How does child sexual abuse, or any trauma really, impact a person—body and soul?
In his brilliant book, The Body Keeps the Score,* Bessel van der Kolk M.D. outlines the effects trauma can have on the body.
According to van der Kolk, “Trauma is an event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering the way we process and recall memories.”
The list of ways to experience trauma is long.
- Go to war
- Experience child sexual abuse
- Grow up in a household with substance abuse
- Live in a domestically violent home
- Experience sexual assault as an adult
- Witness a violent crime
- Survive a car crash
- And more
And for the record, “… chronic emotional abuse and neglect can be just as devastating as physical abuse or sexual molestation.” –Bessel van der Kolk
In The Body Keeps the Score, van der Kolk uses case studies and science to show how trauma reshapes both the body and the brain.
So what might a trauma survivor expect after the fact?
Outcomes of trauma may include, but are not limited to:
Mental illness (ie. psychosis, schizophrenia)
Disordered eating—too much or too little
Alcohol and/or drug abuse
Self-harm (ie. cutting)
Depressive and anxiety related disorders
Feeling very strong emotions OR feeling little
Inability to feel fully alive
Trouble sensing what is going on in the body
Gaps in memory
Increased likelihood of additional occurrences of sexual violence
Some individuals experience somatic symptoms with no clear physical basis.
These symptoms may include: chronic neck and back pain, fibromyalgia, digestive problems, migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue, some forms of asthma, and more.
How can people open up to and explore their internal world of sensation?
If you’re not ready for counseling yet, you can start the healing process gently.
- When you feel discomfort—physical or emotional—name the emotion you’re experiencing and where in the body you feel it.
- Describe the feeling (ie. pressure, heat, tingling)
Are medications the answer?
Van der Kolk says, “…medications only blunt sensations and do nothing to resolve them or transform them from toxic agents into allies.”
Years before The Body Keeps the Score was published, my family physician already knew meds are not the definitive solution to symptoms brought on by trauma.
During an appointment when I requested yet another refill for my antidepressant, my doctor didn’t write the prescription immediately. Instead, he looked me in the eye and said:
“Antidepressants are often only a Band-Aid for a deeper problem. Is there a deeper problem?”
It took me a few minutes to decide whether or not to disclose my childhood sexual abuse experience to him, but then it occurred to me silence hadn’t done me any favors during the past three decades, so I told him.
My doctor then wrote me a different kind of prescription. He flipped over a prescription sheet and wrote down a list of counselors, therapists, and clinics for me to consider.
The day I sat down with a licensed professional counselor and told her my story was one of the best days of my life.
As much as I love van der Kolk’s New York Times bestseller,
The Body Keeps the Score has experienced some pushback.
In this article in The Washington Post, journalist Kristen Martin wrote, “The more I learned about how much some of these books overplay what neuroscience can currently tell us about the brain and human behavior, the more I thought that the self-helpification of a relatively young and incredibly complex field of scientific study is not so helpful after all.”
I can see where Martin is coming from; however, I received a lot of value from reading The Body Keeps the Score. It explained some of my own symptoms, and it made me feel less alone.
Whether you pick up Van der Kolk’s book or not,
If you’ve experienced trauma of any kind, please consider getting professional help.