Book Review #4: The Body Keeps the Score.

“It is not that something different is seen, but that one sees differently.             – Carl Jung

The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. By Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. Penguin Books, New York, NY. (2014)

The most effective coaches are those that have the ability to connect with others, understand the importance of psychology, and value knowledge about human behavior. You cannot have physiology without psychology. There is information out there about coaching tactics for personality and temperament (Brett Bartholomew), neurological profiling for program design (Christian Thibaudeau) , and targeting neurotransmitters for adherence.

These can be important considerations for training and coaching, however humans are extremely complex and there is always a deeper level. When you interact with others, that deeper level may include understanding how trauma can manifest itself in the body.

We all interact with people who are in pain (not just physical). Trauma doesn’t have to be one event, it can be the inability to cope with a perceived threat at a young age, in which coping strategies become ingrained in our physiology and neurology. These strategies can be teeth clenching, breathe holding, curling toes, and tightening of abdominals (More Information).

Our current behavior and our response to stress is created by past experiences. Our behavior is based upon prediction, in which we will revert back to the behavior from past emotional or physical stressors. As coaches, we need to acknowledge feelings, create body awareness, appreciate the impact of our clients past experiences related to their current behaviors (this includes creating a referral network), and changing our own behaviors to best interact with that client.

As human beings we belong to an extremely resilient species. Since time immemorial we have rebounded from our relentless wars, countless disasters (both natural and man-made), and the violence and betrayal in our own lives. But traumatic experiences do leave traces, whether on a large scale (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families, with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed down through generations. They also leave traces on our minds and emotions, on our capacity for joy and intimacy, and even our biology and immune systems.”

– Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (p.1)

The Body Keeps The Score

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is the founder and medical director of the Trauma center in Brookline, Massachusetts. In his book, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk shares his years of clinical practice and scientific literature in relation to how trauma can reshape the body and brain (whole body response). He presents treatments such as meditation, sports, yoga, and self expression for recovery.  

Traumatic experiences physically affects the brain and the body, causing anxiety, inability to concentrate, and the inability to feel sensation. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explores the complexity of the mind, structure and function of the brain’s emotional pathways, the ways in which humans are connected and attached to each other, and how emotions/behavior are reflected in movement.

Trauma (which can be solely unconscious) can literally change the structure and function of the brain, increase stress hormones, create hypervigilance to threat (real or imagined), restrict movement, create sleep disturbances, oversensitivity to touch or sound, and increase the perception of pain. These experiences can occur as a baby and contribute to the emotional and perceptual map of the world in the developing brain.

“We have begun to understand how overwhelming experiences affect our innermost sensations and  our relationship to our physical reality-the core of who we are…[Trauma] changes not only how we think and what We think about, but also our very capacity to think.”

Big Hitters:

  • “Social environment interacts with brain chemistry” What is the environment that you are trying to create as a coach? How are you making people feel?
    • Emotions assign value to an experience.
  • “In many places drugs have displaced therapy and enabled patients to suppress their problems without addressing the underlying issues.”
    • “The brain-disease model takes control over people’s fate out of their own hands and puts doctors and insurance companies in charge of fixing their problems.” (p.37)
    • “Half a million children in the United States currently take antipsychotic drugs.”
    • Can coaches and exercise have a greater impact than prescription medication?
    • Do we care enough to find a different solution?
  • Activities such as breathing, moving, and touching can be used to regulate our own physiology.
  • “Being able to move and do something to protect oneself is a critical factor in determining whether or not a horrible experience will leave long-lasting scar.” 
    • Physical movement and emotional expression are valuable for overall health and healing.
  • “Realizing that other people can think and feel differently from us…”
    • WE ALL PERCEIVE THE WORLD DIFFERENTLY. You are coaching others with their own perceptions and constructed view of the world, not yours.
  • “Without flexible, active frontal lobes people become creatures of habit, and their relationships become superficial and routine.” (p.60)  
  • “Grounding” (related to treatment) means that you can feel you butt in your chair, see the light coming through the window, feel the tension in your calves, and hear the wind stirring the tree outside (p.70). This is sensation.
  • Our physical shape (body language-nonverbal expression of emotion), tone of voice, and facial expressions feed our emotional pathways (and vice versa) and provide communication and intention to others. This is the body-brain connection.
    • We can experience physical pain from emotions.
    • The heart, guts, and brain are connected and communicate via the pneumogastric nerve. Mind and body are indistinguishable.
    • You’re inability to digest your food can be related to your emotional state (possibly due to exposure to stress).
  • Sense of purpose involves both movement and emotions. Making things meaningful and providing others with a sense of purpose or importance is one of the most genuine things you can do as a coach.  
  • Social support. “Our culture teaches us to focus on personal uniqueness, but at a deeper level we barely exist as individual organisms. Our brain are built to help us function as members of a tribe. We are part of that tribe even when we are by ourselves…” (p.80)
    • “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect…safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
    • “Most traumatize people find themselves chronically out of sync with the people around them.”
  • Exercise and movement provides body awareness and increased capacity to manage stress.
    • The “core of our self-awareness rests on the physical sensations that convey the inner states of the body. ” Physical self-awareness provides the ability to release the tyranny of the past and provides a sense of self.
    • Practices such as movement therapy and yoga can be used as sensory experiences by exploring trauma’s deeper impact on the body (neuroscience of self-awareness). Simply noticing what you feel fosters emotional regulation. Sensory (and motor) experiences are important…
    • The flip side is exercise addiction, which can be sensation seeking.
  • “Nobody grows up under ideal circumstances…every life is difficult in its own way.” (p.306)

“When we cannot rely on our body to signal safety or warning and instead feel chronically overwhelmed by physical stirrings, we lose the capacity to feel at home in our own skin, and by extension, in the world.” (p.307)

Overall Score: 8.6/10

When you are a coach, you have a responsibility for a position of influence. I often observe the dehumanization of athletes in relation to the avoidance of human connection. Today, we limit social interaction with the use of technology and often breed a superficial environment. Coaches have the ability to positively impact other individuals but there needs to be knowledge of human behavior (including the information presented in the book), communication skills, and acknowledgement.

We are all different. We all perceive the world differently from past experiences and temperaments. Remember this when you are dealing with others (position of influence).

Have compassion.

This book is dense and emotional at times, however ever since I read it a few years ago it has been in my list for top 3 favorite books. The information presented is invaluable in appreciating behavior, past experiences, pain, and relationships. It is close to a ’10’ because it’s an exploration of the complexity of the human species, and that’s quality to me.

Related Recommended Resource: Seth Oberst, DPT, SCS, CSCS and his Stress, Movement & Pain course

Up next: We shall see….