Traumatic experiences turn our lives upside down—shaking us to the core, leaving us deeply distressed and disrupted. Trauma can be caused by a car crash, a natural disaster, witnessing violence or death, or being physically or sexually assaulted, to name a few examples. The uncertainty and helplessness these circumstances evoke overwhelm our minds and nervous systems, and eventually can change how we see the world and ourselves.
We often hear about the fight-or-flight response being activated in the face of danger, but some of the most traumatic circumstances come about when these self-protective responses are impeded. Our body might be trapped in a crushed car, or we remain still because the assailant has a weapon. There is an instinct to flee or fight, but it cannot be enacted because the action is externally blocked. Plus, sometimes our bodies are biologically immobilized from within—this is the “freeze response” to threat. Playing dead is a useful defense for many animals because it discourages predators from attacking; but in humans, the involuntary freeze response can greatly exacerbate the distress of trauma. In addition to losing trust in the world and other people, we can feel betrayed by ourselves if our bodies suddenly power down when we’re in peril.
Healing trauma requires us to create embodied resolution to these trapped experiences. In his book Waking the Tiger, psychologist and trauma expert Peter Levine describes wild animals “completing” their fight-or-flight responses after freezing to evade attack, and shows how easily and instinctively animals release threat from their bodies. The gazelle who collapsed until the lioness was long gone now shudders as she awakens, arises and shakes vigorously—all actions that release pent-up adrenaline—and then bounds away, running off the remaining energy. Levine used these insights about our body’s innate wisdom to develop his trauma therapy method, Somatic Experiencing. After teaching straightforward methods to reconnect us to our bodies, Levine offers a pathway of embodied visualization to complete the blocked protective action. With trauma, The Body Keeps the Score*—so healing requires us to connect with the felt sense of our bodies as we move from helplessness to empowerment.
*I also highly recommend Bessel van der Kolk’s seminal book, The Body Keeps the Score, which offers an even deeper explanation of how trauma gets stuck in the body and describes many other embodied healing approaches.
Photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez