Being someone who is interested in learning and understanding different aspects of mental health, I am always reading whatever I can to try to learn something new. Or something that can give me a better understanding of things I already know. When a list of book suggestions about trauma and healing was shared with me, the title The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk jumped out at me. I wanted to learn how the body does keep the score when it comes to living with traumatic experiences, and what exactly goes on inside of someone’s brain when bad memories might trigger trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Until I read this book, I never thought about how the brain’s development from infancy plays a role in our body’s responses.
I never really thought about where emotions come from, or how they might be triggered. The Body Keeps the Score describes that process. Starting with infancy, our perceptions of the world around us come from the attunement we have with our caretakers and how our basic needs are met. This ultimately provides the building blocks of how we perceive the world around us, positive or negative, and how we may respond to the emotions we experience in that very moment. Thinking of my own life, I had my first ah-ha moment.
When I thought back to my childhood, my mind took me down a rabbit hole of memories. Thinking of the attunement I had with my parents, I was now able to better understand why I have had some of the perceptions that I once did. Being a child who was hospitalized often from various illnesses, it was now easier for me to understand how all the extra attention that brought me probably played a role in helping my early perceptions of the world being this kind, generous, and loving place.
With this new perception that emotions are like building blocks that stem from events in our lives, I now had a better understanding of why my own perception of the world changed dramatically at age 9 when my mother abandoned me. The world became a very scary place. I was confused, defiant and started to rebel. Van der Kolk’s book helped me to think back to the traumas I endured as a child and understand why I felt so lost, and while I did not know how to express my needs, my emotional responses and behaviors were a much-needed survival mechanism. The puzzle pieces started to fall into place.
I understand more fully what is going on inside the brain when traumatic things happen, or even now when my PTSD gets triggered. Different parts of the brain play a role in our mental processing. For instance, when flashbacks happen, the amygdala is unable to discern between past and present; it always acts as if it were the first time an event happened. The body’s physical response can include sweating and trembling or elevated heart rate and blood pressure in the moment someone has a flashback.
The thalamus is the part of the brain that collects sensory information from the ears, eyes, and skin and acts like a filter. With normal processing of the thalamus, people can distinguish between relevant sensory information and other information that can safely be ignored. People with PTSD can lack this filter and ARE constantly on sensory overload. While some people hyper focus or develop a tunnel vision to shut themselves down, others may use drugs or alcohol to help them accomplish this.
After reading this book, not only was I able to better understand some of the processing going on in my brain, but it also helped me to understand that it’s not “just me.” Everyone HAS the same general building blocks that influence their beliefs and emotions. This was huge for me to realize because now when it comes to my mother, I am more understanding and accepting of the decisions she made for me as a child even though they may not have been the healthiest. I realize now she made those decisions based on her responses to all her own previous experiences.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about and understand themselves and others. It also provides good insight for mental health professionals to understand what is going on inside the brain and its effect on the body of someone who is suffering from PTSD. There are multiple treatment options for people of all ages who suffer from traumatic experiences along with a variety of ways people can learn to manage what they are feeling. While there are some traditional therapy treatment methods, i.e. talk therapy, medications, the book also mentions non-traditional methods that have also been proven to be beneficial that include connecting with animals such as dogs, horses, and dolphins.