During the early 1990s, the emergence of brain-imaging tools provided a groundbreaking glimpse into what actually happens inside the brains of people who experienced trauma.
The findings astounded the scientific community, unveiling a profound truth: Trauma is not merely an isolated event from the past, it is also the imprint left by that experience on the mind, brain, and body.
At the forefront of trauma research at the time, spearheading innovative studies and pushing the boundaries of knowledge, was psychiatrist and author Dr. Bessel van der Kolk.
Van der Kolk summarized his four decades of experience studying the impact of trauma on the brain and synthesized some of the most important breakthroughs in neuroscience, psychology, and body-centered therapies in his New York Times best-seller The Body Keeps The Score.
The Body Keeps The Score is driven by years of groundbreaking research as well as compassionate clinical expertise and offers a roadmap toward healing and resilience. But before we dive into trauma release techniques, let's break down how trauma is stored in the body.
How Trauma Affects the Body and the Brain
When faced with an actual or perceived threat, your brain's alarm system is activated. This system involves a brain region known as the amygdala, referred to by Dr. van der Kolk as the brain's "smoke detector."
Upon sensing a threat, the amygdala triggers the release of stress hormones and activates the autonomic nervous system. This orchestration of responses throughout the body compels you to either fight, flee, hide, or occasionally freeze in order to confront the perceived threat.
During these moments, you may experience symptoms like an increased heart rate, shallow breathing, perspiration, and an inability to think clearly.
Simultaneously, your frontal lobes, which Dr. Van der Kolk refers to as a "watchtower," provide a view of the scene from above. In many cases, they help you to respond to false alarms and turn off the brain's smoke detector, allowing your body to relax and respond appropriately to perceived danger.
However, in the context of trauma, the delicate balance between the amygdala and the frontal lobes can be disrupted. This shift can make it more challenging for the brain to recognize that the alarm is likely unwarranted, and that a perceived threat is a false alarm.
As a result, the parts of your brain responsible for vigilance and threat detection remain in a constant state of alertness. That means that even the slightest indication of a potential threat can trigger the amygdala.
This heightened activity can keep you stuck in an extended period of emotional reactivity, which can negatively impact your physical well-being.
In fact, The Body Keeps the Score states that persistent feelings of anger or fear can result in chronic muscle tension, leading to conditions such as spasms, back pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia (characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain), and other forms of enduring pain.
According to the book, trauma is not something that can be completely "released" from the body, but it can be effectively managed and its impact reduced.
The Body Keeps the Score highlights the following four paths to alleviate trauma symptoms:
“Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.” – Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
The Body Keeps The Score teaches us that due to the profound impact that trauma can have on your wellbeing, your life might come to revolve around numbing unwanted sensory experiences.
According to van der Kolk, numbing often manifests through self-destructive behaviors such as addiction to exercise, work, food, alcohol, or drugs. It can even impair your ability to act on your physical sensations. In other words, if you're not aware of what your body needs, you can't take care of it properly. For example, if you're unaware of your boundaries, you may ignore signs of exhaustion and continue to work excessively, potentially causing harm to your body.
The Body Keeps The Score suggests that practicing to notice what you’re feeling can foster emotional regulation, which could help you become more aware of what is going on inside you.
In yoga, you focus your attention on your breathing and on your sensations throughout your practice. This heightened awareness will help you tap into the connection between your emotions and your body. For instance, you may notice that feeling anxious about doing a certain pose actually throws you off balance.
Furthermore, body awareness can also change your response to the time it takes to overcome negative sensations. While trauma can make you feel as if you are stuck forever in a helpless state, in yoga you can learn that sensations rise to a peak and then fall.
To illustrate, if you're not able to hold a yoga position, a teacher might encourage you to notice any tension and hold it for ten breaths. As a result of this practice, you may learn how to reconnect to your body, anticipate the end of discomfort, and strengthen your capacity to deal with physical and emotional distress.
2. Theater & Movement
"Traumatized people are terrified to feel deeply. They are afraid to experience their emotions because emotions lead to loss of control." – Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
In the Berkshires of Massachusetts, there's a program called "Shakespeare in the Courts," that offers adolescent offenders an alternative path to traditional punitive measures.
Working alongside Shakespeare & Company artists, these young individuals have an opportunity to engage with Shakespeare's plays, where they explore the text, participate in classes, rehearsals, and ultimately prepare their own performance pieces.
The program showed enormous efficacy because it helped the participants better understand complex human emotions, encouraged them to reflect on their actions, boosted their self-esteem, and improved their communication skills. Furthermore, through the program's collaborative nature, they developed a strong sense of community, forging bonds of camaraderie and cooperation.
According to van der Kolk's research, by allowing them to physically and emotionally connect with their feelings and experiences, theater can help trauma survivors as well. In fact, The Body Keeps The Score underlines the following benefits of being a part of a theater group:
Theater can help you regain control of your body. The book states that even standing up straight and projecting your voice through the theater can be a significant challenge for trauma survivors because their inclinations are typically to try to be invisible. In order to act, you must move with intention and make deliberate choices about your physicality on stage, which can help you regain the feeling that you have full control and ownership of your body.
Theater can give you a sense of strength and competence. By being a part of a theater group, you're a valuable, contributing member of a community, which can help you regain a sense of worth and competence. Additionally, communal singing and movement can give you a sense of strength, hope, and a visceral feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself. According to van der Kolk, trauma can be healed by these physical sensations.
“There is something very empowering about having the experience of changing your brain’s activity with your mind.” – Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
Your brain activity can tell a lot about your mental state. For instance, your brainwaves, which are patterns of electrical activity occurring in the brain (e.g., alpha, beta, theta, gamma, delta), are closely tied to different states of consciousness: attentiveness, relaxation, and sleep.
They serve as indicators of your focus levels and your overall state of relaxation.
If your brain activity has been impacted by trauma, it's more than likely that your theta brainwaves, which should be dominant during "autopilot" states, are amplified when you should actually be focused or alert. As a result, you may feel absent-minded, forgetful, easily distracted, or confused.
However, dysregulated brainwave patterns are not irreparable; they can be rewired and transformed thanks to neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity allows neurons (nerve cells in the brain) and the connections they form with each other to adjust their activities in response to learnings or changes in the environment and compensate for injury.
In other words, our brains have the incredible ability to rewire themselves, forming new connections and adapting their functioning to learn, grow, and recover, enabling us to continuously evolve and adapt throughout our lives.
Brain training technologies such as neurofeedback can promote neuroplasticity and train your brain to regulate your brainwaves to achieve the desired brainwave state so that it can be easier for you to stay calm in stressful situations, like when you're struggling with difficult emotions and traumatic memories.
Learn more about different brain waves from here.
“The trauma had lost its immediacy and became a story about something that happened a long time ago.” – Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
In 1987, psychologist Francine Shapiro was walking through a park, preoccupied with some painful memories, when she discovered rapid eye movements relieved her distress.
Despite her initial skepticism, years of research transformed her observation into a standardized procedure called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).
EMDR is a specialized therapy that aims to reduce distressing emotions associated with traumatic memories. It does so by engaging bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements or taps, to help unlock and rewire the negative emotions tied to the trauma.
But how does it work exactly?
One theory suggests that when we think about a traumatic memory and follow something with our eyes, our brain uses more memory capacity than what is available. As a result, the distressing memory is not fully accessed and loses its intensity.
As a result, the dual activity of thinking about a distressing memory and rapidly moving the eyes from side to side appears to reduce the level of emotion in the memory and promotes healing.
According to van der Kolk, these are the most intriguing benefits of EMDR:
EMDR may enable people to heal from trauma without talking about it. During an EMDR session, a therapist guides you through specific protocols involving focused attention on the traumatic memory while engaging in bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements or taps. Through this process, EMDR can help you access and process the traumatic memory at a neurological level rather than solely relying on verbal expression.
EMDR may give people rapid access to loosely associated memories and images from the past. This is due to the bilateral stimulation used in EMDR, like eye movements or taps which stimulate both sides of the brain, facilitating communication and processing between different brain networks. By activating these networks, EMDR might enable easier retrieval of memories that may have been fragmented or tucked away.
It's important to note that EMDR is not a one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, van der Kolk's research showed that even though EMDR could be a powerful treatment for resolving trauma that stems from an event that occurred in adulthood, it doesn't necessarily resolve the effects of the betrayal and abandonment that may accompany childhood abuse.
Furthermore, due to limitations in research studies on EMDR, including sample sizes, study design, and lack of rigorous control groups, some researchers argue that more robust research is needed to establish its efficacy compared to other trauma treatments.
The Body Keeps The Score Summary
Each individual's journey is unique, and what works for one person may not for another. The key is to approach trauma recovery with patience, self-compassion, and professional guidance.
The techniques discussed in The Body Keeps the Score offer a starting point, empowering trauma survivors to explore and discover the modalities that resonate with their healing process. As you embark on this journey, surround yourself with a supportive network of professionals, friends, and loved ones who understand the complexity of trauma and can provide the empathy and encouragement you need. By integrating the mind-body connection, you may embark on a path towards reclaiming your life, restoring balance, and embracing a future free from the grips of past traumas.
Enrich your knowledge about trauma further because the more you know about what your brain is going through the better you’re able to connect with your body. Here are 5 Lessons We Learned From The Body Keeps The Score.
About the author:
Dubravka Rebic puts a lot of time and energy into researching and writing in order to help create awareness and positive change in the mental health space. 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:
Kaija Sander is a cognitive neuroscientist and scientific consultant for Myndlift. She holds a BSc in Biomedical Science with a specialization in Neuroscience and Mental Health from Imperial College London and a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University. Her doctoral research focused on brain connectivity relating to second language learning success. She is passionate about the broader applications of science to have a positive impact on people’s lives.
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