Monday, August 01, 2011


I've been reading In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, by Peter Levine. It is an excellent book. The lasting impression this book has made on me is one of hope. There is a way out of trauma and our own body has the innate capacity to transform it. What really got me excited about this book was how he described pendulation*. Pendulation “is about the innate organismic rhythm of contraction and expansion. It is, in other words, about getting unstuck by knowing (sensing from the inside), perhaps for the first time, that no matter how horrible one is feeling, those feelings can and will change. Without this (experienced) knowledge, a person in a state of “stuckness” does not want to inhabit his or her body.”

Therein, lies the hope and potential that trauma and its effects can and will change. We can find our way out of the (seemingly) never ending, cyclical, closed loop of repetition and re-enactment which inevitably leads to overwhelm and hopelessness. I have heard the same information in a million different ways, but it was the concept of pendulation that I really “got”. While reading about pendulation an image came to me of being on a swing, swinging back and forth between helplessness, dread, paralysis and rage and no matter how high I swung or how out of control I might feel, the swing eventually comes to a natural stop when we don't push, fight or resist it.

Entering immobility can feel excruciating, unbearably vulnerable, helpless and can fill us with the most awful dread. It can feel as if we're going to die if we allow ourself to enter this “collapsed” state. It's no wonder we avoid it and find ways to sedate the pain. Then, as we exit immobility, it can feel like we have an enormous volcano of rage inside. We're afraid of this powerful rage erupting, sometimes that fear can help dampen the rage, but other times we act on it, which can make us feel deep shame. Both entering and exiting immobility can feel like the proverbial black hole which could annihilate us if we were to go anywhere near it, so we stay away from these unbelievably difficult feelings. And we stay away and we stay away, until we can't any more. Our bodies and minds won't and can't carry any more pain and they start to buckle under the weight of trauma. Who actually wants to experience these feelings? None of us do. But that's exactly what we need to do. Peter Levine writes:

"Successful trauma therapy helps people resolve trauma symptoms. The feedback loop is broken by uncoupling fear from immobility. Effective therapy breaks, or depotentiates, this trauma-fear feedback loop by helping a person safely learn to “contain” his or her powerful sensations, emotions and impulses without becoming overwhelmed.

In the short run, the suppression of immobility sensations appears (to our denial-biased mind) to keep the paralysis and helplessness at bay. However, in time, it becomes apparent that evasive maneuvers are an abject failure. This “sweeping under the rug” not only prolongs the inevitable, it often makes the eventual encounter with immobility even more frightening. It is as if the mind recognizes the extent of our resistance and in response interprets it as further evidence of peril. If, on the other hand, one is able to utilize the vital assistance of titration [small doses] and pendulation, one can touch gently and briefly into that deathlike void without coming undone. Hence the immobility response can move ahead in time toward its natural conclusion, self-paced termination."

Uncoupling the fear from immobility is absolutely necessary because unless and until we do that, we will not enter immobility because it's too frightening and consequently the likelihood of being flooded, overwhelmed and even retraumatised is very high. We get tastes of what it's like when we're triggered, we'll feel some of the fear or dread, get scared and then feel rage that we can't escape our situation, which leads to hopelessness which can then descend into blaming and shaming our self for not being able to help our self. And so we push our pain down as much as possible, until the next time. It is the experience of pendulation, the rocking back and forth between contraction (fear, collapse, rage etc) and expansion (feeling empowered, calm etc) that gives us hope, and resiliency. It breaks the closed loop of feeling trapped and we can move forward. He writes:

"The shifting (between the fear/resistance and the unadulterated physical sensations of immobility) evokes one of the most important reconnections to the body's innate wisdom: the experience of pendulation, the body's natural restorative rhythm of contraction and expansion that tells us whatever is felt is time-limited ... that suffering will not last forever. Pendulation carries all living creatures through difficult sensations and emotions."

* He describes the same process in the brilliant Waking the Tiger, but does not call it pendulation.

It is the first purpose of hope to make hopelessness bearable ~ Robert Brault

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