After thirty years of clinical practice dealing with human trauma of all varieties, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk penned his 2014 book, “The Body keeps the Score.” The book is an intelligent guide to how the human body and mind deal with trauma. Although the book is packed full with science and neurological research, van der Kolk never loses sight of the humanity in his work as a clinical practitioner. He contends, “We must most of all help out our patients to live fully and securely in the present” (p. 73).
But with trauma so devastating, how does the body begin to heal itself? He sees this as his life’s calling and he is there to help his patients. He says, “The challenge is: How can people gain control over the residues of past trauma and return to being masters of their own ship?” (p.4) This is the guiding principle throughout the book and indeed his entire career. He never loses sight of the patient. Although his research is packed full of scientific research, he is always asking how can this be turned into better treatment for an individual. Alongside the technical aspects of his research are stories from real patients that he treated during his years of psychiatric treatment. He combines theory and practice beautifully.
Trauma effects the whole individual. Van der Kolk explains how trauma effects the biological functions in the body as well as neurological functions in the brain. The detail that he goes into was new information to me and the word resilient is the best adjective he used to describe humanity. It is incredible and fascinating what a human being can endure. When trauma strikes, we have a lot of our own healing mechanism already in place, we just need to be allowed to access them. Once an environment is created for an individual to heal from past trauma, the mind and body get to work. Van der Kolk states, “For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present” (p.21). Once this happens healing can begin.
The book falls into the broad category of psychology, but more specifically in the sub-fields of Therapy and Post-Traumatic Physiopathology. The book I have read this semester that most closely connects with van der Kolk’s work is, The Molecule of More by Daniel Lieberman. There is some overlap in discussing the latest neurological research on the human brain, but the two books are vastly different. Lieberman does not go into the issues of human trauma and how to heal it. Lieberman is more focused on the chemistry of the human body, van der Kolk is more practical on using the latest research to help people heal. Coupled together, they both provide fascinating insights in to the functioning of human mind and body.
I wondered how the findings of this book relate to any verses in scripture. Job 5:18 came to mind: “He wounds, but he also binds up; he injuries, but his hands also heal.” But this verse teaches that God can heal, and van der Kolk teaches us about the uncanny ability of the human body to heal itself. Maybe this is how God heals, through the built-in mechanisms that each of us have within our own bodies. But there is also something to be said about someone like Dr. Kolk who can help individuals with his expertise and assist in the healing of their trauma. Galatians 6:2 is relevant here, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.” We all have some brokenness inside of us and there are moments when we need healing. At the same time, we are able to be the physician and the friend to others God has placed in our lives—and we can provide a place where they can heal.