeze response caused by a life threat. When animals suffer trauma, it has been documented they will literally shake it off, which helps the animal discharge the energy of the traumatic event.”
If animals don’t do this, they can die. Humans develop mental health problems and chronic diseases.
Interestingly enough, humans naturally engage in therapy shaking, too!
Have you ever been spooked and responded by exhaling deeply and shaking your arms and shoulders?
Or maybe you’ve heard the expression “shaking like a leaf.”
This is the same process. Our nervous system is overstimulated, and shaking helps move that energy along so we can return to a baseline, calm state.
How do you do shaking therapy?
If you want to try healing your nervous system from trauma through shaking, you don’t need much to get started.
Shaking therapy can be done seated or standing.
You focus on one part of the body and literally just shake it out. Maybe you decide to shake out your arm and shoulder on the right side.
There’s no exact science here. You just do it.
Then you pay attention.
Namely, you want to ask yourself how your body felt before the shaking exercise and how you feel afterward.
Is there a difference? Did it offer relief?
See what you notice and then switch sides.
You’ll eventually work up to shaking different parts of your entire body, pausing after each to ask the same questions.
Usually, shaking therapy is assisted by a trauma and exercise releasing (TRE) trained specialist.
Additionally, here is a video from the article explaining how to do shaking therapy:
Critiques of Shaking Therapy
There is not a lot of research on shaking therapy, and it has some critics. Somatic practitioner, Irene Lyon, has her doubts.
She worries about not only the efficacy of shaking therapy and its claim of healing the nervous system from trauma but also its safety.
The basic premise of her argument is that you can’t get into these trauma-release exercises safely if you haven’t done some of the groundwork that goes with dealing with complex, deep trauma. It can lead to disassociation.
She says it’s not as simple as engaging in a cathartic physical exercise. The relief from those experiences is merely the natural release of increased blood flow and endorphins.
We’re not actually healing trauma in those moments.
Healing trauma is more complex than completing an exercise.
She says you have to physically connect to the traumatic experience in an authentic way so that everything lines up.
We first have to learn to heal, breathe, and self-regulate. There’s no quick fix.
If you want to hear more of Irene’s perspective, this video clip is informative:
Additional Tips To Calm Your Nervous System
What about everyday tips for managing an overactive nervous system, particularly in moments when you feel that intense emotional reaction rising in you?
Or long-term practices you can do to gradually heal your nervous system over time?
I’ll run through of few of those as well.
Anne Runkle’s Method For Calming The Nervous System in Response to a Trigger
Anne Runkle provides her audience with ten tips for tackling a trauma trigger in the moment and returning to an emotionally regulated state that most people can apply:
- Notice that you feel triggered.
- Say it to yourself. “I’m having an emotional reaction” or “I’m feeling triggered.”
- Make sure you’re safe. If you’re driving, pull over. If you’re in the middle of an argument, find the kindest way to put that conversation on hold. She suggests something simple like excusing yourself to use the bathroom to get some physical and emotional space from the conflict.
- Stamp your feet on the floor. It helps your body remember where you are. Left side. Right side. It enables you to feel the ground and where you are in space. This is a grounding technique. It’s a bit silly, but it helps you come back into regulation.
- Breathing. 10 slow deep breaths.
- Sit down and feel your weight in the chair.
- Eat something. It helps you feel your body. Protein foods are best.
- Wash your hands and pay attention to the feeling of the soap and water on your hands.
- Take a cold shower. It can give your system a much-needed shock.
- Get a good squeezing hug, either from another person (if available), or press yourself against a wall and give yourself a good squeeze for a similar effect.
If you’d like to hear these tips from Anne directly, check out this video:
Another exercise you can try is called coherent breathing, a type of breathing exercise used to help ease the symptom of anxiety, stress, and other trauma-related symptoms.
This is one that I frequently employ, and it really does work!
Coherent breathing is breathing at a deliberate (slow) pace, approximately five breaths per minute.
Here’s how to do it:
- Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down.
- Take a deep breath in and then exhale deeply.
- Breathe in for six seconds, pause, and then exhale for six seconds.
- Repeat for 1-5 minutes until you feel your body physically relax.
Coherent breathing and other forms of breathwork are great tools for activating the vagus nerve, which helps slow down your heart and breath rates.
More>> What Are The 7 Stages Of Trauma Bonding?
Yoga is excellent for nourishing the mind-body connection and regulating our internal world.
But there is an emerging field of yoga called Trauma-Informed Yoga that helps trauma survivors connect with their bodies and move through the traumatic sensations in their bodies while remaining sensitive to the needs (and triggers) of the class participants.
It appears to be effective, too!
One study followed a group of 64 women with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD.
Half participated in a trauma-informed yoga group, and the other half to a supportive women’s health group.
By the end of the study, 16 of the 31 participants in the yoga group no longer met the criteria for PTSD.
It’s very promising!
Ecotherapy is another effective tool for managing stress, anxiety, and other trauma symptoms.
Studies have shown that spending a minimum of two hours outdoors can:
- Lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels
- Reduce nervous system arousal
- Enhance immune system function
- Improve memory and cognitive function
- Improves attention span
Being outside is a natural mood booster. Naturescapes (outdoor sounds) can activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down. Conversely, urban soundscapes (city noises) have the opposite effect.
Ecotherapy can be especially beneficial if you’re dealing with an overactive nervous system and living in an urban environment.
Grounding techniques help to pull your attention away from the emotional response or memory, triggering a trauma response and back into the present moment.
They do this by bringing attention back via one or more of your five senses – taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound.
Anything that pulls you out of a terrible flashback or dissociative state can be a grounding technique.
Maybe you grab a sucker and focus on the taste and the hard click and clack against your teeth.
Or perhaps you stomp the ground to feel the impact on the soles of your feet.
You might even grab a puzzle to busy your eyes and hands.
Grounding techniques alone do not do much to soothe your nervous system, but they are effective tools for stopping your nervous system before it goes into high alert.
Meditation is another tool for activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
When practiced consistently, meditation can reshape the brain and strengthen the areas of the brain responsible for learning, cognition, memory, and emotional regulation.
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, conducted studies that proved meditation increased the amount of gray matter in the frontal cortex and thickened four essential regions of the brain:
- The posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self-relevance.
- The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory, and emotional regulation.
- The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective-taking, empathy, and compassion.
- An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
Conversely, long-term meditation also shrinks the amygdala, the part of the brain where fight-or-flight takes place, which reduces stress and anxiety.
This is by no means an exhaustive list.
There are many tools and practices, as well as tips and tricks, to help you calm an overactive nervous system both in the short and long term.
But you at least get an idea about where to start.
Because trauma is complex and multi-faceted, working with a trained professional to create a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs is essential.
If somatic therapy interests you, consider working with a trained TRE specialist in your area.
Bottom Line on Healing the Nervous System from Trauma
The good news is that many intelligent, thoughtful people are finding innovative approaches to treating trauma at both the emotional and physical levels.
As always with mental health, the challenging part is finding what works for you.
We have promising new techniques and modalities, but we don’t have a lot of research or studies to back them up.
That’s why it’s essential to research what’s out there and work with a trained professional you trust who specializes in trauma.
Together, you’ll find a path that works for you!