The lifelong cost of burying our traumatic experiences

22 Nov

NS 2994
* 11 November 2014 by Shaoni Bhattacharya

Shaoni Bhattacharya is a consultant for New Scientist in

* Book information
* The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, mind, and body in the
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
The Body Keeps the Score, he explains how trauma and its
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,
even cancer.

Take his two examples. The number of Americans killed by
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
double the risk of domestic violence – with the health
that brings – as they do of breast cancer.

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

And it is not only extreme experiences that linger. Family
disturbance or generalised neglect can wire children to be on
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
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
“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
Neglect creates mental maps used by children, and their adult
selves, to survive. These maps skew their view of themselves
and the

The book has gut-wrenching stories: about Vietnam veterans
committed war atrocities, incest survivors, broken adults that
terrorised as children or shunted between foster homes. Van
der Kolk
draws on hundreds of studies to back up his claim that “the
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
her eyesight started to fail: an autoimmune disease was
eroding her
retina. In a study, his team found that female incest survivors
abnormalities in the ratios of immune cells, compared with
untraumatised women, exposing them to autoimmune

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
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
between 2000 and 2007.

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

This article appeared in print under the headline “Everybody

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