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Ever wondered why it’s such a struggle to make peace with yourself years after experiencing something traumatic? Though the answer isn’t simple, it’s clear that trauma can affect anyone. Whether we’ve personally faced it, know someone who has, or aren’t even aware that we’re affected, its impact is far-reaching. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk explains the various ways trauma manifests and how it deeply impacts our brains and bodies. In this article, we’ll provide The Body Keeps the Score summary, and review its relevance to help you decide if it’s worth reading.

The Body Keeps the Score Summary

The Body Keeps the Score is written by a Dutch-born Psychiatrist and clinician, Bessel Van der Kolk. It reveals interesting insights into how trauma can affect the mind and body, including resulting in uncomfortable feelings in our bodies and trapped emotions we can’t quite describe with words. Drawing from more than 30 years of research and clinical practice, his book gives us ideas on how to take control of our bodies and lives again.

Here’s a detailed summary of The Body Keeps the Score.

Experiencing Stress Beyond a Traumatic Period

The Impact of Trauma on Daily Life

Experiencing trauma can change how our brains work. When we go through a challenging event, the part of our brain that responds to stress, called the amygdala, becomes too active. This floods our body with stress hormones and makes the memories of the event stronger. At the same time, the part of our brain that helps us think clearly and control our emotions, the prefrontal cortex, doesn’t work as well. This increased sensitivity to reminders of the trauma can last a long time even after the physical healing is complete, causing ongoing anxiety.

For example, think of someone who’s experienced a car accident. In many cases, even after they’ve healed physically, their brain might keep replaying the accident over and over again, making them super alert and anxious whenever they’re in a car. They might feel like every car on the road is about to crash into them, even if they logically know it’s unlikely.

The Body Keeps Score Summary - How Trauma Affects the Brain

The impact of trauma on Relationships

People who have been through trauma often feel alone and find it hard to trust others because of the pain they’ve suffered. They also think that nobody can really understand what they’ve been through.

Plus, they have trouble figuring out how others feel or what they mean by their actions because they’re always on high alert. This makes them see most people as threats, and they don’t act friendly, which keeps others from wanting to be around them.

Helplessness After Trauma

Following a traumatic event like a car crash or combat experience, survivors may start feeling helpless, believing they have no control over their situation. This learned helplessness leads them to accept their circumstances with a sense of resignation and acceptance of their circumstances.

Experiencing Flashbacks

Trauma survivors sometimes have flashbacks. These flashbacks can be caused by things like pictures, sounds, smells, or words that remind them of their trauma. When this happens, they might suddenly remember their traumatic experience, and it’s hard to know how long it will last.

Developing Risky Behavior

Van der Kolk demonstrates how trauma can drive people to engage in risky behaviors through stories from several trauma patients. Take Tom, for instance, a veteran who witnessed his friend’s death in combat. He found himself avoiding situations and feeling emotionally detached. To cope, he turned to excessive drinking and dangerous motorcycle riding. This shows how people may resort to risky behaviors to try to cope with trauma.

Similarly, Van der Kolk noticed a patient, Sherry, who survived child abuse, picking at her skin during her consults. After trauma, people can feel disconnected from their bodily sensations. Because Sherry felt so detached from her body and feelings, it was hard for her to see and deal with the harm she was causing herself.

Approaches to Healing from Trauma

Van der Kolk outlines three ways to regain control and recover from effects of past trauma.

The Top-down Approach

The Top-down theory is that if we start by working on our thinking, it can help reduce symptoms in our emotions, like anxiety, worry, fear, anger, and loneliness. When our thinking and emotions start to feel better, it can also help reduce symptoms in our body, like trouble sleeping, headaches, backaches, and stomach problems.

Medication

Using medication is one of the main tools available to deal with trauma. For example, MDMA (ecstasy) helps people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) feel more aware of themselves and have more compassion. However, drugs like MDMA and antipsychotics can have serious side effects, such as cognitive impairment. Furthermore, instead of helping to heal from trauma, drugs only numb our bodies from experiencing negative feelings.

So, while medications can help with trauma symptoms, they don’t solve the main problem. That’s why it’s essential to look into other things like mindfulness and yoga, which have shown promise in helping people heal from trauma without just relying on medication.

Getting Comfortable with Body Sensations

Neuroscience teaches us that our bodies give us many clues about how we’re feeling. But when something terrible happens, we try to block out those feelings or look for intense experiences to feel better. The problem is, when we do that, we forget how to listen to our bodies, making it hard to understand what we’re feeling. This is called alexithymia.

Yoga can help us get back in touch with our bodies. It teaches us to focus on our breathing and how our body feels. This allows us to understand how our emotions can make us feel physically. Learning to handle our feelings is essential, especially for people who’ve been through tough stuff. Yoga can be a great way to learn how to do that and feel better. Other treatments that help people suffering from trauma engage their bodies in healing include:

Therapists use Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to help people process distressing memories. During EMDR, the therapist guides the individual in recalling distressing memories while using eye movements or taps to help them cope with those memories.

Heart rate variability (HRV) helps individuals understand how their body’s automatic nervous system is doing. The automatic nervous system controls involuntary responses like fight or flight mode, which lets us know when to defend ourselves or run when we encounter danger. Trauma can mess up this system, causing it to get out of balance. By watching HRV, individuals and their therapists can see how the automatic nervous system is doing and decide on the best ways to help.

Psychomotor therapy uses physical movement and psychological processes to promote healing and well-being. It focuses on the connection between the mind and body, using movement, expression, and body awareness to address emotional and psychological issues.

What are the Key Takeaways? 10 Big Ideas on Trauma and Treatments

The Body Keeps Score Summary - Top 10 Ideas on Trauma and its Treatments

Defining Trauma

When we experience a stressful event we can feel distress that has impacts on the brain and body long after the traumatic event. This is what we now refer to as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. All trauma sufferers face negative effects on their brains and bodies that last until effective treatment can heal them.

Mental-Emotional Scars

The book highlights the wide-reaching impact of trauma. It emphasizes that traumatic experiences can happen in everyday life, not just in war zones or refugee camps, affecting individuals and their communities. Van der Kolk acknowledges the challenges posed by trauma while also underscoring the resilience of the human spirit.

Flashbacks and Memories

Van der Kolk discusses how trauma flashbacks are involuntary memories of traumatic events. They can be triggered by different things like things we see, hear, smell, or even feel. These flashbacks make people feel like they are experiencing the traumatic event all over again, causing strong emotional and physical reactions. The book emphasizes that trauma survivors may have flashbacks unexpectedly, and the length and intensity of these episodes can be different for each person. It also highlights the importance of understanding and managing flashbacks as part of the healing process for individuals recovering from trauma.

The Trauma Affects the Brain

The amygdala is a key part of the brain’s stress response. Traumatic stress causes chemical and functional changes in the emotional part of the brain. This leads to an overactive amygdala, which releases stress hormones and affects the functioning of the hippocampus. This can make traumatic memories more vivid. Additionally, trauma can make the thinking part of the brain less active, making it harder to interact with others and carry out daily activities.

The Mind Affects the Body

When you’ve experienced trauma, being hypervigilant can prevent you from connecting with others through physical cues. Your mental state can make it difficult to show welcoming facial expressions and body gestures. Others may notice this and withdraw from you, even if you’re not aware of it. This withdrawal can cause the traumatized person to mistakenly see other people as a threat.

Stop Automatic Responses

Numbing yourself or seeking intense sensations may help you get through tough times, but it also means you lose touch with your body. Paying attention to your feelings enables you to control your emotions better. People who have experienced trauma need to learn how to accept their feelings, understand their inner experiences and develop new ways of reacting.

Resilience from Secure Attachments

From birth, our interactions with caregivers shape our ability to handle our feelings and understand the world. The way our caregivers look after us teaches us how to care for ourselves. When caregivers are attentive and responsive, it helps us feel safe and learn important social skills. But for kids who have experienced trauma, these connections may not be so strong, making it harder for them to control their emotions and relate to others. Van der Kolk’s observations show how early relationships affect our development, emphasizing the need for secure attachments in building resilience.

Treatments

Van der Kolk describes three main paths to healing. The first involves talking to someone and feeling safe with others, known as the top-down approach. Another trauma treatment is using medication. Finally, bottom-up strategies include activities that make the body feel good, such as exercise.

Medication

While there are situations where medication use is necessary, such as when patients feel completely overwhelmed or unable to sleep, it’s important to be cautious. Van Der Kolk advises that stopping medications after long-term use can lead to withdrawal symptoms, including agitation and increased post-traumatic symptoms. He suggests, wherever possible, exploring other treatment options like practicing mindfulness or yoga, which allows you to reconnect with your body and emotions safely and nonjudgmentally.

The body’s role in healing

The bottom-up approach to healing trauma involves directly engaging the body. This approach focuses on activities and therapies that address the physical sensations and responses associated with trauma. Examples include yoga, mindfulness practices, physical exercise, massage therapy, and other body-centered therapies. The goal is to help individuals reconnect with their bodies, regulate their physiological responses, and release stored tension and stress related to past traumas. This approach promotes holistic healing and well-being by addressing the body’s responses to trauma.

The Body Keeps the Score Review

Bessel Van der Kolk’s main idea in The Body Keeps the Score focuses on trauma. He emphasizes that even if we try to ignore or forget trauma, our bodies remember it. This leads to physical changes, like increased stress hormones and changes in how our brains process information. This has big implications for therapy because just talking about trauma might not be enough to heal it. Van der Kolk shares his findings from working with patients, highlighting that there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for trauma. However, he emphasizes that the body is crucial in healing trauma. He suggests that experiences that challenge feelings of helplessness or rage can help.

Who Should Read The Body Keeps the Score?

The Body Keeps the Score is recommended for anyone interested in understanding trauma and its effects on the body and mind. It is particularly beneficial for individuals who have experienced trauma themselves, mental health professionals, caregivers, educators, and anyone seeking insight into trauma and its treatment.

Is The Body Keeps the Score a Good Book?

Despite discussing a complex topic, The Body Keeps the Score feels nothing like a textbook. It uses engaging narratives to help explain how trauma affects the brain and body. Although some of the narratives explored are painfully graphic, readers often appreciate the empathy shown in sharing these intense experiences.

The book is also considered inclusive. It draws attention and shares accounts of many types of trauma, from child abuse to the psychological effects of war zones on veterans. It also shows how similar negative experiences can result in different traumas.

Its drawback for some readers could be that it is sometimes long and detailed. One might say it has too many accounts of trauma, and going through all those accounts can be harrowing.

Your preference for in-depth explorations of complex narratives versus a lighter, more accessible approach will determine whether you find the book good.

Ultimately, the book is based on many years of research and real-life experiences, making it a trustworthy source of information. It shares valuable insights from studying trauma over time and testing different treatments.

Other Recommended Resources

The Body Keeps Score is a useful resource for anyone hoping to understand or recover from trauma. You can purhase the book here.  Or, check out these other books to deepen your understanding of trauma and learn how to cope and heal from it.

The Body Remembers

The Body Remembers sheds light on how trauma affects the body. It explores how traumatized individuals carry implicit memories of their experiences, which manifest in symptoms like nightmares, flashbacks, and dissociative behaviors. Furthermore, the author shares principles and techniques to address the body’s role in trauma. By consolidating current knowledge on stress response, the book is valuable for individuals dealing with both typical stressors and severe trauma.

The Brain that Changes Itself

The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science explains the concept of neuroplasticity, and challenges the long-held belief that the human brain is fixed. The book includes narratives of people who changed their lives by being able to alter their brains–from a woman born with half a brain (and rewired it to function normally) to people overcoming various learning disorders, strokes, cerebral palsy, depression, and anxiety. While this book doesn’t specifically target trauma, its insights into the brain-body connection can provide helpful information into the transformative potential of neuroplasticity in healing from trauma.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman provides a comprehensive review on the biology and neurology of emotions, and explains how you can develop and apply emotional intelligence to improve your relationship, health, well-being and performance.  Such insights help to build a deep awareness and understanding of how your emotions and rational thoughts are interlinked, and how to recover from trauma or other psychological disorders.

The Upside of Stress

The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. addresses how to manage stress in a positive way to improve your health and performance.  Trauma represents extreme stress to the mind and body. By understanding the biology of stress, increasingly your ability to manage stress, or even harnessing it to thrive under pressure, you can permanently increase your resilience and coping mechanisms under stressful situations.

About the Author of The Body Keeps Score

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma is authored by Bessel Van der Kolk, a Dutch-born Psychiatrist and Clinician. In 1984, he set up a clinical/research center in the US dedicated to the study and treatment of traumatic stress in civilian populations. He has devoted his career to understanding how children and adults adapt to traumatic experiences. He’s shared his findings through several research papers and books that he has either authored or co-authored. For more information, please visit besselvanderkolk.com.

The Body Keeps Score Quotes

“The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.”

“Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on – unchanged and immutable, as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.”

“Scared animals return home, regardless of whether home is safe or frightening.”

“In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them.”

“It takes enormous trust and courage to allow yourself to remember.”

“As long as we feel safely held in the hearts and minds of the people who love us, we will climb mountains and cross deserts and stay up all night to finish projects.”

“Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.”

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