by Support on 29. Jan, 2009 in Best Of The Cutting Edge
Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2005 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
Dealing With One's Inner Sensations to Move Beyond Trauma
by Bessel van der Kolk
Studying the psychological impacts of traumatic life experiences helps to clarify many issues of human suffering. Understanding how the brain fails to integrate traumatic memories (Chapter VIII: Trauma and Memory. In van der Kolk BA, McFarlane AC & Meisaeth L: Traumatic Stress: the Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body and Society. NY Guilford Press, 1996.) helps explain the nightmares and flashbacks in combat veterans and rape victims or why a woman who was sexually molested might experience sexual contact as if she were raped, even when she loves her partner.
As trauma became better understood it provided a way to make sense of why many people with deep-seated problems were chronically anxious and afraid, aggressive or manipulative. Many of them had childhood histories of trauma. They are vulnerable to continue to behave as if their lives are in danger and expect to be hurt at the least provocation, including by the very people who care for them. The legacy of having been physically trapped and unable to protect oneself 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.
Unfortunately, friends, family and even therapists may fall into the trap of giving advice to those who were traumatized. This advice, of course, rarely works; because frozen bodies cannot generate their own action patterns, nor can they follow the suggestions of others. "Helpful" interventions all too often end up in "irrational" explosions of frustrated advisees or "guiding lights."
In order to gain a sense of control over one's physical reactions, it is necessary to mobilize the body. Unless we physically come to terms with the remnants of fear and defensiveness lodged in our physical reality, the imprints of the past may permanently alter whether we feel at home in our bodies or are paralyzed in our capacity to be open to and learn from new experiences.
Mainstream therapy helps people by providing insight into the origins of our misery, often in the context of an understanding and supportive relationship. When done correctly, such understanding and support can give people the courage to face previously intolerable realities and help give voice to what was felt to be unspeakable.
Working with bodily states is relatively recent in western psychology. In contrast, most cultures around the world have ancient traditions, such as yoga and tai ch'i, that emphasize working with bodily states to affect the mind. What unites these various body-oriented methods is the common notion that in order to change, people need to have physical experiences that directly contradict past feelings of helplessness, frustration and terror.
Neuroscience research shows that there is 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- whether they are feelings of love, fear, deprivation or hate. In fact, our logical selves tend to run behind our emotional urges and may primarily function to rationalize our loves and hates. Our minds are much like talk show hosts on television who are trying to explain the day's events at day's end.
Psychological conflicts, while often having origins in the past, are now rooted in our self-relationships and to our internal sensations that have become blunted, exaggerated or "stuck." Hence, the process of psychological change fundamentally concerns regaining a healthy relationship with our internal feeling states. In contrast to understanding, paying close attention to one's internal life and the flow of physical sensations, feelings, internal images and patterns of thought (in short, working with the "felt sense" - the ebb and flow of inner experiences) can make an enormous difference in the ways we feel and act.
The pathway in the brain from the conscious self to the emotions (i.e., the only way that people can effectively influence how they feel) links 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), to the emotional centers of the brain (centering on the amygdale), to the arousal centers and, finally, to the hormonal and muscular output centers. What this means is that working with deep sensations and feelings has the potential of attaining a sense of internal equilibrium and balance.
Only after being able to quiet down and master one's inner physical experiences do people regain the capacity to use speech and language to convey to others in detail what they feel and "remember". Some choose to then tell the story of what has happened, while others just go on with their lives.
About the Author
Bessel A. van der Kolk, MC Clinical Consultant for The Meadows and Mellody House, is on 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, and from the effectiveness of EMDR to to the effects of trauma on human development.