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PTSD Challenges – Perceiving and Experiencing Goodness

Table of Contents

by Heidi Hanson

artist, writer, trauma survivor

(This is Part 3 of the article How PTSD Can Block Successful, Effective Outcomes in Life that covers #4 The Goodness Aperture in more depth.)

Peter Levine on Goodness

Peter Levine talks about how building the capacity to experience goodness within the body is important for trauma recovery.

Goodness represents a brand new group of body sensations in response to the world around one, a feeling state that is unfamiliar to a body habituated to be in activation states.

Levine even goes as far as to imply that experiencing these new feeling states in the body can erase and replace the trauma that has been held in the body for sometimes quite a long period of time.

Goodness is such a key concept in Levine’s view of trauma treatment that he chose to include the word “Goodness” in the title to his book, “In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness” (which he mentioned is his “major work.”)

Peter Levine on how Goodness is key to creating a new fundamental experience to replace the experiences of trauma:

“In trauma, our body gets stuck in either preparing for defense – for mobilization, or for immobilization – shutdown and collapse, which is associated with feelings of utter helplessness.

“I discovered that until these experiences in the body are changed, the person continues to feel helpless, hyperaroused, and hypervigilant.

“But when they changed in the body – and I‘m talking not just about the muscles but also the autonomic nervous system – then the trauma wasn’t there.

“You can think of it this way: “Here is the trauma – Where is the trauma?” As people have new experiences, as I said before, to contradict those of helplessness, collapse, fright, and freezing, they move toward agency, empowerment, vitality, excitement, and goodness!

“I debated over and over whether I should use that in the title of the book, In An Unspoken Voice – How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.

“Goodness is really the key here. If we’re just exposing the person to the trauma or trying to think about it in a different way without fundamentally changing the experience, then our work is not done – we haven’t gotten to the full resolution.”

PTSD Challenges - Perceiving and Experiencing Goodness

The above quote is from a webinar produced by NICABM, the The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine. Dr. Ruth Buczynski interviews Dr. Peter Levine in this presentation entitled, “Creating Safety in Practice: How the Right Tools Can Speed Healing and Reduce Symptoms for Even the Most Traumatized Clients” (For more information about all the different webinar series offered by NICABM you can check them out here. I find it easier to learn via watching presentations than reading at the moment so these have been very valuable to me. They provide written transcripts with each video presentation which makes it easy to go back and find things you remember hearing.)

What is “Goodness” in The Context of Trauma Healing?

I think it’s important to try to define “goodness” as it’s being used here in the context of trauma healing. Peter Levine uses the word “goodness” along with such new feeling states as: “agency, empowerment, vitality, excitement.” These appear when one experiences a fundamental change to their experience of being in their body, a change that I would associate with beginning to enter into the “calm alert” state more frequently.

The calm alert state is the end of the threat response. It’s like coming full circle – we began in calm alert before experiencing trauma, we go around the circle into the trauma reaction and get stuck there. We need to walk all the way around to the calm alert spot on the circle again.

Calm alert allows the body to connect to the environment in a totally different way than activation does. It opens us to perceiving much more than just whether there is danger or not. It opens us to the present moment as it is right now, not as it reflects past traumas.

When we open up and absorb characteristics of the environment in a peaceful, connected way, this activity can lead to positive feelings. These feelings would include things like: enthusiasm, peace, calmness, serenity, happiness, joy, well-being, flow, satisfaction, wonder, amazement, upliftment, etc.

When I use the word “goodness” in this article, I am referring to this conglomerate of feeling sensations that bubble up when the body is not activated but is instead experiencing the calm alert state.

Therefore, one could say that “goodness” is a place of experiencing both energy and calm, a relaxed but energized homeostasis that is connected to the present moment and numerous subtle qualities of the surrounding environment.

Connected to life, in other words.

Life as in – one’s own life force, the life in living things, the “life” or energy in inanimate objects, the life in ideas, the life in nature like the weather and the stars. Calm alert paves the way to learning to have connection to all that is existing in the moment and their characteristics, which makes it easier to experience life force. (Yes a totally foreign concept to trauma survivors, even to me at the moment, but I’m hoping to get there at some point.)

In addition, after getting more acquainted with goodness in the present moment, we may also begin to be able to identify goodness as a characteristic of future opportunities, for example situations, activities and relationships, that will be supportive and safe and increase these energized but relaxed body sensations.

Goodness, as it’s being discussed here, could be said to include:

  1. calm alert state opening to the perception and experience of many characteristics of this present moment leading to multifaceted, textured, nuanced feeling responses in the body.
  2. calm alert state leading to the perception, acknowledgement and recognition of the goodness that is already present in one’s life, such as people, situations and activities.
  3. calm alert state leading to perception of and opening to experiencing future goodness, the recognition of good opportunities.

Safety and The Exploration of Goodness

Note that with children, they have to feel secure  – have a secure attachment bond with the parent – before they will explore the world. Children who have a secure bond develop an internal working model of secure attachment, or a view of the world as a safe place. Perhaps the calm alert state, when experienced for long enough, can help bring about a sense of security in life even for adults. Calm alert is what happens in the body after it has gone through a lengthy process of verifying safety. Maybe having a consistent experience of a safe environment leads to a fundamental shift.  For children, once they have this sense or view of safety regarding their parent, the exploratory system comes online and they feel confident to go off a bit to explore things further from the parent.  Perhaps beginning to feel safe again helps a person open up to exploring the environment and life in general, which leads them to opening up to experiencing goodness again.

The Complexity of Arriving in Calm Alert

It should be noted that achieving the “calm alert” state can be complex. It can be quite challenging, especially if there is a lot of activation in the body to work through.

Levine tells stories of people who went through intense experiences of regaining their sense of power within the moment of trauma while experiencing all the body sensations, allowing the powerful actions that were needed at the time to manifest through the body, but manifest extremely slowly, shifting their body’s experience of the traumatic experience.

There’s self-regulation exercises, and then there’s this kind of re-writing of the event. I’ve only been doing self-regulation exercises; I haven’t gotten into re-writing or finding the actions stored in the muscles much yet.

The point I’m making is that my impression is that it might take a certain amount of effort and work with the trauma before the body ends up truly experiencing a place of “calm alert.” I go into much of the complexity associated with arriving at a place truly open to positive good things and experiences in the article “Why It’s Difficult to “Think Positive!” When You Have PTSD.” You can pretty much substitute the word “goodness” for the word “positivity.”

The Goodness Aperture

When I first began thinking about what it is to have been traumatized and now be shut down to such a degree that there is no more ability to experience or perceive “goodness,” it seemed harder for me to get a grasp than some of the other difficulties brought about by PTSD. But I can really see it when I begin to focus on it.

I definitely do not feel good the vast majority of the time. And it’s not just physiological, like a lack of Vitamin D or neurotransmitter imbalance issues related to Seasonal Affective Disorder and depression. It’s also the way I view my life and the world as flat, gray, negative, potentially dangerous, harmful, full of threats, unchangeable, un-influenceable, hopeless.

I do feel good, however, when I do somatic experiencing exercises and sometimes for a little while afterwards.

So, this is real. My “goodness aperture” – as in an aperture on a camera – is closed way, way down to a tiny hole that only lets a speck of light enter. When I do somatic experiencing exercises, the aperture opens for a while. Then it closes again.

PTSD Challenges - Perceiving and Experiencing Goodness

Hallway. This concept of being closed to goodness in life could also be pictured as a hallway with many doors. When a person is a child, they have a lot of doors open. They are open to any kind of experience and don’t have any biases or blinders. If they experience a lot of trauma, as they walk down the hallway more and more doors to good things get closed and only doors to bad things remain open.

PTSD Challenges - Perceiving and Experiencing Goodness

What could cause a person to shut themselves off to goodness? What would cause them to close down that aperture, to slam all the doors in the hallway shut?

The Goodness Aperture Probably Closes Because:

1. Familiarity and Momentum. Because trauma is so familiar, it may be easier to repeat the trauma than to break the pattern and do something completely new and unfamiliar. This is probably happening on an unconscious level.

2. Threat Response. The second reason is that the threat response focuses narrowly on the “bad.” Having a narrow focus on danger due to being stuck in the threat response can block out perception of goodness. It’s like when you focus on a light in a dim room, the rest of the room fades to black and the only thing left is the light. When focusing intently on danger, danger is the only thing in the room of one’s life.

PTSD Challenges - Perceiving and Experiencing Goodness

3. Feedback Loops. Also, the tendency to go into downward spirals and get re-traumatized could pull the person further and further away from “goodness” even though they may want it very badly and can imagine a life with more goodness in it. Every time there is a new traumatic experience it reinforces the “badness.” Every time there is a reminder of a past traumatic experience, “badness” wins. Every time one of the feedback loops I mention in the post 7 PTSD Feedback Loops plays out, badness wins.

4. Betrayal and Lack of Trust. The person may have learned not to trust, so they are always on the lookout for flaws that would indicate that they can’t trust others.

Familiarity and momentum, the threat response, feedback loops and lack of trust taken together influence the goodness aperture to remain permanently very small, this allows the person to only experience tiny amounts of goodness. In addition, all the reasons mentioned in “Why It’s Difficult to “Think Positive!” When You Have PTSD”  also close the Goodness Aperture.

A Closed Goodness Aperture Blocks Good Opportunities

Having a small goodness aperture can prevent a person from pursuing or taking good opportunities.

Potential good experiences lie outside the person’s sphere of perception, so they are not real. If they are not real, the person will tune them out. They simply don’t exist to the person, therefore, the doors to those experiences remain closed.

It’s a strange phenomenon. I have been presented with some good opportunities that I perceived as literally not real, as fake or imaginary. I really thought the person was lying when in fact it was a legitimate, actual invitation. I turned them down only to realize later that they were talking about something that was for real (!)

Even if I knew it was good and did not think it was fake, I have closed myself off to goodness many times. If a good opportunity came along, my initial response has been to veer away from it and then sometimes I harshly blame myself for having done so for a long time.

The problem was, my goodness aperture was just too small to let it through.

Since it’s necessary to know how to open the aperture to be able to open it, and I didn’t know how, I couldn’t allow the opportunity to become something in my life at the time. Also the aperture needs to open slowly and skillfully, and by the time I will be able to figure the whole thing out, quite a number of opportunities will have passed me by. Opportunities are pretty slippery that way. Most of them don’t wait around as the long, incremental process of trauma healing gradually lurches two steps forward and one step backwards trying to make headway, but instead opportunities have a tendency slip away out of grasp. Well, that’s life. It just means it’s time to fully acknowledge the mourning process and then learn how to open that aperture up so the next good opportunity doesn’t slip by.

A Closed Goodness Aperture Taints Good Experiences with Badness

Even when goodness does happen – as in, I take the opportunity – I may interpret it to actually be bad in some way, or I will find the bad part of it and focus on that because of my body being activated still and on the lookout for danger in everything and everywhere.

Ultimately, when one has no ability to see, experience, believe in or allow their system to take in “goodness,” badness just keeps on winning.

Learning to Perceive Goodness Can be Tricky

In order to finally find a dentist after avoiding them for 8 years, I had to force myself to focus my mind on the positive. I had to switch something around in my mind. Now that I think about it though, I might not have opened to goodness in the right way because I was a nervous wreck when I went to get treated. I think I probably pushed myself – forced myself to “believe” in goodness rather than experience it in my body – because it really was an emergency and I had to get treated ASAP. So I had to do whatever it took.

Forcing myself to “believe” in goodness meant I was on the fence with goodness still when I finally went to the dentist. Although I worked hard on trying to force myself to feel safe about him, I had a hard time believing in his goodness. I’m pretty sure he is a genuinely good person trying to help people out. But the whole time I was stressed and scared. I was on this nervous see-saw – is he good? Is he bad? Is he lying? Is he for real? Are they just trying to make money? Did he do what he said he would? Why aren’t they answering my email? Is it a ruse? I was as skittish as a scared cat. I never truly, completely trusted.

But there were moments amid all this anxiety that I noticed – I was surprised to notice – he’s a good person. He’s doing what he said. He’s telling the truth when most dentists might not. He’s OK. He’s trying his best. He’s not evil. Nobody is perfect, of course, but he’s overall a decent person.

There was evidence – real evidence in the real world – that he is a good dentist – but I had to struggle royally to allow the evidence to enter my brain! My aperture was still terribly small.

For example, some evidence he is actually good: He helped a woman who was there at the same time I was avoid more drastic treatments recommended by other dentists saving her teeth for the rest of her life which means she will be healthier the rest of her life as loss of teeth is associated with greater susceptibility to disease. He went out of his way to accommodate a very unusual request from me and I was not a high paying $25,000 customer – and he did it anyway. He was gentle and relaxed when he wasn’t in a huge rush. He was OK. Good even in some ways. It’s still so hard for me to see it! Even when I pound the evidence into my head I’m still having trouble! But, he did help me when I really needed help and went out of his way, even though he felt uncomfortable with the requests. Actually he was quite stellar in some respects.

It’s like prying open something. I have to keep saying – Yes there are good people in the world. Yes there is safety in the world.

The evidence FOR goodness and safety falls on deaf ears, but the evidence AGAINST goodness and safety is fully experienced.

Opening the aperture is a task that probably needs to be done consciously.

PTSD Challenges - Perceiving and Experiencing Goodness

Opening to Goodness Needs to be Done in The Body

Because the body is the main driving force behind this entire thing – the activation leading to distorted perception leading to a room full of badness, Peter Levine emphasizes starting with the body and helping it to relearn how to experience goodness. Healing, according to Levine, relies on “fundamentally changing the experience” by introducing goodness to the nervous system through activities and exercises that regulate the nervous system and help the person come full circle to calm alert. Self-regulation exercises would then seem to be key to opening to goodness.

Opening to Goodness Needs to be Done in Small Bites

Peter Levine also talks about doing things in little bits – which he calls “titration”. Opening to goodness needs to be done a little tiny bit at a time.

Too much too soon would be impossible to integrate and assimilate into a new state of being.

Actually, too much goodness too quickly would also be traumatic, because it would be overwhelming.

Also the experience of being exposed to something SO good but not having any ability to accept it could be traumatic in a way. It could be very confusing and cause a lot of regret and guilt and real loss.

Also, if you want goodness so badly that you force yourself to feel good when you actually feel bad, overriding your subtle senses of something being wrong, this is neglecting to truly listen to your inner responses to the situation. It’s not actual goodness.

Actually let’s just go over what goodness is not.

What Goodness is Not

Pleasure from Addiction. I feel good when I play games on my tablet. I think any pleasurable behavior could either be a true opening to “goodness,” or an escape from pain and anxiety (activation). Some of the games, for example, are full of features that are calming and attractive to the nervous system, like nice music, pretty colors, cute characters (I actually can’t play violent games anymore so I’m talking about puzzles and match-3 type games). So, for a while the game is actually calming the nervous system. Then there is a shift and I begin to use it to escape from facing and actually resolving – self-regulating – activation, stress, anger etc. So whether a game is “goodness” or not depends on how it’s being used. When playing computer games becomes stressful because I know I’m neglecting important things, I’m avoiding intense emotions, and the games themselves are making me tense, I’m guessing this is not the kind of “goodness” we are after. However, if I’m just relaxing and enjoying the game without any of the above issues, then it can be a small bit of “goodness.” If it feels calming, joyful and energizing it might be able to be considered a touch of goodness; if it feels stressful, compulsive, tense, and fear-based, not so much.

Pretending. “Goodness” is also not about a person forcing themselves to pretend they feel good to cover the true bad feelings because those feelings are scary, to try to please an abuser, or to try to survive a situation that they object to but that they can’t escape.

Believing. Just believing in good stuff like abundance and happily ever afters, without the deeper experience within the body of the physical homeostasis of calm alert in the nervous system and muscles and heart and everywhere inside while simultaneously feeling in that moment a feeling of being truly connected with life – that belief is not goodness either.

Also, if you try to force a belief  in goodness to stick in your mind, it could seem suspect because to the closed down goodness aperture it’s too good to be true, therefore it will not be believed, trusted, or experienced – it will just be more “badness.” I’m thinking now of all the inspirational posters. If you see one and try really, really hard to “believe,” you may not get anywhere and then may be self-critical about not “believing.” Then the inspirational poster will have just become more badness – the badness of having something forced on you by yourself, the badness of not listening to your doubts and their origins, and the badness of feeling guilty about not being able to accept or live the belief. The body needs to be the one to experience it, not the mind. This will make believing a natural result of a felt sense, somatic experience. This is probably much easier to accomplish than ignoring the body while trying to train the mind.

One way to look at it is –  if whatever it is is helping a person make a deeper connection with life, it’s goodness. If it’s just faking it, it’s not.

To sum it up, Goodness is not:

  1. a destructive, self-sabotaging addiction that is using pleasure to escape pain and that one has no control over.
  2. pretending to feel good because of needing to please an abuser so the abuser will not become more abusive.
  3. trying to convince oneself something bad is good in order to survive it.
  4. “just believing” intellectually in something good.

Goodness is Just one Step on the Road to Flexibility and Resilience

“Goodness” is not the end goal. I think the real end goal is to learn how to pendulate – to flow between feeling bad and good more easily and naturally – not just feel good only. But with PTSD it’s common to feel all bad all the time, so it’s necessary to exercise feeling good to begin to flow back and forth better. So – I think it goes something like this:

  1. Safety. Find a feeling of safety and calm alert that opens the exploratory system
  2. Explore. Become curious about the felt senses of the body, explore a variety of feeling states in the body
  3. Goodness. Begin to experience goodness in addition to all the badness you already experience
  4. Pendulation. Develop the capacity to have a flexible, fluid experience of going between goodness and badness
  5. Resilience. This eventually becomes a state of resilience.

PTSD Challenges - Perceiving and Experiencing Goodness

If Still Being Traumatized…

If in any type of situation in which one is being traumatized in an ongoing fashion, opening to goodness will be difficult. One problem is that each new trauma reinforces all the things that cancel out goodness. It might be best to focus on whatever needs to happen to improve or get out of the situation.

If there is no way out at the moment, I think it could be good to open to goodness in other areas of life, because this process could begin to give a person more motivation to get out of the situation. Seeing goodness and connecting to life could bring more energy to the person to break out of the momentum of the destructive pattern, or shift it into something that is healthier for their life.

Why is it So Hard?

I’ve been doing somatic experiencing for a year now (and I did it back in 2010 as well). It’s incredible how stubborn my goodness aperture is. I will have to bring this up with my therapist because I think it’s stuck shut. I need some heavy-duty WD-40 for this sucker. I guess it’s just a lot of work.


Could not believing there are good, safe dentists – that are real and exist for real – have become an impediment to SEEING any good dentists, honing in on them and going towards them? Maybe there’s a great dentist right down the street that I just “tuned out.” I don’t know.

I’m grateful I finally, somehow, did hone in on a good dentist. A good enough dentist.

I’m grateful to him for being willing to help me.

Feeling grateful means I’ve successfully opened my goodness aperture a little bit. Yes!


Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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