Module 4 of APPPAH’s PPNE Course: Neuroscience
By Christianna Deichmann
When giving a talk on pre and perinatal dynamics, the speaker must be cognizant of behaviors exhibited by people in the audience because the subject matter can be activating of the autonomic nervous system. These external signals such as elevated speech, anxious fidgeting, distorted facial expressions, increased pulse seen at the carotid artery, redness in the face or neck, and constricted posture can relay information regarding the internal states of each person. Inevitably, someone attending the talk will have unresolved early childhood trauma and will be triggered by the content, in turn pushing them into a state of arousal or dissociation that can be overwhelming and re-traumatizing. Since most people are unaware of their trauma or what drives their bodies to behave in certain ways, the speaker would want to encourage anyone activated by the talk to seek out somatic experiencing (SE) therapy.
Bringing awareness to the internal state of your autonomic nervous system and sensations within your body is like attending mind-body gym class. Peter Levine developed the therapy known as Somatic Experiencing, which empowers individuals with conscious awareness of how their autonomic nervous system is regulating. This form of therapy provides a safe container in which to discharge blocked energy and to relieve implicit memories of trauma that drive pathology, disregulated behaviors, internal biology, emotions and thought patterns. His therapy provides the roadmap for how individuals can access, tolerate, and utilize their inner sensations (Levine 2010).
Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory greatly contributed to Levine’s techniques and forms the foundation of how psychophysiology plays out in the body. The theory describes three stages in the development of a mammal’s autonomic nervous system that are each supported by a distinct neural circuit: immobilization, mobilization, and social engagement (Porges 2004). These neural circuits are activated independently of conscious awareness. The nervous system evaluates risk in the environment and regulates the expression of adaptive behavior to mirror the neuroception of an environment that is safe, dangerous, or life threatening (Porges 2004). The nervous system responds in a hierarchal fashion in response to unsafe neuroception. First, the person will engage the social nervous system to secure collective safety. However, when “pro-social” behaviors do not resolve the threatening situation, a person mobilizes the flight-or-fight response. If this hierarchy of default fails to resolve the threat, the least primitive system, immobilization/dissociation, kicks in (Levine 2010).
The social engagement nervous system is the most advanced system and has to be developed extensively in order to overcome the more primitive defense systems of fight-or-flight and dissociation. John Chitty explains that people have to build up the neuronal connections between the lower parts of the brain to the higher more evolved parts in the pre-frontal cortex (Chitty 2013). A person in a pre and perinatal talk who is demonstrating behaviors of anxiety or unease would benefit from healing unresolved childhood trauma of which they may not be aware is hijacking their sense of safe neuroception. Before social engagement behaviors can occur, the nervous system must have safe neuroception (Porges 2004). Levine points out in his book In An Unspoken Voice:
Traumatized individuals have lost both their way in the world and the vital guidance of their inner promptings. Cut off from the primal sensations, instincts and feelings arising from the interior of their bodies, they are unable to orient to the “here and now.” Therapists must help clients navigate back to their bodily sensations and capacity to self-soothe.
This type of mind-body therapy builds neuronal connections between the brainstem, amygdala/thalamus, and the neocortex. Someone who does not have resiliency in their nervous system, or the capability to utilize social engagement, has undernourished self-regulation capacities.
APPPAH’s mission is to change how the world perceives and treats babies. With current cultural trends, birthing practices, and hospital environments, babies enter this world with compromised opportunities to build strong neuronal pathways within the social engagement part of their autonomic nervous system. Chitty describes in Dancing with Yin and Yang how the whole hierarchal nervous sequence breaks down in a sub-optimum hospital birth. Newborn babies are often separated from their mothers, neglecting skin-to-skin contact necessary for oxytocin release—another neuropeptide crucial for building neuronal connections to the neocortex (Porges 2004). They are subjected to painful, unnatural procedures, coupled with medicine’s belief that babies are unaware with unsophisticated nervous systems. Baby’s social engagement system impulses are thwarted, so baby resorts to the sympathetic ANS in the form of crying. If this tactic fails, the baby’s only option is the parasympathetic freeze/immobilization response (Chitty 2013). Pre and perinatal dynamics describe issues and patterns that come from mother and baby’s experiences during preconception, conception, intrauterine life, birth, and the postnatal period. These experiences lay the foundation of the autonomic nervous system and ultimately shape who we become. Therefore, this subject matter can activate people who harbor trauma during this vulnerable time period and trigger implicit memories embedded in their bodies.
People who get activated by hearing talks on pre and perinatal dynamics need to connect with their bodies to understand the psychophysiology underpinning their behaviors. Psychophysiology denotes the translation of emotions into bodily, material processes involving the hormonal, cellular, and neural aspects of bodily being (Weinstein 2016). The Polyvagal Theory and Somatic Experiencing (SE) therapy demonstrate that there is no such thing as body-less thoughts, perceptions, emotions, or sentiments, because every internal and external force/condition/experience generates a response from the nervous system, which in turn governs how the body functions (Weinstein 2016). John Chitty said uplighting the social engagement system is the new “holy grail” of therapy, health care and childcare (Chitty 2013). In conclusion, somatic practitioners trained in SE are best equipped to help individuals heal from early childhood trauma.
Chitty, J. (2013). The autonomic nervous system. In Dancing with the yin and yang. Colorado School of Energy Studies website.
Levine, P. (2010). In An Unspoken Voice. How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, North Atlantic Books
Porges, S.W. (2004). Neuroception: a subconscious system for detecting threats and safety. Zero to Three, May 19-24.
Weinstein, A. (2016). Prenatal development and parents’ lived experiences: How early events shape our psychophysiology and relationships (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). NY: Norton Press. Chapter 7.