A Key Relationship Between Trauma And Autonomic Nervous System

by Penny Boreham

DIAGRAM OF THE PARASYMPATHETIC AND SYMPATHETIC BRANCHES OF THE NERVOUS SYTEMThere are a multitude of highly significant reciprocal relationships going on in our bodies all the time, but there is one key and complex interaction between two branches of our nervous system that is central to how our body responds to trauma.

Understanding that interaction and interplay of the relationship between trauma and autonomic nervous system has also been crucial in the development of treatments for trauma.

Autonomic Nervous System: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Branches

The two players in this relationship are the Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic branches of the nervous system. They make up the involuntary (or Autonomic) part of the system – in other words what is normally not under our conscious control. This includes circulation, breathing, temperature control and digestion. The Parasympathetic branch is often described as dealing with “rest and digest” – it activates our tranquil functions, such as stimulating the secretion of saliva or digestive enzymes in the stomach. The Parasympathetic branch is concerned with the processes that happen when our body is in a state of rest or relaxation. The Sympathetic part, however, mobilises the activity of the body required to deal with stress and threat or danger and increases the heart rate along with the release of sugar from the liver into the blood – it is mediating our fight and flight responses.

‘Eighty percent, or more, of disease and illness is attributed to an imbalance in the interchange between the parasympathetic and the sympathetic branches of the nervous system’ : Dr James Jealous

These two aspects of our nervous system operate in a reciprocal and harmonious way, but of course the extent to which the sympathetic system is activated affects the functions of the parasympathetic part – so, if we are in a constant state of arousal and over activation our body does not have the capacity to deal with the ‘rest and digest’ functions it would do when in a restful state. We can begin to see why, when we are in an overwhelmed state, we start to notice that our digestion, our breathing, our circulation and many other aspects are affected. In fact the highly influential osteopath, Dr James Jealous, attributes eighty percent, or more, of disease and illness to an imbalance in this interchange.

Resourcing ourselves and increasing the parasympathetic response

It is the Parasympathetic system that is responsible for the body’s ability to recuperate and return to a balanced state (known as “homeostasis”).

When we are not in a situation of complete overwhelm we can find ways to resource ourselves and encourage Parasympathetic responses. This is very valuable. Even when we imagine ourselves in a place or situation that we find nourishing, or make contact with a memory of a resourcing experience, we can encourage a Parasympathetic response. This refocusses us on how the mind and body are in a constant reciprocal relationship, just as the different branches of our nervous system are. We might imagine ourselves walking on a beach, staring out at the magnitude of the deep sea, we might be lying in a bath or spending time with our pet dog – everyone’s resource is as individual as they are themselves and of course bound up with their experiences. One person’s resource might be another person’s activator.

Working with therapies that are aware of this key relationship

When we are in a state of complete overwhelm, the right therapeutic intervention is of utmost importance. The therapies we practice here at Khiron House are all grounded in the knowledge of this reciprocal and parallel relationship between the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic branches of the nervous system and how they impact on an individual’s system.

Emotional arousal is so often driven by a dysregulated nervous system. People can feel overwhelmed and report feeling propelled by powerful internal forces to impulsive action. They also report feeling in terror or inexplicably collapsed and passive. The Sympathetic nervous system, and fight and flight response, can be triggered over and over again by what others would consider not to be a reactive stimulus. When individuals are in this state of overwhelm any state of calm or well-being (Parasympathetic activity) can feel out of their reach. They have a heightened sensitivity to any trauma-related stimuli, and their sympathetic nervous systems are consistently highly activated.

We can see how therapies that take this into consideration, and work with people to help their nervous systems find their way back into a state of regulation, are so essential.

Next week we explore in more depth how the particular treatments we practice here at Khiron House help those who are in this state of high nervous system arousal to increase their Parasympathetic responses. This increase in Parasympathetic response necessarily means their Sympathetic response becomes less active, and therefore homeostasis can be restored to the body. Individuals who are suffering from the effects of trauma can then find their way back to the place they want to be.

This is part of our series of blogs which are telling the story of trauma treatment, how it has developed and is still developing every day. In this series our expert practitioners will be sharing their knowledge with you, we will be finding out what recent scientific breakthroughs are teaching us all about the nervous system, and we will be keeping you in touch with the latest news about the life transforming therapies that are becoming more sophisticated and responsive every day.

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