Understanding How Trauma Effects the Autonomic Nervous System


Happy New Year! With the new year everyone is finding new ways to improve themselves and become an even better version of themselves! Whether it is weight loss, mental health, physical health in general, etc you will need a healthy autonomic nervous system!

Did you know that any traumatic experiences from your past can be preventing you from reaching your goals with out you even knowing it? Your Autonomic nervous system relies on the proper functioning of your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest system) and your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response). Lets talk about how trauma can effect your autonomic nervous system, and ways to combat this so that your new years goals can be successful!

Autonomic Nervous System

Your Autonomic nervous system is meant to regulate your body specifically geared towards all of your unconscious actions needed for survival. This includes things like your heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal. The big part of the brain that controls our autonomics is our hypothalamus, limbic system, and our brain stem. When triggered, your hypothalamus will activate the pituitary glands to start making hormones. The pituitary gland then goes to your adrenals which will release cortisol. This is how your stress response happens. This pathway is known as the hpa axis.

These parts of the brain we mentioned, are all about remembering past events both good and bad. When you undergo a bad experience your brain says “whoa I don’t like that and I don’t want to go through that again!” When your brain thinks you are going through a similar traumatic event it will then begin to increase your heart rate, your blood pressure, etc.


Young girl holding her ears while her parents are arguing in the background

The hardest part becomes when your body has gone through a trauma and you don’t even know about it. Or maybe you can remember the event, but you don’t actually see it as trauma. Ie getting your first pair of big girl undies and then having an accident in them and getting in trouble. It seems pretty innocent now, but when you were two that was a big deal!

In most cases the traumas our brain reacts to were actually childhood trauma. Your brain determined it was a dangerous situation in the past, and now it will trigger either a physiological response or emotional response to the stimulus that you may not even realize is there.

Big Traumas

These are the ones we know effect our lives. We see these types of situations pop up all the time with our soldiers, police officers or others that have developed post-traumatic stress disorder. The reality is that we all have little traumas from our past that our body is still holding on to and preventing us from moving forward. We all have a different window of tolerance so for some of us the trigger won’t allow us to consciously know our body is reacting versus others go in to  full on panic attacks.

Young female soldier screaming due to ptsd
Knowing your trigger

Depending on the severity of your trauma you might be aware of what triggers your autonomic nervous system to react. If you’ve been in natural disasters you could react to rain, wind, fire, etc. Your trauma survivors can react to hair colors, a specific tone of voice, body structure, perfumes, etc. Adverse childhood experiences will have similar triggers as trauma survivors, or can be more complex like the color of a dog because when you were being punished a black dog was next to you.

You also have more engrained traumas like complex trauma, which means as a child you were exposed to the same traumatic experience over and over typically from severe abuse or neglect. I had a cousin that was abused by being restricted of food for a long time so when he was finally rescued from that situation he would always see eating as a stressful event.

Stress Responses

Stress response sign sitting in the sand on the beach

Your brain will tie an object to an emotion. In my cousins case food was tied with fear of being hurt. When a non-reactive brain sees food it sees sustenance, but his brain saw a threat because of the past. The symptoms of ptsd will vary based on the trauma that was induced. A soldier that witnessed many murders won’t react to food like my cousin, but can become completely ruined by the sound of a fire cracker.

The stress response is meant to keep you alive, but when it sticks around well after the trauma is over, you can start to see the most innocent objects, sounds, smells as a perceived threat. This response can have the fight response (expression of anger), flight response (running away or avoiding events or social interactions) or a freeze response that literally can stop you in your tracks.

The trauma responses for your body will be vastly different from others. Again with more severe cases you have conscious awareness of your reactions. You might even have depression or anxiety disorders. Your brain puts you in to a constant survival mode that seems impossible to get out of. The good news is that regardless of the life-altering event you’ve been through there is a lot of things you can add in to your everyday life routine to combat these responses.

Chronic Stress

Mom talking on the phone watching her two young daughters while working at the computer.

OK doc I haven’t had any big things in my life I’m sure my nervous system is operating perfectly. Doubtful! Chronic stress aka the silent killer gets everyone. In fact this form of stress is almost more dangerous than a ptsd patients, because you don’t realize it is affecting you. The severity of your symptoms are no where near that of someone with posttraumatic stress disorder. However, they are probably receiving some type of help for their emotional regulation and you aren’t.

Your body is having emotional flashbacks and you don’t even realize it. Over time the stress hormones in your body begin to dampen your immune system making your immune response sluggish. You begin to get sick more often and have no reason why. The blood flow to your prefrontal cortex starts to become less and less turning your responses to a defensive state so you get called grumpy and you don’t understand it. You refuse to go to social engagements that you used to love because you are too tired. You start to see physical changes in your weight, bags under your eyes, slumping in the shoulders, loss of facial expression, etc as your brain is crying for help.

The dangerous part is it happens in small increments over time, and you don’t realize it’s actually  because of an emotional trauma from your past. A trauma that you never even acknowledged as a trauma. Your nervous system dysregulation happened so slowly that you and your doctors didn’t realize it was happening until it was well developed. Understanding the mind-body connection is a huge factor to your success in your daily life!

Autonomic Nervous System Responses

Neruon cells talking to each other in the brain

In times of stress your brain will fire hormones to protect you. It records the events to keep you safe in the future. In the cave man days it was the site of a lion means I’ll be eaten, so the ruffling of bushes meant danger. This little response would allow them to safely get away from the situation and then the stress hormone shuts off. This is how our body was meant to operate.

How our bodies actually work now

At the present moment, we unfortunately live in stress all the time. We wake up to an alarm on our phone or clocks which starts it off. Run late for work, so we rush through the busy and loud traffic. Get to work and have to sit all day when our bodies weren’t meant to. You unknowningly deal with the buzzing of the stress induced lights above you, and even worse the stress of the computer screen in front of you on top of the heavy work load you have for the day.

Once you are off work, rush to get kids, take them to whatever event they have that night just to get home and have an hour before you go to bed and start it all over. If you have time to cook your fortunate. The average household eats out 5.9 times a week, which causes stress from the digestive system.

Due to the chronic stress our brain stays on high alert for a long time. If you live in domestic violence or have ptsd from a past trauma it’s heightened even more. The activation of the sympathetic nervous system is almost none stop. It’s no wonder that heart disease is in about 1 in 20 adults, and that in a given year 43.8 million Americans will experience some form of mental illness. We are killing our bodies and becoming a sicker nation every year. Our autonomic nervous system has a vast array of crucial bodily functions. It’s about time we start taking better care of it!

Taking Care of your Autonomic Nervous System

Trained Trauma Therapist
Young woman talking to a female therapist about her trauma

If you are conscious of your stress and know that it comes from a past trauma a big first step is talking to someone about it. A trained trauma therapist or counselor can be a huge tool to getting you started on your healing journey. The verbal expression of the abuse or trauma you went through may seem minor to you, but it allows your brain to start seeing that it is no longer a threat. These therapist will have different forms of therapy and will chose which is best for you. It may include dialectical behavior therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive processing therapy, etc.

Mind-Body Therapies

I went through abuse in my past and the biggest change for me personally came through this type of therapy, specifically NET. This allows you to go in to your unconscious part of the brain to release the trauma even more. I will always be partial to NET (Neuro Emotional Technique) because it gave me my life back. There are other techniques you can do that work similarly. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Emotion Code and Body Code are other limbic system therapies I recommend to my patients as well. They use different modes of desensitizing the past traumas, but I have seen great success by all of these therapies!

At Home Treatment Options

If you aren’t ready to talk to a therapist or start limbic system work to desensitize your past traumas, then you can do a lot of things at home to start helping your nervous system. Lets learn a few things to kick back on that parasympathetic system.

Mindful Breathing

A lot of people get frustrated when they are told to concentrate on breathing, but when you are stressed you start to take shallow breaths and your diaphragm becomes locked down. Being mindful of your breaths helps to repair that. It will also activate your vagus nerve which has a massive input into your parasympathetics.

There are many different forms of mindful breathing you can do. I personally will stand up straight either in the superman pose or arms stretched out and head slightly back. The pose alone is uplifting. After that for 1-3 minutes I will take a 5-10 second breath in, hold for 5 seconds, and then slowly breathe out for 10-20 seconds. You’d be surprised by just how refreshed you feel after this.

Physical Activity
Young woman riding a bike in nature with a smile on her face

Movement is life! We’ve all heard that saying! Physical activity will activate that vagus nerve to help calm you down, while also increasing the blood flow to your pre-frontal cortex. This is what helps our body function at it’s optimal potential.


Under stress most people have a lower vagal tone (it’s over worked from trying to calm you down all the time). Meditation even for 10-30 minutes a day has been studied to increase your vagal tone and positive emotions. It also works as a great balancing exercise. The world is so stressful and busy! Taking just a few minutes to be still can change your entire day!

Young woman doing yoga on the beach during the sunrise

Yoga is a mind, body, and soul practice. It helps with the awareness of body sensations. It allows you to evaluate how your body is reacting to your environment, and teaches you poses, postures, and breaths to combat them. Harvard even released that yoga helps to improve mental health. We all need that!

Developing a safe place

Feelings of safety is the best way to shut off your sympathetic system. Often people will tell me that even their house is stressful. If you can create a safe corner, room, chair etc and then when you feel stressed go to that spot and take a few breaths. Doing this will help to pull you out of that sympathetic state. You want to put your favorite colors, smells, and sounds in this spot. It becomes a place of gratitude as well. Allowing your brain to only think about positive things for a little while will help to balance out your autonomic nervous system.


I know when you are stressed it’s the last thing you want to do, but smiling will release your dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. These are all of your feel good hormones. In times of stress or hecticness it’ll in a way trick your brain in to being happy and calm.  


When our body is deficient it doesn’t operate properly. When stressed the vitamins that I recommend supplementing with are vitamin B, Vitamin C, and Vitamin D. These are great just to help regulate your system. I also add in a cortisol manager which you can find on amazon here. I also highly recommend taking ion gut biome which you can find here. This supplement helps to balance your gut out. The gut-brain axis is always important to keep in mind.

Decrease Screen Time

Studies have shown that screen time and emotional stress are related. Decreasing your screen time and changing it out for a small walk will help to balance out your autonomic nervous system.


As you can see your autonomic nervous system is a huge part of your life. Whether your goal this year is to lose weight, get pregnant, be happy, eat healthier etc. Making sure your autonomic nervous system is working properly is a big piece of that. Your past traumas have a massive influence on this, but if you aren’t ready to do some type of talk therapy or limbic system therapy then start adding in a few of the suggested treatments to start calming down your system.

You can also read How to reset and heal a dysregulated nervous system and 12 Ways to Keep your Brain and Nervous System Healthy for even more great information!

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