Healing our "Connective Tissue"
Yogis have long known the healing power of turning into oneself and deeply stretching one's muscles and ligaments - while also stretching one's mental focus, tuning out the static and noise of the world outside. This practice, thousands of years old, has far-reaching physical, mental, and spiritual benefits for the individual, and it fosters a sense of community and fellowship for the group.
In Yin Yoga class, practitioners hold nonmuscular poses to delve into connective tissue, healing joints, tendons, and ligaments. Recently, the instructor said in a slow, smooth voice, "There is a reason why there are only 10 of you here this morning.. We live in a society that does not value turning into ourselves, focusing on our values, or taking the actions necessary to facilitate our intentions." How true. We live in a culture that instead turns out or tunes out; we turn to iPads and smartphones to get relief from daily burdens.
Perhaps this observation resonated so deeply with me because, as a marriage and family therapist, I often see the breakdown of "connective tissue" in individuals, couples, and families. No one is shocked to hear that Americans have the highest rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and obesity in the world. Turning out and away from our burdens naturally leads us to seek relief from outside. This temporary relief may come in the form of food, alcohol, prescriptions, hours spent on Facebook or Farmville, gambling, shopping binges, or infidelity. Such activities damage our "connective tissue" to our unique values and intentions - and prohibit us from taking the actions to reach our goals. Likewise, these activities also damage the "connective tissue" of our relationships with those we hold closest.
Just as the practice of yoga can be strenuous and challenging, the practice of turning in to ourselves will likely be painful and difficult at times.
Just as yoga helps the body to melt away soreness and tension, shifting our focus to our true values and needs will help to ease the emptiness and anxiety that often cause us to look for external solutions.
Whether it's within the practice of yoga or within the context of the individual or family, the act of turning inward involves behavioral, emotional, and cognitive adjustments. An initial - and rudimentary - behavioral change is simply to turn off everything electronic. Silence the radio and cell phone on the way to work, and ask your child to turn off his iPod or DSI. The silence will help you hear your own worries, questions, intentions, and goals - and those of your child or partner. Emotionally, make an effort to be patient, positive, and open, both with yourself and others. Leave denial, defensiveness, judgment, excuses, criticism, resentments, and competition at the door. Remind yourself of what you admire about yourself or your child/partner. What are your/his/her strengths? As you gain strength, you may consider asking yourself, "What can I learn from this?" or "What is my part in this problem?"
As we begin to heal the "connective tissue" in our bodies and our relationships, we can hope for a society that is more sensitive to the needs of the individual and the community. If we look inward for solutions, we can aspire to be part of a society with less substance abuse, mental illness, divorce, violence, and crime.
The holiday season can be a time of joyous celebration with our loved ones, a time when we begrudgingly drag ourselves to dreaded events, or a time when feelings of loneliness can be overwhelming. For many of us, some combination of all three is present this time of year. In many cases, the holidays are a time when stressors, triggers for relapse, and old wounds are more abundant.
This season also brings the opportunity to continue or start off the new year in recovery mode. We at The Meadows would like to offer you a 12 Step plan for doing just that. We honor the work that many of you have done to re-engage in your life, leaving old habits behind. We also honor those who continue to struggle with addiction. Below is a 12 Step guide for surviving the holidays in sobriety - "the 12 Steps of Holidays Anonymous," if you will. (Disclaimer: The steps below are loosely based on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and are not a replacement for them.)
The 12 Steps of Holidays Anonymous
1. Make sobriety your first priority. Acknowledge the vast amount over which you are powerless (your family situation, the location of events, etc.). Be aware that you are, however, empowered to choose to maintain what you have lovingly worked so hard to achieve. Assess what you want and need for your sobriety and relational engagements with others.
2. Believe that you can be restored to sanity. Plan ahead and have realistic expectations. If your family looks more like The Family Stone than Ozzie and Harriett, ground in reality and be open to the flaws and imperfections of your family system. Detach from expectations and practice acceptance and forgiveness.
3. Turn your care over to a higher power, or at least someone with more experience staying sober during the holiday season. Have a safety plan. Speak with your support network prior to the holidays and share any concerns and plans. Remember that, in previous years, many of your peers in the program have survived and thrived during the holiday season. Some common techniques used in the recovery community include driving yourself to events so you can leave whenever necessary, taking the number to a taxi service if driving yourself is not an option, asking a sober friend to accompany you, or hiring a sober escort. Keep in mind: The impact of bringing someone with you or leaving an event early is small compared to the impact of a relapse on your relationships with your loved ones and self.
4. Make a searching and fearless inventory of yourself, and practice boundaries and grounding. Setting limits is a loving and respectful thing to do for yourself and others. If you have awareness that you are willing and able to participate in a holiday activity for one hour rather than five, set a limit with yourself and share this limit with your loved ones or holiday celebration peers.
5. Admit to God, self, and one other person any concerns and potential triggers you may have going into the holiday season. Remember: Those around you cannot support you unless you are willing to be rigorously honest with yourself and your sober support system, i.e., your sponsor, home group, and therapist.
6. Be entirely ready to remove all defects of character. Remember this is for you only; your willingness to assist family members in identifying and removing their defects of character before they are ready avails no one and is NOT relational.
7. Humbly ask the higher power of your understanding to remove your shortcomings, recognizing that your shortcomings do not subtract from your value. Be respectful of others. If one of your tendencies is to judge others, make a resolution to contain your comments on Uncle Marvin's lovely twinkle-light reindeer sweater (not that there's anything wrong with battery-operated clothing).
8. Make a list. Chaotic, last-minute trips to the mall can be destabilizing and stressful. Honor yourself by not overextending to make others happy. Take a personal inventory of yourself and your finances. This is a self-care technique that can help you turn inward and avoid future resentments. Also, don't forget to include yourself on your gift list. Gifting oneself, in a moderate way, is an act of self-care and acknowledgment.
9. Make direct amends, except when doing so would injure others. Remember that one of the ways to make amends is with living amends. You can do this by maintaining your sobriety, acting within your value system, and being respectful of others. You may believe this is a good time to speak with those you have harmed, but do so with conscious thought. Grandma may prefer to spend her holidays watching the grandchildren unwrap gifts rather than discussing a way you can pay her back for totaling her car.
10. Continue to take personal inventory and, when you are wrong, promptly admit it. Remember HALT (the basics of self-care: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired). In times of stress, we become more susceptible to allowing some of our defects of character to leak out. If you act outside of your recovery and value system, make prompt amends to avoid allowing unnecessary feelings of guilt to overtake the celebrations.
11. Seek through prayer and meditation; the holiday season can be busy and, in some cases, stressful. This is not an excuse to skip your morning meditation, meetings, or time with your sponsor. This is a time to hold these commitments even more strongly, or to kick it up a notch. Prearrange your meeting schedule and ensure that connection, sobriety, and self-care remain top priorities. It may come in handy to repeat the Serenity Prayer in your head as Uncle Jack attempts to dominate the season with his thoughts on the current political climate. This allows you to remain connected with your higher power and accomplish relational objectives, all while nodding your head during his share.
12. If you have had a spiritual awakening, try to carry this message: Acts of service can help us to reground, stay connected to our program, and just feel darn good! The holidays can be an important time to practice gratitude and giving. If your holiday plans this year are not what you had hoped for (or even if they are), volunteer to be a sober escort, speak at a meeting, or volunteer to clean up after one. Remember: Whatever your season looks like this year, it’s still a lot better than holidays spent living in addiction.
We at The Meadows wish you a sober, safe, and successful holiday season.
Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2007 edition of MeadowLark, the magazine for The Meadows alumni.
Techniques for Managing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
By Lara Rosenberg
This article is based on a workshop that Lara gave February 13 - 14, 2006, in Sri Lanka hosted by the INGO RedR. The workshop is focused on staff working with individuals, families, and communities that have experienced or continue to experience traumatic events. It was an introductory workshop of particular value for staff having community experience, but limited or no psychological training. It was assumed that participants had prior knowledge of stress.
Stress affects us in many ways: cognitively, affectively, physiologically, and behaviorally. "Stress" is a broad term. It's part of all of our lives; each individual has his own ideas of how to define it. There are many definitions given to stress, but the important underlying factor is that stress results from a change in one's environment and requires an adjustment. The environmental changes that require us to adapt and adjust are known as "stressors" they can include anything out of the ordinary. Many think of stress as only negative, but it can be positive and necessary to our healthy development. The ways in which we adapt to our environments leave some stimulated and others with feelings of fear, nervousness, and confusion, which lead us to either solve or avoid a problem. Change always brings extra pressure, as individuals have to adapt to new circumstances.
Humans and animals are born with the capacity to react to threatening situations in adaptive ways; the "fight or flight response" allows individuals to experience resilience in response to danger. Bessel van der Kolk (1994) describes the fight response as hyper-arousal or protest and the flight response as freezing or numbing sensations, which allow individuals to avoid consciously experiencing the event.
Trauma is caused by a stressful occurrence "that is outside the range of usual human experience, and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone" (Peter Levine, 1997). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) causes one to experience a prolonged or delayed reaction to an intensely stressful event. According to The DSM-IV Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, PTSD occurs when an individual experiences a threat (actual or perceived) of death or serious injury to self or others with a response of "intense fear, helplessness, or horror." PTSD can occur in adults and children from all socio-economic backgrounds. Most people who are exposed to a traumatic, stressful event experience some symptoms of PTSD in the days and weeks following exposure. According to the National Center for PTSD, data suggest that approximately 8 percent of men and 20 percent of women exposed to trauma develop PTSD; of that group, 30 percent develop a chronic form that persists throughout their lifetimes.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that the prevalence of mild and moderate common mental disorders in the general population is 10% and can increase to 20% after a disaster. As stated by Dr. Daya Somasundaram from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka (WHO, 2005), "WHO estimated that 50% may have problems and 5-10% have serious problems needing treatment. One [non-WHO] survey found 40% post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children," referring to people in Sri Lanka. Other data suggest that the mental health burden in Sri Lanka is even higher. Dr. Roy Lubit (2006), as well as Pia Mellody, a pioneer on the effects of childhood trauma, stresses that the full impact of trauma may not be experienced until a child reaches adulthood, engages in adult relationships and responsibilities, and develops more sophisticated cognitive capabilities.
The National Center for PTSD states that one of every three disaster survivors experiences some or all of the severe stress symptoms that may lead to lasting PTSD, anxiety disorders, or depression. Severe stress symptoms are extreme attempts to avoid memories and feelings. In order to numb their emotional pain, individuals will stay unusually busy, withdraw, and exhibit addictive behaviors. Violent behaviors often become prevalent.
Individuals can experience severe depression as part of PTSD, suffering a complete loss of hope, self-worth, motivation, and purpose. Some might experience disassociation, feeling outside of oneself as if living in a dream, or may become vacant for periods of time. Intrusive re-experiencing can occur through terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks. For some, hyper-arousal manifests in panic attacks, rage, extreme irritability, or intense agitation. Other manifestations include severe anxiety, paralyzing worry, extreme helplessness, obsessive and compulsive behaviors, and feeling responsible for the event. Children often re-experience traumatic or stressful events through recurrent memories, nightmares, and play. Some children become very aroused, exhibiting nervousness, irritability, anger, disorganization, or agitation. Children also shun thoughts, feelings, or places that evoke memories of the event. Occasionally, they experience a loss of developmental patterns or skills, separation anxiety, bed-wetting, and learning difficulties. An 8-year old boy in Sri Lanka could not see for 10 weeks after enduring the terrifying experience of the tsunami, in which he lost his mother and home. This example of physical impairment demonstrates the freezing response described by Bessel van der Kolk (1996), as well as Peter Levine (1997) in his Somatic Experiencing® work.
Disaster stress may revive memories of prior trauma; pre-existing social, economic, spiritual, psychological, or medical problems can intensify. Individuals at higher risk for severe stress symptoms and lasting PTSD include those who have been exposed to other traumas, such as abuse, assault, or combat. Chronic poverty, homelessness, unemployment, or discrimination will often intensify the traumatic event, as can chronic illness and psychological disorders.
Most likely to develop PTSD are those who experience stress at a greater intensity, with unpredictability, uncontrollability, and real or perceived responsibility. Factors such as genetics, early-onset and longer-lasting childhood trauma, lack of functional social support, and concurrent stressful life events also contribute to the disorder. Those who report a greater perceived threat, suffering, terror, and fear are at risk for developing PTSD, and a social environment that produces shame, guilt, stigmatization, or self-hatred can affect sufferers as well.
Individuals experiencing PTSD face an increased likelihood of co-occurring disorders such as alcohol/drug abuse and dependence, major depressive episodes, conduct disorders, and social phobias. According to the National Center for PTSD, "In a large-scale study, it was found that 88% of men and 79% of women with PTSD met the criteria for another psychiatric disorder." Some experience difficulty in their psychosocial functioning, with profound problems in their daily lives. Concurrent prevalent physical problems include headaches, dizziness, chest pain, and other aches and pains. Often medical doctors treat only the symptoms, without considering PSTD development.
At the same time, stressful or traumatic experiences can facilitate personal growth. In treating sufferers, it is most important to restore safety in their lives, build coping strategies, and reduce pain. It is necessary to find out how they are coping with the situation and stress. Healthy coping mechanisms should be slowly introduced if behavior patterns reflect unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking, or staying unusually busy. When dealing with disclosure, it is important that a secure and confidential environment is maintained. Humanitarian aid workers should teach survivors of trauma that they are not alone in order to help reduce a sense of isolation and rebuild trust. The aid worker should acknowledge and validate the person's feelings and experiences by offering comfort and support.
Aid workers should assume people are doing their best to cope and should empower them to feel as in-control as possible. Victims should not be asked to reveal emotional information, but if they volunteer it, helpers should listen. Access to mental and physical health services should be provided. In addition to reducing anxiety and depression, valued and meaningful goals help individuals regain hope and purpose. Improved access to education and employment opportunities encourages achievement. It is important to restore individual dignity and value, create opportunities for pleasure, and foster connections by maintaining or re-establishing communication with family and the community. Expressing oneself through journaling, reading, or becoming aware of experiences helps to release stress. Eliminating self-blame for what is occurring allows people to grow. Relaxation methods such as walking, breathing, meditation, yoga, prayer, and listening to music also promote healing, as do self-care behaviors such as brushing teeth, showering, and taking care of one's living environment. Small goals should gradually lead to a focus on the big picture.
The majority of trauma survivors will prove resilient; their feelings of fear and anxiety, along with urges to avoid or relive the experience, will decrease over time. Everyone handles life experiences differently, and it is necessary to allow each individual to heal at his or her own pace. The experience will always be a part of this person's life; however, the possibility of growing from the experience becomes more attainable when anxiety is reduced.
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.
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.