The Key Role Your Nervous System Plays in Trauma Recovery

Nervous systemIf you were to attend a professional training on trauma, the instructor would likely reference the nervous system and its window of tolerance. In recent years, trauma researchers and therapists have developed a deeper understanding of the nervous system’s role in regulating extreme stress, and have learned some techniques for regulating this system.

You have probably heard of the fight-or-flight response, which describes our impulse to defend ourselves or run until we reach safety. This is part of the window-of-tolerance model, but it’s not quite the whole picture. Let’s start with understanding a regulated nervous system.

A regulated nervous system experiences a stress and calming response throughout the course of a given day. Perhaps you are driving and someone brakes unexpectedly ahead of you; when your nervous system is regulated you will feel some stress, but once your body feels safe and you are able to act in a way to ensure your safety (i.e., press your own brakes), your system will calm back to baseline. Dr. Dan Siegel of UCLA coined the term “window of tolerance” to describe this space in which we can regulate ourselves without too much effort.

Make sense? You’ve probably felt some of these fluctuations in your system today—rushing to get somewhere and relaxing when you arrive on time, for example. Next we’ll explore what happens to the nervous system when a traumatic experience enters the picture.

Trauma pushes the activation of the nervous system beyond its ability to self-regulate. When a stressful experience pushes the system beyond its limits, it can become stuck on “on.” When a system is overstimulated like this, we can experience anxiety, panic, anger, hyperactivity, and restlessness. This is the fight-or-flight mode; your body is activated and ready to move.

Some nervous systems will stay here, while others will dip below the normal range and become stuck on “off.” Below the window of tolerance we see symptoms of depression, fatigue, disconnection, and lethargy. Systems can get stuck above or below the line for prolonged periods of time, or they can vacillate between the two.

How can you discharge the traumatic stress and transition back into the window of the regulated nervous system? Here are a few tips:

  1. Seek safe relationships. Being with someone who is safe and soothing will help your nervous system settle and create a safe space for you to connect and share your experience. We are social beings and we heal in relationship, so if you find yourself isolating or pulling away from social contact, consider instead seeking out people who feel supportive.
  2. Practice mindful breathing. This trauma response is connected to the brain stem (basic physiological regulation) and the limbic (emotional) brain. Practicing mindful breathing helps connect a basic physiological process (breathing) with your prefrontal cortex (thinking brain), which helps integrate and shift our neurological state. To put that more simply: breathing has a HUGE capacity to calm the brain and regulate the nervous system.
  3. Find a therapist who understands trauma and can help you get to know the habits of your nervous system. Recognizing when you are outside of your own window of tolerance and building personal strategies to soothe or stimulate your system is key to regulating in an ongoing way. For some people, sitting still is calming; for others, movement brings more peace. Find someone who can support you as you explore what works best for you.

There are many unique and healthy ways you can learn to support your nervous system and bring it back into its window of tolerance when something stressful occurs. Creating a support network that includes a trained trauma therapist is a helpful way to build your ability to heal and recover from traumatic experiences. When you learn to work with your nervous system, you may even build up a wider window of tolerance, which can allow you to move about the world feeling more grounded and connected to others.

Have questions? Please post them in the comments section below!

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lisa Danylchuk, MEd, LMFT, E-RYT, therapist in Oakland, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kevin

    October 30th, 2014 at 11:57 AM

    Amazing the innate ability the body has to heal itself but the numerous things that we do to counteract that seem almost blasphemous!

  • Thalia

    October 30th, 2014 at 2:55 PM

    so the moral of this story is that to be healthy we have to focus not just on the mind but the body and spirit as well. I think that too many times we get caught up in one and forget all about the holistic picture that we need to focus on. It is all of the systems workign together that keeps us going.

  • Lisa

    October 30th, 2014 at 10:19 PM

    Yes, Kevin, there are so many ways we can support the body in its efforts to heal, as well!

  • Lisa

    October 30th, 2014 at 10:21 PM

    Thalia, yes! The mind body and spirit all play important roles in the healing process – and in life in general.

  • Hudson

    October 31st, 2014 at 3:51 AM

    Finding the right therapist could be the answer for having a healthy relationship with others as well as yourself. This is the person that you can come to count on and who can help you find that safe place within when everything externally feels so crazy and chaotic.

  • Lisa

    October 31st, 2014 at 10:15 AM

    Hudson, so true. A good therapist can support you through chaos and help you to continue to make sense and live through overwhelming times in life.

  • cale

    October 31st, 2014 at 12:15 PM

    funny how something as simple as breathing, something that we do without even thinking about it, can have such a tremendously calming effect on the body when done in a mindful and thoughtful way

  • Keller

    November 2nd, 2014 at 6:01 AM

    It is simply amazing how much of a capacity the body and the mind have to heal themselves but that means that we also have to be mindful to care for that body, so that if or when the time comes,m then the strength is there to help the body with that healing process. Of course that is not always going to be possible but if you take care of yourself then the potential for that will definitely be there.

  • Lisa

    November 2nd, 2014 at 8:12 PM

    Indeed, breathing is powerful Cale. Keller, I agree that caring for the body is crucial, and that all we invest in self-care helps us heal and gives us energy to support others.

  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    November 3rd, 2014 at 6:00 AM

    Helpful article! I’d like to add neurofeedback to the list of things that can help normalize a traumatized nervous system. I’ve been happy to see more and more trauma therapists (including Bessel van der Kolk) including it and have seen great results in my own practice.

  • Lisa

    November 3rd, 2014 at 10:22 AM

    Ah yes Catherine I wholeheartedly agree. I offer neurofeedback in my practice as well and have seen clients benefit greatly from it. Thanks for mentioning that!

  • Deb

    January 30th, 2015 at 9:47 AM

    Good article ! I combine meditation and meds ! No other way for me to get through the day . Anti anxiety medication taken only when I just can’t seem to get my heart rate to slow down and my thoughts from racing . Then I can do a long guided meditaion and be ok for a while . Surrounding myself with calm people is a must ! I have had to break away from toxic family members and leave a 20 year marriage . It is still a struggle but one I intend to do just for me ! I want to be that person I was before the trauma . I appreciate this site !

  • Jbird

    January 30th, 2015 at 11:03 AM

    This is very interesting. I found out about my husband’s affairs a couple of years ago. Within a year of that, we saw a therapist and worked things out, yet I still felt like I was being lied to. Within that year, I started to feel more anxious and depressed and ultimately developed heart palpitations. They are so bad I had to see a cardiologist. I developed tachycardia and now have to take beta blockers daily. I take Ativan for anxiety now, and take Singulair for my constricted lungs as well. I don’t think it’s coincidence that I have all of these symptoms with “no medical cause”, except for the extreme betrayal and heartbreak I’ve endured. Could these things be related? I’m only 41 but my body feels riddled with fear and anxiety constantly :(

  • Sarah

    January 30th, 2015 at 4:02 PM

    Yes I believe so. I’ve had the same experience and dip in and out of periods of anxiety, restlessness, nightmares and feeling very numb and down. I know 100% it’s due to what happened and everything I witnessed. This article makes a great deal of sense to me.

  • Gertie

    January 31st, 2015 at 4:03 PM

    interesting article. Do you think this could be similar to fibromyalgia? Data is showing that it’s a brain and Central nervous system disorder. Most people develop it after significant t trauma.

  • Lucie

    March 17th, 2015 at 10:50 AM

    I think so, having been newly diagnosed with Fibromyalgia.
    I’ve suffered physical trauma with two slipped discs in my back, emotional and psychological trauma with an abusive ex husband and divorce. I did find an exceptional therapist and managed to go into remission of my Ptsd, however it’s taken its toll.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    February 10th, 2015 at 1:24 PM

    Gertie, thanks for your comment. I think the understanding of the NS and its function is helping professionals understand and support those suffering from fibromyalgia, and we have a lot more to learn. This is certainly a helpful piece to understand and apply!

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    February 10th, 2015 at 1:26 PM

    Sarah, great to hear you’ve made these connections. I hope you are doing well and reach out for support if these issues continue to arise, witnessing stressful things can make an imprint but there are certainly ways to heal and move forward.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    February 10th, 2015 at 1:28 PM

    Jbird – Indeed, our bodies and minds are intertwined and impossible to completely differentiate. Its great that you have sought medical help and given everything you’ve said I hope you also have some strong emotional supports arounds you. Friends, a counselor or therapist, activities you enjoy – all of these can help us cope and heal in the face of heartbreak.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    February 10th, 2015 at 1:30 PM

    Deb – great to hear you’ve found these supports and have set up boundaries to keep people around you that help you to feel valued and supported. Wishing you the best!

  • Kimberly

    March 17th, 2015 at 4:30 PM

    There is more than fight or flight, for example, I freeze. Always have, it’s horrifying.
    I appreciate this article on understanding our bodies functions and why, but think an addition of traumas effects on the brain are important. Suffering from severe depression and PTSD myself, the physical changes to my brain make some of your wonderful advice nearly impossible.

  • KJL

    March 18th, 2015 at 9:48 AM

    This is an interesting read and a great explanation to how the nervous system is affected by trauma. I do however agree with Kimberly in that when you have severe PTSD and or depression this may be hard to regulate.

  • Dick M.

    March 18th, 2015 at 11:49 AM

    All of my symptoms of PTSD, from Vietnam, were healed when I found a holistic technique called TAT. All my anxieties, panic attacks, nightmares, etc. stopped completely. Now when I recall the events that led to my PTSD, they are simply a memory.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    March 18th, 2015 at 9:50 PM

    Dick, so glad to hear TAT was helpful for you. This is the goal with PTSD, the memories do not leave but the intensity associated with them can.

    Kimberly, yes the freeze respons is very real and very challenging to work with. Its like having both the gas and the brakes on at the same time. Very intense.

    Kimberly and KJL and of these things are big asks for someone struggling with PTSD. Similar to physical therapy working muscles that have become weak, these suggestions can, mentally and emotionally, feel impossible. I’d encourage you to pick one and to make steps toward it. This may mean calling a few therapists, or starting your day with just ONE deep, mindful breath. It could mean talking more to a neighbor, or smiling at someone. Choose small steps and dont get stuck in the trap of thinking small steps are not effective – they are. They break down small walls and build momentum and habits that get you going in the direction you want to go. I know this seems impossible but I encourage you to find small ways to give yourself opportunities for healing! As Dick pointed out, it is possible to recover from PTSD, but only you can find the avenue to your healing. Remember, there are a lot of people out there, many on this site, who are eager to help you on your path of healing.

  • Debbie

    June 16th, 2015 at 6:30 PM

    what is TAT please? I am interested in anything that will help get me out of the fight or flight mode, I’ve had many psychological traumas and and open to anything that will help. Thank you.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    March 18th, 2015 at 9:51 PM

    Lucie, I am so sorry to hear you;ve been going through these physical and emotional challenges. I’d encourage you to keep getting support, especially of you’ve found a therapist that is helpful. There is a way through these challenging time.

  • molly

    June 16th, 2015 at 6:53 PM

    I suffer from this. Living with mu inlaws for 3 years has had me on edge constantly. I now see a therapist because I can not cope with all the stress. I love this article! Thank you

  • Dannel

    June 17th, 2015 at 10:43 AM

    Wow this just helped me sooo much. Just as a tip for the breathing thing, I started swimming to help and it has done wonders.

  • chanel

    June 19th, 2015 at 5:18 PM

    This explains y i feel so lost, in not knowing how to grieve for my mum who passed away 6wks ago, struggling to keep urself afloat in this river called life..
    I have lost close family members before
    Buy i dnt no how to pull myself outa this lull i fall into. Spend hours, days crying uncontrollably.. feeling guilty coz i cant just Carry On..confused feelings doing crazy shit in my mindless head..

  • Fran

    December 5th, 2015 at 9:38 AM

    Can this last for years, my mum died when was 5years old, my husband died 4years ago with terminal cancer, then a year ago went on holiday with friend/cousin and she had a stroke in front of me and died, I now have depression and life is very different, always has been different as have social phobia … So can this be from childhood and grown with each experience… Thank you xx

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    December 5th, 2015 at 2:40 PM

    Hi Fran, I’m so sorry to hear about all of these traumatic experiences of loss you’ve been through. Yes, these experiences can be cumulative and it can really help to address the beliefs that may have come from them. I’d encourage you to reach out to a therapist specializing in trauma. There are techniques – EMDR being one of them – that can help us process the emotions that remain from experiences like this. I hope you are able to find some relief from the depression and I wish you the best.

  • Happi

    March 17th, 2016 at 9:50 AM

    Great article. Would you have any recommendations for online extra reading about this subject? I’m interested to know more as someone who has crashes of energy and tolerance every couple of years.

  • DonnaB

    March 17th, 2016 at 10:16 PM

    I have lived with frozen trauma my whole life. Its only been recently that a skillful trauma therapist was able to help me come closer to feeling. It was like a wave of energy in the form of a very high wave came at me from across the room. I hope to be able to discharge this energy and then have more access to my feelings. Its pretty powerful. I am going to do EMDR too. I am excited. I have been through a deep dark valley and I have seen the light. I am grateful for the new trauma treatment. There are so many ways to come at trauma. I want so very much to release and feel again as my right as a human being. Great writing…Thanks for sharing~

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