Dissociation, Trauma Capsules and the Parasympathetic Nervous System
The experience of childhood adversity, trauma and or abuse can have a profound impact on a person’s mental and physical health. One of the ways this can manifest is through something called dissociation, which is a defense mechanism in which an individual disconnects from their thoughts, feelings, and experiences to cope with overwhelming stress. Dissociation can occur on a spectrum, ranging from mild to severe, and can have an affect on a person’s life in many personal and professional arenas.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) plays a key role in regulating the body’s response to stress and trauma. This is one half of the autonomic, aka “automatic” nervous system (ANS). The PNS is responsible for activating the “rest, digest, restore and repair” response, which helps to calm the body and reduce stress levels. This response is in opposition to the “fight or flight” response activated by the sympathetic nervous system (the second half of the ANS).
Sometimes we hear from students in our EFT Level 1-2 workshops the assumption that the parasympathetic system “good” while the sympathetic nervous system is “bad.” Given the description of the it being responsible for calming the nervous system, we see where they could have come up with that notion. In individuals who have experienced childhood abuse and trauma though, the PNS can become dysregulated, leading to a chronic state of stress and anxiety.
This dysregulation of the PNS can be further exacerbated by dissociation, as dissociation has been shown to impair its functionin. When an individual dissociates, they are disconnecting from their physical body, which can lead to a decrease in PNS activation and an increase in sympathetic nervous system activation. This can result in a persistent state of stress and anxiety, as well as physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, sweating, and shaking.
It is incorrect to state that the parasympathetic nervous system is always a healing response because it depends on the context in which it is activated. While the parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the “rest and digest” response, its primary function is to regulate the body’s physiological response to stress, and not just to promote healing.
For example, in certain situations, such as when a person experiences a traumatic event, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system can lead to a state of freeze or shutdown, which can further impair the individual’s ability to cope with stress. In such cases, the parasympathetic nervous system may not necessarily be a healing response, but rather a defense mechanism to protect the individual from experiencing further harm.
The dissociation capsule aka trauma capsule is a concept used in psychology to describe a phenomenon where a person’s traumatic memories and emotions are separated from their everyday consciousness and stored metaphorically in a “capsule.” This process can occur because of dissociation, a defense mechanism in which an individual becomes detached from their thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and even memories or aspects of memories in response to a traumatic event.
The trauma capsule can act as a barrier that keeps the individual from experiencing the full emotional impact of the traumatic event, and prevents them from processing and integrating the traumatic experience into their overall understanding of themselves and the world. As a result, the individual may feel a sense of disconnection from their own emotions and memories, and the traumatic event may still have a significant impact on their life, even if it is not consciously remembered.
The trauma capsule can also be thought to maintain a sense of normalcy or stability, allowing the individual to continue functioning in their day-to-day life without being overwhelmed by the emotional impact of the traumatic event. At the same time, one could interpret the trauma capsule as a protective survival-based mechanism that successfully insulates the person from intense or persistent trauma-connected thoughts and emotions. However, over time, the effects of an unprocessed trauma capsule can lead to various mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It is important to work slowly when processing a trauma capsule for several reasons:
- Emotional safety: Processing a trauma capsule can evoke strong emotions, including fear, anger, and sadness. Working too quickly can overwhelm the individual and increase their risk of experiencing psychological distress, re-traumatization, or destabilization. It is important to proceed at a pace that feels safe and manageable for the individual, allowing them to regulate their emotions and maintain a sense of control. This is where the utilization of EFT’s “gentle techniques” can be very effective for reducing emotional intensity before directly working with a traumatic event.
- Respect for the body’s natural healing process: The body has its own natural rhythm and pace for processing and integrating traumatic experiences. Working too quickly can disrupt this process, leading to further emotional and psychological distress. By working slowly, the individual can allow their body to heal and process the trauma at its own pace. As the saying goes “When working with trauma, you only want to go as fast as the slowest part of you feels safe going.” Attribution to our colleague, Suzanne Fageol.
- Improved memory integration: Processing a trauma capsule often involves revisiting and integrating traumatic memories into the individual’s overall understanding of themselves and the world. By working slowly and gently, the individual can more effectively process and integrate the traumatic experience, leading to a more complete and nuanced understanding of the trauma. This is would transformational change of traumatic memories looks like and is the source of the resilience and post-traumatic growth.
- Reduced risk of re-traumatization: Working too quickly can increase the risk of re-traumatization, or re-experiencing a traumatic event in a way that causes significant distress. By working slowly using EFT’s Gentle Techniques, the Tell the Story Technique and Movie Technique, the individual can avoid being overwhelmed by the traumatic experience and reduce the risk of re-traumatization.
Here is an example of a case study of how a trauma capsule created by a traumatic childhood event could impact an adult’s life:
Leticia is a 40-year-old woman who was physically and emotionally abused by her father during her childhood. Despite the abuse, she was able to maintain good grades and was a star athlete in high school. However, she struggled with anxiety and depression and had a history of substance abuse. Leticia’s presenting issue was her inability to ask for a raise.
During her EFT sessions, she described feeling emotionally numb and disconnected from her own feelings and experiences. She had difficulty recalling specific details of the abuse and reported feeling like she was living in a “fog.” Through the series of sessions, Jane began to remember more and more details of the abuse, including physical and emotional scars that she had never fully processed or acknowledged.
As she began to in an EFT session to recall and process a particular traumatic memory when she was a little girl, she also began to experience intense emotions, including anger, fear, and sadness. At times, she felt overwhelmed and struggled to regulate her emotions, but with the support of her certified and licensed (given her history) EFT trauma-trained therapist, she was able to slow down and take her time in processing the trauma. Not only did an array of strong emotions arise, but she began recalling details about what happened that she had all but forgotten about; some insignificant things but other aspect where important pieces that were critical to creating a coherent narrative that helped her to make sense of what happened.
Over time, Leticia’s trauma capsule began to dissolve, and she was able to integrate her traumatic memories into her overall understanding of herself and the world. She reported feeling more connected to her emotions and more confident in her ability to manage them. She also reported feeling a greater sense of control over her life, as well as a stronger sense of self-esteem and self-worth which ultimately led her to be able to ask for and receive a substantial increase in pay at work.