My goal in writing this essay is to provide a different lens on unresolved posttraumatic experiences and how these experiences are a lurking crisis in our society. The first section is a high-level overview of Van Der Kolk’s book. The following section is a personal account of a lived traumatic experience. And lastly, is a list of the insights that became crystal clear to me as a leader.
Overview: The Body Keeps The Score
Bessel Van Der Kolk has been active as a clinician, researcher, and teacher in posttraumatic stress and related phenomena since the 1970s. His work integrates developmental, biological, psychodynamic, and interpersonal aspects of the impact of trauma and its treatment. In his book, The Body Keeps The Score, Van Der Kolk argues that trauma is not just a mental health issue but a physical one. He shows how traumatic experiences can alter the brain’s structure and function, leading to various symptoms, including anxiety, depression, addiction, and chronic pain. He also explains how trauma can disrupt the body’s natural systems, including the immune, digestive, and cardiovascular systems.
One of the critical insights of the book is that trauma is stored in the body, not just in the mind. Van Der Kolk explores how trauma can be released from the body through yoga, mindfulness, and neurofeedback techniques.
Another critical aspect of the book is its exploration of the impact of trauma on childhood development. Van Der Kolk shows how childhood trauma can affect a person’s ability to form healthy relationships, regulate emotions, and feel safe in the world. He argues that early intervention is critical to preventing the long-term effects of trauma.
I was physically abused at the age of 14 by my stepfather. The beating was so severe I spent a week in the hospital. During the first four days, I was in and out of consciousness and barely recognizable. The physical effects were evident on and in my body for the following year. The emotional effects have lasted my entire life and then some – which I’ll address later. As far back as I can remember, I never saw myself as a victim after the event. However, my mother and stepfather were the real victims.
My mother continued to experience verbal and physical abuse for many years. She finally left my stepfather years later with my four half-siblings. As a result, she experienced a different sort of trauma. It was a trauma caused by unimaginable poverty and hardships that no one should suffer. Today, at 89 years old, she has never had the benefit of any therapy or alternative healing practices to aid in reconnecting her mind and body. But I’ve watched its toll on her over the years. At a minimum, unfulfilled hopes and dreams. At its worst, bitterness and an unforgiving attitude directed at a man long since gone.
Years before my mother married my stepfather, he had served in WWII in the jungles of the Philippines. He was a cook – because it was one of the few jobs available to Black service members (the other option would have been digging the latrines). He often described how he would sit in the dark of night in the jungle listening to the Japanese soldiers broadcasting messages designed to entice the Black soldiers to stop fighting for a country that hated them. Upon returning to the U.S., he experienced firsthand the Jim Crow segregation – not in the South – but in his backyard in Philadelphia, PA. To this day, I believe he had PTSD from the war, even though it had not been diagnosed until much later in our war vets.
He’s gone now. But his anger from the racist treatment was palatable. As was the fear from the indelible scars of sweating the many terrifying nights away in a jungle fighting for this country that called him a ‘boy.’ Unfortunately, he also never had the opportunity to receive mental health treatment for his emotional issues. Consequently, my mother and I were the recipients of the adverse effects of PTSD.
The posttraumatic experiences we endured as a Black family in America are more common than we like to think. These experiences, like many others, are exacerbated by the underpinnings of poverty, racism, and poor healthcare systems. In her book, The Trauma of Racism, Alisha Moreland-Capuia explains that racism causes posttraumatic stress upon the mental and physical body, comparable to a constant state of fear. A fear that no human body was designed to withstand for long periods. Studies have shown a direct correlation between chronic inflammation, diabetes, heart disease, addictions, and more as a result of traumatic stress. 
One of the real culprits resulting from racism is the mistrust of medical and mental health professions brought on by decades of deception and mistreatment of Black Americans by these same helping professions. Consequently, Black Americans typically do not avail themselves of mental health treatments. So the families suffer in silence emotionally, and the dysfunction perpetuates and manifests in subsequent generations. I have no doubt that neither my mother nor my stepfather would have agreed to see a mental health professional to undergo treatment.
I was different. Years later, I saw the impact of the physical abuse I experienced in my teens manifest in some adult relationships. So I sought help for those specific situations. But I had been left to navigate and process the unresolved traumas from childhood through the early stages of my adult life. After the near-death beating, no one in my family recommended counseling after the hospital stay to help me process the event. Thankfully, I had friends who listened and helped as best they could. And so I did what most people of color in my generation did – I set my face like flint and resolved to succeed.
Lessons for Leaders
- Pastors are not counselors. Pastors frequently offer counseling support to members. However, there are times when the issues are beyond the pastor’s training, and referring to mental health professionals in a timely fashion is urgent.
- Develop a diverse list of mental health professionals that can represent the multicultural differences of people in your sphere of influence.
- Expect wariness, reluctance, and avoidance in the initial stages of mental health discussions with some from different ethnic groups.
- Increase personal awareness that most traumas from racism are deep-seated.
- Develop strategies to bring awareness of the issues to others, being prepared to assist or make referrals to help people process the problems that might manifest.
- A few Christian topics to help people heal from the devaluing caused by racism are identity in Christ and exploring cultural identity.
I’ll end with a quote from Van Der Kolk. On page 137, Van Der Kolk writes, “I gradually came to realize that the only thing that makes it possible to do the work of healing trauma is awe at the dedication to survival that enabled my patients to endure their abuse and then to endure the dark nights of the soul that inevitably occur on the road to recovery.”
 Alisha Moreland-Capuia, The Trauma of Racism: Exploring the Systems and People Fear Built (Cham: Springer Nature Switzerland, 2012), 5.