What does trauma feel like from the inside? Polyvagal Theory can help you understand the physiology of trauma reactions, and to recognize the internal experience that goes with it.
I lose all self-control when I see a weed. Like an ordinarily obedient dog who bolts when he spots a squirrel—yanking your arm out of its socket in the process—my inner weeder ditches all obligations on the spot, throws away the clock, and starts pulling.
This happened recently when I came out of the house for a walk. What was this green stuff all over the garden? A new weed I hadn’t seen before, with tiny white flowers, had sprung up and bloomed virtually overnight.
Ten minutes later, I had removed all these intruders from the garden. Only then did I think, “Wow, these weeds would have made a perfect visual metaphor for trauma. And I just pulled them all up.”
Fortunately, I had missed a straggler. It was hiding under the daffodils, where you could barely see it. This fits right in with the trauma metaphor, because trauma can be tricky to spot, yet potentially pervasive in its effects. Left unaddressed, trauma tends to get worse. And to weed it out, you have to be doggedly persistent and thorough.
Many sensitive people carry some level of trauma. If you are sensitive, you’ll benefit from familiarizing yourself with the signs of trauma. Knowing how it feels from the inside, and how to spot it through its effects on your life on the outside, you will be empowered to get the support you need to heal trauma.
Understanding the neurophysiology of trauma
Polyvagal Theory (PVT) gives us a highly useful framework to understand the mechanisms of trauma and its effects on the autonomic nervous system. PVT was developed by psychiatrist Stephen Porges. Porges writes for his fellow scientists, resulting in passages like this one:
As the source nuclei of the primary vagal efferent pathways regulating the heart shifted from the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus in reptiles to the nucleus ambiguus in mammals, a face–heart connection evolved with emergent properties of a social engagement system that would enable social interactions to regulate visceral state.
Fortunately for laypersons like me, psychotherapist Deb Dana has translated PVT for the general audience. In The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, she uses the metaphor of a ladder to explain the three key nervous system states outlined in PVT.
When you are feeling calm, safe, and peaceful, you are at the top of the ladder, in ventral vagal mode. The sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of your nervous system are optimally balanced. You are said to be self-regulated.
If you feel threatened, challenged, or unsafe, you move down the ladder towards the state we call fight or flight. As your sympathetic nervous system moves into dominance, your body stiffens. Your cheeks flush. Your pulse speeds up. You perspire more, and your vision narrows.
In extreme situations, if you find yourself in a situation where you can neither get away nor defend yourself, your nervous system may get so overwhelmed that you descend to the bottom of the ladder. In this freeze state—called dorsal-vagal collapse in PVT—you may feel hopeless, helpless, small, overwhelmed, alone, numb, sleepy, frozen, or immobilized.
When sympathetic activation becomes chronic
If your nervous system is healthy and flexible, you can move from the calm of the ventral vagal state into heightened activation, then calm down again relatively quickly. But if you’ve experienced trauma, the shift back to calm may never happen. As Deb Dana puts it (p. xvii),
Clients with trauma histories often experience more intense, extreme autonomic responses, which affects their ability to regulate and feel safe in relationships.
When these intense autonomic responses become chronic, we become accustomed to living in an activated state. I vividly remember going to an Alexander Technique class in college and floating out two hours later, thinking, “I didn’t know it was possible to feel this relaxed.” Caught up in the pressure of music school, I had forgotten what it was like to feel calm. This brings up an important question:
How can you tell where you are on the ladder?
Can you tell what state you are in, so you don’t unknowingly tolerate an unhealthy level of stress? Great question. Each of the three states on the “ladder” has certain physical sensations and emotions associated with it, and Deb Dana’s books are designed to support you in recognizing these characteristic markers.
You certainly can begin to recognize how those feel in your body. However, this takes clear intention and focused effort. Why? Because the further you go down the ladder, the less access you have to your prefrontal cortex. As a result, your ability to notice your own state of mind goes out the window.
That “aware you” is never entirely gone, though. You can cling to bits of it, especially if you leave behind what I call “mental sticky notes” for yourself. For example, when I get activated and start to fall down the ladder, my face gets stiff. So I have a mental sticky note taped to the inside of my forehead that says, “When you are discussing a stressful subject with Duke (my partner), and you feel your face getting stiff, take a time out.”
If your awareness of the three positions on the ladder is murky, review the above section about the neurophysiology of trauma. Then take a look at Deb Dana’s short, accessible article, A Beginner’s Guide to Polyvagal Theory, which will give you heightened awareness of your physiological state as you go through your day.
In addition, take time to recall moments of great stress. How did you typically feel and react? You will begin to see patterns. Use these to create mental sticky notes for yourself. Along the way, these four facts can help you spot and get support for any trauma you may have experienced as a sensitive person.
1—The causes of trauma can be subtle
HSPs can struggle with a kind of subtle trauma, caused not by any dramatic event but by a chronic sense of being different and therefore “not-OK.” In this case you might not think to apply the word “trauma” to your experience.
However, your body has its own internal sense of rightness, which will “ping” you constantly if something isn’t right. If the intensity of your emotional reaction in certain situations feels “off” to you—beyond the normal intensity you’d expect in yourself as an HSP—trust your inner sense and get support if you need it.
2—Trauma creates vigilance, which causes fatigue
Vigilance is a near-universal symptom of trauma. Yet, like my heightened stress in college, you can easily miss spotting it: you may simply think this is “the way things are.” Low-level vigilance can take the form of—
- Always feeling like there is something you should be doing that you aren’t doing
- Chronic harsh self-criticism
- Constantly monitoring others around you
Whatever form it takes, vigilance is exhausting. If you find yourself feeling tired all the time, or if you lack energy to do the things you love to do, consider whether chronic vigilance might be leaving you drained.
3—Unaddressed trauma tends to get worse
Trauma is like that white weed in my garden, which can rapidly re-seed and spread itself. When you are activated, everything and everyone appears less safe and more threatening. These perceptions, even though they may be inaccurate, act to reinforce your fears, creating a vicious cycle.
When you learn to recognize in yourself the signs of traumatic nervous system activation, you empower yourself to take action to stop this downward spiral. You can take time to calm down when you realize you are in an activated state. And you can learn, with support if necessary, how to re-regulate your nervous system.
4—Traumatized parts in you need to be approached with great care
In my years of inner work and client work with traumatized parts, I’ve learned that pushing to heal trauma does not work. It’s like breaking off the visible part of a weed and leaving the roots in the ground. Though you may get momentary relief, the problem has merely gone underground.
To heal trauma, you need to get to the root. Accordingly, as you approach working with a part of you that holds trauma, remember this key rule: you can only go as fast as your slowest part. The parts holding trauma will nearly always be the slowest.
To go slowly, you may first need to sit with a second part of you that wants to push the process because it is desperate for you to get relief from the anxiety, fatigue, and vigilance caused by the traumatized part. You may also encounter a third part that is afraid to enter the process at all, wanting to protect you from the despair you might feel if you can’t get relief.
You need to establish an inner relationship with all these parts, and any others that show up. This requires you to hold each one with radical acceptance and care. The work is not easy: it is delicate and painstaking.
However, with patience and presence, you can get to the root of the trauma, where deep healing can take place. The energy and joy you recapture will repay your effort many times over.
Image: Emily Agnew 2021