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  • The Neurodivergent Therapy Space

The Physical Impact of Trauma Held in the Body

Ever heard of the Polyvagal theory?

It is a framework for understanding the role of the autonomic nervous system in regulating social behaviour and emotion. The theory was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges and proposes that the nervous system has three branches or "states" that are activated in response to different situations.

The first branch is the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the "fight or flight" response and is activated in response to threats or stressors. The second branch is the parasympathetic nervous system, which has two parts. The first part, the dorsal vagal complex, is responsible for shutting down the body in response to extreme stress, such as in cases of severe trauma or abuse. The second part, the ventral vagal complex, is responsible for social engagement and is activated in situations where a person feels safe and connected to others.

According to polyvagal theory, when a person is in a state of safety and social engagement, their body is in a state of physiological calm that allows them to engage in social interaction and express emotions.

However, when a person feels threatened or stressed, their body may enter a state of fight or flight, or shut down entirely. Unprocessed trauma remains in the body, this can often lay dormant but is activated when our brain/body detects a threat. This can take us right back to the original trauma which means our reactions and responses to the present moment are actually subconscious responses to the past.

Polyvagal theory has been used to inform therapies and interventions for a range of conditions, including trauma, anxiety, and autism. For example, therapists may use techniques such as breathing exercises or mindfulness to help clients regulate their autonomic nervous system and move from a state of stress or shutdown into a state of safety and social engagement.

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