The Master Series Trauma Edition – Variations On A Theme

The Master Series brings together experts, originators, innovators, and ground-breakers, who change the dialogue around their areas of expertise. Each quarterly program focuses on one Big Idea to unearth the nuances of theoretical frameworks, explore concepts, and reframe our thinking about the world we all live in and the experiences we have in it.

This quarter, from September 23 – 25, we are proud to bring you, The Master Series, focusing on Trauma

We welcome doctors Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine, and Stephen Porges as they bring their wealth of knowledge about trauma and trauma treatment to The Master Series. While each of these luminaries has their own take on trauma, informed by many years at the pinnacle of research and thought around trauma and trauma healing, there seems to be one common thread in their approaches, in that the state of chronic trauma gets locked in or held by the body, causing devastating effects if not treated or addressed correctly. Read on to learn about the seminal work of these very special thinkers and researchers and the recurrent theme of locked trauma which binds their thinking and makes them great associates for this pioneering three-day conference.

Dr Bessel van der Kolk, MD – Developmental Trauma

Dr Bessel van der Kolk, MD, is the author of New York Times Best Seller, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Dr. van der Kolk has spent his career studying how children and adults adapt to traumatic experiences and has translated emerging findings from neuroscience and attachment research to develop and study a range of treatments for traumatic stress in children and adults.

In Dr van der Kolk’s own words, “Trauma is an injury… a wound; something happens to you that is too big for your mind to comprehend. It’s overwhelming by definition; it’s too much, so the consequence of that is that you get stuck and things keep coming back, and you get overwhelmed again, and your mind and your brain and your being are incapable of comprehending and making sense out of that event and because you cannot integrate it. It keeps coming back.” Something that may be traumatic for you might not be traumatic for others, but Dr van der Kolk asserts that “the notion that only vulnerable people suffer from on-going effects of trauma is naïve.”

When traumatized people try to become mindful (especially given the rise of the mindfulness movement), they run into a minefield. Because the trauma has, in effect, pooled inside them so as they get to know themselves, they start to feel self-hatred and remorse or regret for what they have or haven’t done and how weak they feel. Naturally, this gets in the way of resolution, which is evidenced by conditions like PTSD. Traumatized people often experience heartbreak and a state of being out of sync with their environment. They continue to be trapped by their history and react to their current experience in a myriad of ways as a replay of the past, which is often referred to as running the same old movie. Dr van der Kolk’s work on the impact of childhood trauma has been congressionally mandated with the opening of 150 centers specializing in developing and implementing effective treatment interventions, underscoring the importance of safety and connection. Young people need to view a new release and stop running that old movie in order to become happy, healthy adults. The body and brain need more than to be acknowledged and placated; they need to be reprogrammed at a cellular level to free themselves from the confines of their history because everyone deserves a fresh start.

Dr Peter Levine – Somatic Experiencing and Trauma

Dr Peter Levine, PhD holds doctorates in both medical biophysics and psychology. He is the developer of Somatic Experiencing® (SE), a naturalistic body-awareness approach to healing trauma, which he has taught in forty-two countries around the globe. Dr. Levine is also the architect of the Foundation for Human Enrichment and was a stress consultant for NASA during the development of the space shuttle.

Using a rainbow-colored slinky to represent energy levels from walking to taking a run to being chased and/or threatened, at which point, energies become really excited, Dr Levine explains that what happens in trauma is that we have a tremendous excitation ahead of becoming overwhelmed. This results in the energy becoming locked or stuck within our bodies. When the hyper-arousal doesn’t get released, it leads to all kinds of symptoms; classic symptoms of PTSD-like flashbacks and nightmares but also to physical sensations and symptoms such as chronic pain and stiffness throughout the body (as seen with conditions like Fibromyalgia). Here we can see the first correlation with Dr van der Kolk’s theories about the body keeping score.

Dr Levine advises that we first have to recognize that trauma has emotional and cognitive effects but that it is primarily a physiological process. Until we begin to resolve it at the physiological level, it isn’t possible to resolve the emotion and meaning of the issues of the traumatized person. When the person is deeply traumatized, the ability to read others’ emotions by their faces and postures is compromised so that they’re unable to take in qualities like empathy being extended toward them. They then feel a sense of blame, as they are unable to benefit from the soothing and kindness of therapists or loved ones who, in turn, become frustrated because they fail to understand why their approach isn’t working. This becomes a vicious cycle, often causing further harm to the trauma sufferer and leading to expensive therapy regimes that have no end date. The trauma needs to be identified and released to create a shift at a fundamental level, dampening the state of hyper-arousal and restoring normal, healthy functioning.

Professor Stephen Porges – Polyvagal Theory: Claiming Our Evolutionary Heritage as a Social Species


Professor Stephen W. Porges, PhD is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, where he is the founding director of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium. In 1994, he proposed the Polyvagal Theory. This theory links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of the physiological state in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders. 

Prof. Porges describes our nervous system as primarily being an upside-down triangle (with the pointy end at the bottom). The brain stem, which sits towards the bottom end of the triangle, is where the circuits should be regulated. Other bodily systems percolate information up to the brain stem, which then transmits information to higher brain structures, enabling access to the different brain areas. When we are in safe states, we can access higher cortical functions, but when we’re in dangerous states, those systems turn off, and we go into defense mode, exhibiting more limbic responses. 

Thinking of the triangle, each time we go higher (away from the pointy end), we get higher diversity of expression and outcome, three states that provide a neuro platform for great diversity of expression. When someone finds themselves in an environment of constant danger or threat, the nervous system starts to find it difficult to detect safety, keeping it in a fight or flight state, with a low reaction threshold, meaning that when you’re in this permanent state, it’s more probable that you will miss or confuse other people’s cues. The repercussion is that you are more likely to see neutral faces as being aggressive or fearful faces as angry, which can confound associations and challenge already difficult relationships. 

Social interactive behavior is a neural exercise. If we feel we are in safe environments, we will use our face and the intonation of our voice, and we will negotiate or maintain safety by doing that. If we find ourselves in a more dangerous situation or a more novel environment, we will move into a more physiological fight or flight state that will support more mobilization behaviors. This fighting or fleeing is a form of negotiation away from danger. What if we can’t get away from the danger? What if we’re held down by possibilities that could trigger a third circuit that shuts us down? It is this shutdown space that is so important in understanding trauma. The Polyvagal Theory articulates that shut down circuit, while most other theoretical models of trauma and what are referred to as stress disorders only talk about a fight or flight system, but here we can recognize a correlation with the thinking proposed by our other two trauma experts. The shutting down, getting stuck, becoming locked, the replaying of the old movie, are all variations on a very painful theme of becoming overwhelmed by pain and trauma and not being able to move forward as a result.

The second part of the core of this theory is that these responses are not voluntary. Our nervous systems are picking up information in our environment and evaluating it on a neurobiological level, as opposed to a cognitive one (though we do pick up features of risk of danger on a neurobiological level). Our nervous system is responsible for allocating the risks into different states, which we can become aware of by things like our heart pounding in certain situations or environments (the higher the risk). It is when this allocation process becomes faulty and starts to allocate everything as high risk that we run into problems with a devastating effect on quality of life and general health.

The Polyvagal Theory provides us with an understanding of three neural circuits that support different types of behavior:

  • Social engagement behavior
  • Fight or flight immobilisation behaviors 
  • Shutting down or a second level of defense

In all three of these theories, we see a pattern of fighting or fleeing, followed by a shutdown or shut off, as a form of self-protection. The work of each of these brilliant men has been so important in advancing trauma treatment and covers all aspects of trauma. Each one is as fascinating and compelling as the other, and together, they will make for a gripping three days of learning and provide remarkable access to these world-leading academics in the form of Q&A.

Through the wisdom and guidance of these three Masters within the field, we will explore the ways unresolved trauma reverberates through our lives and how we can restore ourselves and our patients to a sense of safety and better mental health. We look forward to seeing you at the conference. Take advantage of our early bird discount now.

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