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.