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Want to Really Understand Trauma? Read Bessel van der Kolk's New Book

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Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is my new hero. In The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, he delivers  the latest research and understanding about trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in an emotionally sensitive way, making the information understandable and accessible to all readers. Kudos! I can’t stop highlighting passages and nodding my head over his profound and clear insights.

I am trauma survivor. At twenty-six days old in 1952, I had a stomach surgery without anesthesia for pyloric stenosis (blockage) at a time when complete separation from parents was required and isolation of the patient mandatory due to ideas about germ theory. After two weeks in the hospital, without pain control I might add, my mother took me home.

My body certainly kept the score through this trauma. To this day, I deal with panic from triggers, such as round bright lights overhead and people wearing masks. I experience bouts of dissociation, where I hold my breath and constrict my chest, throat, and face. I often wake up scared and tense and hurting from back, neck and jaw pain.

At this point in my life, EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, one of the therapies that Dr. van der Kolk believes in, is helping me greatly. Because he spoke positively about this therapy in a radio interview that I heard and because friends have spoken to me about the help they received, I found a therapist to work with who practices this technique. Dr. van der Kolk believes that in the healing of trauma, talk therapy alone is limited. I completely concur. In fact, it was through Middendorf Breath Work, a somatic bodywork, that I began to recognize and understand the depth to which early infant trauma was still holding me hostage at age fifty-two.

In my mid-twenties, I’d worked with a somatically and emotionally oriented therapist who helped me resolve some of my early trauma. In fact, I was able to finish college and become a tenured community college teacher due to the stability I gained. I’ve also been in a committed, intimate relationship for the past thirty-four years. I attribute this stability to my work with the therapist Lee O. Johnson in the mid 1970s.

But now, so much more is known about trauma and post-traumatic stress. When I was in treatment with Lee, the diagnosis PTSD did not even exist. Because of new knowledge in neurobiology and practitioners like Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Dr. Peter Levine, Dr. Robert Scaer, and the late Dr. Louis Tinnin, to name a few of the more well-known professionals, somatic, art therapies, and techniques such as EMDR are being used to treat post-traumatic stress in conjunction with other more traditional modes.

This post was going to be a series of quotes from The Body Keeps the Score so that readers could get a flavor of his work. I got carried away, however, in a different direction. Here’s one though to inspire: “We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive. These changes explain why traumatized individuals become hypervigilant to threat at the expense of spontaneously engaging in their day-to-day lives. They also help us understand why traumatized people keep repeating the same problems and have such trouble learning from experience. We now know that their behaviors are not the result of moral failings or signs of lack of willpower or bad character–they are caused by actual changes in the brain” (3). Click on this link to read a New York Times Magazine article, which discusses more about Dr. van der Kolk’s work.

5 Responses to Want to Really Understand Trauma? Read Bessel van der Kolk's New Book

  1. Wendy, thank you for getting a little distracted here! With your other readers I’m sure you’ll be telling us more about your EMDR therapy experience in good time.
    But for now, I greatly value your clear overview of your life journey of trauma, discovery and therapy thus far. How wonderful that our knowledge and understanding of trauma have grown so much since you and I were damaged (along with countless others) by the infant surgery of an earlier era. And even better, that this new comprehension of how our bodies and minds are affected has in turn raised up for us new “heroes”, people with the necessary training and skills who have developed techniques and therapy programs that respond to the new discoveries and enable us to live a fulfilled and productive life and to some fair extent heal.
    Thank you too for sharing your experience in workshops and online; I look forward to learning about lots more “aha” moments and “aah!” days.

  2. Thank you for discussing this book and the work of the foremost — and unwavering — trauma specialist in the world. This readable and affordable book is the most amazing single title published on PTSD in the past ten years. I am so thankful for Dr. van der Kolk. I urge anyone suffering from the effects of trauma to read this book. Every page offers new insight, understanding, and empathy, and the book offers very real and attainable methods of treatment. If you’re angry but don’t know why, if you’re anxious but are unsure of the reason, if talk therapy hasn’t healed your wounds alone — read this book. You’re not alone.

    • We are SO on the same page (pun intended!). Not only do I obviously heartily agree with you, I am just getting ready to publish some profound quotes from Dr. Van der Kolk’s new book. Thank you so much for your passionate and affirming comment. I’m just a bit past the middle of the book, and it’s just as exciting a read as when I began!

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