This weekend, I am reading a new book, it’s called The Body Keeps Score, and it was written by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, he is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, and is considered one of the world’s leading researchers and authorities on trauma and recovery.
Maria and I have been taking turns reading pages to one another Saturday afternoon, and there is something revealing or helpful in almost every chapter. We have both been diagnosed as trauma survivors, we both have dealt with Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD)and its symptoms.
The book is impressive, clearly and well written, well-organized and thoroughly researched. And timely.
This is not woo-woo stuff, it is quite scientific, Van Der Kolk became famous for his work and treatment of PTSD as it afflicted soldiers returning from war. He pioneered the idea that trauma reminds stored in our bodies, not only our conscious minds, and that trauma can only be healed if the body is treated as well as the mind.
One does not have to be a combat soldier, writes Van Der Kolk, or a Syrian refugee or survivor of massacres in Congo to encounter trauma and suffer from it. Trauma happens to so many of us, to our friends, our families and our neighbors.
Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of leaving marks on their bodies, and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relative and one of eight children witnessed their mothers being beaten or hit.
That list does not included the many thousands, if not millions, of veterans who have suffered PTSD, a casualty of war that governments and armies almost never want to talk about or fully acknowledge.
Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association as the emotional response someone has to an extremely negative event. While trauma is a normal reaction to an awful event or experience, sometimes the effects are so severe they interfere with normal life and cause emotional instability.
Some of the most frequent causes of trauma are violence, natural disasters, extreme political upheaval, severe illness or injury, the death of a loved one, or even a pet, or witnessing acts of violence.
Some researchers believe watching the modern incarnation of news – continuous conflict and graphic videos and reports shown repeatedly day after day, sometimes hundreds of times – can trigger trauma in many people.
A growing number of psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers report that the November election was a trauma for many people, a kind of violence and injury to the cultural system. This makes sense to me, I have seen trauma symptoms in many people who were shocked and upset by the election and its aftermath.
Trauma, by definition, Van Der Kolk writes, is unbearable and intolerable.
“Most rape victims, combat soldiers, and children who have been molested,” he writes, “become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened, and move on. It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability.”
Maria and I have both experienced trauma and have benefited from some of the techniques and approaches Van Der Kolk writes about – meditation, yoga, eye and body movements, breathing techniques.
What happened cannot be undone. Nobody can treat abuse or rape or terror or grief and make the source of it go away.
The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind – of your self. To take responsibility for facing what has happened to you.
This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or paralyzed.
For most people, this involves 1/finding a way to become calm and focused, 2/ learning to maintain calm in response to images, thoughts, sounds, or physical sensations that remind you of the past, 3/finding a way to be fully alive in the present and engaged with the people around you, 4/ not having to keep secrets from yourself or others, including secrets about the ways that you have managed to survive.
I have come to realize that my response to trauma has been my writing and my blog, Maria’s her art.
I have incorporated breathing and meditation into my daily life, I am learning to be calm in response to the disappointments, conflicts and surprises that trigger my trauma symptoms, I have come to see most fear and anxiety and panic as a symptom of illness, not as reality, I believe in being fully present in my life and engaged with people I have come to love and truth, and I have nearly come to worship the idea of being open and authentic in my writing.
My writing anchors me, the process of being open about me life heals me.
I fully accept that traumatic events in my life remain stored in my body and in what researches call my “emotional brain,” and that the body needs to be treated apart from talking therapy.
I have no secrets, either from myself or from others. I have no secrets to keep, I am liberated from hiding. When you have no secrets, you are free, there is nothing to fear. On my blog and in my books, I often write about the ways in which I have managed to survive, and so has Maria.
“The Body Keeps Score” is an impressive work, it is wise and helpful and credible, every word of it rings true to me. I have been dealing with trauma my whole life, and Dr. Ven Der Kolk knows his stuff.
“In order to regain control over yourself,” writes Dr. Van Der Kolk, “you need to revisit the trauma: sooner or later you need to confront what has happened to you, but only after you feel safe and will not be re-traumatized by it. The first order of business is to find ways to cope with feeling overwhelmed by the sensations and emotions associated with the past.”
I highly recommend this new book to the many people out there reading this who have experienced trauma in their lives and recognize the symptoms. I want to write more about it as I absorb it and think about it.
You can read an interview with Dr. Van Der Kolk here.