“The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves” (11).
This quote alone made this book worth reading.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Massachusetts and a professor of psychiatry at Boston University. He has spent numerous years working with Vietnam vets with PTSD as well as interacting and counseling countless other people who have experienced childhood abuse and trauma in their lives.
His book, The Body Keeps the Score, is a good read. Long in parts. Technical and hard to understand at times. But, overall, a good reminder of some key elements of true healing.
My takeaway from his book? Pain, suffering, abuse, and trauma impact our whole selves…brain, body, soul, and mind. To focus on only one part is to miss something fundamental in who we are and something vital in our healing.
The psychiatric community has turned to diagnosing symptom-based disorders and prescribing medications as the cure to trauma. “The brain-disease model takes control over people’s fate out of their own hands and puts doctors and insurance companies in charge of fixing their problems” (37).
Dr. van der Kolk is certainly not against medication. In many cases, it is the only thing that can help someone get back to some level of equilibrium where they can effectively address and deal with their pain. But to see medication as the solution is to ignore the other aspects of the person impacted by trauma, as well as the relational dynamics that often surround it. The very fact that prescriptions for depression have tripled over the past two decades with no noticeable dent in depression rates indicates that true healing must go deeper than mere chemistry.
“Medications, drugs, and alcohol can temporarily dull or obliterate unbearable sensations and feelings. But the body continues to keep the score” (46).
Trauma typically brings together two intense emotions…terror and helplessness. A traumatic event both grips us with fear and exposes our inability to stop it. We realize both the dangerousness of our world and our extreme vulnerability in the midst of it.
Trauma imprints itself deeply in our mind and body. A traumatic event has a way of taking on a life of its own. People who have suffered panic attacks or flashbacks to a traumatic event “often organize their lives around trying to protect against them” (67).
“…Panic symptoms are maintained largely because the individual develops a fear of the bodily sensations associated with panic attacks. The attack may be triggered by something he or she knows is irrational, but fear of the sensations keeps them escalating into a full-body emergency” (99).
The internal battle over past trauma eventually leads to a person feeling “unsafe in their own bodies.” “The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort” (98).
The battle within one’s own body often causes a person to disassociate from themselves… to depersonalize themselves… to numb themselves with drugs or alcohol… to cultivate an illusory sense of control in highly dangerous or destructive activities… or simply to shut down.
In van der Kolk’s experience, the healing of trauma involves at least four critical elements:
1. We need to tell the truth to ourselves.
Shame has a way of making us lie to ourselves. “As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself. Hiding your core feelings takes an enormous amount of energy, it saps your motivation to pursue worthwhile goals, and it leaves you feeling bored and shut down” (235).
Writing about the trauma, and the emotions you feel, can be the first step in truly facing it.
2. We need to learn to be at home in our own bodies.
“Trauma makes people feel like either some body else, or like no body. In order to overcome trauma, you need help to get back in touch with your body, with your self” (249). “One of the clearest lessons from contemporary neuroscience is that our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection with our bodies” (274).
Numbing our body, denying it, abusing it, or running to virtual escapes do not lead to healing. We are embodied creatures and we must come to know who we are in our bodies. Learning to breathe…learning to exercise…learning to understand and care for our bodies…all go a long way toward healing.
3. We need relationships.
“Study after study shows that having a good support network constitutes the single most powerful protection against becoming traumatized. …Traumatized human beings recover in the context of relationships” (212). The paradox is that often our trauma is caused by betrayed or dysfunctional relationships. The pain tends to cause us to withdraw…to isolate…to enter our own world. But only in relationships can healing be found.
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives. …[But] no doctor can write a prescription for friendship and love” (81).
4. We need to rescript our story.
“Isolating oneself into a narrowly defined victim group promotes a view of others as irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst, which eventually only leads to further alienation” (81).
“Trauma causes people to remain stuck in interpreting the present in light of an unchanging past” (307).
No one grows up under ideal circumstances. All of us carry the wounds and hurts of the past. But playing the victim only exacerbates the problem. We must learn to see our wounds from a bigger perspective and find a way to see a larger context for our lives.
As I reflected on van der Kolk’s thoughts, I began to filter them through a Christian worldview. Van der Kolk does not write from a Christian perspective. He acknowledges the importance of religion from time to time but this is not his paradigm. But what he discovered is not new.
1. We are embodied creatures, created by God with body, soul, and spirit.
Just as sin impacts all three aspects of our lives, healing must come to all three. We need a regenerated spirit, renewed mind, refreshed soul, and rested (and ultimately, resurrected) body.
2. We are created for relationships…but sin has brought pain, shame, betrayal, separation, and abuse into our relationships.
Our trauma is both caused by relationships and healed by them. Relationship with God…relationship with others…and peace within ourselves…are intricately tied together.
3. We need to see our lives as part of a bigger story.
Only the hope of redemption gives meaning to our trauma and suffering. No pain is wasted in the redemptive purposes of God. We can find a new identity outside of being a victim. We can find a new identity as a beloved, re-created, blessed child of God.
4. We need to tell the truth to ourselves.
Self-deception and self-medication offer only temporary relief from pain. We are broken people living in a broken world with other broken people. We all need grace. And true grace is only found in the One who suffered the most unspeakable trauma, injustice, betrayal, and abuse on the cross…for us.
“The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.”
Thus, the greatest source of freedom comes from hearing the truth from our Creator and the Redeemer of our souls.
“If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
“Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” (John 8:31-32, 34-36)