I have been reading a new book by Stephen Porges, called Poly Vagal Safety. It covers lots of different knowledge about how we detect stress and feelings of threat. Without going into the theory in too much detail, one of the things that Porges is known for is creating of the word ‘neuroception’, which defines the ability for our bodies to detect danger and feelings of threat before we come into conscious awareness that something is off.To explain this more, interoception skills are where we notice body sensations; we might be aware when our body is feeling anxious, and we may go into a fight or flight response. Neuroception means that we can still be experiencing responses to threat when we are unaware of the signals or causes, and have no memory of the events (this is particularly true for young children, where they may have no memory or language for events, but their bodies and brains store and recall trauma). So, as an adult there will be issues with threat response, but an inability to put a finger on why.
Some people may experience this as a ‘gut feeling’ – as intuition that something is off, but they are not aware of any clear signals or obvious indicators of threat. Others have no conscious awareness, but their body has detected something. Sometimes in this instance their body moves into a shutdown response, or even into states like disassociating, panic attacks and fainting.
Thinking about trauma, and the responses our bodies have to feelings of being unsafe, could potentially be a trigger point for the individual. The sense of being on full alert mode has not left. So, what does this mean for the individual, both physically and mentally?
Acknowledging what happens to humans when they are in prolonged situations of stress is important. We know that prolonged exposure to stress increases cortisol and adrenalin in the body, putting us at increased risk of anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, muscle tension, heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep problems, weight gain and memory and concentration impairment – and that isn’t an exhaustive list! The short and long term impacts of stress on our bodies can lead to chronic illnesses, increased risk of life limiting diseases, and significant trauma.
Whilst it may be unclear whether an individual does have PTSD, we would do well to assume that certain situations may leave the individual experiencing symptoms related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In thinking about this ongoing exposure to stress and anxiety, there are some steps we can take to reduce the likelihood of a trauma response:
- Acknowledge it – and be aware of the possibility of negative instinctive responses or increased stress
- Take a pause or break from any work or important tasks you’re involved with
- Make time to relax and focus on self-care
- Have compassion for the individual in this situation (including yourself)
- Practice controlled and active mindfulness and mindful breathing
- Explore any feelings and thoughts through journaling/art
- Find reasons for gratitude throughout the day
- Avoid alcohol – which doesn’t cheer you up, it just makes whatever you’re already feeling seem bigger, so stress and anxiety will increase
- Speak to a friend or loved one, or someone you trust
- Get outdoors
Finding a way to distance yourself from the stressor or to just ground yourself in the moment helps to put things into perspective, and gives your body and mind time to recognise that you are safe and in control.
If you would like more support and a safe space to speak about your experiences, and to process past trauma, I can help; contact me through this website, through Facebook, LinkedIn or email on firstname.lastname@example.org, or call me on 07849 037095 (you can also message or call via WhatsApp on the same number, and I offer video sessions for those who are still unable to meet in person) I may not be able to answer right away, if I am in session, but please leave me a message and as soon as I’m able to, I will respond.