S2 E14: Dr. Peter Levine on Waking the Tiger

When Dr. Peter Levine began studying trauma in the 1970s, he noticed that humans react to stress differently than every other mammal. So, how did that discovery inspire his best-selling book Waking the Tiger? And what can learning about an animal’s response to trauma teach us about healing the wounds in our own minds?

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

Podcast Transcript

David Condos: It’s my pleasure to welcome back Dr. Peter Levine, thank you so much for being with us.

Peter: Glad to be back.

David: All right, in the last episode, you took us through your background, your story, and some of the work you’ve done over the last 45 plus years. Now we’re going to dive in deeper on your work, on the Somatic Experiencing method that you developed and you’ll be speaking on here at the US Journal Conference in Arizona. To start off, how would you introduce that to someone who’s never heard of it? What would be a brief overview of Somatic Experiencing?

Peter: “Soma” is the body and experience is experiencing. And it’s being able to experience our bodies, not just anatomically, but in terms of its vitality, its energetic aliveness. I think it really comes down to when people are stuck, their energy is stuck. When people are able to then restore their energy, their aliveness, their vitality, that’s what healing is about.

David: Yes, it’s being aware of your body at a level that we’re not normal.

Peter: That’s right. It’s being aware of the body and the map- actually, the map is in this book Unspoken Voice. There are five basic channels that we see in Somatic Experiencing. Inner sensations, images that come into the mind’s eye, behaviors that you can observe in the client, FX stands for feelings, emotions, categorical emotions, like anger, fear, sadness, surprise, but also softer feelings, what I call felt sense feelings and then meanings. When a person has been traumatized, the meaning becomes fixed, it gets stuck as a fixed belief.

David: It’s the meaning of themselves of their life?

Peter: Meaning in other words, “I’m not worthy of success,” or, “Whatever I do, it’s not going to help.” These are beliefs that get rigidified. When you work with a person and they learn to be able to identify and follow their inner body’s sensations, tensions, tingling, vibration, trembling, warmth, waves of warmth, all of these things take the person into a new experience, an experience that really contradicts the experience of overwhelming helplessness. It helps us have these new experiences and from these new experiences to have new meanings. Not fixed beliefs, but new meanings, like, “I am able to love and to be loved.” I mean, that’s a big one where before it might have been, “I’m unworthy for love.” Having again these new experiences.

David: You mentioned that phrase, “feeling stuck,” you felt something stuck. I think that is also related to the research or what you were seeing in animals? Tell us about that because that was a big part of how you developed this.

Peter: That’s it. That was really the way the origin of how the whole thing began. I was working with people in the ’60s and ’70s. I would see that sometimes the symptom could be from a traumatic childhood, but sometimes it was something that seemed relatively minor but yet it had this profound effect. Sometimes, for example, the person could be walking at night and somebody comes up with a knife and a gun and, of course, they’re terrified and they come home and sometimes that terror stays with them.

I realized that animals in the wild or I postulated that animals in the wild, if they were to survive and if the species were to survive, they would have to be able to shake off the encounters they had with predators. If you see a coyote chasing a rabbit and the race goes on and then the rabbit is just able to escape, it goes home, goes to its hole in the ground. What does it say? Does it say, “I don’t want to ever get out of here, there’s too much danger, everything’s threatening”?

David: It has to go back out there.

Peter: It has to go back there to survive. I reason there must be something. Again, the part of our brains, this came from my research and medical biophysics, that the same part of our brains that are involved with threat and with other instincts, we share almost identically with all other mammals, primates and other mammals. There must be something that they do or something that they don’t do that gives them this relative immunity. If that’s the case, how can I use those to help people also develop in a way retrospectively that capacity, that resilience, that immunity to being traumatized?

I spent a lot of time observing animals in many different situations. In many of my travels around the world, I would be able to speak to different wildlife managers and so forth. I told them about what I was observing in my clients and I remember one African guy, I think he was from Kenya, he said, “Oh, exactly what you’re describing, which were these gentle, trembling, and shaking. That’s exactly what we observe in animals.” They would have to capture the animal, cage it, and then release it in the park. When they’re in the cage, if they don’t shake and tremble, the way you describe, they won’t survive.

David: So, they saw a connection between the ones that trembled and the ones that survived?

Peter: Exactly, and the ones that didn’t. Again, this is not a natural environment for an animal being in a cage, but again, even so, if the animal is able to discharge– I mean, think about this. A cheetah is chasing down an impala and that chase goes on to like 65 miles an hour, sometimes even more. Think about the energy, the muscular energy, the nervous system energy to be able to propel that chase and that escape.

David: That animal is giving that all it has.

Peter: Yes, plus. If the cheetah actually brings down the impala, the impala appears to be dead, not moving. I’ve seen instances and I have some video material about this that some hyenas came because they knew, by their observing, that the cheetah was spent. They started to go after the impala and started chewing on the impala. Then the hyena goes back again to try to back off the cheetah. In that moment, boom, the animal turns over and off it goes, the impala. Off it goes.

All of that energy that got locked in went into the escape, but with people, that energy doesn’t go into a full-out escape. How to work with that energy, and this is again one of the keys in Somatic Experiencing, a concept called titration that we only access the person’s experience, that trauma experience, the energy of that experience, one small amount at a time, so the person is not overwhelmed because the nervous system being overwhelmed is really not any different than having the original trauma. It’s the key to do it gently, and again, each time bringing the person more and more into life. Another principle is pendulation. When you come to a sensation that’s difficult, you feel a contraction.

David: Like you’re recoiling?

Peter: Like you’re recoiling, exactly. If you are guided, that contraction then opens into an expansion and then to another smaller contraction and then to another expansion. Being able to help people see that even though it feels worse at first, initially, then when they’re able to be with the sensations in their bodies, then that sensation will actually move through to another sensation, which has more openness, more freedom. Again, the idea is to not overwhelm the person, and that’s one of the key features of Somatic Experiencing.

David: Some of this work in studying animals and the parallels that they have with humans that ended up leading to one of your best-known works, Waking the Tigeris a book from the mid-’90s. That image of the tiger and how you’re talking about the prey using all its energy to get away, and then with humans, we end up storing that?

Peter: That’s right. It gets locked inside of us. If you have a couple of minutes, I’ll tell you a little bit how the title for my book came, Waking the Tiger. In the ’60s I was developing a series of relaxation, these body-mind interests of mine, and I worked with a group of people who had high blood pressure. By helping them to relax in a certain sequence, certain muscles in their jaw and their neck and their shoulders, sometimes the blood pressure would go from 160, 170, down to normal.

A woman had been going from doctor to doctor, specialist to specialist because she had all kinds of symptoms, pain throughout her body, migraines, irritable bowel, gastric distress. She also had severe panic attacks. She was unable to leave the house without her husband at all. Really- and even then it was an ordeal. I began to help her relax, and her heart rate was about 150 beats a minute. I used my procedures to get some relaxation, and her heart rate started going down and down and down, and then boom, it shot up, like up to about 160 beats a minute. I didn’t know what to do. Remember, this was the very beginning of my explorations. What do you think the stupidest thing anybody could say at a time like that?

David: I don’t know.

Peter: “You must relax. Relax, Nancy. You must relax.” To my relief, her heart rate started going down again. It went down to 90, to 80, to 70, to 60, to 50, and she turned pale. She opened her eyes and just riveted my eyes with hers and said, “I’m dying. I’m dying. Don’t let me die. Help me. Help me. Don’t let me die.” In that moment, on the far side of the consulting room, I saw the image of a tiger getting ready to spring into action. I said, “Nancy, there’s a tiger chasing you. Run, climb those rocks, and escape.” I could see she still was terrified, and I said, “It’s okay.”

I gave her a little extra support. “You can do it. I know you can do it. Just feel in your body, feel in your arms, feel in your legs.” For about 30 or 40 minutes, her hands would be freezing cold and then warm. There’d be deep spontaneous breaths. There’d be gentle trembling, sweating. Then her hands would turn really warm. There’d be again full spontaneous breaths, and then towards the end of the session, she was just so deeply calm. Her color was rosy. She opened her eyes and looked at me, and at this time, not to grab onto my eyes but to engage with me. She said, “Do you want to know what happened?” I said, “Yes.”

She said, “Well, when you told me about the tiger, I was terrified. I’m terrified all the time, but I was really terrified. When you said to run, run to escape, I felt like I was trying to run in quicksand. I just couldn’t move my legs, but then when you gave me some encouragement, I could feel myself running and climbing. I feel my arms climbing the rocks, my arms and my legs climbing the rock. When I got to the top, I looked down and I saw the tiger and I knew I was safe, and then the tiger image disappeared, and I saw myself 20 years ago,” when she was four years old, “being held down by doctors and nurses,” while a mask was forced onto her face for a tonsillectomy. For 20 years, her body had wanted to escape-

David: Being held down in that surgery.

Peter: -from being held down. It was there ready to escape like the impala was ready to escape when the coast was clear. She was ready to escape but she couldn’t, and then in the session, she could complete that running response. She said, “It feels like I’m being held in warm, tingling waves.” That gave me another clue, that trauma, of course, can be hell on earth, but trauma transformed can be- I guess you could even call it a spiritual experience, her feeling warmth, then being held by hands, by caring, loving hands. That was another piece that I started to realize that was much more common than not common, that people would have- not just that they would ‘get rid of the trauma’, but they would be able to transform into very positive experiences.

David: That gets back to the impala analogy and completing that-

Peter: Escape.

David: -escape. Why do you think that is so important? For humans who aren’t actually fleeing a tiger, we’re fleeing some other kind of trauma, why is it important to- that action of following through and completing?

Peter: Because we are animals. When we are unable to complete a response, that’s when the trauma gets locked in us. I described inIn an Unspoken Voicean experience that I had in, I think, 2005. It was a beautiful Southern California day and I had a lift in my step. I was walking down to my favorite Vietnamese restaurant. As I crossed the crosswalk, this teenager, there was a truck on one side of the road, and she didn’t see me, and she went right through the crosswalk and hit me at about 25 miles an hour and threw me up into the air.

I was laying on the ground numb, just like the gazelle was, numb, not able to move, not able to orient. Thankfully, a woman came over and she sat down. She announced herself as being a doctor, actually a pediatrician. I remember thinking, “That’s exactly the kind of specialty I need right now.” She asked, “How can I help you?” I said, “Just stay here, just hold my hand.” Having her support there, just the way I supported Nancy, allowed me to go to where that energy was locked in and release it in different ways, in different ways.

Also, I felt my left arm going up into the air and protecting my head from hitting to the windshield because the windshield cracked, but fortunately, my head didn’t hit it directly. I experienced this red rage and the words came, “This damn kid. How could she go through the crosswalk?” I was just angry and furious, but all of that was still energy. I restored the energy that I needed to execute my escape with the help from this good Samaritan.

David: You had to release that or else you would have stored it.

Peter: I had to release it, but I also had to have somebody there to be with me, because trauma is not just what happens to us but what happens in the absence of an empathic person who’s there with you in that experience.

David: This idea of the prey getting away using this energy, shaking loose this energy, this makes me curious. If animals have this evolutionary baked-in response that seems to be effective, why don’t we do that? Did we use to do it and we don’t do it? What’s the problem?

Peter: That was really the question, that took me decades of thinking about that and I came up with a few things. Well, probably the first one is we tend to overthink things. We interfere, we override these natural processes, but then once that’s happened, then we’re more likely to accumulate stress and trauma after that.

David: Our mind thinks it can think its way out of it.

Peter: Think its way out. You see people who have been traumatized, they really try to think their way out of it, but you can’t. It’s not a thinking thing. There’s a poem sometimes I recite to people when they’re really struggling to just let go of their mind and come to their body experience. This is a poem that was written by a 10-year old Ugandan girl. It is, “I have a little brain that’s tucked safely in my head and another one that’s in the air instead. That one follows me and plays with me in bed. The other one confuses me, the one that’s in my head.” Again, going from the mind which is interfering with the process, back to enlisting the living, knowing the living, sensing- the knowing body.

David: That’s Somatic Experiencing.

Peter: That’s Somatic Experiencing in a nutshell.

David: As you mentioned, you have been at the Meadows this week, you’ve been training, you’ve been working on the frontlines. How does this integrate with addiction treatment, with mental health treatment, with the mental health model? How does that all work?

Peter: I think people are realizing that addictions are driven, compulsions are driven by trauma and other negations of our life force. You have to be able to heal those wounds, because the wounds drive a lot of the addictive behaviors. You think about somebody who’s depressed, and they come across amphetamines or cocaine, and all of a sudden they feel energized, and they feel like they can talk with people and-

David: Like that’s fixing the problem.

Peter: Like it’s fixing the problem. But the problem is, when you get an exogenous coming from the outside, it doesn’t work. You may get that rush, but not only it doesn’t last, you need more and more to get those sensations. You have to work not just with trauma, but with getting to those experiences of empowerment and mastery and feeling good in oneself, because then you don’t have the need for the addiction anymore. I don’t disagree at all by the use of the opioid agonists and so forth to help people, detox-

David: That’s one tool.

Peter: That’s one tool, but until the person is experiencing themselves changes, then the situation itself hasn’t really changed.

David: You described it as a wound?

Peter: I describe it as a wound.

David: That’s an important distinction. Could you talk about why trauma is more of a-

Peter: Trauma is not a disorder, it’s not a disease. It’s been called that, but it is a wound. It may not be a physical wound, but it’s a wound to our psyche, to our soul. It leaves us bereft, disconnected from ourselves and disconnected from others. It is a wound that can be healed if we know the right tools and can apply those tools.

David: We’ve explored how this Somatic Experiencing can work in a clinical setting and when you’re training people. In a more practical sense, what’s something someone could do? I know you said you might be able to take us through an exercise?

Peter: I could do that, but let me give you first some just general things to do. It depends what the addiction is or what the situation is, but when you feel the compulsion to try to just take a moment to stand back from the compulsion enough to sense it in your body, and/or if you’re feeling anxiety, or fear, where is that in the body? Then by being able to attend to it in this kind of gentle way, then the sensation moves from constriction to expansion. Then the person starts to move through it. There’s one exercise also that’s very helpful, especially when people are shut down. That’s a very, very simple exercise. The idea is to take in-

David: People who are listening can join as well.

Peter: I’m inviting them to join. Again, if it feels like it’s frightening, you can either not do it or even just imagine doing it. The idea is taking a full easy breath, and on the exhalation, making the sound “Voo” as though it’s coming from the belly. Then let the air and the sound all the way out, and then just let the next breath to come in, filling belly and chest and then again “Voo”, taking, letting the breath to come in on its own. “Voo,” just notice sensations, feelings, thoughts, pictures, images, just noticing, and then noticing what else happens or what happens next. That’s again the key of moving things forward in time. Trauma is getting stuck at a certain time. This is moving through time back into from there to here, present time.

David: An exercise like that, what does that do that not doing the exercise doesn’t allow you to do? Does it allow you to focus more?

Peter: I can explain the physiology, but that takes a little bit of time. Just to say it, in our guts, when people talk about gut instincts, gut feelings, it’s literally coming from our guts, and there’s a nerve that goes from the brain to the guts and sends messages from the brain to the guts. Actually, the great majority of those nerve fibers is the biggest nerve in the body called the vagus nerve, sends fibers from the guts back up to the brain. You want to change because when you’re traumatized, your guts are twisted up. You want to get a new message from the guts back up to the brain that says you don’t have to be twisted and grinched anymore. This helps send a new signal from the gut back up to the brain.

David: A relaxing signal?

Peter: A relaxing signal, you could say. A relaxing signal.

David: We’ll wrap up with two quick things we can leave listeners with. First one is, for someone who wants to dive in even deeper on these topics on healing trauma, what would be a book or resources that you’d recommend for them to look into?

Peter: Well, I can you mention, if it’s okay, one of my books, Waking the Tigerwas really the very beginning of people writing about trauma and certainly about the body trauma.

David: You said at the time when you released that in the mid-90s, there was only one other book?

Peter: One other book, Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. One other book.

David: That’s incredible.

Peter: There are literally hundreds of books on trauma now. Then I wrote this book, In an Unspoken Voice, which really gets at the substance of the SE approach. The full title is In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, which is just what we’ve been talking about really. Then the most recent book is- there’s such misunderstanding about trauma memories. Traumatic memories are very different than ordinary memories, very, very different.

David: The body stores them differently?

Peter: How the body stores them. They’re sometimes called procedural memories or body memories. I wrote a book called Trauma and Memory, Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past. Then there are a couple of other books, one book that I think are very important one written by a very dear- well, two very good friends of mine, one by Robert Scaer, Bob Scaer, called The Trauma Spectrum. Then Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score. Those are two really important books, seminal books.

David: We are glad we have more than one book to train people. The mid-90s was not that long ago.

Peter: No.

David: That’s interesting how far society is coming.

Peter: Yes. Again, you ask, “Is it mainstream?” Well, that’s some indication that it is.

David: All right, well, just to leave listeners with one last word, what’s a favorite piece of advice that you’d like to share that’s meant a lot to you?

Peter: You can get help. You can get guidance to move through traumas, no matter how deep and painful they are. There are ways, there are tools. Without tools, trauma rules. With tools, we can begin to tame our traumas and restore goodness.

David: Dr. Peter Levine is a psychologist bestselling author, and a senior fellow with the Meadows, based in Southern California. Learn more about his Somatic Experiencing approach and all of Dr. Levine’s books including Waking the Tigerat www.traumahealing.org.