The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk

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Body Keeps the Score Book Cover


The Body Keeps is a deep dive into the science of the brain, mind, and body as it relates to healing trauma. This book explores what trauma is, how it forms and the ways it manifests, and various modalities for beginning to rethink and heal trauma through various practices across disciplines.

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Key Takeaways

Trauma limits the imagination

When people experience trauma, they are pulled back to their past, losing mental flexibility and suffering from a lack of imagination. And imagination is at the core of having a high-quality life. Without it, we have no hope and are unable to envision a better future with goals and places to go.

The pharmacological revolution

Around the 1970s, psychiatry gained steam as a leading solution center for mental health issues as the cause of mental illness began to be seen as a chemical imbalance in the brain. This view of mental health as being caused by brain imbalances led to the proliferation of drugs being dispensed to people as a catch-all cure for a host of psychological and mental health disorders. One of the core problems with this “brain-disease model” of mental health is that it takes away agency from people to solve their own problems and puts trust in doctors and insurance companies who promise the cure.

There are four limitations when thinking of pharmacological solutions as the catch-all cure:

  1. It overlooks how relationships and community are central to our well-being and healing.
  2. It overlooks how we can use language to change ourselves and find new sources of meaning
  3. It overlooks how we can change our own physiology via breathing, moving, and touching.
  4. It overlooks how we can change people’s environments to help them feel safe and thrive.

Trauma’s impact on the left and right brain.

  • The right brain is intuitive, emotional, visual, spatial, and tactual.
  • The left brain is linguistic, sequential, and analytical.

What happens when people get very upset or have trauma is that their left brain stops functioning well. Essentially, people lose their executive function, which is why people often say they’re “losing their minds.” So when trauma is activated, it is primarily an emotional, right-brain experience that you have without the ability to use the reasoning of the left brain to understand or solve what is happening.

Feeling safe with other people

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”

To navigate a trauma response or difficult emotional situation, we need to feel truly heard and seen by the people around us. Feeling safe allows our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow. In the absence of safety, we remain activated and unable to move forward productively.

Limbic system therapy

To heal traumatic stress, we must restore the balance between the rational and emotional brains. When you do that, people can regain a sense of control over how they respond and what changes to make in their lives. The challenge of doing this is that trauma leads us into a state of hyper-arousal, engaging a fight or flight response that limits productive actions. The first step to healing trauma is to do limbic system therapy, which means repairing our faulty alarm systems and enabling our emotional brain to do its job without going into a compromised state.

Many modalities for healing trauma

There are many different modalities for healing trauma, some more effective than others.

  • Professional therapists from a range of disciplines, including cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), exposure therapy, and more.
  • Desensitization training
  • Pharmacological solutions
  • Using language and other forms of expression like art, music, and dance
  • Writing to yourself
  • Yoga and mindfulness
  • A commitment to self-discovery and self-compassion.

Great Quotes from The Body Keeps the Score

Trauma and safety:

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”

Approaching your body with curiosity

“As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”

What trauma really is

“We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”

Changing the way we feel

“Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.”

The greatest source of suffering

“The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.”

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