Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Don’t Miss the Trauma Signals

Written by: on April 21, 2022

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma is by far the most significant book I have read on mental health. It is about how trauma has reached epidemic levels in our societies and the various ways in which the body responds to it. These include tightened stomachs, shallow breathing; increased heart rates. And may also include “clenched fists, tightness in the neck, nausea and trembling[1]” as Lyn Westman points out in Understanding People, Mental Health, and Trauma.  But physiological evidence of trauma is not all The Body Keeps the Score is about. It also details the devastating effects of trauma on children and adults including memory loss, outbursts of rage, withdrawal, self-blame, violence, “drugs, alcohol, binge eating, or cutting[2]”,  and a host of other inappropriate behaviors. Ultimately, the book discusses several important approaches to healing.

The book is based primarily on first-hand feedback from hundreds of patients seen over a career spanning multiple decades. But it’s also based on in-depth research from studies by respected classical and contemporary mental health professionals. The author, Bessel Van der Kolk, is a psychiatrist with more than 30 years of experience in treating PTSD and other mental health issues. He is a professor at the Boston University, a widely published researcher, and a best-selling author.

For me, Van Der Kolk’s most significant point is on eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). This is a process of helping a client recall important memories through focusing on a moving finger. Remarkably, the eye movements produce “dramatic relief” from stress[3], while bringing up elements of the past that eventually help clients overcome the intensity of trauma and view their pain as part of the bigger picture of life. It is fascinating to learn that this technique has helped countless patients recall seemingly non-related elements of their history in their journey to healing, even without sharing details of their trauma[4]. This is important because as alluded to by the account of some of Van der Kolk’s patients, not everyone is comfortable sharing their story, even though they know they need help.

Working in a country with unresolved trauma from Apartheid and the current crises of crime, domestic violence, Covid, unemployment, etc,  The Body Keeps the Score will be a significant resource I will be referring to for understanding the traumatic effect of the situation in my context and how best to respond. Obviously, many situations will require professional intervention, but having a bit of understanding will greatly help me. The Body Keeps the Score will also help me better understand a population group I am being lead to serve: formerly-incarcerated persons. Rather than only pray, The Body Keeps the Score has added a significant tool in how to better understand and relate to ex-inmates, their families and victims. As a leader, the book has also widened my worldview to realize that  trauma, in all its different forms, cannot be minimized or dismissed. Rather, it must be critically examined and carefully addressed if we are to see the shalom God intends for His creation.

[1] Westman, Lyn. Understanding People, Mental Health and Trauma. (Unpublished Manuscript, 2019), 23.

[2] Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. (New York: Penguin Group, 2014), 104.

[3] Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 271.

[4] Ibid, 272.

About the Author


Henry Gwani

Follower of Jesus, husband, father, community development practitioner and student of leadership working among marginalized communities in South Africa

2 responses to “Don’t Miss the Trauma Signals”

  1. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Thank you for your post. I am curious as to what specific aspects of the book that you feel are appropriate for “non-professional” to implement?

  2. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Henry, great job on the post, as usual. You reference EMDR and I have also become very curious about how that works after meeting several people who related how much it helped them. I’m just beginning my understanding of the process. A lady counselor in our church uses it with military veterans to great success. Are you licensed to use it? Have you seen the benefits in the types of situations you describe? We also work with prison inmates and I never made the connection to that population – thank you for that. If that treatment (EMDR) begins with inmates, I’d like to hear the results!

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