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Recovering from Traumatic Stress & Recalibrating the Nervous System 

Trauma is physiological. It’s an event that causes long-term dysregulation in the nervous system. This is why you can’t rationalize or “think your way out of it.” Your nervous system is your internal surveillance system. It’s on the look out for danger or safety and is shaped by your past experiences. Trauma isn’t over until the nervous system says it’s over. 

After chronic and traumatic stress, the nervous system may not return to its baseline functioning. It remains “tuned” to excess fight-or-flight, and the vagus nerve is interrupted from bringing you into a calm, connected state. When you face future stressors, you respond with excess stress activation because your nervous system has moved away from its regulated baseline. This is not your fault. 

Under traumatic stress the nervous system can become locked into a state of high activation of: the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and the dorsal vagal (shut-down) systems, causing a freeze state. Responses of the nervous system happen below the level of conscious awareness, in the survival brain. Becoming anxious, triggered or shutting down isn’t something you’re choosing - it happens automatically and instantly, and it’s not your fault. 

Shame dissolves when you see your nervous system is still acting in service of your survival, and your physiology changes following chronic and traumatic stress. When the survival brain is allowed to process what happened and recover, default strategies don’t get cued again and again. By teaching the nervous system to recover fully and bringing it support, it can return to a healthy, regulated state. This will change how you think, feel and actions you take. 

Returning to a regulated baseline is the essence of resilience and can change how you feel in your body, how you connect with other people and how you feel in the world. The key to this is bottom-up and top-down regulation that recalibrates the nervous system and allows the survival brain to recover. This helps you cultivate flexibility and adaptability and a high enough vagal tone to meet the demands you face. 


When you’re stuck in this state of perpetual stress, your nervous system essentially needs to be told that you are no longer under threat and that it’s okay to feel safe again. While nothing can erase a traumatic experience, the following actions may help you regain your nervous system’s equilibrium:

  1. Diaphragmatic Breathing

  2. Somatic Stretching

  3. Listening to Your Body

  4. Maintaining Healthy Routines- Taking care of your basic needs not only allows your body to feel physically safe and cared for, but research also shows that maintaining your routines in general can be helpful for healing after trauma. 


Here are some suggestions to help you be with & move through a freeze or shutdown response: 

  1. Truly reset & recover, take things slow, gentle movement so as to not further overwhelm 

  2. Reconnect with the present moment through your senses or temperature exposure 

  3. Practice self-touch or apply light pressure to your body through self-hugging, rocking, swaying, stretching, or squeezing

  4. Slowly connect with others through co-regulation: spend time with loved ones, cuddle with your pets, etc. 

  5. Reconnect with the world by going out in nature, or going on calming walks 


Here are some signs that you’re coming out of freeze or dissociation: 

  1. Feeling more present & aware of your body, environment, and senses 

  2. Returned access to connection with others 

  3. Breath becomes more steady 

  4. Heart rate slows down

  5. Face muscles soften 


Part of recovering from trauma includes learning to discern between patterns and beliefs that stem from the trauma and those that arise from the body’s wisdom and organic tendency towards healing. For trauma survivors, the past becomes overlaid with the present. Your autonomic nervous system detects threats when you are actually safe in the present moment. It is worth learning how to notice when you are in your trauma response (what are the sensations, perceptual differences, beliefs and emotions that go with it?) and when you are in your “window of tolerance” (grounded and calm, connected to your values and integrity). 

'Soma' means body and somatic resources refers to practices which incorporate the body/senses/movement in some way that help us return to a sense of inner safety and calm after feeling anxious/angry or numb/shutdown. They can also help us build our capacity for states like stillness. 


Here are somatic resourcing skills for moving towards safety: 

  1. Take a warm bath and feel your body surrounded by water 

  2. Use a weighted blanket or wrap yourself in comfy clothes 

  3. Look around the room and let your eyes linger on pleasant sights 

  4. Go outside and count all the sounds you notice 

  5. Press your hands together and notice the boundaries of your body 

A holistic approach is needed to address nervous system dysregulation. Mind + Body + Environment are three key pillars to support in your journey back to safety. In essence, recovering from traumatic stress has nothing to do with willpower – it requires a recalibration of the nervous system.

Juliana Overbeck, Headshot Juliana Overbeck Juliana Overbeck is a Licensed Master Social Worker and graduate of New York University. Juliana is proficient in serving individuals with mood disorders/depression, anxiety, complex trauma, ADHD, OCD, life transitions and severe mental illness. In addition, Juliana has direct experience working with clients in the LGBTQ community who experience relationship and identity issues and challenges related to sexual exploration.

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