Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma – Peter A. Levine with Ann Frederick

Posted on August 10, 2013

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Cover of "Waking the Tiger : Healing Trau...

Cover via Amazon

If you read only one book which provides insight into the epidemiology, case studies and self-treatment of trauma this summer, make Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine the book you read.  Trust me, you’ll thank me.  

Let me explain, Levine, a PhD with over 25 years of experience in stress and trauma, illustrates trauma as a much more real and potentially everyday occurrence than our current culture gives it credit for.  And as you come to learn throughout the book, this is a great disservice.  Not because the book intends to magnify a marginalized segment of society viewed as weak and dependent on others and empower them with something more than what they deserve, rather trauma frequently has chronic, undeniable and life-altering effects on someone’s life.  These effects can easily be remedied through simple steps; the beginning of which are easily undertaken by one’s self in his/her own home.

Levine starts off the book amidst a herd of impala in a lush wadi.

Suddenly, the wind shifts, carrying with it a new, but familiar scent.  The impala sense danger in the air and become instantly tensed to a hair trigger of alertness.  They sniff, look, and listen carefully for a few moments.

Seizing the moment, a stalking cheetah leaps from its cover of dense shrubbery.  …  One young impala trips for a split second, then recovers.  But it is too late.  In a blur, the cheetah lunges toward its intended victim, and the chase is on at a blazing sixty to seventy miles an hour.

At the moment of contact (or just before), the young impala falls to the ground, surrendering to its impending death.  Yet, it may be uninjured.  The stone-still animal is not pretending to be dead.  It has instinctively entered an altered state of consciousness shared by all mammals.

Physiologists call this altered state the “immobility” or “freezing” response.  It is one of the three primary responses available to reptiles and mammals when faced with an overwhelming threat.  The other two, fight and flight, are much more familiar to most of us.  Less is known about the immobility response.  However, my work over the last twenty-five years has led me to believe that it is the single most important factor in uncovering the mystery of human trauma.

Of course, we are all familiar with fight or flight responses.  They’re fairly basic staples of beginning Biology courses.  Levine explains how both of these responses release the pent-up energy that accompanies highly stressful, and potentially life-threatening situations.  When an animal is confronted with a situation it feels it can either fight or flee from, and in this consideration humans are the highest form of animals with all religious aspects aside, and the animal rages head first down either one of those tracks, that pulsing, electric, fearfully crazed energy has an outlet.  The animal is grounded, electrically speaking, and can discharge the colossal amount of psychic energy it creates.  But there are many unfortunate times when neither of these responses are viable.  When a soldier is holed up and completely surrounded by the enemy, the soldier can neither flee, for all exits are blocked and there’s no hope of escape without being shot down; nor fight, since the soldier is out armed to a considerable degree.  The recent horrific events surrounding Ariel Castro present a jarring but very real potential situation where freezing could have come into play.  The young women captured by Castro could neither escape, though they did try, and they couldn’t reasonably fight him either.  In that type of high stress environment, a very real possibility is that their minds shut down emotionally and they “froze” to limit their exposure to their hell on earth.  In freezing, the  body and mind make one last-ditch effort to spare the animal or person from the excruciating psychological consequences of either physical or emotional torture, pain or death.  In these scenarios, the psychic energy that so desperately needs evacuation and release for the health and well-being of those it’s stored in, boils and violently tears apart its vessel from the inside out.

From this perspective Levine identifies a way out.  Through simples exercises, Levine shows how one can slowly but surely thaw and release the shackles of years of untold psychological bondage.  One of the first instructions Levine recommends involves something nearly all of us do every day.  He says to get in a shower, a good hot shower where you’ll really feel the heat of the water infiltrate your skin.  Stand in the shower isolating one part of your body at a time letting the water excavate the sensations it’s potentially been storing for years.  Welcome that feeling and that bodily consciousness back.  Speak internally to that part of the body.  Welcome it back to the present.  Rotate through your entire physical self until you’ve had a chance to reconnect and reawaken all parts of your body.  From there, one can set aside perhaps 15 minutes or so to slowly, deliberately, and silently go through a picture-filled magazine.  Let your mind take itself on a journey in that picture.  What are you feeling when you’re placed in that picture?  What emotions flash across your imagined reality?  What does the wind feel like in this image?  How hot or cold are you?  Are you happy with where you’re at?  Eventually, one can move to a photo album and go through a similar procedure with weighted memories that could bring torrents and deluges of emotion.

While these strategies aren’t for everyone and certainly aren’t a necessity to recommend to all, I believe far more people than may give themselves credit, will greatly benefit from this read.  Very engaging.  Very helpful.  And it will be very rewarding for many.  And it may even take some by quite a surprise by its powerful impact on their lives.

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