One of the foremost experts in the field, Bessel Van der Kolk describes trauma as a breakdown of the attuned physical synchrony, and is quoted in the New York Times, “Trauma has nothing whatsoever to do with cognition. It has to do with your body being reset to interpret the world as a dangerous place,” (Interlandi, 2014).
The point Van der Kolk is making is that talking about trauma might not be the best way to go about overcoming it.
Van der Kolk has since gone on to prove his assertions. Recruiting sixty four women with chronic treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress (PTS) for a therapeutic program, Van der Kolk randomly assigned half to a yoga group, and half to a traditional talk-therapy group – both groups met weekly for one hour over the course of ten weeks. All subjects were evaluated pre-treatment, mid treatment, and post-treatment with a battery of widely used clinical assessments for PTS.
While at pre-treatment the two groups did not differ in PTS scores, at mid treatment, both groups showed significant improvement, with 52 percent of the yoga group no longer meeting criteria for PTS, compared to 21 percent for the talk-therapy group. However, it was the post treatment evaluation that revealed the most dramatic differences between the groups. While those in the talk-therapy group relapsed — no longer showing improvements — and in fact returning to pre-treatment levels of PTS, for those in the yoga group, improvements remained (Van der Kolk, et. al., 2014).
Peter Levine, author of Waking The Tiger: Healing Trauma, and developer of the widely used therapeutic technique, somatic experiencing, also sees trauma as a dysregulation of physical synchrony. In a 2013 interview with Victor Yalom, Levine referred to trauma as “activation energy” that becomes locked in the body. When we become overwhelmed, Levine asserts, “the energy just doesn’t go away – it gets locked very deeply in the body. That’s the key. It gets locked in the muscles,” (Levine, 2013).
Healing from traumatic experience for Levine, like for Van der Kolk, depends on returning to physical synchrony, or what Levine calls, re-channeling energy into an active response. When the body has a response of power, of its own capacity to regulate, Levine says, the person “comes out of this shutdown state into a process in which they re-own their own vital energy – we use the term “life energy,” (Levine, 2013).
Levine’s work expands upon that of Dr. Stephen Porges, Director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Porges was the first to specify two functionally distinct branches of the vagus or tenth cranial nerve both of which serve different evolutionary stress responses in mammals: the more primitive branch elicits immobilization behaviors (e.g., feigning death), whereas the more evolved branch is linked to social communication and self-soothing behaviors. Now known as the Polyvagal theory, it is well recognized that when experiencing traumatic or stressful events, we have both an involuntary physiological response, as well as a social response – often felt as the desire to reach out a receive support from others.
While Van der Kolk would call it returning to physical synchrony and Levine would call it releasing activation energy, the point is the same: we cannot engage in the social interactions that soothe us without first calming our physiology. As Levine states:
“(When) we have a person who is locked in the fight-or-flight response, a person who is functioning primarily in the brainstem, and the language of the brainstem is the language of sensations. So if you are trying to help the person work with the core of the trauma response, you have to talk to that level of the nervous system,” (Levine, 2013).
Levine further points to the work of Van der Kolk, who showed through functional MRIs that when people are in the trauma state, they actually shut down the frontal parts of their brain and particularly the area on the left cortex called Broca’s area, which is responsible for speech. As Levine says, “When the person is in the traumatic state, those brain regions are literally shut down, they’re taken offline,” (Levine, 2013). For Levine, it’ is not until the person has dealt with and sufficiently resolved the physiological shock, that they really can deal with the emotions because the emotions actually will throw them further back into the shock.
The way that we go about resolving the physiological shock, according to Levine, is to help people have experiences in the body that contradict those of the overwhelming helplessness. Through gaining a mastery of our sensations, and reclaiming the power in our bodies, we come to a place of authentic autonomy, where, self-empowerment comes via the route of the body.
In a paper published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Dartmouth investigators Peter Payne, SEP, and Mardi Crane-Godreau, PhD, validated Levine’s work. Measuring subcortical patterns of stress in the mind, Payne and Godreau were able to show that subcortical patterns could be altered by focusing on components of posture and muscle tension, breathing, and body sensation, (Payne & Godreau, 2013).
What research such as this tells us is that trauma affects much more than the way we think and the way we feel – as Van der Kolk would say, “It has nothing to do with cognition”. In many ways the body acts a barometer of traumatic experience – even if the symptoms occur without our conscious awareness. More importantly, not just does our physiology register traumatic experiences and the stress associated with them, it is the key to unraveling them. Through engaging the body, either with yoga, or a rechanneling of the active response, we begin the process of restoring the physical synchrony that characterizes good health — and freedom from the grasp of trauma.