Peter Levine Podcast “Healing Trauma”

You’re listening to Insights at the Edge.

Today I speak with Peter Levine. Peter is an expert on treating stress and trauma, with over 45 years experience in the field. His somatic approach has helped countless individuals cope with a wide variety of traumatic experiences. He is the author of several Sounds True programs including the book/CD, Healing Trauma, and an audio program designed to help guide children through traumatic events called It Won’t Hurt Forever. On September 20th Peter will also be presenting The Healing Trauma Online Course: A Step-by-Step Program for Restoring the Wisdom of the Body - a course designed to teach you how to release energy from traumatic episodes and restore harmony and balance in the body.

In this episode of Insights at the Edge., Peter and I explore his body-based approach to trauma, trauma’s connection to stress, and Peter offers some practical advice on how to deal with trauma that you may be experiencing even as you listen.

Here’s my conversation with a true pioneer, Peter Levine.

Tami Simon: Peter, you’re an expert on healing trauma, and in the last 10-15 years, this whole idea that many of us have suffered from trauma, and that it’s important to focus on the healing of trauma, it seems like this is an emerging idea that’s now in the center of our conversation as a collective, whereas previously, back more than 15 years ago, it was something that was more hidden. People didn’t really talk about trauma; it was more of an underground topic. What do you think has changed in the last 10-15 years?

Peter Levine: That’s an interesting question, Tami. I don’t know if I—I’m probably more of a trauma monomaniac than an expert, but anyhow!

TS: OK.

PL: You know, when I first started working with trauma [it] was in the 1960s, and there wasn’t even the definition of trauma as PTSD. And it’s interesting, it really took—I think you’re fairly accurate, it’s really not until the last 10 years that trauma really became part of the public discourse. Why that is, I’m not sure. I mean, we have Oprah, who was willing to talk about things like that on national television. Then we had the reality of the Vietnam vets coming, and then the acknowledgement of the widespread incidence of sexual abuse, molestation, rape. And I think also what happened, I think was a kind of a combination of the Vietnam War and the Women’s Movement, the international Women’s Movement. Because it wasn’t OK to put this kind of abuse on children [and have it] swept into a corner, swept under a rug. And I think together, these things kind of formed a wave of force. So that when I started working with trauma as I say in the ’60s, there wasn’t even a word for trauma, certainly not as PTSD. I was just looking at the effect that these overwhelming and threatening events had on people’s lives and on symptoms, physical symptoms that they had developed.

You know, it’s now a cultural zeitgeist. There’s nobody who doesn’t know about trauma. It’s not just in the United States. When I’ve traveled and visited certain so-called primitive tribes and talked to chiefs—for example, in South America, I asked them if they knew of the word susto, which means literally “fright,” “paralysis,” or “soul loss”; it’s the Spanish and Portuguese word. And the chief, this was in the Canaque people, he said, “Oh yes, I know of that. I also know of [the word] ‘trauma.’” So it’s sort of like in this really relatively short time, 10, 15 years really at the most—my first book came out in, what, 1996 I think, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. And at that time there was only one other book about trauma. And now of course if you go to Google and you Google “trauma,” I don’t know how many pages you’ll come up with!

So for whatever the reason—and I think the deep underlying reason is that trauma is so important in all of our lives. It’s not just in this so-called extra-ordinary events that trauma can occur, but in many ordinary events. And I first started to talk about that in the 1970s when I was really discovering that a lot of people’s symptoms came in the aftermath of automobile accidents, sometimes even fairly minor accidents. In Germany it’s called Schleudertrauma, which means literally “washing machine trauma.” It’s like you’re in a washing machine being spun around. So I discovered that even relatively minor fender benders could result in enduring symptoms. And also invasive medical procedures, which were quite common, and especially with children that were terrified, that were held down and overwhelmed. And again, these are things that happen to people on a routine basis. So it took a long time, and I think it really still is not even fully come into the lexicon of trauma or the diagnostic category of trauma, that these relatively ordinary events can result in debilitating symptoms.

So in summary, there’s hardly anybody on the planet that doesn’t know the word “trauma” and doesn’t relate to it, because it is central to our lives. And it’s not just a modern idea; if you go back to Ulysses, to The Odyssey, that was about trauma. The myth of Medusa, Medusa and Perseus; that’s a myth about trauma. So this is something that affects all of our lives, and people are interested in that. We should be interested in that.

The question of course now is what to do if we’re traumatized or expect that we’re traumatized.

TS: You’ve brought up many interesting ideas here, and I want to unpack what you’re saying. But let’s just take it slowly, which is the first question I have is, how do you distinguish between a stressful event and a trauma?

PL: Well, you can’t always distinguish. Now, a single stressful event, a person that’s reasonably resilient, isn’t going to affect them. But if people have to live in a whole environment, a climate of stress—for example, a child that’s born into a family where there’s a lot of alcoholism and/or yelling at each other, or tremendous tension. Well, the children pick that up, and this is an ongoing stress. People who have lost their jobs and have families to take care of are under prolonged stress. So while single stress, such as even losing a job, won’t cause a lot of the stress, whereas if this goes on for a long period of time, it really erodes our sense of self and our resilience.

You know, it’s a little bit like if you put a frog in hot water. Of course the frog will jump out and save its life. But if you put the frog in a beaker or in a dish of cool water, and very slowly heat the water, the frog will die, and it won’t escape. So stress that goes on, that lingers, can be just as debilitating as trauma. It can actually be more debilitating, because we’re not really aware of its effect on us.

TS: That’s helpful. I think part of what I’m trying to get at is that as trauma has become now part of our zeitgeist, as you said, using that word, people use the word [“trauma”] quite offhandedly, just quite casually. And I’m curious to know when you think something really qualifies as a trauma. What’s the right use of that word?

PL: OK, point well taken. You can go with the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], the book that is used for diagnosing all of the mental illnesses, and there’s a very specific set of conditions. The symptoms have to last a certain amount of time, and there are a whole bunch of listed symptoms, like anxiety, intrusive images, going into, you know, being flooded by emotional feelings, being shut down and numb, and on and on and on. And so we can use that.

But many people who are traumatized, what I would call traumatized, develop all kinds of physical symptoms, so-called psychosomatic symptoms. Now, psychosomatic symptoms are usually considered to be stress disorders. But again, this whole question about the spectrum of stress, and if something happens so quickly and we’re overwhelmed and feeling helplessness—and the key here is that we don’t rebound.

So in other words, we can be exposed to the most difficult, potentially traumatizing events, we can be exposed to loss of loved ones, and if we’re able to contact our innate resilience, we’re not affected by that. Or at least the effect dissipates over time. But if we’re not able to rebound, then we start developing symptoms, which could be called PTSD, or we could call them more generally trauma.

Let me give an example. A person is in their car, and they are waiting for a light to change, and somebody comes up behind them and hits them. And you know, of course for a moment we’re shaken up, we’re disoriented, we run out of the car, we yell at the person, they yell at us, and somehow we’re able to exchange information. Then we go back to doing, to our day. So we have a business meeting or something, we feel actually fairly stimulated, it feels like we’re really, we’re in an adrenaline rush, it feels like that we’re really on top of things.

And slowly, over the next few days, we start to develop all kinds of physical symptoms, as well as outbursts of anger. So the children are doing something, they’re leaving their toys on the floor, and we just explode in anger and yell at the kids, “So what’s going on here!” Also, we might go to a chiropractor, and the chiropractor tries to adjust the spine. And we get a temporary relief, but the pain is back the next day.

And so what happened in that moment is something that happened that startled us, that frightened us, that we actually perceived, not consciously, as life threatening. Because in that moment when somebody hit us from behind, we didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t know if we were going to be killed. So something which is kind of an ordinary fender-bender then is leading to this whole sequelae of symptoms. And what we want to be able to do is make a connection, [to say,] “OK, that these symptoms may have something to do with the accident that we had. “ Now, here’s another thing that makes it more complicated. Sometimes the symptoms actually don’t develop for several months, and then we really make the connection.

So I would say a definition of trauma is something that overwhelms us, that makes us feel helpless, that makes us feel paralyzed. And it’s something that happens to our bodies and our brains, something that happens to our nervous system, to our whole organism, that doesn’t un-happen; something that happens to the nervous system that doesn’t un-happen. Freud in 1912 or 1914 actually had a really good definition of trauma: He said trauma occurs when we are stimulated—and I would say overstimulated—when something happens where we’re overstimulated, and this makes a breach in the protective barrier against stimulation—and I would say again it’s overstimulation—leading to feelings of overwhelming helplessness.

So think of it as sort of a membrane, an imaginary membrane that surrounds us. And if there are arrows that come at us from outside, this protective barrier can protect us against that. But something happens that has more potency, [that’s] more powerful, and it rips a hole in this membrane. And then we’re flooded with these feelings, with fear, with rage, and we don’t know really how to manage it. So something has happened that’s thrown us into this dis-regulated state, and we’re unable to re-regulate and get ourselves back to equilibrium. So to me, that’s the essence of what trauma is.

TS: That’s very, very helpful. Now, Peter, I’m starting to think that you’re a truly hyper-tuned-in person, because when you began talking about trauma, you mentioned invasive medical procedures and car accidents. And what’s interesting is that I’m here in the Sounds True studio, you’re talking with us via Skype from Europe, and you don’t know, but I’m here in the studio with someone who recently went through a very difficult car accident, where his life was almost lost. And then yesterday I had a strange dental procedure, and there was a moment within the dental procedure that fits exactly with what you’re describing, meaning I felt this sense of overwhelm, everything got really quiet, I started calling on some very deep other resources so that I could try to relax a little bit, but there was this strange, frozen overwhelm, “Oh my God, I vacated, I’m not here anymore—”

PL: Right, I’m out of my body in some way.

TS: Exactly, because I was just completely freaked out by what was happening around me with the dental procedure. So first of all, just to acknowledge your tuning in to the people that are in the room here; there’s only three of us—our engineer, this guest author, and myself. And to recognize that what we’re talking about here is very common, as you say; that probably most people have gone through some similar dental procedure or been in some kind of car accident, and relates exactly to that place that you mentioned, that overwhelm, that sense of vacating. So the question: What do we do? What do we do?

PL: Well, first of all, one of the things that I’ve described in several of my books and also with the Sounds True Healing Trauma book/CD, that there are things—see, what happens when what you just described, is something just comes kind of out of the blue, and we’re overwhelmed. And what happens generally is—think about this: If something happens and you’re really frightened, you go [inhales sharply]. You take that immediate breath, your eyes open, your hands are out in front of you, and it’s like the diaphragm is lifted up. And what happens is that we’re not aware that that’s what’s happened. What we’re aware of is the helplessness, is the vacating the body, is the feeling of paralysis or the overall feeling of numbness and paralysis. And if we’re able to go to our bodies and see where we’ve got the trauma locked; that is to say, we have to be able to learn to befriend our bodies’ sensations, then what happens is there’s a natural process that we move through these states, and return to equilibrium.

Now, one of the things that I think is really important, and why I try to get this information out into the public, is most of the time when something like that happens, if there’s somebody around who knows some basic tools and they can help the person who’s had the dental procedure or the car accident to discharge the energy that’s mobilized.

See, what happens is that when we’re feeling threatened, we mobilize a tremendous amount of energy. This is the so-called fight or flight response. And there’s another response that occurs when we are overwhelmed beyond the fight or flight response, and that’s the freezing, numbness, shutdown.

So when you were at the dentist, and whatever happened, you felt scared. Now, I’m sure if there was a monitor that was measuring your heart rate and your blood pressure, there would be noticeable increase in heart rate, increase in breathing. But we can do, because—

Let me go back one step. When I started working with people and realized how many simple events, or how easy it was to become traumatized, I realized also that the part of the brain that’s affected by threat, by stress, is the same part of the brain that we share with all mammals. Yet animals—in the wild, that is—don’t develop trauma symptoms. In other words, if a rabbit is chased down by a coyote and it escapes, he’s none the worse for the wear. Because if animals didn’t have that innate capacity to rebound from these threatening encounters, number one, they wouldn’t survive, because the next time they would be slowed down, they wouldn’t be as effective in evading a predator, and they would be eaten. So not only would the individual rabbit die, but soon the whole species would become extinct. So I reason that there had to be really robust innate mechanisms both in animals and in humans that take us through our encounters with extreme threat. And what I discovered was that animals and people have this innate capacity to shake off the threat and come back to equilibrium.

I just completed my latest book; it’s called In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. I describe an event that happened to me about six years ago. I was walking across the street, and a teenager went through the walkway. There was a truck there, so she couldn’t see me and I couldn’t see her. And she went out, she didn’t slow down, and she hit me at about 25 miles per hour. I was thrown into the windshield and then thrown out into the road. Needless to say, I was terrified, I was dissociated.

A man came by and announced himself as an off-duty paramedic, and he started throwing commands at me: “Don’t move.” And of course when I heard his voice, I wanted to turn to locate the source of the command, and he yelled again, “Don’t move!” So I was totally paralyzed, I was out of my body. And then thankfully a few moments later, a woman came and announced herself as a pediatrician; she said, “I’m a doctor, actually a pediatrician. Is there anything I can do for you?” And I said, “Yes. Please just sit here with me.” And so she sat down and she held my hand. I could smell a certain delicate perfume coming from her which just went to my limbic system, and let me know that I wasn’t alone.

Then, having that, and using my knowledge, my practical knowledge of how to work with these arousal states in my body, I was able to take my heart rate down from about a 160, 170, down to 75, and my blood pressure from about a 160 down to 120, in a relatively short period of time. And thankfully, I realized I wasn’t going to get PTSD. Had I not been able to do that, I assuredly would have developed PTSD.

So it’s a combination of having somebody there for you, and the ability or the learning to be with our body’s sensations and to know that whatever we’re feeling, if we can contact it, it will change. So we have this, for example, this racing heart or knot in the stomach, and we don’t want to feel it because the feeling reminds us that we’re of the trauma; the trauma caused the feeling, caused the sensation, and the sensation reminds us of the trauma. So we’re kind of locked in this avoidance mechanism. But if we learn to contact, in the particular way that I’ve developed in somatic experiencing, through a process of what I call pendulation. Pendulation simply means that we’re always in a rhythm of contraction and expansion. Our bodies, our moods, our thoughts, our perceptions, are always in a rhythm of contraction and expansion. You know, sometimes we feel really completely at home in our bodies, what we look at is clear and imbued with vibrancy and color, we enjoy making contact with other people and that gives us a good feeling. Other times we’re rushed, we’re constricted, and people look like they’re obstacles to us. So we’re in a state of contraction.

So if we take some time to focus in on our internal state, we will notice, for example, that knot in the belly, that when we notice it, it actually seems to contract more, but then it lets go a little bit, and we experience a sensation, a quality of expansion. And when we’re able to be with that, generally with the help of another, and we go into a contraction, OK, and then an expansion, and then a contraction, but not as far, and a little bit greater expansion, and then again a little bit of a contraction, what we do is we come out of the shock state, and our nervous system resets itself. Our body releases the trauma, and feelings of aliveness and goodness, what I call the vitality effect, are reestablished, and we now are able to put that event in the past where it belongs.

TS: OK, so Peter, I want to understand it from the inside out. A nice pediatrician is there with you, saying, “I’m here with you.” You recognize that you need to lower your heart rate from 170 down to 70. What did you actually do to decrease your heart rate?

PL: I didn’t try to decrease my heart rate. That’s what happened as a result of what I did. First thing is, I realized that I was out of my body. But at the same time, I could feel this woman’s hand, so that gave me a point of reference to be aware of being out of the body and kind of surveying this whole situation as though from above, and then I came back into my body. And then I noticed a movement of my left arm, and it was as though it was moving up to protect my head. And then just at that moment, I got an image, a flash, of the window as it shattered in this spider-web kind of thing when a window shatters. Because my shoulder had shattered the window. But my arm was coming up to protect my head. Now, that happened. But I wasn’t aware of that, you see. But when I actually could experience it in these small, what could be called micro-movements, I felt in my body a sense of power: yes, my body did what it needed to do to protect me.

Now, if a person, for example, is overwhelmed, let’s just say by a rape, they may feel completely helpless. But in that helplessness, there’s some little nucleus of some sense of power, of some way that we try to protect ourselves. And also if we experience that we can’t protect ourselves in any way, that going numb and being helpless also might save our lives. So we really get to know that our body was on our side; our body really did what it needed to do for us to survive.

So then a little bit later, I felt a similar impulse in my right arm. And again I could feel my hand going up and protecting my head from hitting the pavement as I was thrown onto the pavement. Then by doing that, my body started to shake and tremble. And it’s this shaking which is really instrumental in discharging this high level of survival energy, this high level of activation and arousal in the nervous system, which had prepared me for flight or fight, but of course I couldn’t fight or flee, right? I was hit by the car and thrown out on the road. But allowing the shaking and trembling, and along with the shaking and trembling came some very powerful emotions. I felt this fiery red feeling in my gut, my diaphragm, and it just shot up into my chest, into head, and into my arms, and I felt this red-hot rage, and I had the thought, “How could she do that? How could she be so dumb and go through the crosswalk?” So then I continued to shake and tremble for a good 20, 30, 40 minutes, and the pediatrician stayed by my side, and I discharged that energy.

Discharging that energy and reestablishing the self-protective responses of my body, that’s what brought my heart rate down. That’s what brought my blood pressure down. So when I was in the ambulance and then took my vital signs again, I was back to normal. And I was able to engage in a normal conversation with the paramedic in the ambulance, because she was really interested in what I had did, because she couldn’t believe that when they took my pulse and heart rate at the scene of the accident, that a short time later it was back to normal. So I told her what I had done, and she said, “Huh. I think in the hospital we make a big mistake, because when people start to shake and tremble like you did, we give them a shot of Valium to stop the shaking. And I realized what we’re probably doing is stopping them from coming back to balance the way you did.”

So it’s allowing the body what it’s built to do, what all animals do. For example, I was telling my theory to different wildlife managers throughout the world, and the response of most of them was, “Yes, we see that. When we capture animals to rerelease them in a different place, if the animals don’t go through the shaking and trembling just the way you described, then they generally won’t survive when they’re released back into the wilderness, into the wild.”

So it’s this, again it’s something that we share with all the animals, because if we didn’t have these innate mechanisms, we wouldn’t be able to survive. Now, people who develop debilitating symptoms of trauma generally don’t die, and so obviously it’s a little bit different than living in the wild. If we would become limited by trauma in the wild, we would be certainly eaten up in a very short time. But in society, we have more protection, but we’re not protected from the psychic anguish and the symptoms that we undergo if we’re unable to undergo what animals do in the wild, which is to come back into equilibrium, into balance.

And incidentally, when people have this experience, a kind of interesting side effect of this, if you like, is that they tend to have experiences which are frequently seen to be as spiritual experiences. They have feelings of presence, of connectedness, a feeling of life energy. Sometimes after healing from a traumatic experience, people’s lives change in a way sometimes that you hear of what happens after near-death experiences where their priorities change, where they’re much more open to their families and things that have meaning to them, and not so much caught up with the rush of the day, things that many people get eaten up with and swallowed by.

TS: Did that happen for you after your accident?

PL: Yes, it did, actually. Several of my friends had commented that they hadn’t seen me as embodied and as calm before the accident. So yes, it did make a difference, it did make a difference in me. And it also became the first chapter of In an Unspoken Voice, where I describe exactly what happened and the meaning of that for healing trauma.

TS: Now, you mentioned the ambulance driver said, “If we normally would find someone shaking, we would inject them with Valium to help them relax, calm down.” And it does seem that this response, shaking, trembling, is not something that’s culturally acceptable. And I’m curious about that; it seems that maybe according to what you’re saying, we’d be a lot healthier as human beings if we saw each other shaking and trembling on occasion and considered it more normal.

PL: You bet! You bet! Again, I mean, sometimes you can shake and tremble in ways that it doesn’t, that it’s not productive. So again, in all of my books and so forth I describe the difference. But in general—

TS: Could you briefly show me the difference, because I’m curious about that?

PL: Most of the time when we shake and tremble, it is our nervous system resetting itself. And it’s almost always helpful when you’re, especially in a situation where there’s somebody there to be with you. You know, the thing about trauma is that it really, really is important to have somebody there who is this kind of stable base. And I have some theories about why that is, some ideas about why that is, but mostly in our culture, as you were saying, people are frightened of shaking and trembling because it’s involuntary. It’s something that is happening to them; it’s something that we can’t control. I mean, we can suppress it, but it’s something that we can’t control. And most people have learned to become fearful of losing control.

Now, for example, there are special times when we do let go of control. One example is at the height of orgasm. And again, very often you see shaking and trembling, sensations of warmth and cold going through the body, usually ending with a beautiful feeling of warmth and goodness throughout our whole body. And so that’s a time when it’s acceptable, at least to some people. But outside of that, if we’re shaking in public, we’re thinking, “Oh, what are people going to think about this?” or “Why am I doing this?” So we interfere with it. It would be wonderful if children were taught by their adults, by their parents—actually I wrote two books just on that purpose, one for parents called Trauma-Proofing Your Kids—when an accident happens, and a parent can be with the child and sit by the child, the child will shake and tremble, will often cry, will often be angry, and if the parent says to the child, “That’s OK! Just let that happen, sweetheart. I’m right here with you,” then the child will shake and tremble, their nervous system will reset, and if they’re not physically injured, often they’ll go back to play as though nothing had happened.

So this is something that we really need to unlearn. And again, I think this is part of our over-socialization, our over-civilizating, where it takes away that which is spontaneous. And that which is spontaneous is also what takes us toward spiritual and mystical experiences. So in that way, trauma and spirituality really come together.

TS: Now, you hinted that you have some theories about why the supportive person being there makes such a difference. Can you give me a sense of that?

PL: When we’re experiencing fear and shaking and trembling, even if there’s no actual threat, we perceive there’s an actual threat. Right? In other words, a bear comes after us, and we’re cornered against a wall. And we’re terrified, obviously. But then the bear for some reason decides to just go back and leave you alone. So you’re there absolutely terrified, shaking and trembling.

Now, you know the bear might come back, right? So the last thing you’re going to want to do is close your eyes, go inside your body, and connect with your body’s sensations. You have to stay alert, because the danger could happen again. Now, if there’s somebody with you, then that person will be kind of looking out for you. So even though there’s no actual source of threat, there’s just the shaking and trembling, having the person with you says, “OK, there’s somebody there that will protect me.” And this goes of course all the way back to our childhood, that we hopefully have parents who give us that feeling, that if we’re frightened, that they’re there for us and they’ll hold us, they’ll sit by us.

So for these reasons, it really helps to have another person. Although, you know, in some fright—I mean, many, many times we’re frightened or something makes us angry, that’s not such a big deal. We’re aware of the sensations, we’re aware of the feelings associated with the sensations, and the sensations pass. But where we’re really seriously challenged, seriously overwhelmed, then it really makes a big difference to have that other person there to give us a sense of protection. When the pediatrician was there by my side, sitting by my side, I mean, obviously she wasn’t going to protect me from being hit by the car, but the feeling of her being there was that I was being protected, and I could allow these spontaneous things to happen and track them, knowing that she was there at my side.

TS: Now, Peter, I’m sure this is something that you’ve thought a lot about. Even in just the discussion of trauma, the way we’re talking about it here, I could imagine somebody listening who might feel “activated” in a certain kind of way. Do you know what I mean?

PL: Sure.

TS: What would you suggest to that person who’s listening who might be feeling a sense of their own trauma kind of coming up?

PL: Yeah, absolutely. This is a great opportunity for anybody who feels some kind of upset or remembering of some kind of trauma to notice of course we’re here; we’re not back there. And that as you’re listening to our voices, to just take a moment to just notice where in your body you feel the uncomfortableness. And what does it feel like? Do you feel a knot in your gut, in your belly? Do you feel your heart racing? Do you feel short of breath? So whatever it is, without trying to change it, to just noticing it.

And let’s just say you’re feeling a knot in your belly. Here’s a simple exercise you can do. When you feel the knot in your belly, just ask yourself, “What does this knot look like? What would be an image, a metaphor, for that knot?” So somebody might see a closed fist, somebody might see a band of iron around the belly, somebody might feel—they might see something twisting in their guts.

So then whatever it is that you’re noticing, and whatever picture you have in your mind’s eye about this knot, or about your racing heart, just ask yourself this question—and don’t try to give yourself the answer, but just let the answer jump out, because it could be anything; it could be a waterfall, it could be a watermelon seed, it could be a house, a meadow, a person, an animal. Look at this image—so let’s just say it’s a closed fist—and just ask yourself, “What’s the opposite image?” And just let that jump out like a jumping jack jumps out of a box. What comes from your unconscious? What’s the spontaneous image?

Now, as you see that picture, that image, just go back and forth between that image and whatever you’re feeling now in your body. And something like that usually helps the person move out of the stuck place.

See, really trauma is about stuckness. We’re stuck with these sensations, we’re stuck with these feelings, we’re stuck with these beliefs. But if we can make contact with how we’re stuck in our bodies, then we begin to move through.

There are a lot of exercises that you can practice so that you go through these uncomfortable sensations and return back feeling stronger and more alive. And I imagine that many of you already who have done that little exercise right now, today, may be feeling that sense of relief, that sense that even if we’re feeling uncomfortable and constricted, that with just a little bit of focus, a little bit of time, maybe a little bit of shaking and trembling, finding our spontaneous breath that comes back, feeling our hands go from cold to warm, feeling an easy-ful, spontaneous breath, again without trying, by just noticing, by just becoming aware of the sensations and how they naturally shift in time, how they contract, how they expand. How you begin to feel again more solid in your own body, in your own organism.

TS: You mentioned, Peter, how much you learned from watching animals, and how animals shake off trauma. But yet, we’re like animals—I mean, we’re mammals—but we’re also human beings who have special capacities, capacities of awareness and reflection. What’s the difference in how a human needs to process trauma, or can process trauma, from an animal?

PL: Very good question. The animals do this, relative to humans at least, without much conscious reflection. So if an animal is injured, it may shake and tremble, and then go to hide so it’s not eaten by a predator. But we assume that animals don’t have reflective self-awareness the way we do. Now, this is both an asset and it also can be a liability. So for example, if a rabbit escapes, it doesn’t think, “Wow, what if I didn’t escape? What if I were eaten?” Again, the event is over. But with our frontal reasoning, primate brain, human brain, we have so much more computing power there, that we so easily bring back the event in our mind’s eye, we keep replaying it, and “What if I didn’t escape, and what if this happens again?” So that’s the downside of the highly cerebralized reasoning brain.

The other part is that it is what is our ally that says, “OK, wait a minute! There is a way out of this. You don’t have to be stuck with it. If you just go in and begin to contact your sensation in this particular way, then let’s just see what happens. Let’s just see if you don’t just move through it.” So we really need to enlist our cognitive brain in the service of our sanity, rather than as being a very limited factor in our unsanity.

TS: Now, the work that you teach is called somatic experiencing, meaning experience this physically, the release of trauma. How do you feel about approaches to trauma relief that aren’t physically based? Meaning you go and you talk to a therapist, you describe what happened, but you’re not necessarily working at a physiological level, you’re not shaking. Do you think those approaches are just not effective?

PL: Well, they can be helpful for just the reason we’re talking about. Remember, the brain, the frontal brain, keeps bringing up these depressing facts for us to beat ourselves over the head with. So some cognitive therapy can be of help there. And when I work with somebody, I do also work with their thoughts, and I work with their perceptions. But if that’s all it does, then it really doesn’t change the fundamental imbalance, which is in the nervous system, which is in the body.

Let me give you also an example where just in insight therapy where it can actually make things worse. OK, so you have a symptom, and the symptom is that when you see a shadow or you’re walking at dusk, you’re really jumpy. And if somebody comes up behind you, you are paralyzed, you’re terrified. So you go and talk about this, and you make a connection with being raped 12 years ago. So now you know why you have this reaction.

So you’re invited to a friend’s house for a party, you’re excited to go, and you’re walking and it’s dusk, and somebody is walking behind you, and again you panic. And you want to go to the party, but you’re afraid of being at the party because you’re feeling so out of yourself. So in other words, what happens is if after we know why it happened, and then it happens and we can’t stop it, we may actually feel worse. We may be even more self-critical to ourselves.

So I mean, I’m convinced that as far as trauma goes, that any therapy that doesn’t work with the body really has an inherent weakness. And I also don’t want to say that therapies that don’t work with the body can’t be of value, because they definitely can. But to really have a lasting transformation of trauma, it’s something that has to come from the body, it has to come from this deep part in ourselves.

There’s a hexagram in the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, it’s I think hexagram 34, called “The Well.” It says, “We must go down to the very foundations of life, for any merely superficial ordering of life that leaves its deepest needs unsatisfied is as an ineffectual as if no attempt at order had ever been made.” So I see that as speaking to this. We can do things, we can put patches on it, we can make the person feel better, certain drugs sometimes are given that may or may not make the person feel better, but until we really get to the underlying ordering of things, then really we haven’t found the solution.

Now, another thing also that sometimes therapists can provide by being empathic and helping to create an environment of relative safety, they can help the person calm [down]. But as soon as they leave, then they feel again thrown back into the ravages of trauma. Their heart rate goes up, their mind is racing, and they become more and more dependent on the therapist because it’s only when they’re with the therapist that they feel some kind of safety and calm.

So for trauma therapy, helping to create this environment of relative safety, yes, that’s absolutely essential. But if it’s all that the therapist does, then it leaves the client more and more dependent on them. So really what they have to do is help give the client tools so that the clients are self-empowered to deal with these uncomfortable situations, these uncomfortable sensations that occur when they’re not in the therapy situation. So this is very important, that trauma therapists both have this sense of containment and stability and groundedness, like the pediatrician who sat by my side, but they also know how to help the clients develop their tools for self-healing.

TS: And you’re mentioned a couple times, using the kinds of tools you’re described like letting go of this contraction in the gut and other techniques, that there’ll be a shift in our nervous system. And I’m curious if you could just give me a little insight into your understanding of how the work that you teach rebalances the nervous system.

PL: Well, again, this goes back to the fact that animals in the wild, not in a laboratory situation or a domestic situation, they probably rarely if ever get traumatized. Again, because if it was a routine occurrence, they wouldn’t survive and the species wouldn’t survive. OK, so there has to be something that’s built in to their nervous systems and into our nervous system, because we share, remember, the same part of the brain, the brain stem, the hypothalamus, the limbic system, all of this, and it has to do with survival. We have just about exactly the same brain parts as they do. So this mechanism is an aide. It’s used by the animals without the animals thinking that they need to use it.

But we have the very same thing, and again we need to usually enlist the higher reasoning parts of our brain to remind ourselves that we are also like the animals, that we also have the innate capacity to rebound from overwhelming events and to reset our nervous system so we go on with life feeling more empowered, and not constantly being brought back to the trauma. This is something that is built-in, that is in our nervous system. And what we have to learn, what we can learn, is to not interfere with that. So I’m going to say this maybe one more time, is that what happens is because of our fear of the involuntary, we block the very sensations, the very reactions, that are innately constructed to do just what they do, which is to reset our nervous systems, to reset our autonomic reactions, and to increase our resiliency in doing that. That’s how we are; that’s how we’re wired. We’re wired not to become traumatized, but we need assistance to actually activate that.

TS: Now, Peter, the difficulty here is that I’ve so many things I want to ask you, but I’m not going to, but I do. And I think that means that I should attend the online course that you’re offering through Sounds True so I’ll get a chance to hear and learn more. And to let our listeners know that that starts at SoundsTrue.com on September 20, a complete online course on Peter Levine’s work with healing trauma.

But I am going to sneak in two final questions. Now you mentioned your new book, and it has this very intriguing title: In an Unspoken Voice. Can you give me some insight into that title?

PL: Yes. That’s what we’ve been talking about. It’s the wisdom of our bodies that in order to become immune from trauma, in order to rebound from trauma, we need to listen to the voice of our bodies, the nonverbal voice of our bodies. And it’s this way of learning that wisdom that comes from direct experience, that comes from the sensations that occur within us.

TS: Very good; that’s clear. And then here’s just my final question for you, Peter. I know you’ve done a lot of work with different populations, working with people who have come back from battle from war, people who have been tsunami and hurricane victims, all different kinds of populations. And I’m curious if you hold a vision for how your work and the work of healing trauma could manifest in the world?

PL: Let me give you a specific example, because I could say it somewhat in his words, maybe that would be revealing. Recently I did some pro bono work for a marine returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and he was blown up by two of these bombs that are along the road that were very close to him and very close to each other. And he was in a coma for a week and woke up in the hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. And we did five sessions, and you see him going from being completely destroyed to this positive, self-secure human being. And an interviewer asked him, “What would you like to tell to the people who are responsible for the mental health, the care of returning soldiers?” And you could see he looked inward, he reflected, and he said in this very, very calm, present voice, he said, “I would tell them to look beyond just giving drugs and to see that there are ways that people can really be helped to come back from these devastating events.”

And this is something that we need, it seems more than ever. In times of crisis, it seems like there’s always been a parallel development in creative avenues, in creative solutions. And we’ve seen such a recent devastation—I guess the most recent example is this horrendous oil spill, where the lives of so many people and so many animals have been ripped apart. We need to have these tools so we can move back in life, so that we can be effective. Because if we become paralyzed by these events, then we’re not able to change them.

So really, I see this kind of work as being a very important part of social change in general. I think this is again a part that’s been missing in many social change movements, because people need to be empowered. If you’re just yelling and screaming and throwing rocks, that’s not going to change anything. But when we find both our unspoken voice and our spoken voice [that’s] coming from that unspoken voice, then we’re able to effect real change in society. At least that’s my experience, and that’s my enduring belief.

TS: Thank you so much. I’ve been speaking with Peter Levine. Peter will be offering an online course in his work with healing trauma, beginning at SoundsTrue.com on September 20. And as I said, Peter, I’m going to participate. I want to learn more about your work. I feel so gifted that you’re a part of what we’re doing here at Sounds True. I think it has such an incredible impact on individuals.

PL: It’s been a pleasure. And really, you know, Sounds True, to a very significant degree, has helped me with my vision of getting these kinds of things out to the general public so that people can use these tools and share these tools with their loved ones, with their families, with their friends. So I thank you for that opportunity.

TS: Thank you, Peter. We have a book/CD at Sounds True called Healing Trauma, and Peter has also created a program called It Won’t Hurt Forever, which is an audio program that guides children through the recovery of trauma, as well as a program on sexual trauma, Sexual Healing: Transforming the Sacred Wound, and again the online course that begins on September 20.

SoundsTrue.com: Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.