Anxiety and Phobias – in the Mind or in the Body?

Peter and Nancy

by Penny Boreham



It was one woman, called Nancy, who was the catalyst for a breakthrough for the somatic therapist, Peter Levine.

A therapeutic encounter with Nancy led Peter Levine to develop his somatic experiencing approach for working with trauma, one of the main therapies we offer at Khiron House.

It was back in the 1960’s, in the United States, and Nancy had been referred to Peter Levine by a psychiatrist. She was suffering from agoraphobia and extreme anxiety.

At the time Peter Levine, who had recently completed a degree in medical biophysics, was already using body awareness as a tool for relaxation.

During a very stressful session with Nancy, when she went into a frozen state, Peter Levine had a strong image of a tiger.

He says;

“It was an unconscious image, a vision of a tiger crouching at the other side of the room and getting ready to pounce”.

He communicated this to Nancy and;

“Her legs started moving as though she was running… her whole body started to shake and tremble… and the shaking and the trembling and the waves of coldness and heat went on for almost 30-40 minutes. And after that her breathing was free and spontaneous”.

This was a pivotal and transforming session for Nancy. During this episode she had become aware, for the first time, of the trauma that lay at the heart of her anxiety: during a tonsillectomy as a child she was held down as nurses and doctors put on an ether mask. Finally, her body had been able to begin to discharge the built up energy that had been locked in her system since she was a young girl.

It was of course also pivotal for Peter Levine, and for every one since who has learned and gained from his discoveries. He realised then that humans, like all mammals, have a fight and flight response that if activated and not discharged can cause massive problems.

The Lion is in the Room

When our nervous systems are activated we express many symptoms and behaviours that are then often categorised as mental health issues.

As our managing director, Benjamin Fry says:

“No-one would say you were mentally ill if you were anxious about being in a room with a lion, so when people are having so-called anxiety diagnosed as a ‘mental health’ issue what is really happening is their nervous system is looping in a prior threat, as if a lion is still in the room, when in fact that could have happened (metaphorically) 30 years ago”.

It starts to seem obvious that addressing emotional and cognitive issues before addressing trauma in the body may sometimes be a losing battle. Treatments such as Somatic Experiencing, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and EMDR are all proving invaluable in assisting people suffering from all sorts of symptoms associated with trauma.

Our clinical director, Dr Charles Hallings-Pott describes the delicate and subtle experience of working with a patient who lost his father suddenly when he was only a few months old.

“He suffers now with panic and has an exaggerated fear of being left alone. He also has continuous and terrible anxiety about the safety of others”.

Dr Hallings-Pott explains that once his patient found an understanding of his “tiny child’s” activated nervous system:

“He was able to honour the brain and body’s over eager attempts to keep him safe, he allowed himself the possibility of calm. This understanding, tied with grounding his body and nervous system in the present, allowed his adult self to gently take the reins back from the frightened child.”

Every day therapists are helping clients to reference their bodies with ground breaking new treatments, every day we are learning more about the subtleties and delicacy of the nervous system, and every day the systems of patients like Nancy, and millions of others, continue to inform us all about how to deal with “the crouching tiger”.

If you want to read more about Peter Levine’s early experiences and other aspects of his working life with trauma, you can access a fascinating interview at:-

This is part of our series of blogs which are telling the story of trauma treatment, how it has developed and is still developing every day. In this series our expert practitioners will be sharing their knowledge with you, we will be finding out what recent scientific breakthroughs are teaching us all about the nervous system, and we will be keeping you in touch with the latest news about the life transforming therapies that are becoming more sophisticated and responsive every day.

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