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Trauma and Neurological Safety

Image Description: A white paned window in a dim room overlooks green trees with pinkish blooms.
Sondra Malling, LCPC, BC-DMT, GL-CMA

In a previous blog, (scroll to the bottom of the page for URL if you are using a screenreader, where links are in order of appearance), I mentioned the longer I practice as a therapist, the more I feel comfortable making a pretty big generalization: all human beings experience trauma.

Which may seem like an exaggeration at first. After all, not everyone has survived an assault, a grave injury, a natural disaster, or another event that we typically think of when we hear the word “trauma.” To better understand my premise that all human beings experience trauma, we need to go into a little more detail than my last post and break down the definition of trauma.

The basic dictionary definition of trauma is a distressing or disturbing event, that is to say, something terrible happening. Unfortunately, all manner of bad things happen every day, so it is necessary to distinguish between different types of traumatic experiences. To do so, we can talk about “Big T” trauma vs. “little t” trauma.

“Big T” trauma is what usually comes to mind when discussing trauma. “Big T” traumas include:

  • Single event trauma, which involves witnessing or experiencing an actual or perceived injury, assault, or death, usually in a violent and unexpected manner. Examples of single event trauma include physical assault, sexual assault, witnessing a violent event, natural disasters, emergency surgery, or severe injury.
  • Complex trauma, which involves ongoing abuse, often beginning in childhood. Examples of complex trauma include physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and intimate partner violence.
  • Historical, collective, or intergenerational trauma, which involves shared traumatic experiences among a group of people, especially over an extended time. Examples include oppression, genocide, discrimination, racism, audism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, living in a war zone, and living through a pandemic.
  • Vicarious trauma, which involves exposure to others’ trauma as a part of your job duties. Examples of vicarious trauma people are psychotherapists, first responders, emergency medicine practitioners, and journalists exposed to graphic images and stories.

So we can see how, although many people survive these “Big T” traumas, it is possible for an individual to go through their life without experiencing one. However, “little t” trauma affects us all.

“Little t” trauma consists of daily life stressors that feel traumatic to the individual. Which could be the death of a loved one, job loss, a minor car accident, infidelity, divorce, or financial strain. Now that we understand that we all experience some level of trauma, we need to identify how both “Big T” and “little t” traumas impact our minds, bodies, and spirits.

We can look at this through the lens of Daniel Siegel’s theory about neurological safety, known as the Window of Tolerance. This model contains three states: hyperarousal, hypoarousal, and the Window of tolerance.

  1. Hyperarousal is commonly known as fight or flight.
  2. Hypoarousal is widely known as freeze, shutdown, or immobilization.
  3. Window of Tolerance is the optimal zone from which we function when we feel safe.

This sense of safety is regulated by our nervous system and informed by our past traumatic experiences, both “Big T” and “little t.”

Image Description: An infographic with 3 horizontal bars. The top bar has a photo of two skyscrapers with a green arrow pointing towards the sky between them. The text of this bar reads: “Hyperarousal: fight/flight, too much arousal. Signs you are here: tension, shaking, defensiveness, racing thoughts, intrusive imagery, overwhelmed, feeling unsafe, obsessive thoughts, impulsivity, anger/rage, hypervigilance.” The middle bar has a photo of a window looking out on 2 buildings. In front of the window are a peace symbol and a small plant. The text of this bar reads: “Optimal Zone: Window of Tolerance, Neurological Safety. Signs you are here: feel and think simultaneously, empathy, feelings tolerable, present moment awareness, feel open and curious (vs. judgmental and defensive) awareness of boundaries, reactions adapt to fit situation.” The bottom bar has a photo of raindrops on a glass pane with a green arrow pointing downward. The text of this bar reads: “Hypoarousal: immobilization/freeze (too little arousal). Signs you are here: absence of sensation, no energy, reduced movement, ‘not there,’ can’t think, numb, disconnected, no feelings, shame, shut down, passive, can’t defend self.”
NOTE: The creator of this infographic prefers to remain anonymous.

 

When you feel safe, you operate from within your Window of Tolerance. In this state, you feel good physically and emotionally and can relate with ease to other people and the world around you. But when something happens that triggers a trauma response (“Big T” or “little t”), you can go into either hyperarousal or hypoarousal.

In hyperarousal, your system is in overdrive, and you may lash out or try to escape. Conversely, in hypoarousal, your system shuts down, and you withdraw. The Window of Tolerance is where we would all prefer to be! So how do we find it when we are all exposed to a variety of “Big T” and “little t” traumas?

Trauma-informed therapists are experts in helping their clients return to and learn to maintain their Window of Tolerance. In trauma-informed therapy, we understand that you must feel safe in the therapy room and your body, build trust in your relationship with your therapist and find empowerment within yourself. Trauma-informed therapy considers who you are as a whole person with a variety of life experiences that include both “Big T” and “little t” traumas.

Acknowledging that trauma changes how the brain and the body react, a trauma-informed therapist can help you find equilibrium in your whole body-mind-spirit system without making you feel more distressed and retraumatized.

A dance/movement therapist can use this trauma-informed lens, creative movement, breathwork, mindfulness skills, and body awareness exercises to help you understand your physical experience of hyperarousal and hyperarousal, which goes deeper than talk therapy alone and allows you to tap into your nervous system more effectively.

Once you understand how hyperarousal and hypoarousal feel in your body, you can learn to use this body knowledge to return to your Window of Tolerance, which puts you in the driver’s seat so that you can move forward into your healing!

Are you interested in learning more about trauma-informed dance/movement therapy (URL at the bottom of page)? Contact us (URL at the bottom of page) to learn more.

Links:
Resourcing: How to Calm Your Body After Traumas Big and Small: https://www.intouchandmotion.com/wellness/resourcing-how-to-calm-your-body-after-traumas-big-and-small/
Dance/movement therapy: https://www.intouchandmotion.com/counseling-services/dance-movement-therapy-illinois/
Contact us: https://www.intouchandmotion.com/contact/

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