In an Unspoken Voice: The Wisdom of Dr. Peter Levine

The book In an Unspoken Voice, Dr. Peter Levine’s latest, integrates and offers to us the wisdom he has amassed in his decades of work on stress, the brain, and ways to transform trauma into healing. I am thrilled that Dr. Levine isn’t buying into the “disorder” part of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but understands trauma to be “an injury caused by fright, helplessness and loss that can be healed by engaging our innate capacity to self-regulate high states of arousal and intense emotions” (book jacket).

At the beginning of the book, he narrates his own trauma–being hit by a car in 2005 as he crossed the street–and his experience of how he was able to allow his body to express the “trembles, shakes and spontaneous body movements” (18) that resulted in his releasing the trauma rather than being a captive of post-traumatic-stress. Levine also narrates the story of a powerful therapeutic moment with one of his clients who had become traumatized when a surgeon and his staff held her down as a four-year-old in order to administer ether for a ‘routine’ tonsillectomy. What he learned became the basis of his life’s work.

I am learning a tremendous amount by reading Levine’s book. He confirms my belief that many of us are immobilized or hyperaroused, or both, by trauma, a condition that could be released with the proper understanding about what the instinctual trauma response is, an awareness of our own bodies’ coping mechanisms, and a commitment to freeing ourselves from unnecessary protective behaviors. Here are some quotes to give you a taste of Levine’s ideas and methods:

“Humans, in contrast to animals, frequently remain stuck in a kind of limbo, not fully reengaging in life after experiencing threat as overwhelming terror or horror. In addition, they exhibit a propensity for freezing in situations where a non-traumatized individual might only sense danger or even feel some excitement. Rather than being a last-ditch reaction to inescapable threat, paralysis becomes a ‘default’ response to a wide variety of situations in which one’s feelings are highly aroused” (24).

“Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence. It is possible to learn from mythology, from clinical observations, from neuroscience, from embracing the ‘living’ experiential body, and from the behavior of animals; and then, rather than brace against our instincts, embrace them” (37).

“People who lack solid early attachment bonding to a primary caregiver, and therefore lack a foundation of safety, are much more vulnerable to being victimized and traumatized and are more likely to develop the entrenched symptoms of shame, dissociation and depression”(60).

“A traumatized individual has become conditioned to be fearful of his or her internal (physical) sensations that now generate the fear that extends and deepens (potentiates) the paralysis” (68).

” . . .  trauma release must be worked in tiny increments. I use the term titration to denote the gradual, stepwise process of trauma renegotiation” (82).

I’m just about halfway through Levine’s book and will undoubtedly continue my report in upcoming posts. For now, I hope these quotes have whetted your appetite for discovering more of his profound wisdom. As a survivor of infant surgery without anesthetic, for pyloric stenosis, a stomach blockage, I’ve dealt with a lifetime of post-traumatic stress issues. Dr. Levine affirms that I can keep releasing my debilitating instinctual, and quite normal, responses to a severely traumatic beginning.

2 Responses to In an Unspoken Voice: The Wisdom of Dr. Peter Levine

  1. PTSD is indeed far more widespread and debilitating than most realize, but it’s important and good that in recent years it has also become better understood, thanks to the work of therapists like Dr Levine and what they write.
    Thank you Wendy for sharing some of Dr Peter’s insights with your readers. I look forward to your future reports on this and other books. (I so envy your ability to read many books and report so helpfully on what you have learnt!)
    What you have written above also raises again in me a nagging question, as I suspect that I am not alone in having developed a fair degree of self-acceptance and comfort after more than 60 years with the ongoing effects of my early infant surgery. As you quote Dr Peter, “A traumatized individual has become conditioned to be fearful of his or her internal (physical) sensations that now generate the fear that extends and deepens (potentiates) the paralysis”.
    I have read many words of explanation of ptsd, discovered several quite differing therapies, tried what I can without undue travel and cost, compared notes with many, and wonder which of what is available and recommended will really take me (and us) to greater healing than what I have experienced?
    I have not followed any therapeutic program, and can hate the fears and paralysis I still have, but also wonder how many of those who have followed a program are now more ptsd-symptom free than (say) I am?
    I would love some of your reflections on this, if possible also from what you have discovered by your reading.

    • I believe that some of what we might call ‘our personality traits’ are actually responses to trauma. We have done our best to cope after the trauma, and one of the ways we’ve done this is to unknowingly accept that our instinctual trauma response is simply who we are. Some may say they are shy. Maybe they aren’t really, but it was their way of coping–to withdraw, to isolate, to go into freeze and/or automatic obedience. Some say they lack courage, but maybe they don’t want to try new things and take risks because they are unconsciously protecting themselves. Maybe some say they are antsy and unfocused but again, these are responses to unresolved trauma. Maybe they are still escaping the trauma, trying to find a safety that has not yet been internalized. Your interest in Dr. Levine is inspiring me to do another post on his book. I am just finishing the final two chapters, so look out for a post on this topic soon. I myself, after reading his chapters that detail his clinical work with clients, am going to check to see if my health insurance covers a therapist of Somatic Experience; that’s the type of work Dr. Levine has developed to work with survivors of trauma. I’ll quote from some of Levine’s chapters regarding his actual work with people.

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