The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk: A quick summary and review. This is a powerful look at trauma and stress. Definitely add this one to your to-read list!
I’d wake up heart pounding, all senses on high alert. It would take me as much as one or two hours to calm back down, convince myself that the house hadn’t been breached, and stop jumping at every little noise so I could go back to sleep. Needless to say, I never really got a good night’s sleep.
About a year and half ago, I got an alarm system with cameras and all the works. I thought this would solve the problem, but I still kept waking up, certain someone was coming to get me. After checking the cameras and the alarm app on my phone, it was a little easier to get back to sleep, but having the alarm system just made me feel crazier.
Obviously no one was in the house, no one was coming to get me, there was NO DANGER. I knew before I went to sleep that I wasn’t in any danger, and yet, I’d still wake up in a panic. I figured it was just something I’d have to live with.
A few months ago, I heard this book, The Body Keeps the Score (affiliate link), mentioned on a podcast. The host of The Alison Show mentioned that the book was really helping her deal with the trauma from a car accident she’d experienced. I was intrigued and picked up a copy.
This book is incredible! I’d even venture to say, it’s a life-changing book. And, I always roll my eyes when people say this, but I think this is a book that everyone could benefit from reading.
The Body Keeps the Score : Summary
Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk is a Dutch psychiatrist who has been studying post-traumatic-stress since the 1970’s. This book, is a powerful compilation of his pioneering research and experiences working with survivors for decades.
The central thesis in the book is that trauma and its resulting stress harms us through physiological changes to our body. Not only does this excess stress make us more susceptible to diseases, but it also compromises the areas of the brain that help us feel alive. Van der Kolk also notes that trauma doesn’t just affect those who have suffered it, but also those who surround them, especially the people closest to them.
One does not have to be a combat soldier, or visit a refugee camp in Syria or the Congo to encounter trauma. Trauma happens to us, our friends, our families, and our neighbors. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit. […} It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability.”
The book is divided into five parts. The first part, The Rediscovery of Trauma, tells Dr. Van der Kolk’s story – how working with Vietnam veterans helped him understand PTSD differently, and how the study and field of neuroscience has changed dramatically since the 1970’s.
The second part of the book, This is Your Brain on Trauma, explains how our brains and bodies respond to trauma and stress. Likewise, part three, The Minds of Children, looks at the unique effects of trauma and stress on children. Part four, The Imprint of Trauma, examines cases where trauma affects memory.
In the final section of the book, Paths to Recovery, Dr. Van der Kolk takes all of his research and experience and offers everything that he has learned about how to heal.
This is a powerful book! Not only is it full of insight and useful science for anyone who has experienced trauma and PTSD, but it will also inspire a new level of compassion for everyone around you who may be suffering. Van der Kolk convincingly argues that trauma is one of the Western world’s most urgent public health issues, and this book could be a catalyst for change.
I should warn you, however, that this is an intense read. It’s full of heart-wrenching true stories of survivors that Van der Kolk has worked with over the years. War veterans, incest survivors, trauma from botched surgeries, abused children, etc. These stories are sometimes very hard to read, but they’re also what make this book full of science and facts a compelling read. There are moments in the book that get technical, but overall, it’s very readable.
Mostly, the book is a very moving and redemptive account of human struggle and resilience. I highly recommend this book to everyone.
How it’s helped me
I wasn’t even halfway through this book when I started putting the pieces together for myself. In the prologue, Van der Kolk explains how the physiological changes caused by PTSD explain why traumatized individuals become hypervigilant to threat (it also explains why traumatized people often keep repeating the same problems and have trouble learning from experience). This resonated right away.
Before I read this book I didn’t consider that what I had experienced was trauma. Sure, I went through two divorces, both times while I was having a baby, but I thought that was just stress. The more I read about PTSD and the neuroscience behind trauma, I realized that so much of what I had experienced was traumatic. No one has ever broken into my house and attacked me, but I did marry someone that I couldn’t trust and I let him into my house and both the shame and the trauma of how it all unfolded and fell apart nearly broke me.
So, every night I would wake up reliving the feeling of being unsafe in my own home. This happened nearly every night for more than five years, but two months ago, when I began reading this book and putting the pieces together, it stopped. Instead of feeling crazy (and tired), I felt so much compassion for myself – for the part of me that was still so hurt that it needed to wake me up every night. And now, when I put myself to bed, I tell myself that I don’t need to wake up, that I’m safe. I actually say out loud to myself, “Allison, that trauma was in the past. You can sleep safely tonight.” It may sound silly, but I haven’t woken up in a panic for over a month now.
I still have some healing to do, but I’m so grateful to have found this book.
You can find The Body Keeps the Score here on Amazon (this is an affiliate link). You can also click here to listen to a fantastic interview with Dr. Van der Kolk on the podcast, On Being.