The Body's Wisdom About Trauma

I first became interested in trauma nearly 40 years ago when my brother, an infantry combat vet from Viet Nam, experienced flashbacks that he later understood were PTSD. In the past 40 years, new insights have come about, in part from courageous veterans' experiences observed by compassionate researchers/practitioners. We have strong shoulders to stand on in both sides of the experience.

In this brief introduction to trauma and the body, I'll give an example of how Peter Levine integrated something that could have been traumatic. It wasn't traumatic because of the support he experienced. Feeling support gave his body/brain the safety to release rather than store the painful event.

Peter Levine is a pioneer researcher of Trauma. He's written many books and published articles on the subject. I enjoyed his book, "Freedom from Pain, Discover Your Body's Power to Overcome Physical Pain." 

First I'll explain a little about what happens in trauma. I don't mean to whitewash traumatic experiences or the healing process. Wanting to resolve trauma requires broader understanding and skillfulness. I 'm just sharing what I've found to be encouraging news.  

To put it too simply, Peter Levine observed that humans and animals share the same instinct when they are in danger. They freeze. The experience of shutting down, playing dead, is called the freeze response. Immbolization. The body does this as a survival strategy. 

Here's an example. There's a herd of prey animals, gazelles, at a watering hole. With the sound of a branch breaking the herd is on instant red alert. The gazelles take off. A lioness chases one. The gazelle goes limp as the lioness drags the gazelle to her den. Then there's a moment when the lioness gets interested in something else beside the gazelle that is apparently lifeless.

In that split second, the gazelle makes it onto its feet and runs away with a strong burst of adrenaline. Acting on this burst effectively discharges its immobilization response. This automatic instinctual behavior releases the effects of immobilization - being totally revved up for survival while at the same time, motionless. The gazelle goes back to the herd and its body returns to a resting state where equilibrium is restored. All this happens fairly quickly in the wild.

For humans it often plays out differently. Our sensitized nervous system and neural networks may end up storing and recording the immobilization response event. It's like the body is then waiting and ready for a safe opportunity for the traumatic experienced to be awakened and resolved. 

If someone experiences a traumatic event and has support the experience doesn't get remembered in the body/brain in the same way as a challenging event that happens without feeling supported. Here are highlights of a true story that Peter Levine shared. He was in an accident while walking down the street, he was hit by a car. A woman witnessed what happened. She came to him and sat nearby him. With kindness she introduced herself as a doctor, a pediatrician, and asked if she could help. He asked her to stay with him. She took his hand and looked at him with compassion. She squeezed his hand, he squeezed hers back.

He described feelings of the trauma moving through his body and powerful emotions also being released. Shudder, tears, regret, trembling, fear, sorrow. In live time, the paramedics were giving him acute emergency care, concerned about his racing heart. He saw the event of the car collision in his mind, out of nowhere his shoulder suddenly making forceful contact with the windshield.

Peter Levine told his story. As he stayed locked into the feeling of caring that was coming through the pediatrician's eyes at his side and felt her hand holding his, he felt the trauma began to integrate by loosening its hold. He had been working with individuals that experienced trauma and recognized what was happening.

He noted that his body was able to mobilize through making movements and releasing powerful emotions. Below the level of conscious choice. Through this release his body/brain was able to shift how the experience would be remembered. This is similar to the gazelle, in the earlier example, getting up and bolting away from the lioness. The instinct to move is key to shaking off the immobilzation.

5 Take Away's:
1. It's profound to recognize that being a kind presence for each other during challenging situations, even a stranger's presence, makes a significant difference in how we manage the difficulty. This proves out in research too. 

I want this emblazoned in my mind. Being kind to someone when they experience difficulty will support them in getting through it. It won't take away the difficulty, but not feeling alone is a deal breaker when it comes to how the event will be encoded. And it can be as simple as holding their hand, or sharing a kind gaze and a comforting voice.

Together with a colleague, I have the privilege of offering Trauma Sensitive Yoga to small groups.  What's clear is that when we (I include myself as a participant, as I too have experienced PTSD) feel "accompanied," a phrase I'm using from Bonnie Badenoch and Linda Graham, the body/brain can begin to rewire the traumatic memory.

An example of being accompanied is how the pediatrician responded, moments after his accident. She held Peter Levine's hand, kept eye contact, and stayed with him. Peter Levine said that knowing that she was there and cared about him shifted what happened inside him.

2. From my own experience I now know that trauma can integrate even years after the event. The aim is to rewire old into new, not reinforce the old. Healing is often a step by step, sometimes moment by moment journey of determination, patience, strength, clarity and support. Being supported by someone that knows how to be helpful is important.

3. Knowing that our brains and bodies are ready to rewire old experiences into new ones is life changing.

4. I am grateful for the many people's shoulders I'm standing on, that have encouraged me/do encourage me to keep going, to be new even when the old seems to still run the show. The new me is right here, coming alive, moment by moment. 

5. Taking care of my needs helps me so much. Staying connected in small ways and in big ways with friends, families, the mail person, people who share the same concerns that I do, practice groups, is vital. I reach out for hands to hold. Rick Hanson talks about "any port in the storm." When the going gets tough, get the support that is available. 

I hope you've enjoyed reading this article. I'd love to hear from you.