His name was Herb. He attended our church on the east coast and saw that we sought a custodian. I hired him, knowing he had a history of changing jobs frequently. All went well until summer came. Forest surrounded the church and became lush and green as the weather warmed. A nearby army munitions plant occasionally flew helicopters. One day, Herb worked outside the building, and the helicopters flew overhead. He quickly got in his car and left for a local bar. When we talked the next day, he relayed how the combination of the lush foliage and the helicopter sound took him back to the jungles of Viet Nam. Decades of help sought from the Veterans Association could not alleviate the effects of PTSD. Herb quit the job that day. He bounced around to other jobs, never overcoming the trauma of war.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk wrote The Body Keeps the Score for people like Herb and others affected by trauma. This book includes aspects of psychology, psychiatry, and medicine as he seeks to connect the physical and emotional impacts of trauma. The author states his premise in the prologue as being “to serve as both a guide and an invitation – an invitation to dedicate ourselves to facing the reality of trauma, to explore how best to treat it, and to commit ourselves, as a society, to using every means we have to prevent it.” Van der Kolk references the conclusions of Robert Anda and others in a 1990s study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) when he states, “they had stumbled upon the gravest and most costly public health issue in the United States: child abuse.” The implications of providing solutions to trauma offer financial and emotional benefits. “(Robert Anda) had calculated that its overall costs exceeded those of cancer or heart disease and that eradicating child abuse in America would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism by two-thirds, and suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence by three-quarters. It would also have a dramatic effect on workplace performance and vastly decrease the need for incarceration.”
Most of van der Kolk’s book relates to crucial questions around the issue. What are the dynamics of trauma? How can child abuse be lessened and its effects treated? The first section explains modern discoveries about trauma by psychology, the neuroscience of various traumas, the impact of trauma experienced by children, and the complexities of traumatic memory. He stresses the difference between traumatic memory versus the memory of those who grew up without trauma. His connection of past events to present fear reminded me of Eve Poole’s research of the impact of “stored” fear-inducing events from childhood surfacing in adulthood. “Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on – unchanged and immutable – as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.” If trauma dominates, the ability to love and care gets compromised. “As long as the mind is defending itself against invisible assaults, our closest bonds are threatened, along with our ability to imagine, plan, play, learn, and pay attention to other people’s needs.” In language similar to Simon Winchester, van der Kolk describes a map not of geography but the mind. “As long as their map of the world is based on trauma, abuse, and neglect, people are likely to seek shortcuts to oblivion. Anticipating rejection, ridicule, and deprivation, they are reluctant to try out new options, certain that these will lead to failure.” The physical and emotional interplay of trauma cripples its victims.
The second part of the book focuses on various methods of treating trauma medically and through psychotherapy. Diverse methods seek to create new pathways for memories and a new sense of self. Van der Kolk does not endorse one method of treatment for all. He does not endorse psychotropic medications for treatment, viewing them as a suppressant, not a solution. He also recommends caution about therapy utilizing only talking. “Even years later traumatized people often have enormous difficulty telling other people what has happened to them. . .their feelings are almost impossible to articulate.”
One application of this topic significantly relates to ministry. Trauma has always been a part of broken humanity. The pandemic, however, increased trauma events. The findings of one study state, “The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected trauma patient demographics. . .mechanism of injury, and mortality.” The amount of those with trauma encountered in the past will increase in the years ahead. For those not explicitly trained, a ministry would do well to know how and where to refer those suffering from ongoing effects of trauma. As the book points out, talking does not provide needed help. If the connections to body-based treatments like yoga help, could that become a non-traditional ministry effort beyond increased flexibility and relaxation? Van der Kolk ends his book by saying, “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.” If I could ask the author one question, I would want to know how a church proactively helps rather than merely reacts to the critical needs that present themselves? In other words, what specific help can a church offer the Herbs in our midst?
 Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 4.
 Ibid., 150.
 Ibid., 53.
 Ibid., 76.
 Ibid., 307.
 Ibid., 43.
 Nicholas W. Sheets et al. “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Trauma Encounters.” The American Surgeon, July 4, 2021, accessed April 13, 2022. doi:10.1177/00031348211029858.
 Van der Kolk, 358.