S2 E13: Dr. Peter Levine on How Trauma Changes Our Minds and Bodies

Over the past 45 years, Dr. Peter Levine’s pioneering work in the study of stress and trauma has shaped the way we understand our minds and our bodies. But what drove him to study psychology and medicine in the first place? And what does he think will be the next breakthrough in healing trauma?

Click here to listen to part two of our conversation with Dr. Peter Levine.

Podcast Transcript

Peter Levine: I’m Peter Levine, I’m a Senior Fellow at The Meadows. Actually, apparently, I’ve had that role for somewhere around 15 years, maybe even a little bit more. Having an interview gets me thinking a little bit about that history, that story.

David Condos: Excellent. Dr. Levine, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us here at the US Journal Training Conference in Arizona. Thank you for being here.

Peter: Sure.

David: All right, so let’s start with your story. You can take us back to the beginning, the thoughts that you had about mental health and trauma early on that inspired you to become who you are.

Peter: I’ve mentioned something about being a very curious person. I’ve always, I think, looked at how, why, what. I was receiving an award in 2010, and I was surprised to see my brother John in the audience because I’ve always felt that he somehow didn’t think that my work was scientific enough. He’s an MD–PhD. After the award ceremony, I went out to have lunch with John, my brother, and he told me the following story.

I must’ve been about eight or nine and he would have been about six, and then I have another younger brother who was about four. In the summer, we lived in my grandfather’s farm in Upstate New York. What we would do, we had a red wagon. We’d pull a load of fruits and vegetables down Pine Tree Road, about a mile on a dirt road. We would sell the produce at a bungalow colony, people were there for summers. We were so cute. Can you imagine the three of us with our wagon-

David: 4, 6, and 8, you say?

Peter: Yes. We mostly sold out, except for one head of cabbage. We had stopped for a rest, then John pulled the wagon, and I noticed that the cabbage head went to the back of the wagon. I was really curious about that, so I went around, and I sat by the side of the wagon, and I had him pull the wagon. I realized that the head of cabbage didn’t go to the back of the wagon, it stayed exactly where it was, and the wagon came forward. After we got home, I told my mother about this, and I tried it three or four times, and every time, it was the same results.

David: So, you’re running a little science experiment?

Peter: Exactly. My mother said, “Do you know something? You just discovered Newton’s First Law of Motion.”

David: Too bad that Newton guy came and discovered it first, you would’ve had the Levine Law [laughter].

Peter: [Laughter] Yes. I’m happy to leave it that way, but again, I’m always curious. I’m curious about how things work in the nervous system and in animal behavior, but I’m deeply curious about how people have gotten to where they are. When I see a person– I actually really like the title of your podcast, Beyond Theory. Theory is important and I’ve developed over the, as you said, 45 years a fairly intricate theory which can be taught and is now taught. I started teaching about 12 people in Berkeley. Now, it’s grown to about 50,000 people worldwide, in 42 countries.

The science of it was very important and being able to convey it to other people, but I also realized that really what people learn, the deeper part of what they learn, is through transmission. In The Meadows, a lot of what I do is, I’ll work with a group of the patients in one particular program when the therapists are there. They get a sense of how I contact the person, how I contact myself first, and how I contact their client, and how that connection allows us to move in some very deeply often profound healing.

David: The transmission is that connection?

Peter: That direct connection. Exactly.

David: Growing up, having this curiosity that eventually led you to study medicine and psychology, right? What motivated that?

Peter: I was studying an interdisciplinary program called medical biophysics, and I got the PhD there. Then, I felt that I should also learn some significant degree of psychology, of the theories, and I guess I’m an overachiever, did a doctorate then in psychology.

David: Seeing how the brain and the body are so connected.

Peter: Exactly. At that time, when I first started to work with people, there was no definition of trauma as it is today because that was in the early 1970s. The definition of trauma as PTSD hadn’t really come into being until around ’81, I think 1981, so I had a number of years. In some ways, I guess you could say, I was unfortunate because I didn’t have that to build on, but more than that, I was very fortunate because I didn’t know that trauma was supposed to be a brain disorder, a brain disease that was incurable and could only at best be managed by medications and by trying to change the person’s thoughts.

I discovered when bad things happen to us, our body reacts in a very specific ways. What happens in trauma is, our body doesn’t go back to where it was before, it stays in this stuck place. A key in working with trauma in somatic experiencing is in finding out how the trauma has become lodged in the person’s body, then helping them move through that stuck place. I see it as moving from trauma, which is fixity, back into flow, into here and now presence.

David: Like you said, you’ve done this kind of work for over 45 years, almost five decades. Lay out some of what that was like back then because the world has changed a lot. What was the thinking of trauma?

Peter: Good point. As I mentioned, trauma was seen as a brain disorder or a brain disease that was not curable. At that time, when I presented my work, I began to teach it. There was a smaller group, as I mentioned, about 12 therapists from Berkeley, and we’d meet every couple of weeks in my treehouse in Wildcat Canyon outside of Berkeley. When I started to give some public lectures, I think some people were scratching their heads.

I think at that time some of the psychiatrists, I think, were put off because a lot of my interest is based on observing animals in the wild, in their natural environments. I learned to watch people, to observe people, and to really see subtle shifts in posture, in color change. I could read the heartbeat from the person’s pulse, so the carotid pulse. I could monitor when a person was shifting, and I could accompany them through that shift. I think at that time some people, often psychiatrists thought this was a little bit airy-fairy.

David: There was some skepticism?

Peter: There was skepticism. Now, I can’t even think of the last time something like that happened. It really is coming into the mainstream.

David: Over this time, these decades that you’ve had to work and study in this field, you’ve gotten to be in some pretty interesting environments. I know one of them is NASA, in the early days of the Space Shuttle Program?

Peter: Yes, that’s right.

David: How did that come about, and what did you study?

Peter: That’s a little bit of a long story, but when I finished my undergraduate work, one of the things I wanted to do was I wanted to be a NASA engineer. I went in a very different direction, but then after I published my thesis which was on stress, so I was really interested in how people break down under the loads of stress.

David: How it affects them physically?

Peter: Yes. Physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. Working with my clients at that time and building a practice, one of the clients was the flight surgeon at NASA. One thing led to another, and I was invited to come and visit there. NASA were the crème de la crème of resilient people, the early astronauts. This was before the space shuttle. One of the things that they were noticing is when they went into orbit, went into zero gravity, some of the people would throw up, would vomit. It’s called Zero-G sickness. It’s not just unpleasant, but if some of the vomit got into the console, into the computer, it could be disastrous.

They wanted to be able to get an idea of when the person maybe was going to vomit, then be able to somehow do something with them to stave that off. At liftoff, the heart rate accelerated to a very high rate. Then, the people who did not develop the sickness, their heart rate went up, then slowly came down as they went into orbit.

The ones that had the problem, usually their heart rate went up faster than the ones that didn’t. Then, near the top, there was a quick dip. Then, it went up again, then it took a good while to come down. I was discovering that there are two branches to the nervous system, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. It was like the accelerator and the brake was at the same time, so their heart rate was going wild, then they slammed on the brake, as it were. Then, that’s when the symptoms would appear.

David: Because that was the body’s response.

Peter: That was the body’s response. This takes me actually to a very, very important collaboration and collide-ship with a man named Stephen Porges, who developed a theory called the Polyvagal Theory. When I told him about that data, and that it looked like the parasympathetic was going on at the same time as the sympathetic brake and accelerator he said, “That’s not possible.” I have this data. I showed him how I plotted these curves. We’ve stayed in contact for all that time. Then, in ’94, he published his first article on the Polyvagal Theory.

In a way, ironically, I’ve published a number of scientific articles and scientific journals and he’s now teaching to a lot of people who are working in holistic and alternative kinds of therapies. It’s like we’ve gone full circle as brothers.

David: The overlap of your worlds has coincided.

Peter: Yes.

David: I know another milestone on your journey was working with the American Psychological Association, working with people after natural disasters, after wars seeing what PTSD can do.

Peter: Yes. My organization does a lot of work in areas where mass fatalities and ethnopolitical warfare. What we were trying to do is put together a syllabus for graduate students to be able to study these things because at that time, most people didn’t really know what trauma was. It was a way to bring that into the academic settings.

David: What did you find? What did that teach you about how trauma affects us?

Peter: One of the things it told me is when you go to a place where there’s trauma, show up, shut up, and listen. Listen to their story, and also, know something about how that culture views what we call trauma. They may not have that word, but they have a way that they’ve dealt with it, how they understand trauma, how they understand loss, what rituals they are already using, and how we might be able to add something to their rituals.

David: Because they’re experiencing it even if they don’t use the same word that we do.

Peter: Exactly.

David: They have some response.

Peter: Exactly. I took quite a bit in Brazil and was one of the countries where I did a lot of my early teaching. It was a range that I could go and visit its pretty remote Indian tribe, the Krenaki people. It took us about 18 hours of driving from Belo Horizonte and another three or four hours on a 95 degrees trek through the jungle and we were just totally sweating. When we arrived, the chief said, “Why did you come? It’s a long way.” I explained that I was interested in trauma and I was wondering how he deals with trauma in his tribe because they experience a lot of trauma of being dislocated finally coming back to their land and the farmers burning all of the trees to make it-

David: Uninhabitable.

Peter: -uninhabitable. They had to, piece by piece, put all those pieces back together again. He felt a little bit sorry for me. We went out into a sitting underneath a papaya tree. We sat on this mat, and he had a whole bunch of flutes. He just started playing the flute. Then, I asked him, I said, “Would it be okay if I picked up a flute and tried to play along with you?” He said, “Yes, that’s why they’re there.” I asked him, if he knew about “sustos.” That’s the Portuguese name, “sustos” for fright paralysis, which is what trauma really is about. He said, yes, he knows about that. He said he knows also about the word trauma.

David: He knew that word.

Peter: Yes. His daughter, the princess actually was the first of anybody in the tribe to go to high school, then even to college, so she brought some of that back into the tribe. He said, and he was so right, he said, “Okay. I understand that, but you know what you’re not understanding, is that it’s community that’s essential.” They do rituals together in community. Now, I’m coming back from spending time at The Meadows’ campuses in Wickenburg. What have I been doing? Working in community, working with people supporting each other in their healing journeys. That’s been a big part of my role at The Meadows.

David: Yes, it’s back to that transmission, that connection.

Peter: Exactly, the transmission, the connection, and the support in groups.

David: We touched a little bit earlier on you getting your perspective over these decades. You described the landscape of how we thought of trauma back in the ’70s. How would you to say that that’s changed? I know you said it’s become a bigger part of our language, but how would you describe it?

Peter: Anywhere you look, newspapers, celebrities, everybody’s talking about trauma. People are speaking out about their traumas, and often people who are famous people in the entertainment industry because they have an audience. It’s so much in the center of our politics, of our medical care. It’s essential thing if we’re going to make healthcare actually work is that we have to understand the role of trauma, and what we can do to help people who have experienced trauma.

David: Understanding that that’s connected, that is a part of our total health care.

Peter: It has to be part of our healthcare and of our educational system. It’s really at the center of all discourse right now. It went from the fringes to the center.

David: Obviously, we’ve come a long way. What might be one misconception that’s still out there, one thing that we’re still missing, one step further?

Peter: I think some people think of trauma as a life sentence. When I say is the bad news, trauma is a fact of life. The good news is it doesn’t have to be a life sentence. There are ways that people can heal deeply from their history of danger, of spread of accumulated stress.

David: So, there is hope?

Peter: There is more than hope. There are tools. Again, that’s one of the things that’s been very exciting for me in working in The Meadows is, when I came in, the leaders in the field at that time, Pia Mellody, Claudia Black, for example, John Bradshaw they really welcomed me. We’re collaborating together. That’s another important thing because a number of us have different lenses on trauma, but nobody has the whole story. I think that’s also the hopeful thing of people coming together who have these pieces in a collaborative way.

David: Maybe this coming together is the answer to the question, but for the behavioral health field just like culture, it’s come a long way in our understanding of trauma and how to help people heal, what would be that one next step for treatment providers, for those in the helping profession?

Peter: Maybe it’s to stop calling it “behavioral health” because it’s not just about behaviors, it’s about how we are with ourselves. Of course, our behaviors change, but if you just try to change the behaviors without changing the person’s inner experience, it may be helpful, but it’s going to be limited.

David: So, it’s more than that?

Peter: It’s much more than that.

David: Dr. Peter Levine is a psychologist, a medical biophysicist, and a Senior Fellow with The Meadows, based in Southern California. He’ll join us again in the next episode for a deep dive into the somatic experiencing approach that he developed. Find out more about Dr. Levine’s work at www.traumahealing.org.