Natural Response to Stress/ False Memories of Trauma

This part of the book summary discusses trauma healing from two perspectives: what is the body's natural response to stress and a traumatic situation, and how some of our memories may not be accurate. Refer to other parts of this book summary article-series for explanation on whole body healing of trauma.

"What most people don't know is that many seemingly benign situations can be traumatic. The consequences of trauma can be widespread and hidden. Over the course of my career I have found an extraordinary range of symptoms - behavioral and psychosomatic problems, lack of vitality, etc. - related not only to the traumatic events mentioned above, but also to quite ordinary events."

- Peter A Levine, p. 45, Waking the Tiger

You are reading part seven of the book summary: Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A Levine...

The natural response to stress is the fight-or-flight mechanism, where the body pumps adrenalin into the blood and performs other functions in order to strengthen us and focus our energies to either fight or flee the dangerous situation.

When fight or flight is not possible, the body surrenders, and freezes, as explained by Peter Levine and others. In the 'surrender-mode' certain functions of the body stop us from moving and reduce pain, as well as putting our minds into altered states. Levine speculates that these functions serve to reduce suffering if we get eaten by a wild animal but also sometimes tricks the hunting animal into believing that we are dead. The frozen state is temporary, however, and if we manage to avoid being eaten, we can then escape.

When coming out of this freeze-reaction, Levine explains, the animal usually shakes off this excess 'trapped' energy, which was created during fight-or-flight. If this shake reaction is not allowed to take place, trauma can occur. Humans have unfortunately tended to suppress these shakes, as their mechanism has not been understood.

stress response, trauma, trauma healing

Normal responses to threat, according to Peter Levine, are: 1) hyper-arousal, 2) constriction, 3) helplessness, and 4) dissociation. These are discussed in more detail in the book.

"When we respond to a life-threatening situation, hyper-arousal is initially accompanied by constriction in our bodies and perceptions. The nervous system acts to ensure that all our efforts can be focused on the threat in a maximally optimal way. Constriction alters a person's breathing, muscle tone, and posture. Blood vessels in the skin, extremities, and viscera constrict so that more blood is available to the muscles which are tensed and prepared to take defensive action."
- Peter A Levine, p. 133, Waking the Tiger


One aspect of dissociation, denial, was discussed in the previous part of this book summary.

"Dissociation, as it is presented here, occurs in a variety of ways, each having a common fundamental disconnection between either the person and the body, a part of the body, or a part of the experience. It may occur as a split between: 1) the consciousness and the body, 2) one part of the body, such as the head or the limbs and the rest of the body, 3) the self and the emotions, thoughts, or sensations 4) the self and the memory of part or all of the event." - Peter A Levine, p. 140, Waking the Tiger

"In trauma we know that the mind becomes profoundly altered. For example, a person involved in an auto wreck is protected initially from emotional reaction and even from a clear memory or sense that it really happened. These remarkable mechanisms (e.g. dissociation and denial) allow us to navigate through those critical periods, hopefully waiting for a safe time and place for these altered states to 'wear off'.

"Similarly, the body reacts profoundly in trauma. It tenses in readiness, braces in fear, and freezes and collapses in helpless terror. When the mind's protective reaction to overwhelm returns to normal, the body's response is also meant to normalize after the event. When this restorative process is thwarted, the effects of trauma become fixated and the person becomes traumatized."

- Peter A Levine, pp. 5-6, Waking the Tiger

stress response, trauma, fight or flight

"Spaciness and forgetfulness are among the more obvious symptoms that evolve from dissociation." - Peter A Levine, p. 141, Waking the Tiger

"Dissociation can become chronic and evolve into more complex symptoms when the hyperaroused energy is not discharged. Individuals who have been repeatedly traumatized as young children often adopt dissociation as a preferred mode of being in the world. They dissociate readily and habitually without being aware of it. Even individuals who do not dissociate habitually will dissociate when they become aroused or when they begin to access uncomfortable traumatic images or sensations. In either case, dissociation serves a valuable role in helping to keep the undischarged energy of hyperarousal disconnected from the fullness of our experience."
- Peter A Levine, p. 138-139, Waking the Tiger

Helplessness/ Frozen

"When neither fight nor flight will ensure the animal's safety, there is another line of defense: immobility (freezing), which is just as universal and basic to survival. For inexplicable reasons, this defense strategy is rarely given equal billing in texts on biology and psychology. Yet, it is an equally viable survival strategy in threatening situations. In many situations, it is the best choice."

- Peter A Levine, p. 95, Waking the Tiger

"Unlike the automobile in which the break and accelerator are designed to operate at different times, with a traumatic reaction both brake and accelerator operate together. Since the nervous system only recognizes that the threat has passed when the mobilized energy has been discharged, it will keep mobilizing energy indefinitely until the discharge happens." - Peter A Levine, p. 142, Waking the Tiger

"Of the four key components that form the core of the traumatic reaction, helplessness is the one you are least likely to have experienced, unless you have suffered an overwhelming threat to your life. Yet, this profound sense of helplessness is nearly always present in the early stages of 'overwhelm' resulting from a traumatic event. [...] When the event is real and unfolding in a truly disastrous way, the effect of helplessness is drastically amplified. [...] When we are traumatized, an echo of this feeling of being frozen remains with us."
- Peter A Levine, p. 143, Waking the Tiger

natural response to stress, trauma symptoms

"The animal remains in the immobility state for a period of time and then moves out of it through trembling discharge. The incident is completed." - Peter A Levine, p. 103, Waking the Tiger

"The drive to complete the freezing response remains active no matter how long it has been in place. When we learn how to harness it, the power of this drive becomes our greatest ally." - Peter A Levine, p. 111, Waking the Tiger

False Memories of Trauma

The false memories sometimes induced as trauma symptoms have recently received an increasing amount of attention by psychologists. It is becoming increasingly clear to researchers that the human memory as a whole is not nearly as reliable as we would like to think. An example of this, in addition to the false memories discussed below, is something called 'wilful blindness', where only the preferred aspects of a memory are remembered.

"... the dynamics of trauma are such that they can produce frightening and bizarre 'memories' of past events that seem extremely real, but never happened." - Peter A Levine, p. 47, Waking the Tiger

"The energetic forces that result in trauma are immensely powerful. The emotions that are generated by trauma include rage, terror, and helplessness. If your body elects to communicate the presence of such energies to you through images - consider the kinds of images you might see. The possibilities are endless. They will have one thing in common - they won't be pretty. One mistake that is made all too often is that people interpret these visual communications as reality. A traumatized individual may end up believing that he or she was raped or tortured when the actual message of the organism is trying to convey is that this sensation you are experiencing feels like rape or torture. The actual culprit could just as easily have been a terrifying medical procedure, an automobile accident, or even childhood neglect. It could literally be anything. [...]

"Of course, some images really are memories. People who have suffered from rape or torture will draw on those experiences in producing images. It is common for children who have had these experiences not to remember them until years later. Even if the images are 'true' memories, we have to understand their role in healing. The explanations, beliefs, and interpretations connected with memories can get in the way of completely entering and deepening the felt sense. The sensations that accompany these images are immensely valuable. For our purposes, what matters most is how the sensations feel and how they change." - p. 80-81, Peter A Levine in Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma

"Be aware that the energies of trauma can be bound up in beliefs about being raped or abused. By challenging these beliefs, especially if they aren't true, some of that energy may be released. If this is the case for you, rest and give yourself plenty of time to process this new information. Stay with the sensations as much as possible and don't be alarmed if you feel tremulous or weak. Both are evidence that normal discharge is happening." - Peter A Levine, p. 79, Waking the Tiger

"... we often separate the elements of a traumatizing experience into fragments in order to de-intensify the emotions and sensations. Consequently, only fragments of a remembered traumatic event are likely to be entirely accurate. In general, a complete 'memory' of a traumatic experience is much more likely to be a compilation of elements from a variety of experiences. The elements that are drawn to this 'melting pot' can originate in the actual experiences they had while reading books or newspapers, hearing stories, dreaming, watching a movie, talking with a friend (or a therapist), etc. In short, any type of sensory or informational input that has a similar emotional or feeling tone may be summoned to produce 'the memory'. As far as the organism is concerned, all these elements of experience are equivalent if they carry a similar type of arousal and emotional impact. What the felt sense is trying to communicate is 'This is how I feel'." - Peter A Levine, p. 214, Waking the Tiger
"The idea that memory is not an accurate recording device turns our conventional notions upside down and backwards. In so doing, it offers a reprieve to traumatized people who are caught on the endless treadmill of trying to piece together a coherent movie of what happened to them."

- Peter A Levine, p. 210, Waking the Tiger

"One of the most profound and conceptually challenging aspects of healing trauma is understanding the role played by memory. Many of us have the faulty and limiting belief that to heal our traumas we must dredge up horrible memories from the past. What we know for certain is that we feel damaged, fragmented, distressed, shameful, unhappy, etc. In an attempt to feel better we search for the cause(s) of our unhappiness, hoping that finding them will ease our distress.

"Even if we are able to dredge up reasonably accurate 'memories' of an event, they will not heal us. On the contrary, this unnecessary exercise can cause us to re-enact the experience and get sucked into the trauma vortex once again."

- Peter A Levine, p. 206, Waking the Tiger

"[Henri] Bergson was years ahead of his time with his assertion that the brain's function is not to preserve the past. Many theorists tell us the idea that 'you can know what happened because you remember it' is an illusion produced by a human need to create meaning out of the various elements of the experience. [...] [Israel Rosenfield] reasons that 'it is not fixed images that we rely on, but recreations - imaginations - the past remolded in ways appropriate to the present. [...] Depending on how it feels at the time, the mind selects from colors, images, sounds, smells, interpretations, and responses with similar arousal and feeling tones, then brings them to the foreground in various combinations to produce what we call memory. As it relates to survival, memory is a particular type of perception; it is not an accurate imprint of an event. In this case, it is the process by which the organism creates a gestalt (functional unit) of the experience. This gestalt can be a faithful representation of an actual event or it can just as easily be a rendering consisting of unrelated data from several different events - in other words, a mosaic. This is why eye-witnesses often give surprisingly different descriptions of the same incident." - Peter A Levine, p. 208, Waking the Tiger

"It is not important whether memories are objectively accurate. Of prime importance is whether the associated activation escalates or resolves. It is essential that the unresolved activation locked in the nervous system be discharged." - p. 215

Excitement and Trauma/ Shamanistic Healing

Although this is not a huge part of the book, it was an important realization for me, and so I am writing a separate chapter on this aspect of trauma. For me personally, excitement was a hugely important part of life during my teenage years but closing in on the age of 30, I started feeling the need to relax and slow down my lifestyle. I think this had more to do with the stressful lifestyle I had lead and less to do with age.

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