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Summary: Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine with Ann Frederick

Waking the Tiger (1997) offers an enlightening perspective on trauma by exploring the dynamics that make wild animals virtually immune to traumatic symptoms. Using this knowledge, it then provides a pathway to healing through exercises that focus on bodily sensations.

Introduction: Learn how to release yourself from trauma.

Trauma touches us all. Whether it arises from an accident, illness, or even everyday stress, traumatic events can shatter our sense of safety and leave us struggling with bewildering symptoms.

Yet there’s some surprising wisdom available that we can draw on to heal and free ourselves from trauma. This wisdom comes, of all places, from the animal kingdom.

In this Blink, we’ll explore some basic somatic techniques that you can use to start releasing pent-up energies, help restore resilience, and reclaim a sense of vibrancy and meaning. These techniques offer a path to befriend your inner bodily experiences, and undo the imprints of trauma.

Keep in mind that this Blink isn’t meant to replace support from a trained professional. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or have thoughts of self harm, please reach out to a doctor, a mental health professional or a support line, to access help and care.

Now, let’s get started on your journey to healing.

Summary: Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine with Ann Frederick

Stress, animals, and the body

An abusive childhood, a violent assault, a car accident – trauma can arise from many different sources. But despite this, it leaves similar scars – scars that can be debilitating, even when they’re invisible.

Trauma causes a range of physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms. These can include anxiety, depression, and flashbacks. They can also extend to many other kinds of symptoms, like sleeping problems, chronic pain, dissociation or “spaciness,” and somatic illness – meaning an illness that specifically affects the body physically, rather than the mind.

Although it’s easy to feel isolated if you’ve experienced trauma, you’re far from alone. Nearly everyone encounters it, in some form, throughout life. But what exactly is trauma? And why does it leave such a lasting impact on our lives?

A fascinating clue can be found in the biology and behavior of wild animals. Wild animals face constant threats and dangers – from predation, injury, the elements, and starvation, among other things. And yet, curiously, wild animals rarely suffer from trauma, as humans do.

Why is that? How do wild animals manage to survive – and even thrive – in the face of extreme adversity, while we humans struggle so much, and for so long, in the aftermath of traumatic events? What can we learn from them?

To answer these questions, we need to understand how animals – human and non-human animals alike – respond to danger.

When we face a challenge or threat, the stress response is our body’s natural way of preparing us for action. The stress response involves a series of physiological changes: our heart beats faster, our breathing accelerates, our muscles tense, and we become hyper-alert to our surroundings. These changes help us mobilize our body’s resources and energy to deal with a threat. As we’ll see, this build up of energy can be implicated in trauma.

We often hear about the fight or flight response. Faced with a terrifying threat, animals can either fight back aggressively or run away as fast as they can. However, sometimes we face a situation that is too overwhelming, or hopeless, for us to fight or flee. In this case, we experience what’s called the freeze response. When neither fight or flight will ensure survival, we will simply become immobile. This immobility response involves a dramatic drop in our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and muscle tone.

It may seem counterintuitive, but freezing is a smart, albeit last-ditch, part of an animal’s overall survival strategy. An impala playing dead, for instance, might convince a cheetah to stop its attack, buying precious time to escape.

Freeze also helps us cope with extreme stress by shutting down parts of our awareness. In a freeze state we may feel numb, detached, or faint. This is the body’s way of protecting us from suffering, by dissociating us from our bodies and from an awful situation that we cannot escape.

But there’s a drawback here. As we explored, the stress response involves a huge build up of energy. Either fighting back or running away allows us to discharge this excess energy, so we can return to a normal state of calmness afterwards. But – on its own – the freeze response doesn’t. So what do animals do, after they freeze?

Let’s say, for instance, a polar bear is shot with a tranquilizer dart after a stressful chase. As it wakes from anesthesia, it will go through an extended period of shaking and trembling, before returning to normal. This is typical. Animals instinctively discharge the compressed energy mobilized during a threat, through shaking, trembling, sweating, and other physiological responses. Thus animals return their bodies to equilibrium, balance, and calm – preventing traumatic symptoms from developing.

Unfortunately when humans freeze, we often fail to complete this cycle of stress response. Our faculties of higher cognition, helpful as they are, can distract us from being aware of the bodily sensations associated with this built-up energy. Our social conditioning, too, often leads us to control our behavior, trying to stoically “hold ourselves together” – instead of letting the energy stored in our body run its course and release itself.

As a consequence, we store this unreleased energy in our nervous system and body tissues. This creates a state of unresolved stress that can affect us for years or even decades.

This “stuck” energy – what we call trauma – affects our nervous system and brain in profound ways. It can hold us in a state of either hyperarousal or hypoarousal. Hyperarousal is when we are constantly on edge, anxious, restless, irritable, or angry. Hypoarousal is when we are chronically depressed, lethargic, or numb. Both states are unhealthy and prevent us from living fully and authentically.

Trauma also affects our brain structure and function, impairing parts of the brain that are responsible for memory, emotion regulation, executive function, and social cognition. It creates neural pathways that reinforce fear, helplessness, and avoidance, while impairing our ability to integrate different aspects of our experience, such as thoughts, feelings, images, and actions.

A further effect of trauma is that of dissociation: a split between body and mind. The state of dissociation connected with freeze – one designed to protect us from overwhelming feelings – may become chronic. When this happens, we lose touch with our bodily sensations, feelings, and intuition – our “felt sense” of being ourselves in the world. Tragically, this partially robs us of our sense of meaning and purpose in life.

So how, then, do we heal ourselves? How do we come back into our bodies, release this stuck energy, and return to balance and vibrancy?

Coming back to the body

How do we help heal the wounds that trauma leaves? The answer is through the body.

Our bodies remember and hold trauma, even when our minds try to forget. Somatic experiencing techniques offer a compassionate way to befriend our inner bodily experiences, and offer a path to help unravel traumatic energies locked in the nervous system and restore a sense of safety in our own skin.

Please note that, while somatic techniques can aid trauma recovery, they may also initially trigger difficult sensations or emotions. Proceed very gently and stop if you feel overwhelmed. If you get consistently stuck or distressed, please seek support from a trained professional. Remember to move at your own pace – healing can’t be rushed.

Some of the core practices of somatic experiencing include grounding, titration, pendulation, and discharge. We’ll expand on these a little in a moment. While these somatic experiencing techniques are all different, they have some things in common. First, they involve working with bodily sensations. While talk therapy has its place, somatic experiencing – as the name implies – takes bodily sensations as central. Second, the techniques work by a process of blending – first creating inner resources that help the participant stay grounded and balanced, and then, gradually introducing manageable amounts of a difficult stimulus.

Grounding practices bring awareness to the present moment through the senses, rather than being overwhelmed by past or imagined events. Noticing the details of physical sensations, smells or sounds can help anchor someone in the here and now. This grounding in the body becomes an essential resource in healing trauma.

Titration, on the other hand, is about introducing a small, manageable amount of a stressor – providing carefully regulated exposure to traumatic material, so that the nervous system isn’t flooded and overwhelmed.

Pendulation is about alternating between grounding in the body and small, “titrated” amounts of traumatic material, gently swinging back and forth between zones of ease and zones of manageable discomfort.

Discharge refers to releasing pent-up energies locked in the body through shaking, stretching, or sounds.

While we don’t have space in this Blink to look at all of these techniques in detail, let’s explore two simple ones you can use to get started along your path to healing.

Getting in touch with the felt sense

Somatic experiencing techniques often involve bodily sensation and accessing what’s called the felt sense. The felt sense is a term coined by psychologist Eugene Gendlin to describe the subtle, holistic bodily awareness of a particular issue or situation. The felt sense is like an intuitive, pre-verbal sense of something that is experienced in the body but not yet clearly conceptualized. The notion is a bit abstract, but think of it as the sum total of everything that it’s like to be you, as you experience something in a particular moment. Our felt sense is always present, and it continually shifts and transforms, like a stream winding through different terrain, resonating with our inner and outer environments.

The felt sense is like the portal through which old traumatic energies are released. Often there are nascent or unclear felt sensations associated with a traumatic experience. By developing curiosity about these sensations and exploring them slowly, you can start to digest and transform your trauma from the bottom up.

To begin building your awareness of the felt sense, here’s a simple exercise. Find a book or magazine with plenty of pictures – something like a travel book or coffee table book is perfect. Sit somewhere comfortable and take several deep breaths. Long, slow exhales through the nose will help you relax and bring you into your body. Feel the sensations in your legs, your feet, and the seat beneath you. Notice any other sensations in your body – tightness, relaxation, warmth, coolness – just any and all sensations you can detect. Next, look at the first photograph. Observe your response to it – do you like it? Dislike it? Feel neutral about it? Does it evoke sensations of beauty, calm, curiosity, joy, sadness or something else? You may have more than one reaction at a time.

Now ask yourself: how do I know this is my response? See if you can identify the subtle bodily sensations that accompany viewing the image. The sum total of your reaction – the sense of “what it’s like” to be experiencing the picture – is the felt sense.

Attend to these sensations for a few minutes – do they morph, disappear, intensify or shift? However they move, just notice with curiosity. If any discomfort arises, gently redirect your attention somewhere else until you relax. When you’re ready, move on to another picture and repeat the sensing process. How do things change? You can repeat the exercise using different pictures for as long as you like, tuning in to how your felt sense shifts.

Once you’ve gained some experience in relaxing, observing, and accessing the felt sense, you can move on to the next exercise when you feel ready. In this exercise, you’ll work with more challenging sensations. If you start to feel overwhelmed, you should slow down, and consider seeking the support of a trained professional.

For this second exercise, you’ll need a notebook, a pen, and something to measure time – a digital stopwatch or the clock app on your phone. Start, as before, sitting somewhere comfortable, and begin to relax with some slow breathing. Again, feel your body, noting any and all individual sensations that you can detect, as well as how everything feels together as a whole.

Next, imagine a fear-provoking situation – an engine failure during flight, a threatening person on the street, or a near-accident while driving. If you feel safe to continue, imagine yourself in this frightening scenario. Feel what it’s like vividly, while doing your best to maintain the full bodily awareness that you started with. How do your body sensations change as you picture yourself in the scenario? Does your breathing alter? Do you feel any sensations of tightening, constricting, or loosening? Is there a change in the sensation of temperature? Your posture? In any part of your body? Write down these sensations in your notebook.

Now, make a note of the time elapsed since you started the exercise, then begin to relax again. Let the scenario go, and come back to the room as it is. Allow your body to return to the balance and comfort that you started with – and feel into what it’s like to be in this relaxed state once again. When you’ve fully returned, make a note of the time again. That’s it. You can repeat the process, imagining different scenarios, observing the changes in the felt sense, and noting the elapsed time.

While they may seem simple, practices like these will help you gradually regain control of trauma responses. By keeping your awareness open to the felt sense here and now, and attending to the full variety of bodily sensations available to you, you are training your body out of the automatic dissociation that accompanies a stuck “freeze” response. And by practicing the act of voluntarily relaxing, you’re showing your nervous system that you can manage the stressors without becoming overwhelmed.

They can be subtle and challenging, but mastering these somatic skills are steps along the path to digesting and resolving traumatic experiences.


Trauma imprints itself deeply in our nervous system and physiology. But we can loosen its grip. We’ve seen that wild animals have a way out of trauma: using direct contact with bodily sensations to discharge and release pent-up energies.

By accessing the felt sense, and using it as a grounding resource, we can gently blend in small, manageable amounts of stress. This will allow us to befriend our inner bodily experiences with curiosity and compassion, and restore the nervous system’s capacity for regulation. In doing so, we repattern neural pathways of fear and dissociation into ones of groundedness and integration.

Like the animals, vibrant aliveness is our birthright. Through resolving our trauma with somatic techniques, we can come home to our natural state of ease, joy, and flow.

About the Author

Peter A. Levine with Ann Frederick


Psychology, Nature and the Environment


I’d be happy to help you with a summary and review of the book “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” by Peter A. Levine with Ann Frederick.

“Waking the Tiger” is a groundbreaking book that explores the concept of trauma and its effects on the human body and mind. The book is written by Peter A. Levine, a psychologist and neuroscientist, and Ann Frederick, a poet and writer. The authors argue that trauma is not just an emotional experience, but a physiological one that can have a lasting impact on a person’s life. They propose a new approach to healing trauma, which involves understanding the body’s natural response to traumatic events and learning to work with the body’s natural healing processes.

The book begins by explaining the importance of understanding the body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) and how it responds to traumatic events. The authors explain that when we experience a traumatic event, our ANS goes into a state of hyperarousal, which can lead to a range of physiological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and insomnia. The authors argue that traditional therapies often overlook the body’s role in trauma healing and instead focus solely on cognitive processing and emotional expression.

The authors then introduce the concept of “neuroplasticity,” which is the brain’s ability to change and adapt throughout life. They explain that by understanding the body’s response to trauma and using various techniques to stimulate the brain’s natural healing processes, it is possible to promote lasting healing and recovery. The book provides several case studies and techniques that readers can use to work with their own trauma, including somatic experiencing, which involves using the body to access and process traumatic memories.

Overall, “Waking the Tiger” is a thought-provoking and informative book that offers a new perspective on trauma healing. The authors provide a comprehensive understanding of the body’s role in trauma and offer practical techniques for promoting healing and recovery. The book is well-written and easy to follow, making it accessible to readers who may not have a background in psychology or neuroscience.

One of the strengths of the book is its emphasis on the body’s role in trauma healing. The authors provide a detailed explanation of the body’s ANS and how it responds to traumatic events, which helps readers understand the physiological basis of trauma. They also offer practical techniques for working with the body to promote healing, such as somatic experiencing and body-centered psychotherapy.

Another strength of the book is its focus on neuroplasticity. The authors provide a clear explanation of how the brain can change and adapt throughout life, and how this can be used to promote healing and recovery from trauma. They also offer practical techniques for promoting neuroplasticity, such as mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

One potential criticism of the book is that it may be too technical for some readers. The book includes a lot of scientific research and technical terms, which may be overwhelming for readers who are not familiar with these concepts. Additionally, some readers may find the book’s focus on the body’s role in trauma healing to be too narrow, as they may believe that other factors such as cognitive processing and emotional expression are also important.

In conclusion, “Waking the Tiger” is a valuable resource for anyone looking to understand the body’s role in trauma healing and to learn practical techniques for promoting healing and recovery. The book provides a comprehensive understanding of the body’s response to trauma and offers a new approach to healing that emphasizes the importance of working with the body’s natural healing processes. While the book may be too technical for some readers, its emphasis on neuroplasticity and the body’s role in trauma healing make it an important contribution to the field of trauma psychology.

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