Has The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.
Everyone is familiar with the stories of traumatized war veterans who have lived a life of cruelty and pain, who have killed others during combat, or who have witnessed the death of a fellow soldier. Oftentimes, traumatized soldiers simply cannot find their way back into society. They struggle with their memories, develop hypersensitive reactions, and become strangers to themselves and their loved ones.
But what exactly happens to the body and mind of a person who’s experienced trauma? And why is it so difficult to find relief from it?
In this book summary, you’ll learn why traumatic experiences haunt us. You’ll learn how trauma patients perceive their environment, why there’s hope for traumatized people, and how trauma can be healed.
In this summary of The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, you’ll also find out
- why war veterans only trust other war veterans;
- why an ordinary picture in a magazine can trigger horrifying thoughts; and
- how yoga can relieve trauma patients of their pain.
The Body Keeps the Score Key Idea #1: Surprisingly, trauma is incredibly common in our society.
Trauma isn’t just something faced by war veterans – it’s something far more prevalent in our society than we may realize. The fact of the matter is, trauma is something that can happen to anyone, so it’s time we figured out what this actually means.
Trauma is the result of an experience that has caused a person extreme stress or pain, leaving that individual feeling helpless, or perhaps too overwhelmed to cope with adversity. Of course, experiences involving wars can easily result in trauma, but violent crimes and accidents can cause them too.
Rape and child abuse are terrible events, and they are unfortunately more common than you might think. It’s been reported that 12 million women in the United States were rape victims in 2014 alone, and more than 50 percent of those women were under the age of 15 at the time of their assault. On top of this, every year in the United States, there are 3 million cases of child abuse.
Traumatic experiences like these can alter the lives of those affected, as well as the lives of their friends and family. Traumatized people often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can lead to depression and substance abuse.
On top of the trauma itself, traumatized people tend to mistrust anyone who hasn’t experienced the same suffering that they have, often assuming that nobody can understand them. This became clear in one of the therapy groups the author organized for Vietnam veterans.
While the group did help the veterans find friends to share their experiences with, those who hadn’t been traumatized by the war were considered outsiders by the group – including the author. It required weeks of intense listening, empathizing, and trust building with the veterans for them to accept him.
Establishing a rapport with someone suffering from PTSD is a challenge in and of itself, so just imagine trying to maintain a marriage, a close friendship, or a stable parent-child relationship. Often, traumatized people find it difficult to trust even the people who love them the most, including their partners and kids. This tends to be very tough on friends and family, and a lot of times, leads to estrangement or divorce.
The Body Keeps the Score Key Idea #2: Flashbacks force traumatized people to relive the mental and physical experience of their trauma.
Do you ever all of a sudden get reminded of something embarrassing you did and feel yourself squirm or blush? If so, then you have a small idea of how memories of trauma can impact the human body.
When a PTSD sufferer is reminded of their trauma, their body and brain enter a high-stress mode, which means they perceive the memory as if it were real. This is called a flashback, an impact of trauma that the author studied in an experiment he carried out with his patients.
The patients each agreed to listen to a recording of a script that recreated their specific traumatic experience. As the script played, participants inhaled air that contained a tiny concentration of radioactive particles. This would be visible on a brain scan, which would allow the author to see which areas of the brain were active while the patient was remembering their trauma.
Marsha, a 40-year-old teacher, was first up for the experiment. Her script took her back to the tragic accident that caused her to lose both her five-year-old daughter and the unborn child she was pregnant with at the time.
As Marsha listened, she experienced an intense rise in blood pressure and heart rate. Activity in the left half of her brain, the side responsible for rational thinking, slowed down and effectively “deactivated.” This kind of deactivation makes it difficult for PTSD sufferers to realize that what they’re hearing, seeing, and feeling during a flashback isn’t real.
In Marsha’s brain, the Broca’s Area, the area responsible for speaking, showed a significant decrease in activity, leaving her unable to speak. She had an huge increase in her stress hormone levels that remained high. For the mentally healthy, stress hormones will spike and then decrease as soon as a threat has passed. The problem is, for those with a traumatic past, these hormones take far longer to return to normal levels.
This just goes to show that being reminded of trauma can be almost as horrifying as experiencing the traumatic situation itself.
We read dozens of other great books like The Body Keeps the Score, and summarized their ideas in this article called Anxiety Mouse.
Check it out here!
The Body Keeps the Score Key Idea #3: Childhood trauma has tons of negative impacts that affect not only a person’s youth, but their adulthood as well.
Traumatic experiences can be hard enough to process as an adult, but there’s nothing tougher than facing trauma in childhood. Children’s brains aren’t even fully developed, so when kids undergo a trauma, they’re at a far greater risk for experiencing negative consequences throughout their lives. These are things that might surface in the years that immediately follow their traumatic experience, as well as later in adulthood.
Oftentimes, traumatized children simply expect bad things to happen. The author was able to confirm this in an experiment he conducted where he showed cards with pictures of magazines on them to children who had experience trauma, as well as those who hadn’t.
One card had an image of two children watching their father fix a car as he lay underneath it. While children without trauma imagined a story based on the image where the father successfully repaired the car and took the kids to McDonald’s, the traumatized children imagined much darker scenarios.
One girl imagined a story in which one of the children in the image would smash the father’s head with the hammer he was holding. Another child said the car would fall, crushing the father’s body. These children perceived the image with a number of triggers that led them to imagine the scene ending in a violent way.
These thinking patterns often persist into adulthood.
Take Marilyn, one of the author’s patients and a former nurse. While she reported that she’d had a happy childhood, this simply wasn’t true. Marilyn was sexually abused as a child, a traumatic experience that shaped her life as an adult.
She had a tendency to lash out when men touched her, even in her sleep. She also developed an autoimmune disease that damaged her vision, which most likely only emerged because of the stress her trauma put on her body.
While Marilyn’s case might sound extreme, she isn’t alone in her experience. Plenty of people who experienced trauma in their childhoods continue to suffer as adults.
The Body Keeps the Score Key Idea #4: While normal memories fade and change, traumatic memories are vivid, unchanging, and easily triggered.
When we tell stories, we tend to embellish, exaggerate, or even omit parts of our experiences. Once you’ve told a story five times, it’ll likely be a far different story from the first version you told. We even remember things differently over time. Why is this?
Generally, we don’t actually memorize the sensory details of events. Most of us might simply remember what we did or how we felt in a general sense, but we don’t story vivid memories about how the room smelled, or the exact details of a person’s face. But it’s a different story when it comes to traumatic memories – we remember these situations vividly, and the memories don’t change over time.
The author looked at this difference between the two types of memories by asking subjects of a study to recall important, yet nontraumatic life events, like the birth of their child or their wedding day. In these cases, the participants recalled their general feelings, like happiness or nervousness, but they didn’t have a detailed image of how their partner’s hair looked when they were saying “I Do,” for example.
The thing is, when the participants were asked to recall traumatic memories, smell, taste, touch, and hearing played a far more important role. One participant who was a victim of rape said that a specific smell of alcohol reminded her instantly of her trauma, so much so that she couldn’t go to parties anymore.
We recall traumatic experiences consistently, and these memories are unwavering. In a study conducted at Harvard Medical School, 200 men were tested regularly from the day they joined the experiment (between 1939 and 1945) and the present day. The subject of these tests were their memories, and how trauma, or lack thereof, shaped them.
Many participants were World War II veterans and subsequent PTSD sufferers. While the memories of participants who weren’t traumatized by the war changed over time, the veterans’ memories didn’t change at all. They remained consistent for more than 45 years after the end of the war.
Trauma stays with you, both in your body and your brain. So how do people learn to live with it?
The Body Keeps the Score Key Idea #5: Yoga offers trauma sufferers a safe way to explore the relationship between their body and mind.
Our minds and bodies are closely connected. In order to live a balanced, stable life, we need to understand how our emotions work, and in turn, how they impact our bodies. Unfortunately, trauma can make this an incredibly difficult process.
Oftentimes, trauma leaves people with a hypersensitive alarm system in their bodies. Those who suffered sexual abuse as children, for example, might experience crippling panic in a completely harmless situation, such as cuddling with their partner.
In order to avoid these feelings, traumatized people will often try to numb their emotions through drinking too much, taking drugs, and even through overloading themselves with work. These things often provide a temporary solution, but do far more harm than good to a person’s mental health in the long run. The good news is, there’s a far healthier way to cope with overwhelming emotions that come after a trauma: yoga.
For trauma survivors, yoga provides a safe way to start to get in touch with their emotions and understand how the body experiences them. Annie, one of the author’s patients, decided to give it a try. As a rape victim and PTSD sufferer, the first yoga classes were incredibly difficult for her. Even just a gentle pat on the back from her instructor triggered her brain’s alarm system.
Despite this, Annie stuck with yoga, refusing to give up. Eventually, she noticed that her body was always sending her signals about her emotional state. In particular, Annie struggled with the yoga position of “happy baby,” which requires you to lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet up in the air.
While Annie felt a huge amount of pain, vulnerability, and sadness in poses like these, she didn’t push those feelings away, choosing to explore and accept them instead. Yoga allowed Annie to come to terms with her negative emotions and allowed her to realize that she could deal with them head on, rather than trying to hide them.
The Body Keeps the Score Key Idea #6: Key to trauma recovery is to have plenty of supportive relationships and practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is more than just a trendy concept – it’s an incredibly effective lifestyle choice. It’s actually a super powerful tool for trauma recovery. But, how does it work?
Mindfulness is effective in maintaining a conscious awareness of your whole body and your emotions, rather than denying them. Doing so is especially hard after trauma because painful memories can cause us to repress our emotions instead of addressing them.
Nobody enjoys feeling sad, angry, or broken, especially when experiencing these emotions is directly related to memories of a past trauma. The thing is, though, when we push these feelings away, you also lose the opportunity to confront your trauma and start healing from it.
A person becomes able to alleviate the psychological and physiological impacts of trauma through mindfulness, including depression, stress, and psychosomatic conditions such as chronic pain. It’s also helpful in improving immune responses, activating regions of the brain that can help regulate emotions, and balancing out stress hormone levels.
On top of being mindful, supportive personal relationships are indispensable when it comes to finally recovering from a traumatic experience. When they build a strong network of family, friends, and mental health professionals, patients are then able to make sure that they always have someone to turn to when they’re going through a hard time. These networks can be formed through AA meetings, religious congregations, and veterans’ organizations, just to name a few.
The Body Keeps the Score Key Idea #7: Neurofeedback can help trauma sufferers to rewire their brains.
Are you aware that basically everything that goes on in your brain depends on electrical signals? These brain waves govern our thought processes, so, you might say, they’re pretty important. Unfortunately, they can also be damaged by trauma. Let’s find out how.
There are multiple types of brain waves, one of which being alpha waves, which are triggered when we feel calm and relaxed. A recent study at the University of Adelaide in Australia examined soldiers who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and revealed that the longer they spent in the war zone, the fewer alpha waves their brains produced. So, rather than the alpha waves they were supposed to be producing, the soldiers produced brain waves similar to those of kids diagnosed with ADHD, which can hinder their ability to stay calm and focus.
Fortunately, the brain has the potential to recover. How? Through a process called neurofeedback.
Neurofeedback is a process that allows traumatized people help in changing the brain waves they produce, therefore encouraging the production of alpha waves so that they’re able to relax and keep calm. The process involves displaying the patient’s brainwaves on a screen in front of them in real time, which lets them see when they need to make a conscious effort to relax. Once they finally do relax, they’ll physically see their alpha waves be produced, which can allow them to even be rewarded through an interface that feels awfully close to a video game.
For example, Lisa was a 27 year old former patient of the author’s. Lisa’s father abandoned her family when she was three, leaving her to be raised by an abusive and cruel mother. Lisa ran away from home twice, passing through several foster homes and mental hospitals, and even spending time living on the street.
Years of this trauma left Lisa with strong self-destructive urges. She’d hurt herself and destroy the things around her, with little ability to regulate her emotions. But once she began neurofeedback treatment, things changed dramatically. With her newfound ability to produce alpha waves and consciously make herself relax, Lisa was finally able to talk and work through the traumatic events from her childhood.
The thing is, though, although neurofeedback can be really effective, it’s still rarely applied. Overall, our society has a long way to go when it comes to understanding and dealing with trauma. But, as society has gained a broader acceptance of mindfulness and improved knowledge about mental illness over the years, there is good reason to be optimistic about the future of mental health treatment.
In Review: The Body Keeps the Score Book Summary
The key message in this book:
Although trauma can happen to anyone, not many of us know how traumatic experiences can impact our mental and physical health, even decades after the event. Mindfulness, support networks, yoga, and new techniques like neurofeedback are all essential tools for trauma survivors as they learn to accept, cope with, and recover from their trauma.
Suggested further reading: Find more great ideas like those contained in this summary in this article we wrote on Anxiety Mouse