Recovering from loss or trauma is a deeply personal and challenging journey, often accompanied by a whirlwind of emotions and physical sensations. Understanding how to regulate the nervous system during this process is crucial for healing and resilience. In recent years, the field of polyvagal theory, pioneered by Dr. Stephen Porges, has provided valuable insights into how our nervous system responds to stress and trauma. Today, we will explore the significance of regulating the nervous system after loss or trauma, drawing upon the principles of polyvagal theory, as much as it is important for your understanding in applying it to yourself.
➡️ If you want to know more, listen to the episode called Trauma and Its Impact on the Nervous System on the Podcast, where Nathalie explains it in more detail.
Understanding Polyvagal Theory
Personally, I find this visualization extremely helpful in understanding the different stages the nervous system can be in, given the circumstances of life. Use it as a reference for the following content.
Polyvagal theory offers a comprehensive framework for understanding the autonomic nervous system’s responses to stress, safety, and social engagement. Dr. Stephen Porges, a renowned neuroscientist, introduced this theory, which has since become a cornerstone in the fields of psychology and trauma therapy.
- The Three States: Polyvagal theory divides the autonomic nervous system into three states: the ventral vagal state (associated with safety and social connection), the sympathetic state (related to the fight-or-flight response), and the dorsal vagal state (linked to immobilization and shutdown responses).
- The Vagus Nerve: A key player in polyvagal theory is the vagus nerve, which has two branches: the ventral vagus and the dorsal vagus. These branches regulate our physiological and emotional responses to stress and safety.
Regulating the Nervous System After Loss or Trauma
- Self-Compassion and Safety: Loss or trauma can trigger a shift toward the sympathetic or dorsal vagal states, leading to feelings of anxiety, hyperarousal, or dissociation. The first step in regulating the nervous system is cultivating self-compassion and creating a sense of safety. Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading expert in self-compassion, emphasizes the importance of treating ourselves with kindness during difficult times. Recognize that your nervous system’s responses are natural reactions to adversity.
- Mindfulness and Grounding: Mindfulness practices, such as meditation and deep breathing, align with polyvagal theory by helping individuals engage in the ventral vagal state. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), suggests that mindfulness techniques can bring awareness to the present moment, fostering a sense of safety and promoting emotional regulation.
- Social Support: Dr. Deb Dana, a therapist specializing in polyvagal-informed therapy, highlights the significance of social engagement. Seek support from trusted friends, family members, or support groups. Connecting with others can activate the ventral vagal state, promoting feelings of safety and connection.
- Trauma-Informed Therapy: Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a renowned psychiatrist and trauma expert, emphasizes the importance of trauma-informed therapy approaches like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or somatic experiencing. These therapies focus on regulating the nervous system and releasing stored trauma from the body.
- Body Awareness: Dr. Peter Levine, a pioneer in somatic experiencing, highlights the importance of body awareness in healing trauma. Practicing somatic techniques can help individuals release physical tension and process traumatic memories stored in the body.
- Exercise and Movement: Physical activity, endorsed by experts like Dr. John Ratey, can positively influence the nervous system. Regular exercise releases endorphins, reduces stress hormones, and promotes emotional well-being.
➡️ Check out the episode with a Review of Trauma and Grief Modalities for further information and details.
How can this knowledge support you?
From what you read above described in the last paragraph, you might have already felt that certain modalities or approaches speak more to you than others. Start applying one of these methods suggested and if you need support, find a trusted therapist to guide and support you.
Regulating the nervous system after a loss or trauma is a fundamental aspect of healing and resilience. Polyvagal theory offers valuable insights into how our autonomic nervous system responds to stress and safety, guiding us toward effective strategies for regulation. By cultivating self-compassion, engaging in mindfulness practices, seeking social support, and exploring trauma-informed therapies, individuals can gradually find their way back to a state of equilibrium and resilience. Remember that healing is a unique journey, and seeking professional guidance from therapists who specialize in trauma and nervous system regulation can provide invaluable support along the way.
Image Credit: see image footnote