Trauma and the body

In the early 1980s I read the then-popular book Bodymind by Ken Dychtwald, on how the psychological/emotional effect of events in our lives are reflected in the body, and increasing body awareness can help in addressing the residue of these. It all made sense.

Science, and particularly neuroscience, has move a long way since those days, so it was interesting to come back to this scene with Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score – the title says it all. The subtitle gives the particular focus of the book: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma.

Over the years I’ve been involved in various ways with counselling and had an interest in the talking therapies, but it has been evident that there are problems that these simply cannot reach, trauma being a major one of these. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk has specialised in helping people with trauma over a long career, and it is fascinating to see his perspective on it, and how the professional view has evolved over that time.

I do recall from my own experiences growing up, that various uncles who had served in World War II never talked about their experiences – whether in Burma, or as a prisoner of war in Germany, or in active combat. It was in the box of their past, and they just did not want to open up that box. I suspect that each had his own trauma that was just too difficult to resolve in any conscious way.

It was the traumas of war that were first recognised in USA in 1980, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. PTSD was then first described as a condition in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) of the American Psychiatric Association. Van der Kolk gives insight into the fight there has been since then to introduce into the DSM more general traumas that come out of lived experience due to domestic/child abuse, physical circumstances such as poverty, neglect, working conditions, hunger, racism, oppression by unfair policing and so on. This has proved very difficult. Might one suggest that those in power might not wish it to be recognised that the conditions they were imposing on members of society are actually causing traumatic injury to those in their ‘care’.

Even so, there has been great progress in the understanding and treatment of trauma, and the book outlines many approaches that have proved helpful, and the underpinning advances in neuroscience. It is impossible to summarise the wise words and stories emerging in these pages – engaging psyche, emotions and the body with techniques, therapies bodywork etc. Of course, drugs may help, but they are not the ultimate answer.

Van der Kolk is a great storyteller, so the material is fully engaging. We can all learn a lot, even in dealing with the minor ‘traumas’ of everyday life. Even more, we can see how the generation of trauma is built in to some of our governmental and social systems. He ends the book with this statement:

Trauma is now our most urgent public health issue, and we have the knowledge necessary to respond effectively. The choice is ours to act on what we know.

Well worth reading.

The thing thing

The thing is, we tend to think in terms of things – for everything (!)

Reality is something else. Everything is connected. There is no unique thing. Thingness is a model, approximating to reality. We could call it thing theory; some might call it materialism.

Psychologically we have an unfortunate tendency to confuse the map with the territory, so we think that things are more real than reality itself. Yet Quantum theory debunked thing theory many years ago.

Reality is more akin to interconnected processes – for example the human process interconnected with the earth process, interconnected with the solar system process, and the galactic process…

Does it matter? Yes, because we appear to think we can manipulate things without considering their interconnections, with our reductionist, materialistic mentality. The effect is only too obvious in what we are doing to the natural world. For example, the UK HS2 rail project replaces a complete ecosystem with a few trees planted in a load of freshly laid soil, and thinks that’s fine.

Of course, in daily life, thing theory works quite well on a practical basis, as does flat earth theory. I sit on a thing chair on a flat earth and eat a thing meal on a thing plate with a thing knife and a thing fork. We just need to know the limits of our theories and models, and when they cannot and should not be applied.

From the perspective of neuroscience, the left brain is very good at things and theories, but not very good at flow and interconnected processes. That’s when we need the right brain. If lefty has taken over completely (the Emissary usurping the Master) then ultimately we destroy every ‘thing’.

Inspired by Iain McGilchrist’s books The Master and His Emissary and The Matter with Things.
Featured image of billiard break by No-w-ay in collaboration with H. Caps, via Wikimedia Commons