Book Review: The Body Keeps the Score

The Body keeps the score is the book I would have needed decades ago.

I would have needed it when I decided to do whatever was necessary to heal. I believe it would have saved me years of confusion.

And even if I feel much better these days, it is still an amazing read.

This book feels validating, compassionate and insightful. It explains perfectly how a traumatized person feels and thinks, and why.

More importantly, it’s full of hope that recovery is possible and points to proven, but not generally talked about, healing modalities.

Validating sexual trauma

I grew up in a place and time that held Sigmund Freud as the one and only oracle in terms of mental health. This view proved to be very detrimental to my well being.

After all, Freud explained all mental health troubles by inner conflicts, one of which being our desire to sleep with our opposite sex parent. He might as well have been carrying a huge sign in front of my eyes saying “there is nothing happening here, it is all in your head”.

For an incest victim, it was particularly unsavory. It still makes me very angry – not that he stated this, it was 150 years ago for God’s sake; it’s more that there are still confused idiots to repeat this nonsense today.

Later, Vietnam veterans fought for the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to be included in the list of mental health illnesses. They won (after quite a fight).

To my knowledge, it was the first time ever psychiatrists recognized mental health problems might be caused by what happened to their patients, as opposed to them being malfunctioning in some way.

For me though it became even more confusing: trauma seemed to be linked with combat, and not with sexual violence. It involved having nightmares and vivid recollection of horrible war scenes, apparently.

My complex arrays of symptoms did not look like veteran PTSD. I did suffer from emotional flashbacks, depression, attention problems, dissociation, and sky high anxiety alternating with feeling dead inside. But I did not have nightmares or vivid recollection of traumatizing events.

I felt I did not belong to the PTSD crowd.

It felt so validating then, to read a book giving a lot of examples and stories about patients who went through sexual trauma, along with more “classical” examples such as veterans or survivors of road accidents. It is so natural for Bessel Van Der Kolk that he does not even take the trouble to explain that sexual violence is traumatizing.

Of course sexual violence is traumatizing. It can be especially so when it comes from someone we love and trust, as is often the case. We then have to carry the immense confusion between love and abuse, sometimes our whole life. And Dr Van Der Kolk obviously gets this. What a relief.

Hypervigilance and feeling numb are two sides of the same coin

Many traumatized individuals are too hypervigilant to enjoy the ordinary pleasures that life has to offer, while others are too numb to absorb new experiences – or to be alert to signs of real danger.

Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score.

Yeah, this was me. Both hypervigilant and numb.

At times, I have been eaten away by anxiety, or even outright panic. I was detecting signs of danger everywhere. The world seemed hostile. At the same time, I was going through wave after wave of pain, unknowingly reliving emotions from my childhood. Usually, that’s when I felt “in love”. Oh God, what a horrible experience.

At other times, I was so numb that I could not feel a thing, even when confronted with the death of a loved one. As the author aptly writes, when this happens we can feel like monsters.

It also prevents us from detecting very dangerous situations or people. I remember literally standing as a bystander in a gun fight and thinking, well, this is weird, everything is moving in slow motion and I still don’t feel scared.

As I wrote in this article, what Bessel Van Der Kolk drove home is that feeling numb is what happens when we cannot take the pain and fear anymore. We are not monsters. We tune out distress at some stage because it is impossible to function when our inner life becomes unbearable.

We choose functioning. It’s useful for things like, say, earning a living or getting and education. That’s the unconscious choice I made, and it was a good choice. I would do it again.

However, when this happens we are functioning but not really living, numb as we are. Then at some stage it feels too much like dying and we let ourselves feeling again. And the inner chaos is so intense that after a while we shut down again… The first time it happened I was 17, and I went through this cycle a few times afterwards.

Healing is also social, and physical

Usually, we are presented with two types of treatment : talk therapy, and pills.

Bessel Van Der Kolk, despite being a psychiatrist and having prescribed lots of meds in the past, is more severe than me regarding medication. For him, it did overall more harm than good.

His explanation is very convincing. Basically, medication is here because it is easy to prescribe, and generating a lot of money for a lot of people. Not because it is effective.

Because guess what: it is not, and comes with a lot of unsavory side effects. In fact, psychiatric medication have killed more people than heroin. That’s, er, sobering to say the least.

As for talk therapy, he is far more nuanced. I understand he believes it can be of great help, but talking and analyzing cannot on their own heal a person. It is one of the helpful tools that can be used, but ignoring our bodies or our social support is a huge mistake psychiatry and psychotherapy have made.

Bessel Van Der Kolk talks about the efficiency of EMDR. About Yoga. About meditation. About music, theatre, and dancing. And I would add, breathing and exercise. Plus of course, our social circle.

It is so, so important. Our past, our stress, is held by our body and no amount of analyzing will help it one bit. We need to think about what happened to us, of course. But equally important, we have to take care of our social interactions and what our body needs. It’s at least half of the solution.

In other words, if you want to do yourself a huge favor, read this book.

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