Unfreezing the body in shock and panic
Josette van Luytelaar
Medusa and Perseus’ mirror
In Greek mythology Gorgon’s daughter Medusa was so horrible that anyone who looked into her eyes directly would immediately turn into stone out of pure fear. Warned by the goddess Athena, Perseus used his shield as a mirror, reflecting her image. When looking at the reflection, he was able to cut her head off. Such is the case with shock trauma. Direct confrontation only leads to what it has already done: immobility in fear. A more fruitful approach to healing shock trauma lies in working with its reflection: flow and peak.
In this article the author investigates how body-oriented psychotherapy can contribute to restoring flow and enhancing peak experiences. Her underlying hypothesis is that flow and peak contain resources of energy and ego strength that can be used to unfreeze and heal shock. She researches the concepts of flow and peak experience as developed since Maslow’s introduction of the peak experience concept in 1968. More specifically, she explores the body aspects of flow and peak and the connections, similarities and differences between shock and peak experiences. Different therapeutic approaches to flow, peak and shock experiences are discussed. She makes an attempt to integrate the framework of the Bodynamic system with both Reichian theoretical insights and a newly-developed therapy from the scope of Bioenergetic Analysis: the treatment of panic attacks.
Flow, peak experience, shock (trauma), panic attacks, the Bodynamic System.
Since Maslow introduced the concept of peak experience thirty-five years ago, it has been a continuous source of interest for psychologists and therapists, trainers and consultants. From 1980 onwards, Csikszentmihalyi extensively investigated the subject and wrote many articles about this phenomenon that he named ‘flow’. However, systematic research as well as systematic development as a therapeutic tool was missing.
A journalist interviewing athletes about their peak experiences, bodynamic co-founder Jarlnaes became interested in the subject around 1980. He discovered that the interviewing process itself deepens the intensity and the quality of the interviewed person’s experience. It helps people come into deep contact with an essential life quality inside themselves that they are usually unaware of and have not shared with others.
He started conducting ‘peak interviews’ (an intense dialogue where the ‘peak’ subject is unraveled in specific details) with a variety of people, ranging from top athletes to leaders, managers and therapists, but also ‘ordinary people’. He began researching literature and developing therapeutic tools within the frame of the Bodynamic System, a Danish-developed, body-oriented psychotherapy system (MacNaughton (1997)).
One of the well-known top athletes that Jarlnaes peak-interviewed was the American track and field star Bob Beamon (Jarlnaes and Van Luytelaar (2004)). When he long-jumped 8.90 meters and set an astonishing world record in Mexico City’s high-altitude thin air during the Olympic Games in 1968, he had a peak experience.
Sixteen years later, at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Bob Beamon told Jarlnaes that “It was like jumping through a barrier, running in a tunnel, with walls of vibrant silence, time stood still, I had full access to all my muscles, to my whole body, my sensations were bright, there was a sense of joy and love…” Although the experience was still crystal clear in his mind, at first Bob Beamon did not seem to realize what had happened. Not only was he confused about his experience right after the jump, but also later, when he went around asking everybody what had happened. No one could answer—no one knew. He kept searching for an answer, and one day he discovered Abraham Maslow’s books. Only then did he realize that he had had a peak experience.
Many people, like Bob Beamon, do not seem to realize what happened to them, and are not aware of their utilizing resources in generating their peak experiences. Consequently, they are unable to use those resources to improve the quality of their daily lives.
This lack of awareness motivated Jarlnaes and myself in a recent article to explore if and how peak experiences could be involved in (body) psychotherapy (Jarlnaes and Van Luytelaar (2004)). Among other results, they proved helpful, even essential when unfreezing their counterpart shock, like Perseus’ mirror.
Another finding was the concept of flow, which could be distinguished from the peak experience itself. Flow can be seen as a peak preparer.
In this article I will add new research and therapeutic evidence that restoring flow in itself -without achieving a peak- can be seen as a powerful instrument to unfreeze its shock and panic counterparts. I will attempt to integrate bodynamic therapeutic methods and a
recently developed bioenergetic treatment (Robbins (2002)).
More specifically, in this article I will:
Explore Maslow’s definition of peak experience and distinguish it from the concept of flow, later introduced by Csikszentmihalyi1. Integrating these with Jarlnaes’ and my own investigational findings, I will give an overview of peak characteristics.
Look at Perseus’ mirror: clarify connections, similarities and differences between peak and shock. For this, it is necessary to explain the Bodynamic concept of shock trauma therapy.
Explain the Reichian (and Bioenergetic) concept of charge or high-level energy as a core aspect of shock, flow and peak.
Reveal bodily techniques to attain flow and peak.
Describe therapeutic approaches from Bodynamics and Bioenergetic Analysis to demonstrate where working on flow and peak experiences can be considered helpful or essential in healing shock and panic.
HISTORY OF PEAK RESEARCH
In this section I will investigate the concepts of peak and flow from a historical perspective. I will compare the different definitions of Maslow, Csikszentmihalyi, and recent research done by Jarlnaes and myself. I will also make an essential distinction between peak experience and flow.
1.1. Maslow’s self-actualizing moment
The concept of peak experience originally came from Maslow. He was one of the founders of Humanistic Psychology in which the ‘self-actualizing’ of the individual was a core aspect. According to him a peak experience was an indissoluble part of the ‘self-actualizing’ of a person. He gave the following definition of a peak in his book ‘Towards a psychology of being’ (Maslow (1968, p. 105):
“…an episode or sudden wave, in which all potentials of a person are flowing together in a particularly goal-oriented and intense gratifying way, in which he is more integrated and less split, is more open to experience, in which he is more coming forward with his own specific nature or disposition, is more spontaneous and expressive, more fully functioning, more creative, humoristic, ego-transcendent, less dependent on his lower instincts, etc. In these periods he becomes more really himself, more powerful in actualizing his capacities, more close to the essence of his Being, more fully human…”
Maslow (1970 II, p. 86) described a peak experience in a rather non-specific way, quoting artists and philosophers who would describe their experiences in mystical or religious terms, or in terms of beauty. Based on eighty research interviews, he identified personality traits of ‘peak persons’ (Maslow (1970 I, p. 105)). This creates the impression that only few people do have such experiences. However, in later works he gradually broadened the concept and included ordinary people and everyday activities (Maslow (1970 II, p. 22-29)).
Maslow’s definition of a peak tends to be rather static, only focusing on a person’s happiest moment and not on the process that a peak involves.
1.2. Csikszentmihalyi: the process of flow
Csikszentmihalyi (1990) tends to look into the dynamics of peak experience more than Maslow did. He conducted research on thousands of individuals from a variety of social and cultural backgrounds (Csikszentmihalyi (1990, p. 1-5)), and discovered that at least 30% of them have peak experiences. He refers to a peak process as well as the peak moment. He defines peak experience—which he randomly called optimal experience, autotelic experience or flow (experience)—as follows:
“An optimal experience is the feeling that the required technical ability and the challenges are balanced with each other, in a goal-oriented rule-oriented action system that makes clear how one is performing. The concentration is so intense that one has no attention anymore for matters of lower importance or worries about problematic questions. Self-consciousness disappears and the time frame distorts” (Csikszentmihalyi (1990, p.103)).
His flow concept is shown in the diagram below, in which challenge and skills come together in a well-balanced manner, and lead to a flow of high-level energy. However, if at a certain moment one’s skills are ‘too high’ in relation to the actual challenge, one loses interest in the activity, and starts feeling bored; if the challenge becomes ‘too high’ in relation to the skills, one experiences anxiety. Both conditions stimulate the person to get into a flow situation again, this time of a higher quality than the original flow situation.
A3 ⎯⎯⎯→ A4
A1 ⎯⎯⎯→ A2
The Flow Diagram (from Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1990, p.107)
For example, Alex is a boy who is learning to play tennis. The diagram shows Alex at four different points in time. At the start (A1) he has few skills in playing tennis and his only challenge is to play the ball over the net. He will enjoy this, because the degree of difficulty is balanced with his limited skills. That is, he probably is in flow. When he continues exercising, he will play better tennis and start to feel bored with just the same challenge (A2). Then one day he plays against a better opponent, and he discovers that tennis has more challenges than he thought. At this point (A3) he starts to be anxious because of his rather moderate performance.
Neither anxiety nor boredom are positive experiences, so Alex is stimulated to get into flow again: from A2 he can choose a slightly more advanced opponent to match his level and try to win (A4). From A3 he can increase his skills by exercising more (A4). Both A1 and A4 are flow situations. Even though both provide equal enjoyment, A4 is more complex than A1.
These dynamics explain why flow activities lead to growth and discovery. The complexity and the development of the self is the essence of flow. People cannot enjoy the same thing for a long time. When we stay at the same level, we get bored or frustrated. The desire for pleasure leads to an activity which expands our capabilities, and the discovery of new ways to make this capability concrete (Csikszentmihalyi (1990, p. 107-108)).
Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as the moment where process and product come together: “An act is performed seemingly without effort; the goal of the stream is that it has to keep streaming” (Csikszentmihalyi (1990, p.82)).
In his view such optimal experiences can happen by coincidence. However, they are mostly the result of a structured activity of the individual or the ability to create flow, or both (Csikszentmihalyi (1990, p.103)).
This statement clarifies that in his view one can be actively involved in getting or repeating a peak experience.
Flow as peak-preparer and ‘unfreezer’
In his definition of flow Csikszentmihalyi mixes the concepts of flow and peak. However, from the results of the previous peak research I see an important distinction between the two (Jarlnaes and Van Luytelaar (2004)). Flow can be defined as working towards, or preparing for the peak moment. It is a process of coming into a state of high-level energy that increases the likeliness of attaining a peak experience. A peak can be prepared for, but one cannot count on a peak to happen as a consequence. One can enhance the likeliness of a peak by preparing for it (without being given the guarantee that it will occur), both in daily life and in therapy.
The research findings also reveal that a much higher percentage of people than Csikszentmihalyi’s 30% score have had peak experiences. In fact, nearly everyone seems to have had them (Jarlnaes and Van Luytelaar (2004)).
Most people recognized peak experiences when asked. Only a few people who started on the diagram with very low energy (low on skills and low on challenge) reported to have had no peak experiences at all, but they definitely had flow experiences.
The fact that nearly everybody has flow and peak experiences makes them important tools in (body) psychotherapy. Paying attention to the dynamics of flow and peak in therapy –e.g. by peak-interviewing clients – can help people recognize the underlying resources they utilize in generating flow and peak. It can help integrate them into daily life and thus enhance life quality.
Apart from this, flow in itself is found to have therapeutic qualities in unfreezing shock and panic (Levine (1997, 2002); Resneck-Sannes (2002)).
In our research studies Robbins (2002) and myself found a dramatic effect in reducing and eliminating frequent panic attacks through an intervention aimed at integrating the so-called ‘body starter’ – the visible body dynamics that provide the physical beginning of a panic attack – and restoring the body flow (see 3.4).
1.4. Defining peak characteristics
Combining Maslow’s and Csikszentmihalyi’s peak characteristics with own research results leads to the following list of peak characteristics –some of them are psychological, others are on the body level. They apply to a wide variety of people and to many different types of experiences (Jarlnaes and Van Luytelaar (2004):
Changed time perception, i.e., time seems to stand still or to expand into the infinite—to slow down; or the opposite—to speed up.
Changed or distorted space perception, changed physical sizes or shapes, e.g. a golf hole suddenly becomes as big as a bathtub so one cannot miss it. The experience becomes ‘framed’, i.e., standing out from the background in a strong energy field.
There are changes in all sensory perceptions, like vision, smell, and sound. All senses become more sensitive. Colors can change and become brighter; a snow-dressed tree can ‘change’ its color into bright green; a silence can become audible and a sight can become very sharp.
The experience is felt as a boundary-breaking or a boundary-expanding experience, even when it does not lead to a gold medal or even when performance is not involved.
People report that they have had a transpersonal, transformational or religious experience. They have a feeling of awe; they feel it as fulfilling their life goal and express it like ‘if I would die right here it would be all right’.
The body is always involved; sometimes physically, but there can be a changed perception of the body itself, of body sensations and body movements as well. People often illustrate their peak story with movements of hands and arms in order to show expansion—something big, bigger than they are.
The feeling that accompanies the experience is one of softness, love, bliss, ease, wholeness, grace of the body (also indicating the lack or absence of fear). People always remember a piece of the experience very clearly, like ‘a spark’; at least one part stands out crystal-clear no matter how many years ago it occurred.
A peak experience is not easily shared; usually it is experienced as something unique for a person. When they are not really seen by others in this experience, many people feel alone or isolated with it, sometimes even get stuck in it.
There is an inner sense of meaning, like having received a ‘message’, sensing a life direction, or life essence; hearing a voice speaking to the person involved.
The activity in which the peak is embedded is often goal-oriented.
The experience involves a very high level of energy or a state of high charge both psychologically and in the body (see 2.3).
FLOW/PEAK AND SHOCK: TWO SIDES OF PERSEUS’ MIRROR
Research pointed out some striking similarities (but also differences) between shock experiences on the one hand and flow and peak experiences on the other (Jarlnaes and Van Luytelaar (2004). In this section I will discuss the connections and their implications for therapy. To clarify this, I will introduce the concept of shock (trauma) from the viewpoint of Bodynamic shock trauma theory (Joergensen, 1992).
I will also pay attention to body techniques to create flow and attain peak.
Shock as a freezing response
A shock is defined as a traumatic event with the following characteristics:
The situation is actually life threatening (or experienced by the client as such)
The situation has not been worked through or it has not been possible for the client to react to (or re-experience) the situation in an appropriate way, i.e., using the ego and the biological reflexes of orientation, fight or flight that we share with many animals.
The client, instead, has reacted from the deep and primitive instinct pattern of paralysis.
A shock trauma has to be distinguished from a developmental trauma. This distinction is important as it has different implications for therapy.
A developmental trauma develops gradually over time by continuous or repeated exposure and leads to specific muscular armoring in specific stages of a person’s development (the character structures). A shock trauma on the contrary is characterized by the fact that it is caused by a sudden situation. It is an invasive and overwhelming experience for the person involved.
Extrapolating from animal research Bodynamic shock trauma theory assumes that people react instinctively in sudden life-threatening situations in one of the three ways: fight, flight or freeze. These concern immediate reflexory survival reactions accompanied by neurobiological changes in the brain. They start acting a split second before the cognitive parts of the brain are activated and take over.
Bodynamics follows Levine’s (1997) hypothesis that shock is in fact a kind of freezing in a situation where people have lost the possibility of moving, i.e., a fight or flight reaction. This is demonstrated in numbness, partially going ‘out-of-the-body’ (dissociation) and a ‘holding’ in specific muscles. The bodily freezing in the moment then expands into one’s life; life patterns become frozen, and one gives up activity. The result is a diminished quality of life.
An example: When the ferry-boat Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea in 1995, many young people, sitting in the bar, got numb and did not stand up from their chairs in the restaurant on the top deck—while others did move (flight) and escaped from the ship, and eventually survived.
Different body psychotherapies build on this hypothesis and include ‘finishing’ or unfreezing the frozen movement to cure a shock trauma (e.g. Levine’s Somatic Experiencing® (Levine (1997)) and Ogden’s Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (Ogden and Minton ( 2001)).
Robbins (2002) developed a Bioenergetic method for the treatment of panic attacks, Rhythmic Integration. A core part of the procedure is to recognize and integrate the `body starter’, the spontaneous body movements that provide the physical beginning of a panic attack, and to restore the body flow.
Bodynamics developed a ‘working-with-shock recipe’ where a unique kind of running technique is practiced (in combination with working through the shock story) for the body to relearn the flight reaction. The fight reflex is also relearned in the same procedure (Jarlnaes (2002); Picton (2004)).
2.2. Mirroring aspects of peak and shock
Therapeutic work with peak-shock combinations showed the possibility to use peak experiences to help resolve shock (Jarlnaes and Van Luytelaar (2004)).The underlying goal of this approach is to free the energy frozen in the shock situation, restore the capacity to have ‘free floating’ emotions, and let the client regain the feeling of control and choice.
Peak and shock have many characteristics in common—like changed or distorted time and space perception. Both involve a state of high charge or high-level energy. Moreover, both are often intrinsically connected: often a peak and a shock come together in the same situation and alternate or get mixed up.
For example, in a client’s experience of her car accident, when the car clash happened, time slowed down and stood still; she froze but the clash also suddenly made her feel alive, experiencing herself as a whole. There was the vibrant sound of the silence, the snow was extremely white, the scene beautiful. Even the blood on the head of a fellow passenger looked intensely red.
Although a shock experience has many features in common with a peak experience, there are also differences. They can be seen as opposite experiences, as each other’s reflections, like in Perseus’ mirror. The main contrast is that there is freezing instead of flow of energy. There is a ‘holding’ in specific muscles and in the fascia, and a retreating of the energy into the bones.
Reich named this the basic antithesis in life: pleasure and excitation (experienced by muscle expansion) as opposed to anxiety (muscle contraction), which according to him is in continuous interaction (Reich (1970, p. 255)).
A shock has features that change it into a negative experience causing diminished life quality. One feature that greatly diminishes the quality of life is guilt, e.g. the guilt of being a survivor, the guilt of not having helped others. It is possible to relieve the guilt and resolve the shock if one can ‘free’ the peak part in it, or clarify its ‘inner message’ (see 3.2.)
Charging, containing and discharging high-level energy
A core aspect of a peak (and a shock) is the state of high-level energy the person gets into, both psychologically and bodily (in the muscles). Some people describe this state as the air being so dense that one can almost cut it with a knife. Others describe strong physical vibrations or sensations. Getting into a state of high-level energy is also conditional on having a peak experience. Moreover, attaining increasingly higher levels of energy is a main feature of flow.
The Bioenergetic concept of ‘charge’ is related to this and refers to the amount of body energy that is present in a person, and which can be enhanced (‘charged’) or lowered (‘discharged’) for therapeutic purposes. The concept originally stems from Reich. In his orgasm theory he referred to four stages of charge, which are important for our understanding of the difficulties experienced in shock, flow or peak states: tension, charge, discharge and relaxation. In the state of tension, Reich assumed the organs fill with fluid, which leads to the second state of intense excitation, which he assumed to be of an electrical nature. Electrical discharge follows in the third stage by muscular contractions (alternating with expansion, wave-like), followed by a relaxation by fluid flowing back (Reich (1970, p. 243)).
Bodynamics adds a third element, the containment of charge. In some cases, the body misses the capacity to ‘hold’ energy before releasing it. This ‘holding’ quality is located in specific muscles mainly. Exclusive emphasis on releasing the charge, or releasing it too early would then lead to exhaustion or a breakdown, physically and/or emotionally.
In conclusion, people can have difficulty raising, containing or discharging the charge (or high-level energy) in their peak, or in their shock. Csikszentmihalyi’s flow diagram (Csikszentmihalyi (1990)), in which he explains that challenge and skills balance one another and lead to a flow of ever-increasing high-level energy, is also helpful here.
There can be problems in raising the charge when challenge and skills do not match, in the sense that challenge is too low, or when the basic energy is too low, like in depression.
People can also have difficulty containing high-level energy in their peak. This often results in losing the peak or ‘freezing’ in shock, so that they cannot repeat the peak.
One can also have problems with discharging high-level energy, ‘landing’ in normal reality. A person can stay too long in a state of high energy without being able to slowly reduce the tension, resulting in chronic stress or distress, anxiety states and panic attacks.
Body exercises that focus on alternately raising and containing, or alternately raising and releasing charge offer possibilities to enhance the person’s capacity of dealing with these three charge aspects of high-level energy.
2.4. Body techniques to create flow and attain peak
The body is involved both in the flow phase and in the peak moment itself. There are changes in the perception of the body, sometimes described as ‘moving with a kind of smoothness, or grace’ (Lowen (1995)). Flow is about the body. Flow is like warming up, preparing the body, making it warm and strong, to get into a state of high-level energy.
Getting into flow is also a precondition to attain a peak. It can even be physical hardship and requires discipline. The habit then turns into a ‘ritual’. One example is a violin player, daily practicing for many hours, in order to get into the flow. Often the peak happens unexpectedly, ‘suddenly there is music instead of just practicing’. Another frequent example is that of athletes surpassing world records during training.
Enduring physical hardship in trekking is another kind of energy-raising ‘ritual’. It needs the ritual to build up walking condition, to get into a certain walking rhythm (flow). The ritual presupposes that you have to suffer before there is a reward. And then suddenly the reward—the peak—can come in, like in my own experience: ‘I felt I walked no longer on the earth, but above it; I felt it was not hard work; I could continue to go straight upward forever, like I had wings. The view was breathtakingly beautiful, and the color of the sand intensely red’.
Another commonly used way for people to get into flow is the stimulation of their senses and body experiences, e.g. by seeing beautiful works of art or nature, creating art, hearing or performing music, tasting haute cuisine food, dancing, and going in for sports.
Csikszentmihalyi (1990, p. 143)) sees many similarities between flow and eastern body training methods like yoga and martial arts (e.g. Qi Gong, T’ai chi, Judo and Aikido). Their aim is not physical achievement, but a harmonious one-point direction of the mind. Through intense concentration, which can be achieved by physical discipline, behavioral habits, rituals or sensory training, they both try to reach a state of mind, where happiness or ‘nirvana’ is experienced. A difference, however, is that flow as a western technique tries to strengthen the self (centering), whereas the eastern methods aim for disappearance of the self (melting into the universe).
Bodynamics developed a special technique to get the body into flow: the so-called ‘slow flow’ movement practice, in which never-ending slow motion movements in a continuous rhythm are exercised with the help of music. It is a movement series in which there are elements of challenge, skills and balance. It is a ‘ritual’ which brings people into a state of flow by elements such as body awareness, concentration, relaxation, breathing, body centering and containment.
EXAMPLES OF FLOW AND PEAK THERAPY
Therapists can apply work on flow and peak experiences in different realms (Jarlnaes (2000); Jarlnaes and Van Luytelaar (2004)).
Flow and peak work is recommended in personal coaching or counseling issues, where the client’s wish is to develop a higher quality of life or work (resourcing from peak).
Working with peak experiences can be very useful, even essential, for clients suffering from shock trauma (the mirror; peak-in-shock work).
Working with peak is helpful when people experience a shock connected with or during the peak moment, which prevents repeating the peak experience and integrating it in their lives (the mirror; shock-in-peak work).
Working on restoring flow has also proven to be successful in the treatment of panic attacks and panic disorders (the body starter).
Below I will give examples of each of these different methods (Jarlnaes and Van Luytelaar (2004)).
3.1. Resourcing from peak
‘Resourcing’ -a main Bodynamic therapeutic concept- means giving clients more options in life by bringing them into contact with their ego strength, e.g., the ability to say no or stop, the ability to sense what you like to do, the ability to come forward with your opinions.
Often people strive for the qualities inherent in a peak experience, without being aware of the resource elements in it. When people get access to these resources, they attain the possibility to actively choose when, where, and how they can pursue and integrate these aspects in their daily life. This work is considered very valuable and can be done by a peak interview. The client shares—often for the first time—a peak experience with the therapist, which can be a new peak in itself, as it frees the person from his or her believed ‘existential loneliness’. Moreover, having the elements transferred and installed in daily life, the client is able to create resources to a rich new liveliness and happiness and even enhance them (to create and stay into flow).
The message of the body movement
When interviewing Ellen, a peak workshop participant of 44, she told me about a peak experience: While skiing downhill, in a beautiful winter nature scene, among big trunks of trees in the snow, she got into a flow. Suddenly she felt the movement opened her up and then a feeling of total freedom, of letting go, of floating, engulfed her. During the session she was brought back to this experience, as I let her consciously repeat the body movements she spontaneously made while she was telling the story. These included a movement of her hands from her head down all along her body and then to the front of her. When asked to slowly repeat and exaggerate the movement, E. suddenly got the message of her peak: ‘This is what I have to do in my daily life more often’, she said, ‘to let go of head-control’. The way in which she could realize this was to keep her body into flow by regular body exercising.
3.2. Peak-in-shock: using mirror reflection as a resource
Peak experience work can be effective, even essential, for clients suffering from shock trauma. A peak part and a shock part in the same situation are always connected. If you can ‘free’ the peak part or get its ‘inner message’ clear, resolving the shock is much easier. In this sense, peak work has therapeutic value. From work with Estonia survivors and others, guilt—from surviving at the cost of other people’s lives— has shown to disappear when the clients get hold of their peak quality-energy; their personal dignity.
Bodynamic peak/shock therapy focuses on resources in the peak part and the connection with the shock. The therapist searches a moment of light just before the shock happens, instead of going into the shock. Below are two examples of this kind of peak-in-shock work.
The forest worker overcoming shock trauma
A 40-year-old Canadian forest worker accidentally cut off all the fingers of one hand with a chain saw. He was alone at the time of the accident, so his immediate reaction was very important. Not only did he have to stop the bleeding, but he also had to decide how to survive the next hour. Should he call the local emergency station and ask them to find him, or should he take his car, and drive to the station, so they could take him to the hospital?
This decision was taken from a ‘helicopter-level’. His consciousness seemed to hang in the air, and from this position he could overview the whole situation. He decided that they might not be able to find him in time, because direction signs were lacking. He decided to drive himself, calling the emergency station and alerting his coming. He survived, lost his hand, and later he fell victim to severe depression with the onset of alcohol problems. These problems made him go into therapy.
During the moment that he ‘hung in the air’, time seemed to be at a stand still. All his senses were razor-sharp; there was a religious dimension present—all the elements which indicate that a peak experience was occurring at that moment. In the session the client realized and accepted that his survival actions were based on a decision that came from a place higher than his normal Ego, from ‘the Soul’, a place with a spiritual connection. With this experience, he also realized that he had decided to survive and make the best of it, and not to lapse into depression with alcohol. This insight changed his negative life script (being a failure) into a positive one (being a survivor). By holding on to this particular moment, ‘hanging in the air’, he was able see his action as an adequate coping mechanism. This freed him from his depression.
This client’s therapy started by identifying the peak element in the trauma, the ‘instinctual’ decision that had caused him to survive (the best possible choice). It is in this aspect that Bodynamic therapy differs from many other approaches in working with traumatic events. Next step is to let the client re-experience where these peak elements enter into the trauma story, and finally to let the person experience the unique quality from which he/she was able to act in such a way that he/she survived the traumatic situation.
The underlying purpose of this approach is to free the energy frozen in the shock situation, restore the capacity of having ‘free floating’ emotions, and let the client regain the feeling of control and choice. Another purpose is to avoid entering into more fight/flight responses when the client re-experiences the traumatic incident during therapy. This is important for new resources to develop in the person, making sure that the same kind of shock will not recur.
Talking to an angel
Louise, a woman of 45, came into therapy a year after she had undergone severe breast cancer surgery, a breast being removed. After having resumed her normal life, she mentioned that she was lacking all sorts of emotion and complained that her arms felt like dead, not belonging to her anymore since the removal of the lymph glands. She was diagnosed with a shock trauma that had developed after surgery.
The therapist’s job was to help her understand how she survived the shock and to accept this as a resource.
While interviewing her about this shock traumatic life event, she came to realize the peak quality in it. She looked back at the times of her diagnosis and operation as a period of high intensity, in which – along with the experience of being shocked – she felt really alive and in contact with herself, fully functioning close to the essence of her being.
On exploring different arm movements, she recovered the memory of a recurring sort of spiritual experience. Her arms felt like wings, like being an angel in contact with something transcending herself, like an angel-like higher entity. Talking to this entity was her support at that time to survive and she believed the entity really saved her life.
She missed that intensity in her actual life and was unable to regain the experience.
When asked about her experience, and about what had happened just before, it turned out that she performed a preparation ‘ritual’. This involved walking in the forest near her house following a fixed route and tuning in to nature, talking to herself about matters of life and death. Once she had realized that she could also perform this ritual in actual life to create a flow feeling, she was able to reconnect with her feelings and feel more fully integrated.
3.3. Shock-in-peak work
Some people can experience a shock connected with or during the peak moment, which prevents the peak experience from being repeated and becoming integrated in their lives. They get stuck, for which they seek help. Some other times it is clear that people do not try to achieve the peak-state again, either because they do not know it is possible, or because they have never thought about it, or believe they are alone with this experience. In these cases, peak work can be helpful.
Bob Beamon’s ‘peak jump’ shock
After his world record jump, Bob Beamon had never jumped again. Theoretically, he experienced a shock connected with the peak moment, which prevented him from repeating the peak performance, and then he got stuck. Because he experienced the peak as coming ‘out of the blue’, not as a result of his own effort, he became afraid. In a way he dissociated from the experience, and closed off. Here Csikszentmihalyi’s diagram comes into play: When the challenge to repeat the peak performance becomes too high in relation to the skills of the person, it leads to anxiety.
When he realized he had had a peak experience, his question was how to overcome this anxiety and be able to jump once more. Therapeutic work could have helped him become aware of the fact that the peak had not occurred spontaneously, but was in fact the result of his own ‘structured activity’, his preparation. Partly, Beamon already experienced this in the peak interview with Jarlnaes. In this way, he could regain control over the situation, regain trust in his ability, build up trust in the possibility of repeating the peak, and get into flow again.
3.4 Flow unfreezing panic: the ‘Body Starter’
Working on restoring body flow has also proven to be successful in the treatment of panic attacks and panic disorders. Bioenergetic therapist Robbins recently devised a body approach, named Rhythmic Integration (Robbins (2002), that drastically reduces, even eliminates panic attack frequency in a one-session (!) treatment. Central in this approach is awareness of the ‘body starter’, the visible body dynamics that provide the physical beginning of a panic attack -often a frozen movement- which are then changed and integrated by a seven-step intervention protocol, based on developmental and bioenergetic models.
He claims a success percentage of 98 %, whereas cognitive behavioral therapy needs an average of 8-12 sessions. Other body-oriented approaches also need more time or have inconsistent results.
Validating this procedure for the Dutch setting, I discovered that adding several flow exercises to the procedure, like the Bodynamic ‘slow flow’ or breathing exercises, makes this approach even more successful in more complex cases, e.g. with agoraphobia.
Below you will find an example:
Out of Africa
Maria, a 30 year-old Dutch woman, suffered an average of 3 weekly panic attacks during the last year of her stay in Africa. In the end she was taken into the hospital with many physical and psychosomatic symptoms.
She came back to the Netherlands because she could not deal with the situation any longer. In the panic treatment session it became clear that the ‘body starter’ in her case was a frozen upward head and eye movement. We worked on the movement following the seven-step intervention protocol until it was consciously recognized and integrated. One of the last steps in the protocol is working with several flow exercises, which should also be done at home, to unfreeze the body and disconnect the body starter.
She easily recognized the symbolic meaning of the movement, in this case the tendency to dissociate, to ‘fly away’ from unpleasant situations. She recognized this mechanism from her past in the relationship with her father. She found out that in the here-and-now she needed the panic attacks as indirect ways to escape from the situation with her husband.
Her panic attacks reduced to zero immediately after the session, and now, 14 months later, had still not recurred. She returned to Africa 5 months ago. She still practices the ‘slow flow’ exercise.
In this article the latest findings of and personal insights into the value of flow and peak experiences as therapeutic tools are discussed from the perspective of two important body-oriented therapy approaches, Bodynamics and Bioenergetic Analysis. It is a first attempt to integrate theory and methods from both schools. It is my strong wish to further continue with collaboration and integration. Developments in the panic project are still ongoing and deserve further attention in the future.
Josette van Luytelaar as a body psychologist specializes in ‘unfreezing’: her main therapeutic interests are flow, peak and shock trauma work, panic attacks/ panic disorders and sexual problems. She is a CBT, supervisor and local trainer for the Netherlands Institute for Bioenergetic Analysis (NIBA) and a Bodynamic Practitioner. She is also a teacher at the Post-graduate Education for General Practitioners at the University Medical Center in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
Address: Mozartstraat 16, 6521 GC Nijmegen, the Netherlands
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990): “Flow. The psychology of optimal experience”; HarperCollins, New York (Referrals are from the Dutch edition, 1999).
Jarlnaes, E. (2000): “The Bodynamic Analysis guidelines for working with the core of a shock-trauma”. Bodynamic International Aps., Kopenhagen, Denmark.
Jarlnaes, E. and Van Luytelaar, J. (2004): “The therapeutic power of peak experiences; Embodying Maslow’s old concept” in MacNaughton, I. (ed) Body, breath & consciousness; A somatics anthology. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Ca.
Jørgensen, S. (1992): “Bodynamic analytic work with shock/post traumatic stress”, Energy and Character, Vol. 23, No. 2.
Levine, P.A. (2002): “Panic, biology and reason: Giving the body its due” in Schmidt, L. en Warner, B. (eds) Panic. Origins, insight and treatment. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Ca.
Levine, P.A. (1997): “Waking the tiger: Healing trauma”. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Ca.
Lowen, A. (1995): “Joy; The surrender to the body and to life”. Arkana/Penguin, New York.
Macnaughton, I. (ed.) (1997): “Embodying the mind and minding the body”. Integral Press, N. Vancouver, Canada. (This book contains a collection of articles on Bodynamics)
Maslow, A.H.(1970): “Religious Aspects of Peak-Experiences”. Harper & Row, New York.
Maslow, A.H.(1970): “Religions, Values and Peak-Experiences”. Penguin Books USA.
Maslow, A.H. (1968): “Toward a psychology of being”. Litton Educational Publishing Inc., New York. (Referrals are from the Dutch edition, 1972)
Ogden, P. and Minton, K. (2001): “Sensorimotor Sequencing: One method for processing traumatic memory”. Hakomi Somatics Institute, Boulder, Co, USA.
Picton, B. (2004): “Using the bodynamic shock trauma model in the everyday practice of physiotherapy” in MacNaughton, I. (ed) Connectedness, autonomy & spirit; A somatics anthology. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Ca.
Reich, W. (1970): “The function of orgasm; The discovery of the orgone”, vol I. Meridian Books, World Publishing, New York; Original edition 1942.
Resneck-Sannes, H. (2002): “There really is something to be afraid of: A body-oriented psychotherapy for the treatment of panic disorder” in Schmidt, L. en Warner, B. (eds) Panic. Origins, insight and treatment. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Ca.
Robbins, R. (2002): “Body approaches to the treatment of panic” in Schmidt, L. en Warner, B. (eds) Panic. Origins, insight and treatment. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Ca.
ARTIGO EM ALEMÂO art.ENERGIEFLUSS UND SPITZENERFAHRUNG
ARTIGO EM FRANCÊS art.LE MIROIR DE PERSEE OU LES RESSOURCES THERAPEUTIQUES2