Bessel van der Kolk is the founder of the Trauma Center in Brookline (Massachussetts). He has devoted a good part of his career to researching how children and adults adapt to traumatic situations and to evaluate which treatments and techniques can be the most effective in reversing the effects of post-traumatic stress.
And it is that the trauma, beyond the event itself, leaves a trace that conditions the person's life. As a defense mechanism, people who have experienced a trauma dissociate themselves from the body and its sensations. And if they do not heal the effects of that trauma they can not trust in life or in others. This is what van Der Kolk, who has also been a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and practiced as a professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine.
-Why did you become interested and investigate because of the trauma and its effects?
-It has long fascinated me how people who have lived a trauma tend to get trapped in their response schemes and this is so dramatic that it led me to be interested in the effect of social problems such as abuse and abuse in the brain. From the beginning, I have clearly seen that trauma shapes the brain in some way, and as a result, I have dedicated myself to investigating this relationship.
-What is your definition of trauma?
-The trauma is an experience that surpasses the survival mechanisms of the person as well as their faculties to react to what happens to them. For that person life will never be the same after that experience. And in the face of trauma, the brain changes at different levels to readjust itself so that the nervous system becomes alert to face danger and adapt to deal with the unpredictability of a part of life. It is a complex process in which the brain realizes that the world it knew has changed.
"Before the trauma, the brain changes to different levels to readjust."
– Is what happens to a person who has suffered abuse?
-Yes. But when the people who hurt you are the people with whom you have a link, on which your safety and stability depend, then the trauma and its impact has a profound effect at multiple levels, both in the way you can take intimacy as in the relationship they end up developing with people who have power and their way of taking life. Although each person can have an answer, in all of them the abuse makes a dent and has a profound effect affecting their stability and the way in which they face dangerous situations.
-How does the trauma affect daily life?
-The person with a trauma sees his daily life affected in the sense of how he feels. You may feel scared or feel the need to dominate the people around you. You need to feel that you are in control because you can not manage the fact of feeling helpless before others. And this affects and determines your relationships.
"Suffering abuse in childhood can affect relationships throughout life."
– How does this impact on relationships?
-They are very anxious people who tend to get angry and easily scared because the trauma makes them feel that they are hurt or damaged frequently by those around them and by what happens. They live in a state of hypervigilance and this constant state of alert confines them to a state of isolation.
-Why does this effect occur?
-It is your defense mechanism to ward off feelings of terror, but by not connecting with your bodily sensations you feel dead inside. It is the way they have found to keep emotions under control and to feel safe before a world that frightens them. We have all been related to people who are under the influence of a trauma or who have suffered a trauma.
– Can I have a trauma without knowing it?
-Many traumatized people are not aware of it. The original trauma blocks a part of them. Therefore, many traumatized people say: "It did not matter, this had no impact on me …" They try to deny the way it has affected them, but those effects emerge in relationships and in the way they relate to others .
"Many traumatized people are not aware of it."
-How can we suspect that we are traumatized without knowing it?
-They are people who tend to explode easily because inside they harbor a lot of fear and anger, emotions that they express with their exaggerated reactions creating relational conflicts. Issues that for others do not matter, they overcome them. That is why the most problematic aspect of trauma is its long-term effects and how it is directly related to depressive states.
– Does the body have a fundamental role in trauma?
-We are our body and our body is what we are. Our body tells us what is safe and what is dangerous, what is good and what is bad for us, what produces pain and what is a source of pleasure. The trauma is experienced through physical sensations.
-How do you tell us that we are marked by trauma?
-When you have suffered a trauma your body has sensations of terror, overwhelming anguish … All this you live in your body and to deal with these sensations people with a trauma are disconnected from him to try not to feel anything physically. But when you do this you also block any feeling of pleasure. Therefore, you tend to feel depressed, because you have learned to suppress any sensation that comes from your body is painful or pleasurable.
"When you have suffered a trauma you block sensations and you are unable to feel pleasure."
– In what way can this situation be reversed?
-The people with trauma have their senses muffled and therefore stop being completely alive. When our senses are muffled, we stop feeling totally alive. Trauma victims can not recover until they become familiar and accept the sensations of their body.
– And yoga can be a way to deal with the trauma and unlock this defense mechanism?
-Yes. Yoga is a technique that helps to heal the trauma. Our western culture is not a great help to heal the trauma, instead China has developed Chi Kung and Taichi which are also a good way to treat trauma while in India it is yoga and in Africa the drums.
-What other techniques help people with post-traumatic stress?
-The cultures have developed different techniques. For example, singing in a group – as in a choir – is also very healing. But both in Europe and in the United States we are more oriented towards drinking. We are an alcoholic culture. If you feel bad, you get a beer. And it is quite dangerous because there is a high correlation between trauma and excessive consumption of alcohol and drugs to block the sensations that emerge from the trauma.
"There is a high correlation between trauma and excessive consumption of alcohol and drugs."
– Can meditation help to heal the trauma?
-Yes. Meditation is very useful but its practice can be very turbulent for a traumatized person since the feelings of fear are present in it all the time and they try to do everything possible to get away from them and their sensations. So to ask a traumatized person to remain silent and quiet is to ask for something very difficult. However, meditation activates some brain circuits that in the end are very necessary to reestablish control over yourself.
«Meditation activates brain circuits that help to regain control».
-Why does he talk about regaining control?
-The traumatic reaction is always an involuntary response. They are answers that can lead you to feel ashamed of yourself, that's why traumatized people often feel self-hate and can not stand themselves because they can not predict how they will react. Then, to treat the trauma it is necessary to orient the work so that people feel that they regain control of their body and their reactions. In a safe environment your body has to experience new sensations and experiences that profoundly and instinctively contradict the impotence, anger or collapse that results from the trauma.
–Would you say that current psychiatry is making good approaches when dealing with trauma?
-I think that current psychiatry has lost its way. It has ceased to be a means to help heal people who have suffered a trauma from the moment they have decided to use a pill to make it go away. As a psychopharmacologist I have carried out many studies on the effect of the medications in the trauma and what I have found is that they repress the symptoms that the trauma triggers so they can help in some way, but they do not resolve the trauma.
«Medication is not able to resolve the trauma».
-There are psychologists who do not understand this …
-Because they are currently trained in what I call a post-alcoholic message: "You do not have to do anything for yourself". The most serious thing from my point of view is that most psychologists and psychiatrists do not even know what really helps people. In the United States a lot of money is devoted to research, but if you work with everything that already exists and we know, the world could be a better place.
– Currently what research is being devoted?
-Now my research focuses on how neurofeedback, psychodrama techniques or the use of psychedelics (ecstasy and psilocybin, among others) can help people to build new mental structures.
Bessel van der Kolk is the author of "The body bears the account" (Editorial Eleftheria). Collect revolutionary research on how trauma produces a series of changes in the nervous system and brain that can accompany people throughout their lives, even without being aware of it.