The book Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma was written by Peter. A. Levine in the year 1997. He received his Ph.D in Medical and Biological Physics from the University of California and also holds an independent doctorate in Psychology from the International University. He worked as a stress consultant for NASA and is the originator and developer of Somatic Experiencing Therapy and the Director of the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
The author of this books aims to help one understand the intricacies of how trauma is formed and how it can be worked through. While he has spent the greater part of his life studying trauma, he looks to nature to explain this phenomenon and how we, humans, over the course of evolution have repressed the instinctual brain (the reptilian brain) which helps animals of the wild recover from their many traumatic events. He attributes the power of healing from a trauma, to one’s own body and mind. He provides various instances of trauma of clients that he has helped, the causes and the approaches used to heal trauma.
He poses that trauma is the body’s response to what may be or even appear to be a life threatening situation. Using the example of an impala being preyed on by a cheetah, he explains 3 possible responses that the impala can resort to, namely; flight, fight and one we don’t often hear of but which is crucial according to Dr. Levine, freeze or the immobility response. He believes that this immobility response is the single most crucial factor in uncovering the mystery of human trauma. He states that the natural response for most animals of the wild, to move into and out of the state of immobility is the most critical factor in avoiding trauma and that we humans avoid it because it is a state that resembles death. He is a proponent of the idea that trauma is not caused by the triggering event itself, but due to the lack of discharge of energy that builds when an organism experiences a threat to its life which is trapped in the nervous system and that this trapped energy is what causes the formation of symptoms such as anxiety, depression, psychosomatic and behavioural problems etc.
According to him, when an organism undergoes a traumatic event, there may or may not be instantaneous signs of trauma. People may go through trauma at the critical age of infancy and develop these traumatic symptoms later on in life. Trauma, as per the authors’ beliefs, can only be healed if and when the symptoms are recognized and the trapped energy discharged. Unresolved trauma can keep us excessively cautious and inhibited, or lead us around in ever-tightening circles of dangerous re-enactment, victimization, and unwise exposure to danger.
The author believes that in order to stay healthy our nervous system and our psyches need to experience different kinds of challenges, meet them head on and succeed in accomplishing them. There may be common occurrences that have the ability to cause trauma that may go unnoticed and they can show up without warning at times of other stressful events.
Some of the factors that affect our ability to respond in life threatening situations include the intensity, duration and frequency of the event, the context of the person’s life at the time of the event, physical characteristics of the individual, a person’s learned capacities, a person’s sense of their capacity to meet danger, their history of success or failure and lastly their external and internal resources.
Some common causes of trauma as stated by Dr. Levine are: Some examples of common traumatic antecedents are:
• Fetal trauma (intra-uterine)
• Birth trauma
• Loss of a parent or close family member
• Illness, high fevers, accidental poisoning
• Physical injuries, including falls and accidents
• Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, including severe abandonment, or beatings
• Witnessing violence
• Natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, and floods
• Certain medical and dental procedures etc.
He goes on to talk about various instances of traumatic events and general approaches to healing trauma, the most prominent being the “felt sense”. He describes this as experiencing the totality of sensation i.e. as individual sensation and as a whole. According to him, by experiencing the event as individual parts and as a unified whole, a traumatized person may be able to use the felt sense to uncover revelations and undo the trauma. Describing the concept of felt sense as stated by Dr. Levine is difficult in that it is dynamic, subtle, complex, and vague. The ability to experience the felt sense allows people to feel more natural, connect with themselves and make them more grounded, all of which help in the process of overcoming trauma. Being completely immersed in the somatic experience of the felt sense, can result in a discharge of the pent up energy required to dissipate the trauma.
The book as a whole provides much information regarding the what, how, when and why trauma is caused and provides a number of instances to show how it can affect human life in all its avenues. The author furnishes concrete examples and provides connections for his extensive study of the subject. He also guides us through the necessary measures required to prevent as well as deal with the symptoms and effects caused by trauma. Gaining information regarding the subject is of utmost importance and understanding how it works is what will help people recover from trauma or at the least move through it and on with their lives. The book supplies activities to work on acquiring the skill of ‘felt sense’ which sound easy but like most things, it takes immense practice and discipline to master, but for the sake of one’s health, it is unquestionably worth it.
The book didn’t explicitly specify how to recognise and deal with trauma that one is not even remotely aware of. It deals with the more physical aspects of trauma such as war, physical and sexual abuse, accidents, surgery etc but fails to mention anything regarding the psychological traumas caused due to parental neglect, abandonment and other such incidents.
The book is extremely vivid, easy in terms of language and an extremely interesting read. It provides extensive views and information on the concept, feeling and physical experience of trauma as experienced by different individuals in different contexts and provides extensive examples in terms of cases Dr. Levine has dealt with. It delves into the how extensive a subject it is, how much work needs to be done to overcome trauma and how much more study is required in the field of helping people recover from various traumas. Waking the tiger is a real eye opener into the detailed experience of trauma and should be recommended to all kinds of health care professionals including but not limited to physicians, nurses, mental health professionals such as psychologists, counsellors, therapists etc.
An exercise that provides a basic understanding of the felt sense, as stated in the book is as follows:
Make yourself as comfortable as possible. Feel the way your body makes contact with the surface that is supporting you. Sense into your skin and notice the way your clothes feel. Sense underneath your skin what sensations are there? Now, gently remembering these sensations, how do you know that you feel comfortable? What physical sensations contribute to the overall feeling of comfort? Does becoming more aware of these sensations make you feel more or less comfortable? Does this change over time? Sit for a moment and enjoy the felt sense of feeling comfortable.
The point of this exercise is to become aware of the bodily sensations and how we consciously or unconsciously respond to the environment.