- Kim Keys, LCPC
Nervous System Inflammation: Trauma Explained
Our sympathetic nervous system is set up to keep us safe. Think “bear in the woods”. If there is a bear coming after you in the woods your body goes through a series of steps to prepare itself for survival; to run away or to fight the bear. To keep things simple, I’ll stick to the highlights. The heart begins to race (in an effort to pump more blood/oxygen into your muscles so they have the ‘food’ they need to function at a high level), thus you start breathing faster. All the blood rushes out of your stomach (used to digest food… which you don’t need to do when running from a bear… it's not like you’re going to eat a steak while fending off 6-inch claws) and into your extremities (again….to give your muscles their ‘food’). All these processes are driven by the release of adrenaline and nor-epinephrine by the hippocampus and adrenal gland. If you want to understand more about this, listen to Dr. Nadine Burk Harris talk about sympathetic nervous system responses.
So that’s the normal process of how the body responds to scary things. Here’s the rub, though: that reaction has a direct, and at times lasting, impact on the body itself. If you listened to ALL of Dr. Burk Harris’ Ted talk, you heard her mention the primary physical illnesses that are associated with trauma in childhood. For this article though, I want to talk a bit about, not necessarily primary illnesses, but the impact of trauma on the body system in other ways: anxiety, hyper-vigilance, back pain, muscle pain, etc.
Let’s back up... Have you ever SEEN adrenaline (remember Adrenaline is just ONE of the substances that is released all over the body during a scary event)? Take a look at these amazing pictures by Colin Satler (image 8/10 is adrenaline) using a nanoscope imaging machine.
Adrenaline even LOOKS like it’s sharp and poky, doesn’t it? So imagine what that feels like coursing through your body. In trauma, the effects of a scary incident can be lasting, meaning, it doesn’t go away when the scary thing stops. As a result our body has higher adrenaline in our system all the time. I call this “nervous system inflammation”, i.e. sharp and poky! And it often is felt by people as chronic pain or pain during sex (i.e., pelvic pain), or tense muscles, neck tension, etc.
One thing we do here at Keys Counseling Solutions is to walk clients through nervous system quieting skills. These are skills/exercises aimed at making those ‘sharp/poky parts’ duller, or less intense. We work to get the nervous system to quiet itself down and to decrease inflammation.
SOME of these skills/exercises are:
1. Diaphragmatic breathing. Different than “deep breathing”, it is very specific and targets HOW a person takes a breathe. Try this: Start by lying on the floor and placing a book on your stomach. As you inhale, make the book go up and when you exhale make the book go down. As you inhale, focus on your pelvic floor and see if you can relax it, letting your diaphragm extend down between your hip-bones.
2. Use self talk. As you breathe you may notice your body reacting (i.e., crying, shaking, panic, etc.). Talk to it. This isn’t woo-woo, I swear. An area of your brain, called your thalamus, otherwise known as your time-keeper gets a little wonky during scary times. What happens later on, is that it loses that ability to regulate/keep track of time, so your body thinks the scary thing is happening now instead of back then (like five years ago when I was running from a bear in the woods). So, we have to use another other area of the brain to let our thalamus know that it isn’t happening now. Try saying, “That was then, this is now” or “no, I wasn’t safe then, but I am safe now” or something like that. Do this as your continue doing step 1.
3. Body work. This one may need to involve a physical therapist or you may be able to do it with acupuncture or massage or another means of encouraging muscle release. All that adrenaline and cortisol has stored up in your cells which also make up the muscles and fascia in your body. This is how your body “stores trauma”. Any activity that encourages muscle release will allow the cells to release and purge built up adrenaline and cortisol. I’m not a physician, and this is where I refer to and rely on my Physical Therapy practitioners who really understand trauma in the brain. Dr. Jolene Faught in North Carolina is an amazing resource for this (she also happens to be my sister in law… not to brag or anything). Check her out! She has amazing information on trauma in the body system!
Stay tuned, there’s more to come on trauma release and the body system. In the mean time, try those skills and see if you can get that nervous system to quiet down a bit and not be so sharp and poky!