Have you ever been so nervous or scared, your body was literally shaking?
That shaking is called neurogenic tremoring – an innate release system that nearly all mammals are born with and seems to be a key component in how they handle stress.
Yes, just as our bodies have things like the immune system to defend against physical threats, they also have mechanisms for dealing with stress, tension and trauma. As Dr. David Berceli writes,
As a human species, we are biologically designed to experience, endure and survive trauma. No different from other living organisms on this planet, we are genetically encoded to let go of and recover from trauma as a way of ridding ourselves of any experience that obstructs or interferes with the natural evolutionary process of the human body.
If you’ve attended one of our past Yoga Calm courses, you’ve probably heard us talk about the work of Dr. Peter Levine. He was one of the first scientists to document this form of natural release. Others, such as Dr. Robert Scaer, have observed how somatic techniques like this can help the body release stored trauma. One revolutionary technique is that developed by Dr. Berceli – a simple yet powerful method he will be teaching in depth at our TRE – Tension/Trauma Release workshop in Portland this coming February (public workshop/TRE Facilitator Level 1 training).
“A Gift to Us from the Wild”
Life’s challenges range from everyday stressors to monumental loss and profound trauma. Physically, these affect all of us in the same way along a continuum of physiological reaction: the stress response. This mechanism has been well researched through the half century plus that’s passed since Hans Selye published his groundbreaking work The Stress of Life. Yet, for years, most treatment approaches deriving from it have been cognitively based.
In Waking the Tiger, Dr. Levine notes that reptiles and mammals have three “primary responses…when faced with an overwhelming threat.” Two are familiar: fight and flight. The other is immobility. “My work over the last twenty-five years,” he writes, “has led me to believe that it is the single most important factor in uncovering the mystery of human trauma.”
Nature has developed the immobility response for two good reasons. One, it serves as a last-ditch survival strategy. You might know it better as “playing possum.” Take the young impala, for instance. There is a possibility that the cheetah may decide to drag its “dead” prey to a place safe from other predators; or to its lair, where the food can be shared later with its cubs. During this time, the impala could awaken from its frozen state and make a hasty escape in an unguarded moment. When it is out of danger, the animal will literally “shake off” the residual effects of the immobility response and gain full control of its body. It will then return to its normal life as if nothing had happened. Secondly, in freezing, the impala (and human) enters an altered state in which no pain is experienced. What that means for the impala is that it will not have to suffer while being torn apart by the cheetah’s sharp teeth and claws.
Dr. Levine goes on to note how antithetical this “instinctive surrender” is to most human cultures. Immobility reminds us too much of death. Yet “the physiological evidence clearly shows that the ability to go into and come out of this natural response is the key to avoiding the debilitating effects of trauma. It is a gift to us from the wild.”
“The Body Bears the Burden”
In his Psychotherapy Networker article “The Precarious Present,” Dr. Scaer begins by describing a client with persistent and intrusive thoughts: “visibly distressed” with “the pinched, drawn face and hunched shoulders of someone who felt at once threatened and helpless.” Body reflects mind.
In my 20 years as medical director of a multidisciplinary chronic pain program, I have found these body/mind intrusions to be a sort of generic marker for significant emotional disorders, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and adjustment disorder.
But if Linda’s distress seems familiar, it’s not just because we see this kind of client so frequently in our offices. Its also because her complaint rings true for “healthy” people like ourselves.
It also underscores the fact that our understanding of trauma is “woefully incomplete.”
In fact, any negative life event occurring in a state of relative helplessness – a car accident, the sudden death of a loved one, a frightening medical procedure, a significant experience of rejection – can produce the same neurophysiological changes in the brain as combat, rape or abuse. What makes a negative life event traumatizing is not the literal life-threatening nature of the event, but rather 1) the degree of helplessness it engenders and 2) one’s history of prior trauma.
Negative intrusive thoughts and sensations, Dr. Scaer argues, “are, in fact, symptoms of trauma. They may not be identified as such in the DSM-IV. But these more commonplace body/mind invasions assume the same meaning, if not the intensity, as the trauma related thoughts and flashbacks of full-fledged PTSD.”
In both PTSD and what we might call “ordinary” trauma, both conscious and unconscious memories brutally intrude upon and corrupt the present moment. Not everyone suffers from PTSD. But each one of us has sustained many of these smaller traumas, setting us up to be continually shoved out of the present moment into a frightening, helpless past.
Dr. Scaer goes on to show how we often experience such “autonomic memories” through physical sensations like a tightened chest or rapid heartbeat. Over time, these can lead to chronic illness, as shown through studies linking early trauma to conditions as varied as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, IBS and autoimmune disorders.
“The body remembers,” he writes, “and keeps on remembering.”
Next time: How we can teach the body to deal with such remembering
Yoga Calm offers TRE workshops and classes. Contact us for more information.