Native Hawaiian Trauma and the Nervous System

Feb 05, 2024

Our Native Hawaiian community faces a concerning prevalence of chronic diseases (like Asthma, Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, Hypertension, Obesity) and mental health issues (depression, anxiety, suicide ideation, attempts, and completions, self-harm, postpartum depression/anxiety, substance abuse/addictions, domestic violence, child abuse/neglect, etc.). Despite these challenges, Native Hawaiians often underutilize mental health services. These complex issues are often rooted in trauma, adverse childhood experiences, chronic stress, and disruptions in our nervous system functioning.

Let's explore the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and its role within our Native Hawaiian context. The ANS serves as our internal regulator, overseeing automatic bodily processes and orchestrating survival and stress responses. It operates in three states:

  1. Safe: Feeling at ease, relaxed, and connected.
  2. Mobilized: Responding to danger with increased heart rate, breathing, and adrenaline.
  3. Immobilized: Triggering a "freeze" response with decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature.

Trauma and chronic stress can disrupt the ANS's adaptive functioning, leading to prolonged survival modes and mental health issues. Recognizing trauma's impact is crucial for healing, encompassing a wide range of experiences from accidents to chronic adversity, abuse, neglect, and exposure to adverse environments.

Recent studies show that trauma can be genetically inherited for at least three generations. Trauma is not just what happens to us but how our brain and nervous system adapt to keep us safe after an event.

Over two decades ago, a study involving over 17,000 participants found a direct correlation between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and long-term health issues in the Native Hawaiian community. Examples of ACEs include abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and family instability. Those with four or more ACEs faced elevated risks of conditions like heart diseases, cancer, and substance abuse, impacting life expectancy.

Many physical and psychological symptoms in our community may trace back to a dysregulated ANS. Childhood experiences also influence our ability to cultivate connections, a central aspect of Native Hawaiian culture. When safety is compromised during childhood, our ANS development can go awry, hindering our ability to differentiate between safety and danger in adulthood.

Retraining our ANS for a sense of safety is possible, most effectively achieved with support from others through co-regulation. Spending time with calm individuals can positively influence our emotional state.

For those in need of recovery from trauma, learning from our Kūpuna and seeking balance between Akua, Kanaka, and ʻĀina is essential. Traditional healing practices and engaging in Native Hawaiian activities can restore balance between body, mind, and spirit. Working with a Native Hawaiian Therapist in a confidential setting, incorporating somatic interventions, can be beneficial.

Healing from trauma requires our ANS to re-balance, becoming more resilient and flexible. True resilience is achieved when our ANS smoothly navigates between safe, mobilized, and immobilized states.

For Native Hawaiians living with trauma and chronic stress, finding relief and escaping survival states may feel like embarking on a fresh life journey. Understanding how our nervous system influences behavior can guide us towards becoming happier, healthier, and more empathetic individuals.

Collectively, Native Hawaiians have endured disproportionate trauma since colonization. Fostering healthy, regulated nervous systems at individual, familial, and communal levels can interrupt cycles, shaping a safer, more vibrant, and interconnected Hawaiʻi.

 

References:

“Trauma and the Nervous System: A Polyvagal Perspective.” YouTube, The Trauma Foundation, 22 Feb. 2021, https://youtu.be/ZdIQRxwT1I0?si=azGNiXc0iYRcubsb. Accessed 1 Sept. 2023. 

Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Research Division, Demography. (2015). Native Hawaiian Health Fact Sheet 2015. Volume I: Chronic Diseases. Honolulu, HI.

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