I have recently become a new father and my ten-month old son Luke has become my companion in learning about healing. When he was three months old, I searched for a place to soothe him as he cried. As his little body tensed, his face becoming tight and red as little tears trickled down his face, I would place him in his carrier and walk down to a small stream next to my house. As I sat with him next to the stream, I would watch the water collect in pools against rocks and then pour over the top. You could see the pressure build as the water rippled and swirled as it collided with the rock, creating circular vortices to the right and left, eventually flowing over the rock as a gentle release. This example of the natural flow of water swirling in two directions has been used for healing through the work of Peter Levine. I was drawn to observing this flow of water because of his keen observation of the relationship between this natural phenomenon of water and his work with thousands of clients in healing trauma. He has observed trauma as an interruption to the natural flow or life, creating a trauma vortex as a means of coping with these intensely chaotic experiences. He also observed a healing vortex as an association with connection, safety, and stability that can be cultivated in our internal and external landscape. Peter Levine describes these trauma and healing vortices occurring simultaneously as an offering of hope for all of us that have experienced traumatic situations.
Trauma is an event that creates a disturbance to the natural flow of our energy: at first, we flow as one solid stream of connection and curiosity; suddenly, a rock is thrown into our path and we have to quickly manage the overwhelming feelings and physical pressure that this causes to our psyche. In his book Waking the Tiger, Peter Levine describes the contrast of romantic love and trauma: “Love sweeps us off our feet while trauma pulls the rug out from underneath of us.” Oftentimes, during those moments in which the rug is yanked away, we do not have the coping skills, emotional regulation, skills of communication, or self-awareness to keep ourselves in a stable and natural flow; we begin to move into a trauma vortex that leads to disconnection from the flow of our feelings, causing pressure, tension, and stagnation to remain in the nervous system as unfulfilled survival responses. This buildup of tension keeps us stuck in a dynamic in which we relate to our current environment from the protection that was needed in our past.
Returning to our stream as an example, if I have experienced encountering rocks in my past, then it becomes important to identify them in the future. A healthy way of healing after a traumatic situation would be to regulate the feelings that surround the experience while maintaining a healthy connection to the support provided by inhabiting the present moment. We can also maintain external connection to family, friends, a therapist, or safety within our present environment, which we can imagine as a buffer, like the banks of a stream. We can also cultivate an internal capacity to manage and navigate the heightened internal experience of going over the rocks, or stressors, that we come up against in our life. While sitting with my son by the stream, I became his external connection to safety (the banks) and his expression of emotions would be his way of navigating through stress and tension: across and around the rocks. As his tears stop flowing, the tightening of his little face relaxes, and his body lets go of tension, he may begin to smile and return to his normal expression of joy and curiosity.
In less traumatic instances, we are able to navigate through the stress response in a gradual way. For example, while driving, a car might cut me off in traffic. I would immediately look at the car approaching me, quickly stomp on my breaks, scream and shout at the person in the vehicle, continue to notice my anger and frustration, but eventually return to a sense of ease as I continue driving. In a more extreme scenario of a crash, most of these opportunities of response that led to resolution may not occur: I may not have seen the car before it hit me; I may not be able to pump the breaks; after the crash, I might not have the capacity to support my anger and frustration, feeling like a victim to the outcome that was out of my control. In this scenario, there are unresolved survival needs that are not being completed to maintain balance and equilibrium. This is when we become caught in a trauma dynamic in which I become vigilant in overcoming the unfulfilled survival needs of my past. Peter Levine describes the nervous system, “as a negative feedback system much like but infinitely more complicated then a thermostat.” When we have unfulfilled responses to trauma, our nervous system stays at a heightened state, searching through our survival responses for regulation, as if the temperature in our home is rising and rising without a control panel to turn it down to a manageable temperature. Much like the observation of water in the stream, the nature of the nervous system is to move over and around obstacles as pressure is reduced and life continues to move forward. When we do not have these systems of healing built into our life, the pressure builds and more of our energy is placed in negative identifications in order to prevent our traumas from occurring again. In our crash scenario, the trauma vortex could continue to impact my life as a nervousness in relation to driving my vehicle, a consistent attention to movement in my surroundings, snapping with anger or frustration during times of agitation, or even an uncontrollable shaking that occurs in my physical body when I get into my vehicle. In these examples, my symptoms are being coupled to regular life experiences that relate to the past event, causing a cycle of self-protective restrictive patterns that were present during the accident. These symptoms can be at the forefront of our consciousness or exist in the periphery of our awareness.
Trauma vortices keep us from being hurt again, but could also keep us from developing an accurate relationship with the present moment. For an example of moving toward the healing vortex I would like to share an experience with a client who is a young man who needed help moving past a trauma he had experienced in his life. When he first arrived at my office, I noticed shakiness, a cold complexion, and difficulty making eye contact with me. He described a paradox of feeling isolated from others and yet an intense need to have people close to him at all times, derived from a deep seated fear of being alone. The flow of the trauma vortex kept him from being able to manage his physical reaction to being alone since it was in direct relationship to an overwhelming physical occurrence of trauma. This kept him holding onto others because of the overwhelm that surfaced when he was by himself: similar to the experience in our previous example in which we avoid getting into the car because it triggers the fear of the car crash. In order to heal, he needed to learn how to trust himself to be present as he navigated the overwhelming physical feelings without being sucked into the trauma vortex where there was absolutely no source of internal or external stability. During his appointments, it became clear that his trauma left him in a dark place where he was no longer able manage his overwhelming feelings and lost his ability to connect with others. The occurrence of trauma became his only way to manage both of these dynamics that were at play in his life. Through the appointments we opened up to the healing vortex by identifying what supported him in his environment both currently and in his past. The focus was to help him create connection to his physical experience so he had more internal resources for managing stressful physical reactions. He spoke of a Grandmother that he could talk to, curl up next to, and feel safe around. Through exploring this healing vortex, I instructed him to identify where he felt this support in his physical body. He described it as warmth in his chest, traveling up to his neck and face. As he described the sensation, his complexion in his face and neck that I had observed as cold, shaky, and drawn in became open as he extended through his neck and color moved into his cheeks, jaw, and forehead. He softly told me, “My Grandmother was someone I could speak to about my home life, where I was alone and neglected.” He was beginning to open the door to the trauma vortex in relation to isolation, but this time he was more aware of the internal structures of support that could keep him connected to himself: opening his eyes to a deeper capacity for navigating his internal experience of being isolated while staying connected to an external source of stability through his self awareness and the memory of his Grandmother. In a later session, speaking into his trauma, he described an attempt to end his life when he was alone in his apartment, expressed as the reason for not trusting himself to be alone. He said, “ I do not know what will happen if I am left to my own devices.” Peter Levine describes our physical experience as the way our body releases traumatic situations. This release is in direct relation to the amygdala and the aspect of our body that is activated during fearful situation that holds the emotional memory of our past trauma. When our environment begins to reflect a past situation, our fear response is activated as a means of protecting ourselves. For the client, this came in the form of keeping people close to him at all times. The client needed to move into experiencing the physical aspects of the held trauma while also having the resources of healing that offer reconnection and support. He was beginning to separate the intense fear of being alone that prevented him from supporting himself through this experience from the past event. As he moved through this moment of physical and emotional stimulation, he again felt the warmth in his chest, neck, and face as he was reminded of the comfort he felt in relation to his grandmother. The client had experienced the opening to the healing vortex through his courage to navigate difficult felt experiences, communicating his emotional experience in relation to his trauma, staying connected to an external source of support through me as a practitioner and his grandmother, and his ability to slowly find safety and trust in being connected to himself.
With the development of healing responses, the goal is never to eliminate stress or tension from our life. The stream does not try to eliminate the rocks. After all, it is my sons crying that draws me in to care for him. If we experience a crash of any kind, our need to be aware and alert offers us the aliveness and acute attention to avoid future accidents. Trauma becomes a hindrance when we disconnect from our internal and external support systems and when it prevents us from staying engaged in our physical experience and in life overall. When my client began to find ways of staying connected to himself, he felt safe and in his heart knew that the chapter of trauma had been brought to a close. He could now love and support himself and enjoy connection with others with out being dependent on them.
When I sit with my son by the stream, I can see that his simple connection to his physical sensations will keep him flowing through the rocks that will inevitably be placed in his path. Healing and Trauma exist together and it is our own healing capacity that leads us to safety, in which we can finally live from our natural state of joy, curiosity, and freedom in the present moment.
Peter Levine, Waking The Tiger
Peter Levine, In An Unspoken Voice