Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday: “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk

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Someone once told me that The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk is “part of Therapy 101.” That might be true, and it might not, but lots and lots of people have definitely read and benefited from this book.

While as a therapist I don’t specialize in trauma, and I don’t have as strongly positive of a reaction to this book as many others have had, I do appreciate its message and realize that it has been important to the furthering of trauma awareness in our culture.

Read it because you want to understand the ways traumatic experiences have affected you both emotionally and physically, and because you want to take Therapy 101.

Key Takeaways

  • This book describes the physical and emotional scars left by trauma. It helps the reader understand the effects it might have had on their bodies as well as their lives.
  • People who experience healthy upbringings are less likely to experience traumatic events in their adult lives. Partly, this is because people who believe themselves to be worthy of love, and were always told they were worthy of love, don’t see people who disagree with that view as viable friends and partners.
  • On the other hand, people with traumatic childhoods might expect poor treatment; it may even feel like home. Their “inner map” of what normal, healthy relationships look like is different.
  • The book describes the ways that trauma affects cells and immune systems, citing studies that support these conclusions. For example, people with trauma might have more memory-holding cells in their immune systems.
  • It might not be important to fully recall the events of trauma in detail, since if you do so, you run the risk of becoming retraumatized. Trauma therapy must be performed carefully, as flashbacks and other somatic reenactments can occur.
  • Trauma inhibits the self-sensing part of the brain, causing repression, and some people might need to relearn how to be in tune with their bodies. When healing from trauma, it is important to pay attention to your bodily sensations, including your breath, muscular tension, emotional responses in the body and the like. This can help you notice when you are triggered.
  • Some people who have had severe trauma might find a sense of satisfaction and excitement in the natural fight-or-flight response that is associated with abuse and trauma. This is because it takes them out of the withdrawal they often experience in daily life.
  • The ventral vagal complex, including the vagus nerve, which slows down our acute symptoms of stress and deepens our breathing, does not work as well in people with chronic trauma.
  • It is important for people with trauma to be socially involved and to develop trust and safety in the presence of others. Emotional attunement can alleviate distress and increase distress tolerance.
  • Sometimes, in therapy, people who have experienced trauma can heal in a “bottom-up” approach. They can learn to attune to their bodies and self-calm physically, which will then calm them emotionally as well.
  • “Visiting the past in therapy should be done while people are, biologically speaking, firmly rooted in the present and feeling as calm, safe, and grounded as possible. (“Grounded” means that you can feel your butt in your chair, see the light coming through the window, feel the tension in your calves, and hear the wind stirring the tree outside.)”
  • Strong emotions can block pain–temporarily, of course–in people with trauma. This is another reason people with trauma might unconsciously make reckless choices.

About the Author

Bessel van der Kolk is a Dutch-American psychiatrist and author known for his expertise in the field of trauma and the effects of trauma on the human body and mind. He has dedicated his career to studying and treating trauma-related disorders. He has conducted extensive research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and has been instrumental in advancing our understanding of how trauma affects the brain and body.

As a clinician, van der Kolk has worked with countless individuals who have experienced trauma, including survivors of abuse, war veterans, and victims of natural disasters. He is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, which provides comprehensive treatment for trauma-related conditions.

Bessel van der Kolk continues to advocate for a comprehensive, holistic approach to trauma treatment, emphasizing the importance of addressing both the psychological and physiological aspects of trauma to achieve healing and recovery. His work has had a profound influence on the understanding and treatment of trauma-related disorders.


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