Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s new research on trauma treatment

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This year I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a Dutch psychiatrist, author and educator who was the keynote presenter at the 10th annual conference on Behavioral Health and Addictive Disorders in Newport Beach. I really enjoy going to these conferences and wrote a separate article on my experience attending them.

Pantea Rahimian and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk standing side by side at conference
Pantea Rahimian & Dr. Bessel van der Kolk at USJT Conference 2019

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s presentation was on New Advances in Trauma Treatment, which is a critical topic for all mental health professionals.

“Trauma is like a splinter in the mind. If you can’t move it, it’s stuck and integrated in your mind.”

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

As a psychiatrist and educator, he has been studying post-traumatic stress since the early 1970’s. He is very passionate about this field and wrote the book The Body Keeps Score, that is a must read for anyone who is in the mental health profession.

What I loved about his presentation this year was understanding how trauma actually changes the brain.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explained that people who have experienced trauma have their sense of self and reality change. They have a difficult time relating to the present and think the following “I can not relate to other people. I have a hard time loving. I feel angry all the time. No one is safe with me.”

He also described that traumatization occurs when people get stuck in the their past because they can not relate to their present and their trauma dominates all aspects of their life.

What’s trauma all about?

According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.

Disaster zone with two firefighters

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk believes that trauma negatively alters the reward system in your brain.

He mentioned that the traumatized person may not feel anything from the rewards that others feel, for example a baby smiling, and that trauma is a somatic response so your body keeps reacting, even after the traumatic event has ended.

For example, you may think that you have healed and recovered from your trauma, but all of a sudden you smell lavender and you find yourself right back in the room when you were participating in the lavender ceremony for your loved one who died 5 years ago.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk said that sometimes after being exposed to a traumatic experience, people feel immobilized and have a hard time finding purpose and pleasure in their current life, and focus, instead, on their traumatic past.

“Being a traumatized person, you are chronically out of tune with people around you, and over time, people start avoiding you.”

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

I remember the mother of one of my clients who was severely traumatized after her son was assaulted. She showed signs and symptoms of complex PTSD. I referred her to a psychiatrist and psychotherapist who had expertise in treating PTSD.

Despite my interventions and referrals, she was immobilized by what had happened. Her son’s assault shaped and defined her new identity. She lost focus of her responsibilities of caring for her children, lost her job, housing and started drinking heavily. Within two years of the traumatic event, she was in a substance abuse treatment center and had permanently lost custody of her children.

Learning to move on from trauma

How do you help someone who has been traumatized?

According to general research in the field of trauma treatment, to help a traumatized person, you need to help their brain change.

Clip art of human brain

But how do you change the mind and brain so you can open them up to new things and be more present?

“Good luck with that because we don’t learn [how to do that] in school. Nobody wants to remember or acknowledge trauma. It’s too horrendous to put into words. Trauma is about horror. It’s very hard to deal with it.”

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk mentioned that after you have been traumatized, you live in a different universe. He mentioned that the difference between what feels good for a non-traumatized versus traumatized person is that something profound has changed in their brain.

Silhouette of a woman standing in a forest

To help alter the brain and move away from the trauma, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk shared that research is pointing towards the effective use of EMDR, psychedelics, yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.

Unlike traditional cognitive behavioral therapy, the new evidence based therapeutic interventions like EMDR, alter the neural pathways in the brain, and significantly help the traumatized person move away from the past, and into the present.

Research on trauma treatment

The current research being conducted on trauma treatment is indicating that people who are traumatized get stuck in that traumatized place.

After a traumatic experience, you feel danger, inadequacy, shame, and have feelings about yourself that you are a failure. The new treatments help you explore a larger reality, and allow you to understand that there’s more to your life than that small reality that you inhibit

Dr. Van der Kolk asserted that it is vital that people access self-compassion, so any modality being used like mindfulness and yoga, are only useful if it is accompanied with self-compassion.

Psychedelics like MDMA (used in the safe context of a therapeutic relationship), allow your clients to feel self-compassion, thereby tolerating the horror of their trauma.

Heart and brain sitting balanced on a seesaw

I know from personal experience that EMDR, yoga, meditation and mindfulness have been integral in helping me process my trauma.

What is amazing about EMDR, is that the bilateral stimulation changes the filtering system in the brain. It helps you own your experience and you access the part of your brain’s self-awareness. EMDR helps get people to state of self-compassion, and changes the brain with sense of time and ownership.

Wrap-up

I had the amazing opportunity to meet Dr. Bessel van der Kolk this year at the USJT 10th Annual Conference on Behavioral Health and Addiction Treatment in Newport Beach. He’s an engaging, funny and captivating speaker who is truly passionate about the work he does.

I learned that trauma treatment is not about traditional talk therapy, but rather helping the person alter their brain and neural pathways so they can begin to have more purpose, feeling and engagement in the present.

To do this, the research is pointing towards different interventions and modalities like EMDR, yoga, mindfulness, meditation and psychedelics. These treatments help the person experience self-compassion as they access the horror of the trauma they have experienced.

Engaging in these interventions in a safe therapeutic context, can positively shape and help change the person’s life, so they can move on from their trauma and learn to be more fully present in their life.

What experiences have you had providing or receiving treatment for trauma? What interventions or modalities worked well and what did you find less helpful? Please share your stories and comments below.

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Comments

4 Responses

  1. Hey Pantea, do you know of any scholarship type opportunities for attending one of his conferences? I would love to attend one of these days.

    1. Hi Brianna the best way to find out about scholarships is to contact the conference host(s). Typically scholarships are offered for students. I have seen a few conferences that offer scholarships for non-students and the only criteria is to write an essay explaining why you want to go and why it’s a financial hardship. My experience with conferences hosted by USJT are that they are very affordable. Tuition for 3 days is only $415 which is very affordable because of the number of CEU’s they are providing. If you’re simply interested in attending and don’t need the CEU’s, you can offer to volunteer and you get a discounted rate or can possibly attend for free. I will make sure to post something if I find anything relevant for you and others who are interested. Thanks for your comment!

  2. This post is packed with great information, and I hope to learn more about each one of the therapies you mentioned. Will you be writing more about them?

    1. Hey Marianne thank you for your feedback. Yes I plan on writing more about different evidence based therapeutic modalities as I have found them to be useful and effective in my work as an LCSW.

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