We often think of trauma as an event; a singular experience that triggers an emotional and physical response. In this understanding of trauma, as something that occurs and then concludes, is the notion that once a traumatic event is over, the physiological response is over as well.

Your heart rate might slow back to a reasonable cadence, your blood pressure will ebb into its standard range, your muscles will release into their pre-stress state, and the trauma is never to be seen again.

But often, this isn’t the case. Sometimes, specific traumas and our responses to it can reside in our bodies, affecting our present-day interpersonal relationships and general wellness.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a trauma expert and New York Times best-selling author of “The Body Keeps the Score,” explores why certain traumas stay in the body and the various pathways to recovery with which he assists.

As a guest on the Genius of Wellness podcast, Dr. van der Kolk began by redefining our basic conceptions around trauma, explaining, “trauma is not what happened in the past. Trauma is how certain circumstances continue to be experienced in the body today.”

Specifically, certain circumstances that occur in childhood and adolescence can create pathways in our brain that, when left uncorrected, can manifest as heightened emotional and physical responses to everyday situations later in life.

For example, the way victims experience trust, security, and safety can be altered after trauma, becoming hypersensitive to ordinary things, and often, having very big reactions to the regular plights of life.

In a similar interview to the Genius of Wellness podcast, Dr. van der Kolk describes the most common traumas that stay with people to On Being host Krista Tippet. 

He drew the conclusion that we all experience traumatic events, but when “we are around people who love us, trust us, take care of us, nurture us when we are down, most people do pretty well with even very horrendous events.

“But particularly traumas that occur at the hands of people who are supposed to take care of you, if you’re not allowed to feel what you feel, [or] know what you know, your mind cannot integrate what goes on, and you can get stuck on the situation.”

When left unprocessed, with the stories of the traumatic event left untold or unaddressed, these memories aren’t stored in our long term memories. Instead, they’re stored in our bodies as physical reactions to the experience.

Because of this physical storage, treating trauma often deals with treating the body, understanding the context around a person’s physiological responses. 

Dr. van der Kolk describes his approach to treatment, it “is about your body, your organism, having been reset to interpret the world as a terrifying place and yourself as being unsafe.” So treatment is the process of recalibrating your body back to a healthy interpretation of its surroundings.

To do this, treatment has to be personalized to each trauma victim, addressing their specific responses that result from their unique experience. When helping patients, Dr. van der Kolk first addresses their current state, playing with sound, body movement, breath, or sensation, to shift their experience with the “here and now.”

When figuring out which sensations create a positive physiological response, he can begin to provide his patients with a toolkit for making their bodies feel safe in triggering situations.

He describes, “It’s very hard to be mindful when your mind is on fire,” so using certain techniques like energy tapping, yoga, Qigong, acupuncture, and singing movements, can adjust your relationship to your internal self-system, allowing you to have more mindful responses to your circumstances.

To hear more from Dr. van der Kolk, his treatment techniques, and his take on the changing scope of the medical field, follow along on the Genius of Wellness podcast, Episode 8 “How to Detoxify Your Body from Trauma.”