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, The Body Keeps the Score 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.
As a result, the parts of our brains that are on the lookout for danger are always on alert, and even the slightest sign of a threat can trigger the amygdala. It’s this overactivity that might keep us trapped in a prolonged state of emotional reactivity that can take its toll on the body. In fact, according to The Body Keeps the Score, there are many examples where trauma is connected to physical symptoms.
Lesson 2: Trauma Causes Physical Symptoms
Being trapped in a prolonged state of emotional reactivity might change the way our body functions. According to The Body Keeps the Score, when we are chronically angry or scared, constant muscle tension might lead to spasms, back pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia (widespread musculoskeletal pain), and other forms of chronic pain.
As a remedy, Dr. Van der Kolk mentions that learning to observe and tolerate our physical reactions by practicing mindfulness can calm down our nervous system, making us less likely to be thrown into fight-or-flight mode.
Practicing mindfulness means striving to be present and involved in whatever we are doing at the time. Some of the examples of mindfulness practice described in the book are yoga and meditation.
Mindfulness practice has been shown to positively affect numerous psychiatric, psychosomatic, and stress-related symptoms, including depression and chronic pain. It broadly impacts physical health, including improvements in immune response, blood pressure, and cortisol levels.
Lesson 3: The Mind Is Not Tending To The Present Moment
Being traumatized is not simply a problem of being stuck in the past; it is also a problem of not being fully present in the here and now.
According to The Body Keeps the Score, as long as we don't resolve the trauma, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself from danger keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses that belong to the past traumatic event keep getting replayed in the present.
For example, we might react intensely to some minor irritation as if the world were ending. Upon taking a step back, we may realize that these strong emotions are actually stemming from a traumatic event that occurred in the past.
Another reaction to these stress hormones being released is to freeze and numb us down, which might make our day-to-day events less compelling. For instance, we could feel emotionally detached during birthday parties for our kids or in response to the death of a loved one.
As a result of not being able to fully take in what's going on around us, we might feel ashamed, alienated, and disconnected from our community. Dr. Van der Kolk states that the solution to this problem is learning to gain mastery over our internal sensations and emotions, which brings us to the next lesson.
Lesson 4: We Have the Power to Regulate Our Physiology
If our brain activity has been impacted by trauma, our brainwaves are likely less coordinated than they should be. However, dysregulated brainwave patterns are not irreparable: they can be rewired and transformed thanks to a process called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity allows neurons (nerve cells in the brain) and the connections they form with each other to compensate for injury and adjust their activities in response to learning or changes in the environment. Brain training technologies such as neurofeedback can promote neuroplasticity and train our brain to regulate our brainwaves to achieve the desired brainwave state, allowing us to be focused or calm.
When doing neurofeedback training with Myndlift, for example, you would play a video game or watch a video while EEG technology measures your brainwave activity. Every time your brain reaches its optimal brainwave state, you receive positive feedback, and that feedback not only earns you points, but it gives you insight into your brain function – when it’s in its optimal state and when it isn’t.
Eventually, after consistent training, your brain learns to regulate itself and reach its optimal brainwave state without that immediate reward. As a result, you may find it easier to stay calm in stressful situations, like when you're struggling with difficult emotions and traumatic memories.
It’s important to note that this type of brain training doesn't require deliberate control. All you have to do is to be mentally focused and physically relaxed, allowing your brain to follow the feedback.
Lesson 5: Positive Relationships Are Fundamental To Our Well-Being
As Dr. Van der Kolk states in The Body Keeps the Score, our attachment bonds are our greatest protection against threats. Nothing soothes our fear like a soothing voice or a solid hug from a trusted person.
For instance, children who experience a traumatic event and are not immediately soothed by their parents or receive other forms of emotional support may suffer the effects of said trauma long-term.
Indeed, traumatized human beings recover in the context of relationships: with families, loved ones, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, veterans’ organizations, religious communities, or professional therapists.
The purpose of these relationships is to foster the bravery to accept, face, and process the reality of what has happened while also offering physical and psychological protection, especially safety from feeling shamed, admonished, or judged.
According to Dr. Van der Kolk and his best-seller The Body Keeps the Score, our most pressing public health problem today is trauma, and we are well-equipped to deal with it. The choice is ours to act on what we know!
About the author:
To help create awareness and positive change in the mental health space, Dubravka Rebic puts a lot of time and energy into researching and writing. From poring over scientific studies to reading entire books in order to write a single content piece, she puts in the hard work to ensure her content is of the highest quality and provides maximum value.
About the reviewer:
Dr. Brown is a clinical psychologist with over 35 years of experience using biofeedback and neurofeedback techniques. His clients include people dealing with depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, and other stress-related conditions. He also helps those who seek to simply "raise their game" in their personal lives as well as their careers.
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