In Peter Levine’s book on Somatic Experiencing, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, we are asked to understand our traumas in terms of our basic animal natures. He postulates that trauma is the body’s response to what may be, or appear to be, life-threatening situations. A mouse escapes the claws of a cat, a rabbit narrowly dodges a hungry coyote, and an antelope is attacked by a lion but escapes. You get slapped by your father, molested by your uncle, or hit by a car. All of these elicit automatic responses from the brain that lead to a series of physical responses. Through neuro-imaging, we now know a good deal about what happens in the brain when trauma strikes. This response to traumas is essentially the same across the animal kingdom.
For most animals, the final response in a chain of responses to trauma is to energetically release it by shaking or closing down for a short while. Then they move on. Animals, unlike humans, release their traumas and don’t carry them through life. An animal can’t survive in the wild if it freezes or gets confused by holding onto its past traumas.
Levine attributes this ability to release traumas to an animal’s lack of higher brain functions. An animal doesn’t think and try to cope with a trauma like a human. Instead, its body shakes it off.
Many of us who have experienced a trauma–assault, sexual abuse, and medical procedures–continue to carry the trauma with us. It’s as if the event live with us and doesn’t fade into the past where it belongs. The trauma remains in our body and becomes activated over and over again by present day events that seem similar to the original trauma but aren’t. Or we continue to experience the trauma as flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive memories. Carrying the heavy weight of these traumas on our backs, we avoid stepping into situations and relationships where we unconsciously fear a new trauma. Or worse yet, we continue to be retraumatized over and over again as we try to work out the trauma.
So how do we get free?
Levine focuses on the process of what happens when we experience trauma. He sees recovery as a way of getting past a series of mental vortexes created by our traumatic histories. It’s as if we become stuck within these vortexes and relive the traumas through flashbacks, anxiety, or by repeating aspects of the trauma. Levine emphasizes the importance of our feelings, of our body states, and of our body’s need to physically remove the traumas in order to heal.
Our recovery depends on our ability to tap into the wisdom of the body to heal itself and then move on. It is about allowing the instinctual process of healing to take place and allowing the most primitive parts–our animal natures, not our human intellects–to do the work of returning wholeness.
In his book, Levine gives lots of examples of what healing looks like and how to respond to trauma. This is an excellent resource for those who have been traumatized or know someone who suffers from trauma like a soldier returning from war. Finally, there is help that doesn’t ask us to relive what happened and re-experience the pain. Instead, it follows the body’s wisdom in its search for renewal and healing.