Bessel van der Kolk, MD, is a clinician, researcher, and teacher best known for his work with posttraumatic stress. Active in the field of mental health since the 1970s, he currently serves as medical director at the Trauma Center in Boston.
Van der Kolk was born in The Hague in 1943, during a time of strife as German forces occupied the Netherlands. Exposed to trauma from an early age, he grew up in the great Dutch famine, surrounded by Holocaust survivors. His own father had been imprisoned in a Nazi work camp. Van der Kolk describes his mother as cold and unhappy and has also disclosed experiencing abuse at the hands of his father, who was prone to rage. He began traveling as a teenager, at one point considering becoming a monk after staying in a French monastery.
In 1962, van der Kolk pursued his education in the United States. He attended the University of Hawaii as well as the University of Chicago and trained as a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. During the 1970s, he spent the early years of his career working at a health center for veterans in Boston, where his interest in trauma solidified. He worked with Vietnam War veterans traumatized by their combat experiences, becoming particularly interested in how symptoms of posttraumatic stress connect to bodily sensation.
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Van der Kolk was involved in controversy during the 1990s. A proponent of repressed-memory therapy, he served as an expert witness for some high-profile cases in what are now termed the “memory wars.” The idea that memories can be accurately recalled through hypnosis or other forms of therapy has since been debunked, and van der Kolk was criticized for his stance on repressed-memory therapy. By the late 1990s, his lab at Massachusetts General Hospital was closed, which he attributes to this controversy.
Internationally and throughout the United States, van der Kolk has worked as a lecturer, teacher, and professor. He previously served as President of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and as a co-director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress Complex Trauma Network. He teaches psychiatry at the Boston University Medical School and continues to work as a clinician in his Boston-area private practice.
Until 2018, he worked at The Trauma Center, a nonprofit organization he founded in Massachusetts. In March 2018, it was announced he had been fired due to complaints of bullying and creating a hostile work environment for employees.
Contributions to Psychology
Van der Kolk has contributed significantly to the field of trauma treatment. He believes an individual’s body resets to interpret the world as a dangerous place upon experiencing trauma. Critical of using exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy for trauma, he believes trauma is experienced physically rather than cognitively. Consequently, he has practiced psychomotor therapy, a technique developed by a dancer that focuses on healing the body. Van der Kolk posits the key to resolving trauma is helping people repair the connection between their mind and body instead of self-numbing or dissociating. He works with people in addressing their bodily sensations in order to better process trauma.
In addition to his work as a clinician, van der Kolk is a prolific researcher. He has studied the efficacy of using yoga for 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 he oversimplifies neuroscience to support his claims and that his work is not fully supported by rigorous research.
Books by Bessel van der Kolk
Bessel van der Kolk has written books and published over 150 articles on trauma. His works include:
- Psychological Trauma
- Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Treatment of Trauma
- About Bessel van der Kolk. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://besselvanderkolk.net/about.html
- About Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. (n.d.). The Trauma Center. Retrieved from http://www.traumacenter.org/about/about_bessel.php
- Interlandi, Jeneen. (2014, May 22). A revolutionary approach to treating PTSD. The New York Times Company. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/25/magazine/a-revolutionary-approach-to-treating-ptsd.html?_r=0
- Kowalczyk, L. (2018, March 7). Allegations of employee mistreatment roil renowned Brookline trauma center. Boston Globe. Retrieved from https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/03/07/allegations-employee-mistreatment-roil-renowned-trauma-center/sWW13agQDY9B9A1rt9eqnK/story.html