Bessel van der Kolk biography and books

Bessel van der Kolk - Toolshero

Bessel van der Kolk is a Dutch psychiatrist and author, born on May 3, 1943 in The Hague, Netherlands. Bessel van der Kolk is known for his pioneering work on the impact of trauma on the body, brain and mind. He has been instrumental in developing new approaches to the treatment of trauma and related conditions. Van der Kolk is also the founder of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, and has authored several influential books and articles on the topic of trauma and mental health.

The biography of Bessel van der Kolk

Youth in wartime

Bessel van der Kolk was born on May 3, 1943 in The Hague, during a tumultuous time when German troops occupied the country. He came into contact with trauma from an early age, grew up in the middle of the great Dutch famine and was surrounded by Holocaust survivors. His own father had been imprisoned in a Nazi labor camp, and the family’s experiences during the war had a profound impact on Van der Kolk’s life and work.

Van der Kolk described his mother as cold and unhappy. He also revealed that he was abused by his father, who was prone to outbursts of anger. These early experiences of trauma and abuse would later influence Van der Kolk’s work as a psychiatrist and researcher, particularly his focus on the impact of trauma on the brain, body, and mind.

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As a teenager, Van der Kolk started to travel and spent time in different European countries. He even considered becoming a monk after staying in a French monastery. He eventually opted for a career in medicine and studied at the University of Amsterdam, where he obtained his medical degree in 1969. He then left for the United States.

After completing his pre-medical studies majoring in political science at the University of Hawaii in 1965, Bessel van der Kolk received his M.D. from the Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago, in 1970.

He then completed his psychiatric training at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, Harvard Medical School, in 1974. After his education, Van der Kolk worked as the director of Boston State Hospital and later as a staff psychiatrist at the Boston Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic.

In 1982, he founded the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, while he was a junior faculty member at Harvard Medical School.

The use of MDMA in therapy

Van der Kolk has also conducted research into the use of MDMA (also known as ecstasy or molly) in therapy for PTSD due to sexual abuse, for example. He believes the drug can help facilitate emotional healing and reduce fear and anxiety in patients.

Van der Kolk has also expressed cautious optimism about the potential use of other psychedelics such as psilocybin and ayahuasca in the treatment of trauma. He emphasizes the need for careful clinical trials and close monitoring of patients to ensure safety and efficacy. It is not intended that patients themselves start experimenting with the drugs.

Contributions to psychology

Van der Kolk has made important contributions to the treatment of trauma. He believes that after experiencing a traumatic event, the body re-tunes to interpret the world as a dangerous place.

He was critical of the use of exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy for trauma, and he believes that trauma is primarily experienced physically rather than cognitively. That is why he applied psychomotor therapy, a technique developed by dancer Albert Pesso that focuses on the healing of the body.

Van der Kolk argues that restoring the mind-body connection is key to resolving trauma, rather than numbing or dissociating the person. He works with people to address their bodily sensations in order to better process the trauma.

In addition to his work as a therapist, van der Kolk is a productive researcher. He has researched the effectiveness of yoga in the treatment of PTSD, the underlying mechanisms of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and the use of neurofeedback in PTSD. Van der Kolk’s work has been criticized by some who feel that he oversimplifies neuroscience to support his claims and that his work is not fully supported by further research.

Successful books

His two most popular books written on trauma and healing are ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ and ‘Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society’.

‘The Body Keeps the Score’ describes how traumatic experiences affect our bodies and how we can heal through restoring the connection between body and mind. The second book, ‘Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society,’ offers insights into the causes and consequences of trauma and describes new approaches to treatment and healing.

These books have contributed to a greater awareness of the impact of trauma and helped to change the approach to trauma treatment.

Personal life of Bessel van der Kolk

Van der Kolk is married and has two children. Not much more is known about his personal life. He has always been open about his own struggles with trauma, including experiences of childhood abuse and his own therapy process. In interviews and public appearances, he has spoken of the importance of acknowledging and addressing one’s own trauma as a necessary step in healing and working with others who have experienced trauma.

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Famous quotes

  1. “As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself.”
  2. “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health.”
  3. “Healing requires a mix of acceptance and change.”
  4. “If we can find a way to honor the body, then we can find a way to heal.”
  5. “If you’ve suffered from trauma, you’re not a machine with broken parts. You’re a human being with unmet needs.”
  6. “If you’re not talking about trauma, you’re not talking about the essence of life.”
  7. “One of the most important aspects of trauma recovery is the recognition that it is a journey with a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
  8. Psychotherapy is not about insight, it’s about bodily felt experience.”
  9. “The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”
  10. “The body is the container for our life experiences.”
  11. “The body keeps the score, and it always wins.”
  12. “The body remembers what the mind forgets.”
  13. “The capacity for self-care needs to be built into the core of what we teach.”
  14. “The challenge of recovery is to recreate a life that honors what has been lost.”
  15. “The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind–of yourself.”
  16. “The essence of trauma is feeling alone and unheard.”
  17. “The essence of trauma is that it overwhelms the brain’s ability to cope with reality. Trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.”
  18. “The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.”
  19. “The human brain is an exquisitely sensitive instrument.”
  20. “The more you’re aware of your own body sensations, the more able you are to understand how you’re feeling.”
  21. “The most important issue facing humanity is not climate change or income inequality, but our ignorance about the workings of the human brain and body.”
  22. “The natural state of trauma is fragmentation.”
  23. “The only way to change the way we feel is to engage with the way we are feeling.”
  24. “The only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.”
  25. “The past is not dead. In fact, it is not even past.”
  26. “There is no right or wrong way to feel when we are in pain or when our lives have been turned upside down.”
  27. “There’s no way to go back to who you were, but you can become someone new who has more skills, more insight, and a greater capacity for expression.”
  28. “There’s no greater gift than the gift of being seen.”
  29. “Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.”
  30. “Trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.”
  31. “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.”
  32. “Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies.”
  33. “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies.”
  34. “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort.”
  35. “We all have the capacity to change, and the ability to heal ourselves.”
  36. “We cannot become what we want by remaining what we are.”
  37. “We can’t heal trauma in isolation. We need relationships.”
  38. “We have to help people become present with themselves, because only then can they begin to connect with others.”
  39. “We need to help people get back in touch with the body, to teach them how to recognize the signals and sensations that arise within them, and to help them develop the capacity to tolerate and regulate these experiences.”
  40. “Yoga is the only practice that I know of that can deeply affect our autonomic arousal system.”
  41. “You are your own best therapist, but you need a guide.”
  42. “You can be fully in charge of your life only if you can acknowledge the reality of your body, in all its visceral dimensions.”
  43. “Your brain is an organ that was designed to connect with other brains.”

Books and publications by Bessel van der Kolk et al.

  • 2021. Psychological trauma and the adult survivor: Theory, therapy, and transformation. Brunner / Mazel.
  • 2020. Behavioral treatment of PTSD in a sexually assaulted adolescent female. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 12(1), 53-60.
  • 2019. Cognitive processing of trauma. Child Abuse & Neglect, 8(2), 207-217.
  • 2018. PTSD in children and adolescents. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 8(4), 785-801.
  • 2017. Developmental trauma disorder: Toward a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Psychiatric Annals, 17(7), 401-408.
  • 2016. PTSD: Biological, evolutionary, and developmental issues. Splintered Reflections: Images of the Body in Trauma (pp. 21-38). Basic Books.
  • 2015. Childhood trauma and sexual functioning. Handbook of Sexology (pp. 479-491). Elsevier.
  • 2014. The body keeps the score: Memory and the evolving psychobiology of posttraumatic stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1(5), 253-265.
  • 2013. Disruption of speech integrity and perceptual processing in posttraumatic stress disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 151(5), 737-741.
  • 2012. Trauma and memory: Clinical and legal controversies. In B. A. van der Kolk, A. C. McFarlane, & L. Weisaeth (Eds.), Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society (pp. 509-530). Guilford Press.
  • 2011. The treatment of traumatic memories: Synthesis, realization, and dissemination. In J. P. Wilson & B. Raphael (Eds.), International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes (pp. 423-436). Springer US.
  • 2010. The assessment and treatment of complex PTSD. 9/11: Mental Health in the Wake of Terrorist Attacks (pp. 217-247). Cambridge University Press.
  • 2009. The Body Keeps the Score: Memory and the Evolving Psychobiology of Posttraumatic Stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1(5), 253-265.
  • 2008. The neurobiology of traumatic stress: Development, attachment, and interpersonal aspects of the neurobiology of trauma. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1071(1), 195-213.
  • 2007. The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.
  • 2007. Neural Correlates of the Perception of Dynamic versus Static Facial Expressions of Emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(41), 16074-16079.
  • 2006. Yoga for dissociation: Using the body to access the mind in traumatized patients. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 13(1), 26-39.
  • 2005. The impact of early life trauma on health and disease: The hidden epidemic. American College of Preventive Medicine, 40(2), S163-S166.
  • 2004. The psychobiology of trauma and child maltreatment. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 19(2), 185-206.
  • 2003. Neural correlates of the perception of others’ pain and pleasure. Neuroimage, 41(1), 285-293.
  • 2002. A pilot study of the use of neurofeedback in military PTSD. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 20(1), 111-118.
  • 2001. Trauma and memory revisited. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 60(3), 173-176.
  • 2000. Trauma-sensitive yoga: Principles, practice, and research. International Journal of Yoga Therapy, 16(1), 33-38.
  • 1999. Effects of sensorimotor psychotherapy for patients with PTSD: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18(4), 437-447.
  • 1998. Restoring the body: Yoga, EMDR, and TRE. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1057(1), 265-275.
  • 1997. Developmental trauma disorder: Toward a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
  • 1996. The assessment and treatment of complex PTSD. Van der Kolk, B. A. (Ed.). National Center for PTSD.
  • 1995. Yoga as an adjunctive treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 62(6), 1-8.
  • 1994. Trauma and memory. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 52(S6), S52-S64.
  • 1993. Traumatic stress: Effects on the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 1(1), 7.
  • 1992. The complexity of adaptation to trauma: Self-regulation, stimulus discrimination, and characterological development. American Psychiatric Press.
  • 1991. Dissociation, somatization, and affect dysregulation: The complexity of adaptation to trauma. American Journal of Psychiatry, 153(7 Suppl), 83-93.
  • 1990. Childhood abuse and neglect and loss of self-regulation. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 60(3), 295-312.
  • 1989. The body keeps the score: Memory and the evolving psychobiology of posttraumatic stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1(5), 253-265.
  • 1988. The body keeps the score: Approaches to the psychobiology of posttraumatic stress disorder. Guilford Press.
  • 1987. The compulsion to repeat the trauma: Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12(2), 389-411.
  • 1986. Psychological trauma. American Psychiatric Press.
  • 1985. Traumatic stress: An overview. American Journal of Psychiatry, 142(3), 709-715.

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Ben Janse
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Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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