Opinion | This Conversation Will Change How You Think About Trauma

Produced by ‘The Ezra Klein Show’

“Trauma is much more than a story about something that happened long ago,” writes Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. “The emotions and physical sensations that were imprinted during the trauma are experienced not as memories but as disruptive physical reactions in the present.”

[You can listen to this episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

Van der Kolk, a psychiatrist by training, has been a pioneer in trauma research for decades now and leads the Trauma Research Foundation. His 2014 book “The Body Keeps the Score,” quickly became a touchstone on the topic. And although the book was first released seven years ago, it now sits at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, a testament to the state of our national psyche.

The core argument of the book is that traumatic experiences — everything from sexual assault and incest to emotional and physical abuse — become embedded in the older, more primal parts of our brain that don’t have access to conscious awareness. And that means two things simultaneously. First, that trauma lodges in the body. We carry a physical imprint of our psychic wounds. The body keeps the score. But — and I found this more revelatory — the mind hides the score. It obscures the memories, or convinces us our victimization was our fault, or covers the event in shame so we don’t discuss it.

There’s a lot in this conversation. We discuss the lived experience of trauma, the relationship between the mind and the body, the differences between our “experiencing” and “autobiographical” selves, why van der Kolk believes human language is both a “miracle” and a “tyranny,” unconventional treatments for trauma from E.M.D.R. and yoga to psychedelics and theater, how societies can manage collective trauma like 9/11 and Covid-19, the shortcomings of America’s “post-alcoholic” approach to dealing with psychic suffering, how to navigate the often complex relationships with the traumatized people we know and love, and much more.

You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

(A full transcript of the episode will be available midday on the Times website.)

“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks to Kristin Lin.

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