The Body Keeps the Score
Reflections on trauma, triggers, and healing + a gift and an invitation
I recently found myself in a rather mundane situation that triggered a response in me that I’m not proud of.
A banal exchange took a vicious turn after my interlocutor said something that elicited an inordinately powerful response from me—which emerged from somewhere deep and dark within my soul that I did not even know existed.
My face flushed. My heart began to race. I felt my chest swell. Blood rushed to my extremities, and I experienced a surge of energy course through my body.
I felt compelled to action. I acted as if my very life was threatened. I was prepared to fight for my life, ready to go to the mattresses to survive.
My body had prepared to for battle before my rational brain had a chance to catch up. Thankfully, I restrained myself—I didn’t say or do the things that my body and energy were propelling me to do!—but I was still puzzled by and ashamed of my response.
After the exchange, I felt absolutely exhausted. I had to lie down and rest to recover.
Why did I respond this way? What caused this inordinate, survivalist, fight-or-flight reaction in me?
I knew in my mind that there was no real, imminent threat to my existence.
But what caused my brain and body to respond as though there were?
The Body Keeps the Score
I’m nearly finished reading a book called The Body Keeps the Score by Dutch psychiatrist at Boston University Bessel van der Kolk, which offers an explanation to my overreaction described above.
This book explores how trauma affects the brain, and how wounds from our past affect our present and manifest in our physical experience of the world around us. I’ve found great comfort in understanding why I responded so strongly to so bland a situation, and have inordinately responded to so many other quotidian circumstances, too.
I chose to read van der Kolk’s book because I wanted to learn more about the inner workings of the brain, and this book was highly rated and reviewed.
I’m someone who invests a lot in holistic self-care, tending to the needs of my mind, body and spirit. I have rituals—journaling, breathing, prayer, affirmations, exercise and other “habits of resilience”—to help me be my best self throughout the day. I spend a lot of time introspecting—cultivating self-knowledge by reflecting on who I am, where I’ve come from, and who I want to be. I know that these meditative and stabilizing practices help me be the best mother, wife, creator, and citizen of the world that I can be. They also prepare me to respond well to—and not be triggered by— the inevitable frustrations of the day.
I was surprised that—despite all of the self-knowledge and self-care in the world—I still fell short of my values and ideals in the opening story. I was disappointed with myself for responding as I did, even saying things I regret. I had depleted my energy reserves, leaving me less able to bring my full self to my children the rest of that day. Even though I knew rationally that my reaction was uncalled for and inordinate—I knew at an intellectual level that my life wasn’t in danger—that didn’t matter.
Inordinate reactions like I described above, where we’re caught off guard by the strength of our response to a situation, happen more often than we may realize—both in our own lives, but also all around us.
There’s often “a thing beneath the thing”—something that belies and explains the surface response, and is the true cause of it. The human being is like an iceberg: what we see on the surface is only a small fraction, and the majority of what we do and say is governed by our subconscious mind beneath the surface.
Sometimes, these inordinate interaction are the stuff of viral videos on social media, where onlookers capture someone at a low moment in their day or life where they respond inappropriately.
The person who was videoed is then shamed online, called terrible names, fired from their jobs, or exiled from their communities as a result.
What would happen if—instead of rushing to judgments such as these—we took the time to try and see the reason behind a person’s lashing out and rage? We tried to see the portion of the iceberg below the surface that governs and directs the part of the person’s that we see.
Our instinct when seeing someone act out is to tell ourselves a story that vindicates us—“I don’t deserve to be treated this way—they must have been born mean. They’re a monster.”
But what if instead we told ourselves a story that helped us cultivate empathy toward them? As the cliché goes, hurt people hurt people: how we engage with the world around us doesn’t come out of nowhere.
I wish the person on the other side of my tense interaction could have realized that my reaction was more about me—the frustrations of that day before I interacted with them which aggravated the hurts of my past—than about them.
Our trauma and wounds
We all have wounds that inform how we interact with others today.
Trauma is a specific kind of wound that can chronically inhibit our relationships with others and ourselves. Trauma is an upsetting experience that brings us to the point of being overwhelmed—feelings of helplessness, rage, confusion, and an inability to escape or function in the face of threat. Trauma isn’t about the event itself per se—it’s about how we respond to it, how we’re comforted after it, and how it continues to affect us.
If a child is in a horrible car accident, but has a support system around him as he heals both physically and emotionally, the chances of him having long-term trauma are low.
By contrast, if a child endures sustained emotional or physical neglect or abuse growing up—and they have nowhere to turn, no one with whom they can feel safe and process their experience—the chances of long-term trauma are high.
When we encounter stress, it ends when the situation ends.
Trauma stays with us. It continues to be relived and played out in our minds and by our bodies.
Trauma begins as something that happens TO us, but then our brain begins to change: instead of smelling smoke just when there is fire, we begin to smell smoke everywhere. Everyone we meet is a possible threat to our safety and well-being.
The traumatic event is over, but we continue to react to the things around us as if we’re in survival mode. We are in a perpetual state of fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or mental collapse, which is taxing on the mind and body—“metabolically costly” as van der Kolk’s book says.
The brain and body are so preoccupied with survival—with interpreting everything around us as a life threat—that we are left with little energy to think, learn, be creative, perceive nuance, experience pleasure and joy.
We are emotionally, psychosocially and physically handicapped from bringing our best selves, and living our best lives, and bringing the fullness of ourselves to relationship with others.
The cost is not just exhaustion, but a variety physiological issues that have no perceptible cause. The author of The Body Keeps the Score mentions chronic pain, auto-immune diseases, and headaches as just a few examples that he’s encountered in his practice.
We are not disembodied minds. We are mind, body and spirit. Too often, though, our treatments of malaise are segmented: treatments of psychological issues focus on the mind, while treatments of physiological issues focus on the body.
But seeing human beings in their fullness—as mind, body, spirit, all—and addressing the needs of each in turn and in relation to the other is the path toward fullness of life and healing.
Human beings are infinitely complex. There is so much that goes on within the human mind, body and spirit beneath the surface—beyond what people can see or understand.
Because we are uncomfortable with gaps in our knowledge—for example, “Why was my boss unnecessarily brusque to me this morning?”—we fill in those knowledge gaps with stories to help us explain things we don’t understand, even if the accounts are inaccurate or incomplete.
What would it mean to have a little more humility in our interactions with others—not presuming to know the entirety of their character and life story, reducing them to our experience with them in a single exchange—and be open to the stories that lie beneath the surface? Stories of tragedy, abuse, loss and grief that may help us better understand why people are the way they are, and give us greater grace and empathy in interacting with them.
The mind as a mosaic: the exile, the manager, and the fireman
One framework I found helpful in van der Kolk’s book was the metaphor from internal family systems therapy: the mind is a family, a mosaic of disparate parts, and healing comes when we both recognize them, and then integrate them into a coherent whole.
The part of our self that bears the memories and burden and shame of trauma is the Exile.
Other parts of the self arise to repress, protect, and distance us from the Exiles, such as the Manager.
The Manager is the internal critic and censor—the one that criticizes us relentlessly for not being perfect or good enough to be deserving of love or acceptance, and that in turn causes us to criticize others relentlessly, too.
This resonates with me.
One time, my husband told me that a critical comment I made had hurt him. I said to myself, “If only he knew the criticism inside my head toward myself—it’s 100x worse.” I’ve worked hard to overcome my tendency to criticize others—which in turn stems from my relentless criticism of myself. This is one of many examples of why internal woundedness can cause relationship strife—and why personal healing can help foster the human social project, the topic of my forthcoming book and life’s work.
Last, there are the Firefighters—the emergency responders who impulsively respond when an intense emotion or experience is triggered.
In the opening story, something the person I was speaking to said triggered my inner Firefighter, which immediately jumped into high gear to address the perceived threat to my life.
The actions of each of these parts protects the self from the feeling of impending doom. The Exile lies low to hide us from our shame. The Manager hurts others before they have a chance to hurt us. The Firefighter is primed to, quite literally, vigilantly fight to the death—even if there is no threat.
Each of these represent sub-personalities of our self. One of these parts may manifest at any given time—and sometimes they can even be at cross-purposes. None of these single parts are the TRUE us. They are all us, and yet they represent only one aspect of our constellation of thoughts, feelings, and emotions at a given time. I like this way of thinking because it reminds us that how we feel in a given moment is not necessarily our “one true” self.
Because each of these are parts of who we are—even if they are ugly and destructive—we must welcome them.
I love this poem from 13th century Islamic poet Rumi entitled The Guest House:
This human being is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Healing begins with welcoming each part of the self, staying curious about the wounds they carry and seek to protect. Cultivating a sense of safety, calm, and confidence is necessary so that the healing process can begin. When this happens, we no longer feel the need to be on the defensive, to hurt others before we are hurt. We can be free from re-enacting our past, and fully inhabit our mind, body, and spirit.
Healing—personal and societal
It’s no question that we live in a broken society: our social fabric is frayed. Fortifying our social fabric—healing our interpersonal culture—begins at the individual level. Healthy, fully functioning people build healthy societies. Social trust is restored and nourished through the cumulative effect of individual exchanges. It depends on having fewer exchanges that sow mistrust and resentment, as in the story I opened with, and more interactions that give life and make people want to be part of this joint project of human community.
Personal healing from trauma begins with integrating the traumatic memories into who we are. I’ve been on this journey of integration for many years, and still have work to do. I still often view the world around me and my interactions with others through the lens of the wounds from my past, which cause me to be less charitable, and more prone to offense and hurt, than is warranted.
Healing begins with finding secure attachment to, and safety with, others—especially if we didn’t have secure attachments and safety in other times in our lives. We must find people and communities that make us feel seen, known, loved and connected. Here are a few concrete practices that can foster your healing journey, or perhaps you’ll consider sharing them with others:
1. Inhabiting our body. Breathing, meditation, prayer, therapeutic massage, kickboxing, martial arts exercise, walking, chanting—all practices that many Eastern cultures have known for centuries have integrating, healing and grounding benefits—can each contribute to caring for our bodies, helping us to feel more connected with them, productively channeling negative emotional and physical energy, and enabling us to be more fully ourselves, more fully human and alive.
2. Sitting and naming our emotions. Our culture disdains vulnerability, and emotions are vulnerable. When an emotion comes to the surface, it’s tempting to suppress it and move on with our day. But sitting with it, describing how it feels and where we sense it in our bodies, fosters the process of becoming more whole and integrated as a human being, mind, body and spirit. Being comfortable with our emotions, giving ourselves permission to feel them instead of denying or repressing these important parts of our humanity, connects us to our bodies, and helps us to heal and become more fully ourselves.
3. Choosing community. Life with others is hard. Life alone is harder. Sometimes, we isolate ourselves because we don’t feel we are worthy of relationship or love, or we’re afraid of getting hurt. But trauma and terror are not compatible with safety and love, and the antidote to shame and trauma is the safety in relationship and vulnerability. We must find community and engage with it regularly, thus retraining our brains to trust and love instead of protect and spurn. Amazingly, friendship and love is also something that can prevent a traumatic experience from traumatizing someone: re-establishing love, safety and support in the wake of a stressful experience is a way to prevent the experience from metastasizing, and freezing the brain into its traumatized state. Doing what you can to make yourself, your home and your life an oasis of safety and love for others in need can do untold good for the hurting people around you, and, in turn, the world.
4. Attunement to triggers. One practice I’ve been trying to do is, when I feel myself emotionally triggered as I was in the opening story, I stop myself before I act. I take several deep breaths. I try sitting with the emotions, staying curious about them, allowing them to run their course while also reflecting on what my inner “firefighter” is protecting. What inner wound was aggravated by the situation to cause me to respond this way? What Exile—what shame or hurt— is being protected? This allows the emotion to run its course, and gives me valuable information about areas of self-care and work for the future—information I would have missed if I had just acted on the impulse, or repressed the emotions altogether.
5. Seek help. The author of The Body Keeps the Score is a fan of “desensitizing” therapies that neutralize the pain of trauma so that we’re no longer held captive by it, such as EMDR or brainspotting, with trained professionals. If even just a few of us invested in ourselves to overcome our pasts, and were empowered to bring our full selves to our relationships and communities, what positive ripple effect throughout time could we achieve? The body and mind are extraordinary self-healing entities. We each have an incredible inner reservoir of resources to help us in our healing journey. Sometimes a professional can help us get out of our own way so that we can fully use them.
Sometimes, bad things happen to us. We can’t help that we see the world and people around us through the lens of past, negative experience. It’s part of who we are, and how we learn and survive. But we can strive to see the part in light of the whole, see the past as the past, and not be held captive to memories that cause us to act in ways that harm ourselves and others.
I am a student of human relationships. I’m passionate about personal and social healing, so much so that I dedicated an entire book to the topic in my forthcoming The Soul of Civility (link). I’m enthusiastic about the human social project, and the joint project of human community. But personal trauma and woundedness can be major barriers to both.
In walking around expecting to be threatened or hurt at every turn—as I realized I sometimes do— the traumatized person is unable to fully realize the joys and life-giving and healing benefits of relationship with others.
In overreacting to small things in big, harsh ways because of past hurts—those healing from trauma can perpetuate the vicious cycles of social strife that caused them pain in the first place.
I’m sure the person on the other side of the interaction I described above was shocked and dismayed by my overzealous response to them. I’m sure I caused them, at least for a moment, to have less faith in others and in society.
This is the ugly truth of trauma: often, we perpetuate the harm and wounds that we endured. We re-enact them and, in turn, hurt others. We unwittingly perpetuate the same harm that we are trying to escape.
That’s how trauma can undermine the social project, and that’s why taking time to heal our personal wounds is essential not just for our own health and well-being, but for our community’s, too.
I’m on my own healing journey from wounds in my past. To some extent, whether we realize it or not, I think we all are, and I hope remembering this will give us the necessary added measure of grace that we need in order to do this thing called life together.
When I feel tempted to make a snap judgement and condemn someone for their cruelty or thoughtlessness—when I’m tempted to take things personally and be hurt and offended— I try to think of times when I was thoughtless and unkind, and how much I hoped people had grace for me. I hope they realized it was more about my own woundedness playing out in the world than them.
I’m curious what you make of these ideas above:
What role do you think our pasts play in how we live in our present?
How much social strife today—socially, culturally, politically—can be traced to wounds in our history?
Tell me your journey of healing and self-care. What daily practices make you feel fortified, full, healthy, fully alive, and able to bring your best self to your family, vocation and community?
To what extent do you think viewing the shortcomings of others in light of our own shortcomings can help us achieve greater social harmony?
I’d love to hear from you. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
A gift + an invitation
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Loved reading this post and the book. I’ve looked inward for help dealing with chronic illness and have found that these learned responses factor massively into real physical pain. We are always learning and always improving. ❤️
Your best work so far IMHO... love it. Along with all of your great self-work you might consider having a spontaneous and totally surprising marshmallow fight with your family. Use the big ones. Get a few bags so you have plenty of ammo. Don't worry about the mess just have some fun. Works wonders. Cheers, Robert.