I walked out of graduate school over twenty years ago. In all the counseling I’ve provided and spiritual direction I’ve offered since then, one of the most frequent issues that I confront is anxiety. After all these years, I still feel like I’m learning so much about this struggle that so many of us face. Left unchecked or in especially frightful circumstances, anxiety becomes trauma. Now, in the wake of the most recent school shooting, I’m thinking about all of those families in Florida who will be sorting through this shooting after the rest of the country has forgotten it.
It must be said, I’m not an expert in trauma care or even in anxiety disorders as delineated in the DSM V (the diagnostic manual for the American Psychological Association). That being said, I offer these observations and lessons I’m learning about what can be absolutely debilitating. As you’ll see, much of what I’m learning is coming from Peter Levine’s work in the field of trauma care.
First, we are made by God to respond to anything or anyone who threatens or perceives to threaten our personal pursuit of safety, happiness, wellbeing, and provision. This response system is the fight/flight response we experience when there is a perceived threat to ourselves, someone we care about, a stranger, or even to our property.
Next, this response is as much physical as it is emotional and rational. Sudden brushes with perceived danger (think about the last time you slammed on the breaks in traffic or the time you were chased by a dog!) inject sudden bursts of energy into our body so that we are able to run for our lives or fight for survival. This happens before the rational parts of our brain are engaged. It is a physical response first and foremost.
In his book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (North Atlantic Books, 1997), Peter Levine provides a helpful overview of how these primal responses have to run their course and leave the body to avoid causing trauma. The energy created by the anatomic nervous system stimulating all of our biological and biochemical systems must be properly discharged or else we will suffer what is commonly known as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Unresolved and ignored, the anxiety and fear can become crippling, no matter what the initial trigger was. For some, the initial cause of the fear and anxiety was from years of being demeaned by a parent. For another, multiple tours of duty in war zones opened the door to trauma. Still others may have experienced a one-time event that continues to replay in their mind’s eye. In other words, the sources of anxiety and fear that lead to long-lasting trauma is as varied as the people who experience it. Don’t judge yourself or others! (“This shouldn’t bother me this much.” or “That shouldn’t bother them so much!”)
Again, Peter Levine says this: “Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the ‘triggering’ event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not be resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits. The long-term, alarming, depilating, and often bizarre symptoms of PTSD develop when we cannot complete the process of moving in, through, and out of the ‘immobility’ or ‘freezing state’” (Waking the Tiger, 19, my emphasis). Note: Our innate response to fearful events is fight, flight, and/or FREEZE. Our nervous system can actually cause us to freeze in the face of real or perceived danger.
Moreover, the trauma unresolved is destructive to ourselves, loved ones, families, and even whole communities, “thawing the deeply frozen trauma” can lead to a “creative wellspring” if we allow ourselves to “experience the bodily sensations” that the stress is causing in our body. Levine describes how we need to develop a better physical awareness of how we are experiencing stress and anxiety so as to develop ways of resolving these feelings. This resolution can include very creative and productive outlets that become part of our own healing and the healing of others. He calls this a “felt sense.”
Trauma is not a death sentence! Moreover, as Levine points out, it need not be dealt with by reliving the painful events in detail. In fact, he says, this can be counter productive in the longterm treatment of trauma. While it takes time and requires a consistent effort, healing and an inner emotional balance can be regained. To be sure, ignoring, shaming, pretending it isn’t there, or distracting oneself with other pursuits (or numbing agents) will only delay the healing and likely aggravate the effects.
Again, Levine describes the path to healing as developing a “felt sense” (Waking the Tiger, 69-72). It is essentially a heightened sense of our body and its sensations, especially in stress events. It is a means through which you learn to hear the “instinctual voice” that guides you from a frozen state of fear to the sort of abundance for which you were created.
Again, I’m no expert in these matters. I am a helper, though. I’ve had countless people sit in front of me describing crippling fear and anxiety, their system overridden with emotion. I, too know firsthand the familiar signs of anxiety: sleeplessness, stomach issues, tension headaches, irritability.
What I’ve learned along the way is that our path to wellness and strength is to acknowledge that God has made us mind, body, and spirit. We can’t forget any of these if we hope to find relief. In particular, we can’t deny the physical symptoms of anxiety. We also can’t assume that medication alone will resolve these physiological issues. What I appreciate about Peter Levine’s work are the tools he has developed called “somatic experiencing” that enable us to use the strength we have in our body (and mind and spirit) to find healing. Developing and utilizing these employs God’s gift of our bodies to actively maintain healing and balance in our bodies!