Trauma Self-Regulation Through “Touch”
I was inspired to write this post after recently teaching a friend, who has also experienced trauma some techniques for self-regulation. In individuals who have experienced trauma, including myself, there is a dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that occurs. The ANS controls our ability initiate a relaxation versus a stress response. According to Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Nerve Theory (PVT), in relation to trauma, there are 3 levels of functioning when dealing with stressful/challenging situations, and the degree of stress influences which level of functioning occurs based upon whether the situation is perceived as safe, dangerous or life threatening:
- “safe” (level 1) situations result in normal social engagement;
- “dangerous” (level 2) situations result in a hyper vigilant state, also known as “fight or flight”;
- “life-threatening” (level 3) situations result in immobilization, also known as “freeze or fold”; we completely dissociate.
Some examples would be as follows:
- Level 1 would appear as a normal conversation between 2 individuals.
- Level 2 would appear as an individual who starts to pick a fight or runs away from/avoids a particular situation.
- Level 3 would appear as stage fright, “freezing” with an inability to vocalize or perhaps even curling up in a ball.
When a traumatized individual is triggered by a situation, they will respond at a level of functioning consistent with the severity of the trigger and the trauma they have experienced. The good news is that there are ways to regulate this in order to remain present and embodied under stressful/challenging situations. I know this from firsthand experience and I will always be grateful for the Trauma Informed Yoga Training that I completed in 2017 with Genevieve Yellin of Sundara Yoga Therapy.
There are many ways to self-regulate by engaging the parasympathetic response. Each of these ways works through a form of touch that I have found to be a key ingredient in my own healing. I’ll cover some easy to remember ones here that can be used out in public. First, lets take a moment to consider homonculus man, who is a representation of the anatomic areas of our body that have high sensory innervation, in other words a large number of sensory nerves in the area. This is important because these areas will have a faster feedback response from the somatosensory cortex in the brain, the area that interprets and processes all sensory stimuli. Here he is:
He’s cute, right? As you can see, the areas of highest sensory innvervation include: face, eyes, lips, tongue, hands, fingertips, toes and feet. Ears and nose are also highly sensitive areas, though not well visualized here. When an individual is triggered by a stressful/challenging situation we know that focusing on these areas of the body will calm and soothe because of the large number of sensory nerves each contains.
Here are just a few of the things that you can do or help a loved one to do when triggered:
- rub or clap your hands together
- touch the tips of your fingers one at a time to tip of your thumb (both hands at the same time)
- balance on one leg
- gently bite your lip(s) – the key word here is GENTLY
- rub your finger across your lip briskly until you feel friction
- lick your lips
- rub the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth
- massage your hands or feet
- rub your face
- pull on or rub your ears
I have used many, if not all, of these techniques for myself with great success in the grocery store, at the post office, while sitting in traffic or out with friends. Please enjoy these tools for yourself and your loved ones in your moments of need.