The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

by Bessel van der Kolk
Read an excerpt from the highly acclaimed new book by world renowned trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk, MD.
In This Article…

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The following is an excerpt from The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, MD. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Bessel van der Kolk, MD, 2014.

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Marilyn was a tall, athletic-looking woman in her mid-thirties who worked as an operating-room nurse in a nearby town. She told me that a few months earlier she’d started to play tennis at her sports club with a Boston fireman named Michael. She usually steered clear of men, she said, but she had gradually become comfortable enough with Michael to accept his invitations to go out for pizza after their matches. They’d talk about tennis, movies, their nephews and nieces—nothing too personal. Michael clearly enjoyed her company, but she told herself he didn’t really know her.

One Saturday evening in August, after tennis and pizza, she invited him to stay over at her apartment. She described feeling “uptight and unreal” as soon as they were alone together. She remembered asking him to go slow but had very little sense of what had happened after that. After a few glasses of wine and a rerun of "Law & Order," they apparently fell asleep together on top of her bed. At around two in the morning, Michael turned over in his sleep. When Marilyn felt his body touch hers, she exploded—pounding him with her fists, scratching and biting, screaming, “You bastard, you bastard!” Michael, startled awake, grabbed his belongings and fled. After he left, Marilyn sat on her bed for hours, stunned by what had happened. She felt deeply humiliated and hated herself for what she had done, and now she’d come to me for help in dealing with her terror of men and her inexplicable rage attacks.

My work with veterans had prepared me to listen to painful stories like Marilyn’s without trying to jump in immediately to fix the problem. Therapy often starts with some inexplicable behavior: attacking a boyfriend in the middle of the night, feeling terrified when somebody looks you in the eye, finding yourself covered with blood after cutting yourself with a piece of glass, or deliberately vomiting up every meal. It takes time and patience to allow the reality behind such symptoms to reveal itself.

Terror and Numbness

As we talked, Marilyn told me that Michael was the first man she’d taken home in more than five years, but this was not the first time she’d lost control when a man spent the night with her. She repeated that she always felt uptight and spaced out when she was alone with a man, and there had been other times when she’d “come to” in her apartment, cowering in a corner, unable to remember clearly what had happened.

Marilyn also said she felt as if she was just “going through the motions” of having a life. Except for when she was at the club playing tennis or at work in the OR, she usually felt numb. A few years earlier she’d found that she could relieve her numbness by scratching herself with a razor blade, but she had become frightened when she found that she was cutting herself more and more deeply, and more and more often, to get relief. She had tried alcohol, too, but that reminded her of her dad and his out‑of‑control drinking, which made her feel disgusted with herself. So instead she played tennis fanatically, whenever she could. That gave her a feeling of being alive.

When I asked her about her past, Marilyn said she guessed that she “must have had” a happy childhood, but she could remember very little from before age twelve. She told me she’d been a timid adolescent, until she had a violent confrontation with her alcoholic father when she was sixteen and ran away from home. She worked her way through community college and went on to get a degree in nursing without any help from her parents. She felt ashamed that during this time she’d slept around, which she described as “looking for love in all the wrong places.”

As I often did with new patients, I asked her to draw a family portrait, and when I saw her drawing, I decided to go slowly. Clearly Marilyn was harboring some terrible memories, but she could not allow herself to recognize what her own picture revealed. She had drawn a wild and terrified child, trapped in some kind of cage and threatened not only by three nightmarish figures—one with no eyes—but also by a huge erect penis protruding into her space. And yet this woman said she “must have had” a happy childhood.

As the poet W. H. Auden wrote:
Truth, like love and sleep, resents
Approaches that are too intense.


I call this Auden’s rule, and in keeping with it I deliberately did not push Marilyn to tell me what she remembered. In fact,
I’ve learned that it’s not important for me to know every detail of a patient’s trauma. What is critical is that the patients themselves learn to tolerate feeling what they feel and knowing what they know.
I’ve learned that it’s not important for me to know every detail of a patient’s trauma. What is critical is that the patients themselves learn to tolerate feeling what they feel and knowing what they know. This may take weeks or even years. I decided to start Marilyn’s treatment by inviting her to join an established therapy group where she could find support and acceptance before facing the engine of her distrust, shame, and rage.

As I expected, Marilyn arrived at the first group meeting looking terrified, much like the girl in her family portrait; she was withdrawn and did not reach out to anybody. I’d chosen this group for her because its members had always been helpful and accepting of new participants who were too scared to talk. They knew from their own experience that unlocking secrets is a gradual process. But this time they surprised me, asking so many intrusive questions about Marilyn’s love life that I recalled her drawing of the little girl under assault. It was almost as though Marilyn had unwittingly enlisted the group to repeat her traumatic past. I intervened to help her set some boundaries about what she’d talk about, and she began to settle in.

Three months later Marilyn told the group that she had stumbled and fallen a few times on the sidewalk between the subway and my office. She worried that her eyesight was beginning to fail: She’d also been missing a lot of tennis balls recently. I thought again about her drawing and the wild child with the huge, terrified eyes. Was this was some sort of “conversion reaction,” in which patients express their conflicts by losing function in some part of their body? Many soldiers in both world wars had suffered paralysis that couldn’t be traced to physical injuries, and I had seen cases of “hysterical blindness” in Mexico and India.

Still, as a physician, I wasn’t about to conclude without further assessment that this was “all in her head.” I referred her to colleagues at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and asked them to do a very thorough workup. Several weeks later the tests came back. Marilyn had lupus erythematosus of her retina, an autoimmune disease that was eroding her vision, and she would need immediate treatment. I was appalled:
Marilyn was the third person that year whom I’d suspected of having an incest history and who was then diagnosed with an autoimmune disease—a disease in which the body starts attacking itself.
Marilyn was the third person that year whom I’d suspected of having an incest history and who was then diagnosed with an autoimmune disease—a disease in which the body starts attacking itself.

After making sure that Marilyn was getting the proper medical care, I consulted with two of my colleagues at Massachusetts General, psychiatrist Scott Wilson and Richard Kradin, who ran the immunology laboratory there. I told them Marilyn’s story, showed them the picture she’d drawn, and asked them to collaborate on a study. They generously volunteered their time and the considerable expense of a full immunology workup. We recruited twelve women with incest histories who were not taking any medications, plus twelve women who had never been traumatized and who also did not take meds—a surprisingly difficult control group to find. (Marilyn was not in the study; we generally do not ask our clinical patients to be part of our research efforts.)

When the study was completed and the data analyzed, Rich reported that the group of incest survivors had abnormalities in their CD45 RA‑to‑RO ratio, compared with their nontraumatized peers. CD45 cells are the “memory cells” of the immune system. Some of them, called RA cells, have been activated by past exposure to toxins; they quickly respond to environmental threats they have encountered before. The RO cells, in contrast, are kept in reserve for new challenges; they are turned on to deal with threats the body has not met previously. The RA‑to‑RO ratio is the balance between cells that recognize known toxins and cells that wait for new information to activate. In patients with histories of incest, the proportion of RA cells that are ready to pounce is larger than normal. This makes the immune system oversensitive to threat, so that it is prone to mount a defense when none is needed, even when this means attacking the body’s own cells.

Our study showed that, on a deep level, the bodies of incest victims have trouble distinguishing between danger and safety. This means that the imprint of past trauma does not consist only of distorted perceptions of information coming from the outside; the organism itself also has a problem knowing how to feel safe. The past is impressed not only on their minds, and in misinterpretations of innocuous events (as when Marilyn attacked Michael because he accidentally touched her in her sleep), but also on the very core of their beings: in the safety of their bodies.

Note: Find out about Bessel's new in-depth, online Trauma Certificate Course



Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Bessel van der Kolk, MD, 2014.
Bios
Bessel van der Kolk Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D., has been active as a clinician, researcher and teacher in the area of posttraumatic stress and related phenomena since the 1970s. His work integrates developmental, biological, psychodynamic and interpersonal aspects of the impact of trauma and its treatment. His book Psychological Trauma was the first integrative text on the subject, painting the far ranging impact of trauma on the entire person and the range of therapeutic issues which need to be addressed for recovery.

Dr. van der Kolk and his various collaborators have published extensively on the impact of trauma on development, such as dissociative problems, borderline personality and self-mutilation, cognitive development in traumatized children and adults, and the psychobiology of trauma. He was co-principal investigator of the DSM IV Field Trials for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His current research is on how trauma affects memory processes and brain imaging studies of PTSD.

Dr. van der Kolk is past President of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University Medical School, Medical Director of the Trauma Center, and Director of the National Complex Trauma Treatment Network at Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. He has taught at universities and hospitals across the United States and around the world, including Europe, Africa, Russia, Australia, Israel, and China. His latest book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma was published in September 2014.

He is currently teaching though an intensive online Certificate Program in Traumatic Stress Studies.  Click here for information.