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.