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5 Lessons We Learned From The Body Keeps The Score

Updated: Feb 17

✎ Written by: Dubravka Rebic ✓ Fact-checked by: Dr. Nathan Brown, Ph.D.

There aren't many books containing dense and scientific material that also manage to top the New York Times best-seller list for 150 weeks – that's almost three years – and counting. The Body Keeps the Score by psychiatrist and author Bessel van der Kolk is quite possibly one of the most popular mental health books in the last decade. The numbers speak for themselves; it has sold nearly two million copies worldwide!

So what’s all the fuss about? For one thing, The Body Keeps the Score is a hopeful book. Although it emphasizes the broad scope of traumatic experiences and the profound, often devastating impact they can have on an individual, it also makes the case that therapy is effective and that post-traumatic distress need not be a permanent condition.

Furthermore, Bessel van der Kolk summarized his four decades of experience studying the impact of trauma on the brain. He synthesized the most important breakthroughs in neuroscience, psychology, and body-centered therapies and created a coherent blueprint for understanding and treating trauma.

But he also made us realize how common trauma is. According to Dr. Van der Kolk, even if we haven't experienced it first-hand, there's a good chance that we know someone with a history of trauma, such as neglect or abuse. And that’s what makes the knowledge from this book so widely applicable.

The Body Keeps the Score is not only considered a life-changing read for trauma survivors; this book can also help our society become better friends, parents, and partners. It can support us on a journey to becoming kinder and more empathetic versions of ourselves.

According to Dr. Van der Kolk, the journey starts with a deeper understanding of trauma.

Lesson 1: The Brain-Body Connection Is Real

When we experience a real or perceived threat, our brain's alarm system gets triggered. This alarm system involves a region of the brain called the amygdala, which Dr. Van der Kolk refers to as the brain's smoke detector.

When the amygdala senses a threat (for example, a person on the street who looks threatening), it recruits the stress hormones and autonomic nervous system to orchestrate a whole-body response that propels us to run, hide, fight, or, on occasion, freeze in order to confront the threat. In these moments, we might notice a quicker heart rate, shallow breathing, sweating, and an inability to think clearly.

Simultaneously, our frontal lobes, which Dr. Van der Kolk refers to as the "watchtower," offer a view of the scene from above. In many cases, they can help us respond to a false alarm and turn off the brain's smoke detector. With PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), however, the balance between the amygdala and the frontal lobes shifts radically, which makes it much harder for the brain to recognize that the alarm is likely unwarranted.