About Self Regulation
Stress and trauma can lead to difficulties regulating emotions, reactions, and body sensations.
Current psychophysiological and neurobiological research emphasizes that automatic or unconscious physiological processes are the driving force behind dysfunctional patterns, reactions, behaviours and many physiological complaints. Overwhelming and chronicly stressful events in one's life can result in neurophysiological changes that impacts the most basic ways a person functions in the world and in relationships.
According to Peter Levine, the creator of Somatic Experiencing therapy, a healthy, or regulated autonomic nervous system exhibits continuous, gentle oscillations between its sympathetic (activating, energizing) and parasympathetic (relaxing) branches. This usually happens outside of our awareness, although at times we may choose to activate one system over the other (ie – parasympathetic dominance of meditative states, or the sympathetic dominance of athletic pursuits). A healthy autonomic nervous system is one that is in balance and can return to a regulated state after dysregulating circumstances (ie – you will feel an adrenalin surge with an increase in your heart rate and respirations after a "near miss" at a crosswalk, but will soon return to normal as you realize you are unhurt). The Canadian Foundation for Trauma Research and Education refers to this process as self regulation.
The natural alternating between the two parasympathetic pathways (the ventral vagal controls social connection and the polyvage controls freeze or dissociation reactions) and sympathetic pathway (for fight or flight reactions) is the basis self regulation. (See Stephen Porges's research for information on this) When someone experiences a perceived threat, the automatic response of the nervous system is to try to socially connect to another person to reduce the fear. Think of a toddler falling and running to Mum for support afterwards. If this is unsuccessful to alleviate the perceived threat then there is a automatic fight or flight response controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. If the toddler cannot get comfort from Mum it may have a tantrum. If this is not possible or is thwarted by circumstances, then an automatic freeze response can follow. If that toddler chronically received no help or support from either reaching out or tantrumming, then it's nervous system recognizes that the toddler is on its own and it often moves into freeze physiology to manage the stress.
Embodied or somatic trauma therapy recognizes that when the autonomic fight and flight responses are thwarted or left incomplete, the activation or "energy" of that powerful nervous system response can become "trapped" within the nervous system. What results can appear to be exaggerated fight or flights responses (extreme reactivity, hyperstartle responses, hypervigilance, aggressiveness, literal and figurative running away, etc.) Trapped activation that has no safe or effective outlet can also appear as an exaggerated or chronic freeze response (lack of concentration, depression, lethargy, feelings of things being unreal, etc.) In other words, trauma can impact human's instinctual responses and result in these fight, flight or freeze responses remaining in a chronically "on" position. This is disrupted self regulation or dysregulation. The individual's mind/body is unable to self regulate their nervous system back to a less reactive position. This constant activation in the brain, especially in the amygdala, results in increased reactivity to threatening or even novel situation. This is called kindling.