This blog post originally appeared on Mindleap.Health.

Breakthroughs in the Science of Healing Trauma

The word ‘trauma’ comes from the Greek word for “wound” — and anyone who has experienced trauma will understand why, as it often leaves deep scars and memories that haunt over a lifetime. Trauma is typically associated with veterans and survivors of natural disasters but anyone can experience trauma and in a variety of ways. Trauma responses are often thought of as painful memories that can trigger overwhelming and negative feelings and sometimes flashbacks.

The study of trauma and how it affects the brain and mental health is still relatively new. It wasn’t until 1980 that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was added as a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition (DSM-III).

Since then there has been a plethora of research on the effects of trauma, but in 2014 one book changed the playing field: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. The book encompasses several astonishing insights into trauma and how it can be treated.

The Body Keeps the Score

The Body Keeps the Score is a seminal text on the trauma that is based on decades of research. The book investigates the physiological effects of trauma and shares how “the body keeps the score.” Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is a psychiatrist, president of the Trauma Research Foundation, and also a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine. Through his research, he offers new insights into trauma including effective ways to heal and manage it.

When people experience trauma, it can be difficult to actually talk about it. The part of the brain in charge of processing images becomes highly active when we experience trauma. This highlights how flashbacks and fragmented memories can take over when we tap into our past traumas. In fact, research has found that when we re-experience trauma through memories and other PTSD related responses, it actually impacts the speech center and effectively shuts it down — leaving us muted while we suffer again and again (van Der Kolk, 2014, p. 43).

After a traumatic experience, the trauma can be internalized in the body — the brain is reorganized and the body’s internal alarm system shifts and is on high alert. When left unchecked, this can lead to a host of physical ailments, such as fatigue and pain, as well as a chronic illness.

Dr. van der Kolk reminds us that trauma is also associated with increased stress hormones and a heightened internal alarm system that senses danger and triggers the fight or flight response. Plus, it’s very common for traumatized individuals to feel disconnected from their body or zone out, which is known as dissociation.

To summarize, trauma can affect the body and mind in a number of negative, ongoing, and detrimental ways.

Therapy, Medication, and Trauma

Standard mental health care typically includes therapy and medication. While these options may be useful for the general population, the book sheds light on the fact that these tools aren’t as effective for people who have experienced severe trauma and, especially, childhood trauma.

Antidepressants work to level out chemical imbalances, but it seems that trauma goes even deeper than imbalances — hence the title “The Body Keeps the Score.” Plus, the book illustrates the fact that antidepressants can be used as a bandaid but fail to truly address the trauma that causes these imbalances.

Another common treatment for trauma is talk therapy — discussing one’s trauma with a mental health professional. In fact, while sharing about a traumatic experience, talk therapy can cause someone to relive their trauma again, which can be surprising and very painful. Yet, research also shows that the story well witnessed with a trauma specialist can help someone get through the narrative and break free from the habituating pain.

Though traditional forms of mental health care may not be as useful for all people who have experienced trauma, there have been other breakthroughs in science and the healing of the trauma that offers hope.

Treating Trauma

In The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk offers three ways to treat trauma.

  1. Top-down. This method involves talking and connecting with other people while being mindful and processing trauma.
  2. Medication. Some medications may help alleviate heightened internal alarm systems and shift how information is organized.
  3. Bottom-up. This method uses the body to have transformative experiences that address the feelings associated with trauma.

Rather than relying on just talk therapy and medication, new breakthrough (bottom-up) treatments can focus more on the mind-body connection and true healing that addresses the root cause of trauma. These methods help to heal trauma “by allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma” (van der Kolk, 2014, p. 3). Listed below are some of these powerful methods of healing.

Yoga — Yoga helps reconnect oneself with the body. Through various postures, it’s possible to release tension, focus, and connect body and mind.

The arts — Theater and music can also be used as ways to deal with difficult emotions and reconnect with the body. It may be easier to process emotions by seeing them represented through characters, songs, and rituals.

Somatic — There are many somatic therapies offered around the world for the treatment of trauma. For example, breathing and massage can help calm down the nervous system and release pain. When you exhale, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system which can relax your internal alarm system. This can help unlock and release stored trauma in the body.

EMDR– Another treatment that has proven to be effective is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR uses lateral eye movements facilitated by a therapist to help process and resolve traumatic distress.

Neurofeedback has proven to be highly effective, as well as one of van der Kolk’s favored treatments. Using a computer-based program to observe a person’s brainwave activity, the program then uses sound or visual signals that help to reorganize or retrain these brain signals.

Psychedelic medicine — There has also been additional research that shows that psychedelics can be effective in treating and reducing symptoms of a variety of mental health conditions, including PTSD, and various forms of depression and anxiety. Psychedelics can also help reorganize the brain and boost neuroplasticity. To learn more about the history of psychedelics as medicine, read our timeline on them.

Trauma can have devastating consequences and affect all parts of our lives. Today over 600 million people suffer from mental health conditions worldwide, many of them taking ineffective antidepressants and suffering unnecessarily, while their bodies continue to keep the score. Through these breakthrough treatments, which focus on healing trauma where it is stored in the body, it becomes possible to work through and move beyond our traumas to truly heal ourselves.

*If you have experienced trauma and have recurring symptoms, please find a trained professional who can support you to find your best way to heal.