How the body shakes out trauma

My personal experience using breathing and movement for healing

Out of my head and into my body

If there was any particular event that showed me I needed to get out of my head and back into my body, it was probably a singing lesson three years ago. A family friend and opera singer convinced me she could teach anyone to sing and so I stood nervously facing a music stand, following her piano arpeggios with my thin voice and hoping she was right. Every few minutes, she would pause and give me a tip to open up my voice and project it more fully. Finally, the arpeggios stopped and she asked me to face her.

“I want you to scream. Just scream for me.” And so I opened my mouth and…absolutely nothing came out. All I felt was a gripping tightness in my throat.

“Like this,” she announced, and suddenly her voice rang through the apartment, strong and unbounded. I didn’t just hear her but felt her raw power in my body. I had the distinct feeling that on an animal level, she could have eaten me alive.

An hour later when the lesson ended, the teacher’s scream still hung in my mind. As a child, I had yelled at the top of my voice with similar freedom. Not only that, but I danced, sang, and lived my life spontaneously. I couldn’t think of any particular moment when those behaviors stopped but somewhere in my twenty-four years of living, they had.

Sitting on the subway home, I noticed for the first time the amount of tension and restriction in my body. I remember a sense of grief running through me. I realized I had lost something fundamental in my ability to express myself both physically and emotionally, and yet I didn’t know how or why. I also realized that if I had lost it, I could find it again if I could understand how it got that way.

Of mice and men: Why animals don’t get PTSD, but humans do

Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness. -Peter Levine, In an Unspoken Voice

As I began searching for an understanding of my body and the tension gripping it, I came across the work of Peter Levine. Through his work, I came to appreciate brilliance of how the body holds onto trauma- and how it can release it.

Levine is now well-known as the founder of Somatic Experiencing, a technique that helps individuals feel and release patterns of trauma held in the body as tension. Interestingly, Levine arrived at the basis for Somatic Experiencing while studying animal behavior. As described in his books “Waking the Tiger” and “In an Unspoken Voice,” animals have many of the same built-in fight-or-flight responses as humans, but unlike humans, they are almost never traumatized.

To see this truth in action, consider a scenario shown in many nature documentaries: A pride of lions chasing a gazelle. As the distance narrows and the lions go in for the kill, there is often no hope for the gazelle. The next scene generally shows the lions tearing meat off the bones. But in those rare cases where the gazelle survives, something fascinating happens: its whole body shakes and then it resumes its life. In fact, when pretty much any animal makes a narrow escape from death, it will do something similar. If one were able to watch the shaking in slow motion, he would see the animal’s limbs completing all the physical motions of movement, defense, and release that its body needs to finish its fight-or-flight response and reset the nervous system.

According to Levine, this moment of shaking is the key to releasing trauma and the basis of Somatic Experiencing. This is often clear to those who have experienced major or minor traumas. In the immediate aftermath, their bodies take over and reset themselves through shaking, trembling, and breathing changes. If allowed to happen- especially if supported by a compassionate nurse or therapist- this process allows us to move on just as animals do.

Unfortunately, that’s rarely what happens.

Unlike animals, when humans experience a trauma, both external and internal forces tend to stop the natural response. If a person is seriously injured, healthcare workers often tranquilize and immobilize him on the way to the hospital. More fundamentally, patients are often gripped with fear and unable to yield to their own bodies to complete the fight-or-flight response. And that incomplete response is where humans and animals differ- and likely why humans often end up traumatized. As Levine points out, it’s not the severity of trauma that induces PTSD, but the inability to physiologically process it. He drives this point home with a shocking statistic concerning PTSD rates in children after orthopedic surgery:

“In a recent medical study, more than 52% of orthopedic patients being treated for broken bones were shown to develop full-blown post traumatic stress disorder, with the majority not recovering or worsening over time…this result should come as no real surprise…many orthopedic procedures follow frightening accidents, stressful ambulance rides endured while one is strapped down and terrifying and depersonalizing emergency room visits.” -Peter Levine, In an Unspoken Voice

What Levine illustrates with this study is that trauma can occur any time an overwhelming event is met with fear, agitation, and immobilization that prevents it from being processed. This includes not just the horrors of rapes and war but the smaller perceived horrors in daily life: a humiliation at school in front of a class, a shock within a relationship, or repeated wounds at home.

These are the potential traumas that are so common that we all know them. Each time we experience one but do not complete the fight-or-flight response, the energy remains in our bodies in the form of physical tension. As the prominent trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk puts it, the body keeps score. In this way, what troubles our mind is reflected in the mirror of our bodies.

Introducing BBTRS: Using Breathing and Movement to unlock trauma

If trauma is to be transformed, we must learn not to confront it directly. If we make the mistake of confronting trauma head on, then Medusa will, true to her nature, turn us to stone. Like the Chinese finger traps we all played with as kids, the more we struggle with trauma, the greater will be its grip upon us. When it comes to trauma, I believe that the “equivalent” of Perseus’s reflecting shield is how our body responds to trauma and how the ”living body” personifies resilience and feelings of goodness. -Peter Levine, In an Unspoken Voice

Though I learned a great deal about the theory and science behind trauma, it took many months for me to find the method that has helped me release it from my own body: BioDynamic Breathwork & Trauma Release System (BBTRS).

The premise of BBTRS is simple but profound: by using our breath to bring movement and consciousness into the body, we can complete the fight-or-flight process and heal ourselves. Built upon the work of countless pioneers like Peter Levine, Wilhelm Reich, and Alexander Lowen, BBTRS offers a therapeutic approach to help individuals (with facilitators initially) reach into their bodies and unlock what is stuck there.

In a BBTRS session, breath, movement, and consciousness are used as tools for exploring the body. Once they reach areas held frozen by trauma, awareness moves to that spot and the energy of breath begins to shake the holding pattern loose. At that point, the only thing a person can do to complete the process is give up control and let the body take over. And when it finally does, there is the shaking, trembling, emotional release that Levine described so well.

Learning the art of shaking: My experience of BBTRS

Though I’ve given plenty of time to the how trauma release and BBTRS work objectively, the subjective experience is something else entirely. For those who have become detached from their bodies, a BBTRS session is both exhilarating and deeply unsettling. While recognizing that words can’t replace experience, here is an account of my first session and how it felt for anyone curious and bold enough to try it:

With each full breath, my tailbone rocked gently back and forth like a cradle.

Though my eyes were closed, I heard a voice guiding me over zoom: “That’s very good, Katie. Now let the breath travel up your spine and bring the movement with it.”

I shifted attention to my spine and let the motion of my breathing rise up the vertebrates in a soft undulation. Sitting in a trance-like calm, I felt the movement stop abruptly in my mid-back. Suddenly, it seemed to hit a knot that blocked the formerly fluid motion. “Focus on that point,” the voice called out. “Breathe more deeply, through your mouth, and continue moving and shifting energy there.” As I concentrated on the spot, breath and movement started to converge on it. Though the knot was hard and tense, it began to pulse. I felt like a singer directing the energy of her voice to shatter a wineglass.

A moment later, the knot gave way and my whole back began to shake. “That’s it, keep breathing and stay present” the voice said in the background. As everything shook, I kept my mind on where the knot had been, which dissolved into a rush of heat. The heat flushed my cheeks and turned into tears and my mind was flooded with a strange frustration and humiliation mixed with memories of my childhood. I felt for a moment the pain of my younger self mixed with a rush of relief and calmness that was now ebbing through me as the feeling released. The zoom voice was supportive: “Very good, very good.”

As I continued to shake and discharge tension for the next 15 min, I felt a new sense of clarity and alertness that had not been there before. More importantly, I began to recognize that the slight tensions and constrictions I was so used to were all patterns and emotions yet to be released so I could live more fully.

Conclusion

Despite the suffering it causes humans, I feel that our ability to be traumatized is something of a miracle. It’s as though our body holds our unresolved pain for us until we’re able to process it and release it. And when we are ready, the best access point is the one that’s been there the whole time: the body itself.

Though humans may not shake off our trauma as naturally as most animals, we have the gift of being able to do it consciously. Since practicing BBTRS, I’ve found that with each deliberate step I take into my body, I come closer to the child that sang and danced and yelled. But this time, I’m coming back consciously, with a newfound appreciation of my body and all it held onto for me so that I could experience the completion of releasing it.

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