How Trauma Operates In The Brain and Body


How trauma operates in the brain & body


The cortex is our thinking brain.

We think things through and decide how to act. The cortex shuts down the service of survival so that our instincts can take over in order to act to save our lives. That is a sophisticated, adaptive function that humans have developed over centuries.

When trauma is unresolved, our system is still prepared to respond to the trauma. It might be harder to think clearly especially when we are faced with repeated triggers such as driving after a car accident. We are wired for survival. It is better to mistake a stick for a snake if we’ve had past experience with those threats. For example driving might become a frightening, overwhelming experience that feels like being on ‘red alert’. 

The amygdala fires (stress centres of the brain) when we are threatened and our instincts take over. This is when our cortex, the executive brain shuts down. It is often only after that happens that we feel afraid. Our instincts prime the fear.

How Trauma Shows up

Are we like this all the time or only when triggered?

Some people, with challenging lives, live in dysregulation. If you don’t notice, you can’t regulate, and it gets to a certain point when it’s too difficult to reduce arousal and the primitive responses take over most of the time.

Most of us have triggers that will send our arousal to extreme levels. Triggers remind us of past threat. For example, you might tense when you see a police car or a big dog, or you might suddenly feel tense but don’t know why.

Trauma first and foremost effects the body. Thinking your way out does not work. Emotions shows up in our body, out of our awareness often showing up in stressful ways such as racing heart or tight chest.

When arousal starts to go up, if we can be mindful of those signals, we have an opportunity to regulate ourselves back to normal quickly by connecting with our bodies.

The integrated fields of Energy Psychology which offer regulatory self-care interventions such as Emotional Freedom Techniques or Heart Assisted Therapy are very effective for trauma care and self regulation.

These techniques combine touch, talk and nervous system (vagal tone) regulation which when used properly reduce arousal and quickly regulate the system again.



We need to be grounded and contained to think clearly.  The rush to be normal after challenging events is a form of structural dissociation, which keeps us functioning.However, it is not a grounded or present state of being.

After trauma we just want to get on with normal life, while another other part of us is still holding the trauma, even when it’s over. To be fully recovered and be present again with the world (and our feelings) we have to tend the wounds first.

However we cut ourselves off from our emotions in key ways in order to ‘get on with life’. In extreme events if we didn’t do this life would be intolerable. However we often find ways to justify staying disconnected and justify keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’. 


Can we cope in emergencies?

  • It is essential that we learn how to contain our extreme reactions. If we don’t we could lose our lives e.g. when driving.
  • Every person has to find what works for them, there is not a one size fits all solution.
  • We can learn regulation skills so that we don’t get lost in extreme reactions.
  • If we can refocus mindful attention on the body it is often easier to let a negative thought go. We let the somatic resource effect the nervous system.  For a traumatised person with a tight diaphragm a deep breath is hard, but can be developed.
  • However, although it is simple, it is not speedy. A gentle pace is required to change our trigger responses. 

How do I start?


We often expect useful solutions to be more sophisticated, but using the doorway of the body can be incredibly effective in trauma recovery. Taking physical action in the moment, such as a hand on the chest, lengthening the spine, feeling the feet on the ground or containing with a self-hug can help. Additionally learning to use somatic techniques such as EFT Tapping or TRE Shaking have helped thousands around the world.

Keep it simple. Do something to move the body. Any action we can take, mitigates the effect of trauma. Simple actions do SOMETHING….and that is a start.

Bouncing ball, taking a walk, talking on the phone, kitchen disco, yoga, reaching out, volunteering taking some action to help others, protest responsibly, help a neighbour, write a blog post, asking what can I do today for myself? As well as paying deep attention to friendship, music, art etc, the things that fulfil us.

The package of modalities that I teach which include Emotional Freedom Techniques, Heart Assisted Therapy and Trauma Release Exercises are extremely effective doorways that I have found to help reduce the acid sting of trauma.

Polyvagal Theory

Developed by Dr Stephen Porges, polyvagal theory explains the vital importance of the vagus nerve in our understanding of trauma, and how to effectively treat it.

Prior to his discovery we used to think that the nervous system had two main responses – activation and relaxation.

Porges discovered that we actually have 3 well defined neural circuits that follow our evolutionary history. These circuits support:

  • Social engagement ‘feeling safe and happy to connect’ (ventral vagal responses)
  • Mobilisation (fight/flight/excitement – taking action)
  • Immobilisation (dorsal vagal freeze & disconnection)

Mammals use the new ventral circuits contained in the face/heart connection convey to others we are safe to approach. This separates our circuits from those of reptiles.

When we are challenged (frightened/upset) we mobilise or shut down and it turns off this ventral vagal connection.


Understanding Vagal Tone

Vagal tone is a clinical measurement that is calculated by tracking breathing rate alongside heart rate. The greater the difference between inhalation heart rate and exhalation heart rate the higher the vagal tone.

When vagal tone is high, this means the body can regulate quickly after experiencing a stressful incident. This means that blood glucose levels are more regulated which reduces the likelihood of stroke, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Low vagal tone has been connected to increased, chronic inflammation and serious disease.


The vagus nerve

  • The vagus it is a conduit cable that connects our body with our brain.
  • The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve that exits from the brain-stem goes to many of our organs.
  • It is the largest nerve that travels throughout the body.
  • Think of the vagus as a thick electrical cable where 80% of its fibres are sensory sending information from the organs to the brain.

The vagus is the portal to the brain from the periphery of the body and is constantly sending us information about what feels safe.

It regulates organs above and below the diaphragm and communicates the status of these primary organs. When you feel good the vagus conveys that you are in a good state, when you feel bad (such as nausea) it conveys that too.

The definition of the word vagus is ‘wandering’ and it wanders through our body via two main branches.

  • The ventral branch above the diaphragm is myelinated (has a protective sheath of fat which means it sends messages quickly)
  • and the dorsal branch which is mainly below the diaphragm and is unmyelinated (works slowly)

We understand that mammals come from reptiles, but we now know that our neural circuits have adapted to create the mammalian ventral vagal pathway which is located above the diaphragm.

This is linked to the nerves that regulate the heart, lungs, face, neck and head. This means that the breath, heart rate, face, eyes, ears and neck become a portal to help us view health AND emotional wellbeing.

A flat and unresponsive face often indicates a lack of emotional connection and wellbeing and might indicate that the dorsal vagal (freeze/shutdown) response is dominating the system. This is not the optimal zone for any kind treatment to work effectively.

How does Polyvagal Theory help us?

Facial expressions, eye movements and hearing are a portal that tell us the status of our physical and mental condition. Porges offers us a different doorway to help ourselves find wellness – via finding safety in the body.

He offers to us that often the feeling of safety IS the core treatment.

Sometimes words are not enough. When we don’t feel safe we cannot engage with life or any kind of therapy.

With the ventral vagal circuits turned on we can find the solutions to emotional and physical wellbeing.