Empowerment: the new favorite buzzword of mental health policymakers. I’ve already mused a little bit about what that word might mean – both to them [certainly not having much to do with agency or self-actualization] and those of us interested in practicing true psychiatry (literally, soul healing).
A few more thoughts about empowerment in the specific context of trauma and trauma resolution, drawn mostly from famed trauma specialist and mind-body healer Dr. Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger.
According to Levine, trauma response is a necessary survival skill common to all members of the animal kingdom, and there are three basic, built-in strategies: fight, flight, or freeze. After the previous two efforts (fight or flight) have failed, action is suspended and the intense survival energy is literally frozen in the motionless body of the prey. This “freeze” response is helpful for a couple reasons: 1. playing dead may lure the predator into a false sense of security, allowing for future escape 2. if escape is not possible, it is the body’s natural anesthesia for the coming pain of death. Interestingly, for the prey who escape the event is not over until the discharge of the frozen energy – via convulsions or shaking — occurs. It is an essential and instinctive conclusion to the traumatic episode. It is how they move on with their lives sans emotional baggage/trauma.
Again, this is a response seen in all members of the animal kingdom; the gazelle trapped in the jaws of a tiger, the mouse being batted around by your adorable tabby cat. The frozen, seemingly lifeless body. The surge of energy and quick escape at the opportune moment. And then the shaking or convulsions afterwards — a release of the stored energy.
The “release of energy” part is where human beings can get into trouble. A lot of times our natural traumatic response does not reach its instinctive conclusion, and instead the energy is trapped in an ever-deepening cycle inside the body, undischarged and untamed.
So a complete trauma response looks like this:
And an incomplete response looks like this:
Levine’s premise (based on over 20 years of clinical work with the traumatized) is that the trauma response can be completed at any time – even many years later. What is essential to completing the response [ie, healing] is not necessarily a cerebral re-living or re-telling of the memory (though this could help), but allowing the body to experience the completed, successful response, and to achieve the empowering reality of a challenge (trauma) successfully met.
So in the context of traumatic response, empowerment is an instinctive self-actualization. The means to achieving a complete trauma response are built in, biologically, to the mammalian brain.
Which means: self-actualization doesn’t have to be an entirely esoteric, philosophical pursuit!
Great news, because overly cerebral processes often end up feeling artificial and insincere. A healthy dose of instinct can clear that right up.
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