Why the Stress Response gets Stuck

Summary: In Somatic Experiencing circles we talk a lot about the biological cause of trauma and “why the stress response doesn’t complete.” We pass around various explanations that generally point toward something that wanted to happen that didn’t. It’s a little wordy but here’s my current short-hand explanation.

“The thing that wanted to happen but didn’t get to happen” was:

An embodied involuntary deactivation process that extinguishes the unused procedural memory instructions that were developed during a precipitating stress response caused by the neuroception of danger or life-threat.

This suggests that at least one of several necessary conditions were missing following a stress event.

  • Sufficient neuroception of safety
  • Enough time for deactivation
  • Enough allowance for involuntary psychophysiological processing or “body permission” associated to deactivation (i.e. trembling and shaking, spontaneous breathing, re-orientation, etc)
  • [Other necessary conditions???]

It’s the maintenance of these instructions and their subsequent mis-firing in unrelated environments that gives us the sense that something is wrong. Even when the “something” that caused it is now in the past.

These are maintained because the necessary conditions for being extinguished were not present immediately after the original stressor. (Or at least relatively soon after an original stressor).

Our task as SE People is to bring the attentional system (i.e. Felt Sense) and autonomic nervous system into sufficient association with those instructions that they are allowed to fire again but have that embodied involuntary deactivation process take place and be noticed so that the procedural memory loop will be extinguished and stop (or at least reduce) their misfiring at inopportune times.

In all: a successful stress response requires not only a successful response to the stressor (i.e. fight, flight and/or freeze) or “living through the event” but also a successful deactivation cycle after the danger has passed.

Or something like that…