Physiology Education

Physiology Education

'In short, trauma is about loss of connection - to ourselves, to our bodies, to others and to the world around us'. (Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, 1997).

Trauma comes in many different forms and affects human beings in a variety of different ways. Some of that depends on factors such as the life experience and coping strategies of the individual and also on factors related to environment. However, when faced with a traumatic situation, all human beings respond in a completely natural way. We respond by preparing as well as we can to face the situation with one sole purpose - to survive. The stress that we feel in this situation means that all of our focus is geared towards an inextricably linked psychological and physiological setting which is regularly described as fight, flight or freeze. By observing other animals in the natural world (something I have enjoyed doing recently on the BBC 'Dynasties' series ) we can see how effective this can be in terms of achieving the desired target.

When successful, this stress response not only keeps us alive in the moment but it can lead to us having a greater opportunity of surviving future trauma of a similar variety by leaving a psychological imprint. The experience is stored and echoes into the future so we are even better equipped to sense threat and danger and respond to it even more quickly and effectively. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your perspective!), the variety of traumatic situations that we can face in life are more vast and complex compared to other animals and beyond the immediate situation, we have other goals as well as survival.

As well as the fact that all human beings share a physiological need for survival, we also strive to meet various psychological needs (how we do this depends on our perception), this plays out as a continuous battle and is the foundation of the struggle that we face when dealing with the impact of our stress response. When we are faced with a challenging situation in life, but one that is not a threat to our survival, we are capable of producing exactly the same stress response in both cases, and we often do.

A sudden realisation that an important item such as a wallet is lost can very easily feel like a life or death situation, albeit usually only briefly until conscious thought leads to a perspective of short term struggle rather than one of it being literally the end of the world. I am sure the vast majority of you reading this have had this type of experience. Can you recall the raise in heart rate and unsettled feeling in your stomach? Perhaps the sweat on your forehead and the inability to think of anything else for that brief period? I bet your heart rate is slightly higher now as you recall this (these!) moments? Try applying the same thought experiment to remembering meeting an important person for the first time or the anticipation of a difficult day at work or school.

Naturally, the impact of these relatively frequent examples of situations which feel stressful is minimal compared to much more serious examples of abuse and neglect, which of course you will know if you have had this experience, or known someone that has.

We have just reminded ourselves of the power of our physiology. In combination with our psychology, it forms part of a powerful and effective machine. And like any machine, it needs to be cared for (as discussed in last week's NowCounselling blog article - Self Care Week 2018: What questions are you asking yourself?) and that is even more necessary when it is used frequently. When faced with traumatic situations so regularly that the stress response is repeatedly activated, the impact is that the machine begins to burn out and break down. As we contemplate the cumulative effect of this stress response and all of the accompanying echoes into the future, we can begin to appreciate the power of the potential toxicity of what becomes an over active stress response. The over use of the physiological process of the stress response means that short term benefits of the release of adrenaline and cortisol in increasing chances of survival are outweighed by the cumulative damage of the repetition of the process.

We are now beginning to understand the nature of this damage in more and more detail. It is now clear that in addition to well known long term psychological difficulties (such as anxiety, post traumatic stress, difficulty managing anger and frustration) there is evidence that trauma also leads to a number of other physiological health problems from asthma, COPD and chronic pain to heart disease and strokes. The case for the inextricable link of our psychology and our physiology is growing stronger.
As mentioned earlier, stress and trauma can and does affect all of us. This is covered in great detail in the groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study ( ) published in 1998. This inspired what is now a growing body of research and practice which means that we have every reason to be confident that the present and future is far more positive than when Peter Levine also wrote in his aforementioned book 'trauma is the most denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering'.

Dr Nadine Burke Harris and her team at her Centre for Youth Wellness in San Francisco ( are a leading example of trauma informed practice with children who have experienced adversity and the work of Tigers ( ) and Connected baby ( are contributing leading roles in the movement in Scotland to make it the world's first ACE Aware Nation (@ACEAwareNation).

Whether it is dealing with the affects of the stress of losing our wallet by learning to regulate our physiology effectively, or whether it is developing a trauma informed approach to supporting people who have experienced complex adversity through childhood which continues to damage their health and wellbeing today, we are now better equipped than ever to make sure that rediscovering the connection to ourselves, to our bodies, to others and the world around us is a reality for all.


All of the NowCounselling services are trauma informed. We offer counselling, coaching and psychologically informed supervision for individuals or groups. Our training courses are also written with ACEs awareness and trauma informed practice at the heart, and some are focused completely on the subject.

Details of the services currently available are in other sections of this website, and over the coming days we will be releasing details of some open courses based in central Scotland.

If you have any questions, require some information or wish to make a booking, please get in touch via the contact page of this website.