VIDEO: Learning to Let Go of Trauma

Bessel van der Kolk on the Power of Creating a Narrative

Bessel van der Kolk

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.


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. He's the author of The Body Keeps the Score.

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."

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Did you enjoy this video? Check out van der Kolk's article "Trauma: Retreats and Advances"  or "Outside the Box," by Mary Jo Barrett. You might also enjoy this clip from Peter Levine, in which he shares a personal story about working through trauma.

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Topic: Trauma

Tags: Bessel van der Kolk | emotion | exposure therapy | fighting | mindful | therapist | therapists | therapy | trauma treatment | traumatic | Traumatic memory | chronic trauma

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3 Comments

Saturday, September 7, 2019 5:30:08 PM | posted by Michael McCarthy
Why anyone listens to this disgraced quack, van der Kolk, who submits junk science research, was fired from Harvard after being deposed in lawsuits, fired from JRI for bullying and traumatizing female staff and broke up families due to his idiotic "repressed memory" nonsense is beyond me.

Saturday, September 7, 2019 3:18:51 PM | posted by Jeffrey Von Glahn
I fail to see any difference between "traditional cognitive-behavioral exposure therapy" and the approach presented by van der Kolk. Want a radical, new idea? It's a fundamental re-conceptualization of how catharsis has been historically understood. And on top of that, it provides a criterion for when an emotional release is therapeutic and when it is not; i.e., re-traumatizing. Interested? See PN, May-June 2012, or my later articles on PsycINFO. Search; Jeffrey Von Glahn. A note about exposure - imaginal exposure, that is. If the therapist follows the client's lead/experiencing, that establishes the above criterion; i.e. the unforced activation of the client's emotional experiencing as it occurs coincident with the client receiving sufficient support for what he/she had been experiencing. Forced activation of emotional experiencing (I'm sure experienced therapists know what that means) is not therapeutic as it is provoked and overloads the natural pain processing mechanisms. The person may (almost certainly) get quite emotional but it's not healing even though the client may say he/she "feels better" at the end. All that's happened is that the highly elevated vital signs of a forced sympathetic ANS reaction have gone back to normal.

Thursday, August 21, 2014 3:43:11 PM | posted by Hoyt Roberson
Just based on this clip, I think there is some strawman work going on here. There is a difference between psychological numbing and habituation it seems to me.One is pathological and the other healthy adjustment to an event. They may look the same from outside, but they are not equal.

It is routine in my experience that exposure approaches allow both a realization that the reminders of the trauma are not the trauma itself, and that the negative self talk often present is adjusted to be less onerous to the individual's psyche. In short, integration is the goal of exposure treatments for trauma and habituation is one of the tools which allow for that to occur.