Containment and Autonomic Regulation (CAR)

Containment and Autonomic Regulation (CAR) is an exposure therapy that focuses on organic body processes to resolve stress and trauma. The idea behind CAR is simple: it supports the release of traumatic charge through the natural mechanisms that are part of the nervous system. Just as when we overheat, our bodies use the mechanism of sweating to cool us down, so it is that when we become highly stressed or traumatized, our bodies have innate processes to release that charge.

There are a few key points that will help clarify the CAR process:

1) Stress and trauma are primarily non-cognitive phenomenon. While it is true that thoughts and beliefs are affected by stress and trauma, the body is the primary location where traumatic charge is held, where symptoms develop and where resolution is most effective. Trauma is common to the mammalian nervous system, and can be seen in animals (such as mice, deer, horses) that don’t have the capacity for higher cognitive beliefs. As humans, we have relatively the same responses to stress and trauma that other mammals have because we share the same basic autonomic nervous system structure.

2) Stress and trauma symptoms were at one point adaptive mechanisms that helped us survive a threat. If you are in a dangerous situation, be it domestic violence, a car accident, or in an unstable family with an alcoholic parent, it is very appropriate to be hyper-vigilant, nervous, ready to fight or flee (or collapse if that was the only way to survive). These symptoms were survival responses that make sense in a threatening context

3) For a number of reasons, stressful and traumatic charge can get locked into the nervous system and remain as reactive years later as the day the events occurred. Even after threats have completely disappeared, the ANS (Autonomic Nervous System) can retain activation in the form of anxiety, tension, compulsions, depression, and dissociation. With few exceptions, most wild mammals have an innate, autonomic process that turns on to release traumatic charge. The success of CAR is that it is not a new invention; rather it simply ignites the autonomic release process innate to the mammalian nervous system.

Stress & Trauma Defined

The way we approach stress and trauma is more precise than you may have considered in the past. We look at stress and trauma through the lens of the nervous system and therefore primarily body oriented process. Stress is the word we use when fight or flight (sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system) reactions are activated. We use the word trauma to describe what happens when the nervous system becomes overwhelmed, and we perceive that fighting or fleeing is not enough to solve the threat. At this point the parasympathetic,

or numbing and depressive, branch of the nervous system turns on. It is essentially the same response a mouse has when being batted around by a cat. We say that a mammal in this state is “playing dead” but it is actually a non-conscious, automatic survival response built into the mammalian system. Each of these nervous system states has its own array of symptoms that even though they originate in the body, they affect emotions and thoughts as well.

Stress symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Muscle contractions (tight jaw, headaches, twitches in the limbs)
  • Emotions such as irritation, anger, fear
  • Heightened sense of alertness
  • Insomnia
  • Feeling fidgety, restless or panicky
  • Sensations of heat

Trauma symptoms include:

  • Collapsed posture or feelings of heaviness (arms and head feel like they’re made of lead)
  • Hopelessness, depression, lethargy 
  • Numb, feelings of unreality, detached or dissociated
  • Slowed heart rate, slowed motor responses, slowed mental functioning
  • Feeling cold or suddenly sleepy
  • Vision changes such as a narrowing in your visual field, or noticing that things look fuzzy or foggy
  • Nausea