Bessel van der Kolk

Dutch psychiatrist, researcher and educator

Bessel van der Kolk (born 1943) is a psychiatrist, author, researcher and educator who was born in the Netherlands and is now based in Boston, USA. Since the 1970s his research has been in the area of post-traumatic stress.

Quotes

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  • We define ‘trauma’ as an event outside the normal human veins of experience. At least one-third of couples, globally, engage in physical violence. The number of kids who get abused and abandoned is just staggering. Domestic violence, staggering. Rapes, staggering. Psychiatry is completely out to lunch and just doesn’t see this.
  • There’s very good literature [on shellshock] from 1919 and 1920. But then there was pushback, people saying: ‘You’re just a bunch of cowards.’ The assault on people who had been traumatised has been relentless – to this day, almost. You’re not allowed to tell the truth about the horrible things that people do to each other.
  • It is striking how many times people carve out a piece of exceptional intelligence – exceptional creativity – that allows them to go on. Isaac Newton was one of the most abused, abandoned children ever … And then he invented mathematics.
  • Something has always really puzzled me. I was born in 1943 in the Netherlands. A very large number of kids of my generation died of starvation, and I was a very sickly child, but I’ve felt no trace of that sickly child. The last time I took MDMA, I experienced what that child went through back then. It was very painful, actually. But the main effect was a very deep sense of self-compassion. I felt so much love for that child who I once was, who had to go through all that sickness, who had a hard time breathing, who was hungry.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014)

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  • Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.” (p.97)
  • As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.
  • Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.
  • As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.
  • We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.
  • The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.
  • It takes enormous trust and courage to allow yourself to remember.
  • Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.
  • If your parents’ faces never lit up when they looked at you, it’s hard to know what it feels like to be loved and cherished. If you come from an incomprehensible world filled with secrecy and fear, it’s almost impossible to find the words to express what you have endured. If you grew up unwanted and ignored, it is a major challenge to develop a visceral sense of agency and self-worth.
  • Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives. Our imagination enables us to leave our routine everyday existence by fantasizing about travel, food, sex, falling in love, or having the last word—all the things that make life interesting. Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities—it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true. It fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasure, and enriches our most intimate relationships.
  • A major challenge in recovering from trauma remains being able to achieve a state of total relaxation and safe surrender.
  • The essence of trauma is that it is overwhelming, unbelievable, and unbearable. Each patient demands that we suspend our sense of what is normal and accept that we are dealing with a dual reality: the reality of a relatively secure and predictable present that lives side by side with a ruinous, ever-present past.
  • In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.
  • One thing is certain: Yelling at someone who is already out of control can only lead to further dysregulation.
  • Mindfulness not only makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity but can also actively steer us in the right direction for self-care.
  • Sadly, our educational system, as well as many of the methods that profess to treat trauma, tend to bypass this emotional-engagement system and focus instead on recruiting the cognitive capacities of the mind. Despite the well-documented effects of anger, fear, and anxiety on the ability to reason, many programs continue to ignore the need to engage the safety system of the brain before trying to promote new ways of thinking. The last things that should be cut from school schedules are chorus, physical education, recess, and anything else involving movement, play, and joyful engagement.
  • How many mental health problems, from drug addiction to self-injurious behavior, start as attempts to cope with the unbearable physical pain of our emotions? If Darwin was right, the solution requires finding ways to help people alter the inner sensory landscape of their bodies. Until recently, this bidirectional communication between body and mind was largely ignored by Western science, even as it had long been central to traditional healing practices in many other parts of the world, notably in India and China. Today it is transforming our understanding of trauma and recovery.
  • No matter how much insight and understanding we develop, the rational brain is basically impotent to talk the emotional brain out of its own reality.
  • The more you stay focused on your breathing, the more you will benefit, particularly if you pay attention until the very end of the out breath and then wait a moment before you inhale again. As you continue to breathe and notice the air moving in and out of your lungs you may think about the role that oxygen plays in nourishing your body and bathing your tissues with the energy you need to feel alive and engaged.
  • In addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, all kids need to learn self-awareness, self-regulation, and communication as part of their core curriculum. Just as we teach history and geography, we need to teach children how their brains and bodies work. For adults and children alike, being in control of ourselves requires becoming familiar with our inner world and accurately identifying what scares, upsets, or delights us.
  • Change begins when we learn to "own" our emotional brains. That means learning to observe and tolerate the heartbreaking and gut-wrenching sensations that register misery and humiliation.
  • Because drugs have become so profitable, major medical journals rarely publish studies on nondrug treatments of mental health problems.31 Practitioners who explore treatments are typically marginalized as “alternative.” Studies of nondrug treatments are rarely funded unless they involve so-called manualized protocols, where patients and therapists go through narrowly prescribed sequences that allow little fine-tuning to individual patients’ needs. Mainstream medicine is firmly committed to a better life through chemistry, and the fact that we can actually change our own physiology and inner equilibrium by means other than drugs is rarely considered.
  • Scared animals return home, regardless of whether home is safe or frightening.
  • The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind — of your self. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed. For most people this involves (1) finding a way to become calm and focused, (2) learning to maintain that calm in response to images, thoughts, sounds, or physical sensations that remind you of the past, (3) finding a way to be fully alive in the present and engaged with the people around you, (4) not having to keep secrets from yourself, including secrets about the ways that you have managed to survive.
  • For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety. No doctor can write a prescription for friendship and love: These are complex and hard-earned capacities. You don't need a history of trauma to feel self-conscious and even panicked at a party with strangers – but trauma can turn the whole world into a gathering of aliens.
  • Managing your terror all by yourself gives rise to another set of problems: dissociation, despair, addictions, a chronic sense of panic, and relationships that are marked by alienation, disconnections, and explosions. Patients with these histories rarely make the connection between what has happened to them a long time ago and how they currently feel and behave. Everything just seems unmanageable.
  • Our increasing use of drugs to treat these conditions doesn’t address the real issues: What are these patients trying to cope with? What are their internal or external resources? How do they calm themselves down? Do they have caring relationships with their bodies, and what do they do to cultivate a physical sense of power, vitality, and relaxation? Do they have dynamic interactions with other people? Who really knows them, loves them, and cares about them? Whom can they count on when they’re scared, when their babies are ill, or when they are sick themselves? Are they members of a community, and do they play vital roles in the lives of the people around them? What specific skills do they need to focus, pay attention, and make choices? Do they have a sense of purpose? What are they good at? How can we help them feel in charge of their lives?

Quotes about

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  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk is a kind of bible for C-PTSD sufferers. Though I have real reservations about van der Kolk's work because he is an alleged abuser himself, the book was a crucial first text in helping me understand the basics of C-PTSD. (p 80)
    • Stephanie Foo What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma (2022)
  • In The Body Keeps the Score, van der Kolk writes about how talk therapy can be useless for those whom “traumatic events are almost impossible to put into words.”
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