Bessel van der Kolk, MD

Blog Postpost

Posted Tuesday September, 21st 2021

Trauma, trust and triumph: psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk on how to recover from our deepest pain

When Dr Bessel van der Kolk published The Body Keeps the Score in 2014, it was a huge hit with yoga people. That is not a euphemism for “rich, underoccupied people”, it is just people who do yoga. Certain physical activities do something weird to your brain: ancient memories resurface, often with new feelings or perspectives attached; you start treating yourself with more compassion. It doesn’t make sense until you read Van der Kolk. After that, nothing has ever made more sense.

His thesis centres on trauma: the urgent work of the brain after a traumatic event is to suppress it, through forgetting or self-blame, to avoid being ostracised. But the body does not forget; physiological changes result, a “recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormones, an alteration in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant”, as he says in his book. The stress is stored in the muscles and does not dissipate. This has profound ramifications for talking therapies and their limits: the rational mind cannot do the repair work on its own, since that part of you is pretending it has already been repaired.

The Body Keeps the Score is engagingly written and plainly not a textbook. Nevertheless, it is a searching, complex account of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), not pop-psychology for the general reader seeking to live their best life through Bikram. So, how do you account for its incredible popularity? In the seven years since its publication, it has spent 147 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and sold more than half a million copies in the UK alone, and nearly 2m worldwide; amid the shared trauma of the pandemic, it has become more popular than ever, spending the whole of July this year at No 1 on the nonfiction bestseller list in the US. On social media, it is ubiquitous, a psychiatric meme, the source of inspirational get-you-out-of-bed quotes and self-deprecating jokes. (If your body does keep the score, is that why you look so rough?) Is trauma really so widespread? And are people feeling particularly traumatised now?

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