Is My Body Keeping Score? Trauma and the Body
Updated: May 27, 2020
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I love massages. My husband and I had never had a couple’s massage and the past weeks have been quite stressful for our family so I took the liberty of booking massages for both of us. They were amazing. AMAZING. Afterward, as we were getting ready to leave, I noticed that my husband was getting a bit emotional. I asked if he was ok. He wiped tears from his eyes and said, “Wow… that’s never happened to me before.”
I knew what he was talking about because it has happened to me, too.
I recently finished a book called The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a Dutch-American psychiatrist based in Boston, Massachusetts. He runs a trauma center affiliated with Boston University School of Medicine and is widely known for his research and publications related to trauma and its manifestations in the body.
This book had been on my radar for a while because I have been dealing with the far-reaching ramifications of trauma myself. In the past year, I have come to grips with some serious pathology from my childhood and understand how it affected my family when I was growing up. This discovery has been a painful one, but also an incredibly enlightening experience. It’s started me on the path to understanding why my mind and body has behaved the way it has for much of my life.
Fast forward to the massage day. My husband has also experienced significant trauma in his life. He also recently lost his beloved younger brother unexpectedly. When he became emotional after his massage, it made complete sense to me. Unprocessed or trapped emotion was being released. Nathan Nordstrom, a licensed massage therapist and past president of the American Massage Therapy Association (2016-2017), says:
“The mental and physical state of a client's body can merge and realign.
When we give a client a chance to relax, the emotional stressors can now
The subject of trauma and its effects on the body is not new. The groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACE) study has shed important light on the subject of trauma, specifically childhood trauma, and its effects on long-term mental and physical health. The study was conducted by medical insurance group Kaiser Permanente, who developed a scoring system to assess health risks in correlation to a patient's number of adverse events. The findings of the study were alarming. It was discovered that most participants (87%) had at least one significant adverse experience as children. With each adverse experience, the health risk score increased. Multiple traumatic experiences were linked with higher incidence of various conditions such as heart disease, anxiety, depression, and stroke. If you want to find out your ACE score, you can click here: ACE Quiz
So, what does this all mean for us? Dr. van der Kolk writes:
“When our senses become muffled, we no longer feel fully alive… If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations … you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, and yourself.”
If we don’t feel fully alive, we can’t experience all that life has to offer us. We often live a life filled with fear, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. This is not only a loss for ourselves, but for those around us. We can’t contribute in a vibrant and engaged way, nor can we fully receive what others contribute to us.
There are numerous ways to process trauma according to Dr. van der Kolk. Perhaps surprisingly, talk therapy was helpful for some but in many cases it was not enough. There are numerous ancillary treatment modalities that van der Kolk covers and recommends in his book. Since traumatic experiences can cause significant changes in the brain, it is most helpful to seek out therapies that are calming to the nervous system. Meditation and yoga are two treatment options that may help to provide significant relief to those who suffer from the residual effects of traumas such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Just starting with five minutes each day can make a difference. However, finding a trusted expert to assist with this healing task can be an absolute game-changer. I will cover additional modalities in future articles.
None of us can escape this mortal existence without experiencing heartache and trials - for many, this might include serious traumas, whether physical or emotional. These experiences leave their ‘marks’ on our bodies and minds and can explain a lot about us if we can just trust enough to listen to it, explore what it is, and begin to heal. Doing so is also one step towards increasing our physical and emotional capabilities as humans.
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