It’s not often that you pick up a book that seems to give you the answers to questions that have been vexing you for some time. The Body Knows the Score by Dutch psychiatrist and PTSD expert Bessel Van Der Kolk is one such book.
Our culture encourages us to see mind as one thing and body as something else. What goes on in your head is distinct from what goes on in your arms, legs, feet, eyes and heart. This is obviously an over simplified view, but we are encouraged to think of the two as separate – hence we have normal doctors who treat the body and head doctors – psychiatrists – who treat the brain, increasingly these days with drugs. Like many Western adults in the 21st century I have been known to pop the pills – Citalopram is my drug of choice – and yes they do work. They take the edge off feelings of darkness or anxiety and keep you on a level. They possibly make you a more effective employee as instead of questioning the world, they make you get on with the job. I last took them about eighteen months ago and would hesitate to take them again as I feel they blunt my perceptions of the world. That sounds like pretentious, self indulgent twaddle, but I think anti depressants can block out the good stuff as well as the bad stuff – obviously some people need them just to put one foot in front of the other and they can indeed be a life saver.
However, what is more interesting is that why so many of us need to take the pills in the first place. Why are so many people only able to function if they are on medication? Obviously you could say that there are political and financial forces at work – which vary according to whether your health care system is publicly (here) or privately funded (in the U.S). Then it goes without saying that modern life is very stressful – job insecurity, bad marriages, juggling work and family life, poverty, poor self image. The list is endless. But why is it that some people seem to be able to roll with the punches and cope even with fairly bad things, whereas other people crumble under pressure? Some people, it seems, are wired to cope more easily. Is it down to genes or is something else going on?
Van Der Kolk’s theory is that trauma in early life – specifically poor attachment with parents and/or sexual and physical abuse – disrupts your brain chemistry. Rather than being able to calm yourself down, you are permanently on high alert and prone to violent outbursts of rage or self harm. Your cortisol levels are artificially high and you seek out stressful or harmful situations, be it drug abuse, violence or risky sexual behaviour. You are incapable of finding pleasure in the more simple things and are likely to have terrible problems building relationships.
In addition to this, high cortisol levels can damage the body’s immune system and make the individual more at risk or a wide range of physical problems from rheumatoid arthritis to heart disease and infertility. High levels of stress have literally frozen the body in a state that makes illness much more likely. Eating disorders are also common with people whose brain chemistry has been altered by stress and obviously these in turn create further health problems.
The book explores ways of helping reset their brain chemistry using psychotherapy, yoga and neurofeedback – where the brain is treated with electrical impulses that mirror brain waves. It talks about how abuse survivors can benefit from theatre and dance and offers solutions about how schools can be more sensitive to children presenting behaviour associated with abuse. It is a humane and thoughtful book – my only criticism is that it possibly focuses too much on the personal, when the real solution is possibly political. It talks about offering programmes to deprived youths in inner city areas in the states that have been devastated by deindustrialisation. It shows how much difference these programmes they make, but surely what would make even more difference is to build on the success of the programmes by offering real opportunities for the young people they help? In other words, real jobs that pay proper wages.
I guess what I am saying is that how ever marvellous the book is – and it is marvellous – I want it to do more. I want it to ask why it is that so many adults feel so out of control that they take it out on their kids (and each other). Yes, brain chemistry and maybe genetics have answers, but I think a lot of the problems discussed in the book are social as well.
I say this because I think I have a high tolerance of stress, which in turn has benefitted me in the workplace – particularly before I had children. The values that are celebrated by corporate culture – being competitive, efficient and having an ‘edge’ – do not necessarily make you that pleasant to be around. Hopefully I have other qualities too – such as compassion – which balance out the other side. I guess I am wondering if a lot of the unpleasant behaviour described in the book – parents bullying their children and adults abusing and humiliating each other – are the flip side of a culture that associates ‘success’ with competition and sees compassion and collaboration as a sign of weakness. This may explain why ‘successful’ people can also be abusive, even when they have everything that our society values.
Maybe I am missing the point and projecting my own political and personal obsessions on to the book. Read it. It’s excellent and will help you understand the world around you so much better.
Here’s Dr Van Der Kolk if you prefer to watch than to read