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A compassionate guide to overcoming trauma

In the intricate dance of trauma recovery, where echoes of pain weave through our existence, the polyvagal system emerges as a silent maestro, orchestrating our responses to life’s tumultuous symphony.

Dr. Stephen Porges, the virtuoso behind the polyvagal theory, unveils the composition of our autonomic nervous system – a delicate interplay of the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and social engagement components.

The sympathetic nervous system, often associated with the fight-or-flight response, orchestrates our body’s readiness for action in times of danger. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the rest-and-digest response, promotes calm and relaxation. Nestled between these two is the social engagement system, the maestro that seeks connection and safety through engagement with others.

Now, imagine this symphony in the context of trauma. Trauma triggers a response that can send us into survival mode, where the conductor’s baton is lost in a cacophony of stress. The social engagement system, our conductor of connection, may momentarily fall silent as the body and mind prioritize survival. It’s in this silence that we often retreat from social connections, not because we don’t long for support, but because our social circle may lack the tools to provide the nuanced support we need.

Enter the healing journey, where the polyvagal system takes centre stage. Activating the polyvagal harmony is about restoring the conductor’s role, allowing the social engagement system to guide us back to safety and connection. It’s a delicate dance, as Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s bottom-up approach reminds us that healing is not just a mental process but a holistic one that involves our entire being.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s perspective on the bottom-up approach in healing trauma is encapsulated in his words: “The body keeps the score, and it always does,” recognizing the profound impact on both the mind and body. The bottom-up approach focuses on engaging the body in the healing process, acknowledging its integral role in the intricate dance of recovery.

Recognizing the signs of trauma

It’s often in the quiet moments, the restless nights, and the unspoken words that trauma leaves its imprint. Sleepless nights, isolation, hyperarousal, emotional numbness, and intrusive flashbacks can all be indicators. Recognizing these signs becomes the first gentle nod towards healing.

Now, armed with this awareness, let’s embark on practical steps to support transformative recovery.

Practical steps for a transformative recovery


  1. Connect with others


Engage with confidants, share narratives, and co-create a haven for vulnerability. As connections form, the polyvagal system responds, fostering feelings of safety and reassurance.


  1. Share your story

Articulate your truth, even as your voice quivers. Expressing experiences to empathetic listeners leads to profound connections and healing.


  1. Engage in social activities


Infuse joy into the process. Dive into social pursuits, releasing feel-good neurotransmitters and activating the polyvagal system.


  1. Quality time together


Immerse yourself in meaningful moments with loved ones. Being present establishes a safety net, fostering healing through the activation of the polyvagal system. Keeping the lines of communication open is crucial.


  1. Seek professional support


Acknowledge the strength in seeking specialized guidance. Sometimes, the journey of healing benefits from the expertise of therapists or counsellors who provide tools to navigate trauma. Recognizing that seeking professional support is an essential aspect of strength can be a pivotal step in the transformative process.


Supporting those in trauma

Let’s explore how to provide genuine support to those navigating traumata.


  1. Expressing care through actions


Practical gestures, from sharing tea to offering a helping hand, provide tangible support while activating the social engagement system.


  1. Consistent communication


Keep the channels open. Regular notes and messages create a lifeline, resonating with the polyvagal system’s need for connection and security.


‘Recognize that healing is a journey, not a destination’ (quote no meio do artigo)


  1. Inclusive invitations


Extend warm invitations, even if declined. It communicates a sense of inclusion, activating the social engagement system and fostering a sense of safety within the social fabric.


  1. Nostalgic reminders


Share memories of positive connections. This visual journey down memory lane can be a powerful way to reconnect with joy and belonging, further activating the polyvagal system.


  1. Respecting their pace

Acknowledge that healing is a journey, not a destination. Respecting an individual’s pace and offering patient support contribute to a sense of security and safety within the healing process.

It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. Deep pain takes its time to heal, and expecting quick fixes may hinder the process. Just like composing a symphony, the healing journey is a continuous masterpiece, evolving with each note played. So, let’s approach supporting our loved ones with curiosity, understanding, and a recognition that the healing process is an ever-evolving narrative.

In the tapestry of life, activating the polyvagal harmony through social engagement becomes a tool for resilience. By incorporating these practices into our relationships, we not only support the journey of healing but also create a mosaic of connection and resilience that extends far beyond the challenges of trauma. In this captivating journey, each thoughtful action contributes to the beautiful composition of healing and connection.

By Farah Naz
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Farah Naz is a UK trained Psychotherapist of more than 30 years, and is a Clinical Hypnotherapist, with a special interest in neuroscience. She has worked with thousands of people globally for a range of issues. Farah has trained national organisations, corporate companies, doctors, teachers and health workers on psychological-related issues. Currently, she has an online international practice and a private practice in the Algarve.
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