Trauma sensitive. To be or not to be?
Dr Natasha Picot
MsC Psychology (Distinction) is a British Wheel of yoga Foundation and Diploma Course Tutor as well as a Dru Yoga Therapist and trauma-sensitive practitioner. For more about trauma sensitive yoga and upcoming BWYQ teacher training see www.moliyoga.co.uk
smoky starfish swirls from the seabed
remembering her swaying: momentarily, I’m alive
swimming with salmon in some direction or, other
almost entirely made up of disarticulated fragments.[i]
Have you ever had a traumatic, day, month, year? The poem above describes how I was fragmented and distant as if viewing the world from an echo chamber underwater (dissociation) after a life-changing traumatic event. Fortunately, yoga helped me to work through, process and heal from the trauma: moving through the eye of the storm and eventually experience post-traumatic growth. The rest as they say…
Distinguished psychiatrist Dr Steven Porges (whose work on trauma and recovery has created a seismic-shift in clinical understanding) says that the ‘Human Species is a traumatised species’.[ii] Many of us may be more inclined to agree with this after surviving the shock-waves or resonances of the Coronavirus Years have infiltrated our lives. In How to Heal the Mass Trauma of Covid 19, the way trauma and its many varied dimensions have ricocheted through our lives in varying degrees since the start of the global pandemic is described as a trauma epidemic resulting distortions in our sense of time and disruptions to life’s rhythms and socio-economic rupture and reordering and that it is hard to avoid this zeitgeist of mass trauma.[iii]The phenomena of ‘vicarious traumatisation’ is also highlighted and described as ‘when frightening stories trigger feelings of traumatic stress in those who haven't caught the disease’.[iv]
In a 2012 research review by Telles et. al[v] trauma definitions note that one description states that an event is traumatic if it is extremely upsetting and at least temporarily overwhelms the individual’s inner resources. The researchers list a wide range of traumatic events[vi]which can be found in research across a variety of disciplines. Importantly, they note that ‘listing traumas separately there may be an erroneous impression that such traumas are independent of one another’.[vii]Clinically, trauma has been defined in a variety of diverse ways. The American Psychological Society (APA) describes trauma as ‘an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives’.[viii]
The complexity of trauma symptoms is too diverse to outline here, however, it is worth pointing out, world leading trauma expert Dr Bessel van der Kolk advocates yoga as one of the most effective healing modalities for the traumatised person. Noting the importance of the limbic system he views trauma through a brain science lens. A broad-brush description might describe the limbic system as a key controller of human emotions: housing both the hippocampus – (shaping memory formation) and the amygdala (which is part of the human threat detection system). When cortisol is released into the system for a sustained it can have a harmful impact. Related memory distortion and fear reactions can lead a person to be stuck in the past physiologically and mentally.
A Poly not Binary Model: Polyvagal Theory
It has long been understood (and taught to BWY yoga teachers) that the ability of yoga to ‘switch off’ the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, fawn responses) and ‘switch on’ the para-sympathetic nervous system (rest and restore) can facilitate a calming of the brain stem and limbic system and engage the frontal lobes of the brain responsible for rational thought processes and problem solving, memory, impulse control and social interaction. Likewise, it is important to be aware that, central to trauma-sensitive yoga is an understanding the role of the vagus nerve and the Polyvagal Theory[ix]of Dr Porges who explains ‘the body, including the neural regulation of skeletal muscle, functions differently when in a state of safety. In this state, ventral vagal pathways coordinate the autonomic nervous system’.[x] It is not difficult to see the relevance of yoga when he alerts to the fact that ‘[t] he trick to restoring self-regulating vagal function is to do something to get ourselves grounded again, to come back to our senses, be in our body and return to the here and now’.[xi] Polyvagal Theory has put forward this ground-breaking model which deepens our understanding and an efflorescence of evidence-based yoga research has ensued.[xii]This model of the autonomic nervous system can be simplified for our understanding to consist of 3 key states:Please Click here to download more of this blog.