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Healing Trauma, Anxiety and Depression - the Secret of Wild Animals

Wild Animals Know the Secret. 

Learn how to heal anxiety and trauma.

By Suzie Wolfer LCSW

Scientists have made a fascinating discovery about the way animals in the wild discharge stress.  They are able to release it and move on.  Without this ability in the wild, they would wander around shut down, uptight or confused - and they would not survive long.  Wild animals release their trauma.  Humans think about their trauma and hold on, never realizing their body has a secret weapon to let it go.

Scientists believe that animals lack higher brain functions that humans utilize to explain reality.   We ask why.  We make up theories.  We think "if only" or "what if" and the painful memories take up residence in our bodies.  Our language, thoughts and feelings are like the "save" function on a word processing program. 

Unlike humans, wild animals find a safe place, experience the trauma from start to finish and their nervous system discharges the fright.  And this is what scientists have discovered:  when a trauma is contained and experienced start to finish, the nervous system discharges the memory, like erasing an Etch a Sketch.

The Body like a Photo Plate

You may know someone who has had a car accident, experienced fright as a child, or has had a scary medical procedure.  These traumatic events are embedded in the body like image on a photo plate.  And each time we think about fearful experience, we anchor it more deeply in our bodies and nervous systems.  With severe trauma, flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive memories take over and we feel them in our bodies as if we were re-living it physically.  These  re-enactments take up enormous amounts of energy, and we spend our resourcefulness avoiding people, places and things to detour around these triggers.

The compulsion to repeat.  When we have blocked trauma from conscious awareness we may find ourselves in similar situations over and over again as we attempt to work through painful experiences. We may think of ourselves as unlucky in love, or accident prone or start to feel defeated because we can't break the pattern of challenging behaviors.

So how do we get free?

For Peter Levine the answer is not through talking or thinking about painful memoires.   Our memories are shaped and reshaped by thoughts and experiences.  They may not be an accurate record of what happened, but more an interpretation of what happened as a way to try and explain and distance ourselves.  But sadly this does not change the "photo plate" of our nervous systems.

To discharge these body memories, understanding the two branches of the nervous system will indicate how deeply imbedded the memories are in your nervous system.  Your symptoms will be a combination of either alarm or shut down.

Alarm:  When we are stressed, the fight or flight part of our sympathetic nervous system turns on and we feel:

  •  Hot, tense, tight jaw, twitches, itchy, sweaty, rapid heartbeat, shallow breath
  •  Heightened sense of alertness, like something bad is going to happen
  • Emotions such as excitement, fear, anxiety, annoyance or anger 

Shut down:  When the stress overwhelms us, we feel stuck.  Like an animal in the teeth of the lion, struggling but about to die, the parasympathetic nervous system turns on and we notice the symptoms of shut down: 

  • Cold, sleepy suddenly, slower heart rate, nausea, heavy limbs as if gravity increased
  • Tunnel vision, difficulty seeing,
  • Feeling depressed, blank, numb, detached or dissociated

So armed with this knowledge you can take your foot off the brakes and learn to release these patterns in your body. Then the mind will follow.   Our bodies store the problem.  And they also hold the solution. We can use our minds to access the solution rather than playing an endless loop in the projector of our minds.

Things to do.

Find a calm and ground place where you will have no interruptions, sit comfortably, and start to simply observe your body sensations

·        Believe your body.  It cannot lie.  Symptoms speak the truth.

  • Feel your body, notice a specific sensation.  If you don't notice anything tap the top of your thigh and notice as many sensations as you can name
  • Ground yourself by imagining a solid cord or light connecting you to the earth. 
  • If you have pet notice how deeply your pets breaths into her belly.  Try to match the breathing.  Pets are great breath teachers.
  • Make a list of resources:  activities that leave you feeling safe, happy or/ and relaxed?  Place where you feel grounded, favorite memories, people who make your body smile or relax.
  • Feel deeply into your present experience, describe and track what happens as you simply observe your body without trying to fix or change it.  Notice thought and emotions as they simply flow through your awareness like a river flowing.  Just observe.

Start the discharge process
When you can comfortably do these things, invite a painful memory or a stressful thought come to mind.  Start with something very easy.  Use the tools above to witness and observe until the painful physical sensations subside.  Toggle back and forth from the stressful image to one of your pleasant resource images. 

It may take a few minutes with something simple.  And it could last for a much longer period of time for a complex intense memory.  Notice the feeling of spaciousness in your body as the nervous system discharges the pattern.  Place your hand on the skin of your upper chest and notice a subtle flow of well being come into your body.

Suffering can be transformed and healed and we all have the means to do it ourselves.  This simple method can restore your aliveness and help you recapture your sense of wonder.


Focusing by Eugene T. Gendlin (Aug 1, 1982)

Waking the Tiger : Healing Trauma : The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences by Peter A. Levine and Ann Frederick (Jul 7, 1997)



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