Our bodies are wonderfully intricate, and understanding how we operate is no easy task. One thing we can know for sure is that if something occurs to or inside the body, the effects usually span past what we can immediately observe.
Trauma affects how the nervous system functions. Unlike a visible cut or impact to the body, trauma is a silent ailment that can lead to the onset of complications or interference.
For treatment and research’s sake, trauma has been divided into distinct classification. However, it’s vital to understand that it can look vastly different from person to person. That said, there are three main categories in which we may identify trauma as:
- Acute trauma, which comes about as a result of a single traumatic event that has gone unprocessed and impacts the psyche. Ex: Car accidents, theft, witnessing violence.
- Chronic trauma, a result of repetitive trauma that continues for an extended period of time. Ex: Domestic or psychological abuse, repeated occurrence of acute trauma, war.
- Complex trauma, which is most associated with children and exposure to multiple traumatic events, affecting early development and disabling the child’s capability to form healthy and safe relationships later in life. Ex: The progression of chronic trauma, a combination of acute and chronic trauma, C-PTSD (complex trauma disorder).
The Autonomic Nervous System
Neurobiology is the study of the cells in the nervous system that help to process information and control behavioral responses. This is the discipline that deals with the nervous system that becomes impacted by trauma.
Apart from the central nervous system, the autonomic nervous system (ANS), is closely related to how our bodies respond to stress and trauma on an emotional and physiological level.
The ANS is comprised of the sympathetic, related to the fight or flight response and release of stress hormones as well as the parasympathetic, which helps to regulate the functions of the sympathetic. They work together by helping you to arrive at a neutral state after a rise in tension.
They can be thought of as the ying-yang of your nervous system that affects digestion, sleep, and overall function of the immune system.
When the Two Interact
When trauma is present, what occurs is a disruption of the balance between these systems. The parasympathetic system is responsible for repairing any damage or disturbance, and trauma does not allow it to. This then leads to immobilization and disassociation.
Symptoms of disassociation worsen as time progresses, and feelings of sleepiness, displacement from reality, fogginess, trouble concentrating, and lapse of memory may occur. A particular model of the aftermath of trauma on the nervous system breaks down the effects into six stages, otherwise described as the 6 F’s:
Freeze: Initial interception of trauma. This is the stage where shock, denial, and identification of an issue occur. Pupils dilate, and investigation of the stimuli at hand occurs.
Fight and Flight: The response following processing of the issue where the individual will either remove themselves if possible or fight if not. Blood flow to the heart, muscles, arms, and legs, and heavier breathing occur. Digestion is repressed.
Fright: Disassociation begins when the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems clash and activate at the same time. This can lead to feelings of panic, dizziness, nausea, indigestion, and other adverse symptoms.
Flag: The above stages trigger a shut down of the parasympathetic system, and the individual begins to settle into trauma. Collapse, helplessness, and other dissociative tendencies occur. There is an experience of struggle to complete voluntary movements such as speech, hearing, and vision: heart rate and blood pressure drop.
Faint: The progression of all the above symptoms can lead to dysregulation of the digestive tract, promoting nausea, loss of bowel control, irregular bowels, headaches, vomiting, and fainting.
A Note From GR8NESS
Depending on where trauma falls on the spectrum, it can have a devastating impact on the nervous system function. Research shows that unresolved trauma over time can be dangerous and harmful to the body, overall.
If you or a loved one have experienced trauma, please consult with a mental healthcare provider who can help guide you to healing. The progression of trauma is a process, as is healing. Now that you know more about what can or has occurred, you’re already on your way.