By Dr. Peter Levine
The Body As Healer
''...our mind still has its darkest Africas, its unmapped Borneos and Amazonian basins.''
-- Aldous Huxley
SHADOWS FROM A FORGOTTEN PAST
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, a stalking cheetah leaps from its cover of dense shrubbery. As if it was one organism, the herd 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 sixty to seventy 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 now limp 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 peoples 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 last twenty-five 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 time, 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 human cultures tend 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
''As surely as we hear the blood in our ears , the echoes of a million midnight shrieks of monkeys, whose last sight of the world was the eyes of a panther, have their traces in our nervous systems.''
-- Paul Shepard
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 mammals and even reptiles. Our brain, often called the 'triune brain,' 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 humans 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.
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, darting 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 seventy miles 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, falls, 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 pregnancy.
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 as a global human community can begin to heal from the effects of large-scale social traumas such as war and natural disaster.
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 post traumatic stress disorder (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 pursuing cheetah is charged at seventy miles an hour. The moment the cheetah takes its final lunge, the impala collapses. From the outside, it looks motionless and appears to be dead, but inside, its nervous system is still supercharged at seventy miles an hour. Though it has come 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, multiply 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; i.e., anxiety, depression, psychosomatic and behavioral problems. These symptoms are the organism's way of containing (or corralling) 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 liberate these powerful forces, we become victims of trauma. In our often unsuccessful attempts to discharge these energies, we may become fixated on them. 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 fear 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 twenty-five years working with people who have been traumatized in almost every conceivable fashion, I believe that we humans have the innate capacity not only to heal ourselves, but our world, from the debilitating effects of trauma.