The Body Keeps the Score

By Bessel van der Kolk

The field of trauma and PTSD has grown exponentially over the past few decades. Research and practice discoveries have contributed to new understandings of how the mind and body interpret dangerous situations, process traumatic incidents, and recover from debilitating illness. Though trauma and PTSD have long been considered to be “all in your head,” Kolk systematically demonstrates how trauma leaves a physical imprint in the body, whether the individual struggling with the symptoms is consciously aware of the cause of their ailments or not. Beginning with an overview of the evolution of trauma diagnoses and treatment, Kolk then goes on to describe the impact of trauma and how to measure it by brain imaging, hormone levels, and other physiological indicators. Having defined the problem, Kolk closes by describing multiple treatment modalities for people experiencing severe symptoms of trauma, whether from developmental trauma (as seen in cases of child abuse) or once the brain is fully developed. Based on published research, Kolk describes the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of typical treatments, such as talk therapy, and alternative treatments, including yoga, theatre, and neurofeedback. Buoyed throughout by research evidence and practice experience, Kolk convincingly argues the case for reassessing our social and professional approach to working with survivors of trauma.

“The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk is a thorough yet accessible explanation of trauma. Based in more than 30 years of practice and research, Kolk is able to combine his experience working with individual clients with the rigorous standards of scientific replicability to produce a comprehensive description of how and why people respond to traumatic situations and how to lessen the impact of trauma. Kolk illustrates his descriptions with anecdotes and stories of patients he has treated over the years to provide further evidence of the efficacy of his discoveries, and also to keep the treatment of trauma focused on where it should be: the individual impacted by the experience. When including stories from his patients, Kolk writes with professional respect for their experience and maintains a strengths-based perspective. He also includes stories to demonstrate the vast and varied traumatic incidences, whether from sexual assault, combat exposure, motor vehicle collisions, or surgery without anesthesia, and also the range of responses to trauma, including repressed memories, chronic and unexplained physical symptoms, dissociation, or rage. Kolk creates the space for a multiplicity of truths in the experience of and recovery from trauma.

I love this book. Absolutely love it. It is entirely accessible, gives an amazingly thorough description of the physical impact of trauma, and offers insight and hope for working with people who suffer with ongoing symptoms of PTSD and other trauma-related ailments. Other things I love about this book: his constant focus on the importance of individual experience, how he maintains a strengths-based perspective for working with traumatized people, and his skeptical criticism of categorizing (whether for DSM diagnoses or replication of studies). I highly recommend this book for anyone and everyone, particularly those who work with other people (that includes you, teachers!). Traumatic experiences can happen incredibly early in life, and we can all work together to support people impacted by trauma and create the opportunity for healing in all parts of our daily interactions as well as our society.

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