I’ve recently been reading this newer book by Peter A. Levine on “how the body releases trauma and restores goodness.”. It feels like a follow-up on one of my previous favourite books of his, Walking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, as it goes deeper into how the body, mind and spirit interrelate. To put into perspective, I see Peter A. Levine’s work as groundbreaking because he bridges the science of the brain with knowledge of a bodyworker. Compared to another of my heroes, Judith Lewis Herman, whom more or less defined the concept of PTSD, that focuses on how to work with trauma in various forms of talk-based therapies.
A nervous system of three generations
One of my main takeaways was that Peter explains how our nervous system is the result of three iterations dating back thousands of years, and I believe understanding these levels will significantly help us understand the effect of trauma. Note that the nervous system does much more than helping the body through extreme experiences, but in this text, I’ll be writing about it from the perspective of understanding trauma.
The most modern development of the nervous system is the social system (located in the ventral vagal complex, if you want to look up the medical terms), and this is something we share with all social and pack animals. The social system communicates information about our social situation to the body so it can function correctly. For example, we see smiling faces around us, so we can assume that we are safe. Or we see eyebrows raised in shock and we prepare of trouble. Or we detect danger ourselves, and we scream for help to alert the nervous system of people around us. So the social nervous system uses the other individuals to understand the situation, and also to get support and safety. And this happens in an embodied way, by releasing singling substances into our bodies before we are intellectually aware of what is going on. Read this text for more information about signalling substances like endorphins and dopamines.
Older than the social system is the fight-or-flight system (located in the sympathetic nervous system); I say older because we share it with pretty much any animal that has a spine. This system communicates information about our homeostasis, so we know if we should rest and digest, look for food, or avoid becoming food. Again this happens on a fully embodied level and requires no real self-awareness. The oldest system is the freeze system (located in the dorsal vagal complex) that will shut off the entire body to feign death, or in more philosophical terms, stop existing as a being. There are many theories why the third system has developed in survived through an evolution like, for example, preserving resources during long hard periods, or looking dead as many predators avoid rotten carcasses.
These three systems create three different strategies for handling a dangerous situation.
- Look for help in the group
- Fight or run away
Before we move on, let’s look at a definition of trauma – no event by itself is traumatic but what matters is how and if we have the resources to handle an extreme situation. If we don’t, the body will turn to more desperate methods for survival and the seed for a possible trauma is planted. We also have a built-in capacity to resolve the situation before it starts to grow and dig its roots into our being.
A further way to look at trauma is that the body is accumulating a massive amount of energy, stress, or tension (pick your word) to react to an extreme situation. And that this needs to be released afterwards to avoid longterm strain on the body, and mind. I’m sure that you have felt this many times, maybe when giving a speech at work, or being followed when you walk home alone or being in a fistfight, or doing extreme sports. Trauma happens when we are not able to release, and this usually occurs when something overwhelms us or goes wrong.
What happens when we fail to release is that the energy, stress, or tension gets stuck in our being, paralyzing or inhibiting some of our function. Depending on where in the nervous system is trauma is situated, it will take every different expression. In the newest social system, the result is social dysfunction, ranging from being unable to understand social situations to total apathy and withdrawal. In the middle fight-or-flight system, the result can be either anger by being stuck in fight-mode, or avoidance and fear, being held-up in flight-mode or oscillating between them. You can read my thoughts on Judit Hermans book for more information. When stuck in the oldest freeze system, the result is numbness and the feeling of being disconnected from the body. In the book Walking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter A. Levine refers to a saying from an old shamanic tradition, where they say that the soul has left the body.
I think that it’s essential to understand that the functions casuing trauma are fundamentally helpful for the being. This way, we learn from dangerous and challenging situations, and the real problem is that when the learnt behaviour no longer is desirable. Avoiding the neighbour angry dog after being bitten as a kid is okay – avoiding to spend time outside as an adult because there may be a dog around the corner is not.
As always, this is a simplified model to help navigate a very complicated subject, but thinking like this has helped me when working in sessions.
With energy, tension, and stress stuck in the social system, the goal must be to retrain or recalibrate the social interactions, both the actual communication but also our mindset about how the interaction should be — for example, working with consent and trust by expressing desires, limits, and how to embody that. These functions may have shut down when a person has experienced extreme situations of not being respected. On the social level, many people still feel and know their bodies, but are unable to communicate about it. It can often be due to fear of exclusion, either from a partnership, a friend circle, or society in general. The themes may become very specific by gravitating around a central fantasy, kink, or fetish, and being seen and accepted in that is a big thing.
We are moving on to the fight-or-flight system. Here intellectually understanding the fantasy, kink, or fetish, and relationship or story behind the trauma is much less critical. Instead, the focus is on the emotional reaction of either anger (fight) or fear (flight). To feel that feeling and readjusting the response. In one way, it is easy because the body instinctively knows how to do it. Still, in another way, it is a tremendous challenge because we live in a society where we learn to bottle up our emotions by contracting and holding them inside.
What we want is then trauma kicks in – the heart rate starts to race, muscles begin to contract, sweating occurs, and breathing gets shallow – to let all of this happen and move through the cycle while being held in a safe container. Once through, the body often reacts by shaking and shivering of the excess stored energy, tension, and stress. Animals in nature do precisely this, and this way, they avoid the trauma to growth inside of them, but we modern human beings don’t.
Finally, in the freeze-system, the goal is to feel the body again. One of the biggest challenges is to be aware if we are feeling or remembering an experience of feeling. Another way of putting it – do I like this out of habit or how it feels in this present moment? Often when trauma has disconnected us from our bodies, we resolve to the memories of connection, as a coping mechanism because we are dependent on experiencing the world around us. Working with a frozen nervous system is similar to being stuck in the fight-and-flight mode, as when the being has the time and space to feel again, then it will move through the same cycle. The difference is the starting point in emotional shutdown rather than high emotional intensity.
I also think it’s important to understand that the three systems are dependent on each other. The flight-and-flight system is dependent on the body being in a non-frozen state, so there are feelings there to judge the situation. And similarly, the social level is dependent on not being busy with fighting or escaping to give room for social interactions. And I believe this is why talking therapy sometimes isn’t enough because the root of the problem is in the body.
Finally, in the end, every one of us must decide what behaviours we want to change, and what we want to accept. One might destroy life equally much by striving to be “perfect”, because there is no perfect, or we are already perfect – depending on how you see it. But then, on the other hand, some traumas plaguing life are worth the effort of fixing. So it’s up to you, as always.