Imagine the helplessness of being unable to distinguish painful past experiences from present ones. According to trauma expert and author Bessel van der Kolk, this is what happens when a traumatic memory is triggered. Old emotional responses bubble up even when the current trigger has little to do with the original trauma.
Here, van der Kolk explains the pitfalls of using traditional cognitive-behavioral exposure therapy to treat trauma, and the approach he recommends instead.
Having a client confront trauma until they become desensitized just numbs them overall, van der Kolk says. Instead, he recommends therapists guide them through a more mindful, embodied process of reintegrating the original trauma.
The therapist’s task, he says, is to “help traumatized clients realize that Yes, this happened to me years ago, but not today; today is a different day, and I’m no longer the person I was back then.”
Bessel van der Kolk
Bessel A. Van der Kolk, M.D., is a clinician, researcher and teacher in the area of post-traumatic stress. His work integrates developmental, neurobiological, psychodynamic and interpersonal aspects of the impact of trauma and its treatment. Dr. van der Kolk and his various collaborators have published extensively on the impact of trauma on development, such as dissociative problems, borderline personality and self-mutilation, cognitive development, memory, and the psychobiology of trauma. He has published over 150 peer reviewed scientific articles on such diverse topics as neuroimaging, self-injury, memory, neurofeedback, Developmental Trauma, yoga, theater and EMDR.
He is founder of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts and president of the Trauma Research Foundation, which promotes clinical, scientific and educational projects. His 2014 #1 New York Times best seller, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Treatment of Trauma, transforms our understanding of traumatic stress, revealing how it literally rearranges the brain’s wiring – specifically areas dedicated to pleasure, engagement, control, and trust. He shows how these areas can be reactivated through innovative treatments including neurofeedback, somatically based therapies, EMDR, psychodrama, play, yoga, and other therapies.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.