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The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

At AK Child & Family we began in earnest working towards integrating a trauma informed system of care into our services several years ago. I remember in those early days some staff embraced the change while others asked if “this was just another flavor of the month and this too will pass as the next best thing comes along.” What I knew even then was that trauma informed care wasn’t a passing phase, it was here to stay. There is more and more evidence of this at the local, state and national level. What I also knew was that this paradigm shift in our community was going to take some time and that it would certainly be an interesting journey.

As Alaska embraces trauma informed care practices, community training opportunities at the local level have increased. Several staff from our Community Programs, Residential and Training Department took advantage of such an opportunity by attending a training with Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. that was sponsored by the State of Alaska Division of Behavioral Health with support from Governor Parnell’s Choose Respect Initiative.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is an acclaimed educator, researcher and practitioner in the field of trauma. He recently wrote a new book titled The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, that summarizes what he’s learned about trauma, particularly in the past decade, with an emphasis on how trauma impacts our brains, development, relationships and our sense of self. Our bodies and our brains are designed for survival and self protection. We’ve all heard about the fight, flight and freeze responses when faced with danger. As Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explains it, at the core of trauma is a feeling of helplessness, panic, fear and sometimes immobilization. The part of our brain that controls our basic survival functions kicks into heightened alert, scanning the environment for danger. With significant or chronic trauma this state of heightened awareness remains very active and the front part of the brain (frontal lobe) takes a back seat because the brain is so focused on safety and survival. The frontal lobe goes “offline” in a sense. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk believes the goal of treatment is to help people to feel fully alive in the present but that this isn’t possible until the trauma that has been deeply stored in the body can be resolved. He is a strong proponent of trauma work that includes neurofeedback (shown to help quiet down the body’s alarm system and help activate the frontal lobe) and suggests therapeutic activities such as deep breathing, mindful meditation, music, dance, rhythmic drumming, yoga, and theater. Often people that have experienced significant or chronic trauma feel a disconnect from their bodies and therapy coupled with some of the above suggestions can help the mind and body become more in sync thus helping in the recovery process.

I invited staff that attended the training to share their thoughts and received many enthusiastic responses. I wasn’t able to share them all due to volume but here are some.

“Van Der Kolk’s discussion was a good reminder to respond to trauma with a holistic approach. When working with clients, it can be difficult to integrate cognitive understanding with internal emotional turmoil. As mental health professionals it was a good reminder to look at more than intellectual comprehension and to address trauma at a core emotional level.”

“Really reminded me of the importance of staying curious throughout the lifespan and never assuming that's there's just any one right answer to life's complex problems”

“Drove home to me the importance for us as staff at AK Child & Family in helping our students get grounded (regulated) so they can begin their healing work in earnest”
“He spoke poignantly about the importance of life lessons we pass on consciously & unconsciously to the youngest members of our society”

“My focus was on discovering affordable, adaptable therapeutic interventions to introduce to the students and to enhance … our milieu perspective on the effects of trauma.… The understanding that trauma creates biological, physiological, changes in brain and body function is fascinating. We see this daily in our work with kids…. and am working to incorporate breathing techniques into students’ toolboxes of coping skills.”

“More than anything it reinforced the interventions I was already using with the kids and families in therapy.”

“A personal example of how self-care, sense of humor, and finding joy & wonder in the work you do can combat secondary trauma”

“One quote that stuck with me was, 'People drive people crazy…people drive people healthy.' "