Tag Archives: Sensorimotor Psychotherapy

The Body Keeps the Score – Bessel van der Kolk

Bessel Book bodykeepsscore “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk, MD, will “permanently change how psychologists and psychiatrists think about trauma and recovery,” as trauma scholar Dr. Ruth Lanius writes.  She was the first to call developmental trauma a “hidden epidemic,” source of my book’s subtitle “Silent Epidemic.” Dr. van der Kolk repeats this in his new book.  [FN1]

And it is about the body. “Infants are psycho-biological beings, as much of the body as of the brain,” writes Prof. Ed Tronick, author of the Still Face Experiment. “Without language or symbols, infants use every one of their biological systems to make meaning of their self in relation to the world.  Van der Kolk shows that those same systems continue to operate at every age, and that traumatic experiences, especially chronic toxic experience during early development, produce psychic devastation.”

I reported van der Kolk’s work on developmental trauma and on getting the military to recognize PTSD in March 2014.  When the New York Times damned van der Kolk’s insistence on body work in June 2014, I roasted them.  In this book, van der Kolk makes his case much better than anyone else could.

I’m having trouble reading the book; I keep starting to sob. That started on page 3 where Dr. van der Kolk describes his heart-breaking childhood experience in bombed-out post-war Holland, with his father prone to violent rages, and his mother acting out her childhood trauma on him. I could feel that little boy, what he’s been going through all these years, and see the depths of what he has accomplished by giving his life so passionately to heal himself and all the rest of us.

These are “good sobs;” they feel good, because once again van der Kolk has told the truth about reality where few dare. Half the human race has had significant childhood trauma, and most of them are in complete denial and live in a state of dissociation, aka freeze or numbness. People in trauma, he writes, feel “numb” to most of life. One patient felt “emotionally distant from everybody, as though his heart were frozen and he was living behind a glass wall. He could not feel anything except his momentary rages, and his shame.”

Dr. Stephen Porges calls van der Kolk’s book a “courageous journey into the parallel dissociative worlds of trauma victims and the medical and psychological disciplines.” As van der Kolk and Porges have said before, medical and psychological experts have been just as much in denial and dissociated regarding the serious nature of trauma as are the traumatees.  “As our minds desperately try to leave trauma behind, our bodies keep us trapped in the past with wordless emotions and feelings,” Porges says. “Van der Kolk offers hope by describing treatments and strategies that have.. helped his patients reconnect their thoughts with their bodies.”

Why all the denial?  “We don’t really want to know what soldiers go through in combat,” writes van der Kolk. “We do not really want to know howe many children are being molested and abused in our own society and how many couples – almost a third –engage in violence at some point…. We want to think… of our own country as enlightened civilized people. We prefer to believe that cruelty occurs only in faraway places like Dafur…”

Solutions for Recovery

Bessel van der KolkLet’s get right to what everyone wants to know.  Here are Dr. van der Kolk’s “Paths to Recovery,” which I think of as  “body solutions” :

— Healing starts with owning our “self,” 100% total acceptance of our self, exactly as we are today, no guilt, no self condemnation. It means developing pride in who we are; only by accepting ourselves as we are now, do we become free to change. We must respect our body for putting us into trauma freeze; it was the only way to defend us, as Stephen Porges says at the end of my blog last week.

– Recognize that language is a “miracle and tyranny,” van der Kolk says. “Telling the story doesn’t necessarily alter the automatic physical and hormonal responses of bodies that remain hypervigilant, prepared to be assaulted, or violated at any time. For real change, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed.” At some point we must let go of all the verbiage as yackety-yack largely in the conscious frontal cortex and logical left brain.

Instead, we must grasp that there is something more fundamental underneath all that, lead by our body sensations, non-verbal subconscious, and non-logical right brain. The body literally needs to have many, often thousands, of new, good physical experiences, such as being taught to physically move or defend itself, just where it could not during the original trauma. Only these can create a “visceral” certainty of safety, to race the old experiences of danger.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is van der Kolk’s next step, to integrate the right and left sides of the brain. In trauma often neural pathways between them have been frozen; in developmental trauma from infancy, these pathways may not have developed well and must be developed now.  By moving the eyes back and forth, we simulate Rapid Eye Motion (REM) sleep, which the brain uses to take events of “now” (today) out of short-term memory, where feelings like fight-flight and trauma reside, and put them into long-term memory.  Instead of feeling as if our trauma is happening again now, it begins to feel like an old story that loses its sting.

Yoga then teaches us how to inhabit our bodies right here, right now; that’s why it’s been used as a path to enlightenment for thousands of years.  Easy to say, but the challenge is to actually practice it rigorously and regularly; only then comes the benefit.

Neurofeedback programs done by trained neurofeedback specialists really help.  Dr. van der Kolk also recommends the computer (and smart phone) -based electronic feedback system EmWave by HeartMath, which trains users to synchronize breathing and heart rates, known as heart rate variability (HRV). In good HRV, heartrate speeds up when we breathe in and slows when we breathe out.  But in trauma we lose HRV coherence; breathing is very rapid and shallow, and heart rate de-synchronizes from the breath, also hazardous to physical health.

Finding Your Voice:  As Bruce Perry says, “Patterned, repeated rhythmic activity”  can re-tune a traumatized brain stem.   Dr. van der Kolk likes  “communal rhythms” such as drum circles and dance.  He particularly likes theater work because it gives the players a substantial voice and a character they can use to express all their feelings in a way everyone can accept.

Trauma Experts Praise “Body Keeps the Score”

“This is an absolutely fascinating and clearly written book by one of the nation’s most experienced physicians in the field of emotional trauma. Equally suitable for primary care doctors and psychotherapists wishing to broaden their range of helpfulness, or for those trapped in their memories, ‘The Body Keeps the Score’  helps us understand how life experiences play out in the function and the malfunction of our bodies, years later.
– Vincent J. Felitti, MD
Chief of Preventative Medicine Emeritus, Kaiser Permanente San Diego;  Co-Principal Investigator, ACE study

“Breathtaking in its scope and breadth, ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ is a seminal work by one of the preeminent pioneers in trauma research and treatment. This essential book unites the evolving neuroscience of trauma research with an emergent wave of body-oriented therapies and traditional mind/body practices. These new approaches and ancient disciplines build resilience and enhance the capacity to have new empowered bodily (interoceptive) experiences that contradict the previous traumatic ones of fear, overwhelm and helplessness. They go beyond symptom relief, and connect us with our vital energy and here-and-now presence. A must read for all therapists and for those interested in a scholarly, thoughtful, tome about the powerful forces that affect us as human beings in meeting the many challenges of life including accidents, loss and abuse.
– Peter A. Levine, PhD, Author, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.

“This book is a tour de force. Its deeply empathic, insightful, and compassionate perspective promises to further humanize the treatment of trauma victims, dramatically expand their repertoire of self-regulatory healing practices and therapeutic options, and also stimulate greater creative thinking and research on trauma and its effective treatment. The body does keep the score, and Van der Kolk’s ability to demonstrate this through compelling descriptions of the work of others, his own pioneering trajectory and experience as the field evolved and him along with it, and above all, his discovery of ways to work skillfully with people by bringing mindfulness to the body (as well as to their thoughts and emotions) through yoga, movement, and theater are a wonderful and welcome breath of fresh air and possibility in the therapy world.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine emeritus, UMass Medical School, Author of “Full Catastrophe Living.”

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Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.

Footnotes

FN  Van der Kolk, Bessel, MD., “The Body keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” Peguin Press Viking, New York, 2014  http://www.amazon.com/The-Body-Keeps-Score-Healing/dp/0670785938#reader_0670785938

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts. He is also Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and Director of the National Complex Trauma Treatment Network. When he is not teaching around the world, Dr. van der Kolk works and lives Boston, Massachusetts.

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Dreaming of a Safe America – Laura Kerr

Safe America Dream Laura KerrThis guest blog by Dr. Laura Kerr, PhD, Stanford University, really struck me.  For Americans as people, and our government, she notes, “unconscious dreams and unresolved traumas influence our defensive reactions to threat, much like the child that suffers chronic traumatization is altered by conditions of abuse and neglect.”  Dr. Kerr is a  mental health scholar who writes about trauma, grief and loss — and the social cost of our often not knowing they exist, or how to heal them.

“Dreaming of a Safe America,” by Dr. Laura Kerr

The airstrikes against the Islamic State, a decidedly violent and oppressive group, are deeply unsettling, bringing forth memories of 9/ll and the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, along with fears that America will never extract itself from this region of the world, or be safe from revengeful terrorist groups. At such times, it’s natural to become defensive, fearful, and even hopeless.

One of the things that makes America a wonderful place to live is that we feel entitled to freedom and safety and feel others are entitled to freedom and safety too. Yet rarely do airstrikes like the ones on Syria feel like a simple exercise in the protection of human rights. America has too many unresolved traumas, too many unspoken desires, for the public to trust a motive as simple as the preservation of freedom and safety.

In this blog post, I try to understand how unconscious dreams and unresolved traumas influence our defensive reactions to threat, much like the child that suffers chronic traumatization is altered by conditions of abuse and neglect. I believe we are at a time in our nation’s history when we must examine the disparity between what we have dreamed of becoming and deal with the reality of what we are: stressed, even traumatized, increasingly fragmented, yet also passionate, resourceful, and capable of honest evaluation. But first we have to let go of our defenses. Even during times of war.

American Dreams

The United States, perhaps like all nations and all people, is caught in unconscious, conflicting drives and denied vulnerabilities. In Dreaming Up America, historical novelist Russell Banks identified three dreams at the heart of America’s unconscious conflicts, dreams that originally drew people to America:

There was El Dorado, the City of Gold that Cortez and Pizarro dreamed of finding. And then there was Ponce de Leon’s dream of the Fountain of Youth, where you could start life over again, and the New England Puritan dream of God’s Protestant utopian City on a Hill, the New Jerusalem…. We can think of there being three braided strands, or perhaps three mutually reinforcing dreams: one is of a place where a sinner can become virtuous, free from the decadence of the secular cosmopolitanism of Old Europe; another is of a place where a poor man can become wealthy; and a third is of a place where a person can be born again.” (2008, pp. 6-7)

The three conflicting impulses of these dreams — renewal, materialism, and spirituality — shape the nation, its institutions, social life, and the American psyche. They determine the myths Americans attempt to live, the fantasies that grab our imaginations, the ideals we hold, and our expectations for the future. These dreams also have a shadow side. They contain the unresolved traumas of past generations, and thus also perpetuate fear, shame, addictions, and disavowed needs. Without healing the shadow side of these dreams, the United States has no other option than to play out its conflicting state of impulses in unhealthy and destructive ways.

These disparate dreams of wealth, rebirth, and redemption have been with the American people since the country’s inception, although according to Banks, they became a source of internal tension after the Civil War. The United States emerged from this conflict as a nation state, which implied, at least in principle, the resolution of internal conflicts for the purpose of creating an integrated and interdependent nation. However, as we know all too well, this was not the case.

Following the Civil War, the United States was incapable of true integration. For one thing, the Civil War was particularly gruesome. Over 620,000 people died — far more Americans than in any other US-involved conflict. (About 1,264,000 soldiers have died in the nation’s wars.) And although the Civil War ended slavery, it did not end racism or inequality, and thus failed to uphold the ideal of universal, inalienable rights laid out in the Constitution, the doctrine intended to unite us all as equals.

Thus, after the Civil War, there was a false sense of integration. To use psychological parlance, we could say the US created a false self. The creation of a false self is common to trauma survivors. It hides the split off aspects of experience and identity that either the survivor is unaware of, or fears retribution for, if others were to know the traumatized parts and the memories they hold. And Americans have suffered many traumas — including the numerous wars, slavery, oppression, racism, sexism, as well as family violence — and all reveal the failure of democracy to create a country of safe and equal citizens.

When caught in a habitual cycle of denying or dissociating parts of ourselves, event the faintest reminders are susceptible to unconscious projection onto others. When traumatic memories are particularly offensive, and contain overwhelming feelings of shame or helplessness, the need to rid oneself of the offending and unacceptable traits and emotions can lead to a search for a scapegoat, someone or something to contain the overwhelming feelings that otherwise might shatter the fragile persona that keeps them at bay.

And indeed, the United States often functions much like the trauma survivor who projects the wounded parts of itself onto scapegoats rather than risk the uncertainty of facing a traumatized past. Scapegoating happens in relation to other countries and peoples when we demonize them, and in our own country when people are devalued or brutalized due to their ethnic origins, their gender or their sexual orientation, the region of the country they live in, or their lack of resources. And often those who have been victimized later become the ones seeking scapegoats.

For the rest of this post and its invaluable footnotes, CLICK HERE: http://www.laurakkerr.com/2014/09/24/dreaming-safe-america/

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Kathy’s news blogs expand on the ideas in her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.”  Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as Kathy and her guest bloggers write about attachment disorder in adults, trauma, grief and loss, adult attachment theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.

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