Victims of the tsunamis’ in Thailand and India, or the earthquake in China, and of Hurricane Katrina are being supported by a Brazilian, considered a reference in the treatment of trauma. Since 2005, Sao Paulo born Alexandre Duarte, 45, has been to many countries, invited by organisations interested in prevention and post-disaster interventions. His approach, which focuses on the self-regulation of the autonomic nervous system, is recognisable by its creativity and has a base in Rolfing and Somatic Experiencing (SE). Author of chapters regarding infant trauma in the books of north-American Peter Levine (creator of SE), Alexandre maintains a practice in both the United States and in Brazil. He’s based in Rio, but spends much time passing through airports. Workshops like Windows of Perception, which he currently offers to therapists in Salvador, are a huge success around the world.
How do you define trauma?
I see trauma as any event that causes a rupture in the organisational continuum of our body. We continually use tremendous force to maintain equilibrium, and certain events and stimuli can challenge us. When this challenge supersedes our internal resistance capacity, the system goes into shock. When we have the capacity to return to normal, this is because the body has great defence systems (fight/flight), and the unneeded energy is discharged. However, when you have a charge of fight or flight energy, and cannot process it, the body remain in a continuum of anxiety, or falls into a state of collapse. Trauma occurs when we lose this capacity to return to equilibrium.
What can upset our balance?
It can be something that happens just once, like natural disasters, which leave the bodies of the entire population in shock from the same event, or happen in degrees, which is common in society today with the total maladjustment of the nuclear family.
How do you define the body?
When I talk about the body, I’m referring to that inner place that we perceive when we close our eyes; tingling sensations, vibrations, heat, cold – these sensorial experiences. I try to decode all of this non-verbal language that each person reports to me. It’s a shortcut to the problem.
What are the merits of SE, and how does it help in your work?
I didn’t always have this vision, or these tools. SE gives access to the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), and the language of senses. Children and adults ANS systems of sensations become dys-regulated in the pre-verbal, and this disorganisation later transforms into undesirable or uncomfortable behaviours, like dyslexia, hyper-activity, apathy, fear of the dark…
Do all traumas have a cure?
I’m an optimist, so I’ll always think that each person has the chance to improve. When people talk of cure, it is the re-directing towards a place of balance. When you leave this nucleus of organisation, your life becomes dis-organised until you succumb. When you re-direct this; your organism works with you. This is positive. We need to recognise the limits of cure.
Does prevention exist?
Precautions exist. Too many interventions can be a hindrance. For example, when a child falls, and does not get a fright, but mum’s face says that something wrong has happened. Peter Levine talks a lot about this in his books.
Is infant trauma the most important?
Yes, principally in the day-to-day; suppression of something, pressure, or the absence of parents. Children are more susceptible, because they need a source of safety. Safety is a primary need, after food, water and suchlike. Children have a basic need for security, another source of self-regulation. They will substitute with a teacher, an object or a habit, as well as negative sources of self-regulation like drugs.
Why do some overcome trauma, and others no?
I’ll give you an example: I was in a school in China, teaching how people should organise when an earthquake occurs. The children were on a patio, and I noticed something coming from outside. It was another earthquake that rattled the whole school. There was a deafening sound and the screaming of the children. The earthquake passed, and 80% of the kids returned to play as if nothing had happened; the other 20% were in shock.
What was that?
Because they had already been through an earthquake, they had the necessary resources to deal with the situation. For them, the trauma in this situation had already been mitigated, but others went into shock. I don’t think the magnitude of the stressor matters. Often, a simple fall can cause more havoc in the life of a person than an event of that magnitude.
You’ve become an international name for your work with disaster victims. How did this happen?
I always had an idea that I’d like to work with the UN, I just had no idea how. In Sao Paulo, I worked with the victims of the accident at Osasco Plaza in 1996. I lived in Asia for six months, and had just left Thailand for the States on December 24th. The tsunami hit two days later. I said to myself: I’m going back. I contacted Peter Levine, who was sending a team to Thailand, and he invited me along. There, I felt the work was not academic, but about presence and diplomacy. So, you must be a healer, a diplomat, a “do-it-all”. I was a bit of everything there.
Where did you encounter the most horrifying scenes?
I think it was in India, in the south, near Madras. Not because of the size of the destruction, but because of the scope of the suffering. They were island dwellers, 200 metres off the coast, and they crossed on a raft. They wanted to save the children first, then the women, and then the men. So, they put the children on the raft, but then the second wave came and caught it, killing nearly all of the children from the island. Families were devastated. There was a profound depression, and so many seeking help. The queues were massive, and each had the same tone: the loss of so many children, so many parents.
You’re right at the fore. How do these experiences affect you?
They do affect me. That journey was one that really shook me. There was a huge demand. I can’t really say exactly what I learned, but I think my vision of health changed.
How did it change?
I started to think that, in these disasters, people had an immense capacity to return to hope, a way out for the pain and dis-organisation of the body. I heard: “Despite the pain I feel, I feel a sense of power in my legs”. From then on I started to notice how the body has huge capacity for recuperation, principally from shock. Losing a loved one is not so easy, but the body coming out of shock emerges from a prison of dis-organisation, of sickness, of incapacity, that can entail more to the point of societal disintegration.
It’s non-verbal language?
Yes. In many cases, this is the shortcut. I try to decode this language, from what people tell me. Sometimes, it’s just a grimace, a sound… These are clues, because it’s very difficult to verbalise sensations.