Becoming Part of a Larger Whole

An Interview with Bessel van der Kolk

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., is a leading expert on trauma and a psychiatrist noted for his research in the area of post-traumatic stress. On April 29 – May 2, he will be co-leading an experiential workshop at the Garrison Institute that will explore the use of music, theater, movement and writing in recovering from traumatic stress. We recently spoke with him to discuss how these activities can help people heal from trauma.

What does singing and dancing with other people do to the brain?

Our brains are sculpted in the context of our interactions with the people around us. We are made to be in sync with the people around us by picking up on their nuances, what upsets them, and what makes them happy. The whole purpose of our brain is to make us part of a large synchronous network of human beings. Basically all mental illness has to do with your being out of sync with your surroundings. And it’s not really about words and language; it’s about picking up on the rhythm of others.

So syncing with those around us happens primarily in a bodily way and isn’t something that happens through conversation?

Conversations are physical things. Your tone of voice, the music you make together, the way you move your bodies together. If I make that movie where people are speaking Hindi, you’ll have no trouble distinguishing between the people enjoying each other and those who aren’t. You don’t pick up one this by what people say, but by how people say it.

Our culture is so disembodied that we don’t notice those things. I enjoy looking around me and observing other people’s interactions. I can know the status of two people’s relationship by observing the way they move together, how they interrupt each other, and how much their faces light up. One person says something and suddenly the other person raises their eyebrow. Their bodies move back and forth. We’re always dancing with each other.

What does this insight—that we connect to others primarily through the body—have to do with trauma?

Our brain scans of traumatized people show that, as you go into your trauma, the speech center of your brain shuts down. Of course, our vernacular shows that we get that. You’re dumbfounded or you’re struck speechless with terror. That’s when the whole cognitive part of the brain actually shuts down and you start behaving like it. It’s not that you think, “Oh, I’m feeling just like I did when I was molested as a kid,” but you start behaving like a molested kid.

But you don’t know that you’re behaving as a molested kid, you just know that you’re behaving like a very frightened, upset person. A therapist might tell you, “Oh, that must be because you were molested as a kid,” but people don’t come to that conclusion by themselves. That’s because the brain is unable to process traumatic events. If that happens often enough, your brain changes and you develop a brain that chronically perceives the world differently and that perceives yourself differently. So the way you move through the world is different. Your day-to-day experience is different from the day-to-day experience of the people around you.

In what specific ways is your day-to-day experience different?

You may not see that snow falling or a raindrop falling from a leaf. You may not hear the sound of a kid laughing. Perhaps you cannot hear the funny thing that’s being said. So you live in a room where the lights are out with feelings of helplessness, fear, and stuff like that, but you don’t know where they are coming from.

When you’re in this state how can singing and dancing help healing begin?

In our society, the first thing that people think of when dealing with misery and trauma is to either talk about your troubles or take a pill to feel better. What this leaves out are the very basics of how people find comfort and connection.

We come into the world as parts of a dyad with our mothers. We begin our lives in synchrony with another organism—in the womb—communicating only through touch, sounds and movements. This unit gradually extends to our families, other caregivers and larger communities. Our earliest interactions shape our brains and our inner maps of ourselves and the world around us. In order to be integral members of the human community we need be in touch with ourselves, while staying in synch with those around us. In order to do that, we need to pick up each others’ rhythms and movements; motivations and intentions.

In my studies of the effects of trauma and neglect in children and adults, it has become increasingly obvious that the central disturbance of trauma consists of a loss of synchronicity and a loss of voice—my own, unique resonant voice that express what is happening in my body—that is viscerally transmitted to those around us.

The foundation of beginning to deal with being out of sync in our world is sensory integration. We teach kids how to jump on trampolines and throw balls with other, so that they can really pick up how we move together. And cultures all around the world have always dealt with trauma by having rituals that are really focused on synchrony in the sense of moving together. In many countries, if you observe what they do after trauma has occurred, what you see is people dancing and moving together in order to reinstate a sense of connection and becoming part of a larger whole.

Since time immemorial, people have sung together in times of great joy and terror. Still today on special occasions you sing with your family. Of course, one of the oldest things in terms of armies is that they sing together. They go to war while singing, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” or “God Save the Queen.” Every culture has its songs that help people be in sync with each other, and provide them with a sense of belonging and closeness. That makes it possible for them to expose themselves to extreme danger.

Kindergarten teachers know the importance of this and they sing with their kids. But then you get to go to first grade and suddenly you have to grow up and you have to talk. But our basic nature is to sing and to move together.

Read more about Bessel’s work and upcoming workshop in “Sing, Act, Dance, Heal: Creative Arts Therapy Can Open New Pathways of Wellness, Connection, and Joy.” 

Resgister for “Trauma: Embodiment, Synchrony and Finding Your Voice” here.

3 comments on “Becoming Part of a Larger Whole”

  1. Donna Bunce MSW says:

    WoW…this is a fantastic description that fits like a glove. I began life with a hardship of not talking. Of having to learn how to speak at the local college from age 3-5. And I remember not singing in school because I had been shamed over and over, not by school but by a family that certainly did not know. I am now age 60 and have spent my life healing. I have come to realize that life is a dance. I cannot line dance, but I can dance freely!!

  2. Thank you for doing this interview with Dr. van der Kolk. Finding ways to actively engage my body as well as connecting to my creative source have been a profound source of complex trauma healing, for me. I encourage fellow trauma survivors to find what works for them. I have closely followed Bessel’s work for a while. I think what most greatly appreciate about him is his natural curiosity and openness. He’s not only a good researcher and profound thinker, he’s also offering an alternative way for survivors to look at themselves and their relationship to life and others. Trauma therapy is a necessary part of trauma recovery because it provides the relational foundation necessary for processing and integration of traumatic experiences. At the same time, I have found as I move further into recovery, connecting with life and joy means learning how to celebrate it. I think the sense of passion for life does emerge when we are present to activities we truly enjoy. This often requires experimentation and trial and error. I recently began participating in a local drum circle. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy the experience… and I had some performance anxiety. But I found the activity very enjoyable. The people in a group were very nice and I felt very welcomed. The facilitator focused on various African beats, chants and included meditation as part of the session. She encouraged both improvisation and individual self expression while also finding ways to connect us to one another. It was an amazing healing experience to me. I’m also doing Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (an evidenced based adjunct therapy treatment developed by David Emerson at the Trauma Center which is also healing as it is reconnecting me to my body and the present. I don’t know if I will take up ecstatic dancing or theatre any time soon. But who knows what the future holds. One must be open to the mysteries of the universe…

    I think creating trauma friendly healing communities is really what needs to develop in our various cities across the United States. Those looking for ways to heal their bodies and their selves need to have resources and options made available to them. There are also many alternative healers that can offer services that can reach survivors in ways that the mental health system cannot these days. There is certainly the demand. There now needs to be the “will” to develop these communities in a systematic and organized fashion.

    I wish the Garrison Institute success with their upcoming workshop with Dr. van der Kolk later in the month. I’m sure it will be great! Best.

  3. Alexa says:

    There is no medicine more potent than touch … and no feeling can compare with the sense of coming home and being at home in our embodied being. My own trauma story began with a two-month premature birth in the late 1950s — incubated in isolation for three months; no bonding with either parent; the protocols of that time forbade touch (other than for medical purposes). I received a hug from a mentor when I was seventeen that changed the course of my life …

    All of these built-in, simple, natural medicines are ways home.

    So grateful for Bessel van der Kolk and other trauma sages who understand that the work requires deep soul and sound presence.

    “Come to your senses,” we say. Come *home* to your senses. Here is where rest and sanity reside.

    Thank you … xo

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