Our psyches are deeply layered with the experiences we have encountered along life’s path, beginning in utero. Some of those experiences have left a more indelible mark than others, particularly those highly stressful and/or traumatic in nature. Emerging research in the growing field of psychoneuroimmunology is revealing, more specifically, how such experiences can grab a negative stronghold upon us, and accordingly, what measures are most effective in releasing that stronghold.
As the intricacies of the mind-body connection become better understood, it is increasingly apparent that major stressors in our lives often produce negative physical and emotional results. It has long been known that excess cortisol in the body brought about by stress contributes to many health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and blood sugar imbalances.
What has been less fully understood is just how many other health conditions are related to such stressors and what the underlying processes are. Traumatic events and unrelenting stress can get our bodies stuck in the fight, flight or freeze mode — an adaptive reaction intended to be a short-term coping response. Children are noted to be particularly susceptible to this, especially when very young, as they have fewer coping mechanisms and little or no verbal abilities to express what they are experiencing. Consequently, many researchers feel children internalize it more deeply at the subconscious level, and perhaps even at a cellular level.
The results of this are known to be immobilizing in many ways, causing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in the brain to become dysregulated, over-activating the vagus nerve and disrupting the central nervous, endocrine and immune systems. This often sets many imbalances in motion, contributing to endocrine disorders, disrupted energy systems, abnormal body chemistry and inflammation — hence, the growing list of disorders having a possible causal link to these various dysregulations.
Deciphering these complex interactions between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems is the focus of psychoneuroimmunology. The vagus nerve has been receiving much attention lately in this field since it is seen as the main pathway of the mind-body connection, running from the brainstem to the abdomen. Research indicates that by calming the autonomic functioning of the vagus nerve, many systems within the body are calmed, allowing the body to release much tension, thereby helping to balance dysregulation.
Slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing is frequently mentioned as an effective technique for relaxing the vagus nerve, but many other therapies are also recommended. Any of the therapies that calm and balance energy within the body are seen as beneficial. Some of the ones frequently mentioned are yoga, neurofeedback, biofeedback, acupuncture, eYe Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), eMotional Freedom Technique (EFT) tapping, Cranial Sacral Therapy, Reiki, mindfulness meditation, singing/humming/chanting, sound therapy, and light sound brain wave entrainment.
Check out some of the resources listed with this article for a good place to begin. They will offer more background information to provide a clearer sense of what type of professional and which therapy feel like the right fit. More helpful information is available online, particularly at Sounds True (www.soundstrue.com), which offers many helpful audio selections, notably the work of psychologist Peter Levine on healing trauma.
This is critical information for everyone, especially those in the medical and helping professions, and for those who contend with challenging health conditions. This is a new paradigm of awareness to consider when identifying and treating health challenges. Too often treatments and medications prescribed for medical conditions are merely surface healing attempts that do not address the root, systemic origin of the condition.
To realize our optimal health and personal best, each of us needs to take a deep look at the emotional baggage we have been gathering along our life’s path and find ways to discard and heal that which does not serve us well. The results are often profound. Additionally, research cites the critical importance of encouraging supportive living environments, free of violence and abuse, especially for our children.
- Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease (Basic Books), by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley2.
- In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma (North Atlantic Books), by Peter Levine.
- When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection (John Wiley), by Gabor Mate.
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Viking), by Bessell Van Der Kolk.