Healing Trauma: Wild Animals Know the Secret
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 trauma. Humans 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
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:
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:
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.
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.
Focusing, Eugene Gendlin
Healing Trauma, Peter Levine
Trauma Through the Child’s Eyes, Peter Levine & Maggie Kline