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How Limbic System Therapy Can Help Resolve Trauma

What is limbic system therapy and how is it useful in
the treatment of trauma? According to Dr. Bessel van
der Kolk most interventions that he recommends for working with trauma fall within the category
of limbic system therapy. Here Bessel describes
how we can conceptualize the limbic system and why it’s crucial to focus on these particular
areas of the brain and body when working with trauma. – There’s a metaphor I’d 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, ’cause 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 re-wire
those automatic perceptions, you need to have deep experiences that for your survival brain contradicts how you are now disposed to think. – 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? – 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.” And by the end of 12 weeks
these kids are transformed because they have experiences
that have brung them to the max of new challenges. And we should have experiences like that in every mental health center. That is limbic system therapy. – 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. (peaceful music)


  1. k8eekatt
    k8eekatt November 6, 2018

    Physical movement is wonderful, and very helpful, but some people entering a fight in martial arts training may have a collapse response and not be able to confront their opponent. I do not observe this as helpful; it can be shattering. Some Masters will allow students to be exempt from sparing but I expect non contact forms such as yoga or tai chi, or just doing forms might be better for people who have experienced physical abuse. Additionally, a paradoxical violent outburst may follow after a collapse response. This happens away from helpers who could temper the flooding of anger and adrenaline. I am not a therapist, I am a former coach of ADHD adults and children. Martial arts are excellent for raising fitness, self discipline, brain chemicals associated with exercise and shared community. Thank you!

  2. Re-embodying emotional experience
    Re-embodying emotional experience November 6, 2018

    Thanks so much for posting this. Gentle and increasing limbic activation does wonders – a nurturing and supportive martial arts experience would be wonderful for trauma. If discussion of trauma issues were a common part of the training of coaches and martial arts instructors (I shudder at how trauma-insensitive these instructors often are), we would probably see more healing from those experiences. This video presentation was very validating to me. I will often invite a client to gently activate the limbic system with imagery after doing some somatically oriented exercises to engage proprioceptive and kinesthetic feedback loops. After befriending the lizard brain, a good number of clients are able to successfully direct and hold their attention on ideas that evoke positive feelings. With the limbic system thus engaged, and the body resourced, they will often either spontaneously start processing negative feelings in a well-resourced body, while I help them slow the process and educate them further on why the foreign and difficult feelings can bring them to relief, watching their level of activation . . . or they'll just stay with the good feelings, so I engage them in a sort of visuo-kinesthetic process where they collaborate with the subcortical survival system by making a gentle invitations to the body, mindfully accepting whatever the response is. If they do not spontaneously start processing the difficult feelings, I will make sure the body is well resourced, and at that point, I may remind them of the issue they brought to the session, and as the negative feelings trickle or rush In, I have them interoceptively track and feel sensory aspects of what was evoked, intermittently inviting them to reactivate the resource state and shift attention between the two states (Peter Levine's pendulation method). I found that Peter Levine's method, insofar as I understand it, is a great way to couch limbic activation in an increasingly resilient cradle constructed from partnering strands of sensory/subcortical and neocortical awareness, so the net result is a person who is ready to experience a gentle and titrated discharge as the limbic system is activated, and feelings come through – gently with mild and happy feelings as the energy is reclaimed, or through a heavier discharge involving a bit of shivering, jolting, heat, surges of lacrymal release or emotions, or in some cases, incipient bodily movements waiting for completion. now that I know how to watch for those things, therapy has become much more effective. plus it has become much more apparent to me that if a person were to be in a nurturing, supportive, and Trauma sensitive martial arts class, perhaps one led by a sense a Who has overcome his or her own trauma, there is an intense likelihood that that Sensei would be able to gently guide and support the Survivor through the intensity of emotion that comes with his or her limbic activation. Laughter being disabused of the notion that cognitive therapies for insight oriented Therapies with a focus on declarative memory helped people heal from trauma with any regularity, I used to think cathartic or abreactive methods were necessary, and was often baffled and how often people simply had these experiences without being healed and often coming worse, and even more baffled that sometimes the most painless looking techniques such a certain ones often promoted by the creators of NLP, would lead to better and more lasting results. Van Der Kolk, Levine, Ogden, Heller, and others who've understood the neuroscience has made a huge difference for me in figuring out why therapy often fails, why certain things work, and how to make them more effective, so they lead to both results the client can feel in session, and resilience they can take home with them as they practice a process they never learned in grade school, never learned from their parents, never learn from their grandparents, and which are the most naturalistic way to help them feel the actual goodness of the good things they have in their lives – if they're into that sort of thing. Most clients don't consciously want to suffer, but for some of them, the hope is pretty well shut out, and anything other than traditional talk therapy would violate their expectations, so starting slowly with what looks more like standard talk therapy and MI without doing a lot of interoceptive work is warranted up front. For such clients, they often get interested when seeing these body oriented methods and living system oriented methods applied in a reasonably cohesive and nurturing group setting. I had a supervisor who once compared that to having a five-star Yelp review en vivo. Having a martial arts instructor or PE coach trained in a touch of applied neuroscience for limbic activation and attunement processes would likely realize the full benefits discussed in this presentation with regularity, and goodness, if basic training instructors understood how these processes worked, I can only imagine the widespread benefit – there would be nothing soft about the program, it would be both tough and humanizing in the most effective ways.

  3. Special Strong
    Special Strong November 20, 2018

    At Special Strong, we LOVE the special needs population 😉 Philippians 4:13

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