Let’s think about the word trauma, it is the Greek word for wound, so traumas can be wounds that we hold within our ‘system’. I refer to the system as the mind, body, spirit connection. So when we experience a psychological wound, it can show up in our body as blocked energy, energy that is unable to flow fluidly through the body.
This can not only hinder our psychological and spiritual development, but can also manifest itself as dis-ease. If we think about ourselves as accumulating these traumas/wounds throughout our life, then it can weigh pretty heavily on our system and effect how we function in the here and now.
Stephen Porges, a neuroscientist developed a theory called the ‘polyvagal theory’, it refers to the vagus nerve which has two branches, one travelling up and one travelling down. Simplifying this idea, there is a hypothesis that within our nervous system, we can operate from 3 different platforms. Ventral Vagal, the sympathetic system and the Dorsal Vagal.
The characteristics of the Ventral Vagal are when we are in a calm, relaxed state, we are alert and our social system is ready to connect, it feels a good place to be.
The sympathetic system, also known as fight, flight, or freeze, is activated when the Ventral Vagal senses danger and it’s needs can’t be met through connection so it releases the brake, therefore inducing a release of chemicals to aid us in mobilisation for fighting or fleeing. Once the danger/threat is over, if all goes well, we can then return to ventral vagal.
If, however, the threat is perceived as too great then we can go to dorsal vagal, this is also known as freeze/shutdown, like an animal that is feigning death in order to protect itself. Or, if we are literally exhausted because our system has been operating in flight or fight mode, long after the threat has gone.
Of course, not all mobilisation is detrimental to our system, likewise not all stillness is detrimental, if coupled with ventral vagal. E.g, mobilisation during enjoyable exercise, or stillness during meditation.
Through developing a mindful practice, we can gently begin to notice, what state we are operating from, by bringing our attention to somatic awareness, noticing any tensions in our body, any restrictions in our breathing. If we are carrying wounds of perceived threat through stories that are repeating themselves within our system, then it will make it difficult for our system to maintain a homeostasis, a flowing and functioning in harmony.
In internal family system therapy, developed by Richard Schwartz, they would name these blockages as separate parts of our self, each different part serving a function to protect the system. Usually this strategy helped us at the time, however, sometimes its outdated, and the part no longer needs to protect us in the same way.
Through various psychotherapeutic practices, including relational or EMDR we can process the trauma, allowing the mind to heal itself on a physiological level, helping the trauma metabolise and return our systems to a healthier functioning. Our brains have what is called neuroplasticity, which means we can literally rewire our neural pathways.
Donald Winnicott, a paediatrician and a psychoanalyst, wrote about the ‘true self’ versus a ‘false self’, one that we have learned to operate from through conditioning and trauma, through removing blocks and listening to our inner wisdom we can once again connect with our authentic self.
'Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.' – Pema Chödrön