Waking the Tiger Book Summary - Waking the Tiger Book explained in key points
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Waking the Tiger summary

Peter A. Levine with Ann Frederick

Healing Trauma

4.2 (344 ratings)
14 mins
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    Waking the Tiger
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    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? 

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    What is Waking the Tiger about?

    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.

    Who should read Waking the Tiger?

    • Trauma survivors looking to understand and heal their symptoms
    • Readers fascinated by animal behavior and human nature
    • Anyone drawn to explore how awareness, instinct, and resilience can transform suffering

    About the Author

    Peter Levine is the originator of Somatic Experiencing, an approach to healing trauma. He holds doctorates in Medical Biophysics and Psychology, and has published extensively on stress and trauma over his 30-year career. Peter Levine has consulted for NASA and taught trauma healing techniques at hospitals and pain clinics, and in indigenous communities in Europe and the United States.

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