The lifelong cost of burying our trauma

Updated: Apr 30, 2019

November 5th 2014

By Shaoni Bhattacharya

Below, is an article and book about the Body Mind connection. The book is written by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk and is an insightful work about the body mind connection and the chronic burden that these traumatic stresses bear on our mental and physical health and well being.

Stress is a normal and healthy part of being alive in a real world.

Whether we are a plant, animal or human being, stress and being challenged by life is by and large what makes us stronger and helps us build resilience, emotional intelligence and flexibility.

However, when we experience a prolonged period of lower level stress. E.g. feeling that no matter what we do, our efforts will never be enough and bring about the result we desire, this lower grade stress can become traumatic and trigger a chronic response of hopelessness, despondency and feeling disempowered. This can also occur when we have not been properly taught by our parents and elders to control these reflexes during the first 5 years of our lives. The other type of stress is a one off large scale traumatic event. E.g. Being attacked, being abused, seeing trauma done to another, loss of something we perceive is pivotal to our survival or too sudden and impactful a life change.

The relevance here is that mild stress gives us something to push against, something to test against, something through which we can learn more about ourselves and how to survive. Even an infant in utero kicks, not to hurt its' mother or because something is wrong, it is normal, the infant pushes against the uterus wall to exercise its' leg muscles to trigger further development, build muscle strength and prepare for the action of moving once born.

Overwhelming stress/trauma causes and over stimulation of our Fight, Flight and Freeze survival responses. It does this either repeatedly taking us just over the threshold or in one large surge, and causes the survival states to become overstimulated and switched on permanently, too much for the calming part of this circuit to switch the survival reflexes off and allow our body functions to return to normal.

Neglect and poor mentoring, learning how to calm these reflexes in early childhood are now of great concern with the rising rates of adolescence and adult anxiety, depression and disconnection.

Trauma is also very poorly addressed and dealt with in our modern day and age. We will give refugees from war, or abuse, food, clothing and a new place to settle, but we do nothing to help the victims of war deal with and resolve the impact of the trauma, which will live with them for the rest of their lives and affect the lives of the generations to come.

When our bodies are in a traumatic response state our bodies are constantly producing stress hormones, like adrenaline, our breathing is chronically shallow so we don't oxygenate properly, our muscles which are tensed to Fight or Flee are always tight and lead to poor posture, poor digestion and poor blood flow.

Because our stress responses are unconscious, we often don't realise the slow creep to poor overall functioning, resulting in the aches, pains and chronic states of ill health that occur over the years. The impact is not just emotional but physical too.

We will be running workshops in London and Oxfordshire this year, to help you identify what your specific responses are, how to recognise when they are occurring and what to do to quickly regain the balance needed for mental and physical well-being. We will begin publishing these shortly in the Newsletter and under events on the website.

Enjoy the article

Past trauma can mean not feeling fully alive in the present (Image: Stanley Greene/Noor/eyevine)

The trauma caused by childhood neglect, sexual or domestic abuse and war wreaks havoc in our bodies, says Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score

WHAT has killed more Americans since 2001 than the Afghanistan and Iraq wars? And which serious health issue is twice as likely to affect US women as breast cancer?

The answer, claims psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, lies in what we now understand about trauma and its effects. In his disturbing book, The Body Keeps the Score, he explains how trauma and its resulting stress harms us through physiological changes to body and brain, and that those harms can persist throughout life. Excess stress can predispose us to everything from diabetes to heart disease, maybe even cancer.

Take his two examples. The number of Americans killed by family members exceeds the number that country lost in both wars. But it doesn’t stop there. Imagine the fallout for all who witnessed the murder or likely violence in the years preceding it. And women have double the risk of domestic violence – with the health consequences that brings – as they do of breast cancer.

Van der Kolk draws on 30 years of experience to argue powerfully that trauma is one of the West’s most urgent public health issues. The list of its effects is long: on mental and physical health, employment, education, crime, relationships, domestic or family abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction. “We all want to live in a world that is safe, manageable… predictable, and victims remind us that this is not always the case,” says van der Kolk. When no one wants to hear about a person’s trauma, it finds a way to manifest in their body.

And it is not only extreme experiences that linger. Family disturbance or generalised neglect can wire children to be on high alert, their stressed bodies tuned to fight or flight. Or they may be so “numbed out” by keeping demons at bay they can’t engage with life’s pleasures or protect themselves from future trauma. Even parents who don’t attune with their children can do untold damage, van der Kolk argues.

“Childhood neglect can prime individuals to be on high alert, their bodies tuned to fight or flight”

He makes it clear why it’s so important: help parents with their problems, deprivation or social isolation, and you help their kids. “If your parents’ faces never lit up when they looked at you, it’s hard to know what it feels like to be loved and cherished,” he says. Neglect creates mental maps used by children, and their adult selves, to survive. These maps skew their view of themselves and the world.

The book has gut-wrenching stories: about Vietnam veterans who committed war atrocities, incest survivors, broken adults that were terrorised as children or shunted between foster homes. Van der Kolk draws on hundreds of studies to back up his claim that “the body keeps the score”.

We meet a woman who had suppressed the memory of being raped at age 8 by her father, but when she ferociously attacked a new partner for no reason, she signed up for therapy with van der Kolk. Soon after, her eyesight started to fail: an autoimmune disease was eroding her retina. In a study, his team found that female incest survivors had abnormalities in the ratios of immune cells, compared with untraumatised women, exposing them to autoimmune diseases.

In terms of treatments, van der Kolk argues that “integrating” trauma by turning it into a bad memory, rather than reliving it, in therapy, may be key to recovering from trauma. And he criticises dealing with symptoms rather than causes. He has scary stats: half a million US children and teens take antipsychotic drugs, while privately insured 2 to 5-year-olds on antipsychotics have doubled between 2000 and 2007.

Packed with science and human stories, the book is an intense read that can get technical. Stay with it, though: van der Kolk has a lot to say, and the struggle and resilience of his patients is very moving.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma

Bessel van der Kolk

Viking Books