I have always been a deep sleeper, especially when I was a teenager. Very early one morning while it was still dark, my father suddenly burst into my room waking my 16 year old self with a flood of noise and light. He flung the light switch on and yelled at me for leaving the bathroom wall heater on all night.
I shot straight up in bed, deeply shocked by the intrusion into my space and my sleep. I am sensitive to bright lights and loud noises at any time, but particularly when wrenched from the deepest stages of sleep. Then he discovered it was my mother who left the bathroom heater on all night, not me. With that, he turned the light off, shut the door, and left me to lie in bed shaking all over until the sun came up, at which point I got up and went about my day as normal.
The Stress Response
Trauma expert Peter Levine describes animals in the wild as having a similar response as humans to perceived danger. When a predator is near, they go through a sequence of tension, preparing for either fight or flight, followed by violent shaking and relaxation as the danger subsides.
When animals or humans respond to a threat by either fleeing or fighting, our heightened physical energy is easily released. However sometimes we neither flee nor fight. This is because either the danger passes, it isn’t appropriate (the boss humiliates you in a team meeting, the driver beside you suddenly swerves into your lane), or because we don’t have the ability to do so.
In the absence of fleeing the threat or fighting for our lives, it is the violent physical shaking that discharges our heightened energy, resetting the nervous system to its normal resting state. This is why I was able to get up after my rude awakening in the middle of the night and carry on as normal. I hadn’t distracted myself from the shock or tried to stop the shaking. Although I didn’t understand at the time, I did exactly what I needed to do – I simply lay there and shook.
Trauma is held in the body, not in the external event
In humans, when the urge to fight or flee is inappropriate or not available, the impulse to tremble or cry is often thwarted through shame, social expectations, or drugs prescribed to block the process of energy release. Instead of being released, the heightened energy becomes trapped in our nervous system, leaving us traumatised.
In this way, the nervous system remains either stuck ON in a state of readiness as evidenced by panic, irritable bowel, insomnia, attention deficits or stuck OFF in a frozen state as evidenced by depression, lethargy, chronic fatigue, low blood pressure. Trauma resides in the body, not in the external event, so Levine says the body needs to complete the natural release process in order to calm the amygdala (the brain’s alarm system) and return the nervous system to its normal state.
In light of this, it makes no sense to tell a person who has experienced trauma any of the following:
- That was years ago, it’s time to move on
- Everyone makes mistakes, just let it go
- You need to forgive and put it behind you
- Stop focusing on it and think more positively
- It’s your choice to feel this way
Imagine you learned to swim as a child but hadn’t been in the water for decades. Now imagine someone suddenly pushed you in the deep end of the pool. Chances are you would still remember how to swim. The ability is stored in implicit memory – a type of memory where earlier experiences aid in the performance of a task without conscious awareness. We never forget how to tie our shoes or ride a bike or find our way to a friend’s place on the other side of the city.
Trauma is stored in the same way. A wild animal does not think its way out of a frozen state. It doesn’t forgive the predator, pretend it didn’t happen, or take medication. What the animal does is regulate its nervous system with a series of behaviours designed to discharge energy, such as trembling, heavy breathing and other physical movements.
The way in is the way out
Levine calls this ‘waking the tiger’ – activating the part of us that is faster and stronger than the event that overwhelmed us, allowing us to energetically complete the unfinished sequence and release the trauma from our bodies. Without this, movement is restricted and brain activity is disrupted – the cortex (responsible for reasoning and rational thinking) is unable to communicate with the overstimulated amygdala to shut off a false alarm.
Somatic (mind & body) therapy approaches which encourage ‘waking the tiger’ include Guided Drawing, Clayfield Therapy, Somatic Experiencing, Somatic Psychotherapy, Sandplay, Symbol Work, Journalling, Dream Analysis, Dance Therapy, Meditation and EMDR. I have experienced some of these in my art therapy training (guided drawing and clayfield) and my earlier training in the expressive therapies (sandplay and symbols) and seen them produce powerful and profound changes in both my own life and the lives of my fellows students.
You don’t just get over it
If you’ve experienced an event that felt life-threatening to you, or some sort of ongoing stressor that has overwhelmed you, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to ‘just get over it’ without help. If people have been making comments to you such as the ones listed above, please don’t think you’re stuck because you haven’t tried hard enough. It’s more likely that you just haven’t had the right tools to help you get unstuck.
Somatic treatments can be found in most areas and some are offered via Skype for clients in remote regions. Releasing trauma from the body takes courage. You will no longer be intellectualising your experience by sitting and talking about it, you’ll be freeing your mind and body from the past and taking back your life.
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