Is Healing Trauma Traumatic?
The small format, thin book accompanied by the Twelve-Phase Healing Trauma Program CD comes at an affordable price. Peter A. Levine, Ph.D., who has been in stress and trauma research for over 35 years, provides a self-help guide for trauma sufferers that is easy to read and understand.
Barely a hundred pages long, the book is divided into sensible and comprehensible chapters, starting with defining trauma, to its effects on the body, his healing program, and a look at other forms of trauma and its potential for spiritual awakening. Obviously kept to the bare minimum, Levine nevertheless gets the information across and offers exercises that promise to be a good starting point from which to return from trauma, whose effects he acknowledges can be devastating for the rest of our lives.
His program hinges on his experiences as a scientist who during his research of the effects of accumulated stress on the nervous system discovered the body's innate ability to recover from threatening and stressful occurrences in life. He compares this to spiritual awakening, as described by various spiritual traditions. Utilizing Buddha's Four Noble Truths, Levine explains that the human condition of suffering is only prolonged by its denial. A discovery of the reasons for our suffering requires that we look at how we deal with present circumstances, as our past experiences shape our perception. Healing our suffering is not only possible, but innate, and his Twelve-Phase Healing Program is one of the ways to recovery one must find once the cause of the suffering has been identified.
Long treated as a taboo, trauma recently has become a buzzword to describe everyday stress, claims Levine. While trauma is certainly different from daily stress, he does clarify, though, that trauma is not only unique to every person, but can be caused by a variety of situations that produce "often debilitating symptoms that many people suffer from in the aftermath of [consciously or unconsciously] perceived life-threatening or overwhelming experience" (7). From accidents to loss, trauma's effects may not show for years until the individual becomes increasingly disconnected from themselves, their bodies, families, and the world. And the susceptibility to trauma depends on a variety of factors, such as age, temperament, previous experiences and the like.
Regardless of which of the two categories the trauma belongs to, the obvious one that includes war, rape, abuse, etc., or the less obvious one that involves invasive medical procedures, injuries, illness, loud noises and the like, it is our body that communicates to us that we have experienced trauma. Levine mentions four major symptoms of trauma. Ordered by their appearance, he explains that hyperarousal can manifest as physical as well as mental symptoms. Constriction occurs in our bodies as part of their "fight or flight" response and affects breathing, muscles, posture, and other things. Dissociation and denial are further responses to trauma that temporarily serve us during the exposure to the threat, but leave us absent and disconnected. On the emotional level, denial is a milder form of dissociation to "soften" the experience. Finally, feeling helpless, immobile, and frozen counteract the hyperarousal; however, one collapses onto oneself.
A lengthy list of symptoms round up the chapter, and besides the well-known ones, such as flashbacks and nightmares, Levine mentions shame, mental blankness, addictions, and attraction to dangerous situations (often to – subconsciously - relive and thereby overcome the initial traumatic experience), among others. Physical symptoms range from excessive shyness, to chronic pain, and severer PMS.
The reason for all these symptoms is to be found in the brain, which continues to produce stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) long after the threat has passed, unless the chemicals are used for an actual fight or flight, or released in another way. Levine noticed in his clients and confirmed with biologists that shaking, breathing, and trembling is necessary to discharge that unused energy. A park biologist in Africa reports that if animals do not go through that process after having been sedated for tagging, they will die. Levine recognizes the importance of this natural, physical response that allows even people to heal from traumatic experiences. Even when people, like some animals do as a defense mechanism, go into a freeze response, the shaking, trembling, and breathing is essential to return the body to homeostasis.
Releasing residual survival energy does not mean having to return to the traumatic event itself, emphasizes Levine, because memories are fragments in our bodies and not rational parts of our brains. Therefore, discharging the residual survival energy on a physical level will release the trauma trapped in the body. Levine mentions that when doing his program, one will likely experience similar sensations to that of the animals, namely shaking and heavy breathing, but stresses that this is nothing to be scared of.
The following chapters explain his exercises, and Levine encourages to read them before trying the CD. The program is all about reestablishing body awareness and the time investment, naturally, varies from person to person depending on their history. He also mentions non-judgment of oneself or one's progress, the importance of a safe space, and the availability of another, trusted person for support in order to get the best out of the exercises. From evaluating boundaries, to grounding, felt sense, experiencing emotions in one's body, learning to contract and release at will, discharging aggression and energy, physical running motions, uncoupling fear from "freeze," social engagement, and finally settling, the exercises start and end with the body – one begins to feel / sense the body before sensing the body's responses to emotions and thoughts. This serves the ability to differentiate between a mental response that is actually due to a physical response. Once the energy of that physical response is dissolved, the mental or emotional one will disappear, too.
Levine's final chapters briefly discuss the repercussions of sexual trauma that can occur with supposedly benign events such as gynecological procedures, but leave scars for life. Most importantly, he mentions the dilemma of humans being social animals suffering trauma from exactly those people that are supposed to love and protect us. Claiming that the USA is a rather "sex-negative" culture, Levine openly criticizes the misconception of sexuality as anything other than reaffirming life-force energy and provides an interesting example of critical stages of child development and the way the mismanagement of those results in traumatic experiences (74).
The last chapter, only a few pages long, connects trauma to a gateway to spiritual awakening; several Eastern traditions assign sex, meditation, death, and trauma the potential of being a catalyst. Inherent in this albeit brief excursion is a warning to all who deal with or treat trauma: spiritual awakening can occur, and one should be cognizant of its characteristics.
The book ends with some helpful advise on preventing trauma by being present, encouraging physical sensations, and keeping company. Time for processing, releasing emotions and trapped energies is essential.
Overall, this book is a brief introduction to trauma definition, causes, and symptoms, and provides an interesting approach to dealing with it by releasing the residual survival energy trapped in the body. Especially his insight into child development and the facility of causing trauma is very valuable for anybody interested in human interaction at an elevated, more careful and considerate level, and thus opens the door for people outside of the typical professions of counselor or therapist.