The Body Keeps the Score

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In February 2020, Byron Clinic ran a workshop called The Body Keeps the Score: Trauma, Attachment and Neuroscience: Embodied self-awareness and self- regulation presented by Bessel van der Kolk M.D. and supported by somatic educator Licia Sky BFA. Bessel van der Kolk is a leading Dutch psychiatrist based in Boston, researcher and teacher in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder also known as PTSD. Bessel’s interest lies in how adults and children adapt to traumatic experiences and in researching and developing effective treatments for traumatic stress.

This professional development opportunity saw Bessel share research findings in neuroscience and attachment. Bessel focused on differentiating between trauma and attachment. Trauma being “getting stuck with a broken alarm system” and disrupted attachment was referred to as “no soothing or synchrony”. Bessel shared how trauma and attachment require different approaches i.e. the focus of trauma is to access, tolerate and process memories and attachment requires emotion regulation and self-leadership interventions. Bessel recommended to explore attachment initially, then to address the trauma. The workshop went on to state that people develop an identity around their trauma and that all trauma is a disruption of interpersonal experiences. Memory cells cause the developmental brain to over-interpret events or danger. Bessel recommended, “Doing something practical to ensure safety” and to “reinstate a sense of purpose”.

Further, Bessel delivered a range of tips and facts he discovered throughout his research studies. For example, connecting how the past affects an individual in the present, can have a dramatic effect on dealing with trauma. Even when fully relaxed in a safe environment, trauma has been shown to cause constant muscle tension and is indicative of the flight, fight or freeze response. This means that traumatised people do not return to their original state of being but instead their body is in a chronic state of survival mode. This highlights the need for more tactile therapies/activities such as yoga. Bessel encourages those to find comfort in touch and to learn how to feel safe using touch.

Over two days, Licia Sky demonstrated and practiced meditation and invited attendees to participate in guided movement activities and during this passed on how exploration of mindful movement and safe touch can become a vital part to healing from trauma. Bessel highlighted the powerful connection between the body and our emotions for example, “When standing in an angry posture; one is unable to feel depressed.” Bessel explained how we can change our emotions by becoming aware of our body posture and using our bodies including our facial muscles to change our emotional responses.

Traumatised individuals often experience intense feelings and sensations related to their trauma experience however, may have difficulty in articulating this as a story and this can become very overwhelming. Bessel explained that often his participants could not remember what happened to them but “acting out becomes their way of remembering”. Neglect prevents part of the brain from developing that understands kindness and compassion. Bessel shared that childhood trauma and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) studies found 87% of subjects with BPD showed histories of severe childhood abuse/neglect starting prior to age 7.

Bessel van Der Kolk revealed a range of effective treatments for PTSD:

1. Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) with 59% success rate without primarily relying on the narrative, relationships or drugs and is more effective in adults with trauma without attachment issues and is less effective in children
2. Tapping assists those in maintaining a safe physiological state and has a therapeutic affect that gently and safely brings the individual back to the present moment and uses acupressure points to allow people to enter their window of tolerance (WOT)
3. Psychodrama
4. Pharmacology in particular Prozac
5. Yoga and Mindfulness practice e.g. to regulate breathing
6. Meditation to reduce arousal and for re-activating the prefrontal cortex using imagination
7. Psychotherapy
8. Neurofeedback (re-wiring neural circuits using brainwaves and frequencies) is effective for relief from chronic pain, panic, mood disorders and ADHD and improvements in frontal lobe changes are significant in executive functioning, planning and decision making and mental flexibility
9. Hypnosis

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