The Body Keeps the Score - Healing Trauma
Updated: Nov 20, 2021
One of the most inspiring books I’ve read is ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by Bessel A. van der Kolk which examines the ways in which trauma is stored in the body.
My own memories of abuse surfaced in 2105 while doing breath-work at a spiritual eco-farm in Australia and they were repressed, meaning I wasn’t consciously aware of them before. When a memory is suppressed, it means we consciously know of it but are unable at that time or unwilling to process it and so energy is expended in suppressing.
Becoming aware of these memories explained a lot of the dysfunction and psychological impacts I have experienced throughout my life. I have spent the past six years healing my nervous system and re-integrating the shadow in regards to this. My nervous system is now often peaceful, occasionally I may find myself triggered but I have the tools and awareness to get my system back into a state of equilibrium and consider myself blessed in this regard and choose to live a peaceful life. I have outlined a few of the techniques from this book which I have found particularly helpful in harmonising the nervous system and have included them at the end of the blog.
Child abuse is unfortunately widespread – in the UK, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimated that for the year ending March 2016 by CSEW showed that 9% of adults aged 16 to 59 had experienced psychological abuse, 7% sexual assault, 7% physical abuse and 8% had observed domestic violence or abuse at home; a total of 31% had experienced abuse of some form. Another survey for the year ending March 2019, 7.5% of adults aged 18 to 74 years experienced sexual abuse before the age of 16 years (3.1 million people.) In reality, the figure is likely to be higher since some may not report abuse or may have repressed or suppressed the memories.
Abuse can happen to any vulnerable person or being who cannot speak up, such as children, the elderly or animals - or a perpetrator may use manipulative techniques to silence someone. From a spiritual perspective - we co-create our reality at the level of the soul, and due to limiting beliefs, conditioning or ancestral patterns we may experience challenging situations which we can learn from, transform and heal, not just for ourselves but also for the collective. We can empower ourselves and no longer give permission for others to take advantage of us or take our energy.
A predator may feel that they can get away with abusive behaviour since the child won’t have the language to articulate what they’ve experienced or analyse it with words and the feelings of the child may be experienced without any associated words, timeframe or understanding. Yet research has shown otherwise - that the body keeps the score - trauma cannot be forgotten.
“After birth, physical sensation defines our relationship to ourselves and to our surroundings. We start off being our wetness, hunger, satiation, and sleepiness. A cacophony of incomprehensible sounds and images presses in on our pristine nervous system. Even after we acquire consciousness and language, our bodily sensing system provides crucial feedback on our moment-to-moment condition.” From ‘The Body Keeps the Score.’
The following is a video of some research into the way toddlers moderate their behaviour according to the emotions of people around them - this 15-month-old child exhibited withdrawal after witnessing an angry person – the child is able to understand that something detrimental is happening in his environment without having words to analyse it:
The following is some research called the ‘still-face experiment’ looking at how babies respond to our facial expressions and how they can become distressed when not given attention or if the attention is not loving:
There is a lot of research online about the psychological impacts of the trauma of neglect including this from 1965 which demonstrated the impacts for infants from 7-18 months who had reduced capacities for play and feeling safe, with expressions of anxiety about playing a game:
We are learning more and more about trauma and realising that it doesn’t just disappear – the emotions and feelings associated with trauma continue to be stored in the body and if we experienced this at an early age, we may not understand what these feelings relate to. There might not be any words associated with them because when the feelings were first created, we didn’t have these mental capacities yet. But it’s all there, still in the body.
“As an attachment researcher I know that infants are psychobiological beings. They are as much of the body as they are of the brain. Without language or symbols infants use every one of their biological systems to make meaning of their self in relation to the world of things and people. Van der Kolk shows that those very same systems continue to operate at every age, and that traumatic experiences, especially chronic toxic experience during early development, produce psychic devastation.” Ed Tronick, distinguished professor, University of Massachusetts, Boston; author of Neurobehavior and Social Emotional Development of Infants and Young Children
‘The Body Keeps the Score’ also examines PTSD and how the body can learn to regulate itself again after a traumatic experience. Using brain scan analyses, research has shown how trauma may affect the brain.
It is believed from research on brain scans during the reactivations of traumatic memories that trauma often creates excessive activity in the right hemisphere where we experience emotions. When traumatic memories are reactivated, the left frontal lobe shuts down, which is the area of the brain which puts feelings into words and a location in time and the thalamus also shuts down which is the area of the brain which integrates the raw data of sensations.
"Notice how much more activity appears on the right side than on the left." From 'The Body Keeps the Score.'
“Sights, sounds, smells, and touch are encoded as isolated, dissociated fragments, and normal memory processing disintegrates. Time freezes, so that the present danger feels like it will last forever.” From ‘The Body Keeps the Score’
This combination of processes means that the brain is unable to process the trauma completely and it can linger as a constant and pervading threat, leading to the potential development of PTSD.
“The left and right sides of the brain also process the imprints of the past in dramatically different ways. The left brain remembers facts, statistics, and the vocabulary of events. We call on it to explain our experiences and put them in order. The right brain stores memories of sound, touch, smell, and the emotions they evoke. It reacts automatically to voices, facial features, and gestures and places experienced in the past… Under ordinary circumstances the two sides of the brain work together more or less smoothly, even in people who might be said to favor one side over the other. However, having one side or the other shut down, even temporarily, or having one side cut off entirely (as sometimes happened in early brain surgery) is disabling…. 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. After the emotional storm passes, they may look for something or somebody to blame for it…Of course, most of us have done this from time to time, but when we cool down, we hopefully can admit our mistake. Trauma interferes with this kind of awareness, and, over time, our research demonstrated why.” From ‘The Body Keeps the Score’
From 'The Body Keeps the Score.'
Flight, Fight and Freeze
With PTSD, the balance between the medial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala shifts making it harder to control impulses and people may find themselves on constant alert – the flight/fight/freeze signals continue to be released as stress hormones. People may find themselves becoming startled by loud noises or freezing when touched for example. The system continues to defend the body against a threat which happened in the past and energy is expended on suppressing these impulses and reactions.
“To people who are reliving a trauma, nothing makes sense; they are trapped in a life-or-death situation, a state of paralyzing fear or blind rage. Mind and body are constantly aroused, as if they are in imminent danger. They startle in response to the slightest noises and are frustrated by small irritations. Their sleep is chronically disturbed, and food often loses its sensual pleasures. This in turn can trigger desperate attempts to shut those feelings down by freezing and dissociation.” From ‘The Body Keeps the Score’
Kolk’s book discusses a wide variety of methods for healing trauma and PTSD and I’ve listed a few of these techniques which he mentions:
This is a method I have personally found particularly helpful – by switching the focus of our eyes to the left and right we activate both the left and right hemispheres of the brain and can then reactivate a traumatic memory - often the left frontal cortex shuts down, particularly the Broca's area (the centre for speech) whereas the right hemisphere which is associated with emotions will be activated, meaning that someone can get caught in emotional states without having the words or the capacities of time recognition to process the experience; the traumatic memory can get stuck in our nervous system as a lingering threat. Through EMDR, we have the opportunity to activate both parts of the brain during a traumatic memory activation in order to fully process the experience.
Somatic Movement and Yoga
Kolk's book also discusses somatic practises including work developed by Dr Peter Levine. I have found somatic yoga to be particularly beneficial in engaging neural pathways of movement, parts of the body and the brain, inducing more feelings of being grounded in the body. My yoga teacher is called Charlotte Preston and I highly recommend her classes which include somatic exercises and qi gong and can be found online on Zoom: charlotte-preston.com/
“Once patients can tolerate being aware of their trauma-based physical experiences, they are likely to discover powerful physical impulses—like hitting, pushing, or running—that arose during the trauma but were suppressed in order to survive. These impulses manifest themselves in subtle body movements such as twisting, turning, or backing away. Amplifying these movements and experimenting with ways to modify them begins the process of bringing the incomplete, trauma-related “action tendencies” to completion and can eventually lead to resolution of the trauma. Somatic therapies can help patients to relocate themselves in the present by experiencing that it is safe to move. Feeling the pleasure of taking effective action restores a sense of agency and a sense of being able to actively defend and protect themselves. Back in 1893 Pierre Janet, the first great explorer of trauma, wrote about “the pleasure of completed action,” and I regularly observe that pleasure when I practice sensorimotor psychotherapy and somatic experiencing: When patients can physically experience what it would have felt like to fight back or run away, they relax, smile, and express a sense of completion.” From 'The Body Keeps the Score'
Heart-rate variability (HRV)
This is when the breath and heart are in sync and there are many methods online which can help people to come back into harmony. It has been shown that people with PTSD have very low HRV – this is when we have a lack of fluctuation in heart rate in response to breathing.
“Today there are a variety of apps that can help improve HRV with the aid of a smartphone. In our clinic we have workstations where patients can train their HRV, and I urge all my patients who, for one reason or another, cannot practice yoga, martial arts, or qigong to train themselves at home.” From 'The Body Keeps the Score'
‘Self-leadership’ and Self-care
We need to create a safe, loving environment to nurture our inner child. Due to trauma, we may develop sub-personalities which Kolk calls ‘exiles’ such as the ‘protector’ – we can work with these aspects of ourselves, showing compassion and help them integrate back into our larger Self which needs to gain leadership. With therapy for example, we can gain more understanding about these shadow parts of ourselves and bring them back to the Self.
“These protectors keep the toxic parts away, but in so doing they take on some of the energy of the abuser. Critical and perfectionistic managers can make sure we never get close to anyone or drive us to be relentlessly productive. Another group of protectors, which IFS calls firefighters, are emergency responders, acting impulsively whenever an experience triggers an exiled emotion. Each split-off part holds different memories, beliefs, and physical sensations; some hold the shame, others the rage, some the pleasure and excitement, another the intense loneliness or the abject compliance. These are all aspects of the abuse experience.” From 'The Body Keeps the Score'
Self-care may differ for everyone, but I have found that a simple method can include placing our hand on our heart and expressing love. Some people may find affirmations to be powerful and helpful – others may enjoy self-massage and methods of relaxing the body. It’s important to be compassionate and loving to these aspects of ourselves, rather than reject them – we are rewiring the nervous system and teaching it that love is safe since as children we may not have experienced trust or love with our caregivers, family or teachers and no-one is to blame since many beings on this planet have experienced trauma and these patterns continue to repeat until we break the cycles and transform them.
In meditation practises such as Vipassana, we are often encouraged to simply observe feelings that arise – yet this might be re-traumatising for someone who has experienced the trauma of neglect for example. If a child is crying, they are not appeased by simply observing them – we may need to pick up the child and soothe them. That is why self-care is such an important practise for trauma survivors and in this regard, I feel, might be more beneficial than meditation at certain times.
We may also need to transform the energies or imprints in the consciousness regarding the 'perpetrator.' I am reminded of the story of the Buddha - it is believed that on the night he attained enlightenment and was sat under a tree, the demon Mara shot arrows at him to distract him - the Buddha kept his focus and the arrows turned into flowers. When we no longer giver our power to these old forces and energies they can dissolve back into the light of consciousness. It is also thought that Mara tried to distract the Buddha with the image of his three beautiful daughters - he is a metaphor for conditioned existence, representing the emotions of lust, hate and delusion which we can transform in order to return to the peace of our true Self.
I have personally found energy work to be incredibly healing, using Reiki. Through the power of intent and visualisation we can process memories with an empowered conclusion and clear away these old imprints. Energy healers can also help in this regard – we can work with the Akashic Records in order to gain more clarity about an issue which may have adversely impacted us and to heal it at the soul level with compassion and understanding of our eternal nature which comes to earth to learn and grow and experience. Through meditation we can also ask to receive clarity by connecting with our Akashic Records. You could also call the Akashic records the ‘subconscious mind’ – where everything is stored. Our intuition is the way in which the subconscious mind communicates with the conscious mind and this can always guide us if we feel that there is something blocking us in life that we need to heal and we always have the ability to empower ourselves.
“Traumatized people are often afraid of feeling. It is not so much the perpetrators (who, hopefully, are no longer around to hurt them) but their own physical sensations that now are the enemy. Apprehension about being hijacked by uncomfortable sensations keeps the body frozen and the mind shut. Even though the trauma is a thing of the past, the emotional brain keeps generating sensations that make the sufferer feel scared and helpless. It’s not surprising that so many trauma survivors are compulsive eaters and drinkers, fear making love, and avoid many social activities: Their sensory world is largely off limits. In order to change you need to open yourself to your inner experience. The first step is to allow your mind to focus on your sensations and notice how, in contrast to the timeless, ever-present experience of trauma, physical sensations are transient and respond to slight shifts in body position, changes in breathing, and shifts in thinking…Practicing mindfulness calms down the sympathetic nervous system, so that you are less likely to be thrown into fight-or-flight. Learning to observe and tolerate your physical reactions is a prerequisite for safely revisiting the past.” From 'The Body Keeps the Score.'