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Bessel van der Kolk's What Trauma Does to Your Brain and Body

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Bessel van der Kolk

Big Think

Synopsis of What Trauma Does to Your Brain and Body

"Contrary to popular belief, trauma is extremely common, explains leading psychologist Bessel van der Kolk. We all have jobs, life events, and unpleasant situations causing us daily stress. When your body continues to re-live that stress for days, weeks, months, or even years, that stress changes your brain. Therefore, while trauma stems from an experience, its effects do not end there.

Trauma can make your mind and body behave as if they are in constant fight-or-flight mode. That can make it difficult to stay focused, feel joy, or experience pleasure. Unsurprisingly, trauma can even manifest physically.

It is important to remember that trauma isn’t what happens to you, but how you respond to the traumatic situation. Something that is traumatic for one person may be a minor nuisance for another. Whether something becomes traumatic or not has a great deal to do with who’s around you while you experience that event. Were you alone and scared, or were you comforted by friends and family?"

Speaker Profile

"Bessel van der Kolk is a psychiatrist noted for his research in the area of post-traumatic stress since the 1970s. His work focuses on the interaction of attachment, neurobiology, and developmental aspects of trauma’s effects on people. His major publication, Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, talks about how the role of trauma in psychiatric illness has changed over the past 20 years.

Dr. van der Kolk is past President of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University Medical School, and Medical Director of the Trauma Center at JRI in Brookline, Massachusetts. He has taught at universities and hospitals across the United States and around the world, including Europe, Africa, Russia, Australia, Israel, and China.

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