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Trauma and the Body

Trauma in the wild

The ways in which animals in the wild handle life-threatening situations can give us powerful clues as to how to heal our own trauma symptoms.

“Somatic Experiencing” is a form of therapy aimed at relieving and resolving the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental and physical trauma-related health problems by focusing on the client’s perceived body sensations (described as “somatic experiences”). First introduced in Dr. Peter Levine’s 1997 book Waking the Tiger, he describes how animals in the wild deal with and recover from life-threatening situations. 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.

How are we different from animals?

When humans experience trauma, whether as a result of long term abuse in childhood, in a war zone or simply as a result of a vehicle accident, they often do hang onto it – and it is stored in the body. However traumatised people cut off from their bodies. When our bodies are feeling uneasy they give us messages – the purpose of those messages in to inform us that something inside doesn’t feel right and it needs our attention. If these messages go unanswered over time, they evolve into the symptoms of trauma including hyperarousal, hypervigilance, intrusive imagery, hyperactivity, exaggerated startle response, nightmare and night terrors, abrupt mood swings, shame and lack of self-worth, reduced ability to deal with stress, dissociation, feelings of helplessness and immobility, difficulty sleeping, panic attacks, phobias, feeling spaced out. Life becomes extremely difficult and it is not surprising that people can become quite depressed.

Internal wake up calls

However in order to heal trauma we need to learn to trust the messages our bodies are giving us and see them as internal wake up calls.  Although humans are born with virtually the same instinctive systems as animals, the rational portion of our brains often restrains or totally overrides them. This restraint prevents the complete discharge of survival energies, and does not allow the nervous system to regain its equilibrium. The un-discharged energy remains in the body, and the nervous system becomes stuck in ”survival mode.” The various symptoms of trauma as described above result from the body’s attempt to ”manage” and contain this unused energy.

Somatic Experiencing employs the awareness of body sensation to help people ”renegotiate” and heal their traumas rather than relive them. With appropriate guidance into the body’s instinctive ”felt sense,” individuals are able to access their own built-in immunity to trauma, allowing the highly aroused survival energies to be safely and gradually discharged. When these energies are discharged, people frequently experience a dramatic reduction in or disappearance of their traumatic symptoms.

How does it work?

Peter Levine’s excellent, straightforward and easy to read book Healing Trauma describes what he calls 12 phases starting with the very basic “ Finding your Body Boundaries.” In this phase, you are encouraged to access fundamental resources lost in trauma – the lost physical boundaries of the skin, muscles, sense of the body and its boundaries. For example, to sit in a comfy chair and tap 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.

Phase 2 is about “ Grounding and Centreing”, 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 lower abdomen, sensing the energy coming up from ground, through your feet and legs and up into your tummy. Phase 3 involves “Building resources” including writing on a piece of paper, all your internal and external resources. Check 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.

Phase 4 on “Felt sense” involves physical experience : Sight, smell, touch and taste but also becoming more aware of the position of your body, feelings of tension, your body movements, temperature etc. Then start to label your 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 Levine 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.

Levine’s techniques have helped many thousands of trauma survivors tap into their innate ability to heal—from combat veterans and car accident victims, to people suffering from chronic pain, and even infants after a traumatic birth. “I believe not only that trauma is curable, but that the healing process can be a catalyst for profound awakening,” teaches Levine.

For more information on trauma go to my Trauma page.

For more information on trauma counselling go to my Trauma Counselling Cork page.

Need some more advice and support?

If you have been affected by any type of trauma and would like to experience the type of techniques described in this blog, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

 Book a counselling session today!

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