The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk [Infographic + Summary]

Clinical Psychology, Counseling, Psychotherapy / Monday, May 13th, 2019

By reading this summary of The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, you will discover how to leave the past behind.

The Author: Bessel van der Kolk

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. is a renowned psychiatrist, author, and educator with a research focus in the area of post-traumatic stress.

The Book: The Body Keeps the Score

‘The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma’ belongs to the sections of clinical psychology, counseling and psychotherapy books. It was initially published on September 25, 2014, and comprises of 464 pages. The book has an Amazon View score of 4.8 out of 5 with a total of 1,943 reviews to date (May 3, 2019).

Key Quote

“You can be fully in charge of your life only if you can acknowledge the reality of your body, in all its visceral dimensions.”

Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

The Body Keeps the Score Infographic:

Book infographic - The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. The description follows in the blog post.
Book infographic – The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

The Body Keeps the Score Summary:

The core issue explored in the book is that trauma causes destruction in our bodies and leave its imprints on mind, body, and brain. Trauma victims cannot fully recover because their responses are considered rational by themselves and people.

However, the core of recovery is self-awareness. Once people bring awareness to their feelings and actions and start to see them as merely defense mechanism, then they begin to retake control of their body, brain and consequently their lives.

The book educates us about how a brain becomes impacted by trauma and how to free ourselves from its effects. Let’s understand how:

Types of Trauma

Kolk explains that trauma results from several different experiences and situations. There are primarily two types of traumas.

Sudden Onset Trauma:

These are situations in which a person has lived in a reasonably regular or average life, but somewhere in his life, the individual is exposed to either isolated incident or a short series of separate events of traumatic experiences.

Developmental Trauma:

This term refers to people who have lived through a lifetime of traumatic experiences usually starting in childhood.

Difference between the two types based on the way the brain changes, the way the body reacts to the different experiences and changes as well as the way these different traumas are treated.

People need to understand that traumas do not only change the way we think but also change the structure and processes through which we process information.

Psychological Responses to Trauma

There are a number of responses an individual’s brain goes through. When a person goes through trauma, the situation puts his body in survival mode, which changes the way he processes information which is the high brain structure.

The high brain structure is required for our basic survival abilities. So, when we are in a situation that threatens us in some way, we turn on our survival mode and our sympathetic mode kicks in such as an increase in blood flow or oxygen.

Once the threat is resolved, the parasympathetic mode turns on and regulate the hormone levels and our body functions to pre-trauma exposure levels or the healthy manner as most people would say.

But what happens is that many times, the bodies fail to readjust and remain in the hyper-vigilant situation. It is where the real issues begin including psychological and physiological and affect our daily lives.

The manifestation of the Hyper Vigilance

Mental, emotional and physical hyper vigilance mostly reflects through different forms of behavioral hyper-vigilance.

One is PTSD reactions, these push people to abuse substances, develop depression or individuals to react extremely to situations like the traumatic incidents. The sensory information puts them back in the traumatic experience and initial trauma onset.

Another way is the withdrawal in which hyper vigilance manifests itself specially disassociation. It refers to mental, emotional and many times physical departure from reality.

So, a person experiences sensations such as anxiety or depression. He has a fear of losing control and always keep alert for danger or rejection. Many people experience self-loathing. All these prevent an individual from fully engaging in the present or focused on a task by creating a mental fog. It limits our emotions and unable us to feel through and experience life as it should be experienced.

Our Knowledge Liberates Us

According to Kolk, many times clinicians fail to recover the trauma patients. It is because of flawed diagnostic criteria and practices. Kolk stresses that the trauma impacts the more ancient part (reptilian) of the brain where talk therapies are unable to reach fully.

The most reliable way to communicate with this pre-verbal system is through the body, which signals the brain stem, the OK signal to begin the process of undoing the emotional paralysis that has frozen the individual for so long. Thus, the successful resolve depends on our willingness and capacity to feel and experience what is going on inside us.

Kolk explains that acknowledging what we went through and what we feel leads us to the liberation from traumatic impact. Having developed the hypersensitive alarm system causes emotional and physical discomfort even in harmless lives. Thus, comprehending that emotions affect the body, is the beginning to a balanced life.

‘’The only way to change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.’’

However, he does not negate the importance of cognitive approach but says that understanding of cognitive level is vital to make sense of things. So, talk therapies are necessary alibi but not the real game. It is the combination of the both, bottom-up (somatic) and a top-down (cognitive) approaches that can truly help move towards genuine healing.

Path to Healing

Nothing can change the reality of traumatic events such as abuse, molestation, and others but marks of the trauma on the mind and body can be positively dealt.

Healing definition

Kolk explains that healing means:

  • Discovering a way to become composed, motivated and focused.
  • Learning to uphold that serenity in reaction to thoughts, images, sounds, or physical impressions that recall the past.
  • Finding and maintaining a way to be wholly alive in the present and involved with people surrounding you.
  • To be true to yourself and stop having secrets with yourself such as the secrets regarding the means that made you survive.

Healing starting point

Kolk further explains that to access the emotional brain consciously, self-awareness is critical, and healing begins when people:

  • Begin with a consciousness that their trauma response is neurological and not rational.
  • Remove the sensory information which is obstructed and frozen by trauma; the sensory information includes emotions and physical sensations.
  • Uphold the drives freed by that inner experience than suppressing them.
  • Fulfill the self-maintaining bodily actions which were prevented while they were confined or immobilized by its fear.

How to leave the past behind?

He has pointed to some practices that are useful in combating the trauma proven by medical science.

  • Yoga is immensely helpful as ten weeks of yoga practice has shown diminished PTSD symptoms in patients who were previously treated with medications and therapies but failed.
  • Breathing exercises assist in nourishing the human tissues and keep people relaxed and in the present.
  • Replace dread and judgment in therapy with phrases like what happens next because this leads to move on rather than being stuck.
  • People with trauma are often afraid of feelings and navigate to negative coping mechanism. Therefore, be attentive to physical sensations and label them such as “When I feel anxious, I feel a crushing sensation in my chest.”
  • Remind yourself that you are secure and be repetitive.
  • Make use of affirmations to make you feel safe and protected.
  • Make use of music and dancing to bring and keep you in the present.
  • The best and natural way to relax people during stress is to touch them, hold and hug them.
  • Surround yourself with a support network as researchers have found it to the most vigorous defense against becoming traumatized because safety and horror cannot go side by side.

What to Expect from the Book?

The book provides a clear understanding of types of trauma, their causes and what emotional, physical and psychological responses people with trauma go through and why. However, Kolk has not only discussed the nature and science of trauma but has recognized why most trauma patients are unable to experience healthy lives.

The book clarifies that Individuals’ responses to trauma are not negative as mostly perceived by the majority but rather they are successful mechanisms to secure themselves which leads to negative consequences on life and personalities.

He has suggested many practical ways toward healing process that would be appropriate different people in different situations. The book covers both qualitative and quantitative research and has significant implications for social and health policies.

If you wish to understand trauma and help you or your loved one, the book is a comprehensive guide that facilitates the readers with core concerns related to trauma and practical answers to the issues associated with trauma and eventually every aspect of life.

Want to know more about this book?

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