How would you know if there were experiences from the earliest moments of your life affecting you here and now? And if you are indeed being impacted by the distant past – what can you do to heal those early traumas so that you’re more free and connected in your current life? Our guest today is Peter Levine, creator of Somatic Experiencing, and author of many bestselling books on healing trauma – “Waking the Tiger”, “In an Unspoken Voice”, and “Trauma and Memory” – just to name a few! Today you’ll learn how to recognize the signs of these deep emotions, and what to do to regulate them, as well as how to help our co-regulate with your partner, to build a stronger, more resilient foundation for your relationship (and within yourself).
As always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this episode and what revelations and questions it creates for you. Please join us in the Relationship Alive Community on Facebook to chat about it!
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Check out my other episodes with Peter Levine:
Episode 127 of Relationship Alive on Building Resilience
Episode 29 on Healing Your Triggers and Trauma
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Visit Peter Levine’s website to learn more about his work and Somatic Experiencing.
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Neil Sattin Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host Neil Sattin. As always we are exploring both the relational skills and the inner healing that’s required in order to show up fully in your life and in your relationships. Today, we are fortunate to have a return visit from none other than Peter Levine — one of the world’s experts on healing trauma and also the creator of somatic experiencing one of the world’s foremost modalities on healing trauma of all kinds. This can be the big kinds of traumas that people think of, you know, with war, and assault, and things like that. Or, it can be the smaller traumas that that still have a huge impact on us, things that happen in our childhood things that happen in our day to day lives. So, today in our conversation with Peter Levine we’re going to be talking about how our early attachment traumas affect us in our adult lives and what we can do about that to bring more presence to our relationships. As always we will have a detailed transcript of today’s conversation which you can get if you visit Neil-Sattin-dot-com-slash-Levine-2. That’s L-E-V-I-N-E, as in Peter Levine and then the number two. Peter has also been on the show a couple other times, so if you, if you check out Episode 127 you can listen to us talking about resilience. Or I used the kind of funny form of that word resiliency, and uh, way back in Episode 29 we were talking about the again the effects of trauma on our lives and how to heal it. So we’re building a comprehensive library here for you to help you get present and free your cells as and your physiology as well as your mind and your emotions — your mind body spirit from the pernicious effects of trauma on our lives.
Neil Sattin So as always Peter thank you so much for joining us here today. It’s great to have you again.
Peter Levine Sure, sure.
So let’s just without having to give the full picture because I definitely think that our listeners can, can go and check out those other episodes that the two of us have done together. Let’s talk about what might constitute an early attachment trauma or an early attachment wounding. What kinds of things would be the kind of thing that might stick with someone into their adult lives?
Peter Levine Yeah. Well you know, I mean, so many things from our past from our deep deep long past do affect us. They don’t affect, they don’t affect us in ways that we’re conscious of, I mean that’s part of the problem. And. I think of attachment, probably a little bit different than than most people do. I look more along a developmental arc about what happens to us from womb to, to adolescence and and the memories we carry. Now I said the memories are not conscious. But what are they? Well, we have to just take a couple of minutes to understand, at least comprehend, the different types of memory. Basically that some memories are conscious, are explicit. Other memories are much more unconscious and those are called implicit memories. And our basic attachments have to do with implicit memories. It has very little to do with explicit memories. That’s one of the reasons why I think probably therapists often struggle in working with the early attachment wounds because they’re so deeply ingrained in the, in the body experience and and can only really be accessed through the vehicle of sensations and these sensations are very primitive sensations very old, very raw. So, if we look at an implicit memories there are basically two types. One type is emotional. And so for example if you’re introduced to somebody for the first time and all of a sudden you feel anger or fear or revulsion or just wanting to avoid them. There’s a good chance that this stems from earlier experience with somebody who had some of those same qualities, so they get triggered and then they explode in an emotional way. I mean we all experience something like that at different times. You know, as an example, uh, a couple that’s riding in their car and the wife is driving and they make a wrong turn. And her husband starts yelling at her: “Don’t you know where you’re going?” And then of course he starts laughing and they both died laughing. But from that moment something in him something in not being to the party at time or being lost, triggered some kind of a.. an old engram, an old memory trace. I sometimes am a little hesitant to use the word memory because the memories are so different than the conscious explicit memories. Ok, then even deeper than the emotional memories, which again do have to do with our early experiences as well as our development over the lifespan, that the other type of memory is called procedural memory. And these are memories that happen in our bodies and they can be both positive and negative, depending a lot on what our early experiences were in the womb at birth and during the bonding process.
Peter Levine And procedural memories very often are long, longlasting, and I divide them into two categories. One are basic things that the body learns such as for example, teaching a child how to ride a bike. So the parent or an older sibling by the side of the child and has their hands on the bicycle and they walk together and then run together, run and then bikes goes a little bit faster and then just at that right moment the parent lets go of the bike because they sense that the child is being able to balance themselves and then the child rides off on the bicycle and wants to go on the bicycle every day for the next six months. Because they’re thrilled at that accomplishment. They now have a new memory, a new procedural memory, a new body memory and that involves a lot of different things that the body does. So if the parent trying to explain to the child: “Well, if you, if you, if you bend over this way your center of gravity will go off that way. So you’ll have to turn the bicycle in that direction.” It’s just impossible.
Neil Sattin Right.
Peter Levine The body learns that quick, quick, quick, and once it’s there even with a memory like that a positive memory like that the child is – you never forget how to ride a bicycle. That adage is largely true. It really is. So let me give you an example — and again those memories can be positive like learning to ride a bike or learning dance steps or they can be highly negative. But let me give you an example and it does affect – It does introduce the relationship between attachment and these memories.
Neil Sattin Ok.
Peter Levine God, I don’t know. Twenty, twenty-five years ago or so I was visiting my parents in New York City, in the Bronx. And so I spent the day down in Manhattan going to museums and it was coming back in the train the D train and train was packed with men in similar suits with newspapers folded under their arms. And so. But there was one particular person I just I didn’t even see his face. There was just something about his posture that had a strange effect on me and I felt a slight slight expansion of my chest and a little bit of a warmth in my belly as I paid attention to my body sensations. So unbeknownst to me in a way I was having a memory but certainly not a conscious memory because you know I hadn’t been the type, who knows why I was having this attachment. So anyhow, he, we both got off at the last stop. The crowds thinned out. Two-hundred-and-fifth street and I walked up to him and the fact, the words came out of my mouth out of my lips. I wasn’t even consciously aware of saying them. I touched his arm and I said, “Arnold.” And he looked at me utterly perplexed and puzzled. And we just stayed there for a moment. And then I said, “Arnold, you were in my first grade class with Ms. Campini. And well I would say, I would say, he was astonished, we were both astonished. There is something that I knew him in this class many decades before several decades before. Yet there was some attraction to that person because I obviously I don’t remember everybody who was in the class. He’s probably the only person I do remember that was in my in my first grade class. I mean I do remember bullies and I was very bullied at the time because I came in I was younger I came in in the middle of the class time, middle of the semester, and I had my ears were the same size then as they are now. So kids tease me about and call me Dumbo. And so I was bullied a lot. And Arnold was the one child that seemed to support me that seemed to care about me and it wasn’t even verbal support. It was some, I just felt him someway, somehow on my side. So that implicit procedural memory is something that I’ve carried forth, for the rest of my life. Hopefully our early attachment figures have something like that so that when we are meeting another person, for, in terms of cultivating or being in a relationship or navigating the vicissitudes relationship that we have these positive memories, which have to do with approach. OK. Keep that word in mind. Approach.
Neil Sattin Ok.
Peter Levine If on the other hand we have had neglect, abuse, confusion, in our early experiences, we have procedural memories that are primary avoidance. Hopefully, hopefully, hopefully, hopefully, the positive experiences, the approach experiences are much greater than the avoidance experiences because that’s what we need for a healthy relationship. So. OK. So, anyhow let’s look at some of the kinds of things that happened early in our experience of the world.
Peter Levine So. So as I was saying hopefully they approach procedural memories outweigh the they avoidance one. But again starting way way back our experiences in utero. You know, if the mother is in a relaxed state, which again is a good reason why hopefully, mothers are able to spend it. Certainly the later part of their pregnancy at home doing things they enjoy to do settling, resting, preparing, that, so, however if the mother is under a lot of stress, accumulated stress during that period particularly the later part of gestation, that stress through different channels is actually passed on to the fetus. It does this by certain chemicals that are released when the mother is under stress but also direct neural mechanisms that, that, that, that increase or decrease the blood flow to the placent-placenta itself. So the placenta increases level of carbon dioxide, less oxygen, which stresses the fetal nervous system and overstimulated it. And then, what often happens in these studies were done in animals of course, is that you have this tremendously increase in the activity of the whole brain. But then after a certain point it just shuts down. And so again here already, we’re hopefully having positive implicit experiences, but we also might be having negative ones.
Peter Levine Then birth of course is the next stage here in development and my sense is that the, the utilization of midwives and doulas is a little bit starting to come back taking the birth process out of the realm of a, of a disease that needs to be dealt with medically.
Neil Sattin Right.
Peter Levine To part of a natural process. But anyhow. And so during that time again the fetus the newborn can be extremely stressed. But, here’s the, here’s the, the, the hopeful part because eh, that the parents, the caregivers can also soothe the distress of the infant after it’s born, can really hold it, rock it, soothe it, patiently. So again it’s getting a positive imprint a positive memory of being able to be helped out of the distressed state into a state of settling, of a relaxation because remember an infant can not regulate itself. If it’s distressed, it has precious little in the way of being able to, to, to come down from that activation and that will — and calm itself. It needs to be, the term used often is, co-regulated by the caregiver. So by holding, soothing, singing, gently rocking all of those kinds of things helps the newborn regulate.
Neil Sattin So.
Peter Levine And again. Yeah go ahead, anytime you want.
Neil Sattin So there are a couple things that are jumping out at me. One of them being that from the youngest moments of our existence, we’re creating memories that are that are not the kind of memory that you would typically think about, you know, where you can picture a story in your head of something happening. These are actual body memories and emotional experiences that just live within us and can be evoked in the present. But they don’t necessarily, they’re not necessarily something that have a story attached to them that you would consciously remember.
Peter Levine Yes.
Neil Sattin And then the second piece that’s popping into place for me is around how, so there are all these things that are just kind of happening to us when we’re in the womb. And then when we come out and are born there’s this additional component where we’re associating these really intense visceral experiences in our neurobiology with our primary caregiver so with our primary attachment figures, and I can already see this kind of setting up what plays out in, in our future selves when we are actually entering partnership with others, so we create attachments as adults with the people who are, who we can be most vulnerable with, most cared for most caring to, et cetera. But it’s like –.
Peter Levine Or the opposite.
Neil Sattin Exactly. Good point, good point. And memory being what it is, just the presence of these people will naturally evoke some of these early memories. And then if we’re not aware that that’s happening, it’s clear that that could create all sorts of problems because you might think that it’s something specifically about your partner that is evoking this particular sensation, you might not know you’re having a memory you might think whatever they just did is absolutely disgusting, and revolting and whereas you’re really actually having a memory and I’m wondering as an adult how do we begin to tease apart the two or is it not even really important to do that? Maybe it’s more important to just think about how we process those experiences so that they’re not impacting us quite so profoundly?
Peter Levine All right. Well actually let me go back to, to baby time.
Neil Sattin Yeah. Let’s go back.
Peter Levine Before we go to adult. And this is and this is actually an example of work with a 14 month old and the session is all, is described and along with photographs in, in my most recent book, “Trauma And Memory: Brain And Body In A Search For The Living Past.” So again it’s how the past lives within us. Anyhow Baby Jack was born of an extremely traumatic birth. The cord was three ti– it was around his neck three times, at the last minute he turned breech and he had the more mother tried to push, the more that Jack tried to propel against the uterine wall. He became more and more wedged at the apex of the uterus. In other words, oh! Maybe some people don’t know that actually the birth process itself is not just about the mother pushing the baby out, but the baby actually pushing itself out. So the more Jack pushed the more he got wedged, the more he got stuck in, you know in the new apex of the uterus, and so they did an emergency caesarean his, his heart rate was starting to go down significantly. And even so they still couldn’t pull him out. So they use suction to pull him out. And use it — this is a very traumatic birth. And he was suffering from some physical symptoms which would have required that they do endoscopes and also looking into his lung, uh, a procedure which would have certainly really add a tremendous amount of traumatization to this fourteen, to this infant which has already been highly traumatized. So the baby has been highly traumatized. So I start to work with him. And again and you’ll see that the pictures in the book. But I take some wrapped rattles that were made for me by a Hopi person and I wrap them a little bit to get his attention and he’s he’s an alert person but his mother says he never will, you know, uh, stay still. Never just stay her lap and mold into her. She never had that experience of him. So she say “He’ll maybe come over. But then he is off to the next thing again.” And she says, “Oh and he can be okay when he is alone.” So again you see this thing in relationships, when we’re alone where we do we perceive ourselves to be OK, but then when we’re in a relations with somebody, we can lose all of that. So anyhow he reaches for the rattle as I hand it towards him. And then he retracts his hand his arm and just, it goes limp. And so he is now having a memory. He cannot talk about this memory because he doesn’t really have words and even if he could they wouldn’t be the words that could, would work. So then I give the rattle to him again and this time he pushes against the rattle. And I say “Yeah that’s great, Jack.” You know because he had all, he was taken away. All these tubes all these procedures that were done, and he felt, he was helpless. He was this little teeny baby and all of these, you know, giants were doing these things towards him. So anyhow we continue with this and at one point I put my hand on his middle back, because I see that’s where he stiffens when his mother starts talking about needing to, the doctors wanting to do an endoscopy. So anyhow this time he pushes against her leg really pushes any propelled, as though it was propelling himself through the birth canal as though it really was. Anyhow after that he just starts crying and crying and crying. It’s just birth cry sounds. And his mother is just astonished. She said, “I’ve almost never heard him cry and I’ve never seen tears coming down.” His tears coming from his eyes. And you can see it’s both a combination of amazement and relief and she doesn’t even quite know what that relief is about.
Peter Levine Then at, at the end of this crying there is deep spontaneous breaths, deep spontaneous breaths and he just positions himself so he can mold into the mother’s shoulder and then she knows exactly what to do now.
Peter Levine She put her arm around him and gently holds him and you see them attaching. So it wasn’t that she was a bad mother that prevented the attachment. That wasn’t the case. It was that they got disconnected at birth. She was definitely a, in Winnicott’s terms, a good enough mother, very caring mother. But again you see in youth, and you can see it in the pictures, her complete delight at him doing this and then they come in the next week for a checkup. And his mother says, “Oh, when, when we got home Jack went to sleep, and then at one o’clock in the morning he called out, ‘Mama! Mama!’ And she she came in and picked him up and he molded again right into her arm, right into her shoulders.”
Peter Levine So this here is a, is a definitely implicit memory. And it turned out to be positive. But what if nothing had been done at that, had been done at that time. Then you can certainly project ahead and probably have a pretty good guess that he is going to have difficulties in relationships, that he’s going to have difficulty in getting really close and bonding and attachment. So I’d be able to change that memory from the timeframe of this birth that really made it much more possible for him to have secure attachments in other later relationships. There’s one thing I like to say about that. Oh OK. So even in this case, in a case, like this where there has been trauma, er, around the birth and around early attachment, we are still able to work with those memories. They may not be as accessible as they were with Baby Jack. But, but at the same time we can use language and imagery to help the person connect with those procedural memories and to transform them, to transmute them, from negative ones which were dominating Jack to positive ones of approach. And again we want a relationship — a relationship is not going to be able to really survive, unless there is much more approach memories than avoidance memories. But again these things can be shifted even in our adult life, but they will come up in close relationships. And if we have had those difficulties experienced negative experience if we were neglected… You know, when I was born, the medical wisdom at the time was, first of all, give the mother all kinds of drugs and then do not breastfeed because breast-feeding was unsanitary. I mean, can you imagine how archaic that was?
Neil Sattin Oh my god.
Peter Levine And to add insult to injury they also instructed parents not to pick, not to pick up their babies when the babies were crying because the babies would just use that to manipulate them.
Neil Sattin Right.
Peter Levine I mean think about that, that, that’s abuse. Frankly, as we understand today. But that was the that, was the that was the understanding of the time the wisdom at the time.
Peter Levine So anyhow when people from my generation were crying and upset we weren’t held. And so that’s the memory that we carry, that when we’re upset we will not be able to calm. So we’re, if we’re upset in adult relationship we do not expect to be calmed, and we won’t even allow ourselves to be calmed. So we either avoid the relationship or become over dependent in the relationship to soothe us because we’re unable to be soothed. And again one of the things that we teach in somatic experiencing, is to help people learn this is part of working with these procedural memories, to have people learn to be able to regulate themselves. And for couples to learn how to regulate each other, because there’s a pretty good chance that if you you’re dysregulated you find a dysregulated person to, to be in relationship with or, or opposite.
Neil Sattin Yeah. So, wow, there are so many things jumping out at me right now and I definitely obviously we’re not going to go through the whole body of work of somatic experiencing right now. I do hope that we can offer our listeners a few things they can do when they notice these things coming out. All your books that I’ve read have been such a revelation to me and in particular when it comes to applying your work, there is a rather thin book called “Healing Trauma,” that we’ve spoken about before, that I think is just so great because it offers like a whole sequence of exercises that people can work through that, that take you on this journey of of uncovering these implicit memories and and unearthing them and being able to resolve them in the moment like you were describing resolving or the resolution of your work with that with baby Jack. When you were describing the ways that your generation was or that your parents were taught to to care for your generation when you were born. It made me also think about the way that trauma is passed from generation to generation because what I think happened to a lot of people in my generation was that their parents were, you know, the product of this whole you know don’t, don’t breastfeed the baby, don’t pick up the baby, and then when when they were presented with a baby that was crying or inconsolable, even if they had a different sense maybe of like, “Oh I’m supposed to be doing this differently or differently than my parents did.” It’s evoking all of these implicit memories for my parents. Um, and which makes it much more challenging for them to show up as a regulating force for their children.
Peter Levine Yeah yeah yeah. Or sometimes the parents will try to do the opposite of what they had experienced. And so there’s another key feature here which is also important is, that absolutely you know for the first several some months after birth the child basically has to be held and rocked, eh, when it’s upset. But then you know starting after several months like nine months or so, it’s also important that, because once the child has had enough solid procedural m-memories, experience of being calm, being settled then it is important to at least allow for the child to be upset for some amount of time, so that they can also bring in their capacity, their gradually learned capacity to self regulate. And often parents who come, where they were not picked up, and where they were just left in this, this, this swamp of distress, they may have trouble to not immediately pick up their baby when it’s crying and then immediately hold it.
Peter Levine So, sometimes those children don’t develop a full enough capacity for self regulation, which can also can be problematic in later relationships, because of course we’re going to be upset with things that our, that our spouses do, our partners do. And… But the question is do we have tools so that we don’t just go into profound distress and despair every time something happens that upsets us. So we do need to have both, I think, I just mentioned this, the capacity to regulate and to co-regulate and to get some of these skills that the book that you mentioned, book-CD, actually by “sounds true” called “Healing Trauma,” something like, “A pioneering program for healing trauma.” I don’t know but anyhow…
Neil Sattin “A Pioneering Program For Restoring The Wisdom of Your Body.”
Peter Levine Ah. That’s it. OK thank you. So again, some of the exercises where we learn to regulate states of arousal, of fear, of anger — so that we don’t have to constantly rely on the other person. But at the same time a healthy relationship also involves co-regulation. Particularly, hopefully, when we’re able to say and this may this is, a kind of a higher state, “Dear. I’m really feeling so unsettled and anxious. Could you please just hold me for a little bit?” And, then if the other, if the other partner is in a relatively grounded, calm place themselves then they most likely will want to offer that.
Peter Levine So again it’s a combination of co-regulation, transmuting into or developing into the capacity to self regulate. And then as adolescents and adults to be able to switch between self-regulation and co regulation. So again we are in a sense transforming these procedural memories where we did not have positive experience of being co regulated or we didn’t develop the capacity to self regulate, to self regulate.
Neil Sattin So, how would I know if I’m having an experience where, where it would make sense for me to check in with my partner let’s say and ask for some co regulation? What kinds of experiences would I be having within me that might be an indication of like, “Oh wait. That’s…” So when when someone hears this, they’ll be like, “Oh that’s the thing that Peter Levine was talking about. And look I’m experiencing that right now. Maybe I should go ask my my partner if they’ll hold me for a minute and see what happens.”
Peter Levine Right. Well guess what. It’s absolutely not… It’s not going to happen at once, at once. It’s a skill that one has to really, really build. But the basic idea is that when we become upset, become emotional, become angry, become fearful, become sad, that’s out of proportion to what’s happening here in the present, then that’s a almost certain guarantee. It’s a certain guarantee that we’re dealing with some kind of imprinted procedural memory a negative, in a word, memory. And so while we’re in the midst of it it’s going to be harder to ask for help. But if we know how to co-reg, uh, how to self regulate ourselves, even a little bit then we can realize, “OK, I’m upset but I’m upset so much more than you know then my partner saying “you know I’m not going to be able to get together tomorrow because I have to work, for dinner. I have to work later at work.” OK. So really upset. But if that child had been abandoned as an, as as a baby, then all of a sudden that abandonment comes in, and for an infant being abandoned would cause death. If if the baby is abandoned for enough time.
Neil Sattin Right.
Peter Levine And so we will experience this, this perceived rejection as a life threat. OK, so again if we know enough about our implicit memories we can then be able to kind of soothe ourselves, and I give exercises for that, to soothe ourselves and then to be able to enter back into the relationship. But it’s a skill that really needs to be developed and good therapy, both couples and individual therapy, can really help to facilitate this kind of cooperation, between, between our relationships, our primary relationships as adults.
Neil Sattin Yeah, no, I’ve mentioned it on the on the show before and I think when when you were on… Maybe the first time you were on, we, we went over the “Voo” exercise and that’s something that Chloe and I we do together all the time when we notice one or the other being in a dysregulated state to help us come back into balance with each other. It’s super helpful.
Peter Levine Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean there are a number of exercises like the Voo exercise, like the self holding exercise, where it is bringing one’s awareness to the parts of our body which are not feeling horrifically. And so that could be our, our hands or our feet even. So again there’s a number of different exercises that we can learn from and learn how to self regulate enough. You know there’s a Motown song that goes something like: “It takes one to stand in the dark alone. It takes two to let the light shine through.” So I think again it’s this combination of being responsible for our own implicit memories, our own emotional and procedural memories. But also to be, to be cognizant about them enough so that we can enter into co-regulation and that co-regulation really enhances the attachment, the adult attachment and secures that relationship, solidifies that relationship, build it into a positive experience. So you know, again a lot of times all these things that happened to us can have these different effects that really will disrupt the relationship. Let me give you one example. I was working with this woman, young woman, who was abused by a sports coach when she was 13 years old, and because she is a teenager, she thought that he was in love with her. She certainly was in love, whatever that means, with him. And then she was rejected by him. Anyhow, those were really, eh, procedural memories and so when her husband would try to touch her. She would go into anger or revulsion and just want to push him away. So. And of course he was deeply deeply upset cuz he had no idea what to do. So I had worked with her to do a few sessions and then suggested that they would come in together. And they were sitting as far away as possible from each other and they talked about their resentments. That he never gives me eye contact, she never gives me eye contact. So they were talking about wanting to make contact but they couldn’t do it. So after this went on for 30 minutes where they were basically blaming each other I asked if they would be willing to try an experiment. And I said, “This is, there’s a risk at this. I mean hopefully this will help but it might not. Are you willing to take that risk?” And they both said yes. So then, he, I had him where he was sitting and then I had her going to explain this both to them sit with her back towards him and kind of having his knee a little bit like touching her shoulder. So she could feel this contact but it didn’t demand eye contact and it was touching in a relatively, in a relatively safe way. And so at first I could see they you know they felt very awkward and I encouraged them just to keep noticing their body sensations and maybe just report them out loud and they did that for a while and then for the first time she could say that she felt some safety with her husband. But otherwise it was all threat and confusion the confusion of this 13 year old adolescent. So, again all of these things will affect our attachments profoundly. But the good news is there are things that we can do about that. So, again I hope I’m not pitching too much, but I, I really do recommend that people, even if they’re not therapists, read “Trauma and Memory,” because it really helps to explain the nature of all of these memories that we have a better idea of the map of where we are, and also the understanding of when we’re hyper activated or when we’re shut down, which I cover deeply in, “An Unspoken Voice.” So. And then of course the one that you mentioned. So all of these really talk about a map to know where we are. What is it, if we’re, if we’re angry with a person, there’s energy in that we can more easily work with that. But what happens if when with the person our whole organism shuts down and goes into a protective shell, where we can’t easily be reached then we have to help the person come out of that shutdown into a more activated state, and then learn to regulate… co-regulate that state and then to learn to self regulate that state. I know that’s a mouthful. I’m putting in it at the end but…
Neil Sattin Yeah way to drop the bomb, Peter! You know I’m curious when maybe you could offer something then. So because I think it’s so common for a partner when they feel their beloved shutting down in some sense to not really know what to do in that moment to not know how to how to speak to them or how to respond in a way. So, what would the invitation be there?
Peter Levine So sometimes you know instead of like being like confronting each other, uh, indoors, to, or at least I mean even indoors but hopefully outdoors if the weather is clement, is to just walk together, side by side and talk instead of trying to face each other, which is bringing up a lot of those difficult emotions. And when you’re walking you’re less likely to shut down. So, that’s the first thing I would recommend. Don’t, if you, if if things are stuck just walk together side by side because there’s something just in that gesture side by side which is supportive which is caring. And caring that the person can actually experience.
Peter Levine Then I’ll suggest doing some of the exercises like the “Voo exercise”, you know the long easy sustain “voo” directing it from the belly. And that’s one way of helping people both come out of shutdown or if they’re in a hyper state, to calm the hyper state. So, I would suggest that they do the exercise and maybe especially do them together so that they feel more settled and in this more settled place they’re able to engage each other, much more in the here and now, rather than in there and then. So, again that’s why I use the term brain and body in the search for the living past, how the past lives within us and what we can do about it – how we can change the past so that we can be in the present.
Peter Levine And when two people are in the present with each other who care about each other that solidifies the bond and takes that out of the realm of things like adaptations, like codependency.
Neil Sattin Right and gets them into that space where, they can, they can re-experience those memories but metabolize them into something positive, where they’re feeling like, “Oh I’m experiencing that, but my partner is here to support me like now I know what it’s like to actually feel supported in this…
Peter Levine Exactly. Exactly. And again when we’re able to cultivate in the relationship to the degree that we’re able to do that, we’re solidifying the relationship. Because difficult times will happen. I mean there is no — I don’t know of any relationships where, where crises have never occurred. Some kind — it can be a small crisis but it can also be a really big crisis. So the question, is are we fortified enough have we built the foundation of our relationship somatically, so that when these things do occur we’re able to weather them and co regulate each other. And I’m thinking sometimes of something that’s really devastating. Like when a child dies or gets seriously ill, that’s the time really that the parents need to co-regulate each other.
Neil Sattin Mm hmm.
Peter Levine But that’s also the time where there’s a tendency to distance. Or to blame. Rather than to connect.
Neil Sattin Right. Right. Those are the moments where you need each other more than ever really.
Peter Levine More than ever. But again if we’ve solidified that, up to that point then the chances of us getting through that are greatly enhanced.
Neil Sattin Yeah. It makes perfect sense. Makes perfect sense. And, and I could see you know, for instance even just with something as simple as taking a walk and doing the “Voo” together. That doing that in times that aren’t dysregulated. That it’s setting the stage for that just becoming something that you can rely on in a challenging moment.
Peter Levine Yeah yeah. You know many people, many couples, many individuals are reported when they did that with their partner, did the walking, the “Voo”ing that kind of thing — they were really angry and fearful and blaming and they just walked for a while did the “VU” and then both of them started spontaneously laughing and laughing and laughing and crying and laughing. And then just kind of both seeing the ridiculousness of those, of that reaction but also their appreciation for the other.
Neil Sattin So yeah I can relate. And it’s so important too, I think because when you’re stuck in an old memory, that translates often into thoughts, the kinds of thoughts like that, “You’re not safe with this person or that they’re out to get you.” And, and but the feelings actually precede the thoughts. So if you’re able to tackle your somatic experience that feeling in your body, then the thought shifts.
Peter Levine Yeah. Right. The emotions precede the thoughts and the procedural memories come… uh, procedural memories are what’s also evoking their emotional memories.
Neil Sattin Yeah.
Peter Levine So again and in somatic experiencing, we do a lot of work from the bottom up from sensations then to affects, then to new meanings. And so that couple had the new meaning like, “Oh my gosh. I don’t have to feel so alone when I’m feeling angry or fearful I just need to ask for some kind of connection such as what we were just mentioning. Yeah. So again these are tools I hope that couples all know and practice a bit so that when they really, when it’s really called upon that it’ll be there. And again, my experience is that can really determine in a crisis time whether people, whether couples stay together, work together, stay together cooperate together, or where they split.
Neil Sattin Right. Yeah. Well, Peter thank you again for all your time and wisdom and you know, the years and years of dedication to unearthing ways to heal from traumas that happened to us before we even were aware of them. And your work is so important, I think to finding ourselves again and again in the present, especially when we’re in partnership and you know evoking each other’s deep emotional experience all over the place and hopefully, hopefully healing together as well.
Peter Levine Yes, yep, that’s the idea.
Neil Sattin Before I go there’s some work that’s a little tangential to this conversation but I just wanted to give you an opportunity to mention it because it’s so important that has to do with the ways that the effects of stored trauma, unprocessed trauma, in our bodies results in chronic illness and I know, I know you’ve been hard at work on ways to help people through that.
Peter Levine Yes.
Neil Sattin Would you mind taking a moment to just talk about what that is and…?
Peter Levine Oh yeah yeah yeah. No, gladly because that’s something that really really excites me really turns me on. It over the years some 40 plus years. Um, I’ve probably worked with thousands of people who have had what would now be called conditions like fibromyalgia, irritable bowel, chronic fatigue, severe PMS, migraines, urinary problems and so forth. And working with them, with SE, has been quite effective. And these are conditions that don’t have a medical diagnosis. There are now calls sometimes in medicine MUS, medically unexplained symptoms. MUS. And there’s no help for many of them, some people do have something organically wrong of course and that has to be eliminated. But many of these people are just thrown from doctor to doctor, specialist to specialist, with you know, with no help. And you know even after the diagnosis of fibromyalgia, I think in 1980 to 94, 84… Still very very few physicians understood that but certainly almost nobody understood that it was not something that was just in a person’s head. But these are functional disorders involving our stress responses basically. So you know thinking about that. There are probably at least 10 or 20 million people suffering in the US alone with those kind of symptoms and there’s no amount of therapists. I mean that could really help all of these people and many people can’t really afford therapists and so forth and they really need something that they can use even if they are doing therapy to be an adjunct of supportive therapy. So along with, uh, a project manager, an entrepreneur and an M.I.T. specialist in computer human interaction affective communication. And then three other programmers, we’ve been working in the last two and a half years on this program, be a program or an app, that people can use at home to help them heal those kinds of sick, uh, symptoms. And we’ll be finally testing the first version of that in the next couple of months. So I’m both also I’m excited but I’m also a little bit, like, anxious… A little trepidation you know like putting in all this work. And I bet and I know it’s going to help. I mean we did a proof of concept at the very beginning. And, it had very powerful effect but anyhow that’s that’s really where my a lot of my energy is right now. It’s in, in, in continuing to develop that as we start getting feedback from the first… or, actually the second test group. So if you want to be glad to let you know when we’re up and about.
Neil Sattin Definitely and we can we can send a blast out to everyone on our email list about that. And, and your assistant Melissa who is such a blessing, she also wanted me to mention that if if you send an email to Ergos-Levine-at-gmail-dot-com and that’s spelled E R G O S L E V I N E at gmail-dot-com then then they can let you know and there’s maybe even a chance that that those people can get involved in the testing of that app as well it sounds like.
Peter Levine Yeah.
Neil Sattin So. And of course you’re always out teaching and people can participate in your public courses. There are some on the East Coast in the fall. There’s a course in London in June. And if they visit is it, Somatic-Experiencing-dot-com? Then they can sort of see everything that you’r e doing.
Peter Levine I believe so. I believe so. Yeah some of the stuff I’m doing yeah.
Neil Sattin Well Peter. Peter it’s always a pleasure to chat with you. And I’ve so enjoyed your generosity of time and wisdom over the years. And thanks so much again for dropping in with us here on Relationship Alive.
Peter Levine OK. Take good care.
Neil Sattin You too Peter. Take care.
Neil Sattin And as just a reminder if you want a transcript of this conversation and also the relevant links and things you can visit Neil-Sattin-dot-com slash-Levine-2. That’s L E V I N E, and the number two or you can text the word passion to the number 3 3 4 4 4 and follow the instructions where you’ll be able to download the complete transcript of our conversation. All right thanks again.
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