What Are Types of Trauma Responses in the Body, and What Does it Mean for Trauma Treatment?
Trauma is defined as anything that overwhelms a person’s capacity to cope with it. The reason for such a seemingly vague definition is that trauma is more about the effect of an event (or events) on someone than it is whatever actually happened. For this reason, some people will develop trauma responses for things that others wouldn’t, just based upon how the brain and body respond.
Trauma and the Fight/Flight Response
Two Different Systems
The body comes equipped with two different nervous systems. The first, the parasympathetic nervous system, is what we hope is our baseline. Also known as the “rest and digest” system, the parasympathetic nervous system is on when we are relaxed and at ease. Our thinking is clear, our heartrate is relatively slow, and our breathing is deep and full. Our muscles are not tensed or rigid.
But when the body perceives a threat to survival, it mobilizes the “fight or flight” system, also known as the sympathetic nervous system. Cued by the amygdala and fueled by cortisol and other stress hormones, this system is entirely geared towards helping a person to survive some sort of attack.
Breathing and heart rate quicken in order to get oxygenated blood (and therefore energy) quickly to major muscle groups. Blood drains away from hands and feet, both to be used elsewhere and to decrease the possibility that a minor scratch on these areas that are most likely to be damaged in a physical fight would lead to significant blood loss. The pupils dilate so that peripheral vision is increased. More sweat is produced, to cool a person down during the encounter and to make them more slippery to a predator.
Chronic Fight or Flight
Of course, there is no predator. So in modern times often our fight/flight response is activated but never resolved. Because the nature of our stress is less episodic, we may go around in a chronic state of fight or flight. This means that systems that the body sees as “less vital” during an attack, such as the immunological or reproductive systems, do not ever really get the energy that they are meant to. The body neglects these aspects of functioning because they are more long-term in nature and not seen as critical for surviving an immediate attack.
Trauma and the Freeze Response
When the neurological system does not see a way out of danger through the fight/flight response, the freeze response may be activated. In the wild, staying still is an important part of camouflage. This is why so many sexual assault survivors did not fight back during their assaults. The body simply would not let them.
Governed by the dorsal vagal nerve, this “deer in the headlights” phenomenon makes your body go rigid and still. People report feeling frozen or immobilized. While very useful in escaping detection from a natural predator, this helpless feeling can often compound trauma. As in the fight or flight response, it is unlikely to be resolved at the time of the trauma and so the button gets somewhat stuck in the “on” position, causing freezing in situations which are actually safe such as benign social encounters.
Trauma and the Collapse Response
The collapse response is akin to the freeze response but has some important differences. The freeze response is about being still so that a predator doesn’t see you against your background, but the collapse response is about making a predator think that you’re already dead. Most predators in the animal kingdom prefer fresh meat to prey that is already dead, and so they might overlook what they think is a dead body. Whereas the freeze response makes a person rigid and tense, the collapse response takes all of the energy out of the body. A person in a collapse response feels lifeless, numb, and has little energy. Sometimes collapse response gets mistaken for depression, which has a different neurological pathway.
Trauma Responses and Trauma Treatment
The most counterintuitive (but important) thing to know about the various trauma responses is that if you are in the freeze response, you will not be able to access relaxation. Strategies that would move a person from fight/flight into a relaxed state such as calming music, soothing scents and slow breathing may only increase the freeze response. Instead, the body needs to go through fight or flight and then back to activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest/digest system). So if you feel frozen or collapsed, that is a good time to engage in moderate exercise, listen to invigorating music, or go outside. After that, you may be able to slow down without getting frozen or collapsed.
Because trauma is primarily a body-based problem, treatment should typically include some type of focus on the body. This might mean paying attention to the sensations and feelings that you get, moving your body freely or in specific ways, or participating in an adjunctive therapy like yoga or dance therapy. Some therapies such as Sensorimotor or Somatic Experiencing focus primarily on the body, whereas others focus on relationship and attachment and alter physiology through that portal.
When a person feels attached and safe, the system that is most in play is the “rest and digest”, or parasympathetic nervous system. The “social engagement system”, the ventral branch of the vagus nerve, is activated. This allows the entire body to calm. The muscles become relaxed but not slack, breathing is slow and deep, and the heart rate is steady. We are born wired for connection, and connection makes us feel our best.