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I recently finished Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (1997). Although it was published nearly 20 years ago, it continues to be a fascinating read for anyone either in trauma recovery or working with others in trauma recovery.
In this book, Levine shares his theory that the lingering effects of trauma, and the subsequent symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, are related to the fight-flight-freeze response experienced by all members of the animal kingdom, including human beings.
Levine explains that post-traumatic symptoms are, fundamentally, incomplete physiological responses suspended in fear and will not resolve until the life-threatening stress response is complete.
Although this is great information, what does it really mean for us?
A lot, actually! I’ll do my best to explain:
Fight-Flight-Freeze and the Origin of Trauma
Say that an animal, an antelope, is getting chased by a predator, like a lion, and therefore experiences a physiological response as a result of the threat. This response, characteristic of the “fight-flight-freeze” reaction, is familiar to all of us.
The antelope senses the predator’s presence and “freezes.” With heart pounding and nervous system on high alert, the antelope doesn’t move a muscle while determining the severity of the threat. In an instant, the antelope takes off, running for it’s life to escape the jaws of the predatory cat. After a harrowing chase, the antelope will face one of two outcomes: either a narrow escape or being devoured as a meal.
Should the fate of the antelope be that of becoming a meal, the antelope will experience what Levine equates to a type of dissociation. Instead of fully experiencing the pain and terror of impending death, the antelope checks out and “plays dead” before it is actually dead. Sometimes this works to a prey animal’s advantage and the predator loses interest before actually killing it, offering one last chance at survival. The best example of this phenomenon is when an opossum “plays opossum.” In human terms, we can think of dissociation as the experience of the mind disengaging from the physical body in order to escape the intensity of an overwhelming situation.
If you’ve ever watched The Blind Side, an example of dissociation is when Michael “closes his eyes” to block out the bad stuff happening around him. When he opens his eyes, the bad stuff is over and by not physically seeing it, he is psychologically spared.
The second scenario, the one in which the antelope is chased but escapes, is applicable to our conversation regarding how human beings experience and process trauma also. What biologists have observed is that after an animal has been pursued and has escaped, they experience a physiological shaking througout their entire body which is the physiological release of trauma energy. (If you click through to the video, make sure you watch at 2:33)
This involuntary shaking is, according to Levine, exactly what human beings are skipping when it comes to releasing and processing our own trauma energy.
In order to release trauma symptoms, we must successfully discharge the store of trauma energy that has prepared us to fight or flee, but often ends in freeze. In order to do that, Levine has developed a trauma treatment protocol called Somatic Experiencing.
Somatic Experiencing for Healing Trauma
The goal of Somatic Experiencing is to address the consequences of dissociation that many human beings experience as a result of their “freeze” response, getting us back in touch with our physical bodies and the physical sensations in our bodies. The lingering effects of dissociation can be vast and varied, running the gamut from what we traditionally think of as “multiple personality disorder” to the more common experience of “living in your head.”
In my experience, the lingering effect of dissociation often feels like spaciness, being lost in my own thoughts, and not fully present in the moment; or alternatively, it can feel like an out of body experience, like floating near the ceiling and watching what is going on around me as a spectator with a bird’s eye view as opposed to a participant in my own life.
To use the Somatic Experiencing technique, Levine recommends that we pay attention to the physical sensations inside our bodies and to use them as a guide for confronting the originating trauma. The purpose of confronting the originating trauma is to afford us the opportunity to process the story surrounding the trauma differently so that we become empowered creators of our own destinies versus victims who narrowly escaped and now hold on to that unexpressed traumatic energy.
It took some work, but I think I figured out what Dr. Levine was describing and was able to apply it to myself:
I have a couple areas of my body which chronically draw my attention to certain physical sensations. I have had these areas checked out medically several times, and there is no known cause for what I am experiencing. After reading Waking the Tiger, I realized that these sensations are the likely physical representations of past trauma and they are what I used to guide my Somatic Experiencing practice.
For years I have experienced a feeling of heaviness or constriction in my abdomen, like something is pushing upwards on my diaphragm, making it hard to breathe deeply. As a medical intuitive, I have searched for probable explanations as to what these sensations are trying to communicate, but so far I have been off the mark. The sensations linger.
Working through Somatic Experiencing, I attempted to use these same sensations as a guide for identifying and releasing trauma energy. What came up while working through the exercise was tremendous fear (i.e. trauma) surrounding a life-threatening pregnancy, culminating in a Caesarian delivery followed by yet another surgery to stop excessive bleeding.
When I left the hospital with my newborn son, we were both lucky to be alive. But I was so elated to be a new mom that I compartmentalized the traumatic experience. Unable to deal with the overwhelming emotions at the time, I focused on the positive: we were both fine. Crisis averted. Moving on.
But the energy from that trauma never dissipated. It has been with me ever since. I carry it around in my abdomen. I feel it in my creative center. My sacral chakra.
Our bodies hold on to our trauma energy until we have the opportunity, and feel safe enough, to deal with it and release it.
The problem arises when we never get around to releasing it. As a result, trauma symptoms manifest.
Those trauma symptoms go by the names of post-traumatic-stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression just to name a few.
Healing Trauma: Re-writing the story
Where I had difficulty with Somatic Experiencing was during the process of “rewriting my story for empowerment.” I think many of us who have experienced traumatic situations feel that we did the best we could at the time and, although we were victims in some respect because we experienced trauma, we really were survivors because we, well, survived.
Nontheless, Dr. Levine recommends identifying the feelings of terror, and instead of only feeling terrorized, to reconfigure our story into one in which you are in control of your survival.
In my case, that might mean imagining that I was the one yelling at the doctors to patch me up faster so I could get back to my new baby. Instead of being at the mercy of a series of uncontrollable medical events, and the hospital staff who were reacting to them, this new story puts me (somewhat more) in charge of my destiny.
Although I found the exercise a bit cumbersome, the practice of reclaiming our power can never hurt and almost always helps.
There is no one-size-fits-all for trauma recovery. What Waking the Tiger introduced 20 years ago has been expanded upon, tweaked, and modified many times since. My goal in the coming weeks is to investigate the different trauma recovery modalities and to present the various options out there for treatment and recovery. There are so many new methods today which do not require re-experiencing the original trauma event through retelling as required by previous methods such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. It’s an exciting time for trauma research and treatment, and a hopeful time for those suffering.
Handing over the mic…what has been your experience with trauma recovery and treatment? Have you tried Somatic Experiencing yourself? What was your experience? If not SE, what trauma recovery treatment(s) have you tried so far?
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