A Conversation with World-Renowned Psychiatrist, Psychotherapist & Trauma Expert, Frank Anderson, MD.

A Conversation with World-Renowned Psychiatrist, Psychotherapist & Trauma Expert, Frank Anderson, MD.

Frank Anderson, MD, is a world-renowned trauma treatment expert, Harvard-trained psychiatrist, and psychotherapist. He is the acclaimed author of Transcending Trauma, upcoming memoir, To Be Loved: A Story of Truth, Trauma, and Transformation, and the coauthor of Internal Family Systems Skills Training Manual. As a global speaker on the treatment of trauma and dissociation, he is passionate about teaching brain-based psychotherapy and integrating current neuroscience knowledge with the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of therapy. Dr. Anderson believes that traumatic events can have a lasting effect on the well-being and life of an individual and that addressing these events will help lead people down a pathway of healing and forgiveness.

Dr. Anderson is the co-founder of The Trauma Institute and Trauma Informed Media, organisations that promote trauma awareness, education, integration, and healing. He is a lead trainer at the IFS Institute under Richard Schwartz and has a long affiliation with Bessel van der Kolk and the Trauma Research Foundation.

In this interview I speak to world-renowned psychiatrist, psychotherapist & trauma expert, Frank Anderson, MD. We discuss the realities of emotional and psychological trauma, how it affects all of us, and what it means for our lives.

Q: How did you find a passion for helping people going through trauma?

[Frank Anderson]: I’ve been immersed in this field since 1992, so it has been quite a lengthy journey. My career began at Bessel van der Kolk’s trauma center in 1992, where I encountered profound, significant traumas routinely. Patients facing extreme situations often sought treatment at his clinic. During that time, I served as a psychiatrist and transitioned to a therapist. Furthermore, my residency was in a hospital dedicated to treating the chronically mentally ill who were also homeless and uninsured. Each individual I met there had experienced severe trauma; you don’t find yourself homeless, uninsured, and without family support without undergoing considerable hardships. Thus, my professional life has been deeply rooted in severe trauma.

As I moved into private practice and began treating individuals one-on-one, I encountered another aspect of trauma, similar to what you’re discussing. Everyone experiences some form of it. Gabor Mate and I share this perspective. We now recognise these experiences as complex PTSD or relational trauma, which are conditions that the ACE study seeks to quantify across a broad spectrum.

Many people are unaware that being bullied, constantly criticised, or neglected can also be forms of trauma. There’s a growing recognition of these repeated relational injuries—being ignored or growing up in a dysfunctional family where excessive drinking or overworking occurs, neglecting one’s emotional needs. This kind of trauma has largely defined my career.

Q: What is the impact trauma plays in our lives?

[Frank Anderson]: Before we dive into the next topic, let me take a step back. As I transition from the psychotherapy realm to a broader audience, I’m introducing the concept of trauma healing, and as you’ve noticed, there’s a general resistance to the term ‘trauma’—people often deny having any trauma of their own. Part of my role is to help people clearly understand what we mean by trauma, and what you’re referring to is known as a trauma response. These are two distinct concepts.

Trauma involves what happened to you, including the intensity, frequency, and duration of the event or experience. People experience the same event differently based on factors like temperament and upbringing. A trauma response, on the other hand, is how you react to what happened, which is often unrecognised by many. Responses can vary widely, including exercising, overeating, binge drinking, yelling at your children, withdrawing, or becoming socially isolated—these are all reactions to trauma.

I’ve started using the term ‘overwhelming life experience’ to describe trauma because it seems to be less daunting for people. When I ask if they’ve had such experiences, they begin to understand the breadth of trauma. For example, the death of a loved one, a car accident, or being bullied. Understanding trauma this way helps people recognise their responses, which are not typically the reasons they seek therapy. People don’t often say they’re struggling with childhood trauma; instead, they mention current issues like financial troubles, marital conflicts, or problematic behaviours, all of which are trauma responses.

My job is to help people recognise the origins and intentions behind these responses. Unlike the common societal and professional desire to dismiss these responses as merely negative—viewing depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts as things to eliminate—I believe we should examine them more closely. How is drinking serving you? When we shift from judging to listening, people start to understand. For instance, they may realize that drinking dulls feelings of loneliness, cutting distracts from emotional pain, or thoughts of suicide provide a perceived escape route.

This transformation in understanding is crucial. People need to see that their responses are attempts to help themselves. The problem often lies in focusing only on the negative effects of these responses, not their intentions. By appreciating the reasons behind their actions, there’s a much greater chance for positive change. This is why it’s so hard to move forward when trying to eliminate something that is perceived as helping. Recognising this can be a significant shift for many.

Q:  Are much of our societal mental health challenges linked to trauma?

[Frank Anderson]: I’m quite confident in my view, though I admit it may sound overly definitive. There are certainly cases where present-day stressors alone—such as financial pressures, challenging relationships, or poor work environments—play a significant role. These current stressors are impactful, but they are often more manageable if there isn’t an underlying issue intensifying the present difficulty.

I often discuss what I call “double trauma,” where current stress triggers a deeper, unresolved issue from the past. This dual-layer perspective is crucial: first, we address the immediate stressors; this is where most people begin. For instance, if a client tells me, “My wife yells at me a lot,” I understand the situation. We explore how this affects them: What emotions or reactions does this provoke? We then use a technique from EMDR therapy known as the “float back” to trace these reactions to their roots. I ask, “When did you first notice this response? Was this the first time you felt numbness, dissociation, anxiety, or depression?” This approach helps clients connect their current experiences to their origins, illuminating the underlying patterns and triggers.

Q: Can we ever get over trauma?

[Frank Anderson]: … that’s precisely why I wrote my latest memoir, *To Be Loved*. I’m a psychiatrist and never anticipated writing a memoir. It seemed unlikely that anyone would suggest such a thing to me. However, my frequent public speaking engagements, where I discuss my trauma history, led others to encourage me to share my story to demonstrate that healing is possible. And indeed, I am living proof that one can heal from severe trauma.

My journey with significant childhood trauma began before I could even speak. Over the years, I have continuously worked on healing, and today, I am profoundly changed—people who knew me 30 years ago hardly recognise me now. It’s amusing when people comment on how young I look and ask about my skincare routine. I tell them it’s the result of healing my trauma. Releasing trauma has not only rejuvenated my appearance but also lightened the energetic burden on my soul and body, allowing me to become more authentically myself.

I used to believe in the concept of permanent healing, but my views have evolved. Nothing is permanent; however, each round of healing lightens our load and elevates us energetically. Life will inevitably reactivate old wounds, but these moments don’t engulf us as they once did. Instead, they offer opportunities for growth and increased resilience.

Recently, I was in a high-profile meeting with Hollywood figures, and I found myself defensively reacting to critical remarks, reminiscent of my past verbal and physical abuse. This triggered a moment of self-reflection, helping me realize that it was my trauma responding, not my true self. Although I momentarily lost my composure, this experience provided a learning opportunity, and I’m confident that in future encounters, I will handle similar situations with greater ease.

This ongoing process of healing and learning from reactivated wounds is how we evolve and elevate our vibrations. It’s a continuous journey of becoming more aligned with who we truly are.

Q:  Are therapeutic models effective in handling trauma?

[Frank Anderson]: There are numerous therapeutic models specifically designed for addressing trauma, distinct from general psychotherapy methods. Not all psychotherapy is trauma-based, but there are essential elements required for effective trauma treatment, which I refer to as the “arc of healing.”

Several modalities excel in this area, including EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), Internal Family Systems (IFS), Somatic Experiencing, Sensory Motor Psychotherapy, EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), and AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy). These models are particularly adept because they possess the crucial qualities needed for healing from trauma.

Key among these qualities is the ability to be with the trauma rather than engulfed by it—this is crucial. They provide the capacity to witness what parts of oneself have endured and offer a corrective experience for the parts affected by trauma, a concept supported by neuroscience, which highlights the benefits of what are known as disconfirming or corrective experiences.

Ultimately, the goal is transformation and release, not merely managing the burden we carry. Thus, while some models are particularly effective in this specialized area of treatment, others may not align as well with the needs of trauma recovery. If you are involved in the trauma field, it’s clear that this is a specialised area requiring more than just general psychotherapy techniques.

Q: What is the role of forgiveness in healing from trauma?

[Frank Anderson]: Forgiveness is a complex issue, particularly in the context of trauma. I’ve spent many years healing from trauma inflicted by my parents, with my father as my primary abuser and my mother as secondary. During this time, I had no contact with them for seven years. Based on my experience, I can say that healing is possible without forgiveness. It’s perfectly valid for some people to choose never to forgive.

However, there’s a prevalent belief that forgiveness is necessary, as if something is wrong with you if you don’t forgive. I disagree with this notion. My perspective is that healing from trauma involves releasing the emotional burden tied to the experiences. If you’re interested in what I call relational healing, then you might consider forgiveness, but only after healing—not as a prerequisite.

Forgiveness, in my view, is more about the person doing the forgiving than the one being forgiven. It’s about letting go of the emotional weight you carry regarding the person who harmed you. This contrasts with certain religious or 12-step models where seeking forgiveness is mandatory. I advocate that forgiveness should originate from the individual choosing to forgive. Apologising can be a part of your own healing process; admitting remorse for your actions is beneficial for you. The harmed party can then decide whether to let go of their resentment or hurt, which is their own form of forgiveness.

I had a profound experience with forgiveness towards my father that was incredibly liberating. It was transformative to not only forgive but to feel love for the person who caused me pain—a significant accomplishment for anyone who has been harmed. This release was life-changing and empowering, enabling me to transcend my past traumas.

This experience of rising above and loving someone who hurt you is immensely powerful. I am passionate about teaching this perspective and helping others understand the liberating power of forgiveness. It’s a message I want to spread widely.

Q: What does legacy mean to you?

[Frank Anderson]: … what I’m doing isn’t about my personal legacy—it transcends me. This isn’t about Frank Anderson’s legacy. When I published my second book, *Transcending Trauma*, it was aimed at therapists and delved into neuroscience, IFS, and complex trauma, catering to those within the field.

Once, while out running, I received what felt like a message—yes, a real message. It could sound like I was hearing voices, the kind you might associate with someone who needs psychiatric care. But it was clear to me: “Frank, you need to bring trauma healing to the world.” At the time, it was unexpected, and I didn’t fully understand what it meant. However, as I’ve continued on my path, I’ve realised that my healing journey has connected me to a broader, global collective of people dedicated to healing.

So, I view this not as my own legacy but as a legacy I’ve tapped into. This legacy is about contributing to a solution for the widespread suffering and ailing levels we see around us. It’s a larger movement, far beyond just myself.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.