Healing The Nervous System With Stretch And Yoga

By | 2017-05-01T15:04:11+00:00 April 27th, 2017|

One of the key features and core imbalances in children who have Attachment Disorder is a nervous system dysregulation.

This causes qualities in these children such as, hypervigilant, difficult emotional regulation, and heightened sensitivity, which can easily be identified by parents and professionals who work with children who have Attachment Disorder.

Because the nervous system regulates through the development of a secure attachment, which is the first social milestone to be developed during infancy, it should be noted that the nervous system is still in its early developmental phase among children/adults who have Attachment Disorder.

In either case, for the lifetime of an individual, the brain and nervous system operates as a single unit when it comes to coordinating surviving and thriving behaviors.

As an individual perceives that they are not in any danger, they’ll move to thriving behaviors, which are socialization and community-building.

However, if the perception is that there is danger, the brain and nervous system will instinctually coordinate a survival response. This will last as long as the danger is still perceived to be present, which will allow the utilization of different survival defenses, as the environment gives indications of the degree of danger present at each moment.

Therefore, to further understand how we as parents and caregivers can help our child’s nervous system heal, we will look at various experts in the field of trauma, which will offer more material and methods to look into, and we will discuss the importance of incorporating yoga into your child’s daily routine to encourage a deeper healing for your child.

Let’s dive right in!

Allan Schore, PhD:

Dr. Allan Schore, an American Psychologist, expounded on Attachment Theory as taught by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, as well as developed Regulation Theory.

Regulation Theory is the idea that a secure attachment occurs through interactions with the primary caregiver that are regulating to the nervous system.

Without this autonomic regulation provided by secure attachment, the nervous system, emotional structures, and pathways in the brain fail to develop properly.

Daniel Siegel, MD:

Early in 1999, Dr. Daniel Siegel started writing about early childhood neglect and affect dysregulation. Affect dysregulation is another way to describe emotional responses that are out of proportion.

Dr. Siegel’s work has created this notion of interpersonal neurobiology, much of which the focus is on mirror neurons and how the emotional states of one person affect another.

This has a lot of implications for Attachment Disorder, because through mirror neurons, we are able to help regulate our child’s nervous system and emotions, while helping them develop a secure attachment. It is one of the key foundational principles of Therapeutic Attachment Parenting.

Stephen Porges, PhD:

Dr. Stephen Porges, who first wrote a Polyvagal Theory in 1998, summarizes his work in an article titled The Polyvagal Perspective” (Porges, 2007).  

His work has made significant contributions to understanding the autonomic nervous system and its systematic response to threat.

He traced the large vagus nerve to two separate origins in the brain, one origin which coordinates rest, digest, and thriving social behaviors.

However, in response to a threat, the autonomic nervous system reacts with the sympathetic component that triggers mobilization: fight or flight!

If the danger at any point becomes too overwhelming to the individual, to the point that they think they may not survive, the brain will switch to the freeze state.

The freeze state is actually coordinated by the vagus nerve as well – but not the same part of the vagus nerve that coordinates the thriving behaviors of rest, digest, and socialization.

This is why it is called the “Polyvagal Theory”, poly referring to multiple vagus nerves.

The image below shows these three different autonomic nervous system functions or states in the order of occurrence: vagal rest, digest, social, sympathetic activation of fight or flight, dorsal vagus freeze, and dissociate.

Thus, it is the dorsal vagus nerve that coordinates the survival response of freeze. The dorsal vagus nerve originates from the brain, however, it is from a different area than the part of the vagus nerve that elicits the thriving behaviors of rest, digest, and socialization.

Peter Levine, PhD:

Dr. Peter Levine developed a form of trauma therapy, Somatic Experiencing, which focuses on releasing trauma from the body, more specifically, the nervous system. He states, in Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, “Trauma is in the nervous system, not in the event” (Levine, 2007).

Somatic refers to “the body”, therefore, Somatic Experiencing therapy utilizes body sensations and physiology to track the nervous system.

It then uses various methods to allow discharge from the autonomic nervous system that is still stored from the initial sympathetic activation to a threat.

These two images compare a healthy and dysregulated nervous system as viewed by Dr. Peter Levine.

Bessel Van der Kolk, MD:

Another expert in the area of trauma and its effects on the nervous system is Bessel van der Kolk, MD.

He describes the condition of the autonomic nervous system after trauma as being difficult to recover from either an activated or depressed state, thus leading to difficulty in regulating emotions.

Here is a link to his article “Clinical implications of Neuroscience Research in PTSD”. 

Bessel van der Kolk in another article, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Nature of Trauma,” brings forth the idea that trauma leads to a failure of the central nervous system to synthesize the sensations related to that trauma into an integrated whole (Van der Kolk, 2000).

In 1996 he published an article with Dr. Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery, where they concluded dissociation, somatization, affect dysregulation, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are all “representing a spectrum of adaptations to trauma” (Van der Kolk, Hermann, 1996)

Judith Herman, MD:

Judith Herman, MD, discusses in her book, Trauma and Recovery (1992), the different autonomic nervous system responses to the environment after an individual has experienced trauma.

She claims that in non-threatening situations, individuals who have trauma are usually hyper-vigilant and have heightened sensitivity characteristics of increased sympathetic activity.

However, Dr. Herman explains that when that individual is confronted with a situation that is truly dangerous, they go into parasympathetic freeze and submission-compliance (1992).  

Behaviors of Autonomic Nervous System Dysregulation:

As parents and professionals working with children with attachment disorder, this makes sense because this is what we see in our children on a daily and hourly basis!

Children with Attachment Disorder are hyper-reactive to everything, hypersensitive to sounds, sensations, and touch. And once they have become activated, it can be hours before they can calm back down completely.

Sleep is difficult to achieve, because they can’t relax at night.

Their brains think of all kinds of things to do when they wake up in the middle of the night, and when they wake up they are still hypervigilant and they look for ways to calm down their nervous systems.   

It is normal for parents to experience times of rage from their child that can go on for an hour or longer.  

Healing Attachment Disorder Is Healing the Nervous System:

Taking all of this into account, the autonomic nervous system is crucial in the process of attachment and in the development of positive social behaviors! No longer can Attachment Disorder be viewed as just a brain problem – it is a brain and body problem.  

Given how important and involved the nervous system is in attachment and healthy emotions, it is obligated to be a part of the healing process. Healing attachment disorder is actually transforming the autonomic nervous system from a disorganized and dysregulated state to one that is organized and regulated.  

Healing the Nervous System:

Stretch, vibration, and manipulation are all methods that can heal a nervous system when applied correctly. Stretching of the nerves can be done in such a way as to allow for flexibility and easier discharge of stored energy in the nervous system that results in continued dysregulation.

We will later show you how to apply stretching safely in your home with you and your child.

With any of these methods that directly work on the nervous system, you will want to go gently!  

Release of Stored Traumatic Energy:

Nervous systems that have a lot of stored negative energy do not automatically release it in a smooth coordinated fashion. Remember, we are working with a dysregulated nervous system – nothing is smooth and coordinated, yet!  

If done too fast, negative energy can be released in an overwhelming manner that will trigger going back into a deep survival response by the brain and nervous system.

This could cause a regression that would make it more work later on, because this activity would now be strongly associated with a very bad feeling in the brain (amygdala).

Sympathetic Response Is an Activation of Energy:

The science behind this is quite simple: an activate sympathetic nervous system, in response to a threat, will send communication signals from the brain through the sympathetic nerves, to the muscles.

These signals elicit an energetic response from the muscles that spring into action to run or fight.  

When an individual actually does run or fight, this massive energy rush to the muscles is discharged through the action and movements of the muscles. There will not be a lot of buildup of negative energy in an individual who is able to run or fight in response to a threat.  

However, in all cases of Attachment Disorder and PTSD, the threat became so overwhelming that the individual goes into freeze mode.  

Dorsal Vagus Parasympathetic Freeze Response:

However, before the freeze response, the activation of the sympathetic nervous system is already down into the muscles and has already happened. Remember the image from Stephen Porges showing the three different autonomic nervous system states?

The sympathetic activation occurs first, and the freeze response then takes over if the threat is so overwhelming the individual realizes they cannot outrun or outfight it.

In the development of an Attachment Disorder, an infant is overwhelmed by the threat to its survival of not being able to bond to a stable, dependable, and safe adult.

As an infant, they are unable to run or fight, so after the sympathetic activation to the muscles, they go into the parasympathetic freeze through the dorsal vagus nerve (Stephen Porges, 2007).  

As Dr. Daniel Siegel describes the activation of the freeze response in his book Mindsight: “If we believe we’re helpless, that there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, we freeze or collapse.

Researchers call this the ‘dorsal dive,’ referring to the portion of the parasympathetic branch of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) that has been activated.”

Dorsal Vagus Parasympathetic Freeze Response Prevents Discharge and Causes Storage of Traumatic Energy:

If one does not run or fight, the energy activation from the sympathetic activation is never discharged.

This energy does not magically go away, but is stored in the nervous system contributing to the dysregulation of the overall system, including hypersensitivity and excessive response to minor triggers later.  

An individual can begin to release some of this stored traumatic energy, where the nerves are attached to the muscles, by stretching. In fact, muscle tightness or tension is a common symptom of stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which relates to the dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system and the nerves attached to the muscles.  

Gentle Start, Stretching:

A gentle way to ease into stretching the nervous system is by starting an exercise of yoga type movements. Start with simple deep stretches of the tissues: leg and arm muscles would be an even gentler way to ease into this exercise.  

30 second intervals of stretching muscles will start to bring more health and vitality to these nerves attached to the muscles. This is a good place to start so that the system is not overloaded!

Over time though, you will want to progress to a deeper level of the nerves, not just the endings of the nerves in the muscles. This is done through many yoga stretches.  

Yoga to Unfreeze the Nervous System:

In fact, yoga has now been studied and found to be a powerful tool for adults who are healing from PTSD. A recent article titled, “Why the Military Uses Yoga to Treat PTSD,” stated, “Studies show that yoga can ‘unfreeze’ the nervous system, alleviating PTSD symptoms.”

Here is a list of recent articles, but these are only a few of the published articles:

Price M: Effectiveness of an Extended Yoga Treatment for Women with Chronic Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. 2017.

Field T: Yoga Research Review. 2016.

Macy RJ: Yoga for Trauma and Related Mental Health Problems: A Meta-Review with Clinical and Service Recommendations. 2015.

Spinazzola J: Application of Yoga in Residential Treatment of Traumatized Youth. 2011.

A fun way to incorporate yoga into Attachment Therapeutic Parenting is to do something at home together. There are a number of yoga videos on youtube that you can enjoyable try.  One of my favorite ones to do with kids is 30 days of Yoga with Adriene. This starts really basic and doesn’t have a lot of visual stimulation so they can focus easier on the exercises. 

Supercharge Attachment Parenting With Yoga:

The way to supercharge Attachment Therapeutic Parenting is to do the yoga with them! If you are not able to join in on the fun, stay in the same room with your child, so you can engage with them emotionally and monitor their nervous system changes.  

As they do yoga and start to thaw out their nervous system, they will experience new sensations as their nervous system starts to flow better, and they will be more likely to open up emotionally, as well.  

Attachment Therapeutic Parenting and Interpersonal Neurobiology principles indicate that these are key moments for you to engage with your child!

The brain and nervous system are undergoing neuroplasticity, or growth, therefore, this is a moment where their survival defenses will be down, and bonding can be strengthened to a greater degree than at other times during the day.    

Engage with them emotionally as they do the muscle and yoga stretches.

Go through their emotions of feeling excited, proud, or disappointed when they are trying the different stretches. You will also want to watch for signs of their nervous system becoming dysregulated. Take a break at the first sign of dysregulation!

Action Steps:

Start today with muscle stretches! Do each muscle group for about 30 seconds, and go deep but not painful. You are looking for that in-between spot of uncomfortable but tolerable.

Do various muscle groups on both upper and lower body. Lower body stretches will want to include stretching your quadriceps by holding your foot behind you.

Stretch the back of your legs (hamstrings) by lifting your leg up onto a desk or counter, and/or by bending over that leg. Stretch your calf muscles by leaning your foot up against a wall or by pulling the top of your foot towards you while your leg is still up on the counter.  

Stretch your chest and arms! Pull your arms across your chest, then push it down your back by pushing on your elbow.  Stretch out your chest by clasping your hands together behind your back and pulling your shoulders back.    

To supercharge this activity, take note of your emotional state beforehand. Maybe even have a chart where you can indicate where on the chart your current level of anxiety or depressive feelings.

Tracking how the emotions change from each activity, like stretching, can be a fun activity to do with your child. A fun activity also means a bonding activity! It’s a win-win.

I would love to hear how stretching and yoga goes for you! Maybe you have already been doing yoga, or even advanced to trauma yoga!

What has been your experience? What were the changes you noticed in yourself?  

Did stretching and yoga shake things up emotionally for your kid at first?

Helping You to Be Equipped and Confident ~

Dr. Aimie



Herman J. (1992) Trauma and Recovery.  W.W. Norton.  LifeRhythm.

Levine, P. (2007) Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing.  North Atlantic Books and ERGOS Institute Press.

Stephen Porges. The Polyvagal Perspective.  Biol. Psychol. 2007: 74(2). 116-143

Schore A. (2003) Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self.  W. W. Norton

Siegel D. (1999) The Developing Mind. Guilford, New York.

Siegel D. (2010) Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.  Random House, Inc.

Van der Kolk B. Clinical Implications of the Neuroscience Research. New York Annals of Science. Jul 2006;1071: 277-93.

Van der Kolk B. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Nature of Trauma.  Dialogues Clin Neuroscience.  Mar 2000; 2(1): 7–22.

Van der Kolk B., Pelcovitz D., Roth S., Mandel F.S., McFarlane A., Herman J.L. Dissociation, Somatization and Affect DysregulationThe American Journal of Psychiatry. Jul 1996; S153(7): 83.


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