By Dr. Peter Levine
Trauma is Treated in the Body, Not the Mind
Nature can teach the human race a thing or two about healing trauma and stress disorders. True, recent scientific research has been instrumental in helping to remove some of the stigma attached to trauma, while new studies and treatments have inspired hope for the alleviation of the suffering trauma patients endure. But psychiatry has not captured the essential nature of trauma, nor has it uncovered if and how it can be healed.
To answer the question of healing trauma, Dr. Peter Levine turns our attention to the jungle, to the wild animals, who seemingly rebound unscathed from a virtual onslaught of traumatic events every single day in their struggle to survive. Making it to the end of each day alive requires instinctual skills that animals execute with implicit precision.
All animals, including humans, possess this “procedural” memory, which is implicit rather than explicit. Procedural or “body memories” are learned sequences of coordinated “motor acts” chained together into meaningful actions. Try to remember how you learned to ride a bike. You might not remember when you learned or how you learned, but your body remembers it and acts it out implicitly every time you get on a bike.
Animals, though threatened routinely, are rarely traumatized because trauma is about the procedures the organism executes when exposed to overwhelming stress, threat and injury. In response to threat and injury, animals, including humans, execute biologically based, non-conscious action patterns that prepare them to meet the threat and defend themselves. Some animals freeze on the spot (opossum), while others flee (antelope), and still others will fight (bear). After the threat is over, the animal then releases this “survival” energy. We see this manifest in visible shaking and trembling. Once the animal has recovered its balance, it can resume its normal functioning. As one wildlife biologist noted, if an animal does not complete the process, it will not survive. It will die.
Trauma is a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time. Trauma is physiological.
How to Survive Trauma and Relieve Stress
Of course, humans rarely die from trauma itself, but the failure to neutralize these implicit procedures and restore balance to the body explains the debilitating symptoms of trauma in human beings. In fact, the bodies of traumatized people portray snapshots of their unsuccessful attempts to defend themselves in the face of threat and injury. But it is possible to heal even deeply entrenched post traumatic symptoms by completing the incomplete responses to threat, discharging the energy that was released for survival.
Current Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) research takes a disturbingly mechanical view of trauma. The “disease-oriented” view of trauma is negative and misleading. It ignores the innate resiliency of the human organism to rebound and heal in the aftermath of overwhelming life events. It fails to recognize our capacity as human beings to support and empower each other in the process of transforming trauma.
A Natural Approach to Healing Trauma
Somatic Experiencing (SE), on the other hand, is a naturalistic approach to healing the symptoms of trauma. Developed over the last twenty-five years, SE is based on the understanding that animals in the wild, though their lives are threatened routinely, are rarely traumatized. Their ability to discharge fully the highly activated energies mobilized for survival and then reorient, or resume normal functioning, points to an innate, instinctual capacity for the resolution of trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
So it is through the study of the natural world that we may begin to understand the critical role of biology and instinct in the formation and resolution of trauma. We need to identify with our animal roots and dare to inhabit the Serengeti plain that dwells in our collective soul. There, we will become aware of many things. Dr. Peter Levine’s most recent book invites the reader to do just that.
In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, Peter A. Levine, explores the interconnections between evolutionary neurophysiology, animal behavior and trauma. Basing this book on his over four decades of clinical work and medical research, Dr. Levine explains the importance of the basic neurological structures of the “so-called” primitive brain areas in regards to trauma, and how, by using body sensations, this trauma can be healed.
In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness
Peter A. Levine
North Atlantic Books, 2010
Research Writings from Peter A. Levine, MD, can be reviewed by clicking Nature's Lessons in Healing Trauma