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Gentle Approach to Trauma Can Be Effective in Therapy

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August 18, 2014
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Boston Evening Therapy Content

Gentle Approach to Trauma Can Be Effective in TherapySo many people - some famous, some struggling quietly - are searching for ways to deal with the insidious after-effects of rape, domestic violence, death of a loved one, war and public events like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing.

Gentle Approach to Trauma

A leading expert in the treatment of trauma, Bessel Van der Kolk, suggests that helping clients heal from traumatic experiences requires one overriding perspective – gentleness. Van der Kolk points to wisdom from W.H. Auden:

“Truth, like love and sleep, resents approaches that are too intense.”

“Trauma isn’t something that lives outside clients. The job for therapists is to help them feel safe inside themselves,” said Van der Kolk in an interview with Psychotherapy Networker. “You need to bear in mind that trauma is not the story of something that happened back then —it’s the current imprint of that pain, horror and fear living inside people.”

The earlier trauma occurs, the more impact it has on the developing mind and brain, said Van der Kolk.

A poem by Emily Dickenson suggests the intensity of trauma, just below a fragile surface:

There is a pain — so utter —
It swallows substance up —
Then covers the Abyss with Trance —
So Memory can step
Around — across — opon it …

“There are many examples of reading poems like, ‘There is a pain — so utter…’ as evidence that Dickinson’s poetry was a response, if not exactly to child abuse, then to some kind of personal psychic trauma in her life,” said Robert Howard in his piece ‘Out of Sound – Out of Sight: Emily Dickenson and the Poetics of Trauma” in PsyArt journal. Howard points to a poem where Dickenson calls to “slant” the truth to make it bearable:

 Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise…

…The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

“A certain distancing from a traumatic truth is necessary, almost as an act of self-preservation,” said Howard.

That distance echoes Van der Kolk’s message to tread gently with trauma, which extends to survivors of public trauma, like 9/11.

“Helping people feel a connection to other people after a trauma is helpful, but triggering memories of horrendous things is not,” said Van der Kolk, who suggests survivors might benefit just from being together and doing something like watching a football game.

Van der Kolk also suggests physical activity, massage and yoga can be helpful in treatment for trauma - and even that must begin gently.


Howes, Ryan, When Talking Isn’t Enough: Easing Trauma’s Lingering Shock, Psychotherapy Networker, July/August 2014, Washington, D.C.

Howard, Robert, “Out of Sound - Out of Sight: Emily Dickenson and the Poetics of Trauma,” PsyArt: A hyperlink journal for the psychological study of the arts, Dec. 15, 2005.


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