Vital Importance Of Understanding The Role Of The Body In Trauma Therapy

ptsd-holistic-treatment

Probably the best known expert working in the field of understanding how the body and our experience of the crippling effects of severe trauma are inextricably linked is former Harvard Professor, Bessel van der Kolk.

Bessel van der Kolk stresses the crucial importance of treating the effects of severe trauma in a HOLISTIC manner ; in other words, therapeutic approaches for trauma need to not only focus on the physical brain (e.g. by treating the individual with psychoactive medications) and the mind (e.g. by providing cognitive therapy), but also by providing therapy for  the BODY (i.e. somatic interventions).

Bessel van der Kolk, who has devoted the majority of his adult life to the study of the effects of trauma and ways of treating it, contends that what lies at the heart of trauma-related conditions (e.g. PTSD and complex PTSD) is a THWARTED ‘FIGHT OR FLIGHT’ RESPONSE.

What Is Meant By A Thwarted ‘Fight Or Flight’ Response’?

When the fight/flight response is activated as a result of threat, a massive surge of extra energy is stimulated in the body. However, when this response is thwarted, and, therefore, is unable to run its course, and is left incomplete, the extra energy that has been generated is not ‘burned off’ and remains ‘trapped’ in the nervous system.

Therefore, although the threat has passed, the extra energy that remains locked in the nervous system, in latent form, even though no real threat continues to exist.

What Is The Effect Upon The Person Of This ‘Thwarted Fight/Flight’ Response And Of The Resultant, Trapped, Excess Energy?

There are two possible responses :

  1. HYPERVIGILANCE / EXTREME REACTIVITY / HYPERAROUSAL
  2. DISSOCIATION / CHRONIC FREEZE RESPONSE

Let’s look at each of these in turn :

HYPERVIGILANCE / EXTREME REACTIVITY / HYPERAROUSAL :

This trapped, excess energy can make the nervous system highly volatile and reactive, as well as cause the individual to experience chronic feelings of intense anxiety, hypervigilance, and a sense of mental and physical pressure to discharge it in response to the slightest of provocations.

S/he, therefore , may become prone to  over-react, greatly, to perceived threats (even though, objectively speaking, these so-called ‘threats’ pose no danger and would not alarm, or create much anxiety in, an ‘ordinary’ person), such as by becoming extremely angry / aggressive or intensely afraid (causing ‘flight’ type behavior).

In other words, the trapped energy is liable to ‘leak out’ at the smallest opportunity, triggering inappropriate, maladaptive and dysfunctional behaviors.

DISSOCIATION / CHRONIC FREEZE RESPONSE :

However, if the individual cannot dispel the trapped energy effectively through ‘fight/flight responses (e.g. such a situation may be true of an abused child who lives in a household in which s/he is helpless and can neither ‘fight back’ nor run away and escape the threatening environment), s/he may enter a dissociative / chronic freeze state.

fight-flight-freeze

WHAT KIND OF THERAPIES MAY EFFECTIVELY HELP TO ADDRESS THESE PHYSIOLOGICALLY-BASED PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH TRAUMA?

A traumatized  individual may cycle between periods of hypervigilance and dissociation (as described above) and may seek to ameliorate his/her condition, and to gain a sense of temporary release, by indulging in dangerous and risky activities (e.g. reckless driving), thus stimulating adrenaline and cortisol production and ‘burning off’ some of the trapped energy or by attempting to blot out his/her pain through the use of alcohol and/or drugs. This, of course, is not a good, long-term strategy.

Bessel van der Kolk asserts that it is imperative that the traumatized individual escapes such a cycle by being helped to live more fully in the present and in the ‘here and now’ and to understand, on a deep level, that the danger which traumatized him/her is now over and that s/he is now safe.

Unfortunately, whilst the body fails to release its trapped energy, keeping the person highly susceptible to his/her far too easily triggered,  fight/flight, trauma-related responses (i.e. hypervigilance and dissociation), this is not possible, Bessel van der Kolk contends.

In connection with his theories, Bessel van der Kolk emphasizes the importance of treating the effects of trauma holistically (i.e. treating the mind, brain and body – see above). Therapies he recommends include :

 

RESOURCES :

RELATED ARTICLE :

Human Stress :: Why We Should Envy Gazelles

RELATED BOOK (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) by Bessel van der Kolk :

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

 

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About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Psychologist, researcher and educationalist.

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