WELLNESS | Peter A. Levine's Unique Approach to Healing Trauma
The following is an excerpt from Waking the Tiger by Peter A. Levine, Ph.D. Levine is the originator and developer of Somatic Experiencing® and the Director of the Foundation for Human Enrichment. He holds doctorate degrees in both Medical Biophysics and Psychology. During his thirty year study of stress and trauma, Dr. Levine has contributed to a variety of scientific, medical, and popular publications.
Giving the Body Its Due
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 twenty-five 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 your 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. —Su? (anonymous)
Section One of this book introduces trauma and explains how post-traumatic symptoms begin, develop, and why they are so compelling and persistent. It lays a foundation of understanding that dispels the tangled web of myths about trauma and replaces them with a simple, coherent description of the basic physiological processes that produce it. While our intellects often override our natural instincts, they do not drive the traumatic reaction. We are more akin to our four-footed friends than we might wish to think.
When I speak of our “organisms,” I refer to Webster’s definition of “a complex structure of interdependent and subordinate elements whose relations and properties are largely determined by their function in the whole.” Organism describes our wholeness, which derives not from the sum of its individual parts, i.e., bones, chemicals, muscles, organs, etc.; it emerges from their dynamic, complex interrelation. Body and mind, primitive instincts, emotions, intellect, and spirituality all need to be considered together in studying the organism. The vehicle through which we experience ourselves as organisms is the “felt sense.” The felt sense is a medium through which we experience the fullness of sensation and knowledge about ourselves. You will gain a more clear understanding of these terms as you read through the material and do some of the exercises.
Section One: The Body as Healer—Offers a view of trauma and the process that heals it as natural phenomena. It addresses the innate wisdom to heal that we all have and weaves it into a coherent whole. We’ll take a journey into some of our most primitive biological responses. You will emerge from Section One with a fuller appreciation of how your organism operates and how you can work with it to increase your vitality and well-being as well as enhance your overall enjoyment of life, whether or not you have trauma symptoms.
In this section, I refer to exercises that will help you begin to know the felt sense through your own experience. These exercises are important. There is really no other way to convey how this fascinating aspect of the human being operates. Entering the realm of the felt sense is for many people like entering a strange new land, a land they’ve often visited without ever bothering to notice the scenery. As you read and experience this section, you will find that some of what is said about the way your body works are things that you already know.
Section Two: Symptoms of Trauma—Presents a more in-depth account of the core elements of a traumatic reaction, its symptoms, and the reality a traumatized person lives with.
Section Three: Transformation and Renegotiation—Describes the process by which we can transform our traumas, whether they be personal or societal.
Section Four: First Aid for Trauma—Includes practical information to help prevent trauma from developing after an accident. Also, a brief discussion of childhood trauma. (This latter subject will be covered exclusively in a future book.)
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 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 have 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 any kind, especially on a regular basis, exacts its own toll and is often as traumatic as experiencing the event firsthand.
How To Use [Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma]
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 your 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 your 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.