Resilience and Post Traumatic Growth
How do you respond to trauma and challenging life situations? There is so much trauma in the world, and so much healing that needs done from it. So much now there’s a type of yoga called trauma informed yoga.
Most people don’t come to yoga because they see the light, they come to yoga because they feel the heat — the burn of physical or emotional pain. I’ve seen a lot of people in my classes with emotional pain from traumas.
This reflects some of the polyvagal research I did when I was studying the vagus nerve and some Positive Psychology theories I learned in my Functional Medicine health coach certification (FMCA).
What I’ve learned through Positive Psychology and the 5 components that help people grow after Trauma.
While much of this research of how to move on after trauma was done on veterans, whether one served in a war or not there’s still a lot of trauma. It’s a VUCA world; the world is full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. How do we deal?
Some people are more naturally resilient to life challenges; such as job loss, disappointment, divorce, having to relocate. But there are life circumstances that sometimes just knock one down. How do we come back?
Resilience is the psychological ability to bounce back quickly after being knocked down by an adversity. I’m referring to small t traumas here. Highly resilient people seem to be able to change course and move forward.
People who naturally have more resilience usually have a positive attitude in general — they are more optimistic, they have the ability to regulate their emotions, and to see failure as helpful feedback.
Part of resilience is learning to be ok with making mistakes. There are many stories of famous authors, sports professionals, scientists, or other professionals who experienced being turned down with their projects or had a significant setback early in their career, and then went on to excel later.
Not only that, it seems that those who did fail early in their career tended to do better than those who did not, they went on to greater success than someone who had wins early in their career. It’s human to fail, everyone will fail spectacularly somewhere at least once in their life.
You can develop resilience by focusing on the points above; attitude, emotional regulation, and being ok with making mistakes. What about a big T Traumatic event that involves loss of a loved one or situations beyond making a mistake or failing. How do we recover?
This is called Post-Traumatic Growth, which entails the struggle it takes to overcome a traumatic event and the ability to reconstruct life. It’s a fairly new concept but was coined nearly three decades ago.
PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) was coined after the Vietnam war, it’s taken almost 30 years to study, research, and develop tools to not just recover, but experience growth after trauma.
For the most part there is not much difference between physical and emotional trauma, they are processed in the brain similarly. Whether trauma is physical or emotional, big T or little t, it’s all trauma.
Trauma responses are built into all of us, the familiar fight, flight, or freeze response from the vagus nerve is a physical, physiological response to protect ourselves from a threat we’re confronted with. But humans are intellectual too, part of failing to come back or grow after the trauma has to do with accepting life under new circumstances.
It’s a reconstruction process that has to occur because we don’t understand our environment as we once knew it. Our environment took us by surprise and doesn’t look familiar in the ways we’ve come to understand it. It’s like our map we’ve been developing since childhood is no longer helpful.
This produces an emotional response, a lack of understanding a world that now looks strange. This is a main cause of anxiety. Your alarm was tripped and now it keeps setting off, even though you’re not in danger.
It takes a new belief system to move forward, to navigate an unknown world. To reconstruct your world into something that allows you to move forward with a feeling of confidence, whether or not you can make sense of what happened. You have confidence that you know yourself, and you can navigate an unknown world. In your reconstruction you develop a way of being that goes beyond who you were before and what you were able to do before. You find an inner strength you didn’t know you have.
There’s no timeline for this. Some may develop a reconstructed core belief system out of necessity for survival and others may take years. In the early years its hard to make sense out of abuse or the premature loss of a loved one. The growth that develops isn’t due to the event, its in the aftermath of the event that growth occurs.
Resilience is bouncing back from an experience pretty much to exactly where you were, while post traumatic growth is something new that comes out of the experience. You are stronger and more confident than before the experience. You are now better equipped, and you have a better cognitive map.
Post traumatic growth does build resilience for tolerating events down the road.
There are five components from research that help people with post traumatic growth. This is based on research done at Boulder Crest Foundation by a team of researchers who interviewed many people who went through different kinds of traumatic events. The five components of post traumatic growth:
- Personal strength, more authentic. More resilient, self-reliant, confident, humbled.
- New possibilities, out of necessity many are confronted with having to change the trajectory of their life. New interests, new perspectives develop. Adaptability improves, one becomes open to more ways of being.
- Improved interpersonal relationships, feeling closer to people, more compassionate, more empathetic. They are better connected to community, they are comfortable to disclose about themselves, and as a result of that feel closer to other people. They know what its like to be in pain, and they understand other people who are in pain.
- Greater appreciation for life, or gratitude. Not taking things for granted. You have a clear sense of priorities.
- Spiritual growth, finding meaning and purpose in life, deeper faith, meaningful beliefs and philosophies.
Most do good in one or two of these areas, but struggle with other components.
Here is a link to a pdf file that takes you through few questions to see which of these areas you are stronger in and which areas you need more work in.
Here is a link to The Posttrautamic Growth Workbook.
Polyvagal Theory to recovering from Trauma
Stephen Porges, PhD coined the Polyvagal theory; a way to improve the function of the vagus nerve which will help recovery from trauma, and have the ability to ward off suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) after a traumatic event.
How well toned the vagus nerve is greatly influences resilience and the ability to grow after a trauma. We want a toned, strong vagus nerve. Think of your vagus nerve as a muscle you want to strengthen. The vagus nerve is what puts the brake on the stress response.
There are three parts to the vagus nerve, Dr. Steven Porges. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body going from the brainstem to gut and attaching to the senses and most of the organs. There is the upper vagus nerve, middle, and lower fibers and each part handles different responses in the body, hence the term polyvagal coined by Dr. Stephen Porges.
The lower fibers in the gut are about:
- Immobilization such as in times of extreme fright, or a life threatening situation where you can only play dead. This is the freeze response to extreme danger. These vagal fibers are below the diaphragm and are unmylenated, they send their information much slower. This is the lowest part of the vagus nerve, it is activated when we feel trapped and can’t escape the danger. We shut down to survive. But this state can be activated even when we are not in danger, this is why some people shut down when faced with stress, literally their vagus nerve slows heart rate enough to reduce blood flow so they can barely move. This happens sometimes post trauma, when you don’t want to face your new world.
If you do not learn how to recover from this low point, this is when it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. This part of our vagus nerve is known as our Dorsal Vagal Complex.
At times this response can provide stability, rest, or grounded-ness but it can also foster inertia, delusions, and ignorance if not balanced with activity and engaging in life.
This shut off valve can be useful to play dead in a life threatening situation, but in non-life threatening situations, to remain in this state will increase depression, anxiety, and down regulate your health in general leaving you feeling blah and disengaged with life. Depressed.
- The middle fibers are about Mobilization, such as the fight or flight response. These fibers are above the diaphragm and myelinated, they can communicate lickety-split fast to send the message quickly, this is why we can slam on our brakes in a split second. The brain is bypassed. Mobilization will stimulate the Sympathetic response from the SNS. The vagus nerve turns on the stress response when stress is necessary. This part of the vagus nerve is called Sympathetic, since it turns on the SNS.
This is the quality of energy; mobilize and activate, but also turbulence, and pain. It can positively activate movement, creativity and motivation. But it needs to be balanced with inward contemplation and rest. When not in balance it can activate pain, anger, greed, and agitation, in other words unnecessary stress.
- The last part of vagus nerve is about our social interaction and engagement; these fibers are the top most fibers of our Vagus nerve that connect to our eyes and facial expression. This is where our vagus nerve touches our voice box sensing the tone in our voice, senses the tone of our eyes, touches our ears (sensing the tone in others’ voices), and the corners of the mouth — our vagus nerve is what gives us facial expressions. This part of the vagus nerve is known as our Ventral Vagal Complex – activating Ventral Vagal Complex is the part of the vagus nerve we want to stimulate. When we are Ventral Vagal dominant we are happy, social, and engage with family and friends around us creating community and harmony.
When we are ventral vagal dominant we have lightness, clarity, harmony, lucidity, joy, and understanding. Imbalance can occur if one becomes dependent on feeling joy or happiness all the time, meaning you wear rose colored glasses and are not seeing what needs to be done in your life, or where you need to step up to a challenge.
We need a balance of all three functions of the vagus nerve. Think of a twinkling star ~ to twinkle it pulls energy in then pushes energy out. We need some downtime to build our reserves and energy and creativity, we need times we are putting out, teaching, speaking, engaging with people, and being social. That’s how we twinkle, having times we are low and rebuilding mixed with times we are active and social.
There are many different ways we strengthen our vagus nerve. In the research done by Steven Porges he identified 4 common neural exercises (exercises for your nervous system) that are done in all different religions and cultures which are tonifying for vagus nerve. And after studying Steven Porges work I came to the conclusion that all the practices of yoga are about stimulating the vagus nerve.
Most all religions and yogas have practices of some type that include:
- Posture and movements such as prostrating would be akin to asana in yoga. Moving in rhythm with your breath is stimulating to the vagus nerve, this is why it has a calming affect.
Movements such as prostrating exercise our baroreceptors, the baro-receptors wrap around the carotid arteries. they which monitor blood pressure and send the info back to the brain to regulate your blood pressure
Also sitting up straight helps to regulate your baroreceptors, which also leads to mood change. Sit up straight and you do feel better instantly!
Sun Salutes can be a type of prostration, rocking, swaying, walking, all these movements are good for our baroreceptors and are done in many of the worlds religious and mystical traditions — some forms of religion rock back and forth as they pray, Hinduism and other religions use prostrations, sufis dance and whirl.
This is also one of the reasons we instinctually rock or sway our babies, rocking and swaying stimulate the vagus nerve through various pathways. So does lightly touching our fingers to our lips and saying SHHHHHH. Try it next time your stressed, rock yourself side to side and say shhhh.
- Slow Breathing; steady, rhythmic movements of the diaphragm sends messages through the vagus nerve to relax, especially below the diaphragm where we need to digest. Deep diaphragmatic breathing with a long, slow exhale as you pull in your abdomen connecting with the uddiyana lift is also key to stimulating the vagus nerve.
Prayer and meditation slow our breath rate down to that resonance breath rate, about 6 breaths per minute or 5 second inhales and exhales.
- Vocalization – which would be the singing and chanting in religions and chanting and mantras done in yoga, this stimulates the vagus nerve in the trachea and larynx. The vibrations from chanting or singing stimulate our whole brain function. Chanting and singing have a massaging effect on our vagus nerve. Singing a song is a nice tool make give yourself some calm and improve your mood.
- Behavior – In religion you have the 10 commandments, in yoga we have the yamas and niyamas to help set behaviors that reduce stress. The heart-brain axis is affected by our behavior, and actions such as kindness, appreciation, and compassion tone our vagus nerve.
Yoga practices send the message via vagus to the brain that all is ok. I’m safe and protected, therefore I can heal and digest and regenerate. We come into the world wired to feel safe inside the body, relationships, and environment. The autonomic nervous system is that wiring. The vagus nerve is monitoring constantly asking “is this safe?” The purpose of the autonomic nervous system is to protect by sensing through nerves and listening to what is happening inside, outside and around our bodies, and in the relationships of those nearby.
Neuorseption is the vagus nerve constantly monitoring through our senses; is it safe out there?
When someone is stuck in a trauma response, their neuroception is in high gear.
Tuning in to this autonomic sensing gives you better control of monitoring
which part of your vagus nerve you are activating and
This is happening in the subconscious mind. Neuroception is the word Dr. Porges coined to represent the way the subconscious nervous system is always monitoring, scanning for clues of safety, danger, and threats without involving our thinking or conscious mind. Neuroception and intuition work along the same lines, except we are used to tuning into our intuition (well some of us), and it is also good to tune into our neuroception.
Most are not aware neuroception is happening, or how it greatly affect us. Neuroception can improve our attitudes and behaviors by making us feel safe. If neuroception is telling us there is danger our stress response is triggered.
We co-regulate with others through the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is sensing and conveying its messages throughout the body and brain. The vagus nerve affects facial expressions, which in turn affects the vagus nerve of those nearby. The vagus nerve responds to signals someone else is giving without your awareness. When around people who are happy your vagus nerve senses this and you become happier and more social.
When around people who are stressed, the vagus nerve will sense that too. This is why when in the company of someone who is in stress, you will feel it too. It’s your body monitoring and being prepared to jump into fight or flight (SNS activation) when necessary. Emotions are contagious.
We can reverse this! Our facial expressions can change brain function and emotions via the vagal attachments at the eyes and corners of the mouth which is why the age old advice to fake a smile can change your emotions, at least for a bit.
A strong vagal nerve is the reason some people have more grace under pressure. Equanimity is defined as “mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” Equanimity has biological roots in the vagus nerve.
Other benefits of a toned vagus nerve which is able to help the body communicate clearly and efficiently are:
- reduced inflammation
- improved Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
- balanced blood pressure
- decreased risk for all inflammatory diseases such as: cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other digestive issues, cancer and auto-immune diseases
- reduction of anxiety and depression
It is important to feel safe. There are many practices that stimulate the vagus nerve to send a message of safety. Activating the vagus nerve may be accomplished by one of the vagal maneuvers below:
- being in nature
- holding your breath for a few seconds
- dipping your face in cold water
- tensing stomach muscles as in “bearing down” aka the valsalva maneuver
HRV and Vagal tone are synonymous.
Healthy vagal tone is indicated by a slight increase in heart rate on inhalation, and a decrease of heart rate on exhalation. A higher vagal tone index is linked to physical and psychological well-being. Deep diaphragmatic breathing—with a long, slow exhale pulling in the abdominals to put pressure on the vagus nerve is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and slowing heart rate and blood pressure, especially in times of stress.
Nourishing the parasympathetic nervous system is basically the same as dismantling a way of life for which humans are ill-suited — spending days in fake air, fluorescent lights and stressed out.
The vagus nerve and the kundalini
The vagus nerve is the kundalini, and the kundalini is within the sushumna nadi, the sushumna nadi is not just the spine as most people describe it. According to the Upanishads, the sushumna nadi is located within the upper fibers of what we now know is the vagus nerve, specifically rising from the space of the heart, behind the upper palate and into the skull. And his is indeed part of the path of the vagus nerve.
Kundalini is defined as ignorance (yoga texts don’t say to activate the kundalini they say kill the kundalini). Kundalini as ignorance is in the lower fibers of the vagus nerve in the lower abdomen. You “kill” or relax the lower vagal fibers so the energy moves to the upper vagal fibers from the heart to the brain, where you now can make more enlightened decisions.
The term “kundalini rising” is about the vagus nerve. The upper fibers of the vagus nerve is the area that is connected to the senses and brain. We want that area to be active. When the upper fibers are active, it makes for vibrant, happy, productive beings the prefrontal cortex dominating over the amygdala, reducing the stress response. Raising kundalini is, having the upper fibers of the vagus nerve more active than the middle or lower fibers.
How to apply this? Here is a blip from Deb Dana’s work on applying the Dr. Porges Polyvagal theory: https://www.rhythmofregulation.com/_files/ugd/b8fc1d_9ae2b7119c974e74ba1ecb16285ec301.pdf
Moving on the Ladder
The top of the ladder is the ventral vagal place, this is our preferred place.
“The ventral vagal state is hopeful and resourceful. We can live, love, and laugh by ourselves and with others. This is not a place where everything is wonderful or a place without problems. But it is a place where we have the ability to acknowledge distress and explore options, to reach out for support and develop organized responses.
We move down the ladder into action when we are triggered into a sense of unease—of impending danger. We hope that our action taking here will give us enough space to take a breath and climb back up the ladder to the place of safety and connection. It is when we fall all the way down to the bottom rungs that the safety and hope at the top of the ladder feel unreachable.”
To use this knowledge, be aware when you have moved down the ladder, its ok to be in your stress response for short periods of time. Use your yoga practices and control of your thoughts to raise yourself back up the ladder instead of sinking further down it.
And the other key element to changing our stress response; how do you handle non-life threatening stress?
I came across a study that was interesting; under the stress response males and female will react differently. The female response to non-life-threatening stress is to “tend and befriend” while the male response tends to be “fight or flight”. Women will flee from extreme danger, of course, but the differences in how someone responds to a stressor is the difference in how much wear and tear it will have on your body.
Tending and befriending will bring in more oxytocin, the love hormone, which is needed during times of stress, and may help reduce trauma. Try to have a little more understanding about the situation at hand.
A new evolutionary response to stress
In cave man days which seems to be when our bodies learned the stress response, stress was life threatening, outrun the tiger or you die. Today most stress is no longer life threatening. Having a toned vagus nerve will help us have new evolutionary response to stress.
A toned vagus nerve is where the lower fibers (dorsal vagal complex) are relaxed and the upper fibers (ventral vagal complex) stimulated.
The middle portion of the vagus nerve is the sympathetic branch, which is always there 24/7 ready to kick into action at anytime we feel unsafe. We need that for our protection, but we don’t need stress when we are not in danger.
Whenever you start to stress and worry about something, ask yourself:
Is this life threatening? If not, relax. It can be figured out.
The key to be able to respond with equanimity to stress or trauma and to recovering afterward and even growing is to tone your vagus nerve
Ways to stimulate your vagus nerve all day long:
- Do a morning stretch routine in bed (1-2 minutes) – wake up slowly (if you can!), bringing your attention to your breath first thing.
- Then stretch, inhaling stretch through your right leg, making your right leg longer than your left and at the same time stretch your right arm overhead. Hold for 5-8 breaths. Repeat on your L
- Hug your knees to your chest for a minute. Then inhale slowly push your knees out with your hands, and exhale pull them in slowly 5-8x
- End with a little moving and breathing spinal twisting; with knees bent and feet flat on mattress, exhale drop knees to the right, inhale center exhale left 5-8x
- Sit up and do about a 3 minute meditation. Take your breath as slow as you comfortable can, somewhere between a 3-5 second inhale and a 3-5 second exhale. Sit for 18-30 breaths (depending on your breath rate, to equal 3 minutes).
- Option 2 wake up and do a breathing meditation. This could be done in place of the meditation above or just before your bath, before a meal, or even just a nature break sitting outside while you do it. This is a nice easy breathing practice that Dr. Weil teaches. 4-7-8 Breathing Meditation:
- Inhale 4 counts – flare your nostrils and take in air
- Hold 7 counts
- Exhale 8 counts slowly through your nose.
For a total of 4 rounds — Both inhale and exhale through your nose, except last (on 4th round) exhale is through mouth. Option: stick your tongue out and exhale rolling your eyes back, aka simhasana or lion’s breath. Its an emotional release.
In your morning Routine
- Add Gargling (you could do this at night as well). If you can gargle a little longer and harder, this more effectively stimulates your vagus nerve.
- Warm salt water is really nice to gargle with, and functional in viral threat and flu season, the salt can help kill viruses and bacteria that lead to colds and flus.
- Hydrosols are lovely to gargle with and medicinal too, however very gently medicinal. I gargle with my Rose Geranium Hydrosol.
- Splash cold water on your face. I do this 7 times, once for each chakra. This stimulates the vagal attachments to the facial muscles.
- Nauli or the abdominal churning can also stimulate your vagus nerve. It is a practice that also stimulates your liver to detox. It needs to be done on an empty stomach, in the morning with your morning routine is a good place to have it.
Throughout your Day – check in with yourself
- Breathe through your nose all day long — Flare your nostrils and take in the air as often as you can remember throughout your day.
- Breathe with bandhas frequently throughout your day; when standing to do dishes, running errands, etc.
- And keep your tongue on the roof of your mouth broadening your palate (say the letter ‘N’ and keep your tongue there) — Vagal Nerve stimulation all day long with Jiva Bandha. Whenever you are not speaking with someone or eating, make this jaw position your habit to fall back into – this goes very nicely with your nasal breathing:
- Close your lips, ever so slightly part your teeth maintaining gentle contact between your upper and lower teeth. Remember the cues I use in your yoga classes about softening your eyes and relaxing your jaw — this is especially important while you are on screens.
- Softening your eyes, especially around the outer corners of your eyes has a calming effect on our nervous systems and body. The nerves that innervate around the eyes are connected to our parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve softening your gaze as I always say in yoga helps us to relax and heal.
- Soften your face, are you holding any tension in your jaw?
- Smile softly. Try to smile while you work, smile while you drive, and smile while you converse.
Can you walk around throughout your day smiling and breathing through your nose with jiva bandha whole relaxing your eyes and face?
Yoga! That’s what we do, right? Learn a 15 minute therapeutic flow that you can memorize (I can help you do this) and whip out when you need it. Try to get in the habit of at least a 15 minute yoga practice 4-6 days per week (for those that don’t have a daily ashtanga practice). This daily connection helps you to keep your connection to your breathing, bandhas, and meditative mind all day long as you take it with you off your mat. On busy days you only need enough practice to put you in your yoga state of mind and breath.
Check in with yourself often – what are you thinking? How’s your posture? Is your jaw relaxed? Are you breathing through your nose?
What are you thinking? Remember to mind your mind stuff all day long! This is an important part of our health. Don’t be unnecessarily setting of your stress alarms by thoughts that will never be true.
If you find yourself facing a stressful situation here are some quick ways to Vagal stimulation to help mitigate stress:
- Breathe with more effort than normal with your bandhas – Another way to stimulate your vagus nerve with your abs. When stressed take a quick forceful exhale pulling your navel inward and upward. Then relax and several deep yogic breaths. You can do 3 or 4x when under stress.
- Rock yourself – just sway side to side. If need be, even add a shhhhh with your finger tapping your lips like you are telling your child to quiet down. This too calms us down.
In the Evening
Make a relaxing herbal tea. Good options: chamomile, rose, tulsi, lemon balm aka Melissa, mamaki, or any combination of the above. Use organic whole dried or fresh herbs in a tea pot. Tea bags are made with low quality herbs and many tea bags have plastics in them.
Take a bath with about 1 cup epsom salts, a little baking soda, an optional pinch of ginger powder (really nice in the wintertime), a 1/4 once of carrier oil such as sunflower, sesame, or olive oil with 5-7 drops lavender essential oil. Instead of oil in your tub you can also put the essential oils in milk, coconut milk, or honey and add those to your tub.
As you go off to sleep, set your nasal breath and jiva bandha — And try to fall asleep breathing through your nose. It is important to establish the habit of nasal breathing during sleep.
One of the main culprits of a nervous system gone awry is the disconnection from nature. Getting out in nature is one of the best ways to calm the mind and relax the nervous system. If its not possible to get outside (for example, in the middle of your work day) then bring the outside in with plant phytochemicals.
Citrus and flower essential oils actively work on both the physiology of the body by helping your body uptake more of the calming neurotransmitters while eliciting a change in the hormonal response encouraging the feel good hormones to be released.
Sweet orange demonstrates anxiolytic activity while lemon is both anxiolytic and antidepressant. If you don’t have the essential oil, a fresh lemon works too! Cut it in half and breathe it in, then squeeze a little in your water.
Lavender inhalation causes significant decreases of blood pressure, heart rate and skin temperature, as will most any floral fragrance.