Re-enactment is real. The following are the words of Dr. Peter Levine, a PhD in Medical and Biological Physics from UC Berkeley, who has studied trauma and stress for well over thirty years. I took this excerpt from his book Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma, North Atlantic Books, 1997, a readable, groundbreaking book about the nature of trauma and the way to heal from it.
The drive to complete and heal trauma is as powerful and tenacious as the symptoms it creates. The urge to resolve trauma through re-enactment can be severe and compulsive. We are inextricably drawn into situations that replicated the original trauma in both obvious and unobvious ways. The prostitute or “stripper” with a history of childhood sexual abuse is a common example. We may find ourselves experiencing the effects of trauma either through physical symptoms or through a full-blown interaction with the external environment. Re-enactments may be acted out in intimate relationships, work situations, repetitive accidents or mishaps, and in other seemingly random events. They may also appear in the form of bodily symptoms or psychosomatic diseases. Children who have had a traumatic experience will often repeatedly recreate it in their play. Adults, on a larger developmental scale, will re-enact traumas in our daily lives. The mechanism is similar regardless of the individual’s age.
From a biological perspective, behavior that is as powerful and compelling as re-enactment falls into the category of ‘survival strategies.’ This means that the behaviors have been selected because, historically, they are advantageous to the perpetuation of a species. What, then, is the survival value of the often dangerous re-enactments that plague many traumatized individuals and societies?
When it comes to survival knowledge, we must learn about and from our environment quickly and effectively. It is essential that the desire to learn and relearn be compelling. In the wild, a young animal’s initial escapes are often ‘beginner’s luck.’ It must develop behaviors that increase the likelihood of escape, therefore the education period is quick and intense.
In order to enhance this learning process, I believe that animals ‘review’ each close encounter and practice possible escape options after the aroused survival energy is discharged. I saw an example of this behavior on the Discovery Channel. Three cheetah curbs had narrowly escaped a pursuing lion by quickly changing their course and climbing high into a tree. After the lion departed, the cubs shinnied down and began to play. Each cub took a turn playing lion while the other two practiced different escape maneuvers. They practiced zigging and zagging, then scurrying up the tree until their mother returned from a hunting excursion. Then, they proudly pranced around mom, informing her of their empowering escape from death’s mighty jaws.
I believe that the biological taproot of re-enactment occurs in the ‘second phase’ of normalization–the ‘playful’ practice of defensive strategies. How can this innately playful survival mechanism degenerate into an often tragic, pathological, and violent traumatic re-enactment? This is an important question for us to answer, not only for individual trauma sufferers, but for society as a whole. Much of the violence that plagues humanity is a direct or indirect result of unresolved trauma that is acted out in repeated unsuccessful attempts to re-establish a sense of empowerment (173-175).
In the next post, I will summarize two responses to trauma in which the sufferer tries to cope with the upset of what’s happened. It will provide a lot of insight to those who are struggling to understand this phenomenon. Understanding re-enactment is one of the best ways to ensure our healing from trauma. Otherwise, we are often destined to act out compulsive scripts that confuse and alienate us from ourselves and others.