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Trauma stabilization through polyvagal theory and DBT

By Kirby Reutter September 14, 2021

From my perspective, polyvagal theory has thus far provided us with the best working model of how trauma affects the brain and the body. According to this model, trauma has an impact on both branches of the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic), which includes both branches of the parasympathetic nervous system (ventral and dorsal). 

The sympathetic branch of the nervous system is associated with physical and emotional acceleration (such as increased fear, anger, breathing and heart rate); in the case of danger, this means “fight or flight.” In contrast, the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system is associated with physical and emotional deceleration. More specifically, the ventral branch of the parasympathetic nervous system is associated with social engagement, while the dorsal branch is responsible for “rest and digest” functions and, in the case of extreme threat, “freeze.” Freeze occurs when the organism either mentally dissociates or, in even more extreme cases, faints.

When presented with danger, the various branches of the autonomic nervous system are affected in a specific order. The first branch to be affected is the ventral sub-branch of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for social engagement. In other words, when presented with threat, functions related to social connectivity — laughter, smiling, empathy, attunement, the ability to provide validation — go offline. If the danger persists, the next branch to be affected is the sympathetic nervous system, which results in fight or flight. When neither fight nor flight can mitigate the threat, the dorsal sub-branch of the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, resulting in freeze (some sort of either mental or physical collapse, such as dissociating or fainting). The following actions summarize this sequence:

  1. Danger is sensed.
  2. Social engagement goes offline (ventral parasympathetic nervous system).
  3. Danger persists.
  4. Fight or flight is triggered (sympathetic nervous system).
  5. Danger cannot be mitigated through fight or flight.
  6. Freeze response activates (dorsal parasympathetic nervous system). 

The two pedals

Think of the sympathetic nervous system as the accelerator and the parasympathetic nervous system as the brakes. As we drive down the highway, we need both of these functions. If the drive is smooth, sometimes we will gently accelerate and sometimes we will gently brake. The same process applies to our physical, mental and emotional functioning. If the “drive” is smooth, our mind and body enjoys a gentle oscillation between accelerating and braking. 

This is even reflected in our heart rhythm. A healthy rhythm is indicated by a consistent repetition of fast/slow, fast/slow, fast/slow. The reason for this gentle pendulation is so that the entire organism, at a moment’s notice, can either further accelerate or further break, as needed. A heartbeat that is either consistently fast or consistently slow or irregularly fast/slow is not a healthy rhythm because these circulation styles cannot allow for the gentle oscillation between accelerating and braking that is required for a smooth ride.

Let’s return to our driving analogy. If you are driving down the highway and a truck carelessly swerves right in front of you, you will probably have all of the reactions represented by the polyvagal theory: You may swear and flash various fingers (social engagement goes offline), you may suddenly accelerate, or you may slam on the breaks. But after the danger is averted, you will most likely return to your baseline of gently oscillating between accelerating/braking as needed — until the next threat again requires more extreme action.  

Now let’s assume you have experienced so many roadside perils that you decide never to let down your guard. You are poised at every moment to yell and scream at other drivers, unpredictably accelerate and unpredictably brake. If you are really frazzled, you may even attempt to accelerate and brake simultaneously. Over time, this becomes your new default driving style, regardless of the driving conditions: cuss everyone out, suddenly accelerate, suddenly brake. (You may have noticed that in some major cities, this sort of driving is common.) Do you see how this will lead to a wild ride? Even if the driving conditions would otherwise have been relatively smooth, they won’t be anymore. And even if no danger would otherwise have been present, now there is. You are off to the races …

A breakdown in dialectics

This driving metaphor describes what happens to people who have experienced chronic trauma: too much accelerating, too much braking, and loss of social engagement to boot. This leads to a vast variety of responses that are either “too much” or “too little,” resulting in a host of life complications. This tendency toward too much or too little especially affects the following domains:

  • Awareness
  • Thoughts 
  • Emotions 
  • Reactions 
  • Relationships 

For each of these domains, it is possible to have either too much (overuse of the accelerator, or sympathetic nervous system) or too little (overuse of the brake, or parasympathetic nervous system). Too much awareness leads to hypervigilance, whereas too little leads to dissociation. Too much thinking leads to obsessive rumination, whereas too little leads to impulsive decision-making. Too much emotional stimulation leads to overwhelm, whereas too little leads to numbness. Too much reactivity leads to even more crises, whereas too little leads to paralysis. Even relationships can be either too much or too little, resulting in either overdependence or under-dependence on others.  

In short, trauma results in all of the following possibilities: over-awareness versus under-awareness; overthinking versus under-thinking; overemoting versus under-emoting; overreacting versus underreacting; and over-relating versus under-relating. Because both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems have been hijacked, the driver is constantly over-accelerating and over-braking in each of these domains — and often doing both at the same time.

bestber/Shutterstock.com

Restoring balance 

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which was developed by Marsha Linehan, is all about reconciling “dialectical dilemmas” (binary extremes resulting in dysfunction) by teaching specific behavioral skills to forge a “middle path” between those extremes. In particular, DBT teaches the following five skill sets: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, dialectical thinking and interpersonal effectiveness. These skill sets teach the middle path between each of the dialectical dilemmas mentioned in the previous section.

As long as clients are existing and operating at these extremes, it is extremely difficult for them to do even basic counseling — much less trauma work and much less life. That is why DBT as a treatment model is entirely skills focused. DBT teaches the foundational skills one needs to optimize counseling, stabilize for trauma work and then thrive in life — “building a life worth living,” in the words of Linehan. Among dozens of skills that could be highlighted, I would like to present five simple acronyms to help clients find — or forge — each of these middle paths.

The RAIN dance: One path to mindfulness 

Mindfulness, by definition, is always a combination of both awareness and acceptance. The RAIN dance helps clients increase both awareness and acceptance of intense emotions and other triggers in a highly practical and applied manner. RAIN stands for Recognize, Allow, Inquire and Nurture.  

The purpose of this acronym is to help clients know precisely how to apply mindfulness in a real-life situation. Let’s suppose you want to help a client become more mindful of their anger. First, teach your client to recognize their anger — and especially where they notice it in their bodies (e.g., clenched jaw). Next, teach your client to allow their anger (instead of judging or resisting it, which will make it only more difficult to manage in the long run.). Then, teach your client to inquire about their anger — with curiosity, empathy and maybe even humor. (Fear and anger are neurologically incompatible with empathy, curiosity, and humor.) Finally, teach your client to engage in some sort of nurturing (i.e., self-soothing) behavior to release the anger in an appropriate manner (such as taking a long walk through the woods). The emotional energy will need to become appropriately discharged, especially if the intense emotion has resulted from a fight-or-flight response; otherwise, this energy will simply become frozen — and then continue to resurface when triggered. 

The basic idea behind this skill is simple: Learn to “dance” with your emotions rather than avoiding, resisting, suppressing or judging them.  

TIP the balance: One path to distress tolerance 

DBT distress tolerance is all about learning to cope in the moment without making it worse. It is about replacing impulsive, addictive, risky or self-injurious behaviors (in other words, any behavior that leads to even more of a crisis orientation) with more-effective coping strategies.  

One of my favorite distress tolerance skills has to do with finding ways to TIP the balance. Because there is such a direct and obvious mind-body connection, often the quickest way to shift your mood is to quickly shift something in your body. If you can “tip” your body chemistry, you can also “tip” the balance on your emotions. There are three ways to quickly TIP your body chemistry: Temperature, Intense exercise and Paced breathing/Paired muscle relaxation (this refers to tensing your muscles as you inhale and relaxing your muscles as you exhale). 

Although each of these techniques is effective on its own, they can be even more effective when done together. For example, one way I personally TIP the balance in my own life is by riding my bicycle. This activity helps me to quickly change my body temperature, involves intense physical exercise, and helps me synchronize my respiration (inhale/exhale) with my musculation (tense/relax) through the cyclical nature of pedaling.

Sow your SEEDS: One path to emotion regulation

Whereas distress tolerance refers to short-term coping in the moment, emotion regulation refers to a long-term lifestyle change that will ultimately support much healthier emotionality. When I teach emotion regulation skills to clients, I use an extended garden analogy. For example, if you want to have a healthy garden of flowers, would it make any sense to scream and swear at the flowers? Ignore the flowers? Shame the flowers? Coerce or manipulate the flowers? Of course not. Your flowers do not need to be controlled — they need to be cultivated. 

The same concept applies to our emotions. Instead of trying to control them, we need to care for them — like beautiful, delicate flowers. (By the way, it makes me cringe every time that I hear therapists — and even DBT practitioners, no less — paraphrase emotion regulation as “controlling your emotions.”) There are several things you need to do to care for a real garden: plant the right seeds, do some weeding, check the soil, continue to care for the garden even when you feel like giving up, and fertilize. Each of these activities represents a specific way to care for our emotions as well. Here, I will simply introduce the first one: You need to plant the right SEEDS.  

Planting the right SEEDS refers to five ways of taking care of your physical body: Symptoms, Eating, Exercise, Drugs and Sleep. If you want to have a healthy garden of emotions, you will need to plant each of these seeds by addressing physical symptoms, finding healthy eating patterns, getting moderate exercise, monitoring which drugs enter your body, and getting adequate sleep. After helping my clients develop a specific plan for each of these “seeds,” I often have them provide me with a quick SEEDS report at the beginning of each session, as part of their weekly check-in. 

Working the TOM: One path to dialectical thinking  

Dialectical thinking is all about letting go of the extremes, learning to think more in the middle, learning to be more flexible with your cognitions, learning to see things from someone else’s perspective, learning to see things from multiple perspectives in your own head, and learning to update your beliefs when presented with new information.  

When I teach dialectical thinking to clients, I use a very simple process: We work the TOM, which stands for Thought, Opposite and Middle. First, we identify the original problematic thought. Next, we identify the complete opposite extreme of that cognition. Finally, we brainstorm a possible belief somewhere more in the middle.  

Let’s assume a client has the original problematic thought of “I am not good at anything.” The complete opposite extreme would be: “I have never once made a mistake. I am absolutely flawless. I am the most competent human specimen that has ever existed.” And something more in the middle might be: “There are some things I am OK at, but there are also lots of things that I need to work on.”  

The purpose of this exercise is to help clients quickly identify a cognition that is most likely much more accurate than the original belief. Clients may not always be able to come up with a middle thought on their own, so it is completely fine to help them at first. Eventually, however, it is better if clients can generate their own middle thoughts because whatever they produce will inherently be more believable than whatever you come up with. Even if the client insists they do not believe the middle thought that they generated, chances are that part of them does — because those words came from their mind. Regardless, your job is not to try to convince your client that the middle thought is more accurate; it is simply to plant the seed for that thought and then let it germinate on its own.
In fact, the more the client wrestles with the middle thought, the more they are thinking about it, therefore reinforcing the new cognition.  

DEAR Adult: One path to interpersonal effectiveness 

Whereas all the other skills mentioned so far are about self-regulation, interpersonal effectiveness inherently involves both the self and someone else. Therefore, interpersonal effectiveness inherently subsumes the other skill sets. After all, you can’t possibly deal with another person if you can’t even deal with yourself yet. 

Here, I would like to introduce perhaps the most comprehensive of the interpersonal effectiveness skills: DEAR Adult. D stands for Describe: First, describe the situation that needs to be addressed. State only the facts, and truly focus on the situation, not the person. Next, Express how you feel about the situation. Use “I feel” statements. Once again, truly express how you feel about the situation, not the person. Sometimes it can be helpful to use a “float back” and express how you have felt about similar situations previously so that both you and the other person understand that there might be more history beyond the current situation. If you want to be especially dialectical, also use this E to Empathize with the other person’s perspective.  

Now you are ready to move on to A, which stands for Assert. When asserting, use “I need” statements. In particular, explain what you need in positive terms, not negative ones; explain precisely what you need the other person to do, not what they should stop doing. If you want to be even more dialectical, also use the A to Appreciate the other person’s perspective and even Apologize for your role in this situation.  

R stands for Reinforce. You want to end on a positive, upbeat note by reinforcing both your request and the relationship itself. In my opinion, the best way to reinforce both is to explain how what you are requesting is a win-win proposition. You simply want what is best for both parties. Therefore, you are willing to further negotiate and compromise as necessary.  

Finally, you want to do all of this using the Adult Voice, which is the dialectic (the middle ground) between the Parent Voice (yell, lecture, berate) and the Child Voice (whine, pout, throw a tantrum). The Adult Voice is when you communicate in a manner that is calm, composed and collected.

Summary 

Ongoing trauma results in overstimulation of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (accelerator and brake), resulting in a variety of responses that are either “too much” or “too little.” The five skill sets taught in DBT help restore the balance between these extremes by providing a middle path, which includes reactivation of the social engagement system. That’s why when I am explaining DBT to my clients, I usually dispense with clinical jargon and simply refer to this model as “developing balance therapy.” In this article, I have briefly introduced five skills (among legion) as examples of these middle paths: RAIN dance as a form of mindfulness; TIP the balance as a form of distress tolerance; sow your SEEDS as a form of emotion regulation; work the TOM as a form of dialectical thinking; and DEAR Adult as a form of interpersonal effectiveness. 

To be clear, DBT was not designed to resolve the original trauma. Myriad models have been developed for trauma processing. Some models focus more on verbal processing and are generally referred to as “top-down models.” Other models focus more on somatic processing and are generally referred to as “bottom-up models.” Some clients prefer verbal forms of processing, some clients prefer somatic forms of processing, and most clients can benefit from both, so it is not necessary (in my opinion) to engage in endless debate or pointless turf wars on this point. My recommendation is simple: Be trained in at least one form of trauma processing that is mostly top-down and at least one form of trauma processing that is mostly bottom-up — and become proficient in both. (Another dialectical dilemma resolved.) 

However, no form of trauma processing can be completely effective when the individual is actively in crisis, experiencing ongoing danger or constantly dysregulated. That’s where DBT comes in. DBT (which I like to call “developing balance therapy”) provides the necessary skill set to help individuals sufficiently stabilize or self-regulate in order to then proceed with deeper trauma work.  

If you would like to learn more about how to use trauma-focused DBT with a variety of trauma-based disorders, I recommend the following resources to get started:  

  • The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for PTSD: Practical Exercises for Overcoming Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by Kirby Reutter, 2019
  • “DBT for Trauma and PTSD” (DBT Expert Interview series at psychotherapyacademy.org/dbt-interviews)
  • Survival Packet: Treatment Guide for Individual, Group, and Family Counseling by Kirby Reutter, 2019
  • “The Journey From Mars: Brain Development and Trauma” webinar (youtube.com/watch?v=WSFqHS_axOc)

 

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Kirby Reutter is a bilingual clinical psychologist and licensed mental health counselor who contracts with the Department of Homeland Security to provide mental health services for international asylum seekers. He has provided four trainings for the U.S. military, is a TED speaker and is the author of The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for PTSD: Practical Exercises for Overcoming Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Contact him at Kirby.reutter@gatewaywoods.org or through his website at drkirbyreutter.com.

 

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