The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

You don’t have to be a victim of combat or sexual abuse to read this book.  This is not just a remedial book for victims but a powerful introduction to psychology, especially modern psychology.  It briefly introduces you to the three historical phases of psychology from talking therapies to pharmacology to re-conditioning.  While the book covers how drugs revolutionized psychology and helped countless people and significantly reduced the number of mental patients in institutions, it also warns that we have simply gone overboard and lazy, that drugs alone do not fix things but rather often mask things and in the case of people with moderate psychological disorders, it can make things worse. 

 One thing to keep in mind when discussing psychological “disorders” is that we often label behavior that does not seem social, productive, or rational as normal, meaningful, or valuable.  Genetic programming and response to environmental elements do not make mistakes often.  There is a reason we have the capacity for evil, selfishness, greed, jealousy, excessive worrying, obsessiveness, neuroses, even sociopathy.  We are simply abandoning our more recently evolved social, mammalian behavior for our more archaic selfish, reptilian behavior.  Think of this carefully.  If your parents were selfish, reptilian zombies who were evil, selfish, greedy, obsessive, and neurotic, then how could they possibly have survived and even mated and created you?  The answer is simple.  Their reptilian behavior worked in the environment they faced.  Self-disclosure, my parents are Korean, and they suffered the deprivations and brutality of Japanese Occupation, the Korean War, and famine.  From the American point-of-view, in a land of relative wealth and safety, their behavior would appear abnormal, extreme, and crazy, but fact is, it helped them survive and mate and create me.  It worked. 

 Even mutations are not mistakes.  Mutations are design engineered as randomizers that throw out novel behavior that may or may not create breakthrough adaptations.  We consider mutations that cause death as mistakes, but you can’t have successful mutations without a bunch of unsuccessful mutations.  So the whole profession of therapy is not about fixing broken or meaningless or irrational or nonsensical behavior that has no merit but rather providing more tools for your toolbox, providing you with the ability to once again access the social, mammalian behavior so you can flourish in an environment with a lot of opportunities and wealth.  So while addressing past traumas to liberate yourself from their influence on your selfish, reptilian behavior is one step, I would also argue, an equally important step is also to socialize and improve the social aptitude of trauma victims.  They missed perhaps entire decades of socialization and social training, and this  must be addressed and compensated.  It’s one thing to get rid of obstacles to socialization, but it’s equally important to then provide training in socialization and social skills.

 There is something amazing about this book that will blow your friggin mind away, and it nicely wraps up this ongoing thing that I’ve been thinking about lately, the apparent dichotomy of the Apollonian and Dionysian, the rational and irrational, the analytical and emotional, the ordering and disordering, the thinking and feeling.  The author separates therapy into three categories, 1. the top down cognitive-rational approach of talking and better understanding our history.  2. is pharmacological, using drugs to dim down our overactive or unbalanced physiology.  3. is the bottom up approach, activating and empowering our bodies and connecting with our bodies.  The reason why he calls it top down and bottom up are actually ingenious, because they correspond to how our nervous system is set up and how our nervous system reacts to trauma or threats. 

 First, we start with the top, the brain.  The brain physically mimics the progression of evolution.  At the base is our reptilian brain that is pretty simple and reacts to threats and desires directly with repulsion and attraction.  We then have the left side which is more analytical and contextual, aware of cause and effect, and the right side which is more emotional.  When we are traumatized, we shut off the left side which also includes our speech center.  In other words, trauma is preverbal.  While we are experiencing trauma, we cannot articulate what is going on.  Without our analytical and contextual, sequential left side, trauma also loses context and temporal order.  In other words, trauma is a vague undefined, unarticulated blob that is unattached to anything and anyplace that just arises at the slightest stress triggers and feels as real and imminent as the very first time we experienced it.  So the top down therapy tries to arouse that blob and while keeping the left side of the brain active, articulate it, place it in context and sequence, and by doing so, assuring our minds that the blob belongs in the past and has a name.  This approach, however, is limited, because the blob can be so overpowering that it shuts down our left brain and we start from scratch again. 

 The answer is also utilizing the bottom up approach.  To understand why, we now need to understand the nervous system.  As fundamentally social beings, we rely heavily on our ventral vagal complex or VVC.  It activates muscles in our face, throat, middle ear, and voice box.  It allows us to engage socially, to communicate with our facial expressions and voice.  When we first feel threatened, we engage the VVC.  We make an attempt at social engagement to deal with the threat as a group, to rally the troops, alert everyone, sound the cry for help, coordinate, etc.  Blood is moved to our faces and throats making everything we express more urgent and loud.  However, when we realize that there is nobody listening or coming to our aid, trauma occurs.  The VVC shuts down.  It says, hey, I gave it a shot, but nothing happened.  Our facial expression becomes frozen while our voice box is deactivated and we the subtly and nuances of our voice disappear.  We turn into anti-social zombies.  Why exert any more energy in communicating and socializing when we get noting out of it? 

 This is when the dorsal vagal complex or DVC is activated which truly turns us into zombies by slowing everything down and turning us into frozen, passive, helpless, stoic, catatonic statues.  The problem with top down therapy is that trying to engage this DVC zombie can often be futile.  The wall is up, and no amount of VVC interaction can break through the wall.  The victim has given up on social engagement as an answer.  They have devolved into a reptile that simply sits in one spot in the cage versus mammals that cuddle together under stress.  Like a reptile, the DVC zombie has a blank stare with no facial expression.  In other words, they truly have devolved into a reptile.  The author’s breakthrough is in trying to reactivate the VVC before engaging in any top down therapy.  This is the bottom up approach.  In order to activate the left side of the brain that can then analytically contextualize and articulate the trauma, you first must stimulate, access, and engage the VVC.  The way to do this is Dionysian.  The way to do this is through right brain activities like singing, physical activities like yoga or dancing, painting, sculpting, poetry, symbolism, and neurofeedback.  These activities activate the VVC.  This is why there should be a balance of Apollonian and Dionysian, left and right, analysis and imagination, and why I like to alternate between reading fiction and nonfiction, and also why I believe a truly intelligent person should also be profoundly in tune with their bodies with athleticism or something physical like dancing.  People who are overly reliant on either left or right brain are more likely to encounter obstacles that one side along cannot tackle which makes them vulnerable to shutting down their VVC and becoming an antisocial reptilian zombie. 

 One theory I have is that as social creatures, our personalities and character traits are shaped more by environment, namely, those around us than our genetics.  Our order with our siblings for example has extremely powerful repercussions as to whether we become the responsible one, the frustrated and ignored one, or the rebellious one.  When we enter any group of people, we try to find a niche and maximize it.  We do this not only to benefit ourselves but also to make the group more diverse and capable of adapting to a broad range of diverse challenges or opportunities.  In other words, if everyone was the jock, then the group would have difficulty overcoming intellectual challenges or finding intellectual opportunities.  If everyone was the clown, nobody would be seriously addressing issues and problems.  When I find myself with a group of friends, if one is being particularly loud and charismatic, I tend to drop back and chill and let them lead the group.  If everyone is being shy and timid, I find myself becoming louder and more outgoing or I’ll become the fighter in the group and protect them.  If someone is the clown, then either I try to out-clown them or I just become more serious and let them be the joker. 

 When people suffer trauma, they are disconnected from social groups.  Their trust in others is destroyed.  So essentially, they become their own group, and as such, their capacity to adopt certain personalities or character traits are all activated at once.  One of them is the innocent, frightened one.  One becomes the tough, ballsy one.  Another becomes the voice of reason.  Another becomes the clown.  Another becomes the gregarious, outgoing one.  Different situations call out different personalities within them.  For the rest of us, we tend to pick a particular personality and stick with it, because in our group, refining and focusing on that one personality benefits us the most.  If we find ourselves the outgoing one, then we feel that we must always be on, that we must always lead the group in reaching out to others and making new connections.  It becomes our job and being part of our group means we have to be good at our jobs.  We also then stifle the part of us that is shy, humorous, tough, or reasonable. 

 One of the key elements of trauma is control.  When trauma occurs, we feel like we do not control circumstances, that they are controlling us.  After the trauma, our bodies are constantly raising alarms at relatively benign things that remind it of the initial trauma.  We feel that we have no control over this either.  These alarms just keep going off, and we have no idea why or what caused them or how we can control them.  As a result, trauma victims are obsessed with control, and one of the best ways to control your life, you believe, is to eliminate people from your life, because people are the least predictable controllable things in our environment.  They also tend to freak out when they feel the slightest bit of loss of control as in being forced to stand in line, dealing with an intractable retail clerk or boss, performing chores or duties they dislike, getting stuck in traffic, or being forced to wait on someone else who is late.  At the same time, they are oddly drawn to losing control too.  They are so tightfisted about staying in control that they need a circuit breaker of losing total control so they get drunk, binge on drugs, binge on food, or lose themselves to an addiction. 

 Another misnomer about trauma is that they are all victims.  If you think about it, there are as many trauma perpetrators as victims.  Chances are, those perpetrators are not only trauma victims themselves, but the memory of hurting and harming others is itself traumatic and induces unfathomable, inescapable guilt and remorse.  Fact is, few trauma perpetrators are willing to admit their crimes, simply because therapist may feel morally obligated to report their crimes.  Additionally, it is easier to report being victimized than being a victimizer.  As a result of this, few trauma perpetrators get the therapy they need unless they only discuss their victimization.  While living with and coping with the guilt and remorse is probably the only healthy option, another option is simply trying to rationalize it or worse perpetrate even worse crimes to eliminate the gravity of the previous crime.  This is perhaps the worst vicious cycle.  It is like a drunk who drinks to forget the embarrassing things they did when they were last drunk.  We live in a society where we try, perhaps rightfully, to keep schooling purely academic.  The question is, where do kids learn about socialization and dealing with or even preparing for trauma or any psychological disturbance?  I read a book about positive psychology that focuses on preemption versus remediation.  If trauma victims not only turn into criminals and abusers but cost society so much in drug and alcohol related violence and destruction, shouldn’t we as a society address trauma?  Someday, I envision not only vouchers for academic schools but vouchers for “life-skill” schools that teach social aptitude and therapy or preemptive preparation for trauma.  If we are willing as a society to pool our resources to educate our kids, why not pool our resources to teach them how to be productive, healthy, coping members of society instead of reptilian zombies causing widespread suffering and the perpetuation of costly trauma?  “every dollar invested in high-quality home visitation, day care, and preschool programs results in seven dollars of savings on welfare payments, health-care costs, substance-abuse treatment, and incarceration, plus higher tax revenues due to better-paying jobs.”  So the obvious question is, why the hell aren’t we investing up front rather than patching up the crises down the road? 

 The answer is quite simple.  The people running this place have no interest whatsoever in our happiness, well-being, and health.  The people running this show only care about one thing, and that is themselves.  They are pathologically removed from reality and have absolutely no compassion for the suffering of anyone on this planet.  In fact, they are just traumatized as people on the lowest end of society, except the only difference is that they have the resources to mask all their pathological disorders.  In other words, they don’t have to steal to finance their problems and lack of employment.  The ruling class have no jobs and can hire lawyers to keep them out of trouble.   

 The only light at the end of this crooked tunnel is that hopefully the pathological sociopaths on top will have access to the latest psychiatric technology like what this book proposes including neurofeedback.  Chances are they are as much victims of their own malicious system as everyone else, that they have been eating the very poisoned food that destroys their gut microbiome and taking the same psychiatric drugs that have turned everyone else into placid zombies.  There is no doubt that Trump is a traumatized person whose father probably convinced him that he was worthless unless he made a lot of money and worked hard.  Trump equates value and meaning with the trappings of wealth like a hot wife and buildings with his name on it.  It is quite possible that Trump has had therapy, but archaic therapy that simply gave him drugs which only further turned him into a reptilian zombie.  But what if Trump had run into the author of this book?  Can you imagine if new therapy can change one powerful person how much it could change many and how much positive impact that would have on the world?  As psychiatric technology improves and comes out from under the huge thumb of pharmaceutical psychiatry, everyone will benefit including those on top.  And if those on top become less agitated, depressed, anxious, paranoid, and delusional, then there is hope after all that they will not be as exploitative, corrupt, exclusive, sheltered, and destructive.  I’m an optimist if you can’t tell.


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