with Clinical Psychologist Dr. Quincee Gideon
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- Outcomes Of Trauma
- Parasympathetic & Sympathetic Nervous System
- Ventral Vagal Response
- Sympathetic Response
- The Fawn Response
- Dorsal Vagal Response
- Detecting Real Threats vs. A Triggered Nervous System
- Ways To Soothe The Nervous System Once It’s Triggered
Do you find that you are keenly aware of the shifts in the emotions of those around you? Are you wired to please others? Have you ever found yourself feeling panicked for no reason? Anxiety and trauma responses can cause our bodies to act in ways that may not make sense, and that can be scary. Clinical psychologist Dr. Quincee Gideon joins us to help us better understand our nervous system and how to more effectively manage its responses.
Outcomes Of Trauma
“For a trauma survivor to start feeling really empowered again, we have to help them understand that trauma lives inside the body and it does so to varying degrees,” Dr. Quincee said. When we experience trauma, it triggers our nervous system.
She explained our nervous system was passed down to us from generations before us. There was a time in human history when the flight or fight response literally kept us alive, and in some ways, it may still. Imagine a soldier at war. Fight or flight matters.
But for the most part, our nervous system hasn’t caught up with the way we live today. “In some ways, we’re still experiencing a bodily nervous system response that harkens back to many, many generations before us,” Dr. Quincee said.
That old nervous system response combined with a modern life can make for very confusing messages coming from our body. “It can be very upsetting and confusing for someone who has already been through a very upsetting event,” Dr. Quincee explained.
If the alarm system on our car is trauma-free, it only responds when someone is trying to break into our car. But have you ever been in a parking lot where a horn honked nonstop? This happens when something has triggered an overly sensitive alarm.
It’s the same thing with our bodies. When we’ve been through a really challenging situation or have complex trauma for life, we can become easily triggered, and our alarm—our nervous system—goes off nonstop.
Ventral Vagal Response
The ventral vagal response which is safe and secure is in the parasympathetic nervous system. You can experience ventral vagal alone, but this is usually in safe social situations.
“Social situations” in this context don’t refer to an overstimulating party or anything over the top. It’s more like an evening at home with your family, the people you feel safe and secure with.
The next response is sympathetic. “You are sympathetic to your environment,” Dr. Quincee explained.
This is an elevated response. You may notice your heart beating faster or sweating more than normal. You may notice speaking faster than usual or a dry mouth. This is a panic response.
The sympathetic system triggers our fight or flight response. The fight or flight response exists to keep us safe from big scary things, but sometimes it can mistake an overwhelming situation like a tantruming toddler for a scary monster. If you find yourself being triggered by your toddler often, the mom rage workshop can offer helpful coping mechanisms.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, a sympathetic response is usually triggered by something that is linked to a trauma. But because we’re not conscious of it, the trigger may seem completely unrelated.
“For a trauma survivor, they’re not typically aware of all of the triggers that bring them back to that trauma response until they can get into a safe and social environment, typically therapy and support groups,” Dr. Quincee explained.
The Fawn Response
We tend to think of a sympathetic nervous system response as a fight or flight response, whereas the fawn response—a response that has us trying to make sure everyone is happy—is also a sympathetic response. “The fawn response is a relational response,” Dr. Quincee said. This occurs when we’re still in a sympathetic response but trying very hard not to be.
A lot of people-pleasing behaviours can come from trauma responses, because if we can keep everyone happy—if we don’t rock the boat—we can avoid conflict. This may even be something we learned in childhood because if we kept our caregivers happy, we didn’t get in trouble. The lesson is keeping everyone happy may save us more trauma.
We think of the sympathetic nervous system as fight or flight, but the fawn response is people-pleasing, so it’s really fight, flight, or please.
Social media tends to shame people for being codependent, but what’s actually happening is we’re trying to get back to that safe and social—ventral vagal—response. “You’re just going about it the wrong way, and there’s help for that,” she said.
You’re trying to pull on the secure attachment really quickly, because staying in the sympathetic nervous system feels threatening. “But the ventral vagal isn’t quick. It’s an easing into the ventral vagal,” Dr. Quincee stated.
And if we’re the person doing the over-functioning—meaning we’re monitoring someone else’s behaviour as well as our own—it’s going to wear us out. When this happens, we’re constantly in a triggered state. If you find yourself in this situation your first step may be to find someone you can feel safe and secure with, because if you’re only around people you have to over-function for you’re never safe and secure.
Dorsal Vagal Response
“The third nervous system response is dorsal vagal, and that’s our freeze response,” Dr. Quincee said. It’s like being shut down. You have no energy and just want to sit. This is also a response where dissociation and fantasy worlds can occur.
The dorsal vagal response is about freezing. You want the threat to pass, and this can turn into an avoidance response.
People who deal with chronic pain sometimes live in this response, because when the dorsal vega is triggered it pumps out endorphins. Endorphins keep us from feeling pain, so it becomes almost a functioning mechanism.
That was a lot of information quickly, so to recap our nervous systems are ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal. When we’re in our ventral vagal response we’re safe and secure.
If we’re outside of our ventral vagal system, we’ll respond with fight, flight, please (fawn), or freeze. Fight, flight, and fawn responses are all triggered because we’re functioning from our sympathetic nervous system, and freeze is triggered when our dorsal vagal system pumps us full of endorphins to numb pain.
Detecting Real Threats vs. A Triggered Nervous System
If we want to do more nervous system work, the first step is to list our triggers. Feeling rushed triggers a sympathetic response for Dr. Quincee, so she makes sure she gives herself enough time to get places or do things. But feeling ignored triggers a collapse response for her.
Knowing your triggers helps you be proactive. If being rushed stresses you out, get to the bus stop ten minutes early, and when you can’t, remind yourself your body is giving you a stress response because you don’t like being rushed.
Ways To Soothe The Nervous System Once It’s Triggered
“One thing that can be really helpful is just practicing calming down your nervous system,” Dr. Quincee said. This is something that can be beneficial for anyone even if you don’t have a trauma history. Maybe you have an anxiety system or you’re just going through a rough time like parenting through COVID.
To soothe the sympathetic response, we have to discharge that energy. “That can really mean anything that feels good to that person that’s safe for everyone,” Dr. Quincee explained. Some examples might be going for a walk or working out, but while you’re discharging that energy you need reassuring self-talk. “It’s going to be okay. I’ll feel better after this walk.”
Other things that can help are gargling water, humming, and singing, because they activate the vagus nerve. If we’re in a situation with our children where we need to coregulate, singing might be a good option to bring everyone out of the triggered state. “We don’t want to get stuck in a response,” Dr. Quincee said.
If we’re experiencing a collapsed nervous system response—the dorsal vagal response—things like a weighted blanket, turning off lights, moving into another room, or even a slow walk around the house might help. The idea is small steps toward re-energizing ourselves.
When we’re trying to come out of a collapsed response, it’s incremental. So, maybe we turn the lights off and wait an hour to do anything else. Or walk around our house once and take two laps an hour later.
It’s also important to remember that experiencing a collapsed response isn’t a moral issue. There’s no reason to judge ourselves. Everyone will at some point or another experience a collapsed response.
Exploring your triggers with a trained professional can help you feel safe again and regain agency. If you’re struggling to find or protect your safety, reach out to the Happy as a Mother Wellness Center. We’ll get you help.
Quincee is a clinical and forensic psychologist that specializes in trauma recovery and posttraumatic growth. She has a private practice in California that helps trauma survivors and their families find a healthy way of living after traumatic events. She also has an online education and coaching platform called Traumastery, where she creates courses around specific elements of trauma recovery. She spends most of her time on Instagram @drquincee where she shares empowering and helpful tips and tricks in trauma recovery.
- Dr. Quincee’s Online Courses: Traumastery
- Woven Together Trauma Therapy
- Mom Freely
- Boundaries Live Workshop: Setting Boundaries