The 76th Annual Friends Conference on Religion and Psychology
Memorial Day Weekend – May 25 – May 28, 2018
BESSEL VAN DER KOLK, M.D.
with Joe Wheldon and Noel Wight
TRAUMA: THE BRAIN, THE BODY, AND COMPASSIONATE WITNESS
This year’s Plenary Speaker is psychiatrist and New York Times best-selling author Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D. His book, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma”, is a courageous exploration of how trauma—whether from war-time experience, sexual abuse, corporal punishment, or even early parental verbal assaults—registers deep in the body and emotional brain. Such trauma gets imprinted neurologically at a distance from one’s rational self. Dr van der Kolk explains that chronic depression, rage, anger, panic attacks, suicidal tendencies—and even self-abuse or numbing through overeating, alcohol, and drugs—can be symptoms of deep, painful past injury.
In his early work with Vietnam vets, Bessel van der Kolk learned firsthand how difficult it was to “right” a mind knocked out of kilter by the severe trauma of battle and the experience of wartime atrocities. Even those vets who were able to tell their stories in a therapeutic setting often found that their lives continued to be hijacked by uncontrollable emotions and behavior. Recovery proved elusive.
Neuroscience offers a partial explanation for this phenonmena. Brain scans show that trauma affects the brain at a deep “instinctual” level. The limbic brain triggers the release of the fight/flight hormones adrenalin and cortisol: The heart beats faster; breathing speeds up; blood pressure rises, and increased sugar is rushed to the muscles. When an individual is fighting or fleeing to survive or is paralyzed by fear, activity in the prefrontal cortex—the part of our brain that moderates social behavior—all but ceases. When trauma survivors encounter sounds, images, or even smells associated with the original trauma later in life, the deeper animal brain again responds, prompting a rush of cortisol and adrenaline that can cause uncontrollable emotions such as, rage, panic, anxiety, and depression. Again, brain scans show that when faced with trauma, the part of the brain that normally allows us to “calmly and objectively hover over our thoughts, feelings, and emotions and to decide how to respond”—that is, the pre-frontal cortex—fails to control behavior.
“Trauma is not just an event in the past, it is an imprint left by experience on mind, brain, and body which affects how we survive,” Dr. van der Kolk writes. “After trauma, the world is experienced with a different nervous system.” Overused neurological circuits become default patterns in the brain. In an effort to suppress the inner chaos, the trauma victim often tries to remain in control at the expense of being present in life. He or she is unable to experience spontaneity, to play, and is often closed off to new experience.
What does this have to do with the interplay of psychology and spiritual growth, the traditional interests of the Friends Conference on Religion and Psychology? How do the effects of early trauma on our emotional health affect the clarity we need to love one another? When trauma damages our inherent sense of feeling safe in our bodies, are there ways to recover?
The science and experience of researchers and therapists suggest that healing from trauma requires more than a rational understanding of the early injury. To reach deep brain neurological patterns resulting from trauma, practitioners use therapies that employ touch, rhythmic movement, simple play, and a focus on breathing. Crucial to the healing process in these approaches is a therapist who is fully empathetic and nonjudgmental—what Quakers might call a “loving witness.”
Dr. van der Kolk has explored a number of therapeutic methods which help trauma victims get in touch with the deep neural pathways where trauma is imprinted. Eye Movement Desensitivation Reprocessing (EMDR) uses bilateral stimulation—side to side eye movements—to create new neural pathways that connect the traumatized self to the rational being. Somatic therapy is a gentle hands-on therapy which works with imagery rather than ideas, by making gentle physical contact through clothing; Feldenkrais uses slow repetitive, mindful movements to create new mind/body sensibility and awareness. Trauma sensitive yoga starts in the higher brain levels, but uses breath to reach the deeper central nervous system patterns and create new connections between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic brain. Neurofeedback applies electrodes to the skull to stimulate the kind of brain waves known to counter terror or fear. Internal Family Systems therapy uses role play in a contained group setting to re-enact the trauma with nonjudgmental, supportive witnesses.
On Saturday afternoon, FCRP will welcome Joe Weldon and Noel Wight, co-directors of the Somatic Therapy Center in Philadelphia, who will introduce us to transformative touch therapy, which they have spent three decades teaching and administering. Somatic Therapy is a gentle, non-intrusive hands-on technique that helps individuals connect what is happening in their bodies to what is happening in their lives. This deep connection supports the creation of new synapses in the body and mind, opening the way to healing from physical and emotional pain. Joe and Noel’s lectures and experiential demonstrations throughout the rest of the weekend will allow conference participants to see Bessel van der Kolk’s theory of healing from trauma in action.
Bessel van der Kolk is the medical director of the Trauma Research Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Boston and professor of psychiatry at Boston University. He has published extensively in professional journals on the subject of trauma’s interface with dissociative problems, borderline personality issues, self-mutilation, cognitive development, and memory, and on the psychobiology of trauma. His best-selling book, “The Body Keeps the Score” draws on more than four decades of research on trauma and clinical experience with its victims. Dr. van der Kolk travels internationally to present workshops that explore the neurological seat of trauma and the healing process.
Joe Wheldon is a licensed clinical psychologist and master somatic therapist. He is co-founder, with his wife Noel, of the Somatic Therapy Center in Philadelphia. He is a deeply experienced guide and teacher of the art of transformative touch, which focuses on the innate wisdom of the body. Joe has taught at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work and Villanova University.
Noel Wightis also a master somatic therapist and co-founder of the Somatic Therapy Center in Philadelphia. She studied extensively with Ilana Rubenfeld, the founder of the Rubenfeld Synergy Method, and has taught with Ilana Rubenfeld, at Omega Institute, and at Esalen. Her extensive background and experience teaching and administering transformative touch daily confirms her belief that the body is a wise ally, guide, and key resource on the path to healing from trauma and becoming whole. Noel has a master’s degree in integrative psychology.