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Healing Trauma:  Wild Animals Know the Secret

Your Body's Natural Organic Wisdom

by Suzie Wolfer LCSW

Scientists have made a
fascinating discovery about the way animals in the wild let go of fear and stress. 


Because they are able to release it and move on, they are free of PTSD like symptoms.  Without this ability in the wild, they would wander around shut down, uptight or confused . . .  and they would not survive long.  Wild animals release their traumaHumans think about their trauma and recycle it, never realizing their body has a secret weapon to let it go.

 

Non-human animals lack higher brain functions that humans utilize to explain reality.   We ask why.  We make up theories.  We think "if only" or "what if" and the painful memories take up residence in our bodies.  Our language, thoughts and feelings are like the "save" function on a word processing program. 

 

Unlike humans, wild animals find a safe place, experience the trauma from start to finish and their nervous system discharges the fright.  And this is what scientists like Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing, have discovered:  when a trauma is contained and experienced start to finish, the nervous system discharges the memory, like erasing an Etch a Sketch.

 
The Body Is Like a Photo Plate

You may know someone who has had a car accident, experienced fright as a child, or has had a scary medical procedure.  These traumatic events are embedded in the body like image on a photo plate.  And each time we think about fearful experience, we anchor it more deeply in our bodies and nervous systems.  With severe trauma, flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive memories take over and we feel them in our bodies as if we were re-living it physically. These  re-enactments take up enormous amounts of energy, and we use a lot of energy avoiding people, places and things to detour around these triggers.


The compulsion to repeat. 
When trauma has been blocked from conscious awareness, we may find ourselves in similar situations over and over again as we attempt to work through painful experiences. We may think of ourselves as unlucky in love, or accident prone or start to feel defeated because we can't break the pattern of challenging behaviors. Or we may use alcohol, drugs, over work, over eating to try to calm the pressure cooker of anxiety inside us.

 

So how do we get free?

For Peter Levine the answer is not just talking or thinking about painful memories.  This can sometimes deepen the trauma.    Our memories are shaped and reshaped by thoughts and experiences.  They may not be an accurate record of past events.  Our thoughts especially, may be aninterpretation of what happened as a way to try and explain and distance ourselves. 

Unfortunately talking does not change the "photo plate" of our nervous systems.
  To discharge these body memories, understanding how the nervous system works will can help us "complete" rather than block or try to get fid of the emotions arising for accumulated stress.  Your symptoms will be a combination of either the alarm response or or freeze, to dampen feelings of overwhelm.

 

Alarm:  When we are stressed, the fight or flight part of our sympathetic nervous system turns on and we feel:

  • Hot, tense, tight jaw, twitches, itchy, sweaty, rapid heartbeat, shallow breath
  • Heightened sense of alertness, like something bad is going to happen and our muscles are gearing up to respond
  • Emotions such as excitement, fear, anxiety, annoyance or anger 

 

Freeze:  When stress overwhelms us, we may feel stuck.  Some people refer to this slowing and shutting down as depression.   Like an animal in the teeth of the lion, struggling but about to die, the parasympathetic nervous system turns on and we notice the symptoms of shut down: 

  • Cold, sleepy suddenly, slower heart rate, nausea, heavy limbs as if gravity increased
  • Tunnel vision, difficulty seeing,
  • Feeling depressed, blank, numb, detached or dissociated.  In the initial stages of freeze, the mind may be very active and you may experience anxiety but feel somewhat paralyzed.

 

So armed with this knowledge you can take your foot off the brakes and learn to set the conditions so your body can release these patterns. Then the mind can follow.   Our bodies store the problem.  And they also hold the solution. We can use our minds to access the solution rather than playing an endless loop in the projector of our minds.

Things to do

  • Find a calm and grounded place where you will have no interruptions, sit comfortably, and start to simply observe what is happening inside.  Common experiences may be some of all of these:  pressured thoughts, tight or braced feelings, numbness, no awareness of having a body, pressure or heaviness in the upper chest, difficulty breathing.
  • Be curious about what you notice and especially curious to see what happens next.  
  • Bookmark your thoughts.  Take your attention to what is arising in the body.
  • Notice how the bottoms of your feet feel.  If you don't notice anything, press your foot against the floor a little until you notice your leg muscle engage.  And be curious to notice what happens next.
  • Notice your connection to the earth, either through your feet, your hands or your sitz bones.
  • If you have pet notice how your pets breaths . . . many pets breath very deeply and rhythmically into their belly's.  Try to match the breathing.  
  • Instead of thinking, use your thinking to remember activities that leave you feeling safe, happy or/and relaxed.  Remember places where you feel grounded, favorite memories, people who make your body smile or relax.
  • Feel deeply into your present experience, describe and track what happens as you simply observe your body without trying to fix or change it.  
  • Notice thought and emotions as they simply flow through your awareness like clouds in the sky.  Just observe.
Play with the Power of Observation

When you can comfortably do some of these things, invite a stressful thought come to mind.  Start with something very easy.  Use the tools above to witness and observe, being curious to notice if the stress increases, decreases, stays the same, or changes to something else.  Toggle back and forth from the stressful image to a pleasant memory or image. 

It may take a few minutes with something simple.  And it could last for a much longer period of time for a complex intense memory.  Notice the feeling of spaciousness in your body as the nervous system discharges the pattern.  Place your hand on the skin of your upper chest and notice a subtle flow of well being come into your body.

 

Suffering can be transformed and healed and we all have the means to do it ourselves.  For low level stress, this simple method can that the edge off stress, and let your body move toward more aliveness and rhythmicity and help you feel more Ease.


Resources

Focusing, Eugene Gendlin

Healing Trauma, Peter Levine

Trauma Through the Child’s Eyes, Peter Levine & Maggie Kline