Glossary for Clearing Trauma and Co-Regulation
These definitions reflect my understanding of how the words are used currently in interpersonal neurobiology and trauma work. Words organize our thinking. If the field is new to you, reading the glossary is educational.
Activation: Arousal in the autonomic nervous system. e.g. excitement of any kind, or a threat response.
Amygdala: The brain’s first responder for danger. It records what has been dangerous in the past and reacts fast.
Apnea: Temporary, dysregulated suspension of breathing.
Attunement: Tracking what is going on with another.
Autonomic Nervous System (ANS): The involuntary neural networks that rev us up, calm or freeze us down, and fine-tune us for communication. Our ANS runs the basic life support systems in our body: digestion, heart and lungs, immune and inflammatory systems, sleep, temperature and our threat responses. When it wears out, we die.
It evolved in three layers:
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS): The part of the nervous system that calms us down for rest and digestion. It can also turn our energy way down in a freeze/hide/dissociate response, to cope with overwhelming trauma. Then, it can be hard to move, talk or even think. Evolutionarily old, it is the main threat response in the reptilian brain.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): The part of the nervous system that mobilizes up for fight/flight, wakes us up in the morning and energizes us for work and play. It also allows mammals to maintain steady temperature in cold climates.
Social Engagement System (AKA Social Nervous System Soc.NS): (Porges, 1995) – This adjusts our system for communication, sending blood to the complex, energy consuming networks in the brain, for coordinating speech, complex thinking, and the Elements of Attunement. The social threat response is “us against them or it”. The relaxed response is cooperative, inclusive. It evolved with herd animals and is highly developed in the human brain.
Body Up and Top Down: Body Up means originating in our bodily experience. Top Down means originating in our mental experience.
Body Up Wisdom (AKA Body Wisdom): Wisdom that comes from being awake in our bodies. It is a felt sense. It bypasses reason and brings us feelings. E.g. the heart can sense when someone else is hurting or happy. The gut can often tell who is safe, who is dangerous and when a business risk will pay off. Body wisdom includes knowing when to listen to the body, and when to avoid letting cravings and primitive reactions take over.
Boundaries: Protection against over stimulation of the nervous system. A healthy nervous system can be counted on to take immediate self-protective action when threatened. When boundaries have been ruptured, especially if it was early in life and/or repeated, threats may go unnoticed, or the response may be inhibited, dissociative or exaggerated.Healthy, flexible boundaries allow us to feel safe and function well in a wide variety of situations. Good boundaries allow us to get closer to others.
Building Capacity: Expanding our bandwidth so we can stay organized, present and effective in the face of increasing complexity and intensity. When we know where to get warm, we worry less about getting cold. When we know how to re-regulate fast, we do not get so anxious about getting overwhelmed. Body Up! Co-Regulation helps us to stretch ourselves and build our capacity to stay present with intensity and complexity.
Codependence versus Co-Regulation: In codependence, we often depend on someone else to regulate us. In co-regulation we regulate ourselves with another person. Codependence usually means that we are trying to get another person to take care of us or rescue us from our old wounds, our history of neglect, our shame, or our fear of abandonment.
Competent Protection (Poole Heller, 2003): An internal and an external experience of safety based on a sense of self or other as able to meet expected challenges or threats. A sense of competent protection is key in clearing trauma. People who have no experience of competent protection need help building it before they are willing to try connecting with past trauma for healing. We tend not to venture into old scary memories without any hope of competent protection.
Completion (Levine & Poole Heller, 1997): Finishing interrupted activation patterns that got trapped in the nervous system during trauma. Completion builds resiliency.
Complexity and Intensity: These are the two basic challenges that can stress, overwhelm and traumatize our nervous systems. They include: too much, too fast, too emotional, too painful, too complicated.
Connection: One nervous system recognizing another via the elements of attunement.
Co-Regulation: Using our connection with each other to shift emotional gears, or to stay steady in challenging situations. It is cooperative, and two way. Like cooperation, co-regulation is interactive, by definition. Together, we are each regulating our own nervous system. It is a way we can support another person while benefitting rather than depleting ourselves. Co-regulation means good for you, and good for me too. The three pillars of co-regulation are EXPRESSION, REFLECTION AND RESPONSE.
Corrective Experience (Levine & Poole Heller, 1997): Retelling the story, how it should have been, and noticing the response in the body. We cannot change history, but we can lay in new circuitry to expand our brain’s frozen perspective on what is possible.
Discharge (Levine & Poole Heller, 1997): Trapped energy moving out of the nervous system. Track it in deeper breaths, sighs, yawns, tears, tingle flows, chills, goose bumps, trembling, shaking, laughing, sweating, twitching, fight or flight gestures, flushing, heat waves or flows, burps and intrinsic movement. Discharge is often necessary, but not sufficient for healing. Integration is also necessary.
Dissociation: Consciously or unconsciously shifting our attention away from something, especially the body or present time reality. Dissociation can be normal, or extreme enough to fragment our sense of self, our memory, or our sense of reality.
Down Regulation: To shift from higher energy states to lower energy states. For example shifting out of focused work modes or threat responses, downshifting for sleep, stabilizing into expansive, relaxed or playful states, shifting out of hypervigilance and chronic anxiety, going more parasympathetic.
Elements of Attunement: Our nervous systems understand each other and communicate via the neurological elements of attunement, especially eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice, posture, gesture, rhythm, timing, intensity, touch, sharing weight, distance and words.
Embodiment: Being alive, in a body and sensing that body. See also Dissociation.
Embodiment in Relational Space: Staying aware and attuned with our bodies around other people. This is complex and demanding, so it is helpful to do practices that wire our nervous system to track self and other in real time.
Emotional Edges: If we start to get overwhelmed, confused or frozen by emotional intensity, we are at an emotional edge.
Empathy: Feeling another’s emotional state.
Empowerment: Awakening a person’s capacity to take action on their own priorities, and make a difference in the world.
Exploratory Orienting: Approaching the present with curiosity about what might be pleasant or interesting or useful. It is expansive and opens us to new information and experience. It can be used to shift out of threat responses.
Flooding: Overwhelming discharge. It happens when we get too activated. Shift toward some resource or risk shutdown and/or re-traumatization.
Fight or Flight: A sympathetic threat response where we rev up to save ourselves.
Freeze: A parasympathetic threat response where we shut down, dissociate, and/or limit breath to save ourselves from danger or overwhelm.
Human Nervous System: See nervous system.
Hyper-vigilance: An anxious state of watchfulness that interferes with rest and recovery. It keeps us activated and on guard, looking for new threats and problems to defend against. It stops us from noticing and accessing resource.
Intention: A goal or purpose that organizes our thinking and behavior.
Intrinsic Movement (Poole Heller, 2003): Involuntary, often subtle, unwinding responses or fight or flight gestures that complete trapped action patterns. This is a form of discharge/completion that can clear activation from the system. We cannot do it at will, but we can recognize it, allow it and support it as it moves through when the impulse comes.
Language of Sensation (Levine & Poole Heller, 1997): Words that describe sensation. The Language of Sensation links conscious, language based neocortical resources with the sensory-based reptilian/limbic memory networks where trauma patterns get stored. Most clients need help putting language to their emotions and sensations, especially at their emotional edges. This work is essential in building a collaborative and effective therapeutic relationship.
Looping (Levine & Poole Heller, 1997): Intentionally alternating between resource and activation to keep the activation manageable.
The Mending Zone: Where we can heal by touching into a manageable, digestible amount of activation and discharge, without flooding or dissociating. Competent Protection, the language of sensation and a neuroception of safety are key to a deep process of neural integration.
Micro Adjustments: Small adjustments for comfort. They send a signal of safety to both peoples’ nervous systems.
Nervous System (NS): The physical system that coordinates our external behavior and our internal functioning by transmitting signals to and from different parts of the body via nerves, hormones and other signal cells. The nervous system detects changes in the internal and external environment and coordinates a response to those changes.The Human Nervous System has 2 functional divisions:
Voluntary Nervous System (VNS): Also called the sensory motor system – The neural networks that allow us to move and sense at will. It includes muscles like biceps and pectorals and sensory organs like eyes and skin.
Autonomic Nervous System (ANS): The neural networks that calm or freeze us down, rev us up, or fine-tune us for communication. This involuntary part of our nervous system regulates heart and breath rate, sleep, digestion, temperature, blood pressure, immunity, energy levels and more.
Neuroception (Porges,2004) and Perception: Neuroception detects threat before conscious awareness. It is our fast, more primitive threat response system. Perception registers in our newer, slower, more complex, cortical circuits. The amygdala reacts to a neuroception of threat about a half a second before conscious perception notices anything. Building a neuroception of safety is key to clearing trauma.
Oxygen Triage: Threat responses limit oxygen to the brain. The oxygen may be routed to the muscles so we can save ourselves by fighting or fleeing. Or. We may minimize breath, oxygen and energy in down regulation toward freeze. This can make it hard to think, talk or move.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS): see Autonomic NS
Pendulation (Levine & Poole Heller, 1997): The nervous system’s natural rhythmic alternation between resource and activation. Pendulation titrates activation organically.
PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – (better called PTSR, Post Traumatic Stress Response). Dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system, left over from trauma. It generates a wide variety of symptoms and conditions including flashbacks, emotional numbness, hypervigilance, digestive problems and more..Peter Levine PhD, founder of Somatic Experiencing® says, “Trauma is in the nervous system, not in the event.” When there is PTSD, there is always relational trauma because it means our tribe has failed to help us heal.
Regulation: The ongoing process of shifting our bodily systems to be ready and available for the task at hand, be it rest, healing, relating, public speaking, play, or self protection.
– Dysregulation: This means our nervous system does not adjust for the situation at hand. We may be revved up when we want to sleep, frozen when we need to take action, or anxious, combative or mis-attuned when we want to reach for attuned connection.
– Re-Regulation: Shifting out of dysregulation and into adaptive states. Shifting out of threat responses as soon as they are not needed is the most important form of re-regulation. Co-regulation helps us re-regulate fast.
– Self-Regulation: Regulating ourselves, both in solo space and in relational space. We learn basic self-regulation skills, or lack of them, from our early caregivers.
– Solo Regulation: Regulating ourselves, when we are alone. For basic solo regulation, breathe and move in an organized way.
Relational Space: Being with another person (or mammal), and noticing it, via the neurological Elements of Attunement.
Relational Trauma: Trauma from earthquakes and most traffic accidents is non-relational. Trauma from rape or death of a loved one is relational trauma. It can make intimacy or any human connection feel dangerous.
Relaxed Responses: The autonomic nervous system’s responses to a sense of safety. The social relaxed response is compassionate, inclusive, “How can we make this work for everyone?”. The relaxed but energized sympathetic response is often called, “Play”. (I call it, “Happy Puppy” to give an example of being relaxed but energized.) The relaxed parasympathetic response is, “Rest and Digest”.
Resiliency: The capacity to bounce back to health and grow stronger from challenges big and small.
Resistance: SE teaches us to value and understand “resistance” as the nervous system taking care of itself. I view it as the nervous system showing us where it is getting overwhelmed, and what seems safer, more resourcing.
Resource: Anything that calms us, or shifts us into a more relaxed autonomic state. Knowing how to resource makes it safe to begin to access past trauma so we can discharge, Integrate, and heal.
Resourcing: Means bringing our attention to anything that shifts our autonomic nervous system into relaxed functioning.
Re-traumatization: OVERWHELMING AN ALREADY TRAUMATIZED NERVOUS SYSTEM WITH MORE INTENSITY THAN IT CAN INTEGRATE. Avoid This! Re-traumatization happens when past traumas are replayed in memory or in life, without the time and resource to resolve and integrate them.
Rhythm and Timing: Attuning to each others’ rhythm and using sensitive timing is an important way we communicate that someone matters to us. It cuts through shame. Insisting on controlling rhythm and timing reads as dominance.
Shame: To survive, we need to belong to a group, and we need to matter to some individuals. Shame warns us that we may stand to lose important relationships. It is a powerful emotion that can freeze us down or rev us up. It is relational. Sharing weight helps us feel we belong. Others attuning to our rhythms helps us feel that we matter.
Sharing Weight: Resting some or all of our weight on another person, or receiving the weight of another. It need not involve touch.
The Social Nervous System (Soc.NS) (Porges, 1995): see Autonomic NS
Somatic Experiencing®: SE is a short term, naturalistic approach to the resolution and healing of trauma developed by Dr. Peter A. Levine Ph.D.
Stabilization: Settling the nervous system in a steadier state, after an overwhelming or intense experience.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): see Autonomic NS
Threat Responses: Physiological strategies for responding to survival threats. Three threat responses evolved with our three layer ANS. There is the social threat response (us or me, against him, her, them or it) where we are geared for social engagement and blood flow is directed to the complex oxygen hungry, social circuitry of the brain. There is the revved up threat response of fight/flight, where the blood is directed to the muscles for movement. And there is the freezy, shutdown, dissociative threat response, where the metabolism drops and it can be hard to move, talk or even think.
Titrate (Levine & Poole Heller, 1997): To carefully manage the activation experienced in revisiting past trauma as we are clearing it.
Titration :Means taking things in carefully gauged, small doses.
Trauma: Trauma means we could not protect ourselves and our nervous system got overwhelmed by intensity and/or complexity. Trauma may be relational as in abuse, or non-relational as in an earthquake.
Trauma Triggers: A person, place, date, sensation or experience that trips re-association with a traumatic memory that may still be overwhelming, or at least upsetting.
Up Regulation: To shift from lower energy states to higher energy states: getting going, revving up your sympathetic nervous system to wake up from sleep, energize for work or play, or to spill anxiety so you can downshift more easily.
Voluntary Nervous System (VNS): see Nervous System
Window of Presence: A range of internal intensity where we can stay present, organized and at choice. In our window, we think clearly and do not get carried away by our emotions. When we push the edges of our window too far, getting too revved up or too frozen down, the nervous system gets disorganized. We get more and more uncoordinated in our movement, primitive in our reactions, and black-and-white in our thinking