The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Novel: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk | Goodreads
Release Date: September 15, 2014
Publisher: Viking
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought

A pioneering researcher and one of the world’s foremost experts on traumatic stress offers a bold new paradigm for healing.

Trauma is a fact of life. Veterans and their families deal with the painful aftermath of combat; one in five Americans has been molested; one in four grew up with alcoholics; one in three couples have engaged in physical violence. Such experiences inevitably leave traces on minds, emotions, and even on biology. Sadly, trauma sufferers frequently pass on their stress to their partners and children.

Renowned trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk has spent over three decades working with survivors. In The Body Keeps the Score, he transforms our understanding of traumatic stress, revealing how it literally rearranges the brain’s wiring—specifically areas dedicated to pleasure, engagement, control, and trust. He shows how these areas can be reactivated through innovative treatments including neurofeedback, mindfulness techniques, play, yoga, and other therapies. Based on Dr. van der Kolk’s own research and that of other leading specialists, The Body Keeps the Score offers proven alternatives to drugs and talk therapy—and a way to reclaim lives.

This book is an important one. Bessel van der Kolk illuminates a simple but startling truth in how we process what happens to us — our mental darknesses having physiological effects. It’s surprising that it took us this long to affirm.

The Body Keeps the Score is dense, but engaging; it deals with specifics, and the nature of trauma means that the circumstances require a lot of processing. It’s a heavy read. It will absolutely give you more empathy for understanding what other people go through, and the classic adage of never knowing another person’s circumstances. It’ll make you sad, but it’s also good for you. It’s not pessimistic, per se, but as someone who has an optimism bias, it’s a tough perspective.

A lot of it made instinctual sense. It’s academic, rather than being self help in nature, but I’m sure some of it is applicable if that’s a service you’re seeking from reading it. The stories are specific, and heartwrenching. They’ll gut you, but they’re worth reading. Dr. van der Kolk believes firmly in treating the cause rather than the symptoms.

“We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”

The nature of the book means that it contains a ton of empirical data and studies rather than van der Kolk waxing poetic on emotional issues. The style means it’s harder to read — in terms of time commitment and mental workload — but it’s more convincing.

It’s a slippery slope to be so fixated on the body, embodying the mental in the physical. I’ve always been a big believer in the outside matching the inside, that I can fix my surroundings and my details to match how I feel. It’s why I love artistic pursuits and anything involving expression — the intangible given form. This summer, I spent most days dancing, so many hours in my day. It was so cathartic. Although there’s no comparable pursuit in small town Virginia, I’ve replaced it with spending a lot of my time running although I have to be much more careful about it not wearing me down too much.

Dr. van der Kolk’s main thesis, about events being stored in the body and the brain, doesn’t feel new but forms a helpful structure in which to understand the natures of PTSD, addictions, and other mental struggles. It’s one of those books you can find value in regardless of where you are in your life or what you might be dealing with — although I’d warn again that it will make you briefly sad about what some people have to go through. It’s also effective as a sociological read, understanding certain issues to scale, like gun violence. It’s refreshing to read a psychological book that focuses so much on the physical.

“Psychologists usually try to help people use insight and understanding to manage their behavior. However, neuroscience research shows that very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most originate in pressures from deeper regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention. When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it.”

The book mostly focuses on the neuroscience of trauma, rather than the emotion of it, but it’s well-balanced in regards to both. He describes various methods of treatment in incredible depth. (See also How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain to continue on that track.) Certain anecdotes were dark. It’s particularly helpful in thinking about veterans and those affected by military service. Also in terms of certain structures such as foster care, since so much of the issues that van der Kolk covers originate in childhood. (Complement that thought with To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care.)

I’ve been on a psychological/neurological kick in my book taste, but I also read it for personal reasons. I’m very upfront about wishing that 2019 had never happened. There’s been too much death, both in my family and among other people whom I love. Too much near-death. Too much else. I didn’t realize that bad things could cluster so succinctly, that the worst events of your life could all happen one after the other. I’ve found bits of joy in it still, found a lot of reflection, so much more risk than I ever would have taken otherwise. But as a whole, I’d be a lot happier if it turned out to just be a terrible dream and I could wake up to it never having happened.

Part of reading books like this also mean acknowledging how much self care and positive psychology have become buzz words. (I also just, in general, have a philosophical interest in what you do to something when you label it — how much of an effect it has on somebody to categorize them. There’s a fascinating chapter on naming and words in Drunk Tank Pink by Adam Alter that discusses the constraints of language.) The wellness economy is fascinating to me.

The Body Keeps the Score emphasizes the necessity of dealing with the physical to control the mental. The capacity of your brain to snap into fight or flight, the toll it has on you over time, etc,. Even aspects of reality like our individual experiences of space and time.

It’s a hard book to read, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it to everyone. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone going through something really difficult unless you have the mental distance to be able to digest some of the issues on an academic and unemotional level. It’s an excellent book as a whole, and well done.