"I'm either super anxious, or I'm numb" - How Trauma Impacts the Body
For those who have endured trauma in any capacity, and particularly for those who have experienced years of childhood trauma, the impact reaches far beyond the visible scars. It effects the body in ways that we cannot always see. Mental health professionals specializing in developmental trauma work with clients to understand how traumatic experiences from long ago can shape their bodily responses even now, in adolescence or adulthood. Often, our bodies are left feeling either extremely anxious, or extremely numb after trauma.
Think of your nervous system as a conductor, harmonizing the intricate melodies of our emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations. The autonomic nervous system (ANS), in particular, is responsible for regulating involuntary bodily functions like heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate. This is why after trauma, we often see people who experience problems eating, stomach issues, breathing problems, panic attacks, and so many other somatic situations that feel totally out of our control.
Hyperarousal: Riding the Storm
Back to the musical analogies - Imagine a symphony where the tempo suddenly accelerates, the volume intensifies, and the instruments play with a heightened sense of urgency. This is the essence of hyperarousal, a state where the nervous system is on high alert. In the context of trauma, hyperarousal often manifests as:
Heightened Startle Response: Sudden, unexpected noises or movements can trigger an exaggerated startle response.
Persistent Anxiety: A constant undercurrent of anxiety, as if anticipating a threat that may never actually happen.
Difficulty Relaxing: Challenges in winding down, even in safe environments, due to an ever-present sense of danger.
For individuals who have experienced developmental trauma, hyperarousal can become a default setting, as the nervous system remains vigilant, ready to react to any perceived threat. At one point, being hyperaware is what protected you and your brain and body got good at being this way.
Hypoarousal: Navigating Calm Waters
On the other end of the spectrum lies hypoarousal, a state where the nervous system slows down, similar to a calm sea. However, this isn't peaceful relaxation; it's a numbness, or a disconnection from the present moment. Signs of hypoarousal may include:
Emotional Numbness: Difficulty accessing or expressing emotions, creating a sense of emotional flatness.
Fatigue and Apathy: An overwhelming sense of fatigue and disinterest, as if navigating through life in a daze.
Difficulty Concentrating: Challenges in focusing on tasks or staying engaged in conversations.
Individuals experiencing hypoarousal may find it difficult to connect with their emotions or the world around them, which can lead to a barrier in creating meaningful connections in or engagement with life.
Trauma, and particularly developmental trauma, creates an environment that the nervous system must learn to navigate. This often either leads to states of hyperarousal or hypoarousal.
The Roots of Hyperarousal: A Reactive Symphony
Early, adverse childhood experiences disrupt the development of a secure sense of self and safety. For those who have experienced neglect, abuse, or consistent unpredictability in their early years, hyperarousal becomes a coping mechanism. The nervous system learns to be in a perpetual state of readiness, a survival strategy honed in response to an environment perceived as threatening.
In the context of developmental trauma, hyperarousal may serve as a defense mechanism—an adaptive response that helped navigate a chaotic or unsafe upbringing. However, when carried into adulthood, this heightened state of alertness can hinder the ability to form secure connections and experience life with a sense of ease.
The Depths of Hypoarousal: A Protective Retreat
On the flip side, hypoarousal can be seen as a protective retreat. When the environment is consistently overwhelming or devoid of reliable caregiving, the nervous system may adapt by slowing down, creating a buffer against the intensity of the outside world. For individuals who experienced neglect or emotional unavailability during critical developmental stages, hypoarousal can become a shield—a way to navigate a world that feels unsafe or unpredictable.
Hypoarousal, while initially a survival strategy, can evolve into a hindrance when it interferes with the ability to engage with life fully. The numbness that once protected can become a barrier to forming meaningful connections and experiencing the richness of the human experience.
The Therapist's Role: Guiding Through the Arousal Landscape
As a therapist specializing in developmental trauma, understanding the subtle nuances of hyperarousal and hypoarousal is pivotal. It's about recognizing that the nervous system responses are not weaknesses or flaws but adaptive strategies forged in the crucible of survival. Here's how therapists can guide individuals through the arousal landscape:
Creating a Safe Space: Begin by establishing a therapeutic environment that communicates safety and non-judgment. This lays the foundation for individuals to explore their arousal patterns without fear of criticism.
Psychoeducation: Offer clear, accessible explanations of the nervous system's role and how trauma can shape arousal patterns. This helps demystify the experience, empowering individuals with knowledge about their own responses.
Mindfulness and Grounding Techniques: Introduce mindfulness and grounding techniques to help individuals anchor themselves in the present moment. These practices can be powerful tools for managing both hyperarousal and hypoarousal.
Building Emotional Regulation Skills: Work collaboratively to develop emotional regulation skills. This may include identifying triggers, exploring coping mechanisms, and gradually expanding the emotional window to tolerate a broader range of feelings.
Exploring Attachment Patterns: Dive into attachment patterns to understand how early relationships shaped the nervous system's response to connection and vulnerability. This exploration can unveil the roots of hyperarousal or hypoarousal.
Encouraging Self-Compassion: Foster a sense of self-compassion by reframing arousal patterns as adaptive responses to challenging circumstances. Encourage individuals to acknowledge the resilience embedded in their survival strategies.
Navigating the Spectrum: Recognize that individuals may oscillate between hyperarousal and hypoarousal, depending on the context and triggers. Validate the fluidity of these responses and work on building flexibility.
Helping individuals navigate the waves of hyperarousal and hypoarousal extends beyond the therapy room. Mental health professionals that specialize in this work fold in a mixture of these practices:
Grounding Techniques: Teach simple grounding exercises, such as mindful breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or using sensory cues like touch or smell to anchor oneself in the present moment.
Mindful Movement: Encourage activities that involve mindful movement, such as yoga or tai chi. These practices can help regulate the nervous system and reconnect the mind with the body.
Self-Care Rituals: Collaborate on developing self-care rituals tailored to individual preferences. This could include activities that bring a sense of joy, relaxation, or fulfillment.
Setting Realistic Boundaries: Work on establishing realistic boundaries that protect against overwhelming stimuli. Empower individuals to communicate their needs effectively and advocate
Working with a therapist specializing in trauma, particularly developmental trauma for those wounded by deeply rooted injuries of the past, know that your experience as a human in this world can almost literally feel like a rollercoaster.