People who have experienced traumatic or distressful situations are more likely to be triggered by certain events or social interactions. The familiar intense emotions and physical trauma can suddenly appear when you least expected. Johanna Koenig’s, extensive knowledge about the Polyvagal Theory can provide a better understanding of these unanticipated trigger moments by teaching you ways to deal and cope with them.
Imagine that you are a young woman looking forward to an evening of cocktails and small talk at a swanky networking event in DC for young professionals. You picked the perfect outfit, your hair is on point, your makeup was done to your liking, and you have rehearsed your opening statement as found on your resume over and over. You see a professional and confident older woman approach you, she introduces herself, “Hi! I am from (insert ELITE publishing firm in DC), what is your name?”
Stomach grumbles. You ignore it. You try to introduce yourself. The older woman starts talking about her firm and what her role is. Stomach grumbles more. You want it to stop. Your heart starts racing…you’re not sure what’s happening. You have to leave, so you abruptly excuse yourself and run to the bathroom, digestive issues to follow.
The reality is that the above scenario, sans the swanky details, happens to a lot of people who have experienced trauma. Now, let us reveal that the young lady looking forward to the swanky networking event was a childhood survivor of intense physical and verbal abuse by her mother, who happened to look like, and have the same voice tones as the stranger who approached her at the party.
A Deeper Look at Polyvagal Theory:
Sometimes people with a traumatic history, feel anxiety and physiological symptoms arise out of seemingly nowhere, without a warning. The physiological reaction to subconscious environmental/external stimuli can range from a general uneasy feeling, to digestive issues, sweating, rapid heart rate, to complete immobilization and loss of train of thought.
A common narrative that therapists are likely to hear include, “I just can’t control it” or “something is wrong with me”, or “I feel helpless and like I will never get better”.
A deeper understanding of Polyvagal Theory can help alleviate personal shame and guilt about our reaction to trauma or triggers of trauma, by recognizing that much of our reaction to trauma as we directly experience it, is subconscious and primal.
In short, the term, “Neuroception” refers to how our brain relays information from external stimuli to our internal, neurological and autonomic perception of safety and danger. Neuroception is a term coined by psychologist Stephen Porges (2017), he notes that this is, “how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or life threatening”.
In the above swanky party scenario, our young attendee had a faulty subconscious communication which falsely perceived the older woman approaching her as a threat to her safety, as the older woman’s appearance and voice tone reminded her subconsciously of her abusive mother.
Therefore, the young woman’s body went into “alert” mode, causing unpleasant social and physiological symptoms.
How does this relate to me or a loved one?
When we have experienced trauma as children or in our early life, it is likely that our primal needs for safety in our environment were compromised. In order to survive the traumatic incident, our body went into fight or flight or had an immobilization/ freezing response to endure the trauma and survive. Often, when we are triggered in our environment and feel vulnerable, our trauma reactions occur.
The first step to reducing the intensity and prevalence of trauma reactions in daily life is to be aware of what is happening at an autonomic level of our bodies. The young lady in the above example was not consciously aware that she may have adverse physiological reactions to her environment when triggered. Secondly, it’s important to recognize that intense reactions going on may not be consciously chosen, once an individual is in a heightened state of arousal. This is simply their nervous system acting to protect them from perceived danger in their environment.
As friends, spouses, loved ones of those closest to us who have experienced trauma, we want to know how to help our loved ones. The main intervention of Polyvagal Theory in practice and personal life refers to social engagement. Neuroscientist Steven Porges (1994) notes that being connected to others in a warm and loving way, in the moment when we start to experience hyperarousal due to trauma triggers, is the best way to come out of and avoid complete immobilization response. In other words, we need to create an environment of safety for our loved one, which is likely to inhibit the nervous system responses that occur when one feels in danger. Porges refers to this social engagement system as the following (Porges, 1994):
The social engagement system… in which we listen to intonation in voice and use facial engagement. When a person has vocal intonation, an expressive face and eyes open when we talk to them, this expressive individual is also contracting middle ear muscles that facilitate the extraction of the human voice from background sounds.
- Be mindful of tone; the tone of voice has a huge impact on someone’s ability to feel safe and secure in a situation. A calm, gentle tone will ensure that your loved one does not feel attacked or defensive, increasing the likelihood of an adverse trauma-related reaction.
- Remind them gently that they are safe. Simply reminding our loved one that they are safe and that you are there with them, when genuine, will do wonders for them and their overall experience.
- Be non-judgmental. The most consistent negative emotional impact that trauma has on individuals, particularly sexual trauma, is their shame and guilt associated with the event. Survivors feel guilty for their reaction at the time of the trauma, although their reaction was completely autonomic. Allowing your loved the space to accept how they reacted in order to survive to today, will empower them.
- Create an environment of open, non-judgmental communication. This will enable your loved one to feel safe and supported in their recovery. Trauma is complex and its presentation varies from person to person. A variety of environmental, social, familial, and biological factors impact a person’s ability to cope with and move on from trauma. If you would like to meet with Johanna to learn how your body has been responding to stress and or trauma call her at (240) 252-3349 Ext. 809