Prologue and Chapter One from Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma by Peter Levine, PhD.

Prologue - Giving the Body its Due

Body and Mind

Whatever increases, decreases, limits or extends the body’s power of action, increases, decreases, limits or extends the mind’s power of action. And whatever increases, decreases, limits, or extends the mind’s power of action, also increases, decreases. Limits, or extends the body’s power of action --Spinoza (1632-1677)

If you are experiencing strange symptoms that no one seems to be able to explain, they could be arising from a traumatic reaction to a past event that you may not even remember. You are not alone. You are not crazy. There is a rational explanation for what is happening to you. You have not been irreversibly damaged, and it is possible to diminish or even eliminate your symptoms. In trauma we know that the mind becomes profoundly altered. For example, a person involved in an auto wreck is protected initially from emotional reaction and even from a clear memory or sense that it really happened. These remarkable mechanisms (e.g., dissociation and denial) allow us to navigate through those critical periods, hopefully waiting for a safe time and place for these altered states to “wear off”.

Similarly, the body reacts profoundly in trauma. It tenses in readiness, braces in fear, and freezes and collapses in helpless terror. When the mind’s protective reaction to overwhelm returns to normal, the body’s response is also meant to normalize after the event. When this restorative process is thwarted, the effects of trauma become fixated and the person becomes traumatized.

Psychology traditionally approaches trauma through its effects on the mind. This is at best only half the story and a wholly inadequate one. Without the body and mind accessed together as a unit, we will not be able to deeply understand or heal trauma.

Finding a Method

This book is about resolving traumatic symptoms using a naturalistic approach I have developed over the past 25 years. I do not view post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as pathology to be managed, suppressed, or adjusted to, but the result of a natural process gone awry. Healing trauma requires a direct experience of the living, feeling, knowing organism. The principles I’m going to share with you are the result of working with clients as well as following clues about the origins of trauma. This study has led me into the fields of physiology, neuroscience, animal behavior, mathematics, psychology, and philosophy, to name a few. In the beginning, my successes were the result of happenstance and blind luck. As I continued working with people, questioning what I learned, pushing what I knew further and further into the mystery of trauma, I was able to succeed predictably rather than by chance. Increasingly, I became convinced that the instinctual repertoire of the human organism includes a deep biological knowing which, given the opportunity to do so, can and will guide the process of healing trauma.

While the growing emphasis on attending to these instinctual responses was healing clients, my inquisitiveness was paying off in understanding. People were immensely relieved to finally understand how symptoms were created and to learn how to recognize and experience their own instincts in action.

Somatic Experiencing is new and is not subject to rigorous scientific research at this time. What I have to support the validity of this approach are several hundred individual cases in which people report that the symptoms which once impaired their ability to live full and satisfied lives are gone or greatly diminished,

I usually work in a one-to-one therapeutic context and often in conjunction with other modalities. Obviously this book cannot replace individual work with a trained therapist. However, I believe that many of the principles and much of the information offered here can be used to facilitate the healing of trauma. If you are in therapy, it may help you to share this book with you therapist. If you are not in therapy, it is possible to use this book to help yourself. However, there are limitations. You may need the guidance of a qualified professional.

The Body as Healer

The body is the shore on the ocean of being. -Sufi (anonymous)

I believe that we all need to understand the essential information in this book. This information deepens our experience and understanding of trauma’s healing process and helps us develop a sense of reliance on our own organism. Furthermore, I think the information is pertinent on both personal and societal levels. The magnitude of the trauma generated by the events that are affecting our world exact a toll on families, communities, and entire populations. Trauma can be self-perpetuating. Trauma begets trauma and will continue to do so, eventually crossing generations in families, communities and countries until we take steps to contain its propagation. At the moment, the work of transforming trauma within groups of people is still in its infancy. Section Three includes a description of a healing approach used for groups that I am developing with some colleagues in Norway.

Because I often recommend that individuals working therapeutically engage the help of trained professionals as allies in this process, it is my hope that the book will also be of use to these professionals. Few psychologists have sufficient background in physiology to recognize the aberrations of experience that can be produced when physiological processes are not allowed to follow a natural course. Ideally, the information in this book will introduce new possibilities for the treatment of trauma. My experience has taught me that many of the currently popular approaches to healing trauma provide only temporary relief at best. Some cathartic methods that encourage intense emotional reliving of trauma may be harmful. I believe that in the long run, cathartic approaches create a dependency on continuing catharsis and encourage the emergence of so-called “false memories”. Because of the nature of trauma, there is a good chance that the cathartic reliving of an experience can be traumatizing rather than healing.

Psychotherapy deals with a broad spectrum of issues and problems that go far beyond the single topic: shock trauma, the focus of this book. Shock trauma occurs when we experience potentially life-threatening events that overwhelm our capacities to respond effectively. In contrast, people traumatized by ongoing abuse as children, particularly if the abuse was in the context of their families, may suffer from “developmental trauma”. Developmental trauma refers primarily to the psychologically based issues that are usually a result of inadequate nurturing and guidance through critical developmental periods during childhood. Although the dynamics that produce them are different, cruelty and neglect can result in symptoms that are similar to and often intertwined with those of shock trauma. For this reason, people who has experienced developmental trauma need to enlist the support of a therapist to help them work through the issues that have become intertwined with their traumatic reactions.

When shock trauma is the result of an isolated event or series of events and there is no consistent history of previous trauma, I believe that people, in community with family and friends, have a remarkable ability to bring about their own healing. I strongly encourage this practice. I have written this book in relatively non-technical language. It is also for parents, teachers, child care workers, and others who serve as guides and role models for children to be able to give them a gift of incalculable value by helping them immediately resolve their reactions to traumatic events. In addition, doctors, nurses, paramedics, police, fire fighters, rescue workers, and others who work routinely with the victims of accidents and natural disasters will find this information useful, not only for the work that they do with these traumatized individuals, but for themselves. To witness human carnage of nay kind, especially on a regular basis, exacts its own toll and is often as traumatic as experiencing the event firsthand.

How to Use this Book

Give yourself time to absorb the material as you read through the book. Do the exercises suggested in the text. Take it slowly and easily. Trauma is the result of the most powerful drives the human body can produce. It demands respect. You may not hurt yourself by moving through the material quickly or superficially, but you won’t get the same benefit that you would if you take the time to digest the information slowly.

If at any time the material or exercises seem disturbing, stop and let things settle. Sit with your experience and see what unfolds. Many of the misconceptions about trauma go surprisingly deep and may affect your experience of as well as you attitude towards yourself. It is important to recognize when this has happened. If you keep a portion of your attention on your reactions to the material, your organism will guide you along at the proper pace,

Body sensation, rather than intense emotion, is the key to healing trauma. Be aware of any emotional reaction swelling up inside you, and be aware of how you body is experiencing these emotions in the form of sensations and thoughts, If your emotions feel too intense, i.e., rage, terror, profound helplessness, etc., you need to enlist competent professional help,

Trauma need not be a life sentence. Of all the maladies that attack the human organism, trauma may ultimately be one that is recognized as beneficial. I say this because in the healing of trauma, a transformation takes place – one that can improve the quality of life. Healing doesn’t necessarily require sophisticated drugs, elaborate procedures, or long hours of therapy. When you understand how trauma occurs and when you learn to identify the mechanisms that prevent it from resolving, you will also begin to recognize the ways in which your organism attempts to heal itself. By using a few simple ideas and techniques, you can support rather than impede this innate capacity for healing. The tools presented here will help you move through the trauma and continue on your way with a fuller, more sure sense of yourself. While trauma can be hell on earth, trauma resolved is a gift of the gods – a heroic journey that belongs to each of us.

Shadows from a Forgotten Past

Nature’s Plan

A herd of impala grazes peacefully in a lush wadi. Suddenly, the wind shifts, carrying with it a new, but familiar scent. The impala sense danger in the air and become instantly tensed to a hair trigger of alertness. They sniff, look, and listen carefully for a few moments, but when no threat appears, the animals return to their grazing, relaxed yet vigilant.

Seizing the moment, the stalking cheetah leaps from its cover of dense shrubbery. As if it were one organism, the heard springs quickly toward a protective thicket at the wadi’s edge. One young impala trips for a split second, then recovers. But it is too late. In a blur, the cheetah lunges toward its intended victim, and the chase is on at a blazing 60 to 70 miles an hour.

At the moment of contact (or just before), the young impala falls to the ground, surrendering to its impending death. Yet, it may be uninjured. The stone-still animal is not pretending to be dead. It has instinctively entered an altered state of consciousness shared by all mammals when death appears imminent. Many indigenous people view this phenomenon as a surrender of the spirit of the prey to the predator, which, in a manner of speaking, it is.

Physiologists call this altered state the “immobility” or “freezing” response. It is one of the three primary responses available to reptiles and mammals when faced with an overwhelming threat. The other two, fight and flight, are much more familiar to most of us. Less is known about the immobility response. However, my work over the past 25 years has led me to believe that it is the single most important factor in uncovering the mystery of human trauma.

Nature has developed the immobility response for two good reasons. One, it serves as a last-ditch survival strategy. You might know it better as playing possum. Take the young impala, for instance. There is a possibility that the cheetah may decide to drag its “dead” prey to a place safe from other predators; or to its lair, where the food can be shared later with its cubs. During this tie, the impala could awaken from its frozen state and make a hasty escape in an unguarded moment. When it is out of danger, the animal will literally shake off the residual effects of the immobility response and gain full control of its body. It will then return to its normal life as if nothing had happened. Secondly, in freezing, the impala (and human) enters an altered state in which no pain is experienced. What that means for the impala is that it will not have to suffer while being torn apart by the cheetah’s sharp teeth and claws.

Most modern cultures end to judge this instinctive surrender in the face of overwhelming threat as a weakness tantamount to cowardice. However, underneath this judgment lies a deep human fear of immobility. We avoid it because it is a state very similar to death. This avoidance is understandable, but we pay dearly for it. The physiological evidence clearly shows that the ability to go into and come out of this natural response is the key to avoiding the debilitating effects of trauma. It is a gift to us from the wild.

Why Look to the Wild? Trauma is Physiological

The key to healing traumatic symptoms in humans is in our physiology. When faced with what is perceived as inescapable or overwhelming threat, humans and animals both use the immobility response. The important thing to understand about this function is that it is involuntary. This simply means that the physiological mechanism governing this response resides in the primitive, instinctual parts of our brains and nervous systems, and is not under our conscious control. That is why I feel that the study of wild animal behavior is essential to the understanding and healing of human trauma.

The involuntary and instinctual portions of the human brain and nervous system are virtually identical to those of other mammals and even reptiles. Our brain, often called the triune, consists of three integral systems. The three parts are commonly known as the reptilian brain (instinctual), the mammalian or limbic brain (emotional), and the human brain or neo-cortex (rational). Since the parts of the brain that are activated by a perceived life-threatening situation are the parts we share with animals, much can be learned by studying how certain animals, like the impala, avoid traumatization. To take this one step further, I believe that the key to healing traumatic symptoms in human lies in our being able to mirror the fluid adaptation of wild animals as they shake out and pass through the immobility response and become fully mobile and functional again.

Unlike wild animals, when threatened we humans have never found it easy to resolve the dilemma of whether to fight or flee. This dilemma stems, at least in part, from the fact that our species has played the role of both predator and prey. Prehistoric peoples, though many were hunters, spent long hours each day huddled together in cold caves with the certain knowledge that they could be snatched up at any moment and torn to shreds.

Our chances for survival increased as we gathered in larger groups, discovered fire, and invented tools, many of which were weapons used for hunting and self-defense. However, the genetic memory of being easy prey has persisted in our brains and nervous systems. Lacking both the swiftness of an impala and the lethal fangs and claws of a stalking cheetah, our human brains often second guess our ability to take life-preserving action. This uncertainty has made us particularly vulnerable to the powerful effects of trauma. Animals like the agile, daring impala know they are prey and are intimate with their survival resources. They sense what they need to do and they do it. Likewise, the sleek cheetah’s 70 mile an hour sprint and treacherous fangs and claws make it a self-assured predator.

The line is not so clearly delineated for the human animal. When confronted with a life-threatening situation, our rational brains may become confused and override our instinctive impulses. Though this overriding may be done for a good reason, the confusion that accompanies it sets the stage for what I call the “Medusa Complex” – the drama called trauma.

As in the Greek myth of Medusa, the human confusion that may ensue when we stare death in the face can turn us to stone. We may literally freeze in fear, which will result in the creation of traumatic symptoms.

Trauma is a pervasive fact of modern life. Most of us have been traumatized, not just soldiers or victims of abuse or attack. Both the sources and consequences of trauma are wide-ranging and often hidden from our awareness. These include natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and fires) exposure to violence, accidents, serious illnesses, sudden loss (i.e., a loved one), surgical and other necessary medical and dental procedures, difficult births, and even high levels of stress during gestation.

Fortunately, because we are instinctual beings with the ability to feel, respond, and reflect, we possess the innate potential to heal even the most debilitating traumatic injuries. I am convinced, as well, that we are a global human community can begin to heal from the effects of large-scale social traumas such as war and natural disasters.

It’s About Energy

Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the “triggering” event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged: this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits. The long-term, alarming, debilitating, and often bizarre symptoms of PTSD develop when we cannot complete the process of moving in, through and out of the :immobility” or “freezing” state. However, we can thaw by initiating and encouraging our innate drive to return to a state of dynamic equilibrium.

Let’s cut to the chase. The energy in our young impala’s nervous system as it flees from the pursing cheetah is charged at 70 miles an hour. The moment the cheetah takes its final lunge, the impala collapses. From the outside, its nervous system is still supercharged at 70 miles an hour. Though it has cone to a dead stop, what is now taking place in the impala’s body is similar to what occurs in your car if you floor the accelerator and stomp on the brake simultaneously. The difference between the inner racing of the nervous system (engine) and the outer immobility (brake) of the body creates a forceful turbulence inside the body similar to a tornado.

This tornado of energy is the focal point out of which form the symptoms of traumatic stress. To help visualize the power of this energy, imagine that you are making love with your partner, you are on the verge of climax, when suddenly, some outside force stops you. Now, multiple that feeling of withholding by one hundred, and you may come close to the amount of energy aroused by a life-threatening experience.

A threatened human (or impala) must discharge all the energy mobilized to negotiate that threat or it will become a victim of trauma. This residual energy does not simply go away. It persists in the body and often forces the formation of a wide variety of symptoms e.g. anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic and behavioral problems. These symptoms are the organism’s way of containing (or controlling) the undischarged residual energy.

Animals in the wild instinctively discharge all their compressed energy and seldom develop adverse symptoms. We humans are not as adept in this arena. When we are unable to liberate these powerful forces, we become victims of trauma. In our often-unsuccessful attempts to discharge these energies, we may become fixated on this. Like a moth drawn to a flame, we may unknowingly and repeatedly create situations in which the possibility to release ourselves from the trauma trap exists, but without the proper tools and resources most of us fail. The result, sadly, is that many of us become riddled with feat and anxiety and are never fully able to feel at home with ourselves or our world.

Many war veterans and victims of rape know this scenario only too well. They may spend months or even years talking about their experiences, reliving them, expressing their anger, fear, and sorrow, but without passing through the primitive :immobility responses” and releasing the residual energy, they will often remain stuck in the traumatic maze and continue to experience distress.

Fortunately, the same immense energies that create the symptoms of trauma, when properly engaged and mobilized, can transform the trauma and propel us into new heights of healing, mastery, and even wisdom. Trauma resolved is a great gift, returning us to the natural world of ebb and flow, harmony, love, and compassion. Having spent the last 25 years working with people who have been traumatized in almost every conceivable fashion, I believe that we humans have the innate capacity to heal not only ourselves, but our world, from the debilitating effects of trauma

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