Nervous system in response to trauma and soothing.

The brain has several areas one of which is the limbic system controlled by the brain stem, the cerebellum, the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus is the area of the brain controls the autonomic nervous system, this is one of our basic systems and can be colloquially referred to as our animal instinct or unconscious control. Its main job is to help with memory creation, storage and retrieval, it helps use feel emotions, and link intellectual conscious thoughts of the cerebral cortex with the unconscious, autonomic functions of the brain stem, it also controls the glands and muscles of internal organs, our basic breathing, digesting processes that we do not have to think about.

This is then divided into two subsystems – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous systems role is to arouse the body when needed, to put it on alter, to respond to threats, to survive. Meanwhile the parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect, its role is to calm the body when danger has past and it is time to relax. This creates our fight or flight (and don’t forget freeze) system. So when we are threatened our sympathetic nervous system, part of the limbic system floods the body with hormones which are message to tell the body to increase heart rate, breathing and blood pressure ready to fight or flee. This I guess is the bit you all know. However, the part often not talked about is once the threat is gone, the parasympathetic system then kicks in to return the body to a state of calm by trying to reverse the physical effects caused by the sympathetic nervous system release of hormones.

The parasympathetic nervous system can take roughly 20 minutes to 60 minutes to produce this calming process, it does so by releasing hormones (they carry messages to systems and organs) to slow our heart and breathing rates, lower blood pressure and promote digestion thus our body enters a state of relaxation, and in this relaxed state we can recover physically and mentally, we heal ourselves (hence rest when we have had surgery).

In terms of trauma, which is an event that has caused our limbic system to trigger fight or flight reactions as above, if this trauma becomes chronic, so multiple events or ongoing situations that our brain responds to with a trauma reaction, our bodies remain in a constant state of alertness, flooded with fight or flight hormones, in order to be ready for threats. This ongoing activation is extremely taxing and draining on the body and can frequently lead to many health problems, including a weaker immune system, frequent headaches, insomnia, depression and anxiety amongst other issues because the body is having no tie to relax, digest, heal, or sooth itself, the stress hormones are very exhausting to the body. Additional this constant state of alertness can reduce our ability to tell the difference between genuinely threatening events and harmless events that have similar trigger factors, thus our limbic system triggers for the wrong causes (for example an abuser wore a certain fragrance, so that fragrance becomes a trigger even if it is not worn by the abuser. Or soldiers overly reacting to loud bangs when not at war).

The key is to recognise this above reaction in yourself, and with therapy and certain techniques reduce the limbic systems reaction and stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and to promote the response of the parasympathetic nervous system to help reduce fear hormones and to promote healing.

If you’d like video, telephone or face to face counselling in the Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme or Staffordshire area please do contact Wright Minds at or on 07598810304