The Healing Power of Healthy Relationships

World-leading trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.

I have previously emphasised the importance of healthy relationships for wellbeing, and for the healing of trauma and its consequences, in blogs focused on thoughts from Bessel van der Kolk and Bruce Perry. Here are further thoughts from the former of these world-leading experts, taken from his seminal book on the healing of trauma. [NB. I have broken up some of Bessel’s paragraphs for easier reading online.]

‘We are fundamentally social creatures—our brains are wired to foster working and playing together. Trauma devastates the social-engagement system and interferes with cooperation, nurturing, and the ability to function as a productive member of the clan.

In this book we have seen how so many mental health problems, from drug addiction to self-injurious behaviour, start off as attempts to control emotions that became unbearable because of a lack of adequate human contact and support. Yet systems that deal with traumatised children and adults all to often bypass the social-engagement system that is the foundation of who we are and instead focus narrowly on correcting “faulty thinking” and on suppressing unpleasant emotions and troublesome behaviours.

People can learn to control and change their behaviour, but only if they feel safe enough to experiment with new solutions. The body keeps the score: if trauma is encoded in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching sensations, then our first priority is to help people move out of flight-or-fight states, reorganize their perception of danger, and manage relationships.

Where traumatised children are concerned, the last things we should be cutting from school schedules are the activities that can do precisely that: chorus, physical education, recess, and anything else that involves movement, play, and other forms of playful engagement.

As we’ve seen, my own profession compounds, rather than alleviates, the problem. Many psychiatrists today work in assembly-line offices where they see patients they hardly know for fifteen minutes and then dole out pills to alleviate pain, anxiety, or depression. Their message seems to be “Leave it to us to fix you: just be compliant and take these drugs and come back in three months—but be sure not to use alcohol or (illegal) drugs to relieve your problems.”

Such shortcuts in treatment make it impossible to develop self-care and leadership. One tragic example of this orientation is the rampant prescription of painkillers, which now kill more people each year in the United States than guns or car accidents.

Our increasing use of drugs to treat these conditions doesn’t address the real issues: What are these patients trying to cope with? What are their internal or external resources? How do they calm themselves down? Do they have caring relationships with their bodies, and what do they do to cultivate a physical sense of power, vitality, and relaxation?

Do they have dynamic interactions with other people? Who really knows them, loves them, and cares about them? Whom can they count on when they are scared, when their babies are ill, or when they are sick themselves? Are they members of a community, and do they play vital roles in the lives of people around them?

What specific skills do they have to focus, pay attention, and make choices? Do they have a sense of purpose? What are they good at? How can we help them feel in charge of their lives?’  Bessel van Kolk M.D., The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, 2014, pp. 349-350.

For anyone interested in the healing of trauma, Bessel’s book is essential reading.

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