Bessel van der Kolk and Daniel J. Siegel



There are dozens of major names in the field of Trauma and PTSD, both in Research and in Clinical Practice. Here in Australia we tend to be exposed to work being done in America and England, and perhaps see less of the work being done in non-English-speaking countries.

This website features two pioneers in the field – Bessel A. van der Kolk, and Daniel J. Siegel. At this point the website doesn’t cover the works of such therapist/researchers as John Briere, Judith Lewis Herman, Cathi Malchiodi, Pat Ogden, Colin Ross, Babette Rothschild, Allan Schore, Marion Solomon, and the many others who have published important articles and books in the field, all contributing their perspectives, clinical experience and research findings. If and when I get the time I would like to write an overview of the work done by these writers, though the field is now so extensive, I would never try to cover it all. But I feel it is right for me to explain why I have chosen to only feature two researchers out of all those who work in the field.

The vector of this website travels from information about traumatization through to the healing journey and recovery. In my personal journey, four pieces of writing and one clinical/educational setting provided the knowledge and experience I needed to understand trauma and C-/PTSD and how to heal from them. These were, in chronological order of my experience of them:

  • Bass & Davis, The Courage to Heal (1988)
  • John Briere, Therapy for Adults Molested as Children: beyond survival (1989) [first edition]
  • Van der kolk & Saporta, ‘Biological Response to Psychic Trauma’ in the International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes (1993)
  • The Jamillon Trauma Centre (John Spensely & Gillian Nikakis)
  • Daniel J. Siegel, The Developing Mind: how relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are (1999) [first edition]

The first two books, the Bass & Davis and the John Briere books, were tremendously important in opening our eyes to the real consequences of childhood trauma. Even today, even with the Royal Commission and the Catholic Church scandals, the average person knows little of this subject unless they have gone through it in their own family or social circle. It seems extraordinary to realize that as recently as the 1980s very little was understood about PTSD and its complex forms. Books such as Briere’s were at the cutting edge of the therapy side of the subject.


Jose Saporta

If you look at the list of contents of the International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes (not yet called PTSD), there is ONE article that stands out among a long list of research papers on the human response to traumatic events – and that is Bessel van der Kolk and J. Saporta’s article, the only one that points the way towards the neurobiological nature of the trauma response – ‘Biological Response to Psychic Trauma’.

I’ve asked myself why I focused on this article and read it through and through so many times to try and understand the medical terminology and new concepts relating to anatomy, brain function etc. I think it ignited one of my defining passions – the need to be able to trace any phenomenon back and back to its very source. Why I’m like this, I don’t know. Some acquaintances have no such need, happy to deal with the present reality of a phenomenon and work with that, which is just as valid and useful.


Bessel A. van der Kolk

But van der Kolk and Saporta’s article offered information that opened my mind in THE most exciting way – it described the mechanism by which the PTSD symptoms developed, through the overload of stress cortisols in the brain, leading to lower cortisol levels that eventually raised the baseline level of homeostasis (resting state of the nervous system). This was the information I needed – this wasn’t psychological, it was physical. If PTSD symptomatology could be described in physical terms, then we could apply physiological remedies to counter the symptoms. That was back in 1994. Today, in 2015, we see this being done everywhere in the field, using Mindfulness techniques, cognitive-behavioural strategies, exposure exercises for returning veterans, yoga practices, body-based tension-release exercises and more. Psychological interventions are also part of the treatment spectrum, but the latest research shows that alone they are not enough.

Bessel van der Kolk has continued to be a leading figure in researching the physiological treatments needed to heal the damaged nervous systems of trauma survivors. He is part of a team, and not by any means the only one now doing this kind of research. But in his international seminars he spreads the knowledge of the latest findings of this research, demonstrating effective treatments through personal experience, video evidence and statistical charts. He has not veered from his original, basic orientation – the biological nature of the trauma response.


John Spensely, M.D.

Gillian Nikakis

Gillian Nikakis

Over the decade following my discovery of the van der Kolk/Saporta article, I became involved with the Jamillon Centre in Melbourne, run by brother-sister team John Spensely and Gillian Johnson/Nikakis. Through their training program and hands-on therapeutic experience, I learnt about the aspect of the healing journey that can be summarized in the phrases that were later popularised by Peter Levine – “biological emotional discharge”/ “countering the freeze response”. The phenomenon of ‘discharging’ traumatic feelings can now be accessed through a number of therapeutic strategies (emotional release therapy, EMDR, psychodrama, somatic therapy, TRE exercises). However I was fortunate in finding the strategy at the Jamillon Centre in Melbourne, long before these strategies were main-stream.

At the end of the 1990s, Daniel J. Siegel published his landmark book, The Developing Mind: how relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. What Siegel brought to discussion of trauma and PTSD was his synthesis of biological brain research (neurobiology), neuropsychology (how the brain and the mind interact) and how all this research pertains to current psychotherapy. In my opinion, Dan Siegel’s contribution to early 21st Century psychotherapy practice is seminal and historically significant.

Just as van der Kolk & Saporta were able to show the physiological pathways by which PTSD symptoms developed, so Siegel was able to show, through the physiological neural systems of the brain, why relationships (brain to brain interaction) form a fundamental and essential part of the healing process. Research into the success of psychotherapy had shown for some years, that the therapeutic relationship is one of the most important elements in successful therapy, but had not been able to explain why. Similarly, anecdotal experience had shown therapists that art therapy helped the healing process, but were not able to explain why. Siegel, in his descriptions of left and right hemisphere brain function, was able to shed light on that as well.


Daniel J. Siegel

Over the decade of the 2000s, I studied Siegel’s writings in depth, seeking to internalize the concepts and neural schemas that explained how the traumatized brain adapts and survives the psychological shocks of overwhelming events, so as to understand in the deepest way possible, what survivors need in order to heal. During the 2000s, I realized that Siegel’s insights were not reaching the current generation of students of psychotherapy (in its many variant forms), and I accepted invitations from a few teaching bodies to lecture and give workshops on Siegel’s ‘Interpersonal Neurobiology’, as it had been named.

In 2012, Dan Siegel came to Melbourne, and I attended his 2-day seminar. The seminar brought the audience up to date with Siegel’s current understandings of the aims and methods of successful psychotherapy. The key word now is Integration. But this concept and therapy is still grounded in neurobiology, not existing in an abstract ‘mental’ state. Integration takes place in physical reality. The actual neuronal pathways join up, link, and create new systems within the brain. As a therapist, I see this happening in my treatment room every week – at least I see the result of neural integration, and I am able to share with the client the knowledge that their emotional or cognitive change is not abstract, it is the result of integration (linking of previously disconnected areas of the neural net) following therapeutic work. This knowledge is empowering, especially since it harmonizes with our western orientation towards the medical model.

Like van der Kolk, Siegel has embraced the healing power of Mindfulness and yoga techniques. He has created a mindfulness meditation exercise that encompasses the domains of interpersonal neurobiology and integration (the Wheel of Awareness), and it is available for download from his website. So van der Kolk and Siegel have stayed true to their medical model roots, but both in their own ways have adapted those roots, in step with 21st century brain science, in the service of effective treatment for the consequences of trauma. Van der Kolk has focused in on the attachment system as the missing link in Complex Trauma (C-PTSD), which he wants to rename “Developmental Trauma Disorder”. I have shared his teaching and information under the menu tab ‘Attachment’. Siegel’s focus is sharply tuned to Integration, meaning neural integration, and talks more about the psychotherapy process in facilitating this. I have shared this under the menu tab ‘Neurobiology’. But in the end both scientists arrive at much the same point in their work on complex trauma – relationship, attachment, connection, integration.




Contents page of the International Handbook on Traumatic Stress Syndromes:

The Jamillon Centre (also called Primal Therapy Australia)

Dr Dan Siegel (Wheel of Awareness)


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