In Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences, Peter Levine uses a self-help format to introduce his Somatic Experiencing work to a popular audience. The book describes a way of healing trauma that draws upon the innate wisdom that the human organism has been endowed with over the course of evolution. “Our intellects often override our natural instincts,” (pp. 8) Levine explains, before detailing the near universal way that animal species survive life threatening situations without any lingering traumatic effects.
Essentially, Levine explains, the part of our nervous system that predates the neocortex assumes control of our organism in overwhelming or life threatening situations. If we are unable to fight or flee, our system will shut itself down in a freeze response that can feel like death to our conscious minds. This state of immobility is a “last ditch effort survival strategy” (pp. 15) as well as a dissociative protection against experiencing extreme physical pain.
Energetically, this is a hyper-aroused state in which the freeze is accomplished by our nervous system flooring the “accelerator and brake simultaneously.” Wild animals are able to come out of this state of immobility and literally shake out the energy that was trapped in their nervous systems and go about their lives no worse for the wear.
Humans, unfortunately, often interfere with this bioenergetic discharge and continue to suffer phsysiological symptoms from the experience. This trapped bioenergy continues to plague traumatized people, resulting in a host of symptoms in which people are both disconnected from and overrun by their somatic experience.
Levine’s organismic approach to trauma treatment was an important addition to the field. Essentially it focuses on the release of the trapped bioenergy through a slow, careful process of “re-negotiation,” rather than catharsis or memory recovery. Levine uses two essential tools to keep his patients grounded as he helps them work through their trauma in a systematic fashion: The felt sense and resourcing.
The felt sense is “the medium through which we experience the fullness of sensation and knowledge about ourselves” (pp. 9). By paying attention to the internal, physical sensations of our existence, we integrate our conscious self with our organismic self. Before attempting to renegotiate trauma with Somatic Experiencing, we must first practice making contact with our somatic experience.
This most fundamental of resources is then connected with physical and or psychological resources that can be called upon for support. These resources could be a memory, a totem, a smell, or a particular movement that is empowering or self-regulating.
In each of the case examples in the book, Levine uses these tools to help his patients renegotiate their traumatic experiences. By coaching the patient to use their resources to prevent them from dissociating or becoming overwhelmed, Levine serves as a guide while actions, sensations, feelings, images, thoughts, and movements associated with the traumatic event are worked through.
Levine titrates the experience by breaking it down into four segments. At each step the body is given time to discharge energy in the form of shaking or emoting, but the client is kept resourced as to not become re-traumatized by again feeling helpless. Step one begins with the events leading up to the trauma.
In step two the client is directed to skip ahead to the events that followed the trauma. In step three the client renegotiates the events immediately preceding the event, and finally in step four the client is ready to renegotiate the “moment of impact.” Levine describes a release at the conclusion of this process that can be seen and felt. It is a healing that releases trapped energy, increases vitality, and integrates the client back into the joyousness of their being alive.
Peter Levine’s work has had an important impact on the field of trauma therapy. This book would be interesting and useful to patients who are looking to understand and heal from traumatic experiences, and therapists who are looking for useful ways to help people work through the lingering effects of trauma.
At Well Clinic, we practice client centered, integrative psychotherapy that can incorporate many tools and approaches as they are appropriate for a given client. Many of our therapists have participated in Somatic Experiencing training, and they may draw on its principles during a course of treatment. To learn more, please schedule a free consultation.