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  • Natalie Dressler

The Body Keeps the Score- A Must Read Book about the Legacy of Trauma

It's exciting to read a book that teaches some of the latest advances in trauma therapy and points out the pivotal role the body plays in maintaining many of the emotional and physical struggles people face.

The Body Keeps the Score

Bessel Van Der Kolk bases a lot of his ideas in neuroscience and many years of clinical work to create a clear picture of how trauma tends to play out in our body and our life.

It's amazing how many clients I see that come in to get help with issues such as anxiety, depression, anger, or lack of ability to feel and don't know that many of their symptoms connect to their history of trauma or relational hurts throughout their life.

Bessel Van Der Kolk describes that:

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.” (p.97).

I teach my clients that in order to move forward from uncomfortable or overwhelming feelings and sensations, they first need to learn how to non-judgmentally observe and be with them. So often our life experiences live in our bodies through tension and sensations such as numbness, heaviness, and emptiness, yet we are unaware of where these even come from.

Bessel continues:

"Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.

In my practice I begin the process by helping my patients to first notice and then describe the feelings in their bodies—not emotions such as anger or anxiety or fear but the physical sensations beneath the emotions: pressure, heat, muscular tension, tingling, caving in, feeling hollow, and so on. I also work on identifying the sensations associated with relaxation or pleasure. I help them become aware of their breath, their gestures and movements.

All too often, however, drugs such as Abilify, Zyprexa, and Seroquel, are prescribed instead of teaching people the skills to deal with such distressing physical reactions. Of course, medications only blunt sensations and do nothing to resolve them or transform them from toxic agents into allies.

The mind needs to be reeducated to feel physical sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch. Individuals who lack emotional awareness are able, with practice, to connect their physical sensations to psychological events. Then they can slowly reconnect with themselves.”

If we ignore the body when working with trauma, and only talk about the story of what happened, we are missing the most crucial key to bring about change. Ultimately, the body keeps the score of our life experiences.

In fact, when we experience something traumatic, the part of our brain that we use to think and make sense of things (frontal lobes) actually starts to shut down or go offline. When we then later start talking about the trauma, the same process happens in our brain. This means that we cannot reason our way out of trauma and that telling the story of what happened might make us feel validated, but it won't change how it lives out in our body and emotions.

In order for change to happen, the frontal lobes of our brain need to be on-line so that our brain can make sense of what happened and know that we are now safe and not in that same past situation.

By working with the body's sensations and finding ways to listen to and be with each sensation, clients often start to notice relief from their symptoms and distress. If you're interested in working this way to treat your symptoms, sensorimotor psychotherapy combined with parts work (IFS) can be helpful.


Image by Greg Rakozy


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