I am thrilled about the article I just read–“The Limits of Talk” by Mary Sykes Wylie, Ph.D., a senior editor of Psychotherapy Networker. She eloquently explains the evolution of the thinking of Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist and neurobiological researcher, regarding the nature of trauma. In his decades of experience and research, he came to the conclusion that the body’s physiology holds the key to healing trauma. Once the body transforms, the mind follows. His findings have caused huge tidal waves in the trauma field, turbulence that Wylie documents.
Van der Kolk believes that traumatized people heal from the “bottom up, not top down” (7). In neuroimaging studies, he points out, the left frontal cortex, especially the part of the brain responsible for speech, shuts down. So it is no wonder that those who are traumatized have a hard time talking and thinking about their experience. Van der Kolk writes, “‘The imprint of trauma doesn’t ‘sit’ in the verbal, understanding part of the brain, but in much deeper regions–amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, brain stem–which are only marginally affected by thinking and cognition'” (7). In other words, trauma most affects parts of the brain inaccessible to language.
For many of us, therapy that is all about talking just doesn’t cut it. Wylie shows how van der Kolk became aware of alternative therapy models that have proven to be powerful, such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and somatic bodywork. In particular, he points to the work of Peter Levine and Pat Ogden. I’ve written about Levine’s work in my posts from 10-19-13 and 10-27-13, “Sometimes Therapy: Untethering Trauma” Parts I and II respectively. Levine believes trauma is locked in the body and that healing involves marshalling that power that was subverted in the failed attempt to protect oneself. In Wylie’s discussion of Ogden’s work, she shows how a woman who was sexually abused as a child learns to engage in “mock combat” to release the tension built up from years of “pent-up fury” (9). Van der Kolk is a champion of somatic therapy in the transformation of trauma.
This article completely affirms my experience. Through the practice of Breathwork, a form of somatic work developed by Ilse Middendorf, I gained access to the inner experience of my body (interception) after having lived, most of my life, in a land held hostage by the trauma of my infant surgery for pyloric stenosis. On the outside, I looked ok, even normal, but on the inside, I was terrified of the expansion of my own body on inhalation of breath. Would I crack apart? Imagine–afraid of one’s own breath! I was still that little baby breathing as shallowly as possible to avoid pain and rupture of my stitches. Somatic work enabled me to enter the forbidden land little by little, gaining confidence in small steps.
Perhaps what most excites me about Wylie’s essay is her portrayal of van der Kolk–a traditional psychiatrist and researcher, who by virtue of an open heart and mind, was won over by the successes of the emerging field of somatic therapy in the healing of trauma, eventually becoming a strong advocate. I think it’s time that modern psychiatry and psychology realize that for many trauma survivors, the body is a prison, and that the development of body awareness and sensitization are keys to freedom. Finding home in our bodies is what we need support to do.