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Bessel van der Kolk on the radio: A Must-Hear Interview

Click on this link to hear a fantastic interview with Bessel van der Kolk (choose the edited version) about trauma and the need for treatment that reconnects a trauma survivor with his or her body. He is interviewed by Krista Tippett on the program “On Being.” I resonated with everything van der Kolk had to say about this issue. He is a wonderfully humane man with an openness of heart and mind and a very large spirit. He is also observant, brilliant, and refreshingly clear and down to earth in talking about this complex subject.

Most impressive is his openness to somatic healing, or practices that engage the body, and the fact that he studies these practices himself before recommending them to others. He spoke of yoga particularly and Rolfing, a deep tissue work begun by Ida Rolf, and mentioned Feldenkrais and cranio-sacral work.  He stresses the importance of trauma survivors being able to feel themselves–literally feel their bodies and be mindful of them.

In order to give you a flavor of the interview, here are some of van der Kolk’s phrases that I copied down: –It’s important that trauma survivors “regain ownership over [themselves].” You must “feel the life inside yourself.” “Western culture is astoundingly disembodied.” He spoke of western culture being post-alcoholic, implying that if a swig of liquor was used to soothe trauma in Europe, now we in America take a pill. Van der Kolk encourages self-regulation, not external regulation.

Van der Kolk discussed EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which involves moving one’s eyes from side to side, thus diminishing the trauma. He believes that EMDR is the best treatment for someone who has undergone a single disabling trauma, for example, a car crash or assault. He also believes that mindfulness meditation is very helpful for trauma survivors, for it “activates parts of the brain that help you be in charge of yourself.”

I cried when he spoke of the fact that trauma is created when people are tied down or immobilized during a trauma. I saw myself as a little baby tied to the operating table for the pyloric stenosis surgery at one month old, and I felt compassion for so many trauma survivors I know who’ve been immobilized as babies and children and therefore, disabled. Stress hormones flood humans who are in threatening situations in order to provide the strength to move and to have agency over their circumstances. According to van der Kolk, stress hormones are necessary in helping us to free ourselves and are responsible for our survival as a species; however, when people are immobilized and unable to act, the stress hormones’ job isn’t completed. In my understanding, they can then wreak havoc on our systems.

Finally, van der Kolk discusses the fact that trauma survivors do not feel safe in their bodies and in the world, not just cognitively, but in their actual feeling and experience of life. He believes that we have to help traumatized people feel that they are safe. It’s one thing to know it; it’s quite another to feel it. Somatic therapies help with this.

The interview lasts about an hour, so get a cup of tea or coffee and settle down into a favorite chair. You can’t pause the interview–it will just go back to the beginning. Keep your notebook nearby. Inevitably, there’ll be a lot of things you’ll want to review and remember.