Healing from Childhood Trauma Begins with the Nervous System

When someone is in a stressful situation or faces danger, their nervous system automatically responds by releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones trigger physical changes: heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate go up. This reaction can be helpful: it prepares us to cope with the immediate threat. Our response will likely be one of the following:

  • Fight: Defend ourselves from the threat
  • Flight: Get away from the threat quickly
  • Freeze: Remain very still and quiet to avoid harm.

For people who experienced childhood trauma, this fight-flight-freeze response becomes part of everyday life. That’s because childhood trauma causes physical changes to the brain over time. 

  • Fear centers in the brain are overactivated. 
  • Parts of the brain that help with concentration, attention and learning are underactive. 
  • Brain structures that usually help a person regulate their emotions are damaged.High levels of cortisol in the body interfere with logical thinking. 

When these brain changes happen, a person lives in “survival mode.” The brain is stressed, always looking for threats and responding to them—usually in unhealthy ways.  The consequences can be severe, including everything from broken relationships and depression to violent behavior and substance abuse. Childhood trauma can also impact a person’s physical health, causing stomach aches, migraines, cancer and heart disease, among other conditions.

The Path to Healing

The effects of childhood trauma do not go away on their own. A holistic “mind-body” approach to healing is essential. That’s because the trauma lives in the mind and the body. Mind-body techniques can help children and adults retrain their nervous system, work through past traumas and live more fully in the present. 

Holistic practices can include:

  • Relaxation and breathing exercises 
  • A specialized diet
  • Meditation

Professional counseling from therapists trained in trauma care can be part of the healing process, too. Some therapists use an interactive psychotherapy technique called EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). EMDR can help the body activate its natural healing processes, often more quickly than therapy alone.

Learn about mind-body strategies and find other resources. 

Heal Your Nervous System, Heal Your Trauma

Trauma pushes the activation of the nervous system beyond its ability to self-regulate. When a stressful experience pushes the system beyond its limits, it can become stuck on “on.” When a system is overstimulated like this, we can experience anxiety, panic, anger, hyperactivity, and restlessness. This is the fight-or-flight mode; your body is activated and ready to move.