When we’re working with clients who have experienced trauma, targeting the limbic system can make our interventions more effective.
But what is the limbic system, and why is limbic system therapy so useful in treating trauma?
In the video below, Bessel van der Kolk, MD answers these questions and explains why he uses this kind of approach with his patients.
Take a look – it’s just under 5 minutes.
Dr. van der Kolk: There’s a metaphor I like to use in that so much of trauma is in the limbic system, or what people used to call the limbic system. And that all these areas of the brain have to do with danger, safety, perception of the world get changed. Basically most of the therapies that I’m advocating here is limbic system therapy. It’s all about understanding or figuring things out, because that’s not really where the trauma sits. Trauma sits in your automatic reactions and your dispositions and how you interpret the world. In order to really rewire those automatic perceptions, you need to have deep experiences that for your survival brain contradicts how you are now disposed to think.
Dr. Buczynski: Bessel just mentioned the limbic system. Broadly speaking, it’s the emotional part of the brain. It contains both the hippocampus and the amygdala, the hippocampus is associated with memory, and the amygdala is involved in detecting threat. Now you might have noticed that he said, “what people used to call the limbic system. ” That’s because there’s some question about whether or not it’s still useful to think of all the parts of the brain that make up the limbic system as a unified system. However, what’s important to take away here is this. Trauma doesn’t necessarily live in the part of the brain that’s concerned with reason and insight. It inhabits the parts that shape our temperament, the way we understand the world, and our automatic reactions. So when we target the part of the brain that’s feeling and reacting automatically, when we create a new experience that contradicts the lesson that that part of the brain has learned from trauma, that can change the way a person with a trauma history is wired to respond. So what does it look like to have an experience like that, an experience that re-wires the brain?
Dr. van der Kolk: For example, if you grow up thinking that you’re helpless and that anybody can do anything to you unless you yell at them, that becomes your disposition. But now if you take a martial arts course and you get to deeply feel like wow, I can kick anybody in the groin at any time because I feel like it, and I can protect myself. If you have experienced this, of becoming a martial artist, then that feeling of I’m always helpless will dramatically change. You cannot do that abstractly, and so you need to have experiences that directly contradict how your body is disposed. Who understands this best is the us army, who learned it from the Dutch army, that learned it from the Roman army over 2000 years. And that if you want to take a bunch of young recruits, the best way to get them to do things is to do basic training. In basic training you march, and you climb, and you crawl through the mud, and every night you go to bed and say, “Oh my god, I’m amazing, I survived this. I thought I could never do this, but I can.” By the end of 12 weeks, these kids are transformed because they have experiences that have brought them to the max of new challenges. We should have experiences like that in every mental health center. That is limbic system therapy.
Dr. Buczynski: So to change the way a client’s body reacts after trauma, we need physical experiences that directly contradict what the body has learned. Now I’d like to hear from you. How will you use this idea in your work with your patients? Please leave a comment below and thanks for watching.
For more on how to work with the limbic system to reverse the physiological imprint of trauma, please check out the Treating Trauma Master Series.
You’ll get insights from: Bessel van der Kolk, MD; Peter Levine, PhD; Pat Ogden, PhD; and Ruth Lanius, MD, PhD.
Now we’d like to hear from you. How will you use this idea in your work? Please leave a comment below.