It’s almost 2 a.m. and I can’t sleep. I’m not exactly having panic attacks, but a lot of obsessive thoughts — which is in the same family as panic in that my system is in overdrive … just like the characters on tonight’s Grey’s Anatomy.
Where is a squeeze machine when you need one?
That’s what the brilliant surgeon with Asperger’s Syndrome described when, freaking out, she asked Dr. Bailey and Dr. Yang, not the huggiest people, to hug her as tight as they could — to get her autonomic nervous system to quiet down. The squeeze machine was actually invented by Temple Grandin, Ph.D., one of the most accomplished and well-known adults with autism in the world, who observed that cows held before slaughter in such a contraption calmed down.
Metaphorically, many of us are already well beyond the holding pen as far as slaughter goes, but there may be some help for our anxiety. According to a lot of new science, there is a real basis behind some heretofore unscientifically tested alternative methods to short-circuit panic or trauma attacks. I’ve written an article about a bunch of them. Among the most effective are Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), a tapping method currently being clinically tested with great success on Iraq combat vets with PTSD. To learn more, go to TryItOnEverything.com or download a free manual at EFT founder Gary Craig’s website, emofree.com.
And another method, which got edited out of my article (to see the whole article as a PDF, click Radical Change) is something called Somatic Experiencing. Since I can’t sleep and I don’t have a squeeze machine and nobody from Seattle Grace Hospital is in the vicinity, I figure it might be a good time to share with you what got cut out of my article:
Reclaiming Your Animal Nature
In 1969 psychologist Peter A. Levine was attempting to get an upset patient to relax and, in response, she went into a full-fledged panic attack. “You are being attacked by a large tiger,” he exclaimed, surprising himself. “See the tiger as it comes at you. Run toward those rocks, climb them, and escape!” Letting out a blood-curdling yell, the patient began to shake and sob uncontrollably, and to Levine’s surprise, her legs started doing running movements. This response went on for about an hour as the patient recalled childhood terrors, and at the end she felt like herself again and stopped having panic attacks.
For nearly 40 years, Levine, who holds doctorates in medical biophysics and psychology, has been exploring, teaching, and researching the radical modality for healing trauma that he happened upon that day. He calls it Somatic Experiencing™ (SE), and through its practice he gained a profound respect for trauma. “The same immense energies that create the symptoms of trauma, when properly engaged and mobilized, can transform trauma and propel us into new heights of healing, mastery, and even wisdom,” he wrote in his groundbreaking book, Waking the Tiger — Healing Trauma. There is “an animalistic and a spiritual dimension” to the lives of those who heal trauma. “They more readily identify themselves with the experience of being an animal. At the same time, they perceive themselves as having become more human.”
The key to why SE works is understanding what really causes trauma. “Traumatic symptoms are not caused by events,” says Levine. When faced by something terrifying, all animals (including humans) fight, flee, or freeze. If caught by a predator, the freeze response serves two purposes: to numb the victim to the pain of being killed, and sometimes to “turn off” the predator, allowing the victim to escape. Observing that wild prey animals rarely suffer trauma, Levine reasoned that it is because they instinctually “regulate and discharge the high levels of energy arousal associated with defensive survival behaviors.” Levine believes that many trauma sufferers identify themselves as survivors rather than as animals with an instinctual power to heal. SE clients learn to “renegotiate” and heal their traumas, rather than relive them, by essentially doing what our nervous systems are trying to do. “When danger is perceived, the body organizes an energetic defensive response,” says Levine. Traumatic symptoms happen when you are essentially stuck in the freeze response and residual energy from fight or flight impulses is not discharged — effectively wreaking havoc on your nervous system.
Trauma can create a feeling of collapse — something I believe our whole country is feeling at the moment. In a new book and CD set called Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body, Levine offers this exercise:
“Strength and Resiliency versus Collapse and Defeat
The feeling of collapse that traumatized people often experience in the face of life situations can be seen as an incomplete response to threat. By learning to complete this collapse response by going into and out of it fully, you can begin to retain a sense of resiliency ….
Rather than fight the collapse … allow your body, a little bit at a time, to fall further into the collapse, staying mindful all the time. Then, when it feels like you’ve reached an end point, when you’ve collapsed as far as you can go, you’re going to straighten back up.
Begin with the lowest vertebra in your back. Vertebra by vertebra, begin to straighten, slowly bringing your back to a vertical position….”
Levine is a member of the Institute of World Affairs Task Force with Psychologists for Social Responsibility and serves on the American Psychological Association initiative for response to large-scale disaster and ethno-political warfare. He believes that trauma is a societal problem, often passed from one warring generation to the next, and he is attempting to interfere with that cycle with SE. (For new clinical study results with disaster victims, see traumahealing.com.)
Pleasant dreams, all, as I now return to the collapse of sleep.