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Part II, Bessel van der Kolk & Peter Levine Workshop

From Bessel’s perspective, psychoanalysis is a left brain solution, whereas here you need a right brain solution. Don’t even discuss sensations but delve into the feeling, the look, the sound, and smells of the body because story won’t get you into a hijacked body. The nature of traumatic memories is not found in stories but in images, sounds and smells, he repeats. When you are inside of your trauma then language ability, which is located in Broca’s area of the brain, which is the speech center, disappears. Besides, people only tell cover stories, not stories about the real internal experience they are having. And the therapist is only the intermediary as ‘you’ are telling the story to ‘yourself’. That is important to know.

Bessel described the breakdown in cortical timing that is found in PTSD brains. The normal person’s brain reveals synchronized waves when they are in a state of “isn’t life just amazing” whereas the person with PTSD has non-synchronized waves and it takes a lot of effort just to be. They work so hard at functioning and are tired. Everyone’s goal is to find a way to be fully alive to the present moment. So we need to help them find a way to go from the story to the body in a way that does not diminish them. In other words, the most important thing we can do is to self-empower people. Therapists are good at expressing and showing empathy but each person needs to know how to make him or herself feel better and be less dependent on ‘therapists’. Get them as many skills as possible as soon as possible. Use active imagination.

Peter said just a little encouragement is all that is needed. Just placing a foot onto their foot for contact is grounding and creates safety in a non-verbal way. Touch them in some way to help ground them. He did not say “take a deep breath” to the participant he was demonstrating with, but he said “don’t try to change anything…just notice the breath.” Breathing has to do with self-regulation.

Always respond kindly. Differentiate the various meanings when people say they are OK and respond accordingly. Students will often resist positive suggestions and encouraging affirmations. So Peter looks for intrinsic movements – and then he interrupts them, slows the movement down, and invites their awareness to it in order to change the way the mind is processing. Bessel says not to fight the habitual posture, but let it move and see what it expresses, noting that shame and trauma have similar physiologies. Shame is in the limbic system. Guilt is in the pre-frontal cortex. Work to resolve the incomplete response to the trauma in their body.

Being in a group is much more powerful in catalyzing a transformation because the group supports the individual, and it has the effect of spreading or sharing the responsibility.

Rhythm is a big part of this. Tracking is a big part, too, that is, tune into their nervous system and track what you sense they are feeling.

Peter said that people work with pieces of a story always in the background, and sometimes it comes into the foreground if the story serves the somatic work (at that time the story becomes helpful).

Bessel added that “therapists really need to be doing more yoga or tai chi to do this work.” Mental health professionals are too much in their head.

In terms of taking a History, do it in a different way. Let it emerge. The real story does not really come up until you merge with their sensory world. Often, Bessel said, it is often more for our own security and curiosity that we want to hear the story. Simply regurgitating their story is disassociative for the person. Trust the silence. Like an archeological dig, it emerges gradually. Focusing on the trauma will only take the person down the Rabbit Hole. Slow release, slow growth. Wait for things to settle in order to increase integration. Feedback from victims in disaster areas for people who “help” is not to keep asking what happened. It re-traumatizes them to keep repeating the story.

Peter works with another participant and as he does, he says the jaw is the lynch pin of the fight or flight response. “Be aware of your jaw. Very slowly let it open to the point of resistance. Close it. Open the jaw again very slowly. Instead of yawning, stay with opening and closing the jaw.” Peter said the Reichian release of the jaw does not work as it is too sudden (lockjaw). Don’t go into resistance, or it will increase resistance. Use repetition and uncouple the cause from the effect. Explore the opposites in the body. Images are a part of the loop…stretch things out. If you try to work with emotion first, it would be too invasive and disastrous. It would only worsen the symptoms because you are going in too deeply, too fast. He says that there is always something that happens before a seizure or panic attack and if it is slowed down, it can be released. Whatever the person believes, it won’t be permanent.

Bessel said that the “extremely gifted empathic stance of Peter Levine” is what makes Somatic Experiencing effective. He said Peter can handle it but that not everyone can and that is why training is really needed. Bessel said the issue of touch is essential for healing, i.e., massage and bodywork and yoga in the right time and context is ok, but a massage therapist needs special training (at least a beginning level class) to not leave the person in FREEZE. Bessel said that Rolfing is the single most important therapy he has experienced. And there are good things in cranial sacral therapy, too.

When asked how Peter sees, which everyone wants to understand because this is his gift, Peter says “In order to see, relax the muscles in the back of the neck. This opens your peripheral vision.” His chin lifts and it is like de-focusing in the way Russ Pfeifer, my Rolfer, suggested in the Santa Monica Yoga Teacher Training.

Someone in the workshop suggested the emWave heart rhythm coherence training device (see website http://www.heartmathstore.com/ in order to use neurofeedback for control of stress reactions. http://www.heartmathstore.com/cgi-bin/category.cgi?category=science The device monitors your heart rhythms and confirms when you are in the “coherence” mode. It helps you learn to self-generate coherence and track your progress. With practice you learn how to shift into coherence at will, even in difficult situations which previously would have drained your emotional vitality and buoyancy. You will readily see and experience changes in your heart rhythm patterns as you practice emotional stress management techniques. Your heart rhythms generally become less irregular, and sine wave-like as you send more heart-felt love and appreciation through your system.