Talking with folks about PTS, those who have it and those who don’t, I get the feeling that, in general, people believe that those with PTSD will just have to live with it the rest of their lives. Or, folks are a tiny bit hopeful that they or someone can change but don’t really believe it. People with post-traumatic stress are in prison and there’s just no way out; they must learn to cope.
I feel this way, too sometimes when a particularly entrenched pain or tension resists my efforts to change it. But I believe the body and mind have amazing power to transform our condition if we allow them to team up and we trust in them. Many of us though have been taught to mistrust our bodies. Bad experiences with doctors and hospitals may be to blame. Many of us have been betrayed by perpetrators, our bodies and minds hijacked. Some have been victims of circumstances, such as accidents, crimes, and war. When we couldn’t escape or fight our way out of a situation, we froze in a kind of collapse, our instinctual trauma response thwarted, our neurochemistry doomed to replay the thwarted attempt when triggered.
I believe, however, in the amazing ability of humans to shape life experiences to their liking, hence the name of this website/blog “ReStory Your Life – Freedom after Trauma.” My doubts are fleeting because I have sisters and brothers on this journey who show me how to keep on keepin’ on. And I have access to experts, who know so much more than me, who know with certainty that we can use our post-traumatic stress symptoms as teachers to unlock our prison gates.
One of my heroes, Dr. Peter Levine, author of In an Unspoken Voice, writes: “When we perceive (consciously or unconsciously) that we are in danger, specific defensive postures necessary to protect ourselves are mobilized in our bodies. Instinctively we duck, we dodge, we restrict and stiffen, we prepare to fight or flee; and when escape seems impossible, we freeze or fold into helpless collapse. . . . In turn, these unused, or partially used, muscular tensions set up a stream of nerve impulses ascending the spinal cord to the thalamus . . . and then to other parts of the brain . . . signaling the continued presence of danger and threat. Said simply, if our muscles and guts are set to respond to danger, then our mind will tell us we have something to fear. And if we cannot localize the cause of our distress, then we will continue to search for one” (182-183). Sound familiar?
According to Dr. Levine, renegotiation is key. This concept does not require the reliving of trauma. Rather, a therapist creatively leads a person in recovering a state of being that is neither “overwhelmed and flooded” by trauma nor “shut down into a deadening depression” (191) but that is somewhere in-between. In working with a man who was a holocaust survivor, Levine had to “coax his nervous system out of the shutdown caused by the shock and to begin establishing a base of resilience and self-regulation” (191). Levine shows us how his strategy, called Somatic Experiencing, works. In the book, he shares powerful healing stories of his experience with seven or eight traumatized people, one a child.
I was very moved by these narratives. In a very natural and instinctual way, Dr. Levine guided these individuals, through observation of a person’s posture, facial expressions, body movements and other somatic clues, toward negotiating in new ways what had traumatized them. For example, by a person’s reasserting a protective gesture that was previously interrupted and thus thwarted, relief may be felt. Muscles soften and comfort awakens. One may regain confidence in one’s ability to protect oneself. And in this way, a person begins to unlock the prison gates. Dr. Levine gives us hope that we can emerge from confinement and regain trust in our bodies and minds.