The Meadows Blog

The Meadows is pleased to announce that James Naughton, who previously worked as a counselor at The Meadows, is now Director of Extended Care. In this role James will now oversee our three extended-care facilities: Mellody House, Dakota and The Meadows Texas.

In James's words, he is "grateful and privileged to be a part of the extended-care team." He expresses his sincerest wish to be "that we continue to provide the best care to our clients."

James says, "The team members I speak of - counselors, psychiatrists, house attendants, nurses, maintenance and plant operators, and housekeepers - all contribute to a safe and contained environment that fosters healing for individuals who have suffered the deleterious effects of trauma. We are all equal and valuable elements in this milieu and, through our commitment and work with the clients, each of us contributes to the possibility that those we serve may discover healing."

You may read more about James's thoughts and experiences during a recent visit to one of our extended-care facilities, in this article from a recent issue of our Cutting Edge newsletter.

Published in Blog
Wednesday, 25 March 2009 20:00

We Are All Neighbors

Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2004 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.

We Are All Neighbors
By Peter A. Levine, PhD.

What has happened to our world? Why this large-scale killing, maiming and torture as human populations increase in number and complexity - and as their access to Ethernet information grows each year, seemingly in inverse proportion to their compassion? Even when competing for their most basic resources - food and territory - animals typically do not kill members of their own species. Why do we?

While there are many theories of war, post-traumatic stress is one root cause not widely acknowledged, even though it is the single most important instigator of the perverse cruelty of modern warfare. Mankind's history of war, xenophobia and genocide has generated a legacy of trauma-induced dysfunction fundamentally no different from that experienced by individuals, except in its scale. There remains, however, an enormously important question: Can recovery from trauma be replicated on a larger, societal scale, with similar healing effects? At The Meadows, this has become our living promise.

Let us review what happens when a person is traumatized. First, his internal system remains aroused; he is always on edge, unable to relax or tune down. He is constantly aware of a pervading sense of danger, suspicious of everything and everyone. Not knowing why he feels threatened, this fear and reactivity escalate. This, in turn, amplifies the need to identify the source of the threat. Propelled by a tremendous terror and rage lurking just beneath the surface, he is unconsciously driven into re-enactments to help regulate the ongoing escalation of arousal.

Imagine now an entire population of people with a similar post-traumatic history. In fact, imagine two such populations located in the same geographical region, perhaps with different languages, religions and traditions. What will happen? Croatian civilians are sawed in half by Serbian soldiers. Atrocities are committed, in turn, by Croatian troops. Dozens of truces are called, and each time the result is the same: The urge to kill and destroy takes over, and insanity once again prevails. The Serbs and Croats have been repeating their violent patterns as virtual instant replays of World Wars I and II. Middle Eastern nations can readily trace their wars to Biblical times. Even when wars do not repeat with the kind of ferocity and brutality seen regularly around the globe, suffering in the form of societal dislocation, child abuse and other forms of hatred will. There is no avoiding the traumatic aftermath of war; it reaches into every segment of society.

Transforming Cultural Trauma

Trauma is an inherent part of the primitive biology that brought us here, biology which cannot be changed without completely redesigning us, down to our very cells. To release ourselves from reenacting our traumatic legacy, both individually and as a society, we must transform it. We can do so only by addressing the problem at its roots: in our physiology.

Several years ago, Dr. James Prescott, then at the National Institute of Mental Health, engaged in some important anthropological research on the effects of infant and child rearing practices on the prevalence (and absence) of violence in aboriginal societies. He found that the societies in which child rearing was characterized by close physical bonding and stimulation through rhythmical movement had low incidences of violence. Conversely, the societies with diminished or punitive physical contact with their children showed clear tendencies toward violence in the forms of war, rape and torture.

As we know from the studies of Dr. Prescott and others, the time around birth and infancy is a critical period. It is then that the infant associates the states of its parents with basic security and ability to regulate arousal. When parents are traumatized, they have difficulty imprinting their young with this sense of basic trust and resource. And without this sense of trust, children are more vulnerable to later trauma. One solution to breaking the cycle of cultural trauma is to involve infants and their mothers in an experience that generates trust and bonding before the child has completely assimilated the parents' anxious state.

In Scandinavia, I am involved in some exciting work inspired by my Norwegian colleagues. This project uses what we know about this critical period around infancy to allow not just one individual, but an entire group of people, to begin transforming the trauma of their past encounters. This method of bringing people together requires a room, a few simple musical instruments and some blankets strong enough to hold a baby's weight.

The process works as follows: A group of mothers and infants from opposing factions are brought together at a home or community center. The encounter begins with this heterogeneous group of mothers and infants taking turns teaching one another simple folk songs of their respective cultures. Holding their babies, the mothers dance while they sing the songs to their children. A facilitator uses simple instruments to enhance the rhythm in the songs. The movement, rhythm and use of voice in song strengthen the neurological patterns that produce peaceful alertness and receptivity. As a result, the stuckness and fixation produced by generations of strife begin to soften.

At first, the children are perplexed by the events, but they soon become interested and involved. They are enthusiastic about the rattles, drums and tambourines the facilitator passes to them. When not provided with rhythmic stimulation, children of this age do little more than try to fit such objects into their mouths. In this situation, however, the children join in generating the rhythm, with great delight, squealing and cooing.

Because these infants are not blank slates, but highly developed organisms even at birth, they send signals that activate their mothers' deepest senses of serenity, responsiveness and biological competence.
In this healthy exchange, the mothers and their young engage in an exchange of mutually gratifying physiological responses that, in turn, generate feelings of security and pleasure. It is here that the cycle of traumatic damage begins to unravel.

The transformation continues as the mothers place their babies on the floor and allow them to explore. Like luminous magnets, the babies gleefully move toward each other, overcoming barriers of shyness as the mothers quietly support their exploration from a circle around them. The joy and mutual connection generated by their small adventure is difficult to describe or imagine - it must be witnessed.

The group then continues, with smaller groups of a mother and infant from each culture working together. Two mothers swing their infants gently in a blanket. These babies aren't just happy; they are completely blissful. They generate a roomful of love so contagious that soon the mothers are smiling and bonding with members of a community they earlier feared and distrusted. The mothers leave with renewed hearts and spirits they are eager to share with others. The process is almost self-replicating.

Once a group of people has participated in the experience, the group can easily be trained to replicate it. The impact of this experience is so powerful that participants want to spread it throughout their communities, and many of them do so. The beauty of this approach to community healing lies in its simplicity and effectiveness. An outside facilitator begins the process by leading the first group.

The experience offers a gentle alternative to the destructive cycle of trauma, suffering and violence by allowing the biological imperative for natural bonding and love to assert itself. Resistance to stress and trauma, the development of basic trust, and the capacity for enduring personal and peaceful relationships are forged during a critical period of life.

Developing physiological and neurological patterns give us the instinct of the animal and the intelligence of the human being. Lacking either, we are doomed to act out our hostilities. With the two working together, we can advance on our evolutionary path, utilize all our human capacities and bring our children into a world that is safe.

Non-traumatized humans prefer to live in harmony. Yet traumatic residue creates beliefs that we are unable to surmount our hostility and that misunderstandings will always keep us apart. It is imperative that we make every effort to discover and teach treatment modalities like the Scandinavian model I described previously. We must be passionate in our search for effective avenues of resolution. Not just peace, but survival, depends on it.

Nature cannot be fooled. Evolution happens as a result of forces that threaten to destroy the species. Trauma is one such force.

Cutting Edge Editorial Board comments in response to this article:
The theory of childhood development and immaturity developed by Pia Mellody and its application to the patients at The Meadows is a most encouraging demonstration of how post-traumatic stress can be treated and individual destinies turned to the path of self-knowledge and relational peace. And while The Meadows applies its processes of analysis and recovery to individuals, at its center lies a template that we must apply on a broader societal scale.

Published in Blog

Note: This article was originally published in the January 2008 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.

The Psychological Impact of Traumatic Life Experiences
By Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD

Studying the psychological impact of traumatic life experiences helps to clarify many issues of human suffering. The legacy of traumatic experiences, particularly in childhood, is expressed in bodily reactions such as chronic physical discomfort and illness, unmodulated emotions, and failure to fully, physically and mentally, engage in the present. In order to gain a sense of control over one's physical reactions, it is necessary to mobilize the body. We must physically come to terms with the remnants of fear and defensiveness lodged in our physical reality; otherwise, the imprints of the past may permanently determine whether we feel at home in our bodies and whether we can be open to and learn from experience.

Mainstream therapy helps us by providing insight into the origins of our misery, often in the context of an understanding and supportive relationship. This understanding and support can give people the courage to face previously intolerable realities and give voice to what had felt unspeakable. Working with bodily states is relatively new to Western psychology. In contrast, many cultures around the world have ancient traditions, such as yoga and tai chi, that emphasize working with bodily states in order to affect the mind. These body-oriented methods hold in common the notion that, in order to change, people need to have physical experiences that directly contradict past feelings of helplessness, frustration and terror.

Neuroscientific research shows little connection between the various brain centers involved in understanding, planning and emotion; we simply are not capable of understanding our way out of our feelings. In fact, our logical selves tend to run behind our emotional urges, and function primarily to rationalize our loves and hates. Psychological conflicts, while often having origins in the past, become rooted in our internal sensations, which have become blunted, exaggerated or "stuck."

Hence, the process of psychological change involves regaining a healthy relationship with our internal feeling states. In contrast to understanding, paying close attention to one's internal life - the flow of physical sensations, feelings, internal images and patterns of thought - can make an enormous difference in how we feel and act.

Areas in the conscious mind that convey the sense of being in touch with oneself and one's bodily states (the medial prefrontal cortex and insula) are linked to the brain's emotional center (the amygdala) and arousal centers and, finally, to the hormonal and muscular output centers. In this way, working with deep sensations and feeling has the potential to achieve a sense of internal equilibrium and balance. Only after being able to quiet and master one's inner physical experiences does one regain the capacity to use speech and language to convey, in detail, feelings and memories.

About the Author
Bessel A. van der Kolk, Clinical Consultant for The Meadows and Mellody House, is one of the world's foremost authorities in the area of post-traumatic stress and related phenomena. His research work has ranged from the psychobiology of trauma to traumatic memory, and from the effectiveness of EMDR to the effects of trauma on human development. He is a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and medical director of the Trauma Center in Boston, a Community Practice site of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. The Trauma Center is one of the preeminent training sites in the country for psychologists and psychiatrists specializing in the treatment of traumatized children and adults.

Published in Blog

Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2005 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
Somatic Experiencing: Resilience, Regulation, and Self
By Peter A. Levine, Ph.D., Clinical Consultant for The Meadows and Mellody House

My life's work, encompassing nearly four decades, as a stress researcher and trauma therapist, has taught me how vulnerable we humans are to the effects of stress and trauma. An apparent contradiction to this fragility surfaced during a study I conducted at NASA with Apollo astronauts. In monitoring their physiological responses transmitted to Earth, I was surprised to observe an extraordinary capacity to successfully withstand extreme levels of stress.

However, the most exciting discovery of my career was the recognition that "ordinary" trauma sufferers had the same innate, though latent, ability to rebound from stress. I was both humbled and amazed to witness their ability to learn the very skills that I believe facilitated the astronauts' spontaneous resilience.

In the 1960s, as a student in the fledgling field of mind/body psychology, I learned how to "read" people's postures and assess the patterns of tension held in their bodies (in the vernacular, many were "uptight," "twisted" in angst, "scared-stiff," or helplessly "collapsed" and without energy). I was experimenting with using body awareness to help these individuals learn to normalize their excessive tension patterns. However, a deeper truth emerged from those shared efforts. I discovered that "long-forgotten" events, which had originally been perceived as significantly threatening or highly stressful, had left deep, organismic imprints on my clients. These stress patterns played out in the theaters of their bodies as habitual postures, recurring symptoms, stereotyped movements and repetitive behaviors.

As I continued to explore these body narratives, it became clear that, given the appropriate support and guidance, most individuals could unlock the somatic "stress memories" trapped in their bodies. In so doing, they experienced a rebound (albeit delayed) similar to what the astronauts exhibited as a spontaneous response to the stress of liftoff and space flight. With their self-possession restored, former trauma victims were relieved of their constrained postures, freed in their movements and behaviors, and liberated from many of their symptoms. I began to recognize that effective treatment was not a matter of remembering or erasing painful memories, but of establishing a resilient nervous system, similar to those possessed by the naturally endowed astronauts.

With the resilience of their nervous systems restored, my clients and I sometimes saw remarkable patterns of behavioral and psychological change. Rather than the repetitive and self-reinforcing patterns of symptoms, new adaptations emerged. Often, without the client even noticing, lifelong symptoms of pain, anxiety and sleep disturbances were replaced with engagement and interest in life.
Thirty years ago, Jody's life was shattered. While walking in the woods near her boyfriend's house, a hunter approached her and began an "innocent"conversation. It was mid-September. There was a crisp New England chill in the air. Her boyfriend and others thought nothing when they saw someone, behind the bushes, apparently chopping wood. A madman, however, was smashing Jody's head again and again with his rifle. The police found Jody unconscious. Chips from the butt of the rifle were nearby, where they had broken off in the violent attack.

The only recollection Jody had of the event was scant and confused. She vaguely remembered meeting the man and then waking up in the hospital some days later. As she tried to recollect the event, she went blank in panic. Jody had been suffering from anxiety, migraines, concentration and memory problems, depression, chronic fatigue, and chronic pain in her head, back and neck (diagnosed as fibromyalgia). She had been treated by numerous physical therapists, chiropractors and physicians. Jody, like so many traumatized individuals, grasped desperately and obsessively in an attempt to retrieve memories of her trauma. However, her body revealed a clearer "snapshot" of the event. The upper half of her body, particularly her neck, back and shoulders, were extremely stiff. Her shoulders were high, with the right one practically touching her ear. Her upper body moved almost as one unit, stiff and jerky. Jody's head seemed like it was retracted into her trunk, like a turtle that had been startled. Her movements were tentative, even furtive; she seemed to be always glancing to the right. It was as though she was on guard, waiting to be struck.

When I suggested to Jody that it was possible to experience healing without having to remember the event, I saw a flicker of hope and a momentary look of relief pass across her face. We talked for a while, reviewing her history and her day-by-day struggle to function. Focusing on bodily sensations, Jody slowly became aware of various tension patterns in her head and neck. With this focus, she began to notice a particular urge to turn to the right and retract her neck. In following this urge, in slow, gradual "micro movements," she experienced momentary fear, followed by a strong tingling sensation. Through "tracking" these sensations and movements, Jody began a journey that her mind could not understand. In learning to move between flexible control and surrender, she began to experience shaking and trembling, which gradually spread throughout her body. Thus began, ever so gently, the discharging of her trauma - and the recharging of her life with its lost vitality.
In later sessions, Jody experienced other spontaneous movements, as well as sounds and impulses to run, bare her teeth and claw like a cornered animal. By gradually carrying out and experiencing these biologically established protective responses, Jody was able to sense how her body had prepared to react in that fraction of a second when the hunter raised the rifle to strike her. By allowing these incomplete movements and sounds to be mindfully expressed, Jody began a deep, organic experience of her body's innate capacity to defend and protect itself. Through "owning" the life-preserving actions that her body activated at the time of her attack, she released that bound energy and realized - from deep within - that she in fact could, and did, act to defend herself. Gradually, as more of these "defensive" and "orienting" responses reinstated, her panic and anxiety decreased, as did her physical symptoms.

As Jody came to appreciate the return of her animal instincts, I came to appreciate how animals, while preyed upon in the wild, respond to constant, life-or-death threats without breaking down. If animals did not possess a natural "immunity" to stress, the survival of the individual, as well as the species, would be tenuous at best. This innate "hardiness" was in line with my observations of the astronauts" stress responses, and it sharply contrasted with the symptomatic people I was beginning to treat with my body/mind techniques. This was the final piece of the trauma puzzle.

While humans and animals share the part of the nervous system designed to respond to threat, many of us have somehow lost the capacity to "shake off" our encounters with danger; instead we become paralyzed - physically, emotionally and mentally - as trauma victims. As I worked with more and more people, I became increasingly convinced that freeing that bound "survival energy" - and finding access to our innate restorative capacity - is what allows us to return fully to life. This became the central therapeutic goal. The story of how we have "forgotten" the capacity for self-regulation, and how we can regain it, is at the core of what I describe in my writings. It is what we teach in our Somatic Experiencing® (SE) professional trainings.

Published in Blog

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