Body awareness gained in yoga can provide trauma patients with a critical foundation that allows them to benefit from exposure therapy, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk said in a Sept. 12 webcast by Psychotherapy Networker, part of a series on “The Trauma Treatment Revolution.”
“A trauma is an event that overwhelms the central nervous system and changes the way the you remember and react to things that remind you of it,” van der Kolk, whose new book is The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
“Trauma is ongoing sensations in your body and emotions in your mind that make you feel as if it’s happening again,” he said.
“Yoga is certainly a great way of learning how to feel safe in the body. The things people in Asia have been doing for thousands of years - breathing, qigong, tai chi, yoga – all the stuff that helps you become friendly with your own body, with your internal experiences – to my mind, these practices are pretty much indispensable for recovering from trauma,” said van der Kolk.
Exposure therapy is at the core of treating PTSD, he said.
“In order to overcome trauma, you have to revisit it and integrate it into your mind and brain and past,” said Van der Kolk. “Here the critical issue is whether you desensitize people to their past or integrate the past.”
In addition, he said inviting a patient not just to tell the story, but to feel the experience of a five-year-old who was abused, for instance, then see it from the current adolescent or adult point of view, helps integrate the trauma and allow the person to be in the present.
Giving voice to internal experience, for instance, in cases of rape or abuse, is critical for healing, he said.
“But I think it only becomes safe to do that after your body is quiet and you know your are no longer being beaten or assaulted,” said van der Kolk.
“The goal of trauma treatment is for a person to become a mindful person who can make choices about how they lead their lives, so they are not being run by their instincts and impulses,” he said. “Being able to be a mindful observer in life is what is increasingly emerging as the most important element of being a healthy human being.”
Psychotherapy Networker, “The Trauma Treatment Revolution,” Sept. 12, 2012