Book Review: The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk

A woman reading a book on the couch.

Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are two conditions that can have a significant impact on one’s mental health, but what do they look like? What does trauma mean? And how can we treat trauma? These are all questions that Dr. Bessel van der Kolk answers in his book, The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.

What is trauma?

Trauma can be defined as an extremely distressing experience, and it has been linked to a myriad of negative effects throughout the lifespan. It is estimated that 70% of adults in the U.S have experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime. 

In The Body Keeps The Score, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk discusses his new understanding of trauma. “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” (van der Kolk, 2014). Trauma affects all parts of a person’s being and reorganizes how one thinks and behaves. 

Trauma can look different from person to person. Some symptoms of trauma can include:

  • Nightmares
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory issues

To learn more about the symptoms of trauma and PTSD, click here.

The biology of trauma

The brain is a complex organ that influences how we think, feel, and act. Each part of the brain is in charge of certain functions that make you who you are.

In a study comparing individuals who had experienced a highly traumatic event to those who had not, Dr. van der Kolk discovered the following brain differences:

  • When traumatized people are exposed to sounds or images related to their traumatic experience, their amygdala, the “fear center” of the brain, reacts.
  • Broca’s area, the area of the brain responsible for speech and language production, went offline when traumatic flashbacks were triggered.
  • Stress hormones of traumatized people take much longer to return to baseline.

The long-term effects of childhood trauma

More than a quarter of the U.S. population is likely to have been repeatedly physically abused as a child (van der Kolk, 2014).Our brains are not fully mature until our mid-20’s to late-20’s; during our childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, our brains are still developing. Trauma during this time can affect the development of the brain. 

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk completed much of his research on individuals who experienced childhood trauma. He found that it was particularly difficult for individuals who experienced childhood trauma to recover. He noticed that growing children have difficulty recovering when their caretakers are the source of their terror. Individuals who have been abused or neglected as children not only experience trauma, but they tend to struggle with self-esteem and socialization issues into their adult years.

The road to recovery

To help his clients, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk searched out the most effective treatment modalities. Modern-day society has been very focused on medications for mental disorders, but Dr. van der Kolk found them to be less effective than other approaches. “SSRIs can be considered adjuncts in the overall treatment, but dulling the traumatic sensations creates long-term reliance on the medications” (van der Kolk, 2014).

Dr. van der Kolk posits that Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) and Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy are very promising therapeutic modalities for individuals who have experienced trauma. Beyond the traditional CBT treatment, EMDR and IFS help you to identify with your feelings in order to process traumatic memories. In EMDR, clients who struggle to communicate in session can find relief as EMDR treatment does not require communication. Yoga and mindfulness have also been shown to be promising in the recovery from PTSD and trauma.

Getting the help you need

“For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present” (van der Kolk, 2014).

Trauma can have many negative impacts on our lives. Our brains have evolved to remember and process these intense emotions to protect us from danger. When these traumatic memories and emotions do not subside, they can lead to long-lasting effects such as depression, addiction, and anxiety.

Great Lakes Psychology Group has a network of hundreds of clinicians with a variety of areas of expertise to help you get back on track to the life you want. Start your road to recovery today and call 800.693.1916 or click here to be matched with your best-fit therapist.