Bessel Van Der Kolk, medical director of the Justice Treatment Institute’s Trauma Center in Massachusetts and renowned trauma treatment researcher and specialist, talks about ways to recover from trauma.
Q: Your recent book is called “The Body Keeps the Score.” Can you explain what that means and why it’s important for people who have experienced trauma to understand it?
A: Trauma lives in our bodies. Our brains try to keep our bodies from feeling that trauma. But our bodies may continue to experience agitation, rage and heartache. Those symptoms are all pieces of the past that haven’t been laid to rest.
Talk therapy can be an important part of trauma recovery, because when you’ve experienced trauma you need to find words for what happened to you. A therapist should help you feel safe to feel what you feel and encourage you to really be curious about yourself.
But an ordinary talk therapist may not be able to help you learn how to calm your body down. It’s hard to heal from trauma if your body is afraid to be touched or to take in the milk of human kindness. Feelings of abandonment or self-loathing don’t go away just because you can talk about them.
Q: Can you describe some trauma treatments that focus on healing trauma in the body?
A: People who have experienced trauma often barely notice their bodies because their brains are used to cutting off their feelings. They may overeat or starve themselves. They may not notice when they’re tired. A central part of healing trauma is finding a way to feel fully alive in the present without blocking out your feelings.
Childhood trauma also resets the brain and makes many things harder, like concentration and the ability to regulate your emotions. Neuro-feedback, the main focus of my own research, looks at how to teach the brain and body to focus and calm down. In neuro-feedback, we put sensors on people’s heads, then project their brainwaves on a computer, and people get to play computer games with their own minds. They work on becoming more attentive and calming down their reactions.
The most important question to ask yourself is what will help you begin to notice the sensations in your body. Anything you do is good. Just sitting quietly and paying attention to your breathing is a step in the right direction.
Practices that come from Asia, like meditation, Tai Chi and yoga, can help. There are a lot of yoga teachers that you can find on the internet who have been trained to work with trauma. You can also just choose a gentle yoga that is primarily meant to calm you down and help you notice your body. Once you start paying attention to your body, it’s easier to take steps to care for yourself. It’s also easier to work with a therapist to begin to regulate your feelings instead of getting too angry, scared, or shut down.
There are also trauma treatments that focus on healing the body that have been developed more recently. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, is an interesting and bizarre treatment that works by moving your eyes from the left to the right while you’re helped to remember very specific memories. We don’t know exactly why EMDR works, but it has been shown to be an amazingly effective treatment for people who are haunted by particular memories, like being molested or beaten. EMDR is something that people should ask about because it is becoming increasingly available.
Q: You also focus on arts-based therapies in your book. How can the arts help in recovering from trauma?
A: The arts in general are very important in helping people imagine alternative realities. I’ve met so many survivors in my career by now, and the people who do the best are people who are able to imagine realities that are different from what they’ve experienced.
There are theater-based therapies, for instance, that can help people discover new identities when they’ve gotten locked into the same frozen, angry, tough identity. One of the things that happens with trauma is that people build up a determination to never get hurt again. At the time that the trauma is occurring, that defense can be very helpful. But in the long run, if you’re in a relationship and your main preoccupation is to never feel any vulnerability, it’s not.
When you do theater, you change your voice. You change how you hold your body. You change how you react to other people, and this opens up new possibilities. Maybe you discover that you have a gentle side, or that you could be a really powerful person when you have the chance to act like a powerful person.
Being involved in the arts is also enormously fun. For people who have grown up in foster care who may not have had the experience of feeling like they belong, being part of a theater production, joining a church choir, a garden club, or anything that gets you involved in creating things with other people can give you that feeling of being needed and of belonging.
These kinds of programs are not usually offered by foster care systems. Systems need to learn what it’s like to feel abandoned and scared, to not have life feel safe or predictable, to not have a voice or control of even part of your life. Once systems begin to focus on what it feels like to be in the system, they may begin to focus more on what it takes to heal those feelings.