Whether trauma is caused by short-term war experience or long-term chronic abuse, using the body and not just the mind to reverse trauma's impact is the key to healing, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk told a standing-room-only crowd at the South End library last month. Reading from his 2014 New York Times Science bestseller, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, the long-term South End resident, and founder and medical director of he Trauma Center in Brookline, MA, explained that trauma "reorganizes" the brain of patients and their perceptions in such a way that they remain trapped in a world of fear. To recover and live in reality again they need to learn that the danger has passed, van der Kolk said, and why he places the body at the center of his recovery therapy. "Bessel is not just important because of his having trained so many people in his field, but also to the field of psychiatry in general, and child development, in particular," said Ed Tronick, director of the Child Development Center at UMass, Boston, who introduced his colleague. "He flipped on its head what was known about trauma, insisting that the body be the focus of therapy, not just the mind. He used radical ways to treat it, centered on dance, yoga, theatre, neuro-physiology and other biological ways. He has been on the cutting edge of understanding trauma and child development for 30 years." Amid audience chuckles, Tronick added, “Well, maybe not always on the cutting edge but, when he became cutting edge, he stayed cutting edge.”
Research shows that in brain scans of traumatized people the entire frontal lobe of the participating patients goes 'off-line' when they are re-living their trauma, and that the primitive animal part of the brain takes over, van der Kolk said. "That ‘nether region’ is what has to be calmed down" for recovery to occur, he explained. Using innovative therapies like dancing, yoga and theatre helps the brain get 'rewired' and re-activates the system that has shut down due to a trauma or abuse. He applauds practicing yoga because it makes you concentrate on your physical self, he said but added, "the tango might even be better than yoga because you have to know the other person’s moves." Having traveled widely or many years, van der Kolk said Nelson Mandela once told him he engaged in boxing because "it is a complex sort of a dance where you have to read the other's expressions, and gage your own, every second," Mandela had said. Van der Kolk agreed with several members of the audience who brought up that martial arts could be similarly beneficial.
During the Q & A, van der Kolk called the pervasive violence in this country 'a cultural issue' , and suggested that policy changes like lowering incarceration rates, offering no-cost day care, and providing home visits to young parents would reduce the incidence of violence in the family. “When I travel abroad, I am often asked by policy makers for advice based on the latest American research in the field," he commented. "We do great research here, but the implementation takes place in other countries.”