Bessel van der Kolk: Restoring Joy and Treating Traumatic Stress
by Dr Bessel van der Kolk
PTSD was a diagnosis that my generation first created in order to remind the VA to take care of veterans and to really say to the VA these guys are messed up because of Vietnam. And initially people said these guys were always messed up; it must be some other thing. And the way that we organized the diagnosis was around the issue of memory…
…You have flashbacks to witnessing people getting killed, to the horror stuff that they saw in the war. That is not really the primary issue that people came in with; the issue that people came in with was that they had a very hard time getting along with other people, not blowing up at people, becoming scared and frozen, having no feelings for their kids, feeling numb with their girlfriends and general problems with engagement with other human beings and getting triggered and becoming very angry and very upset and very out of sorts.
And the memory issue was also an issue but it really is not what people suffer most from, it really is about having difficulty feeling alive in the present, feeling engaged, feeling a sense of pleasure, of joy, of even exuberance at the right moment of just feeling like boy it’s good to be alive. And in the years since that time we have understood a lot about what happens in the brain that interferes with the capacity to feel alive in the present.
It really is about having difficulty feeling alive in the present, feeling engaged, feeling a sense of pleasure, of joy, of even exuberance at the right moment of just feeling like boy it’s good to be alive. And in the years since that time we have understood a lot about what happens in the brain that interferes with the capacity to feel alive in the present.
The primary symptoms are becoming upset, becoming triggered, they’re particular sounds, smells, images, bring back states in which people act again as if they’re being traumatized. What happens in kids is it’s not so much memory issues but becoming upset, becoming angry, being assaultive, being oppositional, not trusting people, unable to concentrate, to pay attention, to engage in anything. And particularly when you’re traumatized as a kid, kids are very egocentric and they think that the universe is all about them; that’s what it’s like to be a kid.
And so if terrible things happen to you you feel like this is happening to you because you are a terrible person so this becomes part of your identity. I’m a person who makes bad things happen and I’m also a person who other people cannot possibly care for because people who were supposed to take care of me are not taking care of me.
And so kids develop something more like what we call developmental trauma disorder, in which it invades very many areas of functioning. It doesn’t mean that adults who get traumatized may not also have those feelings. Often times traumatized adults often feel ashamed, blame themselves for what has happened to them. When they get raped they say I must have done something wrong to make this happen to me. So the issue of shame and blame is also a very big issue for adults.
Something like three quarters of the U.S. population experiences traumatic events and may actually be triggered by particular things. If you grew up with an alcoholic parent the likelihood that you will have certain traumatic triggers, have certain fears of intimacy, certain uptightness about getting out of control just like that parent went out of control is quite common. And in fact one out of five American women have been sexually molested at some point or another. One out of four Americans have been quite severely beaten by their caregivers. So these are common things. These are common things in the general population. And so most of us either have been painted by that brush ourselves or know people in our environments to whom that has happened and we are living with the consequences thereof. And the reason why I wrote this book actually is to not only draw people’s attention to what we know, but also to really draw attention to the fact that we can do something about it and that we have learned a great deal about how to intervene and help people to come back to life.
After you get traumatized you feel defective, you feel there’s something wrong with you and you hope that people won’t notice. And you also don’t believe that anybody can help you. And finding help in fact is not always that easy. How do you know when relationships keep failing? When you fall in love with somebody and on the third date you blow up or you become frightened or you find something with that person and it bugs the hell out of you. Your sense of compassion to yourself and other people goes out of the window. So you become very intolerant of other people, you become very intolerant of yourself and so you live in an intolerant environment. And your kids don’t dare talk to you; you see them becoming frightened; you see them walk out of the room when they see you sit there. You turn on the television and you scream at people not to bother you. And this reactivity to people, this being bugged by people, this inability to tolerate other points of view, this inability to see that other people may look at the world differently than you do is a pretty good hallmark that you have something to work on and that you need to actually learn to notice yourself and to notice what goes on inside of you that makes you so chronically angry and irritated.
Anger and irritation is a very important piece. The other thing is those were the symptoms I talked about that we first saw in Vietnam veterans and that continues to be the big thing in child abuse survivors, car accident victims, soldiers, et cetera, et cetera, is the feeling of not being able to engage; that life doesn’t mean very much; that my joy is gone. And then it’s very easy to say I’ve always been like that. And then for me it becomes very important to help people to viscerally remember, to be a member of that football team in school or to play your French horn in the band or to make love for the first time or something that at one point gave you great joy now no longer means anything to you. And when those feelings have stopped that means that something is frozen inside of you. And then it’s time to deal with that in order to unplug the river of life basically.
Byron Clinic is presenting Bessel van der Kolk in his forthcoming series of 2-day Australian workshops in early 2019: “Trauma, Neuroscience and the Evolving Therapy of Traumatized Children and Adults”.
Find out more…
Bessel van der Kolk in Australia, 2019
Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane:
March — April 2019
In my practice I begin the process by helping my patients to first notice and then describe the feelings in their bodies—not emotions such as anger or anxiety or fear but the physical sensations beneath the emotions: pressure, heat, muscular tension, tingling, caving in, feeling hollow, and so on. I also work on identifying the sensations associated with relaxation or pleasure. I help them become aware of their breath, their gestures and movements.
The mind needs to be reeducated to feel physical sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch. Individuals who lack emotional awareness are able, with practice, to connect their physical sensations to psychological events. Then they can slowly reconnect with themselves.
Bessel van der Kolk
Bessel van der Kolk, MD, is a clinical psychiatrist whose work integrates mind, brain, body, and social connections to understand and treat trauma. His research ranges from the impact of trauma on development and brain imaging, to the use of yoga, neurofeedback, EMDR, and theater for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
He is a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, medical director of the Trauma Center in Boston, and co-director of the Complex Trauma Treatment Network, NCTSN.
He is the author of more than 150 peer reviewed scientific articles and several books including the New York Times best-seller The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
The Body Keeps the Score:
Mind, Brain, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
by Bessel van der Kolk
The Body Keeps the Score is clear, fascinating, hard to put down, and filled with powerful case histories. Van der Kolk, the eminent impresario of trauma treatment, who has spent a career bringing together diverse trauma scientists and clinicians and their ideas, while making his own pivotal contributions, describes what is arguably the most important series of breakthroughs in mental health in the last thirty years.
We’ve known that psychological trauma fragments the mind. Here we see not only how psychological trauma also breaks connections within the brain, but also between mind and body, and learn about the exciting new approaches that allow people with the severest forms of trauma to put all the parts back together again.
Bessel van der Kolk at wisemind.com
Online Therapist Resources
Can't wait for Bessel's 2023 workshops? He's currently online at wisemind.com, along with other renowned figures such as Janina Fisher, Pat Ogden, Jenni Sweeton & Iain McGilchrist. Bessel offers his ground-breaking insights into PTSD Relief Therapy.
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Bessel van der Kolk in Australia, 2019
Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane:
March — April 2019
Trauma leads to having difficulty feeling alive in the present, feeling engaged, feeling a sense of pleasure, of joy, of even exuberance at the right moment of just feeling like boy it’s good to be alive.