The Vagus Nerve in Trauma Recovery Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Vagus Nerve and Trauma Recovery Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Many distressing symptoms of post-traumatic stress are felt in the body—a tightness in the chest, a sinking feeling in the stomach, a familiar knot in the throat, or as a chronic feeling of exhaustion. We now recognize that we must turn toward the body as part of the healing process and as a result we have seen a surge in the use of yoga, mindfulness, tai chi, Qigong, Feldinkreis, massage, craniosacral, nutritional counseling, and acupuncture for the treatment post traumatic stress.

These mind-body therapies help us to be less vulnerable to stress, less reactive, and less impulsive. We increase our awareness of the choices that we have to help us feel grounded and calm. We feel more in control. One way that mind-body therapies work is by stimulating the vagus nerve. Knowledge about how this nerve works provides a fundamental understanding of traumatic stress and facilitates our ability to heal. As a result, the vagus nerve has taken central stage in trauma treatment.

“Mind-body therapies work with the vagus nerve to help you find balance. In this post, you will find a variety of breath and movement practices aimed to stimulate and reset the vagus nerve. Through a process of self-study and mindful body awareness, you can start to learn strategies that help you restore a sense of safety and heal from trauma.”

-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

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Somatic Therapy in Trauma Treatment Dr. Arielle Schwartz

The Body Carries the Burden

Somatic Therapy Dr. Arielle Schwartz Boulder

Healing from trauma does not only involve changes in your brain. Rather, it is equally important to attend to the impact of traumatic events on the body. When it comes to healing from any trauma, it is important to recognize that the body holds memories of what happened. Your body provides tremendous feedback about the impact that traumatic events. You might notice how you carry tension in your body or how your posture might be a reflection of your emotions. 

As a result of challenging life experiences, you might notice that you close off your chest to protect your heart from events that occurred years ago. Perhaps, you continue to freeze or collapse in response current events that trigger feelings related to your traumatic past. Or, you might notice how trauma from your past obstructs your willingness to look someone in the eyes, stand up tall, or speak with confidence. 

Importantly, yourbody does not just hold the memory of what happened—your body also holds the memory of what wanted to happen. This is an important key to healing from trauma. For example, if you weren’t able to run away from a dangerous situation, you might feel the impulse to move your legs when you think about that situation now. Or, if you weren’t able to protect yourself from an abuser, you might feel an impulse to push through your arms. 

“Somatic therapy in trauma treatment allows you to release long-held tension from your body. As a result, you have an opportunity to discover a greater sense of freedom in your body and mind. Your body gives you feedback about when the events of the past no longer define your life in the present. As a result, you reclaim your resilience.”—Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Healing in Stages

Somatic Therapy Dr. Arielle Schwartz Boulder

Therapeutic treatment for trauma occurs in stages. The first stage helps you develop resources to handle challenging emotions, disturbing symptoms, and distressing memories. Perhaps you feel stuck in high alert, unable to relax, or locked down in exhaustion. These symptoms indicate that you need resources to stabilize your symptoms and help you restore a sense of safety in the here and now. Resources are the people and personal practices that help you to feel confident, calm, clear, grounded, empowered, and supported.

The second stage of trauma treatment invites you to reprocess the emotions, sensations, memories, and beliefs associated with your traumatic experiences. Most often this requires a supportive relationship with a psychotherapist who is trained in working with trauma. By processing traumatic events, you free yourself from the associated negative beliefs, emotions, somatic experiences, and behaviors.

The third stage of trauma recovery focuses on integrating positive changes into your overall sense of self. This involves reflecting upon the meaning that you make of your unique life experiences. You can take the time to allow a positive, embodied sense of yourself to grow as this will help to propel you forward in your life.

The Body in Trauma Treatment

Somatic Therapy Dr. Arielle Schwartz Boulder

Healing from trauma involves increasing your awareness of tension patterns in your body. For instance, you might notice that you carry excessive tension in your muscles that make it difficult to relax. Once you aware of your somatic experience, then you can start to experiment with small changes in your breath, posture, eye contact, and body movement. For example, if you tend to keep your arms in tight to your body, you might experiment with how it feels to take up more space. Or, you might explore lengthening your spine and lifting your gaze and notice how these subtle changes impact your sense of self.

When you identify a traumatic event, you can learn to mindfully explore your somatic experience. As a result, you might begin to notice various movement impulses. You might notice trembling or shaking in your arms and legs as you release long-held tension from your body. Within somatic psychology, this process of discharging tension from the body is referred to as sequencing. In sequencing, you aim to allow feelings to move all the way through your body out your arms or legs until you feel a sense of relief or satisfaction. 

It can take time to learn to trust your instincts and intuition; however, this process can eventually help you find resolution in body and mind. Explore following sensations that help you to unwind tension. For example, if you notice that you have tension in your jaw, you might exaggerate your sensations by scrunching your face tightly and then opening your jaw into a wide yawn. Or, if you notice that you tend to hunch your shoulders, you could follow that impulse until you curl into a small ball. Eventually, you can allow yourself to freely associate, noticing any thoughts, memories, or images that arise as you honor your sensations and movement impulses.

Somatic Therapy and Preverbal Memories

Somatic Therapy Dr. Arielle Schwartz Boulder

Sometimes the most persistent symptoms of trauma are connected to events for which you have no clear memory. Sometimes this is because traumatic event(s) happened in the first few years of life from before memory and language systems of the brain are fully developed.  Or, it can be difficult to remember events that occurred later in life because traumatic stress can impair the memory systems in the brain. 

It can be difficult to talk about or describe traumatic memories; especially if you have symptoms of dissociation.However, it is important to know thatyou can heal from traumatic events even if you cannot recall all of the details of traumatic events. Rather than telling a story about your experience, you learn to describe your sensations and attend to the associated emotions. For instance, you might use words like tingly, hot, dull, or heavy, or sharp. Or, you might notice areas of numbness. Now, the task is to slowly turn toward dissociative symptoms or the experience of numbness. Notice what happens as you stay committed to repairing this disconnection with yourself.

The goal of therapy is not memory retrieval; rather, the goal is trauma recovery in which you actively distinguish the past from the present. You heal as you focus on the choices available to you in your life now. 

Somatic Therapy in Trauma Treatment

Somatic Therapy Dr. Arielle Schwartz Boulder

Having a history of trauma requires a slow, gentle approach to befriending the body. Often, working with a therapist is instrumental to any embodiment practice because habitual somatic patterns can be difficult to recognize; they are fundamentally integrated into the fibers of our identity. A somatically trained therapist can offer a compassionate reflection of your embodied self-expression. 

In addition, it is important to see somatic therapy in trauma treatment as part of comprehensive and integrative approach to healing that also involves reprocessing the narrative, images, and beliefs associated with the event. An integrative model brings together Somatic Psychology, EMDR Therapy, Relational Therapy, Part Work Therapies, and other mind-body therapies.

When entering the transformational work of working through traumatic events, it is important to have the knowledge that change is possible. Talking about difficult memories takes courage. You might ask, what is the point of rehashing the past or stirring up these painful feelings. However, rest assured, working through traumatic memories ultimately allows you to feel freedom in your body and gives you a greater sense of choice about the narrative that defines your past and your future.

Learn more about Somatic Psychology and Integrative Trauma Treatment:

Want to learn more about healing PTSD?

EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology Book Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Connect to this post? The EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology book, is available on Amazon! Click here to   increase your toolbox for healing. An integrative and effective approach to healing from trauma.

The Complex PTSD Workbook Dr. Arielle Schwartz

The Complex PTSD Workbook is available on Amazon! Click here to check it out.

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole (Althea press, 2016) and co-author of EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology: Interventions to Enhance Embodiment in Trauma Treatment (Norton, 2018). She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.

Trauma Recovery and Relationships: From Conflict to Connection | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Learning to Love after Loss

trauma recovery Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Having a history of trauma can lead to challenges in our relationships. Perhaps you have habitually avoided conflict, withdrawn out of fear, felt intolerant of rejection, or pushed people away when they got too close. These defensive strategies can lead to relationships that are consistently argumentative, disconnected and cold, or painfully superficial. 

Trauma recovery helps us to build our capacity to handle conflicts with equanimity. Rather than needing to make yourself or another person wrong, you can learn to work through difficulties in a way that deepens your connections with others. It is important to know that you can work through ruptures of connection and create a positive outcome. Ultimately, it is possible to learn to trust that small amounts of disconnection and conflict can actually can lead to deepened sense of trust and love.

“Healthy conflict requires tolerance for difference, disconnection, and discord. Letting someone know that they have hurt your feelings can feel frightening. Taking responsibility for hurting someone you love can evoke shame. It takes wisdom to refine primal reactions into caring, thoughtful responses.”

-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
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Self-Actualization and Post Traumatic Growth Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Awaken to Your Potential

Self-Actualization Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow introduced self-actualization as the process of fulfilling your potential in the world. It is about becoming who you really are and were always meant to be. This involves the integration of the wounds that may have once been a source of shame or confusion and allows for a coherent sense of yourself. Here, you reclaim a sense of dignity which allows you to walk in the world with the knowledge that you are so much more than your trauma or pain. This opens up the possibility for a deep sense of belonging in the world.

It is possible to grow from adversity. Traumatic life experiences can help you appreciate the precious gift it is to be alive. Perhaps because of your experience feeling so deeply hurt, your pain has become a source of compassion and wisdom. Maybe you have discovered moments of emotional or spiritual significance.

“Self-actualization is associated with a greater capacity to hold polarities and contradictions. You cultivate the wisdom to know that all relationships will have their challenges, that moments of pain are an inevitable part of life, and that opening your heart to love involves the risk of loss.”-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

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The Parasympathetic Nervous System and Your Health

Somatic Resilience

Vagus Nerve Disorders Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Resilience is defined as an ability to flexibly adapt to challenging, adverse, or traumatic life events. This ability to “bounce back” from traumatic events is deeply connected to having the opportunity to work through difficult life experiences. Importantly, resilience is not just a mindset or a set of behaviors. The human body is equipped with an innate physiological resilience system. This is your autonomic nervous system—the part of your nervous system which helps adapt, respond to stress, and return to homeostasis. Moreover, your parasympathetic nervous system holds keys to your health.

Your autonomic nervous system is built around the balance of two opposing actions and can function without you having to think about it consciously. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the fight or flight response that is the result of the release of cortisol (stress chemicals) throughout the bloodstream. The parasympathetic is associated with relaxation, digestion, and regeneration. For example, your breathing, heart rate, and body temperature are regulated by this system. Ideally, your sympathetic and parasympathetic actions are meant to function in rhythmic alternation, a process that supports healthy rhythms of alertness and restfulness that facilitate physical and mental health. Unfortunately, chronic stress and unresolved trauma interfere with the balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic functions.

Individuals with unresolved PTSD can also resort to a primitive and unbalanced expression of the parasympathetic nervous system. Dr. Stephen Porges (2011) has identified that the parasympathetic nervous system has two presentations that depend upon whether you feel safe or feel threatened. This is due to the complexity of the vagus nerve (Read more here). In times of safety, the parasympathetic nervous system facilitates rest, relaxation, and digestion. However; in times of threat, the parasympathetic nervous system has a defensive mode which can lead to symptoms of fatigue, dizziness, or depression. This is especially the case when there was no way to escape traumatic situation.

“The use of mind-body therapies can help you reclaim a sense of safety in the here and now. You can learn tools to help you access the nourishing benefits of your parasympathetic nervous system. These restorative practices can help you improve digestion, increase immune system functioning, enhance thyroid health, and improve symptoms of depression.”
Dr. Arielle Schwartz

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DBT for Trauma Treatment | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

Photo by Eugene Ivanov

DBT for trauma treatment offers increased self-control and can help you feel grounded in your life, here and now. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) was originally developed in the 1980s as a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of borderline personality disorder. More recently, DBT has been applied to treat other disorders, and has been found particularly beneficial for PTSD. This therapy is founded upon principles of Zen Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practices. For example, the term “dialectical” refers to a synthesis of opposites, which is a core aspect of Zen practices.

The primary dialectic within DBT is the polarity between acceptance and orienting toward change. Here, we recognize that radical self-acceptance of who you are is a necessary condition for change and growth.”
Dr. Arielle Schwartz

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Neuropsychotherapy and Trauma Treatment Dr. Arielle Schwartz

The Neurobiology of Trauma Recovery

Art by Eugene Ivanov

In short, neuropsychotherapy refers to the practice of integrating neuroscientific research into psychotherapy. This integrative approach to therapy that explores the connections between your mind, body, environment, and social interactions. A wide range of therapeutic modalities are based in this neurobiological approach to healing including EMDR Therapy, Somatic Psychology, and time-tested relational therapy. Within this post, we will explore six components of trauma recovery based upon neuropsychotherapy: Relating, Resourcing, Reprocessing, Repatterining, Reflecting, and Resilience.

“Reprocessing traumatic memories involves connecting traumatic memories with new information. As a result, distressing images, thoughts, sensations, and emotions associated with traumatic memories can be integrated with new resources. Overall, the neurobiology of trauma recovery helps you to learn how to move out of hopelessness, increase your capacity to feel empowered, and recognize that you are capable of living the life you want and deserve.”
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The Hero’s Journey in Trauma Recovery-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

A Journey of Resilience

In the Colorado foothills where I live, we have a path that traverses an area of the forest that burned down several years ago. Under the burnt remains of these trees we discover a lush underbrush, bursting with new life that flourishes in the fertile earth. Each time I walk this trail, I am reminded that although traumatic life experiences can be devastating, they can also become a powerful force that awakens us to our aliveness. Painful events inevitably shape who we are; however, it is essential that we learn to look beyond the blackened trees of our internal landscape.

American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, described personal transformation as a hero’s journey. You can imagine the hero who must enter the darkness, face challenges, slay the dragon, retrieve the treasure, and emerge stronger. As applied to trauma recovery, we understand that challenging life events can serve as a call to enter the hero’s journey. You may feel as though you have been thrown into an abyss. The dragons you must slay are the inner demons that remain as a result of the painful memories from your past. You walk into the darkness in order retrieve the treasures that exists within you such as inner strength, wisdom, and hope. You emerge with an enhanced sense of meaning and purpose which become the gifts that you have to offer to the world.

“The work of the Hero’s Journey in trauma recovery is difficult; but, this same work can serve as an initiation into wisdom and an awakening of the heart. You can learn to trust in your capacity for new growth.”
Dr. Arielle Schwartz

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Connection and Co-Regulation in Psychotherapy-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Discovering Self in Relationship

Connection is at the core of all human experience. We all share the need to be seen and understood. We long to belong and to experience ourselves within the context of loving, nurturing relationships. Sadly, childhood neglect or abuse betrays our trust in others and can impair our ability to form healthy relationships as adults. A history of trauma can also contribute to ongoing experiences of dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is the part of your nervous system that manages how you respond to stress and allows you to relax in response to environmental cues.

Ongoing emotional dysregulation tends to interfere with our capacity for intimacy, parenting, or meaningful friendships. The concept of co-regulation, also called mutual regulation or social affect regulation, can be defined as the way in which one person’s autonomic nervous system sensitively interacts with another person’s autonomic nervous system in a way that facilitates greater emotional balance and physical health. Simply put, we humans are deeply interconnected with each other and influence each other in a multitude of ways.

“Through a healthy therapeutic relationship, you have opportunities to attend to the relational wounds from your childhood. Co-regulation in psychotherapy provides opportunities for you to have new, socially learned experiences of connection, attunement, acceptance, and compassion. Through somatic psychology we can fine-tune this exchange to find the sweet spot where our deepest healing resides.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

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The Neurobiology of Traumatic Memory-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Why Survivors Forget

Traumatic Memory Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Photo Credit Jiri Hodan

Times of extreme stress such as traumatic events can impair how memory is stored and subsequently recalled. As a result, there may be portions of a traumatic memory that are unclear or forgotten. However, even memories with missing elements can still be vividly recalled with fragments of images and highly disturbing somatic sensations.

“Memories of physical or sexual abuse are held within portions of the brain highly sensitized to stress hormones. This can lead to strong emotions and body sensations without a well-developed ability to explain your experience with words. This process can evoke feelings of shame and self-doubt. A physiological explanation of traumatic memory can provide a foundation for increased self-acceptance and compassion.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

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