One day, in my massage class, the teacher asked for a volunteer to demonstrate manual techniques we were learning. Lisa volunteered. She was about my age at the time, mid-20s, fit, and walked with an air of confidence.
While my teacher was demonstrating massage techniques, she found a tight spot. Lisa’s left hip appeared stuck and inflexible, as if it was “frozen”. Attempting to loosen this area, the teacher moved her leg and hip into a specific position. Suddenly, Lisa cowered into a fetal position on the floor, yelling at a man none of us could see. Unable to distinguish the past from the present, she began reliving a past trauma of sexual assault. Lisa was too hyper-aroused and dissociated to comprehend what was occurring and why.
“Lisa, what image will help you feel strong and powerful?” the teacher asked.
“A redwood tree,” she said.
The teacher guided Lisa into feeling as if she was a tree. The class watched as Lisa moved from kneeling on the floor to standing and stretching tall into the air, feeling her feet strongly rooted into the ground, feeling the strength of her trunk and body. Gradually Lisa transformed from a cowering child to a strong woman towering over us. Using this somatic, experiential technique had decreased Lisa’s fear of being in her body, and in turn, brought her back into her body in present time.
Feeling empowered, Lisa then began screaming to the (imagined) adult, “You no longer have control over me! I am in control. I am no longer going to suffer from what you did to me!”
“Being a tree” gave Lisa a new sensory experience in her body (and mind) of strength and resilience, which she had not felt as a young child while being molested. This renewed inner strength enabled her to take an active, aggressive stance, and to respond as she previously had wanted as a child, but incapable.
Through this experiential, somatic technique, Lisa reclaimed herself and her power. Levine (1997) characterized this process as her way of renegotiating the trauma: she actively restored a sense of aggression, reclaimed a sense of empowerment, chose and executed her actions, and achieved mastery, successfully dealing with and gaining control over the threat.1
Unfortunately, what should have been a neutral experience for Lisa during massage class, instead, her brain perceived as a threat. Lisa’s brain compared sensory information of the teacher’s touch and positioning to sensory input from her previous experiences of being sexually assaulted as a child.2 Suddenly residual emotions that had kept hidden (or frozen) in her unconscious were accessed and unlocked.
These are not the only “residue” patterns that could have been stored. Even Lisa’s specific state of arousal could have been perceived by the mind as threatening if it was the same as when she experienced the trauma. Specific physiological, physical, mental, and emotional states that she experienced as a child developed into a protective alarm mechanism that identified future “threats”.
Unable to consciously process through these stuck memories, emotions, and bodily postures, the trauma festered within. Levine (1997) stated that: “…post-traumatic symptoms are, fundamentally, incomplete physiological responses suspended in fear”, and locked in our nervous system.3
Kolk (1994) emphasized that treatment of the body is an important key to recovery. Mere talk cannot organize the resulting disorganized sensations and action patterns that have become imprinted in the brain. While re-experiencing the old trauma, higher cognition is inhibited by emotional and experiential memories.4
The massage teacher incorporated psychological, sensory, and manual techniques to help Lisa release frozen “energies” as she relived her trauma and finally, triumphantly, created her own ending.
Using the Body as a Therapeutic Tool For Pain Management
Massage class taught me a new way to more deeply access my emotions related to pain–through the body.
Placing my hand on the painful area of my back and focusing my attention there suddenly brought more awareness than ever before of all the motions related to the pain and its consequences. By “communicating” with my low back at a specific “activating point”, which consisted of muscle tension and nerve pain, I accessed deep emotional layers of intense anger and victimization that hid behind the physical pain. Previously, these hidden emotional layers I was unable to tap into by merely intellectualizing. Perhaps, I could not have otherwise released them without this technique.
The technique of imagining myself as a tree also taught me how to feel safe in my body. Often when I felt that the pain was unbearable and I wanted to run away from myself, I would use this technique to feel strong and powerful, and I would imagine my legs as roots running down into the earth, releasing pain down into the earth. This method calmed me and brought me back into my body.
This massage class was the beginning of learning how to interpret the unique langue of my mind and body.
Pain often makes us feel unsafe in our body, vulnerable, and powerless. This meditation guides you through imagining, and then, feeling yourself as “being a tree”, feeling strong, grounded, powerful, and energized. You can also imagine your legs and feet as roots, releasing pain into ground, neutralizing it. (Click picture for meditation)
1. Levine, Peter A. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997, p.122.
2. Perry, Bruce D. Memories of Fear. Web version of chapter published as “The Memories of States” in Goodwin and R. Splintered Reflections: Images of the Body in Trauma. New York: Basic Books, pp. 9-38.
3. Levine, Peter A. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997, p. 34.
4.. Kolk, Bessel van der. The Body Keeps the Score. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1994, 1(5), 253-265.
Recent editions of the referenced books:
Kolk, Bessel van der. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. September 8, 2015.
Levine, Peter A. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. September 28, 2010
Levine, Peter A. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Audio CD – Audiobook, MP3 Audio, Unabridged Ed. 2016.
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