I’m originally from the Netherlands, but I started to work at the VA, with Vietnam veterans, in the ’70s. When I went back to teach at Harvard, many of my patients reminded me of the veterans, so I became curious about the role of trauma in the mind of psychiatric patients. Then, slowly, the culture became more and more aware of how common trauma is. About a million kids in the US get abused every year. Half a million kids are in foster care. Domestic violence is extremely common.
There’s a big difference between traumatic stress and regular stress. Traumatic stress can change the brain. You keep getting pulled back to the feeling of helplessness and rage and fear.
Many of the best treatments [for trauma] are not widely available because drugs and the drug companies are so dominant. It’s hard to get funding for anything else that might make people better. For example, yoga turns out to be a very good treatment for PTSD but, up until now, I’m the only person to get money from the National Institutes of Health to study that. The most important thing to overcome trauma is to help people feel safe in their own bodies. Things like yoga, meditation, certain forms of massage [can help accomplish that].
We are very social animals, and trauma interferes with our social being. Another very important part of healing trauma is to reconnect with the people around you. The individual model of “let me fix you” is in many ways not such a good model.
In the same way that people can drive each other mad, the company of people, and being understood by people, can also heal us.
Interview has been edited and condensed.