These interesting times we are living through can feel traumatic. Trauma disrupts your body’s natural equilibrium, keeping you in a state of hyperarousal and fear, which throws off your body’s healthy physical, emotional and mental rhythms.
Trauma disrupts your body’s natural equilibrium, keeping you in a state of hyperarousal and fear. Trauma is defined as a serious physical injury to the body – like physical violence or an accident – or a psychological injury that may trigger severe emotional or mental distress, such as an experience of rape or combat.
Your prefrontal cortex, or your thinking brain, manages executive functioning skills like problem solving, organization, emotional regulation, critical thinking, and decision making. It’s the part of your brain that might feel more logical than emotional.
Your thinking brain takes in a situation or information, uses the majority of the executive functioning skills and is able to produce a well thought out response or action. Your brain works better when you are able to feel calm, grounded, and safe – all of which occur in the parasympathetic state.
Trauma stimulates the sympathetic nervous system which activates the survival brain but simultaneously dims your thinking brain, reducing your ability to access your higher cognitive function.
Your survival brain prioritizes self-preservation and down-regulates executive function skills that may take too much time to process information and compromise safety. In its attempt to keep you alive, the survival brain can make other cognitive functions feel much more difficult.
Trauma and the aftermath of trauma, known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or (PTSD), may present as some of the following physical, mental or emotional symptoms
- Lack of focus: Survival brain makes it hard to concentrate. You might have trouble finishing one activity in a focused manner or in the way you “usually” can.
- Poor memory: You may have a hard time remembering names, words or appointments.
- Fatigue: You may feel more mentally fatigued and easily drained.
- Emotionally reactive: You may find yourself crying more easily, overacting emotionally with anger or aggression, or feeling unusually grumpy, depressed or snippy when your survival brain is running the show.
- More impulsive: You might spend excessively, eat more, or engage in activities you might not normally.
- Withdrawn or isolated from others: You may stop doing activities that bring you joy or struggle to engage with others in conversations
- Zoning out: Survival brain can look like losing focus, zoning out or feeling like you are in a different world
- Jumpy: You may feel more reactive and be on edge
- Changes in your personal care routine: it might feel more challenging to maintain your basic needs, remember to exercise and wash your face.
- Physical symptoms: Survival brain can trigger shortness of breath, trembling, a pounding heart, dizziness, or numbness.
How Trauma Gets Trapped in your Body
Trauma can become trapped in the body and brain when a perceived danger shifts your Autonomic Nervous System into fight, flight, or freeze. More specifically, trauma and PTSD occur when the nervous system shifts into Survival Mode and then gets stuck there, even in safe surroundings.
To heal trauma, you must re-train the nervous system to be in a state of healing and regeneration, rather than Survival Mode.
As you may know, your Autonomic Nervous System is the part of your nervous system that regulates heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, respiration, immune, stress responses, and inflammation.
Remember it this way: Autonomic = Automatic Functions.
There are two branches of the ANS – the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic branches – presented a reciprocal, see-saw action between the two. The Sympathetic deals with speeding up the heart, while Parasympathetic slows it down.
In his Polyvagal Theory, Dr. Stephen Porges presents the following three branches to our autonomic nervous system, which helps explains why trauma is trapped in the body and how we can release it:
- Sympathetic: In an emergency, it puts us into Fight or Flight Response.
- Parasympathetic/ Old Vagal Circuit: In an emergency, it puts us into a Freeze Response. In non-emergencies, it turns on healing processes.
- Social Parasympathetic/ New Vagal Circuit: When activated, it prevents us from having chronic Fight/Flight/Freeze responses and turns on social/healing processes.
Watch my interview with Dr. Stephen Porges
The Old Vagal Circuit is so-called because we inherited it from our reptilian ancestors. It engages “gut-down” functions like digestion and elimination. It also triggers the Freeze Response to danger, a defense mechanism we inherited from our reptilian roots.
Can you remember a time when fear put you into such shock that you felt numb and immobilized? That was a Freeze Response, thanks to over-activation of the Old Vagal Circuit.
Therapists often see clients who feel shame because they did not take action in a dangerous situation. For example, rape victims often feel guilty for not fighting or fleeing from their aggressor.
But the victim was experiencing the evolutionary, biological Freeze Response. The nervous system, not the conscious mind, was making the decisions.
The New Vagal Circuit evolved more recently in mammals. It engages “heart-up” functions that deal with interactions with others: quality of voice, expressivity of facial muscles, and breath rate. When activated, this Vagal Circuit puts us in a social, healing mode rather than Survival Mode.
Parasympathetic and Trauma Recovery
If trauma can become stuck in the body when the nervous system remains in the defense mechanism of fight, flight, or paralysis, how do we heal trauma? How do you help the nervous system shift into balance after a fight, flight or freeze response?
You stimulate your vagus nerve to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the regenerative, healing state of your nervous system.
Stimulating the vagus nerve builds and strengthens “vagal tone” – like greasing the wheels of a gearshift – so you can more easily shift into Healing Mode rather than being stuck in Survival Mode.
Although stimulating the vagus nerve activates both Parasympathetic states of the nervous system, it is critical in recovering from a Freeze Response. Strengthening vagal tone helps you feel present to the moment, to your body and to others. This sense of embodiment and safety can prevent future Freeze Responses.
How to Stimulate your Vagus Nerve for Releasing Trauma
Essential oils are natural, non-invasive, easy tools to use to activate your vagus nerve. They possess both olfactory (smell) and transdermal (topical application) qualities, making them easy to inhale and apply on the skin to activate your vagus nerve.
Research backs this up as inhaling essential oils such as lavender or bergamot has been shown to activate your vagus nerve as measured by improved heart rate variability. Inhaled essential oils travel directly to your brain (specifically to the prefrontal cortex behind your forehead) where they can immediately help calm the fear response in your brain. In addition, topically applied essential oils can cross the blood-brain barrier to stimulate your vagus nerve within the brain.
Topical Application can be a powerful tool. Your skin is relatively permeable to fat-soluble substances like essential oils, making topical, or transdermal, application extremely effective. Topical application also bypasses the stomach and liver, which can chemically alter the therapeutic effects of drugs and essential oils.
It is important to note that different application points yield different results. You can significantly amplify your results by intentionally applying essential oils on specific healing points known as acupuncture points or reflexology points that are correlated with specific organ systems or regions of the brain, like the vagus nerve.
For example, acupuncture points behind the ear and around the neck are the most effective points for stimulating the vagus nerve. A neural anatomy study showed the vagus nerve is most accessible for stimulation via the lower half of the back ear. Research on “acupuncture and vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) found that acupuncture points produce clinical benefits through stimulation of the vagus nerve and/or its branches in the head and neck region that are anatomically proximate to vagus nerve pathways there, where the VNS electrode is surgically implanted.”
Topically applying stimulatory essential oils, like Parasympathetic™, behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone can stimulate the vagus nerve where it is most accessible to the surface of the skin. Research has shown a strong decrease in inflammatory symptoms from stimulation of three minutes a day, indicating that less might be more. We recommend applying Parasympathetic™ to vagus nerve three times daily, ideally before meals.
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