When we think of being in danger, the fight/flight response is perhaps the response that most readily comes to mind. Our sympathetic nervous system is activated and we spring into action, neutralising the threat and restoring safety.
You may also have heard of the freeze, or immobilisation response, a more ancient reaction in evolutionary terms. This dorsal-vagal response causes us to shut down and feel frozen, it’s a response to perceptions of extreme danger.
What is less spoken about is our social engagement system, the ventral vagal response, that allows us to feel safe, calm, connected and engaged. This is the system that is running when we are not activated, or immobilised, when we are available to interact and take care of ourselves in a relaxed way.
When we have been traumatised, we can become stuck in an activated or immobilised state, or we may even flick between the two. The body remembers, and re-enacts the trauma, and we feel it at a physical level. It may be outside awareness, but it shows up in tension and body posture, and it impacts our well-being and ability to interact and be in the present.
The key role of therapy for those who are stuck in activation or immobilisation is to bring the social engagement system back online. Creating the safety to be able to interact spontaneously and authentically, we can then begin to build the capacity to tolerate and approach the repeating patterns of the past, to bring the pain and trauma responses into a warm relational space where we can acknowledge, explore and release what the bodymind holds.
Therapy is not the only place where this happens. Developing an awareness of who and what create those deep experiences of safety and relaxation for you is important, and doing more of what works is a great way to help your system heal.
Effective psychotherapy is not solely about the mind. We need bottom up approaches that help us work with body awareness and moment to moment experience. Most of all, we need relational depth and a willingness to be with whatever is present from therapists, to create permission, safety and stability in the room for our clients.
If you feel stuck in loops of old responses that you are unable to cognitively change, psychotherapy with a trauma-informed practitioner may be for you.