“The Body Keeps the Score”….then what?

The word “Trauma” has become a bit of a buzzword with hallmark books about trauma becoming popularized such as “The Body Keeps the Score” (Van der Kolk, 2014) and “What Happened to You?” (Perry, M.D., & Winfrey, 2021). As a licensed clinical counselor my job is to help shape the public’s perception of topics such as trauma, so the fact that the general population is beginning to understand the deep-rooted affects it has on people’s psyche, attitudes, and actions is fantastic. However, I believe there is more work to be done in educating people on what to do with their trauma.

Bessel Van der Kolk did a wonderful job explaining how trauma is stored in the body. He has worked closely with David Emerson, author of Trauma Sensitive Yoga in Therapy: Bringing the Body into Treatment (2015). In this book, Emerson shares the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ quote: “You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing onto you” (2015, p. 102). Emerson goes on to explain that normal memory works this way—our brain and body experiences each moment as it comes. However, with maladaptively stored memories (AKA traumatic memories):

Water (and, therefore, water molecules) has completely, and unnaturally, stagnated and every time they step into the river it is the same; the river (the trauma or traumatic memory) is “timeless” in the words of van der Kolk. (Emerson, 2015, p. 102)

So, what does this mean to those who are ridden with trauma? Their bodies are always living as if still in that traumatized moment. To protect their heart and mind from the trauma their body is always feeling, the traumatized person becomes more and more disconnected from their body over time to protect itself. Our bodies are so beautifully created to be able to protect us from pain like this!

However, this permanent separation of our minds from our bodies does come at a cost. After all, we are not always in these traumatic moments. When we do find safe environments, it is healthy to allow ourselves to feel, be present, and connect our heart, mind, soul, and body to live a fully enriched life that God intended for us. Our body is meant to be a vessel for the work of the Holy Spirit, and without connection to our body, we cannot do the work the Lord set forth for us. Additionally, as Emerson states:

The only way to have our needs met, whether it’s medical care, nutrition, or healthy affection, is for us to be able to sense the messages from our bodies. (2015, p. 32)

There are a multitude of ways to reconnect a traumatized brain to one’s body. Many are based in mindfulness approaches of learning to mindfully notice and be aware of the sensations your body is having (think 5 senses—seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting). Another aspect of connecting the mind and body is through somatic types of therapy, one being trauma-sensitive yoga. One of the main goals of this modality is to grow what is called “interoceptive awareness”, or the ability to be aware of internal body sensations. How does my spine feel as I gently twist in my chair? How does it feel in my chest when I take a big sip of ice water? What do I notice in my body when I raise my arms above my head?

Therapeutic yoga can be the bridge between mind and body for those who have completely lost connection with their interoceptive awareness. It gives traumatized people the environment where they are in charge of their own body and get to make decisions for it based on their newfound ability to sense what their body is feeling in the present moment. For many traumatized bodies, their bodies “have been chronically acted on; it has rarely, if at all, been the agent”, meaning that historically others have been in control over what their bodies feel and do (Emerson, 2015, p. 80). For this reason, self-empowerment is one of the central parts of trauma treatment (Emerson, 2015, p. 83). This is what healing from trauma looks like for the body—being able to feel its natural responses to the environment, knowing what to do about it (even understanding that you have the ability now to do something about it, when you never had that safety before!), and knowing how to make bad feelings change or how to shift things so they are more comfortable (having the agency to make healthy changes for oneself).

Trauma-sensitive yoga is just one of many somatic forms of trauma therapy. Once a traumatized person can gain empowerment and feel connected to their body again, they can better engage in reprocessing traumatic memories through therapeutic modalities such as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) with a trained clinician. The body does keep the score, and the score can be changed.