Updated: Sep 17
In EMI’s online course on Trauma-Informed Teaching, clinical psychologist and founder of Somatic Experiencing, Peter Levine, Ph.D, and EMI’s training director Fleet Maull discuss trauma-informed facilitation.
Dr. Levine discusses all aspects of trauma and its integration with mindfulness in one of our courses. Levine says trauma occurs when someone meets a breaking point when something harmful happens, and their ability to bounce back to a state of resilience is weakened. The breaks can be little things adding up until a small trigger is all it takes for everything to come toppling down, and one can collapse into helplessness, fear, anxiety, and depression.
Titration & Pendulation
Dr. Levine developed the model of Somatic Experiencing to work with trauma situated in the body and the mind. Two principles SE works with are titration and pendulation. Titration is based on less is more, slower is safer. It means working with traumatic experiences very gradually, noticing what is happening in the body each step of the way, and working with that - slowly resolving and re-establishing equilibrium. Pendulation refers to all living organisms being in a state of contraction and expansion, just like the natural ebb and flow of the ocean tides.
The Body as an Enemy
When a person is traumatized, they are in a state of contraction. Dr. Levine gives the example of an impala being chased by a cheetah - the moment when the cheetah grabs the impala, it triggers the impala’s fight or flight response, and all of that energy gets locked into the impala’s body. In an instant of distraction, the impala escapes the cheetah, and all of the fight or flight energy passes out of the impala via running as fast as it can. In regards to traumatized people, this survival energy has been deeply compressed or contracted, and if all of that energy is released through uninformed behaviors, it causes chaos.
Mindfulness & Trauma
Dr. Levine has observed that in some mindfulness and meditation groups, a person with a history of trauma will close their eyes and suddenly be in that moment, that vortex, of their traumatic experience. Others will begin to contact their trauma and then dissociate. Some will enter a bliss state, detached from their body while viewing the trauma. Because of this, he emphasizes the importance of mindfulness facilitators being educated and informed about trauma while using embodied interoception so that they can help people who find themselves stuck or dissociated.
In Practice: Eyes Open & Giving Permission
Dr. Levine warns that most traumatized people are hesitant to be in contact with their bodies because they will feel this contracting fear. However, if approached in a titrated way, then the person will be able to experience the contraction - it will feel like it’s getting worse at first, but then it will get better. He guides the person out of the contraction and into the expansion, back and forth, releasing one energy level at a time, then returning to equilibrium.
He strongly suggests practicing with the eyes open, gazing down. This way, you can permit people to externalize if they are struggling with the body by focusing on things in the room, and gradually working with the breath and the body comfortably.
By giving a lot of permission, keeping their eyes open, titrating, and being able to focus within and out of the body, some people will gradually experience a sense of peace in their bodies. When people find that peace within themselves, their lives will begin to transform. We have heard of this time and again from juvenile to adult prisoners - people who have lived in a chaotic world their whole lives, that they experienced a sense of peace for the first time in their lives through mindfulness classes.
To learn more . . . EMI offers a trauma-informed online course once a year. Contact us for details or join our subscriber list in the lower right!
Peter Levine, Ph.D. is the founder of Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute and a clinical psychologist with doctorates in Medical Biophysics from the University of California, Berkeley, and Psychology from International University. Compelled by his need to heal, Dr. Levine has spent the last 50 years developing and teaching Somatic Experiencing, a naturalistic and neurobiological approach to healing trauma. Learn more
Recommended Peter Levine books:
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma
Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness
Trauma and Memory: Brain and the Body in Search of the Living Past