Bessel van der Kolk, a world-renowned psychiatrist who has been studying trauma for almost 50 years, became a guest of the second episode of the new season of the podcast “In Simple Words”. He is known to Ukrainian readers as the author of the book “The Body keeps the score. Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma”. This was the first interview of a scientist to the Ukrainian media, where Mark Livin and Sofia Terlez talked with the guest about what helps us get over the traumatic experience and remain resilient even in the most difficult times. 

The season "The Science of Resilience" of the "In Simple Words" podcast is released as part of the initiative of First Lady Olena Zelenska to implement the All-Ukrainian Mental Health Program "How Are You?". The project was initiated in cooperation with the Coordination Center for Mental Health of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, with the support of WHO.

 Photo: besselvanderkolk.com

You can listen to the full conversation on all podcast platforms

According to Bessel van der Kolk, trauma is an experience that leaves a deep sense of helplessness and inability to return to a quality life. A traumatized person cannot switch something in their own consciousness to feel in contact with their body, the people, and the world around them again. In post-traumatic communities that have experienced atrocious prolonged events, people tend to suppress their feelings in order not to feel a thing.

This leads to hopelessness, destroys unity, the opportunity to develop, to live well and meaningfully. This is the risk which is possible for our society, too. Therefore, now, being inside the war-filled reality, we should do our best to continue to feel alive, keep unity and give meaning to our actions. Professor van der Kolk emphasizes that his advice should be treated with a grain of salt, as he is now safe and does not know for sure what will work for us.

Feel connected to the people around you

For many people, the first impulse after the beginning of a full-scale invasion was the desire to immediately help those in dire need and to unite with the view of helping. But when too many terrible events last bitterly long, some may give up, feel helpless, unable to change the situation for the better. We can feel numbness, which, on the one hand, protects us from prolonged, excruciating, unbearable feelings. On the other hand, it only increases our helplessness and isolation from the people around us.

Such loss of hope can be a very dangerous moment in society. Therefore, it is important to continue to do what we can in order to maintain a sense of our own capability, not to stop contact with other people, to take part in joint activities, and to support each other. It is equally important to feel the support and solidarity of people outside Ukraine; it gives hope and strength to continue to live and fight.

Reclaim agency: being the captain of your ship

Not every terrible event leads to psychological trauma. But if a person feels completely helpless and the world around them does not support them, then severe trauma can occur. This is due to the feeling of loss of agency, when we believe that we aren't in power when it comes to our own lives. In a previous interview, the professor emphasizes that trauma is not a story about what happened to us; the essence of trauma is that it deprives us of the opportunity to feel completely alive and responsible for our own sense of self.

We feel incapacitated and stop doing anything to feel better. The small steps that we can now take and filling these steps with meaning can return the sense of agency. First and foremost, it's useful for ourselves — to take care of a baby every day or prepare food for others, volunteer or invest our energy in the conversations about ways to overcome the trauma. This way we feel that we can influence our life and change it. As we continue to do what makes sense, we pass that sense of empowerment on to other people.

Look for examples that inspire and support

In times of great stress, the issue of leadership becomes extremely important. We search for people who can be a good example for us. We search for leaders who will help us engage in activities beneficial for us and those around us, and feel like we are co-creating change. At the same time, it is important for us to see and hear the stories of people who have gone through difficult experiences similar to ours. People who can say, "I know how hard it is for you now, because I felt the same, but I found a way out, and you will find it, too." 

We also look for support from people who know more than us, have more authority, the so-called "parent figure", who would understand our hardships and show care and support. Therefore, now it is extremely important for us to see that people in power know what we are going through and do not separate themselves from the rest of society. This significantly affects the proper functioning of each of us and the country as a whole.

 

Dare to talk about your experience

Our society bears the burden of a totalitarian experience in which trust between people has been destroyed. Generations of Ukrainians lived in fear of telling their truth and inability to know for sure who could be trusted and who could not. Our goal is to stop being silent about this difficult experience, tell personal family stories, and restore a sense of unity and trust. The awareness of the influence of the collective traumas we have experienced can become the basis of our new coping strategies with the events that are happening now. 

It is also important to find appropriate words to describe your experience at the individual level. We are tribal beings and it is extremely important for us to talk to one another about what is happening inside us. Only this way can we establish a proper connection with each other, as it is a connection that gives us a sense of security. But many people are afraid of their feelings and the realization of what has happened to them. In an article on healing from the disastrous effects of trauma, the author states that people with PTSD avoid reminders of trauma, and therefore do not talk about it. Therefore, the courage of those who are willing to talk about their difficult experience should be rewarded with support.

 

 

Reconnect with the body

Finding words to describe your experience and thus feeling a safe connection with others is important, but words alone are not enough. We need to consciously pay attention to our body. We are still animals to some extent, and the state of our bodies often determines what our minds are capable of. It's the foundation of who we are. The trauma continues to live in our body, so the body still sends us signals about danger, about the inability to survive and cope with what happened even after the traumatic event.

We can either suppress these signals with alcohol or drugs or delve into these feelings and start working with the body to learn how to calm it down on our own. Yoga is the most popular, but not the only option; different cultures have different methods of getting the hold of the body. For example, a huge number of people in China practice Qigong [ancient Chinese art of self-regulation of qi energy – ed.] or tai chi [Chinese internal martial art, popular as a kind of health gymnastics – ed.]. ]. 

However, Professor van der Kolk and his colleagues investigated the effects of yoga and found that a 10-week yoga program can significantly reduce the symptoms of treatment-resistant PTSD in women. People learn to feel their body better and soothe it through movement and breathing. This frees up the mind, leading to clearer thinking. Thus, by regaining control over bodily reactions, we regain control over our lives even in the most dire circumstances.

 

Do not label traumas as "real" and "fake"

Not every difficult experience or prolonged stress is a trauma. The tendency to call all difficult experiences traumatic is disrespectful towards those who are truly traumatized. At the same time, we must talk about trauma in society without devaluing people's different experiences. If one person survived captivity and the other experienced physical abuse in the family as a child, we should not rate one trauma as being more important or more serious. Of course, in our context, there may be thoughts that military trauma is real, and other traumas are not. But often those serving in the military are already mature adults who have their own system of values and principles and are able to use everything they have learned earlier to cope with the trauma.

In childhood, the traumatic experience itself can become our core and form our personality. According to another study by van der Kolk, the earlier the age of traumatization is, the higher is the risk of developing symptoms of extreme stress throughout life (also known as C-PTSD). As a result, a child who experiences violence and the soldier who experiences violence are two very different, but still extremely serious problems.

 

Revive the collective healing practices established in your culture

Informal ceremonies emerge to heal the trauma in countries with complex histories and whose peoples have gone through collective traumatic experiences. These can be drum dancing circles in Africa, collective dances in Asia, tango in Argentina. These are activities that people do together and during which the senses are imbued with power through music, movement, tastes, smells, etc. We can find something similar in the Ukrainian tradition, namely — practices that emerged in our past, which was full of trials, and helped Ukrainians go through difficult times. These are songs we sing together to share the pain and feel togetherness, dancing together or cooking traditional food — all this helps us to feel part of a larger culture. These are all non-intellectual things that make us feel a part of a community and overcome isolation and helplessness.

 

 

 

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THE SEASON "SCIENCE OF RESILIENCE" OF THE "IN SIMPLE WORDS" PODCAST IS RELEASED AS PART OF THE INITIATIVE OF FIRST LADY OLENA ZELENSKA TO IMPLEMENT THE ALL-UKRAINIAN MENTAL HEALTH PROGRAM "HOW ARE YOU?" THE PROJECT WAS IMPLEMENTED IN COOPERATION WITH THE COORDINATION CENTER FOR MENTAL HEALTH OF THE CABINET OF MINISTERS OF UKRAINE, WITH THE SUPPORT OF WHO.