Trapped Energies of Trauma, PTSD

The symptoms of trauma and PTSD are caused by trapped energies, created at the time of the traumatic event and kept 'frozen' in our bodies. A natural completion of trauma, such as the shaking seen in animals, would discharge these energies, however, we too often don't allow ourselves to complete and discharge the trauma.

(You are reading part five of the book summary: Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma by Peter A Levine...)

"Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the 'triggering' event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits.

"The long-term, alarming, debilitating, and often bizarre symptoms of PTSD develop when we cannot complete the process of moving in, through and out of the 'immobility' or 'freezing' state. However, we can thaw by initiating and encouraging our innate drive to return to a state of dynamic equilibrium."

- Peter A Levine, p. 19, Waking the Tiger

"When we are unable to liberate these powerful forces, we become victims of trauma. [...] The result, sadly, is that many of us become riddled with fear and anxiety and are never fully able to feel at home with ourselves or the world."
- Peter A Levine, p. 21, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma

trapped energies of trauma
"... trauma symptoms are energetic phenomena that serve the organism by providing an organized way to manage and bind the tremendous energy contained in both the original and the self-perpetuated response to threat."
- Peter A Levine, p. 146-147, Waking the Tiger

"The difference between the inner racing of the nervous system (engine) and the outer immobility (brake) of the body creates a forceful turbulence inside the body similar to a tornado."
- Peter A Levine, p.20, Waking the Tiger

The reason why these energies get trapped is that we are not allowing ourselves to discharge them. These discharged energies manifest as trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms (PTSD). Peter A. Levine explains how the containment of trauma within oneself and the appearance of 'being in control' is the most accepted way of dealing with trauma and stress in many of today's societies. This results in trapped energies:

"Unfortunately, humans often do not completely discharge the vast energies mobilized to protect themselves [during a traumatic event]. Thus, when they enter the second phase, they are reviewing the event, but remain in a highly aroused state. This heightened energy level will not allow the 'playful' reviewing to occur. Instead, they may experience often terrifying and compulsive flashbacks that are akin to reliving the event. [...]

"A majority of people attempt to control their undischarged survival energy by internalizing it. Although this approach is more socially acceptable, it is no less violent than 'acting out'. It is also no more effective in dealing with the highly charged activation. It is important for us to understand that the strategy of internalizing instinctive defensive procedures is a form of re-enactment - perhaps it could be called 'acting in'. To commit violence on oneself is the method preferred by our culture for several reasons. Obviously, it is easier to maintain a social structure that appears to be in control of itself.

"However, I think there is another, more compelling reason - by internalizing our natural propensity to resolve the life-threatening events, we are denying that the need even exists - it remains hidden. One of the positive aspects in the recent escalation of violent 'acting out' is that it is forcing us to face the fact that post traumatic stress, whether it manifests as 'acting in' or 'acting out', is a major health issue."

- p. 176, Peter Levine in Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma
"Why don't humans just move into and out of these different responses as naturally as animals do? One reason is that our highly evolved neo-cortex (rational brain) is so complex and powerful that through fear and overcontrol it can interfere with the subtle restorative instinctual impulses and responses generated by the reptilian core. In particular, the neo-cortex easily overrides some of our gentler instinctual responses - such as those that guide the healing of trauma through the discharge of energy. [...]

"The neo-cortex is not powerful enough to override the instinctual defense response to threat and danger - the fight, flee, or freeze responses. In this respect, we humans are still inextricably bound to our animal heritage. Animals, however, do not have a highly evolved neo-cortex to interfere with the natural return to normal functioning through some form of discharge. In humans, trauma occurs as a result of the initiation of an instinctual cycle that is not allowed to finish. When the neo-cortex overrides the instinctual responses that would indicate the completion of this cycle, we will be traumatized."
- Peter A Levine, p. 100-101, Waking the Tiger

Many people have to keep busy to block their felt-sense from attempting to discharge these energies:

"Relaxing makes me nervous."
- Unknown, as quoted by Peter A Levine, p. 150, Waking the Tiger
"Discharge is precisely what we need, but when it begins to happen, the effect can be terrifying and intolerable, in part because the energy released is perceived to be negative. Because of this fear, we typically suppress the energy or at best discharge it incompletely. [...]

"Another means by which traumatized people can attempt to stabilize or suppress symptoms is through drug therapy. We often try this approach at the recommendation of a doctor, or we may attempt to self-medicate (substance abuse). [...]

"Whatever means of stabilization we employ, our purpose is to create a stable environment. This feat requires a container that is energetically strong enough that the symptoms will not be stressed or challenged. These containers are like dams. [...] Trauma sufferers often find ourselves on a treadmill over which we have no control. We may be driven to avoid situations that evoke both authentic excitement and relaxation, because either could disrupt the equilibrium that our symptoms need to maintain their stability." - Peter A Levine, p. 152, Waking the Tiger

Blocking the felt-sense symptoms of trauma, instead of discharging the energies behind, can reduce creativity:

"Migranes are a nervous system stress reaction that is quite similar and often related to post-traumatic (freezing) reactions. [...] By using medication to alleviate this patient's migraine symptoms, [Oliver] Sacks realized that he had also blocked the man's creative source. Dr. Sacks laments, 'When I 'cured' this man of his migraines, I also 'cured' him of his mathemathics... Along with the pathology, the creativity also disappeared." - Peter A Levine, p. 36, Waking the Tiger
"Held within the symptoms of trauma are the very energies, potentials, and resources necessary for their constructive transformation. The creative healing process can be blocked in a number of ways - by using drugs to supress symptoms, by overemphasizing adjustment or control, or by denial or invalidation of feelings and sensations."

- Peter A Levine, p. 37, Waking the Tiger

Peter A Levine discusses the role played by anger and the post-rationalization of it, in relation to a case study he had just discussed:

"What effect did the undischarged energy have on the emotional and rational responses of the individual? Quite simply, the emotional brain translated this energy into anger. Then, the 'rational' brain created the idea of revenge. These two inter-related systems were doing what they could, given the circumstances. However, the failure to instinctively discharge a very powerful biological energy put them in a position they are not adapted to handle. The result of this attempt - re-enactment rather than renegotiation.

"Although violent behavior may provide temporary relief and an increased feeling of 'pride', without biological discharge, there is no completion. As a result, the cycle of shame and violence returns. The nervous system remains highly activated, which compels people to seek the only relief they know - more violence. The traumatic event is not resolved, and people continue to behave as if it is still happening - because, biologically speaking, it is - their nervous systems are still highly activated."

- p. 180-181, Peter Levine in Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma

In addition, these trapped energies can contribute to our behaviour in a way that we are not at all conscious of:

"The impact of trauma may not be fully conscious, but it certainly is fully active. In an insidious way, trauma contributes to the motives and drives of our behavior. What this means is that the man who was hit as a child will feel compelled to hit as an adult. The energy behind this need to strike out is none other than the energy contained in his traumatic symptoms. This unconscious compulsion can only be conquered by great acts of will until the energy is discharged." - p. 169, Peter A Levine in Waking the Tiger

An especially enlightening aspect about this book for me has been the realization that trauma can be caused to the subconscious mind, without the conscious mind necessarily understanding that the event has been traumatizing:

"The fact that hospitalizations and medical procedures routinely produce traumatic results comes as a surprise to many people. [...] On the 'cellular level' the body perceives that it has sustained a wound serious enough to place it in mortal danger. Intellectually, we may believe in an operation, but on a primal level, our bodies do not."
- p. 54, Peter A Levine in Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma

This makes me wonder whether one can inadvertently traumatize oneself when, for example, watching scary films or news, getting drunk or putting oneself in dangerous situations as a dare. It seems that a successful negotiation of a daring event can be empowering, whereas an event turned wrong can possibly cause shame and be traumatizing. Disasters in TV that get played over and over again can be traumatizing to whole nations or world populations.

Discharge of Trapped Energies

One of the easiest ways to discharge these energies is through David Berceli's trauma release exercises, which do not require any thinking about the traumatic events. These exercises were not mentioned in Peter A Levine's book, however, similar methods were alluded to:

"To complete its biological and meaningful course of action, the organism requires the spontaneous shaking and trembling that we see throughout the animal world. In a 1982 National Geographic video entitled 'Polar Bear Alert', this phenomenon can be viewed clearly. A polar bear, after a stressful chase, is shot with a tranquillizer dart. As it slowly wakens from the anesthesia, the bear goes through an extended period of shaking and trembling before returning to normal."
- Peter A Levine, p. 38, Waking the Tiger

"....gentle beads of warm sweat often accompany the resolution and healing of trauma. In moving through apprehensive chills to mounting excitement and waves of moist tingling warmth, the body, with its innate capacity to heal, melts the iceberg created by deeply frozen trauma. Anxiety and despair can become a creative wellspring when we allow ourselves to experience bodily sensations, such as trembling, that stem from traumatic symptoms." - p. 37
"Contrary to popular belief, trauma can be healed. Not only can it be healed, but in many cases it can be healed without long hours of therapy; without the painful reliving of memories; and without a continuing reliance on medication. We must realize that it is neither necessary nor possible to change past events. Old trauma symptoms are examples of bound-up energy and lost lessons. The past doesn't matter when we learn how to be present; every moment becomes new and creative. We have only to heal our present symptoms and proceed. A healing moment ripples forward and back, out and about."

- Peter A Levine, p. 38-39, Waking the Tiger

In the resolution, the aggression that was sometimes lost when the body surrendered to a traumatic event can get mobilized in a healthy way, e.g. Peter Levine's client, Marius, mobilized the aggression he lost when he was overwhelmed as a child. Revenge and violence, however, won't bring conclusion, but the symptoms will return stronger. Only through listening to the body and working with the felt sense can trauma be released, according to Peter Levine.

"In the immobility (traumatized) state, these assertive energies are inaccessible. The restoration of healthy aggression is an essential part in the recovery from trauma [and PTSD]. Empowerment is the acceptance of personal authority. It derives from the capacity to choose the direction and execution of one's own energies."
- p. 123, Peter A Levine in Waking the Tiger

"As humans begin to emerge from immobility, we are seized often by sudden and overpowering surges of emotion. Because these surges are not immediately acted upon, this energy can become associated with enormous amounts of rage and terror. Fear and the fear of violence to self and others reactivates the immobility, extending it, often indefinitely, in the form of frozen terror. This is the vicious circle of trauma."
- p. 109, Peter A Levine in Waking the Tiger

"With the full use of our highly developed ability to think and perceive, we can consciously move out of the trauma [and PTSD] response. This process needs to occur gradually rather than abruptly. When working with the intensely cathartic and volatile expressions of rage, terror, and helplessness, it is best to take one small step at a time."
- p. 111, Peter A Levine in Waking the Tiger
"The overall strategy of renegotiation [trauma and PTSD] is as follows: the first step is to develop a facility with the felt sense. Once this is developed, we can surrender to the currents of our feelings, which include trembling and other spontaneous discharges of energy. We can use the felt sense to uncouple the maladaptive attachment between excitement and fear. Because excitement is charged and we want to maintain that charge as free and distinct from anxiety, we must also be able to ground it."

- p. 122-123, Peter A Levine in Waking the Tiger

"If we allow ourselves to acknowledge these thoughts and sensations using the felt sense and let them have their natural flow, they will peak, then begin to diminish and resolve."
- p. 128, Peter A Levine in Waking the Tiger

Trauma Symptoms - Recognizing Trauma

The first symptoms of trauma that develop, as explained by Peter A Levine, are hyperarousal, constriction, dissociation (including denial), and feelings of helplessness (freeze response). These are discussed more in the next chapter, 'the natural response to stress'. However, Levine explains that there are other symptoms, that stem from the trapped energy created by the above four 'core' symptoms.

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