The Real Story about PTSD- Groundbreaking information, Part I

Every few pages reading Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk’s article “Beyond the Talking Cure,” tears come. He deeply understands this about trauma–our emotions, our bodies, and our senses are what record trauma, not our verbal, left brain, Broca’s area selves. I’ve chosen some quotes from the first half of the article to whet your appetite. Do click on the link if this material speaks to you and you want to learn more. While his article is heavily documented, it is reader-friendly and will help deepen your understanding of post-traumatic stress (PTS) and the ways one can integrate trauma so as to soothe, soften, and ultimately transform the symptoms. Here are some quotes from the first half of the piece that really speak to me and capture, in my mind, the essence of his message.

” . . . after having been traumatized, particular emotions, images, sensations, and muscular reactions related to the trauma may become deeply imprinted on people’s minds and . . . these traumatic imprints seem to be re-experienced without appreciable transformation months, years or even decades after the actual event occurred . . . It is precisely this failure to transform and integrate the sensory imprints associated with the trauma that causes people with PTSD to behave as if they were living in the past” (1).

“The process that prevents memories from becoming ‘processed,’ i.e. integrated within the large conglomeration of one’s autobiographical memory stores, is dissociation–failure to integrate all elements of the experience into a coherent whole” (2).

“The traumatic memories that need to be associated are not the verbal account of the past, but the fragmented sensory or emotional elements of the traumatic experience that are triggered when the person with PTSD is confronted with a sufficient number of sensory or emotional elements that are associated with the trauma . . . Treating PTSD consists, in large part, of helping patients overcome the traumatic imprints that dominate their lives: sensations, emotions and actions that are irrelevant to the demands of the present, but that are triggered by current impressions that keep re-activating old, trauma-based states of mind” (2).

“Today we would argue that subcortical areas of the brain, the primitive parts that are not under conscious control and have no linguistic representation, have a different way of remembering than the higher levels of the brain, located in the prefrontal cortex” (4).

” . . . the basic assumption that finding words to express the facts and feelings associated with traumatic experience can reliably lead to resolution remains to be proven. It might be equally, or more, valid to postulate that performing the actions that would have overcome one’s sense of helplessness at the time that the experience occurred, and giving expression to the sensations associated with the memory of trauma will effectively help people overcome their traumas” (5).

The next post will include quotes from the rest of the article that discuss “how to process trauma so that it is quenched, rather than re-kindled” (9). I can’t wait to share this information with you. It is indeed groundbreaking and may hold the key that will help us find our way to a peaceful and kind relationship with oneself, for many people need relief from PTSD, from survivors of infant surgery to survivors of domestic abuse, child abuse, car accidents, war, rape, child abuse, urban violence, other medical trauma, and other traumas. Hope is good medicine and that’s what van der Kolk’s article offers in large measure.

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6 Responses to The Real Story about PTSD- Groundbreaking information, Part I

  1. Thank you, Wendy, for sharing this part of Van der Kolk’s article. It occurs to me to say that I agree completely with his view that we can’t free ourselves of trauma’s psychosomatic effects until we break through what I would call the “dissociation barrier.” We hold these traumatic memories in a kind of guarded safe, deep in our unconscious minds, trembling in fear that the terrors inside might come out and destroy us. But if handled with care, we can learn how to re-experience the traumas piecemeal over time, assimilating as we go, thus eventually integrating the non-verbal trauma into our conscious minds, learning to live with the past rather than constantly run from it. I find that this process becomes lifelong. The further we go with this effort, the wiser we become, gaining empathy with ourselves and helping our traumatized “inner child of the past” to walk more confidently into the future.

  2. How beautifully stated! Perfect. Yes, it’s not as if one magically heals. When we face our trauma little by little, we gain more and more confidence. As you say, our “inner child of the past” can step forward and become a bigger self in the world and take more risks. Perhaps one never entirely releases the trauma in one’s lifetime. But we become more and more free. We gain empathy for our experiences. We find more inner peace, more friendliness for ourselves. We stop battling within and can rest in understanding. It’s not necessarily an easy path, but to my mind, it’s the only one worth pursuing. I’m so glad we are walking on this path together, Robert, if you don’t mind my putting it this way. I can’t tell you what a relief it is though I would never have wished your hardships on you. Because of your deep understanding, I feel supported and even carried. Thank you.

  3. Another heartfelt “thank you”, Wendy, for bringing us this second post about Dr Bessel van der Kolk’s work and including some key passages. What you have included speaks with clarity and power, and I’ll put the link on my reading list.
    Also a loud “hear, hear! to what Robert wrote above. Indeed, “beautifully stated”.
    I am understanding better how your PTSD has affected you and how you have found and continue to find healing. Your enthusiasm about your growth shines through in what your write. I can also identify with what Robert writes about healing being a piecemeal and lifelong process.
    We live at a wonderful time: for the first time in history we can learn about and understand our trauma and recovery, and share our stories in communities for our own and each’s benefit. So much better than muddling though life with our personal pain in silence and alone.

    • Thank you, Wendy! It is an honor to feel that my words help support and even “carry” you in your healing journey. I don’t have a wide network of friends who “get” the idea that feeling ancient pains is rewarding rather than depressing. I feel supported and carried by you as well, Wendy, because of your understanding of my process. And thank you, Fred, for your support, as well. I hope and believe that this work will in time become more commonly understood than it currently is. I’m so glad I found your website, Wendy! The literature you are finding and sharing is vital for those of us who believe in shining bright lights into the dark caverns of our beginnings.

      • Robert, let’s keep “shining lights into the dark caverns.” Let’s keep encouraging each other. Thanks for appreciating the posts that I create in order to inform folks about some current ideas about trauma I find out about. It gives me a boost to keep sharing.

    • Yes, we are lucky, Fred. I am grateful for the opportunity to share what I know and to have connections with people like yourself, Dr. Rogers (Ian), Dr. Tinnin, Robert, Dean, Ruth R., etc. The Internet has brought a lot of bounty. Through it, we’ve created our own community. Though it is small currently, it is growing. More and more people are finding out about what we are discussing and adding their voices. Also, the findings around the neurobiology of trauma are astounding. Awesome as well are the therapies that are being developed to help people transform trauma. We are truly living in a blessed time, and I’m so glad I made it till now so that I can learn and contribute. I’m so glad we all are a part of the team!

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