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Understanding Trauma & our Nervous System

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

I often share these understanding trauma and our nervous system resources with clients, including some helpful exercises at the bottom -- I hope you find them helpful! Explore alongside my favourite Exploring Feelings and Emotions resources.

Trauma and the Nervous System

Trauma and the nervous system: a polyvagal perspective - the most brilliant short video introduction to trauma, the nervous system and polyvagal theory.

Jacob Ham's amazing exploration of Trauma explores the Incredible Hulk as a metaphor.

A brief introduction to Bessel Van Der Kolk's book The Body Keeps the Score Brain, Mind and The Body in The Healing of Trauma.

Rethinking Resilience: The story of little boats Resilient Rebecca and Nelly Not So Much will help us understand the ways resilience may be expressed for those experiencing toxic stress, and what is really needed to support wellbeing

Road to Resilience Episode 11: The Long Arm of Childhood Trauma exploration with Darrell Hammond and Michelle Esrick who created the Cracked Up Movie that explores the impacts of childhood trauma on adulthood. Jacob Ham joins this brilliant discussion drawing from their lived experience of trauma and therapeutic support.

Oprah Winfrey and child psychiatrist and neuroscientist Bruce Perry explore the impact of childhood trauma on who we become, decisions we make, and how healing must start with one question "What Happened to You" drawing from their same-titled book. Allowing an understanding of past trauma supports opening to resilience and healing.

Becoming an Active Operator of Your Nervous System - a wonderful podcast with Deb Dana exploring how we can befriend our nervous system for greater vitality in life. Check out Deb's Rhythm of Regulation website, full of brilliant resources, including Deb's beginner's guide to the nervous system. All of these are helpful to look at in relation to this nervous system ladder image.

A brilliant article and image Seven F's of the nervous system exploring feel, fawn, fight, flight, fidget, freeze, faint, polyvagal and other understandings of our nervous system.

A wonderful podcast, Trauma Recovery and Post-Traumatic Growth introducing Arielle Schwartz's brilliant The Post Traumatic Growth Guidebook.

Intergenerational Trauma and Emotional Inheritance

Understanding intergenerational transmissions of trauma & emotional inheritance can be so important in healing. I just love the virtual afternoon above and this beautiful podcast with Galit Atlas that makes understanding intergenerational trauma and emotional inheritance so accessible. Galit explores how working through and uncovering ungrieved losses and making connections between past and present can support healing.

A wonderful introduction to her book Emotional Inheritance: A Therapist, Her Patients, and the Legacy of Trauma.

Trauma and Nervous System Exercises

Masha's Toolbox of Trauma Exercises is one of my favourite resources for tools to support and calm our nervous system in times of struggle.

Slowly | softly breathing: Regulating the nervous system through breath

When you feel your nervous system is struggling and you feel immobilised (freeze) or in fight/flight this practice of Slowly | Softly breathing can be helpful to regulate the nervous system:

A. Place your feet on the floor, hands on your legs or one hand on your heart and one on your belly.

B. Push your feet onto the floor and gently close or haze your eyes

C. Breathe in Slowly through your nose and out Softly through your nose (Slowly in | Softly Out)

D. Repeat and lengthen the breath each time in and out.

A guided audio version can be found here Breathing Room Voice Led Breath Exercise (7 minutes). The inhale is our sympathetic and exhale our parasympathetic nervous system. Slowing each brings calm to our body and nervous system. After a few breaths check-in:

  • Where is the tension/anxiety (contraction) in your body, and what is the feeling - use a feelings wheel to help and my Exploring Feeling & Emotions blog post.

  • Breathe into that part of your body and create release/expansion to the bodily contraction and acceptance of the emotional state

  • Ask yourself:

  • (a) what you do I need? (e.g. take a walk to feel grounded, reach out to someone... etc)

  • (b) externalise wherever possible by either talking with someone or writing out what is troubling

Self-holding exercise

1. Either seated or laying down with feet resting on floor. One hand on your heart and one on your belly. Push your feet onto the floor and gently rest your eyes.

2. Slowly/ Softly Breathing: Breathe in slowly through your nose. Breathe out softly through your nose. Aim to lengthen the breath each time in and out as you breathe three times.

3. As in the diagram place your hands on either side of your head (expansion). Now breathe in slowly and out softly into that space 'between' three times.

4. Place your hands on the front and back of your head. Now breathe in slowly and out softly into that space 'between' three times.

5. Move the hand on the back of your head to your heart. Now breathe in slowly and out softly into that space 'between' three times.

6. Move the hand on the front of your head to your belly. Now breathe in slowly and out softly into that space 'between' three times.

7. Move the hands on your heart to the back of your head. Now breathe in slowly and out softly into that space 'between' three times.

8. Finally, move the other hand to the back of your head as though you have wings and feel the expansion. Now breathe in slowly and out softly into that space 'between' three times.

9. Gently as you rest your hands beside you connect with your natural breath and the space around you.

For more, see my favourite Exploring Feelings and Emotions resources.

Additional Trauma and Healing Books

In addition to the brilliant books mentioned above, these are additional helpful books exploring trauma and healing:

Trauma Is Really Strange When something traumatic happens to us, we dissociate and our bodies shut down their normal processes. This unique comic explains the strange nature of trauma and how it confuses the brain and affects the body. The narrator reveals how trauma resolution involves changing the body's physiology and describes techniques that can achieve this, including Trauma Releasing Exercises that allow the body to shake away tension, safely releasing deep muscular patterns of stress and trauma.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Recovery Workbook: Heal the Hidden Wounds from Childhood Affecting Your Adult Mental and Physical Health carefully guides the reader through the process of understanding and healing from childhood wounds carefully organized minise potential overwhelm when confronting painful feelings and memories.

Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship offers a comprehensive and accessible exploration of developmental trauma.

Change for the Better: Personal development through practical psychotherapy for anyone wishing to understand and work through their suffering and to gain greater clarity and emotional resilience.

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