Releasing Trauma’s Grip: Embracing the Tiger’s Example
According to Peter Levine’s book “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma,” the tiger can symbolize trauma.
Levine uses the metaphor of the tiger to describe the way that trauma can freeze us in place. When we experience a traumatic event, our bodies go into a state of shock. This is a natural survival mechanism that helps us to cope with the overwhelming experience. However, if we don’t fully process the trauma, it can get stuck in our bodies and create symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some examples include:
Young children who freeze in response to neglect or emotional abuse might develop attachment-related trauma. Their inability to seek help or protection when facing neglectful caregivers can shape their sense of self and relationships later in life.
Freezing during a sexual assault is a common response, often driven by fear and a perceived inability to escape. This response can result in profound trauma, affecting victims’ mental health, self-esteem, and relationships.
Individuals who freeze during instances of abuse, whether sexual, physical, or emotional, like Holocaust survivors, might internalize a sense of powerlessness. The inability to fight back or escape could result in deep-seated trauma that affects their emotional well-being for years.
In “Waking the Tiger,” Levine writes: “The tiger is a powerful symbol of trauma because it represents the wild energy that is trapped in our bodies when we don’t fully process a traumatic experience. When we learn to release this energy, we can reclaim our power and move on with our lives.”
Tigers are able to shake off trauma by using their instinctual capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. According to Peter Levine, tigers and other wild animals can naturally release the excess energy and tension that accumulates in their bodies during stressful or life-threatening situations. They do this by completing the physical actions that were interrupted by the threat, such as running, fighting, or shaking. They restore equilibrium, forestall traumatic symptoms, and regain harmony by doing so.
Levine argues that humans also have this innate capacity to heal from trauma, but it is often suppressed or inhibited by social and cultural factors. He suggests that humans can learn from the example of tigers and other animals, and use their bodily sensations as a guide to access and release the trapped energy and emotions that result from trauma.
Peter Levine founded Somatic Experiencing, a body-based therapy for healing trauma. He used the image of a tiger to help his first client, Nancy, who suffered from various symptoms after a car accident. He explained that when predators threaten animals, they have three possible responses: fight, flight, or freeze. The freeze response is a survival mechanism that allows the animal to conserve energy and reduce pain.
However, if the animal survives the attack, it must discharge the excess energy and complete the interrupted fight or flight response. This can be done by shaking, trembling, running, dancing, or other physical movements. Levine asked Nancy to imagine a tiger chasing her and feel her body’s sensations. He then guided her to release the energy and complete the movements she would have done if she had escaped the tiger. This helped Nancy to resolve the trauma and restore her natural balance.
Drawing from my dance practice, I can confirm its validity, though it necessitates ongoing practice over several years.
Levine’s Somatic Experiencing therapy helps people to release stuck trauma by retracing the steps of the traumatic event in a safe and supportive environment. This process can be likened to the tiger shaking off its prey after a successful hunt. When we fully process the trauma, we can reclaim our power and move on with our lives.