This Conversation Will Change How You Think About Trauma

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From The New York Times/The Ezra Klein Show: “‘Trauma is much more than a story about something that happened long ago,’ writes Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. ‘The emotions and physical sensations that were imprinted during the trauma are experienced not as memories but as disruptive physical reactions in the present.’

Van der Kolk, a psychiatrist by training, has been a pioneer in trauma research for decades now and leads the Trauma Research Foundation. His 2014 book, The Body Keeps the Score, quickly became a touchstone on the topic. And although the book was first released seven years ago, it now sits at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, a testament to the state of our national psyche.

The core argument of the book is that traumatic experiences — everything from sexual assault and incest to emotional and physical abuse — become embedded in the older, more primal parts of our brain that don’t have access to conscious awareness. And that means two things simultaneously. First, that trauma lodges in the body. We carry a physical imprint of our psychic wounds. The body keeps the score. But — and I found this more revelatory — the mind hides the score. It obscures the memories, or convinces us our victimization was our fault, or covers the event in shame so we don’t discuss it.

There’s a lot in this conversation. We discuss the lived experience of trauma, the relationship between the mind and the body, the differences between our ‘experiencing’ and ‘autobiographical’ selves, why van der Kolk believes human language is both a ‘miracle’ and a ‘tyranny,’ unconventional treatments for trauma from E.M.D.R. and yoga to psychedelics and theater, how societies can manage collective trauma like 9/11 and Covid-19, the shortcomings of America’s ‘post-alcoholic’ approach to dealing with psychic suffering, how to navigate the often complex relationships with the traumatized people we know and love, and much more.”

Interview →

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8 COMMENTS

  1. The lingering emotional/psychological pain from traumatic events is very formidable yet invisibly confined to inside one’s head. It is solitarily suffered, unlike an openly visible physical disability or condition, such as paralysis, a missing limb or eye, all of which tends to elicit sympathy/empathy from others. It can make every day a mental ordeal, unless the turmoil is treated with some form of medicating, either prescribed or illicit. Any resultant addiction is likely his/her attempt at silencing the anguish of PTSD symptoms through substance abuse.

    My own experience has revealed that notable high-scoring adverse childhood experience trauma resulting from a highly sensitive and low self-confidence introverted existence, amplified by an accompanying autism spectrum disorder, can readily lead an adolescent to a substance-abuse/self-medicating disorder. It’s what I consider to be a perfect-storm condition with which I greatly struggled yet of which I was not aware until I was a half-century old.

    To this day, it still goes untreated, except for medication, which only really benefits Big Pharma’s bloated profit margin. And I get angered when I receive a strong suggestion (from anywhere, via the media or another person, however well-intentioned) to ‘get therapy’, as though anyone can access it, regardless of the $150-$200+ per hour they charge. For me, even worse is the fact that payment is for a product/transaction for which there’s only one party that is always a winner — the therapist’s bank account.

  2. This effect has been known about at least since the publication of Dianetics in 1950. We are only still struggling with this today because of where it leads if you follow the clues. Psychiatry and most of psychology do not want to go there, so have been thoroughly ignoring the “subconscious mind” since Freud (or whoever came earlier) started talking about it.

    If you follow the clues, by the way, you discover that the earliest traumas tend to be the most deeply buried and thus hold the most power over a person. By 1950 is was known that these extended to fetal trauma, perhaps even including conception. Pulling that string led to the discovery of “past deaths” (hey, dying can be pretty traumatic!) which then led to the discovery of past lives, the immortal spirit, and its long and bizarre history.

    We could be discussing traumas that occurred millions of years ago if we just opened the door and followed that hallway to where it leads. But I have yet to see one person on this forum willing to take that step. Why not?

  3. Hmmm…the interview isn’t available from the link unless you pay for a subscription…

    I have heard of this book for a long time having been connected to the d.i.d. world for the last 14 years. And I have a lot of respect for Bessel in general. And I admit that I have NOT read his book: I’ve only read repeated reviews of it. So I will admit I am ignorant of the intricacies of his argument, but after 14 years of helping my wife heal the trauma she experienced 50 years ago, and as we untangled the dissociation that kept so much of it hidden from her…I just haven’t found our experience to validate Bessel’s core premise that ‘the body keeps the score.’

    Yes, we have found the trauma to be more and more deeply hidden: the last 2 girls to join us outside were both mute at first, and I had to help each of them connect to the ability to vocalize themselves. The last girl to join us was very ‘primitive’ even more than the other one. I have often wondered if she controlled the ‘primal fear instinct’ in each of us…but she still was a conscious part of my wife.

    The thing I would suggest to readers to remember about the ‘experts’ is their knowledge is very wide but not correspondingly deep. I would love to have the wide knowledge the experts have: to study of the general trends, to be aware of the basics of an issue, but they simply can’t have a corresponding depth.

    For example, one of the past presidents of ISSTD stated on her website that she had over 40,000 hours helping people with d.i.d. When I read that statement over 5 years ago, I did a quick tabulation of the time I have spent helping my wife heal, helping her untangle all the dissociation, and I was already way over 40,000 hours at that point. Moreover, I know of no therapists who have complete access to their patients’ system like I do with my wife’s. My wife’s counselor only interacted with 4 or 5 of the girls on a regular basis, one time a week. I interact with all 8 girls on a daily basis. In fact, at this point, I interact with all of my wife, all 8 girls, more than my wife’s host does, the one most people would suggest is ‘my wife.’ I keep her and the other 6 girls informed of what goes on when girl #8 is out with me, as we all desperately try to get the last one connected to the larger group of 7 so they no longer ‘lose’ most of their days to her.

    So, my experience is a mile deep, but only one person wide. Whereas Bessel’s experience is probably just the opposite: he has experience a mile wide but not very deep. He, nor the other ‘experts’ simply can’t understand what I or other SO’s/spouses do as we walk with our hurting loved ones in the depths of their pain and dissociation, 24/7 in all aspects of life, not just the safe confines of the therapist’s office.

    I’ve ‘argued’ for 14 years all over the internet to bring those in my position into the discussion on a wider basis, but thus far I have found few willing to listen. I do understand many SO’s and spouses are part of the problem rather than part of the solution, but I know many of us aren’t.
    Sincerely,
    Sam

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