6 Minutes

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“My breakup was so traumatic for me.”

“When my brother passed away, I was so traumatized.”

“This entire office project has given me nothing but trauma.”

These are a few examples of the things we hear from others almost daily. With the word trauma used so loosely and to cover such a wide range of problems, what does it mean, and what is the best way to overcome it?

Whether you are simply looking for some answers or wish to overcome a trauma that continues to haunt you, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is the go-to person. Born in 1943, Bessel is a renowned psychiatrist, researcher, educator, and author based in Boston, United States. Keep reading this article to know who Dr. Van der Kolk is and what is his contribution to trauma management.

Van der Kolk was born in 1943 in The Hague when German forces occupied the Netherlands. Growing up, he went through different types of traumas, including the tremendous Dutch famine, Holocaust survivors, and his own father being imprisoned at a Nazi work camp. Van der Kolk also faced family problems and was a victim of abuse at the hands of his father. He started traveling early and even considered becoming a monk after a brief stay in a French monastery.

In 1962, van der Kolk moved to the United States to pursue his education. He attended the University of Hawaii and the University of Chicago and trained as a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. During his early years of career in Boston, he worked at a health center for veterans, which solidified his interest in trauma to the body. Following this, Bessel also worked on recovering Vietnam War veterans traumatized by their combat experience, which aroused his interest in PTSD and how it connected to bodily sensations.

During the 1990s, Van der Kolk was involved in a controversy when he served as an expert witness in a high-profile case related to “memory wars.” His idea of repressed-memory therapy, i.e., using hypnosis and other forms of therapy to recall memories used in this case, was later debunked. This controversy grew to the extent that it led to the closure of his laboratory at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr. Van der Kolk has worked as a teacher, professor, and lecturer throughout the United States and in other parts of the world. His other achievements include serving as co-director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress Complex Trauma Network and as the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies president. Currently, he continues to teach psychiatry at the Boston University Medical School and runs his private practice.

Bessel van der Kolk has spent most of his career examining how adults and children adapt to traumatic experiences. He combined his psychiatric knowledge with the emerging findings from neuroscience to develop a range of treatments for traumatic stress management in adults and children.

In 1984, van der Kolk set up his very first clinical center in the United States that he dedicated to studying and treating traumatic stress in civilians. He undertook his first studies on the effects of antidepressant medications on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Much of his research focused on how trauma impacts individuals at different stages of development. Bessel also recognized the effects of disruption in the caregiving systems on the trauma processing that needed to be addressed through effective intervention.

To promote a better understanding of childhood trauma and the development of effective interventions for it, Bessel initiated the process that ultimately established the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). This state-mandated initiative funds more than 150 centers dealing with trauma management in different settings. He has also studied trauma treatments that increase executive functioning, stabilize physiology, and help traumatized individuals to feel present in the current time.

The constant efforts of Dr. Bessel in trauma management resulted in the establishment of:

  • A Trauma Center that consisted of well-trained clinical teams. This trauma center specializes in treating adults and children with histories of maltreatment at an early age.
  • A van der Kolk trauma research lab that studied the effects of neurofeedback on mood, behavior, and executive functioning
  • ​Multiple nationwide pieces of training targeting various health professionals, parent groups, educators, law enforcement personnel, and policymakers.



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