Here’s What ‘Your Body Keeps the Score’ Really Means
OBJECTIVELY, THERE’S VERY LITTLE about The Body Keeps the Score that says “best seller,” except the best-seller list, where it’s been perched for nearly four years. Yet this 464-page, densely written tome by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., a psychiatrist and trauma researcher, about how traumatic experiences impact your capacity for pleasure, engagement, trust, and even self-control, has a life of its own right now.
“Kindly asking my body to stop keeping the score,” begs one viral tweet. “Can the score be like soccer and stop at around < 3? I feel like I’m playing with basketball scores,” cheesesteak2018 asks in a Reddit forum on stress. A few posts down, another user chimes in with “This is a book my sister wants me to read and I’m waaaaay too scared to do it.”
The book’s big break can’t be traced to one thing, like a celebrity tweet or a book club, although there are plenty of those. It’s more like a series of little breaks and the vibe shift happening around understanding trauma and how psychological pain can cause lasting physical damage. From systemic racism and mass shootings to natural disasters and increased awareness of sexual abuse, trauma is everywhere, even to the point that trauma memes are actually a thing. “Collectively, we are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of personal trauma and generational trauma,” says Arielle Schwartz, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Boulder, Colorado. “People are seeking, ‘What can I do about this?’ ”
Dr. van der Kolk’s long-winded but well-regarded answer—by way of many stories of hurt, healing, and scientific evidence—is basically that if a traumatic experience is not addressed, it can have long-term physical effects. Your mind might be aware that the event is over. But established science has found that the processes your body uses to defend itself can become a pattern. And they prevent you from moving on.
Brain scans of people reliving traumatic experiences show how the organ is actually changed by them, albeit in different ways for different people. The scan of a man who experienced flashbacks of a horrific car crash, for instance, revealed that his thalamus—a structure in your brain that’s usually a filter that helps you know which sensations to pay attention to and which to ignore—went completely offline during the flashbacks. Every little image, sound, or physical sensation that reminded him of the crash could trigger this thalamus outage. To process something like that, therapists like Dr. van der Kolk believe, you need to help your body understand that the danger is no longer present.
One way to start is by treating whatever physical symptoms manifest, says Dr. van der Kolk. The goal isn’t not to keep the score. It’s to be more aware that your body is doing it at all. Americans may be uniquely ready for a body-centered method. With the soaring popularity of mind-body practices, including yoga and mindfulness-based stress relief, people have already accepted that the mind and body need to be better in sync, says Avi Klein, L.C.S.W., a Men’s Health advisor and the founder of Downtown Somatic Therapy in New York City.
Dr. Van der Kolk wasn’t the first person to write about this kind of mind-body approach, “but he certainly has done it in a way that makes sense to people,” says Klein. Today, it’s an introduction to a type of therapy rapidly gaining acceptance: somatic therapy. Practitioners describe it as a “bottom up” approach. Whereas talk therapy encourages you to resolve issues by examining the narratives you create around them, somatic therapy helps you heal your concerns by getting to know, understand, and release physical sensations. Often, people try to bury those sensations with alcohol, sex, lashing out, or shutting down interpersonal relationships. “People don’t want to feel their bodies, because that’s where all of those difficult feelings reside,” says Schwartz. “It’s scary. But turning toward discomfort is a skill we need to develop; it’s the route to finding relief.”
For instance, if the only tool you had to protect yourself from a raging parent was to try to be invisible until the episode was over, you might find yourself feeling similar sensations in the face of a screamer of a boss, whether that’s an impulse to cast your eyes down or cover your face or turn away. “You’re relying on an old pattern to fend off something uncomfortable, but it’s based on old anxieties,” says Klein. “You basically use the nervous system of your child self to solve an adult problem.” To help remove the hold a pattern has on you, you can investigate how it works in your body, as well as what it takes to help shift it. Then you can redirect energy where it will better serve you. In the case of the raging parent, releasing old impulses “allows you to have more flexibility about how to protect yourself now,” Klein says. You don’t have to disappear. As an adult, you can ask to continue the discussion at another time or find other ways to diffuse the tension.
Therapy sessions that integrate somatic work may be even more useful than talk-only help for some people. “Our brains learn patterns, and those patterns are often more easily accessible from emotion and physical sensation than from logic,” says Klein. “Trauma memories are stored in a different part of the brain from everyday memory, which explains why we have trouble moving on from them.” Identifying specific sensations in the body and noting what emotions they bring up may be especially helpful for people who find it difficult or unnatural to talk about themselves. And being able to talk about issues doesn’t always help you change them. Both Schwartz and Klein say that helping the body unlock its unhelpful patterns can bring on an immediate feeling of relief. “The body not only keeps the score of where the trauma lives within us, but it also gives us feedback as to when we’ve released it,” Schwartz says.
Dr. van der Kolk centers his book on healing deep traumas like war and sexual abuse, but practitioners like Klein and Schwartz say the bottom-up approach can be useful for anyone struggling to move past a troubling experience or out of a pattern they’re stuck in. And they caution that it’s not the only way. “Nothing is going to be effective 100 percent of the time,” Klein says. But the book has opened more people to the notion that it’s important to acknowledge your trauma. “You don’t have to live a life under a burden you can actually heal from,” he says. In a world that is overrun with unprocessed trauma, we’re starting to learn that our bodies have something to say. We might be wise to start listening.
Learning what your body and mind are experiencing opens the door to preventing the patterns after trauma from controlling your life. Somatic therapist Avi Klein, L.C.S.W., suggests one way to start getting unstuck:
• Set a timer for five minutes. Starting at the top of your head, very slowly and deliberately scan your body for tension and other sensations. Notice what’s happening in your forehead, your eyes, your cheeks, and so on, moving down your whole body.
• When you find tension, be curious about it. Notice any feelings or thoughts.
• Take a deep breath in or let a long exhale out and see if the sensations or thoughts change, moving down the whole body again.
• If it’s really uncomfortable to sit with what you’re noticing, that’s normal. For help processing it, engage someone who practices somatic therapy. There are many branches, including the Hakomi method, sensorimotor therapy, accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy, somatic experiencing, and EMDR; each has its own list of providers.
This story appears in the October 2022 issue of Men’s Health.
Maddie Bender is a science journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American, VICE, CNN, and other outlets.
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