The body keeps the score: reflections on recovery


It’s been over a year since I first read Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score on how trauma impacts the body. And what a year-and-a-bit it has been!

I had heard the book spoken highly of in a Facebook community I was part of at the time, and again during an episode of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. I usually juggle a few reads at once (which means I usually never finish them all, as much as I’d like to), but as soon as this one arrived, I put all other books to the side. I started reading it on my summer vacation to the US mid-July 2019, and, well…

I expected it to be insightful, but I didn’t foresee how impactful it would be.

I thought it might be helpful, but I didn’t expect it to change my life.

Here’s an overview of the themes of the book that transformed my recovery journey, and if you make it to the end of the post, it could be part of yours, too!

The body keeps the score

Just as mental health is a hot topic in society, “trauma” is increasingly a phrase I hear being thrown around in conversation. But to be sure we’re on the same page, when I (and anyone who is trauma-informed) use the word ‘trauma’, what I mean is the human body’s response to overwhelming and emotionally distressing experiences or events. I don’t mean physical trauma, like a head injury (although, it’s possible for physical trauma to trigger emotional trauma).

More than just a negative feeling or going through a hard time, trauma is what happens when our coping mechanisms aren’t suitable for our circumstances. It’s what’s left over after an experience that made us feel under threat, unsafe or helpless in a way that exceeded our ability to cope. It’s not the event itself, it’s how our bodies behave in the aftermath.

Traumatic experiences…leave traces on our minds and emotions, on our capacity for joy and intimacy, and even on our biology and immune systems…

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score, Prologue

Trauma can be the result of physical, sexual and emotional violence or abuse. Warfare is the most widely understood traumatic experience, which is why PTSD is often associated with military personnel and veterans. But trauma can affect anyone and can be the result of anything that threatens our physical safety or causes psychological harm, including bullying.

Types of trauma

There are lots of ways to categorise trauma, but for the sake of simplicity, here are some common types:

  • Acute trauma – the result of a single exceptionally stressful event
  • Chronic/complex trauma – the result of exposure to multiple traumatic events over time
  • Developmental trauma – the result of traumatic events during childhood, also known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
  • Medical trauma – the result of traumatic medical encounters, such as operations and births
  • Secondary/vicarious trauma – trauma that results from watching other people experience trauma

Trauma affects not only those who are directly exposed to it, but also those around them. Soldiers returning home from combat may frighten their families with their rages and emotional absence. The wives of men who suffer from PTSD tend to become depressed, and the children of depressed mothers are at risk of growing up insecure and anxious. Having been exposed to family violence as a child often makes it difficult to establish stable, trusting relationships as an adult.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score, Prologue

How the body keeps the score

Trauma can present itself in many ways. For example, trauma can look like:

  • having nightmares about the experience, or having difficulty sleeping
  • angry outbursts or disproportionate reactions
  • reliving the experience through flashbacks
  • relational problems and tensions
  • avoiding people and places that trigger memories of the experience
  • a negative outlook on life, and pessimism about the world or other people
  • impulsive tendencies or difficulty controlling oneself or emotions

Trauma in the everyday can interact with other conditions like depression, and may sound like:

  • “I can’t concentrate”
  • “I don’t trust anyone”
  • “I’m always tired”
  • “It’s my fault”
  • “I don’t know who I am anymore”
  • “I can’t feel anything”

It can also be the reason behind things we feel or experience, such as:

  • numbness or not feeling like yourself
  • suicidal thoughts/feelings
  • social isolation
  • being easily startled or feeling on edge
  • disconnectedness from the world and yourself
  • chest pains, stomach aches, lightheadedness and headaches

Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilise disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score, Prologue

Why the body keeps the score

Human beings are wired for survival. Our brains and bodies do all they can to keep us alive (and when they don’t do it properly or fail to do it at all, it’s usually called trauma, autoimmune disease, or death).

When trauma occurs, the body’s internal alarm system isn’t working properly. Traumatised brains change and become shaped around the experience(s):

Research has revealed that trauma produces actual physiological changes, including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant. We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive. These changes explain why traumatized individuals become hyper vigilant to threat at the expense of spontaneously engaging in their day-to-day lives.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score, Prologue

Our fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses work best when they keep us alive, not from living.

What does it take to heal from trauma?

Healing from trauma isn’t easy, but it’s possible. Recovery looks different for everyone, but some commonalities include:

  • safety in our bodies and environments
  • help from licensed medical and mental health professionals, as well as a supportive community of trusted family and friends
  • awareness of ourselves and our symptoms
  • recognition of what trauma is and how it affects us
  • experiences that overwrite the traumatic memories with positive and healthy ones

If it helps, remember this as an acronym: SHARE.

And do just that. Talk about your experiences with people you trust, and people who are trained, who respond with empathy and compassion. And give yourself grace and time! The healing process cannot be rushed.

Trauma in the workplace

Trauma doesn’t excuse behaviour, but it can explain some of it. And it can show up in the workplace, both as personal trauma brought to work and trauma induced by distressing work situations. Some examples might be:

  • A manager who projects their anger or insecurities onto you
  • An employee who is always tired or struggles with motivation
  • A colleague who always keeps to themselves or appears aloof
  • A team member who shuts down during conflict or avoids it altogether
  • Someone crying in the toilets
  • Someone who forgets things a lot and frequently misunderstands things
  • Someone whose personality changes drastically or isn’t acting like their usual self

Those aren’t exhaustive or definitive examples – those things can happen for a range of reasons other than trauma, but that could be how it surfaces in the work environment.

There’s no clear-cut way of dealing with these issues, and the balance between compassion and professionalism is hard to find. But compassion is non-negotiable.

If you’re an outsider looking in, signpost the person you’re concerned about to helpful resources.

If you think you may be affected by trauma, see a medical and/or mental health professional in the first instance. Then after that, if you feel comfortable and safe to do so, consider explaining to a trusted colleague or manager that you’re going through some things, and perhaps put together a support plan. If there are people in your personal network that you can confide in, reach out. Otherwise, consider joining a support group.

It all makes sense now

The biggest impression this book had on me was a sigh of relief. Like, finally! Not only does someone else get it, but I get it. I now have the language and conceptual framework that adequately explains some of my experiences. I’ve made huge progress in my mental health recovery journey, and honestly, Bounce Black itself is the direct outcome of reading empowering books like these.

With this platform, I want to encourage and empower as many people as I can.

Part of how I want to do that through our wider mission is to make psychoeducation more widely accessible (and culturally relevant) to Black people, so with that said…

Collaboration with Penguin Random House

…I’m delighted to announce I am giving away 15 – yes, fifteen – free copies of The Body Keeps The Score, thanks to the wonderfully generous Penguin Press team! You can find out more details on how to enter the giveaway on our Instagram, Twitter and Facebook pages.

This giveaway is only open to Black students (18+) and professionals, with lived experience of mental health problems and/or trauma (or anyone compassionately curious about it), who are also resident in the United Kingdom. I’d love to be able to get psychoeducational books into more hands across the globe, but I’m paying for shipping out of pocket so it’s pretty expensive! Hopefully, we’ll be able to do more giveaways with fewer barriers in future.

If you are eligible, then you have until November 8, 2020 to enter, so what are you waiting for?!

Be first to hear about giveaways and other exciting opportunities – sign up now:

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If you’re Black, have lived experience of #mentalhealth problems and/or #trauma, and you live in the UK, enter @iBounceBlack’s #TheBodyKeepsTheScore giveaway in collaboration with @PenguinUKBooks! #blackmentalhealth

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