overheard

Ms. Tippett: That’s fascinating. Something else I read is you were reflecting on Hurricane Hugo, hurricanes in general or natural disasters, this phenomenon we see of people helping each other, of getting out there and helping each other — and you also look at that and see that it’s not just that people are helping each other; they’re moving their bodies. Again, there’s this physical involvement kind of as antidote to the

helplessness of the situation, which is so manifest.

Dr. van der Kolk: Good. I’m really glad you read it because people talk a lot about stress hormones. Our stress hormones are sort of the source of all evil. That’s definitely not true. The stress hormones are good for you. You secrete stress hormones in order to give you the energy to cope under extreme situations. So it gives you that energy to stay up all night with your sick kid or to shovel snow in Minnesota and Boston and stuff like that.

What goes wrong is, if you’re kept from using your stress hormones, if somebody ties you down, if somebody holds you down, if somebody keeps you imprisoned, the stress hormones keep going up, but you cannot discharge it with action. Then the stress hormones really start wreaking havoc with your own internal system. But as long as you move, you are going to be fine. As we know, after these hurricanes and these terrible things, people get very active, and they like to help, and they like to do things, and they enjoy doing it because it discharges their energy.

Ms. Tippett: So we are healing ourselves. We don’t realize that, but we know how to…

Dr. van der Kolk: We are using our natural system, basically. We’re not only healing; we’re coping. We’re just dealing with what we need to cope with. That’s why you have that stuff. That’s why we survive as a species. What was disturbing in Hurricane Hugo, which was my first encounter quite a long time, and what we saw again in New Orleans, is how these victimized populations were prevented from doing something, and that’s really what the observation was.

Ms. Tippett: Right. And that that compounded the trauma.

Dr. van der Kolk: Yeah. So I get flown into Puerto Rico after Hurricane Hugo because I’ve written a book about trauma. I knew nothing about disasters, but nobody else knew anything either, so they flew me in. And what struck me — I landed in Puerto Rico, and everybody is busy doing stuff and building things, and everybody’s too busy to talk to me because they’re trying to do stuff. But on the same plane that I flew in with, officials from FEMA came in, who then made announcements, “Stop your work until FEMA decides what you’re going to get reimbursed for.”

And that was the worst thing that could have happened because now these people were using the energy to fight with each other and to pick war with each other instead of rebuilding their houses. That’s, of course, similar what happened in New Orleans, where people also were kept from being agents in their own recovery.


Bessel Van Der Kolk talking to Krista Tippett at On Being. Listen to the episode in full here.