Why does our face go red when we are embarrassed or in a state of rage? Why is it that we shut down when shamed? Why do we feel a sense of restriction or tightness when someone looks at us a certain way, or says to us “no”? Or conversely, why is it that when someone smiles at us, or says to us “yes”, do we feel a sense of freedom and lightness?
They key is within the nervous system and the much-known fight/flight/freeze response. Most importantly, when we comprehend the processes of the nervous system we can then recognise and perceive with clarity certain states within our students or clients; this then allows us to assist them with compassion. When we understand the nervous system, we can begin to provide individual practices that work to move with a student or client in co-regulated safety into and through their pain, and into an integrated state of well-being. Or more specifically, as teachers or therapists we are able to guide students and clients through practices of yoga and meditation that promote gratitude, compassion, joy, and flexibility.
First described by Walter Cannon in the late 1920’s, the acute stress response, and what Cannon later coined the “fight / flight response”, is a reactive series of temporary physiological and biochemical adaptations that occur in mammals in the face of threat. In today’s culture, some 90 years after these two terms were first introduced, the research and evidence-based neuroscience surrounding this innate mammalian reaction to threat is not only known and understood by those within the fields of medicine, but so too, the terms “fight” and “flight” have embedded themselves within culture. This embeddedness has given discourse – as well as compassionate understanding and hope – to people who experience the somewhat inexplicable biopsychosocial reactions to stress and trauma.
Likewise, the notion of the “freeze” response has merged itself into this same popularised discourse, again giving a much-needed voice to inherent behaviour that can be easily misinterpreted. Yet, despite being placed on par with the fight/flight response, the freeze response only began being explored and accurately understood in the 1970’s – this unfortunately leading to a misinterpretation that these responses occur as either/or with the same physiological and biochemical adaptations. “Fight/flight” and “freeze” are however two innate adaptations that employ divergent neurobiological systems. And, in recent years the works of theorists such as Steven Porges (The Polyvagal Theory) and Peter Levine (Somatic Experiencing) have built upon our understanding of these innate adaptations and truly opened a world of knowledge and evidence-based data. It is this data that has allowed those employed as yoga teachers, meditation teachers, therapists, and the like, to conceptualise and de-pathologize adverse reactions to stress and trauma.
Simplistically put, it is these innate adaptations that work within mammals to continually function to maintain equilibrium (homeostasis) in the face of threat. The first of these systems is the more evolved and most complexly formed structures of nerves which extend from the Vagus Nerve (the tenth cranial nerve also known as the “wanderer” due to its extensive distribution throughout the body) and sit above the diaphragm; these are the structures that mediate the social engagement system and our ability to intuitively recognise safety and threat (i.e. who is safe, who is dangerous). It is this system that employs both the Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC), the myelinated thread of the Vagus Nerve, and the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) in order to detect and respond to threat or danger – a top down perceptual process. While an exact physiological description of the process is beyond the scope of this article (yet entirely within the scope of our yoga and meditation teacher trainings), it is suffice to say that it is within these nerve complexes whereby the external and internal perceptions that occur beneath conscious awareness trigger a recognition of safety or danger and activate an appropriate response or reaction.
More specifically, when the VVC detects and signals to the brain that there is a threat, the brain then employs the HPA axis to engage the SNS to respond accordingly to maintain basal homeostasis. Responses within the VVC and the SNS when in threat include:
- the regulation of appropriate facial expression for disengagement (i.e. aggression);
- the regulation of vocal capacity (i.e. elevated volume and tones);
- raised cardiac output speeds;
- increased blood vessel dilation;
- raised blood pressure;
- raised body temperature;
- pupil dilation;
- the release of adrenaline and an increased metabolic rate;
- the deactivation of unnecessary physiological and biochemical functions – including digestion, immune response, and relational capacity.
Each of these physiological and biochemical adaptations making it possible for the body to disengage with the environment, to mobilise, and to escape the threat by either fighting or fleeing– the fight/flight response.
Conversely, when safety is detected it is this same system that responds and again includes:
- the regulation of appropriate facial expression for engagement (i.e. smiling);
- the regulation of vocal capacity (i.e. softened volume and tones);
- flexibility in cardiac output, blood pressure, metabolic rate, and pupil dilation – variance appropriately modulated according to all external and internal signals;
- the activation and appropriate modulation of physiological and biochemical functions – including digestion, immune response, and relational capacity.
This allows for attuned social engagement, resonance with the environment, and the overall ability to intuitively and innately find pleasure and enjoyment through connection. Most importantly there is an accurate perception of the spaces within and in between life itself. Moreover, this safe place of accurate perception is the place where healing from trauma happens, as shall be discussed below. Albeit, initially it is important to understand the second system of our innate threat response, the freeze response.
The freeze response is the most primal system within mammals and can be dated to almost 400 million years ago in our evolutionary history. This response is one based in the unmyelinated thread of the Vagus Nerve, the Dorsal Vagal Complex (DVC), and incorporates the nerves extending throughout the organs below the diaphragm. While the VVC and SNS subconsciously detect threat and prepare the body to defend or escape, the DVC is an extraordinarily rapid flexion response that provides a complete level of shut down, an innate bottom up protective process that fosters a physiological and biochemical adaptation mimicking death; a process that is only initiated when the ability to fight or flee is inhibited.
When we are unable to approach and fight, or when we are unable to escape, we freeze. It is within the freeze response that the following occurs:
- facial expression becomes blank
- vocal capacity is shut down;
- cardiac output is slowed to its bare minimum
- blood pressure is lowered as all blood moves from the extremities to the most sacred and central organs;
- pupils often can constrict and eye movement is immobilized;
- breathing and metabolic rate is slowed to conserve energy;
- there is a paradoxical over-activation of digestion and immune response for protection.
In this state we are “feigning death” – averting threat while protecting our most vital life sustaining organs. Most importantly here it is imperative for practitioners and teachers to understand that due to the speed and biopsychosocial haste of this response, the mind-body cannot simply integrate and move out from it – the DVC keeps us in a cycle of fear and immobility because we have shut down and can no longer detect whether it is safe to fight or flee. As Levine (2014) states:
These are profound nervous system states… We can’t talk the person out of [the freeze response] as we have lost what makes us the most human. It’s [only] through body sensation that we’re able to actually move out of shutdown, move into arousal fight/flight, and then return to social engagement.
This is why in trauma informed yoga or meditation teacher training we must have the knowledge and understanding to see when someone has been implicitly triggered – especially by the DVC. When a client or student has moved beyond their window of tolerance, beyond hyperarousal (or fight/flight) and into hypoarousal (freeze), as practitioners or teachers we must understand that it is our role to begin to move our clients or students out of freeze, into fight/flight, and toward social engagement – in that order.
Specifically, as yoga and meditation teachers we must always be mindful of each student’s state, overtly offering choice as well as noticing levels of presence in order to prevent triggers into dissociated states of meditation. We must offer practices that bid a safe environment to take our students from immobilisation, to mobilisation, then, and only then, into social engagement. It is only after practices that incorporate movement – VVC and SNS activation – that we can offer practices that incorporate mindful and courageous presence alongside compassion, gratitude, and joy.
Trauma Informed Practices
Moving a student from Freeze, through Fight/Flight, and into Social Engagement.
From Freeze to Fight/Flight
To move a client or student from hypoarousal to hyperarousal, from DVC activation to SNS activation, from immobility to mobility, or from fear to safety, practitioners and teachers may offer:
- Dancing Meditations;
- Shaking Meditations;
- Walking meditation; and/or
- Voo breathing.
From Fight/Flight to Social Engagement
To move a client or student from hyperarousal into the window of tolerance, from SNS activation to VVC promonance, from mobility to relaxation, or from safety to co-regulation, practitioners and teachers may offer:
- Mirror neuron dancing and facial mimicking (great for spectrum disorders);
- Seated meditation with breath ratio of 40 percent inhale to 60 percent exhale (possibly using humm sound on exhalation to extend breath ratio);
- Seated meditation with mindfulness and a half Buddha smile for ventral vagal stimulation;
- Gratitude meditation (for all the parts in your body that trigger these evolutionary responses that have been developed to help you stay alive);
- Self-Compassion meditation and compassionate posturing (compassion for your mind-body and the physiological and biochemical reactions and responses designed to keep you alive);
- Eye contact meditation (with a safe and trusted other);
- Music Meditation (Brain rewiring, safety cueing with tunes that affect vagal tone and pacify the nervous system);
- Compassion for other human beings (Metta Bhavana).
When we take the time as practitioners to truly understand why, to conceptualise the inner workings of the mind-body – the neurobiological systems that are innately designed to keep us alive, we can then recognise and perceive with clarity certain states within our students or clients and assist them with authentic co-regulated compassion. As teachers or therapists, we can guide students and clients through practices of yoga and meditation that promote gratitude, compassion, joy, and flexibility.
References and Additional Resources
Fight or Flight Response
Nature’s Lessons in Healing Trauma: An Introduction to Somatic Experiencing® (SE™)