Thank you readers and followers for your sensitivity surrounding the following subject of Trauma.
Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” (quote from Pema Chodron)
In the darkness (not light) of the recent shootings, from Ferguson (can you believe that was two years ago? Seems like yesterday… Do you remember Mike Brown?) to Orlando to Louisiana to Dallas and all the people and places I’m failing to mention, I heard Mike Brown’s mom say that after a while all of the “I’m sorries” blurred into one and how nothing changed. She can’t get away from the social media images, the corporate media images, and she is being forced to relive the trauma of her son’s murder. She can say only to the families suffering the loss of their loved ones at the hands of gun violence and police brutality, this is what you’re all going to know one day. Now you will all know how it feels.
There are the speeches by politicians and religious leaders I am supposed to be motivated or moved by, about it being a time for grieving and building bridges and for healing. There is a call for calm. There is a weary cheer for love. It’s a numbed collective from the repeated shocks, lacking leadership, insisting on pointing out the everyday heroes so we can still believe in angels.
But for me… Mike Brown’s mom had the clearest message.
In my personal life (at the same time as the Dallas police department was being shot up) I had relapsed into a Posttraumatic Stress episode due to a predator from my past who raped me and began contacting me again. I didn’t realize how ill equipped I would be to handle his transgressions and I became suicidal.
This post is about Trauma. I am not giving anyone professional advice about how to overcome and heal from experiences that kill soul. I am offering what is currently helping me hold on and develop coping skills so that anyone else who finds themselves blocked by or locked into a fight or flight response might not feel so alone. I believe it is possible to transform and renegotiate trauma. That is my goal.
Many traditional approaches to therapy actually re-traumatize the victims and make it impossible for them to get help. What I have discovered for my own best course is a non-tradtional approach. It’s not the only way so if it doesn’t work for you, keep seeking your right guides and healers.
This is only partial information and hopefully is of some help to others for what I have selected and yet it is still a semi-long read because the matter of life and death doesn’t fit neatly into a box even when there are a lot of coffins around.
Peace and LOVE,
Below is an Excerpt from an Interview (by Victor Yalom and Marie-Helene Yalom Copyright © 2010 Psychotherapy.net. All rights reserved. Published April 2010.)
The Polyvagal Theory
Peter Levine: Yes, the tiger image. At that time, I was taking a graduate seminar, and some brief mention was made of a phenomenon called tonic immobility. If animals were physically restrained and frightened, they would go into a profoundly altered state of consciousness where they were frozen and immobilized, unable to move. And it turns out that this is one of the key survival features that animals use to protect themselves from threat—in this case from extreme threat. Actually there are three basic neural energy subsystems. These three systems underpin the overall state of the nervous system as well as the correlative behaviors and emotions, leading to three defensive strategies to threat.
MY: That’s the polyvagal theory developed by Stephen Porges?
Peter Levine: Yes. These systems are orchestrated by the primitive structures in our brainstem—the upper part of the brainstem. They’re instinctive and they’re almost reflexive. The tonic immobility is the most primitive system, and it spans probably over 500 million years. It is a combination of freezing and collapsing—the muscles go limp, the person is left without any energy. The next in evolutionary development is the sympathetic nervous system, the fight-or-flight response. And this system evolved from the reptilian period which was about 300 million years ago. And its function is enhanced action, and, as I said, fight-or-flight. Finally the third and most recent system is the social engagement system, and this occurs only in mammals. Its purpose is to drive social engagement—making friends—in order to defuse the aggression or tension.
VY: So this is when we’re feeling threatened or stressed we want to talk to our friends and family?
Peter Levine: Yeah, exactly. Or if somebody’s really angry at us, we want to explain what happened so they don’t strike out at us. Obviously most people won’t strike out, but we’re still hardwired for those kinds of expectations.
VY: Most people have a general sense of the fight-or-flight, but would you just say a few words on it?
Peter Levine: Basically, in the fight-or-flight response, the objective is to get away from the source of threat. All of our muscles prepare for this escape by increasing their tension level, our heart rate and respiration increase, and our whole basic metabolic system is flooded with adrenaline. Blood is diverted to the muscles, away from the viscera. The goal is to run away, or if we feel that we can’t escape or if we perceive that the individual that’s trying to attack us is less strong than we are, to attack them. Or if we’re cornered by a predator—in other words, if there’s no way to escape—then we’ll fight back. Now, if none of those procedures are effective, and it looks like we’re going to be killed, we go into the shock state, the tonic immobility. Now the key is that when people get into this immobility state, they do it in a state of fear. And as they come out of the immobility state, they also enter a state of fear, and actually a state in which they are prepared for what sometimes is called rage counterattack.
MY: Can you say more about that?
Peter Levine: For example, you see a cat chasing a mouse. The cat catches the mouse and has it in its paws, and the mouse goes into this immobility response. And sometimes you’ll actually see the cat bat the mouse around a little bit until it comes out of the immobility, because it wants the chase to go on. Now, what can happen is that the mouse, when it comes out of the immobility state, goes into what is called nondirective flight. It doesn’t even look for where it can run. It just runs as fast as it can in any direction. Sometimes that’s right into the cat. Other times, it will actually attack, in a counterattack of rage. I’ve actually seen a mouse who was captured by a cat come out of the immobility and attack the cat’s nose. The cat was so startled it remained there in that state while the mouse scurried away. When people come out of this immobility response, their potential for rage is so strong and the associated sensations are so intense that they are afraid of their own impulse to strike out and to defend themselves by killing the predator. Again, this all goes back to our animal heritage. So the key I found was in helping people come out of this immobility response without fear. Now, with Nancy, I was lucky. If it were not for that image, I could just as easily have retraumatized her. As a matter of fact, some of the therapies that were being developed around that time frequently retraumatized people. I think particularly of Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy, where people would be yelling and screaming out, supposedly getting out all of their locked-in emotions, but a lot of times they were actually terrorizing themselves with the rage and then they would go back into a shutdown, and then be encouraged to “relive” another memory, and then this cycle would continue.
MY: It becomes addictive sometimes, right?
Peter Levine: That’s correct. It literally becomes addictive. And one of the reasons is that when you do these kinds of relivings, there’s a tremendous release of adrenaline. There’s also a release of endorphins, which is the brain’s internal opiate system. In animals, these endorphins allow the prey to go into a state of shock-analgesia and not feel the pain of being torn apart. When people relive the trauma, they recreate a similar neurochemical system that occurred at the time of the trauma, the release of adrenaline and endorphins. Now, adrenaline is addictive, it is like getting a speed high. [section;And they get addicted not only to the adrenaline but to the endorphins; it’s like having a drug cocktail of amphetamines and morphine.] So when I was at Esalen I actually noticed that people would come to these groups, they would yell and scream, tear a pillow apart that was their mother or their father, and they would feel high. They would feel really great. But then when they would come back a few weeks later, they would go through exactly the same thing again. And that’s what gave me a clue to the fact that this might be addictive.
Peter A. Levine, PhD, is the developer of Somatic Experiencing© and founder of the Foundation for Human Enrichment. He teaches trainings in this work throughout the world and in various indigenous cultures. Levine is the author of the best-selling book Waking the Tiger : Healing Trauma : The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences and he has recently co-published a comprehensive book on childhood trauma, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing as well as a guide for parents, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents’ Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience. He is the recipient of the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award from the the US Association of Body Psychotherapy.
“Recently, a young Iraq veteran took issue with calling his combat anguish PTSD and, instead, poignantly referred to his pain and suffering as PTSI- the “I” designating “injury.” What he wisely discerned is trauma is an injury, not a disorder like diabetes, which can be managed but not healed. In contrast posttraumatic stress injury is an emotional wound, amenable to healing attention and transformation.
Nonetheless, the medical model persists. It (arguably) functions fairly effectively with diseases like diabetes and cancer, where the doctor holds all of the knowledge and dictates the necessary interventions for a sick patient. This is not, however, a useful paradigm for trauma healing. Rather than being a disease in the classical sense, trauma is instead a profound experience of “dis-ease” or “dis-order.” What is called for here is a cooperative and restorative process with the doctor as an assisting guide and midwife. A doctor who insists on retaining his or her protected role as “healthy healer” remains separate, defending him- or herself against the ultimate helplessness that lurks, phantom-like, in all of our lives. Cut off from his or her own feelings, such a doctor will not be able to join with the sufferer. Missing will be the crucial collaboration in containing, processing and integrating the patient’s horrible sensations, imagess and emotions. The sufferer will remain starkly alone, holding the very horrors that have overwhelmed him or her and broken down his or her capacity to self-regulate and grow.
In a common therapy resulting from this isolating orientation, the therapist instructs the PTSD victim to assert control over his or her feelings, to manage his or her aberrant behaviors and to alter his or her dysfunctional thoughts. Contrast this alignment to that of shamanistic traditions, where the healer and the sufferer join together to reexperience the terror while calling on cosmic forces to release the grip of the demons. The shaman is always first initiated, via a profound encounter with his own helplessness and feeling of being shattered, prior to assuming the mantle of healer. Such preparation might suggest a model whereby contemporary therapists must first recognize and engage with their own traumas and emotional wounds.”(excerpts from chapter 3: The Changing Face of Trauma, pages 34-35)
The MEDUSA – Benjamin Millepied ART + MUSIC MOCAtv (music and art film) is an artistic collaboration between Director Choreographer Benjamin Millepied, Rodarte Costumes, and the LA Dance Project in a Caravaggio aesthetic. It is being posted here for reasons of art and healing and for NO COMMERCIAL PURPOSES.
Music: performed by Renee Fleming featuring Christoph Eschenbach “Schubert: Du bist die Ruh‘, D.776 (Op.59/3)”
LA Dance Project Dancers: Charlie Hodges, Amanda Wells, Nathan Makolandra, Morgan Lugo, Julia Eichten, Frances Chiaverini. Director of Photography: Cat Deakins. Costumes: Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte.
Mythology teaches us about courageously meeting challenges. Myths are archetypal stories that simply and directly touch the core of our being. They remind us about our deepest longings, and reveal to us our hidden strengths and resources. They are also maps of our essential nature, pathways that connect us to each other, to nature and to the cosmos. The Greek myth of Medusa captures the very essence of trauma and describes its pathway to transformation.
In the Greek myth, those who looked directly into Medusa’s eyes were promptly turned into stone. . .frozen in time. Before setting out to vanquish this snake-haired demon, Perseus sought counsel from Athena, the goddess of knowldege and strategy. Her advice to him was simple: under no circumstances should he look directly at the Gorgon. Taking Athena’s advice to heart, Perseus used the protective shield fastened on his arm to reflect the image of Medusa. This way he was able to cut off her head without looking directly at her, and thus avoided being turned to stone.
If trauma is to be transformed, we must learn not to confront it directly. If we make the mistake of confronting trauma head on, then Medusa will, true to her nature, turn us to stone. Like the Chinese finger traps we all played with as kids, the more we struggle with trauma, the greater its grip upon us. When it comes to trauma, I believe the “equivalent” of Perseus’s reflecting shield is how our body responds to trauma and how the “living body personifies resilience and feelings of goodness.
There is more to this myth:
Out of Medusa’s wound, two mythical entities emerged: Pegasus the winged horse and the one-eyed giant Chrysaor, the warrior with the golden sword. The golden sword represents the penetrating truth and clarity. The horse is the symbol of the body and instinctual knowledge; the wings symbolize transcendence. Together, these aspects form the archetypal qualities and resources that a human being must mobilize in order to heal the Medusa (fright paralysis) called trauma. The ability to perceive and respond to the reflection of Medusa is mirrored in our instinctual natures.
In another version of this same myth, Perseus collects a drop from the blood of Medusa’s wound in two vials. The drop from one vial has the power to kill; the drop in the other vial has the power to raise the dead and restore life. What is revealed here is the dual nature of trauma: the first its destructive ability to rob victims of their capacity to live and enjoy life. The paradox of trauma is that it both has the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect. Whether trauma will be a cruel punishing Gorgon, or a vehicle for soaring to the heights of transformation and mastery, depends upon how much we approach it. (excerpts from chapter 3: The Changing Face of Trauma, pages 35-37)
Below is Excerpted from an Interview (by Victor Yalom and Marie-Helene Yalom Copyright © 2010 Psychotherapy.net. All rights reserved. Published April 2010.)
until the person has dealt with and sufficiently resolved the physiological shock, they really can’t deal with the emotions
Peter Levine: Many therapists are doing something different from what they think they’re doing. And if you’re working with emotions in a very titrated way, then you can actually go from the emotions to the sensation, and begin to resolve things at a sensation level. But therapies that really work to provoke emotions or the exposure therapies… I know that they do get some results, but I think that they can easily lead to retraumatization.
VY: How so?
Peter Levine: One of the things that Bessel van der Kolk showed when he first started to do trauma research with functional MRIs is that when people are in the trauma state, they actually shut down the frontal parts of their brain and particularly the area on the left cortex called Broca’s area, which is responsible for speech. When the person is in the traumatic state, those brain regions are literally shut down, they’re taken offline. When the therapist encourages the client to talk about their trauma, asking questions such as, “Okay, so this is what happened to you. Now, let’s talk about it,” or, “What are you feeling about that?” The client tries to talk about it. And if they try to talk about it, they become more activated. Their brainstem and limbic system go into a hyperaroused state, which in turns shuts down Broca’s area, so they really can’t express in words what’s going on. They feel more frustrated. Sometimes the therapist is pushing them more and more into the frustration. Eventually the person may have some kind of catharsis, but that kind of catharsis is due frequently to being overloaded and not being able to talk about it, being extremely frustrated. So in a sense, trauma precludes rationality.
MY: So what do you think is the hardest thing for traditional talk therapists to learn when dealing with trauma patients?
Experiencing the Body
Peter Levine: I think the most alien is to be able to work with body sensations. And again, because the overwhelm and the fight-or-flight are things that happen in the body, what I would say is the golden route is to be able to help people have experiences in the body that contradict those of the overwhelming helplessness. And my method is not the only way to do that. It’s certainly one of the most significant. But many therapists, for example, will recommend that their clients do things like yoga or martial arts.
MY: Or meditation?
Peter Levine: The thing about meditation, though…. With some kinds of trauma, meditation is helpful. But the problem is when people go into their inner landscape and they’re not prepared and they’re not guided, sooner or later they encounter the trauma, and then what do they do? They could be overwhelmed with it, or they find a way to go away from the trauma. And they go sometimes into something that resembles a bliss state. But it’s really an ungrounded bliss state. I call that the bliss bypass. It’s a way of avoiding the trauma. It was very common in the ‘60s when people were taking all of these drugs, and a lot of these people were traumatized from their childhood. And what they would do is they would go into these kinds of dissociated states of bliss and different hallucinatory imageries, but in a way it was avoiding the trauma. So in a way the trauma became even a greater effect, and then often people would then wind up having bad trips in which they would go into the trauma but without the resources to work them through.
MY: I guess that’s what I find inspiring about your approach. Ultimately you really want to enable the traumatized person to regain their autonomy, not just find palliative methods of dealing with their trauma.
Peter Levine: Yes. One thing therapists are really good at, I think, is they’re good at helping people calm. We set up our offices so they’re conducive, so they’re friendly, they’re cheerful, there are things in the room that would evoke interest and curiosity. And many therapists can actually help calm the traumatized person. This is something that’s a necessary first step, but if it’s the only thing that happens, the clients become more and more dependent on the therapist to give them some sense of refuge, some sense of okayness. But when therapists are helping the clients get mastery of their sensations, of their power in their body, than they are truly helping them develop an authentic autonomy. And from the very beginning, the client is beginning to separate.
So this is a gradual process, where the client really becomes authentically autonomous, authentically self-empowered. And if we don’t do this, the client tends to become more and more dependent on the therapist, and this is when you see these transferences where all of a sudden the client depends on the therapist for everything. At this point the therapist can go from being the god or the goddess up on this pedestal to being thrown down and the client having rage about the therapist for not helping them enough. So the key out of these conundrums is through self-empowerment, and I know of no more direct and effective way of doing this than through the body.
Peter Levine: The shaking and trembling has to do with the resetting of the autonomic nervous system. I was so curious about this that I interviewed a number of people who work with capturing animals and releasing them into the wild. And they described to me very much the kinds of shaking and trembling that I see with my clients and that happened to me. A number of these folks said that they knew that if the animals didn’t go through this kind of shaking and trembling when they were captured and put in cages, they were less likely to survive when released into the wild. So it appears to be a way in which the physiological autonomic nervous system resets itself.
(*note: I know the above post barely covers what I’m trying to say and so might not be easily grasped or readily helpful so I highly recommend you read the book for yourselves by Peter A. Levine, PhD In An Unspoken Voice; How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness BUT do not try to heal alone or think you have to. Find a guide and don’t give up.)