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.



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

  1. Thank you Wendy, for another post on Dr Bessel van der Kolk and the presentation of (interview about) his research, teaching and therapy programs. I can see just from the few brief quotations that his therapy will very much meet the needs of those who need somatic healing from trauma and to feel safe again after what they have experienced. It is so good that you and I are each dealing with different areas of healing which many people need after medical conditions of infancy such as pyloric stenosis, and after the way these maladies were often dealt with in the past.
    Thanks too for the caution: I will need to set aside a few hours to work my way through the van der Kolk material you have recommended recently, but I want to know more of and benefit from his knowledge and insight.

  2. It will be well worth the time spent. Yes, with our coming at the issue from two sides, hopefully more people will be touched.

  3. Thank you, Wendy, for reviewing the ‘On Being’ interview’. Tippett has a wonderful show. It’s refreshing to see a connection of the mind to the body, including the ability of the body to heal the mind (I may be reading into your words a bit here, but I think I have it right).
    I underwent cataract surgery (on a single eye) at the age of about 1 yr around 1963-1964. Little was said about the surgery to me, except that it happened, and that my parents were deeply worried.
    I don’t have any direct evidence of being awake in surgery (anyone who could answer that is dead) or any memory of surgery, before or after. Yet, I show most of the behaviors, listed in one of your other posts, of PTSD from infant surgery. The most prominent is a physical feeling of dread and threat from other people that is, oddly enough, most prominent when I am alone. Face-to-face, I am not fearful of any of the people who inspire this great dread, and this contradiction has been immensely confusing for me, from kindergarten to now. My body is constantly sending signals to distrust, while my conscious brain is saying “No-no-no, this co-worker/student/neighbor/boss is OK”.
    Recently, I started doing Trauma Release Exercises (from David Berceli), and in my release ‘shakings’, I have lots of downward punching motions with my arms, twisting motions with my upper body, and kicking motions with my legs. I believe this therapy is helping me be more aware of my body’s fear responses. I am also working with a therapist.
    Sorry for the long-ish post. I wanted to get my story out there, as it may help others. And, I wanted to plug “On Being” for NPR listeners!

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