There are traumas in your body. With the right kind of guidance, you can move them out again, according to physician and psychologist Peter Levine.
“My neck is so stiff,” I say. “For as long as I can remember. Neck and shoulders. And it hurts.”
“Do other parts of your body feel good?” therapist Barbara Koopmans asks. She is trained as a Somatic Experiencing (SE) practitioner and is a board member of Traumahealing Nederland, the trauma-healing center of the Netherlands. We are seated facing each other in comfortable armchairs at her practice in Arnhem.
“Yes, in my hands and feet I feel a nice warm tingling.” I close my eyes. “But my upper back… It is as if there is a disk stuck there.”
“What is it like when you look along the edges of that disk?” she asks. “What movement do you want to make?”
“I want to shake it off,” I say, and I start to make jerky movements with my shoulders.
“Can you repeat that movement more slowly?”
I do so. She asks me to move back and forth between the pleasant feelings in my body and my painful upper back.
“What would you need in order to get rid of that disk?”
I hesitate. What comes to my mind is: I cannot do it myself. Someone else will have to do it. Who? I know that right away, too: my parents. Both have been dead for years… And yet it is as if I can see them standing behind me in the corner of my eye.
To my own surprise, I start to cry. I had not expected that my stiff neck and shoulders had anything to do with my parents. Did they put some invisible burden on my shoulders long ago, in my youth?
No human being grows up without traumas, according to the American physician and psychologist Peter Levine, originator of Somatic Experiencing, an increasingly popular treatment for healing traumas by becoming aware of the -psychosomatic aspect of these traumas and by mobilizing the natural healing impulses of the body.
“This is Planet Trauma,” he says in a Skype interview preceding my visit to Arnhem. “If you don’t want to meet trauma, then you’ve come to the wrong planet.”
Somatic Experiencing (SE) literally means experiencing within your body. According to Levine, our bodies stack up the energy of each major shock or blow, including psychological blows. That energy tends to get stuck, causing complaints. If you get the energy moving again, the complaints may disappear.
Levine discovered his method more or less by coincidence. Thirty-five years ago, he practiced physical relaxation to relieve stress. One of his patients, Nancy, suffered from serious phobias. When he helped her to relax, her heart rate suddenly dropped alarmingly. She grew deathly pale and whispered, “I am dying, doctor. Help me.”
He had a sort of vision, he recounts, of a tiger ready to jump, and on impulse he exclaimed, “Run, Nancy! You are being chased by a tiger!” Her legs began to thrash wildly as if she were running away, and she started to shake and shudder and sweat. For over half an hour, waves of heat and cold moved through her body. Then she quieted down.
Nancy told him which memory had taken hold of her. When she was four years old, her tonsils had been removed. She had tried to escape, to run away, but had been held down by a couple of nurses while the doctor pressed an ether cap over her nose. After the miraculous session at Levine’s, she had been cured of her anxiety complaints once and for all.
Thirty-five years later, Levine is internationally known as a therapist, founder of the Foundation for Human Enrichment, and author of several bestsellers on his method and its scientific basis. Thousands of therapists all over the world have followed his training and are applying his method in their own practices. In 2010, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award of the U.S. Association of Body Therapy.
Success stories are legion. Such as the one about Carol Marks, who came to Levine via a group session eight years ago and was invited onto the stage. “I have scoliosis [deformity of the spine] and had little energy. During the session with Dr. Levine, I could feel my life energy begin to vibrate in my body,” she says. “And my scoliosis actually shifted and was visible to the entire audience.” She was impressed to such an extent that she booked more sessions with Levine. In the course of the treatment, it came to light that a rape at knifepoint, which she had experienced at 15, was the cause of her problems.
“An event I had worked on with many therapies including psychotherapy—in my mind, this event was long past being an issue for me, but what I discovered was that it was still an issue for my body.” The SE treatment made Carol “come back to life,” as she calls it. “Through this uncovering or renegotiation of these powerful protective energies, the vital body forces brought me back to life in ways I had never imagined: more energy, joy, and wholeness. I’m not cured of scoliosis—that will be a lifelong project—but I do have greater range of motion.”
When you think of trauma, you should think of not just rape or other dramatic violence, or of fires, terrible accidents or combat. Falls, serious illnesses, the loss of loved ones, medical treatments and hospitalization are often much more traumatizing than we think. In his book Waking the Tiger, Levine mentions complicated births as a source of trauma, and even stress suffered by a fetus in the womb. And those are only the most spectacular examples. There are also more creeping forms of trauma. Many parents inadvertently pass on their own psychological wounds to their children. And even when your parents are emotionally very healthy, caring and loving, they are not always there when something bad happens, when you are all alone and confronted by a threat.
Levine has been through these kinds of traumas himself. In his book In an Unspoken Voice, he describes in detail an accident that happened to him in 2005. While crossing the road, he was hit by a car driven by a teenager. In the ambulance, Levine started to apply his own method: he became acutely conscious of all his physical sensations and accepted them. He made subtle arm movements, because he felt that his arms “wanted” that, and he allowed himself to shake and tremble violently. Immediately his heart rate slowed down to normal. He knew right away that whatever happened, he would not have any psychological complaints as a result of the accident.
His vision for the future, he tells me during the interview, is that the media, which at present tends to endlessly repeat bad news and shocking pictures, can be employed to provide people with useful information about what to do to deal with a trauma.
Fight, flight or freeze are the options we can choose from when in danger. This “choosing” happens automatically and unconsciously; it has happened before you have had time to think about it. Especially when you freeze or when you are forced by circumstances to keep dead quiet at a -life-threatening moment, the risk of a prolonged trauma is considerable, Levine says, because your body wants to employ the natural response of discharging the energy of the fear through movement, for example by shaking or trembling. That is what wild animals do after a fright or after narrowly escaping death.
“Trauma, survival, is about mobilizing vast amounts of energy,” Levine says.
He is an easy talker. He smiles and radiates a friendly kind of gentleness. “It’s the energy that allows a gazelle to escape from a cheetah at 75 miles an hour, or a mother to pull a car off her child. The thing is that we have to release that energy to restore equilibrium. We’re innately wired to rebound—just the way an animal in the wild is. For example, the rabbit that is being chased down by a coyote and then escapes doesn’t become afraid to leave its burrow. It’s over, and it goes on with life. We don’t do that—we get stuck with the trauma.”
Without that release, sooner or later symptoms like nightmares, fits of anger, numbness, apathy or lack of enthusiasm will occur: PTSD. Fighting and fleeing are active. The person who is overwhelmed and falls into a state of helplessness—that is a more difficult form of trauma. Actually, this is the aspect of trauma that has been poorly understood. Lack of energy, lack of feeling, pervasive numbness, shutting down, -inability to respond—these are all parts of the collapse/freezing response.
Or you start suffering from something “normal,” like a chronic stiff neck.
Barbara Koopmans always explains this very clearly to her clients. “Because understanding what happens within your system makes it safer for the traumatized person,” she says. “That is important, because traumatized people feel particularly unsafe in their world.”
It is our neocortex, she says—that extra lobe that evolution provided us with—that causes us to entrench our own traumas. “It can make your realize, for example, that you must rush home because you haven’t switched off the gas. That is when you are happy with your neocortex. But it is also that same neocortex that makes you say, “My father used to hit me, but he probably did not mean to do me any harm”—thereby eliminating yourself and your own emotions. You can also repress events. Sometimes people tell me that they are not aware of having any traumas, while in the course of the conversation they remember their parents unexpectedly getting a divorce or being involved in a car accident. ”
In Waking the Tiger, Levine says that in a herd of deer, you can observe precisely how they recover from each fright: extended vibrations move across their bodies until the inner equilibrium is restored. Why is it that people cannot do that?
“One of the reasons is our fear of the very sensations that would bring us back to equilibrium: crying, vibration, tingling, temperature changes,” Levine says. “I think what happens is, when you’re traumatized, you perceive any change in sensation as potentially threatening.
What we need to resolve trauma is to be able to contact those very sensations and to do it one small amount at a time. For if we release that energy all at once, then we’re very easily overwhelmed. So we shut down. And the nervous system can’t tell the difference between the actual event and what’s going on in the present. So if we are overwhelmed, we create the potential for being retraumatized.”
This gradual process he calls “titration,” a term used in physics, whereby the mixing of two potentially explosive liquids takes place a bit at a time. That is why Koopmans made me switch my attention between the pleasant feelings in my body and the disk of tension in my shoulders.
Not all forms of jerking and shaking are suitable for discharging trauma energy. According to Levine, gentle vibration in conjunction with temperature changes is the natural way of the body itself. With this in mind, SE therapists pay attention to any change in the face or the body language of their clients. A blush on the cheeks, a sigh, a stomach rumble—all these are signs of energy release.
Second session, with a different therapist: Louise Clough, in Amsterdam, also trained in Somatic Experiencing. I have told her about the tension in my neck and upper back, and now, as I sit facing her and concentrate my attention on it, I can feel it again, that heavy disk.
“It feels like granite,” I say. “Like a -tombstone.”
She asks me questions like: How is it for me to talk about it? What do I feel? Where do I feel it? Is there also a desire to be free, to have more space, and where do I feel that desire?
“In my heart,” I say.
She asks me to make the feeling of desire grow in every direction. And to follow the movements my body wants to make, however subtle, without controlling them.
I feel that my head wants to bend forward, so I bend my head. A song comes to my mind: “Hang down your head, Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry. Poor boy, you’re bound to die…” Tears run down my cheeks again. And then I know what it is that weighs so heavily on my shoulders: the sudden death of my older brother when I was 15.
Clough asks me what happened exactly, and I tell her about that Saturday morning 46 years ago when my mother, panicking, asked me to call a doctor because my asthmatic brother was suffocating and she had been trying to administer artificial respiration without success, and how I, too, panicked and called our neighbor, and how the ambulance finally arrived and everyone was suddenly gone and I was left alone with the dog, who began to howl. And how I swore to myself: It is not true, it is not true, he is not going to die. How they returned with the shattering news. And how in the period thereafter I worried most of all about the bottomless grief of my parents, and buried away my own emotions. In my neck.
“There was little room for you and your emotions,” the therapist concludes, and for the first time I can clearly see that. We sit quietly facing each other. Waves of grief run through me.
My head is moving slowly, back and forth, sideways. I do not deliberately control the movements—I just do not stop them. “Your neck is now telling its own story,” the therapist says. “Perhaps it is trying to find out how much freedom of movement is possible.”
At the end of the session, she comes to sit beside me and puts her hand, a nice warm hand, on my back and shoulders. “To -support you in what has now been set in -motion.”
“Unfinished business” is what Levine calls the root cause of trauma: emotions that were never felt, physical impulses that were obstructed, gestures that could not be brought to a proper end.
“Emotions of loss and grief and anger that people have held on to for many, many years—decades sometimes—come up,” Levine says. “What happens with these emotions, when we cannot deal with them or are afraid to deal with them, or they are overwhelming: we push them down. But that which we resist, persists. The emotions continue to push up, and we continue to push down, even more, to hold them. And we think: ‘Oh my God, if I feel this, I will be destroyed.’ But really it is the reaction against the emotion that is causing the pain. Trauma means there is no end to the story. When people come out of trauma, you see that what belongs to the past goes to the past, and the person is able to see a new future that is different.”
You can imagine, for example, moving through the world with a straight back and your head held high, instead of crushed under a disk of tension. And you suddenly realize that you can turn your head much further to the left and right.
Immobility is a key concept in Somatic Experiencing. “Freezing” is involuntary immobility, and to fully rid yourself of a trauma, you need to disconnect the fear from the immobility. “When an animal freezes, it can move again afterwards, and no fear has been created,” Levine says. “But when we freeze, we get frightened. That is why we resist it, which is exactly what will lead to a recurrence of the trauma.”
The capacity to remain focused, while at the same time staying calm, is also a very important aspect of, for example, Zen meditation, according to Levine. “You observe what happens within and without. Meditation is immobility, so sooner or later the traumas will come up. So you immediately dissociate and just go away from it, or you just collapse and are overwhelmed by it. But when people have enough guidance, it helps them to move through it. Really moving fully out of trauma is about being able to feel the immobility without fear. When we can experience the immobility in a safe situation, the immobility will just move through and we will return to our own activity.”