The Conditioned Nervous System (PART 1)Sep 12, 2022
A trauma-sensitive perspective on abuser/abused, victim/narcissist
To understand trauma it is helpful to know how our nervous system becomes conditioned, the body’s ability to adapt and automatically respond to situations based on past events is a useful tool in many circumstance, for example when we are learning to drive a car it can really feel like its “me” that's learning to drive and will be continuing to drive, but really our conscious mind is only there to assist in conditioning the body to drive for us.
Our cognitive understanding of how a car works, how to use the different functions, eg. gas and breaks and to really get a feel for what it’s like to drive we need our conscious mind.
As we do this something is happening on a deeper level, what we are essentially doing is we are conditioning the body to drive the car so “I” don't have to think about it.
We are imprinting the nervous system with specific movements, reactions and reflexes in order for them to happen automatically to make the experience of driving a car seamless and effortless.
Unless we are still learning to drive we don't often have to think about what we are doing, we don't need to cognitively decide to put the brake on, use our blinkers, accelerate, change gears or turn a corner. Once we have the hang of driving this whole process happens spontaneously all by itself and the conditioning of the body actually drives the car for us.
How many times have you gotten to your location only to realize you were not present for the whole drive? How many times have you taken the same trip to work without even consciously thinking about which way you are going?
Trauma exists on this same level, the imprints happen on a preconscious and pre-cognitive level.
Just like driving a car happens on its own as a system of learned reflexes and responses within the body, trauma is the exact same in the sense it is a learned motor response. On the surface it shows up as a behavioral reflex/reaction of the nervous system.
Developmental trauma is a vast system of complex structures which are built into the nervous system as motor responses, this causes specific pathways to fire and give birth to a set of reactions that come out in specific situations.
In the same way the nervous system becomes conditioned to driving a car automatically, the traumatized nervous system becomes conditioned in a set of ways to automatically respond to life and relationships.
For example, those who have the damaging diagnosis of pathological narcissistic disturbance the conditioned response may be to go into rage, the nervous system may be conditioned to automatically go into a fight response and become a perpetrator when relating to other human beings.
This response may have been imbedded into the nervous system from the way our caregivers related to us as children, for example if our parents shut us down, withdrew love and allowed their own rage and unresolved issues to be directed toward us.
When we did not meet their expectation then our default as children may have been to freeze or collapse, as our boundaries where breached we may have withdrawn into ourselves and dissociated from our own power, we were left alone to feel helpless and small.
As adults we can develop a protective mechanism where we unconsciously learn to overcompensate in the other direction and become the perpetrator to protect ourselves from the stored feelings of helplessness, we then unconsciously attempt to make others feel helpless.
What happens then in the same way the body responds to signals on the road on which way to steer the car, the system reacts to external stimuli and triggers these learned motor responses of Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn while engaging with life and in relationship to other human beings.
This is how trauma patterns perpetuate themselves within relationships.
The way these reactions show up can vary, we can be more dominant in any of the survival states in different situations.
The most common area for these to show up is in our intimate relationships, our spouse and children often trigger these reflexes the most.
The signals we receive within our intimate relationships elicit a firing of these patterns and cause us to react in ways that perpetuate the trauma within ourselves and traumatize those around us, and often those we love the most are the greatest victims.
There are 4 parts to this article, please see part 2, 3 and 4.
Peace & Blessing,
Matt Nettleton (Co-Creator of Embodied Processing)