Note: This article was originally published in the January 2008 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
The Psychological Impact of Traumatic Life Experiences
By Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD
Studying the psychological impact of traumatic life experiences helps to clarify many issues of human suffering. The legacy of traumatic experiences, particularly in childhood, is expressed in bodily reactions such as chronic physical discomfort and illness, unmodulated emotions, and failure to fully, physically and mentally, engage in the present. In order to gain a sense of control over one's physical reactions, it is necessary to mobilize the body. We must physically come to terms with the remnants of fear and defensiveness lodged in our physical reality; otherwise, the imprints of the past may permanently determine whether we feel at home in our bodies and whether we can be open to and learn from experience.
Mainstream therapy helps us by providing insight into the origins of our misery, often in the context of an understanding and supportive relationship. This understanding and support can give people the courage to face previously intolerable realities and give voice to what had felt unspeakable. Working with bodily states is relatively new to Western psychology. In contrast, many cultures around the world have ancient traditions, such as yoga and tai chi, that emphasize working with bodily states in order to affect the mind. These body-oriented methods hold in common the notion that, in order to change, people need to have physical experiences that directly contradict past feelings of helplessness, frustration and terror.
Neuroscientific research shows little connection between the various brain centers involved in understanding, planning and emotion; we simply are not capable of understanding our way out of our feelings. In fact, our logical selves tend to run behind our emotional urges, and function primarily to rationalize our loves and hates. Psychological conflicts, while often having origins in the past, become rooted in our internal sensations, which have become blunted, exaggerated or "stuck."
Hence, the process of psychological change involves regaining a healthy relationship with our internal feeling states. In contrast to understanding, paying close attention to one's internal life - the flow of physical sensations, feelings, internal images and patterns of thought - can make an enormous difference in how we feel and act.
Areas in the conscious mind that convey the sense of being in touch with oneself and one's bodily states (the medial prefrontal cortex and insula) are linked to the brain's emotional center (the amygdala) and arousal centers and, finally, to the hormonal and muscular output centers. In this way, working with deep sensations and feeling has the potential to achieve a sense of internal equilibrium and balance. Only after being able to quiet and master one's inner physical experiences does one regain the capacity to use speech and language to convey, in detail, feelings and memories.
About the Author
Bessel A. van der Kolk, Clinical Consultant for The Meadows and Mellody House, is one of the world's foremost authorities in the area of post-traumatic stress and related phenomena. His research work has ranged from the psychobiology of trauma to traumatic memory, and from the effectiveness of EMDR to the effects of trauma on human development. He is a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and medical director of the Trauma Center in Boston, a Community Practice site of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. The Trauma Center is one of the preeminent training sites in the country for psychologists and psychiatrists specializing in the treatment of traumatized children and adults.