I am reading The body keeps the score: the body keeps the score brain mind and body in the healing of trauma. This is one of the most important books on PTSD and trauma out today. It is long and detailed, but not difficult to read. Written by a clinical psychologist who has spent a lifetime studying trauma, and being on the forefront of the evolving face of trauma research over the 20th century, here is a summary of what he found:
1. Traumatic responses used to be labelled as “hysterics,” and generally dismissed as “the weakness of women” up until the 20th century.
2. Freud found that actually, many women who suffered from bouts of uncontrolled emotions were actually molested as children, causing very complex reactions later in life. Other phenomenon were also noted, such as mind-induced paralysis and illnesses as a result of trauma.
3. Freud (the father of modern psychology) developed the “talking cure,” and found that often, when someone was able to describe their traumatic event in exact detail, they were able to put it to rest and their physical symptoms subsided
4. After WWI, tens of thousands of war vets came home, displaying symptoms of “shell shock”: an inability to cope with life, irritability, moodiness, flash-backs, depression, a tendency towards substance abuse, and intense guilt. Even “the talking cure” was often not adequate for helping veterans. Psychologists began trying in earnest to find a cure for “shell-shock.”
5. WWII erupted, causing even more cases of “shell-shock.” Both the Germans and the English military repressed the term “shell-shock” because it caused soldiers to be sent home early from the front, and cost them too much in medical discharges. Psychologists continued to study the issue, eventually labelling it, “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.”
6. What was discovered is that when the body experiences extreme stress, the brain can become overloaded. Memories of the event are stored in a chaotic and jumbled way. These memories come back in pieces to torment the victim of PTSD, often for their entire lives.
7. During and after the Vietnam war, the issue was once again studied in depth. One helpful therapy which was developed was group therapy sessions, where survivors of similar traumas would share their stories together. Like the “talking cure,” it was helpful for many, but not all
8. Since that time, advances in neuroscience have unlocked many of the mysteries of PTSD. When asked to recount the events of a traumatic car accident while under a brain scan, for example, it was found that the mind of the person re-activated in exactly the same way as a person currently experiencing a trauma. What scientists discovered is that PTSD survivors are in their own personal hell: they mentally re-experience the worst moments of their lives over and over and over again
9. Scientists also found that these episodes of reliving trauma can be “triggered” by sights, sounds, seeing their abuser, smells, or sometimes by no cause at all.
10. Scientists also discovered that certain portions of the brain light up, and certain portions shut down during such episodes. The speech centres shut down, making it hard for people to put into words what they are experiencing. The “time-keeping” portions also shut down, causing people to experience the flash back “as though I am still there.” The visual portions of the brain are activated literally as though they are seeing the same things over and over.
11. In the case of one car accident, two responses were recorded by a husband and wife in the same car. The husband displayed typical PTSD symptoms: flash-backs, anxiety, high heart rate, and hyper vigilance. The wife, on the other hand, went completely numb. She experienced the accident as though it happened to someone else. This numbness continued after the accident. She felt like she was floating, and had a hard time describing experiences in her own body. This response is called “disassociation.” It was found that this woman had had a difficult childhood, in which she was often screamed at by her mother. She learned the coping skill of disassociation (becoming a stranger in her own body) to cope with the abuse
12. As PTSD became more widely understood, it was observed in other places as well. Especially children raised in dysfunctional homes. Often, such children displayed all of the same symptoms of war veterans. Because the trauma occurred in childhood, and was usually due to multiple events and not just one trauma, the term “complex PTSD” was developed to describe it.
13. Sufferers of complex PTSD may appear “shy,” or hyper-agressive. They perceive the world as being filled with threats. They usually perform much lower than their peers, and have lifelong difficulty “fitting in.”
14. The issue of molestation in girls was particularly studied, finding that young girls who are molested have lifelong difficulty coping, and often have symptoms of PTSD.
15. Complex PTSD was often mis-diagnosed as bipolar, depression, and a host of other conditions.
16. In the 1970’s, various drugs were prescribed to treat PTSD. SSRI drugs such as Prosac were found to have a “miraculous” curative powers for people with PTSD. However, without therapy the gains that they received when on the medications did not last when they went off of them. Other types of medications were also developed which had stronger short-term effects (especially in calming the brain), but may have caused more harm than good due to their addictive nature.
17. Over the course of the 20th century, a wealth of knowledge, and a host of tools was developed to understand and address PTSD and complex PTSD. Most contemporary therapists are well versed in these skills.
18. In the late 1980’s, the technique of EMDR was developed. This is simply the technique of moving one’s eyes slowly back and forth (often just watching the therapist’s finger) while reliving a traumatic event in one’s mind. The activity of moving one’s eyes in this way activates both hemispheres of one’s brain, enabling chaotic memories to be analyzed, categorized, and finally put to rest. Although initially greeted with suspicion, the technique of EMDR has been found to be the most effective technique in the treatment of PTSD, and is now recommended by the US departement of defence, and is widely available today.
The body keeps the score: the body keeps the score brain mind and body in the healing of trauma.