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

In recent times, discourses on Trauma have heightened; this may be because of the serious health implications caused by trauma that have become common knowledge. Trauma is perceived to be an emotional response to a terrible phenomenon. The danger this poses to human life seems to make it continue to attract authors who publish issues on the phenomenon that are more scholarly. Even though a lot of books have been published on trauma since time immemorial, one such outstanding book is “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” authored by Bessel A. van der Kolk. Since the publication of this book in 2014, it has been reviewed by many renowned authors, scholars and practitioners. Notable among these categories of persons are Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus of UMass Medical School; Alexander McFarlane AO of the Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies, The University of Adelaide, Australia; Stephen W. Porges, professor of psychiatry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and many more. It can be inferred that upon their review, these persons have already endorsed the book and accorded it an excellence accolade. This makes it seem like this current review is irrelevant. However, with the global reach of this book, more reviews should be expected. 

This review will probably add to the existing literature on this book review and end the dearth of reviews from African scholars and practitioners that seem to be absent. In 20 chapters’ grouped into five parts, Bessel A. van der Kolk extraordinarily dissects trauma using data from his clients' experiences, his academic background and experiences from practice, interaction with other scholars and practitioners, and research by other people and theories. 

In the first part of the book, labelled “The Rediscovery of Trauma,” which comprises three chapters, the author uses the experiences of Vietnam veterans to unravel some mysteries surrounding trauma, which, unfortunately, his educational training had not offered him in-depth knowledge to deal with. In that chapter, the author claims that the consequences of trauma make it difficult for persons who have been traumatized to engage in intimate relationships. 

Chapter 2 of Bessel’s book highlights how his professional training assisted him in dealing with terrifying and confusing realities associated with traumatized clients. Through engagements with his clients, the author formulated a rule to guide his students in their practice.  The rule stipulates that whatever your engagement with your client is, you should consider whether you are unwittingly replicating a trauma from the patient’s past. 

Chapter 3 of the book deals with the neuroscience revolution. In this chapter, Bassel gives credence to the role technology played in deepening the understanding of scholars, researchers and practitioners on trauma. Part two of the book consists of chapters four, five, and six. Using an account from an eyewitness of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, the author interestingly concludes that during disasters, children usually look up to their parents and that as long as their caregiver remains calm and responsive to their needs, they often survive terrible incidents without serious psychological scars. To the author, with I side with, trauma affects the entire human organism, that is, the body, mind, and brain and used this as a justification why trauma treatment should engage the entire organism- body, mind, and brain. 

The author introduces the fifth chapter by revisiting theories advocated by Charles Darwin in his books “the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” and “The Descent of Man,” published in 1859 and 1871, respectively. Bessel argues that Darwin’s theories have helped deepen the understanding of trauma in modern times. 

In chapter 6, the author uses a story by Sherry to suggest that chronic emotional abuse and neglect can be as devastating as physical abuse and sexual molestation. According to the author, it is impossible for trauma victims to recover unless they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies.

Part 3 of the book, captioned “The Minds of Children,” consists of chapters (7, 8, 9, and 10) with interesting titles. In this part of the book, the author gives readers a very interesting take home. Key among these is that, as one grows up, he/she gradually learns to take care of oneself, both physically and emotionally, and that one gets his/her first lesson in self-care from the way that he/she is cared for. In addition, mastering self-regulation depends to a large degree on how harmonious our early interactions with our caregivers are. Furthermore, if one is abused or ignored in childhood or grows up in a family where sexuality is treated with disgust, his/her inner map contains a different message. 

The “Imprint of Trauma” is the title given to part 4 of this book, with chapters 11 and 12 forming this part. In this part of the book, the author uses a narration from Julian (pseudonym) to illustrate the complexities of traumatic memory. Amazingly, the author claims that whether one remembers a particular event and how accurate the memories are largely depends on how personally meaningful it was and how emotional the person felt about it at the time. Taking us back to history, Bessel argues in chapter 12 that scientific interest in trauma has fluctuated wildly during the past 150 years by chronicling how concerns about trauma have evolved over the years. The most interesting part of this book is the Part 5. Captioned as the “Path to Recovery,” it comprises eight chapters from 13-20, making it unique from the other parts of the book. In this section, the author highlights that people cannot put traumatic events they have experienced behind until they are able to acknowledge what has happened and start to recognize the invisible demons they are struggling with. The author argues that at the core of trauma recovery is self-awareness. Bassel, in the subsequent chapter, discusses the role other organizations played in finding interventions for victims of the World Trade Centre. He further praises yoga for bringing to bear trauma’s impact on the body. He then described yoga as looking inward instead of outward and listening to one’s body. To Bessel, this confirms contemporary neuroscience’s assertion that our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection with our bodies. The author mentions that mindfulness makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity and actively steers us toward self-care. What the book draws our attention to is that every trauma survivor is resilient in his or her own way, and every one of their stories inspires awe at how people cope. It is clear that Bessel’s book is very resourceful and a masterpiece on trauma. This book is a must-read for scholars, researchers and practitioners concerned with trauma.

Dr. Patrick Swanzy is a Lecturer at the Department of Teacher Education, Faculty of Educational Studies, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana

A collage of several images of peopleDescription automatically generated