ARTICLE: How Trauma Effects the Nervous System

Man holding out his hand

People with severe and profound intellectual or learning disabilities are at high risk of experiencing trauma. Understanding how trauma effects the body and nervous system can point us in the direction of what we can do to help ease suffering and promote healing.

“Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then. It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror and fear living inside people”. 

This quote from Bessel van der Kolk is one that might hit hard. We don’t want to think of the people we care for feeling pain, horror or fear – we want them to be calm and happy. However, by validating and accepting these feelings, holding space for the traumatised person to feel their fear and be safely heard, we are taking steps to help them to heal.

Trauma causes a physiological response in the human body, which can be very difficult to overcome. The brain acts as though it’s still under threat even when the real danger has passed, as it still perceives that danger as real.

It’s completely normal for a traumatised person to feel anxious – in fact it’s our brain looking after us; looking out for more danger. Living like this is extremely exhausting, however and causes great emotional and even physical pain from the tension held in the body. Here at NAC we strive to bring wellbeing to people with severe and profound intellectual disabilities.

There are many ways we can help those we care for to feel safer, to ease the strain on the nervous system, and dial down that anxious response. Here are some ideas of activities and techniques that might help.

Breathing for calm:

Sharing breath with another person, by becoming aware of one another’s breath at both a conscious and unconscious level can also create a profound experience and feeling of connectedness.


Our senses connect us to the environment around us and nature has been found to have a calming effect on the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Being in nature increases pleasant feelings and decreases stress and anxiety. Immersion in nature not only makes us feel better emotionally, it also contributes to our physical wellbeing.


Touch is used to reassure people. It is a way of saying ‘I am here’ and at times when a person is in need of comfort has the power to communicate more than words can. However, there are many different types and qualities of touch and people can vary widely in their preferences. People process touch differently and some people may find certain sensations heightened, or more intense.

Attuned Communication:

‘Attunement’ is the connection and harmony that occurs when we ‘tune-in’ and perceive, and respond to another person in a way that resonates with them and allows them to feel that they have been understood. Through attunement we show that we are ‘listening’, ‘seeing’ and understanding the other person. Attuned responsiveness sends the messages ‘I am here with you’ and ‘I care about you’ and ‘I want to understand you’. Attunement is a natural part of interactions and is intuitive for many, but with practice we can develop and enhance it further.

Sign up to our on-demand course, Trauma: Supporting Children and Adults with Severe and Profound Learning Difficulties to gain a much deeper understanding of how you can support the people you care for in their trauma recovery.


If you support someone who has been through distressing or stressful events or experienced fear, loss and uncertainty in their lives, this course may help.

People with severe and profound intellectual or learning disabilities and profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) are at increased risk of experiencing and suffering from the effects of trauma. Science has shown us that there is a wealth of natural, non-invasive things we can do that involve interactions, the senses and the body to help restore this sense of safety, benefit our mental wellbeing and assist in healing from trauma. You will learn about research evidence and explore practical ways that you can support those you support, love and care for. We will look at how and why events can be traumatic for people with severe and profound intellectual or learning disabilities; how trauma can affect all aspects of wellbeing, learning and development and show you strategies and approaches for care and support, that can be used at home as well as in education and care settings.

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