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“The body keeps the score”: Are trauma books helpful during the pandemic?

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Nothing about The body holds the score screams “bestseller”. The book was written by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk and is a graphic representation of his decades-long career in treating survivors of traumatic experiences such as rape, incest and war. Page by page, readers are asked to examine van der Kolk’s theory that trauma can sever the connection between the mind that tries to forget what happened and the body that cannot. The book isn’t exactly academic, but it’s dense and difficult material written specifically for psychology students. Here is a line: “The elementary self-system in the brain stem and limbic system is massively activated when people are confronted with the threat of annihilation, resulting in an overwhelming feeling of fear and terror, accompanied by intense physiological arousal.”

And yet, since its premiere in 2014, The body holds the score has spent 150 weeks – almost three years – and ranks at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list and almost sold out 2 million copies global. During the pandemic it seems more in demand than ever: This year van der Kolk appeared as Guest on The Ezra Klein Show, was profiled in The guard, and saw his book become a meme. (“I kindly ask my body not to use the score anymore.” goes a viral tweet.)

After all of the fear and social isolation of pandemic life and the ongoing uncertainty about what’s next, many people are turning to a growing genre of trauma self-help books for relief. The body holds the score is now on the bestseller list of What happened to you?, a compilation of letters and dialogues between Oprah Winfrey and psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry. Barnes & Noble now sells around 1,350 miscellaneous Books under the Anxiety, Stress & Trauma-Related Disorders tab, including clinical workbooks and mainstream publications. Sometimes new episodes of the genre seem to position themselves as cheat codes for a better life: complete the test at the end of the book; try these exercises; tell your life A blurb I read on the cover of James S. Gordons Transform traumaBasically he said that too: “This book could give your life back to you in unimaginable ways, regardless of whether you consider yourself a trauma victim or not.”

“You can understand why these books are growing in sales in this stressful, pressured environment,” said Edgar Jones, a medical and psychiatric historian at King’s College London. In a moment of personal and collective crisis that is Siren song of a self-help book is strong.

There’s only one problem. Despite their popularity, trauma books may not be all that helpful for the type of suffering most people are currently experiencing. “The word trauma is very popular these days, ”van der Kolk told me. It’s also uselessly vague – a whirlwind of psychiatric diagnoses, folk wisdom, and popular misconceptions. The pandemic has resulted in very real suffering, but while these books have one idea of ​​trauma in mind, most readers may have another.

The Greek term for “wound” trauma was originally used to refer to physical wounds. Although today’s bestsellers seem to have all the answers, it wasn’t until around World War I that psychiatrists began to largely accept the notion of purely psychological trauma. But the disorder has evolved since the days of the shell shock. The current diagnosis of PTSD date back to until 1980, applied to the flashbacks of some soldiers who had served in the Vietnam War.

In the decades since trauma has grown into a series of injuries so broad that the term becomes meaningless. The American Psychological Association, for example describes Trauma as “an emotional reaction to a terrible event such as an accident, rape or natural disaster” –to like, but not only. “Like weeds that spread through a room and invasively take over semantic territory from others.” trauma can be used to describe any misfortune, big or small, told me Nicholas Haslam, a psychology professor at the University of Melbourne. This concept creep is evident on TikTok, where creators use “trauma response” to Explain all types of behavior, including doom scrolling and perfectionist tendencies.

During the pandemic, trauma in the United States has become a collective term for many different and even competing realities. Some people certainly suffer from PTSD, particularly in the healthcare sector, who have witnessed the carnage firsthand. For most people, however, a better description of the past 19 months could be “chronic stressor” or even “extreme adversity,” experts told me – in other words, a source of immense suffering, but not necessarily serious long-term consequences. All of human suffering is a lot of ground to cover a word and heal trauma bestsellers.

The books by the biophysicist Peter Levine are now part of a comprehensive shelf of trauma self-help awakening the Tigerwho argues that a defect of wildlife trauma can provide insight into how humans can overcome their seemingly unique vulnerability to it; The deepest well, by California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris, who uses personal experience to draw a direct line from childhood stress to a variety of physical and social illnesses; and It didn’t start with you, in which the author Mark Wolynn the controversial claim that trauma can be inherited from distant ancestors.

These books tend to follow a reliable arc, using the stories of trauma survivors to develop a central thesis, and then concluding with a few chapters of actionable advice for individual readers. In The body holds the score, van der Kolk writes of people he calls sherry, a woman who was neglected in her childhood and kidnapped and repeatedly raped in college for five days, and Tom, a heavy drinker whose aim was to give his friends a “living To become a memorial ”who died in Vietnam. For patients like this, van der Kolk eventually turned to yoga, massage therapy, and an intervention called. to Desensitization and conditioning for eye movements, or EMDR, which specifically addresses the traumatic memories that drag people with PTSD back into the past.

These experiences are remarkably different from those most Americans went through during the pandemic. While almost everyone faces the risk of contracting a deadly virus, and the resulting isolation and possible loneliness, a teleworker’s depressive episode or the inability of an unemployed restaurant worker to pay their bills has little to do with stories like toms and sherries to do. They are no less important – deserving no less attention – but we need better words to describe them and other remedies to treat them.

Even van der Kolk himself is wary of some of the ways in which trauma is used today. When I asked him if he was thinking The body holds the score useful to all readers who turn to them during the pandemic, he contradicted the premise of my question: the readers he hears about the most are those who grew up in abusive households, not those who got through COVID- 19 feeling traumatized. “When people say the pandemic was a collective trauma,” said van der Kolk, “I absolutely do not say.”

Nevertheless, the trauma books continue to sell. Some of the lessons they contain are universal, if somewhat mundane. In What happened to you? Oprah and her co-author are dedicated to exploring the idea of ​​”post-traumatic growth“, A concept that is popular again in the pandemic, as humans Looking for a silver lining to what they went through. But sometimes there is no wisdom to gather or personal growth to be revealed – what has happened and people move forward anyway. Other recommendations, such as van der Kolk’s emphasis on EMDR, are specific to people with more typical symptoms of PTSD. Most people just don’t need these types of interventions, says George Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and author of The end of the trauma. After disasters like 9/11, Bonanno has found remarkable resilience despite all odds. Still, “people don’t seem to let go of the idea that everyone is traumatized,” he told me.

Surely some people find solace in these books for whatever reason they read them. And not all trauma books have these pitfalls. In My grandmother’s hands, therapist Resmaa Menakem examines the physical and emotional toll of racism and white domination and shows a different path with his advice. When people feel that they have experienced collective trauma, Menakem writes, “our approaches to mending must also be collective and collaborative.” When it comes to the challenges Americans face now – as diverse as responding to the pandemic and tackling climate change – this advice is worth it.

Ultimately, talking about trauma isn’t just a semantic matter. “Having an accurate, limited idea of ​​what mental illness looks like is a recipe for stigma; it is a recipe not to seek help for yourself [and for] not offering help to others, ”said Haslam. Wanting to acknowledge other people’s suffering “is a good corrective,” he added. “It’s just a pretty dull subject in this concept of trauma.” And that’s the most important lesson you will learn if you make it to the end of this grueling curriculum: There is still so much left to understand about trauma. If we are to try to address the real consequences of the pandemic, not only do we need more research, we need new language – one that expresses terrible experiences that are not strictly traumatic, and that leads to solutions greater than any of us in Isolation. Until then, trauma books will just keep flying off the shelves.


Thank You For Reading!


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