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Book Review: The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma

Thursday, 29 September 2022  | Susan Barnes

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

(London: Penguin Books, 2015)

By Bessel van der Kolk


The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma is a thought-provoking book about the ongoing effects of trauma. The author, Bessel van der Kolk, has spent 30 years researching, studying and speaking with people who have been deeply affected by trauma. He was a professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School and later founded a trauma center in Boston. He has authored several books and numerous scientific articles.

The subject matter is complex as trauma comes in many different forms - child abuse, domestic violence, and suffering as the result of war, natural disasters and traffic accidents. van der Kolk focuses on the ongoing effects of trauma on the mind, brain and body. He begins by explaining the benefits and disadvantages of the oldest known therapies for trauma: talk therapy (psychotherapy) and psychiatric drugs. These therapies were revolutionary when first discovered and many were helped, but others were not.

When psychiatric drugs were first discovered, they were seen as the panacea for all mental health problems. Even when the evidence showed this wasn’t the case, many medical professionals were slow to look at other less convenient therapies. However, van der Kolk was open to more unorthodox approaches and willing to explore options. The book explores the many newer therapies that are available to modern psychiatrists.

Van der Kolk explains how the brain works to store memories and what goes wrong when trauma interferes with the mind’s normal processing. Trauma can cause people to get stuck in the past and be unable to function effectively in the present. The following is a brief overview of van der Kolk’s approach to helping people deal with past trauma. It’s not meant as a prescription for people in distress – trauma that is causing significant disruption to normal functioning is best dealt with by a qualified medical professional.

Van der Kolk will first encourage the patient to find activities where they feel safe and can completely relax. This encompasses a wide range of leisure and medicinal pursuits, which is one of the reasons why van der Kolk discusses so many different therapies. What is relaxing for one person could be anxiety-inducing for another, so it can take time to discover what is the most helpful for the patient. Second, van der Kolk teaches people to listen to their bodies, particularly if they feel muscle tension or a sense of being on alert for no particular reason. Our memories are triggered by our senses and, if we come across a sound, a smell, a sight, or a sensation that causes us to react with more emotion than is reasonable, it’s likely our brain is connecting something in the present to an incident of trauma in the past. At this point, people need to give themselves permission to recall the memory, which may be quite traumatic and the reason why a qualified professional may be necessary. However, if the person can stay in the moment, breathe deeply and reassure themselves by saying, ‘that was then and this is now’, they may be able to resolve some of their own issues.

The book could have been highly academic, but van der Kolk makes it comprehensible by using examples and illustrations from actual cases as well as the results of his many research projects. I appreciated van der Kolk’s persistence and compassion, which is apparent as he describes his methods of helping people. He isn’t afraid to try unconventional methods such as massage, exercise, dance, theatre and yoga. The unconventional approach has brought great benefit to some patients while having no impact on others, which must have been frustrating at times. Nevertheless, van der Kolk’s determination to find a therapy that will help a traumatised person is admirable. van der Kolk concludes by calling on government departments, medical clinics and private enterprise to provide more funding for research so more people who have suffered significant trauma can be helped. He urges these agencies to be more open to unconventional therapies that have been helpful to other patients.

It’s important for Christians to be aware of the medical advancements in the treatment of trauma. God has made our bodies in a remarkable way whereby they can heal, even from significant trauma. Van der Kolk’s work gives hope to deeply traumatised people and those who help them. Recovery is possible – they can go on to live productive lives.

God has also provided us with medical professionals who have the skills to help people. However, this does require discernment. Many of van der Kolk’s therapies are unorthodox and some Christians may be uncomfortable with some of them, for example yoga. However, van der Kolk is careful to emphasise the physical benefits of stretching and relaxation and avoids the meditational side of yoga. He is also keen to provide an environment where his patient feels safe, so he wouldn’t push a person into a therapy they weren’t comfortable with. Van der Kolk’s displays many Christian characteristics, particularly his compassion for people in distress.

While The Body Keeps the Score is a scholarly book, the material is presented in an accessible manner so that laypeople can understand how the effects of unresolved trauma can affect the body’s functioning. 


Susan Barnes has been involved in pastoral ministry for over 30 years as a pastor’s wife. She blogs at and has hundreds of devotional articles online and in print. She has a degree in Christian ministry and lives with her husband in central Victoria, Australia.


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