By Dr Swami Shankardev Saraswati and originally published on Big Shakti.com
Yoga, relaxation, and meditation are powerful tools that are now being used by clinicians to help patients gain control over the residue of past trauma and return to being the master of their own lives.
They have shown that along with talking therapies and the appropriate use of drugs that dampen hyperactive alarm systems, traumatic imprints from the past can be transformed by having embodied experiences that directly contradict the helplessness, rage, and collapse that are part of trauma.
Embodied experiences deal directly with traumatic memories that are held in the body. This is achieved by using systems, such as yoga and meditation, that build feelings of relaxation, of being grounded and safe, of being able to trust the present moment, and thereby enable you to restore your ability for connection and joy. As a result, the old traumatic memories are stripped of their emotional intensity so that you are freed from the past and are thereby able to regain a degree of self-mastery.
All the knowledge in the world is not going to help you unless you develop the skill of embodied relaxation. Without developing relaxation your body will remain stuck in tension and hypervigilance, and feelings of relaxation, safety and intimacy will be vague memories.
Porges polyvagal theory
Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D. is Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University where he is the founding director of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium.
He is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland.
In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of our physiological state, our body, in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders.
The old view
Prior to the work of Porges, our autonomic nervous system was thought to be divided into two main parts. One handles stress, the sympathetic nervous system with its fight or flight response, and one that handles relaxation, the parasympathetic nervous system with its rest and digest, and stay and play response.
The parasympathetic system is controlled mainly by the vagus nerve, which travels through the body controlling the heart, lungs and digestive system. The word vagus means wandering in Latin and is the root of English words vagrant and vagabond.
The new view
Porges work showed us that we actually have three parts of the autonomic nervous system, that the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve have two parts:
- one that is in charge of social engagement, connection, and safety, the ventral vagus,
- and one that is involved in managing unavoidable and intolerable shock and trauma, the dorsal vagus.
Note: Ventral means closer to the front of the body and dorsal means further back.
This new understanding of how the autonomic nervous system works is shown in this diagram by Ruby Jo Walker
How this works is, we want to spend as much time as possible in the green zone, relaxed, grounded, present, joyous, open, compassionate and mindful. However, day to day stresses, represented by the squiggly line, takes us into the mild stress zone (red) until we can get back to a more relaxed state.
If stress builds up, then we turn on the fight and flight response and either travel up the fear axis towards anxiety and panic, or along the anger axis, towards frustration, irritation, and rage.
If we experience some kind of trauma and stress spirals out of control we move into the blue zone, governed by the dorsal vagus. Here we move through the stages of feeling helpless and overwhelmed, depressed, numb, and dissociated. This can lead to a frozen state in which we lose our self-awareness and spiral into shame and a sense of hopelessness.
In order to get out of this state, we need to be able to regain a degree of self-awareness and regain our ability to self-regulate. The combination of self-awareness and self-regulation enable us to restore a degree of balance and harmony, and the foundation of this process is relaxation. The deep relaxation that enables you to handle old traumas held in the body in contracted states is not as simple as it sounds. It requires theory, understanding, and practice.
Relaxation is a skill that requires repetition to attain mastery so that when you are facing your old traumas you can remain relaxed, grounded and aware. Only then can you digest and metabolize the old trauma, reaping the wisdom inherent in the experience and removing the old pain and suffering.
Dr Swami Shankardev will visiting Manly Yoga on the 26 October titled The Liberating Journey from Ego to Self – from Chaos to Order for bookings and further information click here.