Imagine the helplessness of being unable to distinguish painful past experiences from present ones. According to Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, 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.
In the following video clip, van der Kolk explains the pitfalls of traditional cognitive-behavioral exposure therapy. Having a client confront trauma until they become desensitized just numbs them overall, he says. Instead, he recommends therapists guide clients through a more mindful, embodied process of reintegrating the original trauma.
Bessel van der Kolk, MD, is the medical director of The Trauma Center in Boston, professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School, and codirector of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress Complex Trauma Network. His newest book is The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
As van der Kolk explains, desensitization leads to a global lack of feelings and engagement. When you get desensitized from your trauma, you also get desensitized to joy, pleasure, engagement, and everything else going on. The therapist's task, he says, is therefore 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." Through this approach, he adds, clients can discover their natural resources to regulate themselves when life gets challenging.
Did you enjoy this video? Check out Bessel's "Trauma: Retreats and Advances" in our latest issue, where he describes the evolution of trauma treatment as well as up-and-coming interventions, or "Outside the Box," by Mary Jo Barrett, where she explains the importance of including families in trauma treatment. You might also enjoy this clip from Peter Levine, in which he shares a personal story about working through trauma.