Books & Literature

Book Review: The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk

SELF-HELP: A world expert presents a sympathetic exploration of the causes of trauma and the new treatments making it possible for sufferers to reclaim their lives.

The most riveting piece of non-fiction I have ever read

Occasionally one is fortunate enough to find a book that you can’t put down, however, I have never felt this way about a non-fiction book. Quite simply, the all-engrossing The Body Keeps the Score is as intriguing as an outstanding novel, yet as technical as a textbook. 

At first glance, the book is a real turn-off. The font is small and the book is almost 400 pages long. A quick flip through the pages and all you see is writing with a few random diagrams that look very technical. Thankfully, however, it is well structured. There are five main parts to the book which have between 2-4 chapters each, except for the last part, which has nine chapters. There is also a resource list, further readings, and chapter reference notes.

The five parts are titled the re-discovery of trauma, your brain on trauma, the minds of children, the imprint of trauma, and finally, the paths to recovery. We hear from a psychologist with three decades of experience who writes this book to speak to the layman. Van Der Kolk (with all his medical expertise) does use a lot of industry terminology throughout, yet skilfully frames terms in such a way that they are not overwhelming.

In many ways, what he explains to us is intuitive. Hiking, running, yoga, meditation, cycling, theatre. Do you ever use these to release pent-up energy? For many people, physical activities are a way to relax and put our minds or emotions at ease. However, do we ever consider that engaging in these activities is linking the two sides of the brain together, and helping us get in touch with our feelings, in order to overcome obstacles? I have certainly never made the connection although in hindsight it seems so inherently obvious.

The case histories used in The Body Keeps the Score differ from the treatment approaches being promoted at the time the author began using them, yet are now supported by neuroscience. We hear the voice of a psychologist who, at the time, was not looking to label people with disorders or drug patients with medication but instead, look at the root causes of patient behaviours

For example, a common approach for patients of trauma (back then and still today) is to desensitise them to the experience so their emotional outbursts are less intense. However, Van Der Kolk rebels against this idea. Is there any point in being less reactive to triggers if one feels numb every day? Is this really living?

Using a combination of neuroscience to view visceral reactions when patients talk about their trauma as well as learning from survivors, he talks about his failed approaches as well as his successes. Literally every page that I turned was amazing, awash with information. 

The most enjoyable part of his writing is the growth in treatment options and how they came to be part of his practice. For example, he would ask healed patients what they used to heal, and when a patient mentioned massage therapy or attending theatre class, rather than condescendingly assume what the patient is doing was only helping his therapy, he sought to back up their claims of a cure with science. 

The title of the book says it all. You heal the emotional trauma by also acknowledging and incorporating the imprint of the body’s stored memories connected to the trauma. For an insightful glimpse into neurofeedback, rewiring the brain, addictions, and scientific discoveries about the brain, read The Body Keeps the Score.

Reviewed by Rebecca Wu

Distributed by: Penguin Books
Released: 1 December 2015
RRP: $24.99

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