The lifelong cost of burying our traumatic experiences

22 Nov

NS 2994
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429941.200-the-lifelong-cost-of-burying-our-traumatic-experiences.html
* 11 November 2014 by Shaoni Bhattacharya

Shaoni Bhattacharya is a consultant for New Scientist in
London

* Book information
* The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, mind, and body in the
healing
of trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
* Published by: Viking Books
* Price: $27.95/£25

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.

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.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Everybody
hurts”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: