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The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.


The Body Keeps the Score is the preeminent book on the study of how trauma impacts us mentally, emotionally, neurologically, and physiologically, giving voice to the lived experience of trauma survivors everywhere. Though the book is written from a scientific perspective, it provides an easily digestible explanation of trauma, its causes, its impacts, and ways to address the impacts from trauma. Van der Kolk also explains the impact of adverse childhood experiences, the functionality of EMDR as a treatment, PTSD, and the link between chronic illnesses and trauma. Most importantly, his writings remind us that “our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another.”


TRIGGER WARNING: The book contains anecdotes involving survivors of child abuse, sexual abuse, and combat. 



How past traumas can show up in our day-to-day lives: “When something reminds traumatized people of the past, their right brain reacts as if the traumatic event were happening in the present. But because their left brain is not working very well, they may not be aware that they are reexperiencing and reenacting the past – they are just furious, terrified, enraged, ashamed, or frozen. 


Many mental health problems & destructive behaviors develop as a reaction to unprocessed trauma: “As long as we register emotions primarily in our heads, we can remain pretty much in control, but feeling as if our chest is caving in or we’ve been punched in the gut is unbearable. We’ll do anything to make these awful visceral sensations go away, whether it is clinging desperately to another human being, rendering ourselves insensible with drugs or alcohol, or taking a knife to the skin to replace overwhelming emotions with definable sensations. How many mental health problems, from drug addiction to self-injurious behavior, start as attempts to cope with the unbearable physical pain of our emotions?”


How we begin to change the trauma narrative: “Change begins when we learn to ‘own’ our emotional brains. That means learning to observe and tolerate the heartbreaking and gut-wrenching sensations that register misery and humiliation. Only after learning to bear what is going on inside can we start to befriend, rather than obliterate, the emotions that keep our maps fixed and immutable.”


How EMDR addresses trauma: “To my mind the most remarkable feature of EMDR is its apparent capacity to activate a series of unsought and seemingly unrelated sensations, emotions, images, and thoughts in conjunction with the original memory. This way of reassembling old information into new packages may be just the way we integrate ordinary, nontraumatic day-to-day experiences . . . [EMDR focuses] not only on regulating the intense memories activated by trauma but also on restoring a sense of agency, engagement, and commitment through ownership of body and mind.”

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