Survivors of sexual violence often struggle with anxiety, depression, symptoms of PTSD, or sleep disorders, which are sometimes dismissed as being “all in your head.” Based on decades of practice and research, Bessel van der Kolk shows how traumatic experiences leave a physical imprint in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Despite the somewhat intimidating small print and large number of pages, this book is an invaluable resource for anyone working through trauma or supporting survivors of trauma.
Kolk begins by explaining how the brain processes traumatic incidents. The threat of danger triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response, which changes how somebody interprets, processes, and remembers a traumatic experience. Due to the different ways people interpret trauma, survivors exhibit a range of responses when dealing with the aftermath of an assault. Some may express intense emotions, like rage or hopelessness, while others may seem shut down or disconnected. Many survivors experience all of these responses at different times during their healing process.
Traumatic experiences are also stored in the memory differently than day-to-day experiences. They are fragmented memories, which increases the likelihood of experiencing ongoing difficulties after an assault. This often manifests through flashbacks during which a survivor might feel as though they are reliving an assault, shattering any sense of safety and causing survivors to feel frustrated with a slow healing process.
When the body continues to exhibit a stress response even after the threat of danger has passed, it has an immense toll on mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. The body did not evolve to accept crisis as a permanent state of being, so if trauma goes unaddressed, it will be expressed in other ways. Survivors of trauma such as sexual assault, child sexual abuse, or domestic violence often have physical ailments that cannot be attributed to any biological cause. Rather, the chronic headaches, digestive upsets, insomnia, or increased susceptibility to colds and other illnesses are a direct result of a prolonged stress response rooted in trauma.
Because trauma is stored in the brain and body so differently than other experiences, it sometimes requires alternative and creative thinking to find ways of working through it. Some survivors heal by engaging in talk therapy, but Kolk points out that the fragmentary nature of trauma often requires putting together multiple pieces of the puzzle: mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual. For many survivors, healing includes reconnecting with their body. Yoga, mindfulness, and other mind-body practices have helped some survivors gently discover how to re-inhabit their body after having had their boundaries violated in such an intimate way. Others have found relief through theater, which offers the opportunity to control relationships while also learning new ways for interacting with others. Kolk also describes other therapy modalities, including neurofeedback, somatic experiencing, and EMDR, that can help survivors to piece together and integrate traumatic memories.
Knowing more information about why trauma has the impact it does can help survivors and those supporting them to feel validated in their experience. Instead of feeling like you are “going crazy” or dealing with things that are “all in your head,” seeing your experience reflected in writing can help provide an explanation and give hope for moving forward in the healing process. Furthermore, this book also demonstrates that there is no “right” way to recover from trauma. Everyone experiences trauma differently, and everyone also heals from trauma differently.
If you are interested in reading more, this book is available to be checked out from our resource library.
Natalie Ziemba is our Crisis Response Coordinator. She manages the Center’s 24-Hour Help Line, oversees our volunteer Companions, coordinates the Orange County SART, bakes delicious cookies, and more.