“The body keeps the score” by Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk is a New York Times best seller. This powerful book is the result of a lifetime of curious, passionate and empathetic research and clinical practice in the field of trauma, by one of the foremost world experts on traumatic stress. Dr Van Der Kolk details the effects of trauma and neglect, not only on our ex-service men and women, but on our society as a whole. It is essential reading not only for those who have experienced trauma, or those who treat it, but for every member of society, so that we can begin to change the way we treat signs of distress arising from trauma.
Dr Van Der Kolk describes the trauma experienced by our soldiers in war and the resulting isolation, self medication and anger they experience as a result. This is how we as a society typically see trauma. Yet, he also describes the hidden epidemic of “developmental trauma” of children brought up in a family of abuse, neglect or violence. Of which there are billions, walking amongst us, trying to deal with unimaginable hardships.
Van Der Kolk uses exhaustive and irrefutable logic, science and research to argue that understanding and treating trauma, in a compassionate and intelligent way, would have immense benefits to our individual well-being, and the well-being of society as a whole. He shows clearly that recognizing and treating those who have been traumatized in war situations, or traumatized through abuse or neglect within the home or elsewhere, would lessen the load on our hospitals, police services, courts and prisons. Trauma and neglect, and an inability to voice one’s despair, to a largely deaf society, leads to isolation, rage, depression, relationship breakdown, alcoholism, drug abuse, imprisonment or hospitalization.
The author shows through scientific research that the anti-depressants, liberally handed out in GP surgeries throughout the western world, may offer some relief but also serve to mask the traumas at the heart of a person’s behaviour. Taking the time to enable a traumatized person to name their trauma, and recognize the behavior that has arisen as a result of it, can enable true healing. He explains that labels such as ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder or Bipolar Disorder merely attempt an explanation of the symptoms of the trauma and he warns against seeing a person as just a label. Instead of describing the symptom by labelling it and medicating it, the patient should be gently persuaded to communicate and understand their history and to decode their resulting behavior. Usually the traumatic event will be buried deep under heavy layers of shame, guilt and self hatred and silenced by family or society. When one dismisses behavior with a label it prevents deeper exploration. Van Der Kolk advises against labelling and tells us to look at the individual as a person and ask “what has happened?”
Van Der Kolk’s research and arguments are strong. He tells us that half a million children in the U.S. are taking anti-psychotic drugs, with children from poor families four times as likely as those with private health insurance to be taking them. 12.4% of children in foster care take anti- psychotics compared with 1.4% of medical eligible children in general. This, sadly, indicates links to poverty, and the routine drugging of children who have experienced familial breakdown and loss and whose reactions to this are, understandably, violent. These drugs make the children more manageable, but they remove their motivation, curiosity and playfulness and put them at risk of becoming morbidly obese and developing diabetes.