The Body Keeps the Score

written by Julie Long (Founder and Counsellor) on 30/09/19

Years ago I read the book, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist and leading trauma researcher for over 30 years. His book and the Trauma centre he founded in Massachusetts helped me modify the idea of Safe Harbour Therapy into what it is now. A Superstore for Trauma that houses the modalities he discussed and more to address well-being in those 7 dimensions of wellness.

Trauma is a big word and I think many people don’t think it relates to them if they haven’t been through a major event. There are big T traumas like war and large scale natural disasters. But there are little t traumas like alcoholism, domestic violence, divorce, the death of a loved one from a crime, or from suicide. Trauma affects everyone – those who are directly involved and those indirectly involved because they witnessed the event or are interacting with the individual who was directly involved in the trauma. Regardless of what it is, trauma can feel unbelievable and unbearable; and can leave people with a lasting fear that the damage done cannot be undone.

Brain imaging technology like PET scans and fMRI’s have helped us understand that when trauma happens our right hemisphere (or our animal brain) becomes activated or it lights up in the brain scan and our left hemisphere (or our human brain) becomes deactivated or doesn’t light up in the brain scan. Our right hemisphere is our emotional brain and it remembers our experiences through our emotions and senses. Our left hemisphere is responsible for analytical thought, facts, and talking. Normally these two hemispheres work as a team but if one side goes off line, we can’t function as we usually do. In times of trauma or stress, our thinking brain goes off line and our emotional brain takes charge.

Have you ever heard yourself say, “I feel like I’m losing my mind” Or “give me a second, I need to think”. Usually we can take a few deep breaths to calm down and then we can think and get on with the task at hand. But people who have been through really profound traumas or traumatic events one after the other almost habituate to where their body is in a constant state of stress and have a hard time coming down and finding that state of calm. And their body has become so used to responding to stress that it responds too quickly to perceived threats in their environment. It’s like the brain has rewired so efficiently that it responds when it doesn’t need to – it’s like it’s taking it’s job too seriously. Living in this constant state of stress wears people down to the point where they can’t think clearly, have difficulty remembering, are irritable, can’t sleep well, and over time have long term health issues where their body is most compromised.

I imagine the most frustrating part of trauma is that overtime our mind learns to tune out the nagging message about the threat in the environment. So it doesn’t have to deal with it anymore – like that boring teacher’s voice in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day off. You know if I think about it, it’s probably the most efficient way to handle a situation. Take out the messenger to speed things up by speaking directly to the body. But that doesn’t mean that our brain has quit – it just means that body is keeping score. The right hemisphere still sounds the alarm to speed up our heart, quicken our breath, move our muscles to get ourselves to safety or tells the body to shut down like a rabbit hides from danger. People who are constantly battling traumas in their lives learn to tune out the discomfort in our body with medication, drugs, alcohol, work, tv, food, anything to dull the unbearable sensations of distress. Yet if we can learn to listen to our body, we can integrate the experience in a new way.

Here’s where it really gets interesting!

In the past people would see a therapist and talk about what happened to them. Yet what research has discovered is that talking may not be enough – this may come as a relief for those of you who don’t want to talk about it. What the latest research has uncovered is that the effects of trauma on our brains prevent us from talking about it – not matter how insightful we are. Remember that the right hemisphere bypasses the left hemisphere to respond to stress and it’s the right hemisphere that holds the memories in our emotions and body sensations imprinted from trauma not our left hemisphere. This is why we need to shift the way we think about addressing our health and healing the impacts of trauma in therapy.

When people are suffering with their health it’s not because they are weak or can’t think or talk their way out of their body’s distress. It’s because their right hemisphere is in the way. It’s become too efficient at responding to stress that it can’t calm down enough for the left hemisphere to do it’s job – THINK of a better way of responding.

Bessel van der Kolk presented the following modalities to harness the ability of our brain to change and enable the two hemisphere’s to start working as a team again:

The first is from the top down with talk therapies so we can reconnect with others like a therapist and use our mind to talk about what happened so we can know and understand the impact of our trauma.

The second type of approaches to reverse the imprint of trauma is medicines and technologies like neurofeedback which change how our brain organizes information so we can stop our body from sounding the alarm when it thinks it’s encountering a traumatic event. These are the approaches that allow the right hemisphere to relax so our left hemisphere can make executive decisions that are in our best interests in each moment instead of our right brain’s knee jerk reaction to stress.

And the third way to heal the impacts of trauma are with the bottom up approaches like somatic experiencing and trauma sensitive yoga that help our body experience sensations and movements in the safety of a therapists office. That way, our body can experience a sense of agency when those trauma sensations are triggered – a feeling opposite to the helpless rage or complete collapse it remembers from memory of the trauma event.

If you are feeling like you are still trying to survive and want to move past your traumas to live a life in which you thrive, please check us out online safeharbourtherapy.com and start your healing journey today.

Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin Books , 2014).

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