We often assume that talk therapy is the only way to recover from trauma and PTSD but new research shows that therapy which involves the body can be at least, if not more effective. One of the most well-known and respected leaders in the field of trauma and the body is American psychologist Peter Levine. He looked at ways in which animals in the wild handle life-threatening situations. He saw in animal behaviour, powerful clues as to how to heal trauma symptoms in the humans he worked with who had experienced trauma. He showed that when wild animals are threatened they display the instinctive survival mechanisms of fight, flight or freeze. Once the threat has passed they shake themselves off, do a few deep breaths and run away. This enables them to discharge the survival energy and they are able to return to normal in the aftermath of highly ”charged” life-threatening experiences. Although humans are born with a similar built in “immunity”, our rational brains sometimes step in too early and don’t allow our nervous systems to re-balance themselves. The un-discharged energy remains in the body, and the nervous system becomes stuck in ”survival mode.”
Healing Trauma: book and CD
I often recommend Peter Levine’s excellent, easy to read book Healing Trauma to my clients as not only does it give a basic outline of his research into trauma and the body, it also sets out a series of exercises we can do in our own time. There is an accompanying CD describing these exercises in more detail.
He divides his book into 12 phases starting with the very basic and gentle“ Finding your Body Boundaries.” You are encouraged to access some of the fundamental resources lost in trauma such as the lost physical boundaries of the skin and muscles, a sense of the body and its boundaries. He suggests, for example, sitting comfortably and tapping the palm of one hand with the fingers of other hand, saying to yourself “this is my hand” and continuing to gently tap each part of the body “this is my leg” etc. He encourages you to repeat this exercise in a shower, using warm water from the shower head instead of the physical tapping.
Grounding and Centreing
“ Grounding and Centreing” is about re-establishing your relationship to the ground and accessing the resources in your body. One exercise involves sitting on a chair and with your hands on your tummy area and sensing the energy coming up from ground, up through your feet and legs.
“Building resources” involves the process of listing on a piece of paper, all your internal and external resources such as having strength and determination or a sense of humour, or having a supportive family. Once you’ve done this, check to see if there is anything missing and see if you can find ways that you might add to them. For example if you have a sense of being unable to protect yourself, you might try a self-defence class.
“Felt sense” involves the physical experiences of sight, smell, touch and taste and also becoming more aware of the position of your body, feelings of tension, body movements, temperature etc. And getting familiar with labelling those sensations. For example: “If I’m OK, what sensations in my body are telling that I’m OK? Perhaps my head feels clear, my hand is warm. This enables you to find what he calls “islands of relative safety or ease in the body.”
The remaining phases look at the effects of thought on your body such as fear and panic, rhythms of expansion and contraction, natural aggression versus violence, strength and resilience versus collapse and defeat, uncoupling fear from the immobility response, moving from internal to external environment and social-engagement and finally settling and integrating involving postures and affirmations.
I love Peter Levine’s quote that “I believe not only that trauma is curable, but that the healing process can be a catalyst for profound awakening,” as, like me, he believes that the process of post traumatic growth, or thriving after trauma, can be simply taught.
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with the effects of traumatic stress, or any other emotional difficulty, and would like to talk it over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
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