Book Review: Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma

Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


It’s an excellent and insightful book on the topic of trauma therapy. The gold standard of current PTSD treatment is the acknowledgement that the body keeps the score. That’s why PTSD flashbacks are so visceral. The refrain is, “It’s like I’m back there, in that moment”, and as far as the body is concerned, you are. The evolutionary perspective justifies this both in the understanding that we are animals operating on primitive mammalian hardware, and in the body’s reasoning that whatever it was we did the first time we were in that traumatic (read: perceived as life-threatening) situation, we survived it, or we wouldn’t be here to have the flashback. It becomes maladaptive when falling back on whatever that response was damages the way we live our lives.

Levine breaks up sympathetic nervous response into fight, flight, or freeze, and the main thrust of his argument is people who deal with PTSD are trapped in the freeze response. Animals who survive life-threatening encounters tend to take minute to literally shake it off before going about their days, but these same animals tend not to have enough cortical folding to develop an obsessive fixation on the traumatic event (and future avoidance thereof). They don’t have the brain power to get stuck in the trauma, and they probably don’t have the computing power to have flashbacks, because flashbacks require memory and imagination.

His recommendation is trying to create some form of meaning aside from “I was a helpless victim”, not because it wasn’t necessarily true, but because for therapeutic purposes it’s not helpful in the long term. Sympathizing with your own victimhood is the willing lamb-on-the-altar sacrifice of your personal power and autonomy, deliberately sabotaging any efforts you (and to a lesser extent, your therapist) make to help you process the trauma and better understand the effect it has had on your perspective, your emotional response cycles, and the person you have become. You need that understanding to effect changes, and you need those changes to keep the PTSD from dominating your life. This is pragmatically indistinguishable from Levine’s “shaking it off”.

He wrote it for the layman and for survivors, so the language is accessible. It draws heavily on evolutionary biology and psychology which is usually conjecture cross-referenced with the fossil record, as you obviously can’t naturalistically observe human evolution, or replicate it in a lab.

That said, I am utterly baffled by some of the other reviews this book is getting, calling Levine condescending or unscientific. Blood from a stone here, fellas. If you want footnotes, we can tack a few APA citations from modern psychodynamic practitioners here, and although that technically qualifies as empirical, a real scientist would understand it’s about as scientific as reading tea leaves.

Psychologists are a bunch of bone shakers. All of the evidence we have comes from self-report, which can take a 180 degree turn based on whether the participant ate breakfast that day, and brain imaging, which is dudes in labcoats looking at a grainy photo and saying “that part seems to be… activated.” It’s the least scientific of all scientific disciplines, so to deride an active practitioner, a dude in the trenches of trauma therapy, putting his ass on the line every session and risking his own secondhand traumatization, for being unscientific… it’s like standing up at the “Speak now or forever hold your peace” part of a wedding and going: “This marriage is a sham, for God cannot be proven!”

Yeah, maybe. But you don’t gotta be such an asshole.



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