27 May The Other Face of Trauma – 2nd Reason Why You Need Help From Someone Else.
Why do I feel so tired, all the time?
It feels like I have brain fog.
I am not motivated to do anything – this is not me!
In my previous (March) post entitled “Why going to someone is more effective than self-help, self-study, reading a book, etc.?”
, I talked about the fight-flight response that happens when our sympathetic nervous system is activated under a stressful or traumatic event. Let’s focus more on our parasympathetic nervous system today, and look at how the dysfunction of this system can lead us to chronic fatigue, brain fog, and low energy.
Imagine you are an ancient fish living in the bottom of the deep ocean. It is dark, cold, and not much oxygen. Your system is designed to consume low energy and to preserve energy. When a bigger fish swim near you, you freeze. You can’t swim fast enough to get away from the other fish. All you can do is to stay still, consume as little oxygen as possible, and hope the other fish won’t see you, or will simply go away.
This is the state you go into when you can neither fight nor flight in face of danger – you freeze. Freezing is another one of nature’s designs to preserve life. In the wild, many predators lose interest when their preys seem dead or they don’t notice the prey when it’s not moving. This mechanism is not a conscious choice, but an automatic response of our parasympathetic nervous system.
There are two sets of parasympathetic complexes. The one that’s responsible for Freeze is called Dorsal Vagal Complex. This is the raptile part of our nervous system and its primary task is to preserve life. When this part kicks in, our heart rate drops dramatically, our breathing becomes very shallow and almost stops, we can’t move, we can’t think, we become paralyzed or even lose conscious. Many crime victims blame themselves for “not putting up a good fight”. Some victims might feel that they had left their body, or “are watching it happening to someone else.” What they have experienced is actually the freeze response. Again, it is Not a choice. When the dorsal vagal complex is on, it’s on. This mechanism takes over our entire system and it does not go through our thinking or rational brain.
Many people get trapped in this state chronically without knowing why. The most common complaints are chronic fatigue, low energy, brain fog, tiredness, low mood or an overall sense of shutting down. These symptoms are part of the traumatic response. Many people get mad at themselves, or seek medical explanations for these symptoms. When someone is chronically experiencing these symptoms, the common diagnoses they get are chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, and dysthymia.
Now, how could someone like me help? The answer lies in the other set of the parasympathetic system.
The Ventral Vagal Complex is our mamol part of the parasympathetic system. The mamol part enables us to make social connections and responds to positive social interactions. When someone gives us a friendly look, a sincere smile, makes us feel safe and loved, it turns on the ventral vagal complex. When the ventral vagal complex is on, the dorsal vagal goes off. Being held by the presence of a skilled therapist turns on your ventral vagal complex and helps you unfreeze.
Many people don’t understand this, and they get stuck in the fight-flight-freeze cycle. They try to motivate themselves out of the freeze mode by forcing themselves to do things. This brings on anxiety and a brief period of hyper-alertness/hyper-activities. They feel restless, irritable, anxious, jumpy and sometimes are unable to fall asleep for days. Then, their systems crashes and they go back to freeze, which look like sadness, complete exhaustion and the inability to get out of bed for days. Because the fight-flight-freeze cycle is intense and looks like a roller coaster, many people get diagnosed (or mis-diagnosed) with Bipolar Disorder.
It is nearly impossible to feel love, safety and social connection without experiencing love, safety and connection from someone else first.
When people grow up in a safe, loving, and stable environment, their ventral vagal system is on by default. They make friends easily and they feel pretty safe in general. However, when bad things happen, it’s easy to get lost in all these overwhelming physical and emotional feelings. Sometimes we forget the sense of safety within us and need another human being to remind us. A large part of psychotherapy is to help people remember and recall the safety inside of themselves. This can be done in many different ways, including narrative therapy, sensory-somatic techniques, energy healing, constellations, etc. With innovative tools and a strong therapeutic alliance, trauma can be healed faster than many people think.
For people who didn’t grow up with lots of safety, love and connection, it is essential to find safety within a therapeutic relationship. It will be a lot harder for these people to turn on their ventral vagal system because like with anything else in the body if you don’t use it it becomes weaker. If you are someone that lacked a secure consistent safety figure in their early life, you have to learn by building safe connection with someone else later in life. The tricky part is: because you don’t have lots of experience in connecting with people in a safe and healthy way, you might end up attracting the wrong people into your life and get retraumatized. Therapy can provide structure and help you experience a level of safety and understanding you might not have experienced before. Therapy does not replace your relationships with family and friends, but it helps you have a fresh new look on these relationships. With a new understanding of your family relationships, you can receive the love that’s already there, get rid of the burden that’s not yours, and build healthy loving new relationships.