BOOK REVIEW

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

A Foundational Resource about Trauma

Like Pete Walker’s Complex PTSD, Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score often comes up in my trauma group as a great resource. Many people have said that it can be triggering, which made it difficult reading to get through.

For my Trauma Recovery Coaching certificate program, it is required reading just as Pete Walker’s book is. I read Pete Walker’s book fairly early on the research phase of my healing journey, in fact, it kicked off the start of my shift into believing that I can actually get ‘better.’ Now deep into my healing journey, I am reading Bessel van der Kolk’s book possessing more vocabulary than I had a year ago and a slightly better understanding about how trauma affects our body.

In The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, van der Kolk combines his experience with his clients with recent and evolving scientific studies into a single resource for anyone working with trauma survivors. This is a must read for anyone who is eager to heal from their trauma, which could be from one event (like PTSD) or continual trauma (like Complex PTSD).

The Parenting Part

In Part Three: The Minds of Children, van der Kolk effectively argues developmental trauma is a hidden epidemic that is not being addressed, but SHOULD and CAN be. He talks about “the central principals that underlie the protean symptoms of chronically traumatized children and adults: pervasive biological and emotional dysregulation, failed or disrupted attachment, problems staying focused and on track, and a hugely deficient sense of coherent personal identity and competence.” Doesn’t all that sound familiar? So many people are suffering from these symptoms. COVID has pushed even more people over their line and into this category of trauma impacting their lives so much that normal day-to-day activities become impossible.

I read this book for my Trauma Recovery Coaching Program, but I cannot help but apply this to my Parent Coaching Certificate Program. Everything I read in this book is telling me that by helping parents manage their stress, prioritize connection over correction, and articulate a personal narrative, we can heal and find our true selves. When we parent with our true self, flaws and all, our children can thrive in a safe environment.

This is the main reason why I’m passionate about preventing parents inadvertently passing on our own trauma to future generations! We have the opportunity to make the world a better place by focusing on our own corner of the world: our children!

As long we we feel safely held in the hearts and minds of the people who love us, we will climb mountains and cross desserts and stay up all night to finish projects. Children and adults will do anything for people they trust and whose opinion they value. But if we feel abandoned, worthless, or invisible, nothing seems to matter. Fear destroys curiosity and playfulness. There can be no growth without curiosity and no adaptability without being able to explore through trial and error, who you are and what matters to you.

To be blunt, if children fear our reaction to them in any way shape or form, they are susceptible to feeling unloved, judged, or traumatized, which stunts their growth.

The Hopeful Part

The entire second half of the book is dedicated to the ways we can heal ourselves from trauma! van der Kolk seamlessly weaves in stories about his own clients, his collaborations with other scientists, and research done all over the world. In some ways, I feel validated that my own instincts have been pushing me in this direction, creating my own unique Managing-Trauma-Toolbox.

Quite a few approaches sound familiar, like mindfulness, such as meditation, yoga, or breathwork. But many others are quite new, like IFS therapy (Internal Family Systems) and EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). A few jumped out like theatre and improv, which excites and resonates with me. I can certainly relate to my spirits being lifted when I’m singing Madonna at the top of my lungs and dance sexily. During the lockdown, watching and singing songs from Hamilton the Musical saved my sanity! After decades of running away from my Chinese background, I have rediscovered qigong!

Fundamentally, it’s all about creating a safe place for the person to unpack the trauma and practice how to deal with discomfort without retriggering an emotional flashback to the helpless we felt when the trauma got embedded into our nervous system.

The Bigger Picture Part

This is a bigger issue than what an individual does to heal themselves. There are implications for national policies and community supports for the members of our society.

Economists have calculated that every dollar invested in high-quality home visitation, day care, and preschool programs results in seven dollars of savings on welfare payments, health-care costs, substance-abuse treatments, and incarcerations, plus high tax revenues due to better-paying jobs.

In general, as we all learn more about the impact of trauma on our nervous system, compassion for each other and for our children can become the default approach, replacing judgment and expectation.

We are on the verge of becoming a trauma-conscious society. Advances in neuroscience have given us a better understanding of how trauma changes brain development, self-regulation, and the capacity to stay focused and in turn with others. We now understand why traumatized people become disengaged, why they are bothered by sounds and lights, and why they may blow up or withdraw in response to the slightest provocation. We have learned how experiences change the structure and function of the brain–and even affect the genes we pass on to our children.

Co-creating safety is a priority. People who are constantly in fight-or-flight states will not be able to learn sustainable skills to control and change their behaviour. A person reacting from trauma (I have started calling my trauma-based reactions ‘trauma drama’) will behave in ways that seems like over-reactions, often inadvertently triggering the exact behaviour from others they are trying to avoid.

Trauma impacts every single relationship we have, especially with those we love most; healing from trauma positively impacts all our relationships.

People can learn to control and change their behavior, but only if they feel safe enough to experiment with new solutions. They body keeps the score: If trauma is encoded in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching sensations, then our first priority is to help people move out of fight-or-flight states, reorganize their perception of danger, and manage relationships.

This is resource book that anyone interested in understanding and/or healing trauma will buy and read over and over again. I highly recommend this book.

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