Dutch Psychiatrist and Pioneering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Researcher
Bessel van der Kolk
Dutch Psychiatrist and Pioneering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Researcher
Pat Ogden and Peter Levine have each developed powerful body-based therapies, sensorimotor psychotherapy29 and somatic experiencing
That morning I realized I would probably spend the rest of my professional life trying to unravel the mysteries of trauma. How do horrific experiences cause people to become hopelessly stuck in the past? What happens in people?s minds and brains that keeps them frozen, trapped in a place they desperately wish to escape? Why
The more people try to push away and ignore internal warning signs, the more likely they are to take over and leave them bewildered, confused, and ashamed. People who cannot comfortably notice what is going on inside become vulnerable to respond to any sensory shift either by shutting down or by going into a panic ? they develop a fear of fear itself.
Trauma really does confront you with the best and the worst. You see the horrendous things that people do to each other, but you also see resiliency, the power of love, the power of caring, the power of commitment, the power of commitment to oneself, the knowledge that there are things that are larger than our individual survival. And in some ways, I don't think you can appreciate the glory of life unless you also know the dark side of life
What there is too much emphasis on is the capacity of the cognitive rational brain to conquer our irrational survival brain. Neuroscience has really helped us understand that you can?t talk yourself out of being in love, or being angry, or hating particular people because these are not rational processes, and reason has only very limited capacities to override these more primitive survival issues. And so, you need to not rely on reason, you need rely on mastery of your body, safety of your body, finding peace in your body.
People have a range of capacities to deal with overwhelming experience. Some people, some kids particularly, are able to disappear into a fantasy world, to dissociate, to pretend like it isnt happening, and are able to go on with their lives. And sometimes it comes back to haunt them.
The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communication is the royal road to emotion regulation, this demands a radical shift in our therapeutic assumptions.
The more you stay focused on your breathing, the more you will benefit, particularly if you pay attention until the very end of the out breath and then wait a moment before you inhale again. As you continue to breathe and notice the air moving in and out of your lungs you may think about the role that oxygen plays in nourishing your body and bathing your tissues with the energy you need to feel alive and engaged.
Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.
What we see is that the parts of the brain that tell people to see clearly and to observe things clearly really get interfered with by trauma and the imprint of trauma is in areas to the brain that really have no access to cognition. So it's in an area called the periaqueductal gray, which has something to do with the sort of total safety of the body. The amygdala, of course, which is sort of a smoke detector, alarm bell system of the brain that's where the trauma lands, and trauma makes that part of the brain hypersensitive or renders it totally insensitive.
People who suffer from flashbacks often organize their lives around trying to protect against them. They may compulsively go to the gym to pump iron (but finding they are never strong enough), numb themselves with drugs, or try to cultivate an illusory sense of control in highly dangerous situations (like motorcycle racing, bungee jumping, or working as an ambulance driver). Constantly fighting unseen dangers is exhausting and leaves them fatigued, depressed, and weary.
The brain-disease model overlooks four fundamental truths: (1) our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being; (2) language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning; (3) we have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through such basic activities as breathing, moving, and touching; and (4) we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive. When we ignore these quintessential dimensions of humanity, we deprive people of ways to heal from trauma and restore their autonomy. Being a patient, rather than a participant in one?s healing process, separates suffering people from their community and alienates them from an inner sense of self.
The most natural way for human beings to calm themselves when they are upset is by clinging to another person. This means that patients who have been physically or sexually violated face a dilemma: They desperately crave touch while simultaneously being terrified of body contact. The mind needs to be reeducated to feel physical sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch. Individuals who lack emotional awareness are able, with practice, to connect their physical sensations to psychological events. Then they can slowly reconnect with themselves.
Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. Most rape victims, combat soldiers, and children who have been molested become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened, and move on. It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability.
When children were hospitalized for treatment of severe burns, the development of PTSD could be predicted by how safe they felt with their mothers.31 The security of their attachment to their mothers predicted the amount of morphine that was required to control their pain?the more secure the attachment, the less painkiller was needed.
Practicing mindfulness calms down the sympathetic nervous system, so that you are less likely to be thrown into fight?or?flight. Learning to observe and tolerate your physical reactions is a prerequisite for safely revisiting the past. If you cannot tolerate what you are feeling right now, opening up the past will only compound the misery and retraumatize you further.
The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind ? of your self. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed. For most people this involves (1) finding a way to become calm and focused, (2) learning to maintain that calm in response to images, thoughts, sounds, or physical sensations that remind you of the past, (3) finding a way to be fully alive in the present and engaged with the people around you, (4) not having to keep secrets from yourself, including secrets about the ways that you have managed to survive.
The natural state of mammals is to be somewhat on guard. However, in order to feel emotionally close to another human being, our defensive system must temporarily shut down. In order to play, mate, and nurture our young, the brain needs to turn off its natural vigilance . . . Many traumatized individuals are too hypervigilant to enjoy the ordinary pleasures that life has to offer, while others are too numb to absorb new experiences ? or to be alert to signs of real danger . . . Many people feel safe as long as they can limit their social contact to superficial conversations, but actual physical contact can trigger intense reactions. However ? achieving any sort of deep intimacy ? a close embrace, sleeping with a mate, and sex ? requires allowing oneself to experience immobilization without fear. It is especially challenging for traumatized people to discern when they are actually safe and to be able to activate their defenses when they are in danger. This requires having experiences that can restore the sense of physical safety.
Traumatized human beings recover in the context of relationships: with families, loved ones, AA meetings, veterans? organizations, religious communities, or professional therapists. The role of those relationships is to provide physical and emotional safety, including safety from feeling shamed, admonished, or judged, and to bolster the courage to tolerate, face, and process the reality of what has happened.
When our senses become muffled, we no longer feel fully alive? In response to the trauma itself, and in coping with the dread that persisted long afterward, these patients had learned to shut down the brain areas that transmit the visceral feelings and emotions that accompany and define terror. Yet in everyday life, those same brain areas are responsible for registering the entire range of emotions and sensations that form the foundation of our self-awareness, our sense of who we are. What we witnessed here was a tragic adaptation: In an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive.
Prior to the advent of brain, there was no color and no sound in the universe, nor was there any flavor or aroma and probably little sense and no feeling or emotion. Before brains the universe was also free of pain and anxiety. ?Roger Sperry1
The contrast with the scans of the eighteen chronic PTSD patients with severe early-life trauma was startling. There was almost no activation of any of the self-sensing areas of the brain: The MPFC, the anterior cingulate, the parietal cortex, and the insula did not light up at all; the only area that showed a slight activation was the posterior cingulate, which is responsible for basic orientation in space. There could be only one explanation for such results: In response to the trauma itself, and in coping with the dread that persisted long afterward, these patients had learned to shut down the brain areas that transmit the visceral feelings and emotions that accompany and define terror. Yet in everyday life, those same brain areas are responsible for registering the entire range of emotions and sensations that form the foundation of our self-awareness, our sense of who we are. What we witnessed here was a tragic adaptation: In an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive.
The need for attachment never lessens. Most human beings simply cannot tolerate being disengaged from others for any length of time. People who cannot connect through work, friendships, or family usually find other ways of bonding, as through illnesses, lawsuits, or family feuds. Anything is preferable to that godforsaken sense of irrelevance and alienation.
Traumatized people are often afraid of feeling. It is not so much the perpetrators (who, hopefully, are no longer around to hurt them) but their own physical sensations that now are the enemy. Apprehension about being hijacked by uncomfortable sensations keeps the body frozen and the mind shut. Even though the trauma is a thing of the past, the emotional brain keeps generating sensations that make the sufferer feel scared and helpless. It?s not surprising that so many trauma survivors are compulsive eaters and drinkers, shun making love, and avoid many social activities: Their sensory world is largely off limits.
When words fail, haunting images capture the experience and return as nightmares and flashbacks. In contrast to the deactivation of Broca?s area, another region, Brodmann?s area 19, lit up in our participants. This is a region in the visual cortex that registers images when they first enter the brain. We were surprised to see brain activation in this area so long after the original experience of the trauma. Under ordinary conditions raw images registered in area 19 are rapidly diffused to other brain areas that interpret the meaning of what has been seen. Once again, we were witnessing a brain region rekindled as if the trauma were actually occurring.