Healing: Body Work

polar_bear_biologist_usfws_helicopter“Read Me” first: Here’s the simplest explanation why healing can not be done just by “cognitive” thought.  Instead, healing is a physical and emotional process.  Click here to read before you click the photo: Bruce Perry: Rhythm Regulates the Brain. (Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service)

In trauma,  “first the stress chemicals shut down their frontal cortex (thinking brain),” say Perry, “next the emotional brain (limbic brain) shuts down…people per se seem threatening; they don’t get reward from emotional or relational interaction…The only part of the brain left functioning is the most primitive: the brain stem and diencephalon cerebellum. If you want a person to use relational reward, or cortical thought, first those lowest parts of the brain have got to be regulated,” Perry concludes.  “We must regulate people, before we can possibly persuade them with a cognitive argument or compel them with an emotional affect.

“The only way to move from these super-high anxiety states, to calmer more cognitive states, is rhythm,” he says. “Patterned, repetitive rhythmic activity: walking, running, dancing, singing, repetitive meditative breathing – you use brain stem-related somatosensory networks.”

In The Body Keeps the Score,Bessel van der Kolk, MD emphasizes this.  We need 100% acceptance of our self, especially our body, exactly as we are, he says: no guilt, no condemnation. Only by accepting ourselves as we are, do we become free to change. We must respect our body for putting us into trauma freeze; it was the only way to defend us, as Stephen Porges says.

Dr. van der Kolk’s “Do List” requires trained specialists and hard work:
–Neurofeedback programs done by trained specialists: blog here.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing): blog here.
–Yoga teaches us how to inhabit our bodies here & now; that’s why it’s been used thousands of years. Van der Kolk’s 2009 interview on Yoga & PTSD
–“Finding Your Voice” for which he uses theater, singing, and similar.

What I Did to Heal

I didn’t know about Perry or van der Kolk when I did my healing; I stumbled into it. I did it in two major projects. Neither would have worked without the other, and only in the order in which I  accidentally did them:

1. “The Grief Recovery Handbook,” by John James and Russell Friedman. Click here for intro to book and how I used it.  If you have trauma, don’t kid yourself;  following the directions in this book properly is a big time investment;  I worked it for 3 years.

I should have done it with a therapist. I didn’t know it then, but turns out I have developmental trauma “since the sperm hit the egg.”  For me, to do the Grief Handbook as thoroughly as I did (very, very thoroughly… ),  and “do-it-myself,” was dangerous.  It peeled off layers of my personality until I got shoved back into infancy. Thus my book’s title, “Don’t Try This at Home,” the opening of which explains just how very dicey it got.

NB: I’m not giving advice, just telling my story. “Your mileage may vary.”

In the end I lucked out: the book’s process unfroze my dissociated defenses and opened up my heart for Step 2:

2. “Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body,” by Dr. Peter A. Levine,  Sounds True, Inc., Boulder CO, 2005.  I really needed the edition with the audio CD in the back.  To me, this was the “mother of all body work.”

Even after I found a wonderful attachment therapist, I soon became  frustrated with “talk therapy.”  First I heard Dr. Dan Siegel (and others) say that our thinking, talking brain doesn’t even work until we’re 2 or 3. Then I heard about Pat Ogden and Peter Levine’s body work.

“If I had major trauma in utero, then weeks of  infant incubation, what’s the point of talking to my thinking brain? I didn’t have one!” I told my therapist. “I need body work!”  Levine calls it “Somatic Experiencing.”

My doc empathized, but he’d never heard of it.  I got Levine’s older book “Healing Trauma” because it has a CD with voice exercises. I brought the CD to my therapist and said:  “This is what we’re going to do.”

I did the CD exercises in his office; with infant trauma, “Don’t Try This at Home.

Levine discovered 30+ years ago that mammals in the wild don’t suffer trauma because if they survive life threats, their bodies instinctively reset via intense shaking and trembling.  This simulates the running or other fight-flight they were doing when, say, a predator caught them. That discharges volumes of stress chemicals which otherwise get frozen in the body.  Levine uses a National Geographic video of a polar bear shot with a tranquilizer dart. As the bear comes to, its body shakes intensely this way, so I call it the “polar bear dance.”  It’s the first 2 minutes (I don’t recommend the rest of the video):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8u40WwqkOws

Here’s a full 27-minute video by Dr. Levine, “Nature’s Lessons…”  A better clip of the National Geographic polar bear video is at about minute 10: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmJDkzDMllc

Our big, self-important human thinking brain usually overrides this “reset” function, so we don’t do the reset “dance.”  Result: prolonged trauma when the stress gets frozen in our body.  Body work exercises let us experience whatever reset motions our bodies find to work for us.

My therapist and I got a shock when I managed to access this discharge; the healing was enormous.  My doc also got a new  education on body work; for a few months I wasn’t sure who should be paying whom.  For me, Somatic Experiencing did work, big time and explosively.

But please note: if I hadn’t first carefully exercised the Grief Recovery Handbook to unfreeze my emotions, I may have been so frozen, so unable to feel my feelings, that no amount of Levine, Pat Ogden, Bessel van der Kolk, or other body work might have helped.  We’ll never know.

Dr. Levine will tell you (as he told me) that his more recent book “In An Unspoken Voice” is better.  This and more are on Levine’s Somatic Experiencing site (as in “psycho-somatic,” mind-body).

Yes, “Unspoken Voice” is a fantastic book.  But I hope you read at least “Healing Trauma,” or hopefully both, before you start his CD.  Or Pat Ogden’s approach may suit you.  Either way:

Remember: reading about singing is different from getting up to sing; reading about sex is different from… you know.

Serious trauma healing involves full-body reactions which are just as powerful. So read something by Pat Ogden or Peter Levine, take a break, and get ready for a physical experience when you do the exercises.  It’s just not the same as sitting around with a book.

If you have infant trauma and don’t have a good attachment therapist, start looking first. Click here on how to find a serious therapist, not a dud.

If you live in the middle of nowhere, or therapists in your area are all bad, Levine’s book says you might try his CD exercises with a caring, compassionate friend.  I got mileage that way.  I started his first CD exercise with a great friend, but we learned it was too explosive to do “at home.”

If you go that route, be sure your friend is a real friend, someone you can trust to “be there” for you.  Your body may have reactions which shock you both, and your partner must be able to simply sit and “be with” you, with no judgement.  If your body doesn’t feel safe with them, it simply won’t do anything, and you’ll still have the trauma locked inside you.

Tags: Adult Attachment Disorder, Adult Attachment Theory, Body Work, Brain Science, Brain Stem, Developmental Trauma, Fight-flight, Bessel van der Kolk,  EMDR,  Limbic Brain, Grief Recovery Handbook, Peter Levine, Pat Ogden, Somatic Experiencing

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8 responses to “Healing: Body Work

  1. Dear Kathy, Thank you very much for all of the helpful information. I relate very much to your story. I have been searching to heal myself for many years and have engaged in an ecelectic approach ranging from athletics, self help, body work, yoga/meditation to psychotherapy. Lately i began questioning if I have attachment disorder. I started researching after “somatosensory therapy” was brought to my attention through my work as a school psychologist. Now I understand for the first time that I am not a freak. My battle with depression, severe anxiety, relational problems, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts stem from developmental trauma. I also understand that the eclectic approach is necessary. After a full breakdown 6 years ago I went to therapy for several years. EMDR, CBT and Depth work really helped me stabilize. But it wasn’t until I began getting regular massage and practicing Iyengar yoga with chanting, meditation and pranayama regulary that I was able to quit therapy and be ok. : )

    • I’m glad somatic (body) work is releasing your child trauma! See also Matt Schwenteck’s video on Trauma Release Exercise (TRE®): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3x_ITdzKbI Doing Matt’s exercises for three weeks, I feel fantastic.
      Dr. Peter A. Levine discovered 35 years ago that when animals survive traumas such as being chased by a predator, their autonomic nervous systems instinctively reset the body via intense tremors, thrashing, and gasping. This discharges the volumes of stress chemicals that were flooding their body during the chase, so this stress does not get frozen in the body: http://attachmentdisorderhealing.com/resources/tools/ Levine for decades has played a National Geographic video of a polar bear hunted with tranquilizer darts. As it awakens later, the bear’s body trembles intensely and its legs thrash, replicating the motions of running and biting it was making as it was shot down. When it’s done, it undergoes deep gasping. Here’s Levine explaining his method in a 27-minute video. The National Geographic polar bear clip is at minute 10:50 of this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmJDkzDMllc That’s why Matt says “only two kinds of mammals have forgotten how do to this life-saving tremoring: zoo animals and humans.”
      Later, Dr. David Berceli developed TRE® to help traumatized populations on a large scale in disasters, refugee zones, mass poverty, etc. TRE® is a set of seven purely muscular exercises which induce “polar bear” tremors on a bodily basis. Berceli describes the tremor discharge reflex and explains that it’s a vital survival instinct: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0NooNBBro0 Levine’s friend trauma expert Robert Scaer MD on TRE®: https://livingubuntu.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/dr-robert-scaer-thoughts-on-tension-trauma-releasing-exercises-video/

  2. Thank you for emphasizing the need to involve the body in psychotherapy for healing attachment/developmental trauma. We really are a MindBody! It’s my experience as an experiential psychotherapist that the Body Knows. My clinical approach, Developmental Process Work (DPW), addresses seven key elements of developmental shock, trauma and stress:
    – clearing traumatic imprints from the brain’s limbic system experienced during the prenatal, birth, perinatal, co-dependent and counter-dependent stages of development,
    – identifying and clearing body memories of trauma
    – changing archaic beliefs and belief systems
    – restoring the ability to sustain deep emotional resonance
    – learning to regulate emotional states
    – using the attuned client-therapist field to heal splits
    – resolving intractable relationship conflicts at the source.
    More about DPW here: http://weinholds.org/developmental-process-work/ and about DPW training for mental health professionals: http://coprofdevcenter.org/certificate-programs-for-mental-health-counselors/developmental-process-work-training/
    The most important aspect of DPW is the client-therapist relationship. The therapist brings the MOST important component, which is why therapists must keep working on themselves and their own attachment/developmental trauma.
    Thanks again for the comprehensive information & resources you’ve compiled on this website; it’s a tremendous service!
    Janae Weinhold PhD LPC, Colorado Springs, CO
    http://www.weinholds.org and http://www.coprofdevcenter.org

  3. I so enjoy reading your writing! I feel like I am on the healing journey with you. I really appreciate your reference to Pat Ogden’s work. I’m trained in sensorimotor psychotherapy, as well as have assisted trainings. In the trainings, we practice the skills we learn on each other, which turned out to be some of the best (and free!) therapy I ever received. And I’ve seen clients benefit enormously from the modality as well.
    I know people trained in Peter Levine’s SE who report clients having experiences similar to yours. Although the discharge often must be preceded by creating safety and stabilization in one’s life (and often through therapy), when it does occur, there can be a very profound shift. Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. On April 3, I read ” Trauma-Informed Psychotherapy Puts The Body – and Love – Back In Mental Healthcare” by Dr. Laura Kerr at http://www.socialjusticesolutions.org/2015/04/01/trauma-informed-psychotherapy-puts-body-love-back-mental-healthcare/ “For the past 50 years, psychotherapy has taken a back seat to biomedical psychiatry,” she writes. ” Today we know the neurobiological reasons for flashbacks. Unlike narrative memories that seamlessly integrate remembrances of the past… the memories associated with traumatic events remain unintegrated.
    This has to do with how the body has evolved to deal with threat. Thinking would slow down reaction time. Thus the frontal lobe effectively shuts down during perceived threats as energy and attention are directed towards survival responses. Consequently, a coherent narrative of the traumatic event is not created, inhibiting the past from becoming, well, the past.”
    With the thinking brain shut down, she says, body work makes sense: ” Today, sensorimotor psychotherapy, EMDR, and somatic experiencing are a few of the psychotherapeutic approaches that help release” trauma.

    I couldn’t help commenting on Dr. Kerr’s article:
    “I have developmental trauma “since the sperm hit the egg” and was frustrated with “talk therapy. “Then I heard about Pat Ogden and Peter A. Levine’s body work — after hearing Dr. Dan Siegel (and others) say that our thinking brain doesn’t come on line until we’re 2 or 3. “If I had major trauma in utero and infant incubation, what’s the point of talking to my thinking brain about it?,” I said.
    I got Levine’s older book “Healing Trauma” because it has a CD…. Levine discovered that mammals in the wild don’t suffer trauma because, when they survive life threats, their bodies reset via shaking and trembling. These simulate the running or other fight-flight action when, say, a predator caught them. This discharges volumes of stress chemicals which otherwise get frozen in the body.
    “The human thinking brain, however, suppresses this discharge. My therapist and I got a shock when I managed to access the discharge…”

  5. Zoe Dewe-Mathews

    I don’t know how you survived this…
    Many blessings,

  6. Hi Kathy, shared your info in the December Surviving Spirit newsletter – posted at the website – http://www.survivingspirit.com — take care, Mike

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