Working in the mental health field with clients who have experienced trauma throughout their life, it is not uncommon to witness them express their frustration, mixed with deep-rooted shame when reflecting on their behaviors, thoughts, feelings and defense responses.
This shame stems from not understanding what is going on internally, and I repeatedly get asked questions like, “Is something wrong with me?” or “Why am I like this?”
My response to these questions always begins with validating their experience and honoring how human they are to even feel that way. Most people who don’t understand the neuroscience of trauma will repeatedly blame themselves or others, missing out on the reality of how their brain and body are constantly working together to keep them safe.
At the Lincoln Center for Family and Youth, I work as a Mobile Art Therapist. We strive to make therapy accessible to clients by taking it to them instead of them coming to us all the time.
Art has been proven to help those in therapy and with trauma to express and process their feelings and experiences, and I’m passionate about helping my clients understand how their trauma has impacted them and how they can grow, overcome, and reach their life goals.
When educating my clients on the neuroscience of trauma, I begin by explaining the Polyvagal Theory. This theory emphasizes the vagus nerve, which operates on three neural circuit systems that influence rest and digestion, fight/flight response, and the freeze response.
This special nerve sometimes goes by the name wandering nerve or soul nerve and activates our bodily structures connecting the brainstem, pharynx, heart, lungs, stomach, gut, and spine.
The vagus nerve is connected to part of our brain that does not use reasoning as its primary tool for perceiving the world. This part of the brain is the oldest and targets our flight/fight defense systems.
Essentially, our nervous system simply functions as a tool to detect danger, thus, it is important to remember and understand that our decisions are not voluntary. When you engage in a trauma response, your body and brain are simply doing their job to keep you safe and alive, despite how illogical the response may seem in the moment.
For people who experienced a lot of trauma, whether your defense mechanism is to shut down, get excited, it takes a lot of patience, understanding, and compassion to stay curious and observant with yourself.
Trauma work is not just processing the event but rather, focusing on how your brain and body are processing current situations and exploring tools to regain control of your defense systems.
Self-compassion is one of many powerful tools that helps my clients sit through the impulses that rise as a result of a trigger, and work to understand why they engage in certain behaviors.
Compassion can activate our vagus system, which helps us stay grounded and connected to our bodies. By understanding how you navigate the world, and respond to triggers as a result of trauma, it becomes easier to make space for those responses.
If we continue to judge our defense systems, we perpetuate pain and suffering and will most likely repeat the behaviors that are no longer serving us.
The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC) is a social enterprise company serving the Greater Philadelphia Area. Founded in 1970 by a behavioral health hospital, TLC is an entrepreneurial nonprofit providing innovative education, coaching, and counseling services to individuals and families, as well as grant writing and management services for school districts and universities.