The Physical Markings Of Psychic Pain

In a review of Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, Shaoni Bhattacharya describes trauma as “one of the West’s most urgent public health issues”:

[Van der Kolk] explains how trauma and its resulting stress harms us through physiological changes to body and brain, and that those harms can persist throughout life. Excess stress can predispose us to everything from diabetes to heart disease, maybe even cancer. … The book has gut-wrenching stories: about Vietnam veterans who committed war atrocities, incest survivors, broken adults that were terrorised as children or shunted between foster homes. Van der Kolk draws on hundreds of studies to back up his claim that “the body keeps the score”.

We meet a woman who had suppressed the memory of being raped at age 8 by her father, but when she ferociously attacked a new partner for no reason, she signed up for therapy with van der Kolk. Soon after, her eyesight started to fail: an autoimmune disease was eroding her retina. In a study, his team found that female incest survivors had abnormalities in the ratios of immune cells, compared with untraumatised women, exposing them to autoimmune diseases.

In an excerpt from the book published last month, van der Kolk endorses writing as a form of therapy:

As far as I’m aware, the first systematic test of the power of language to relieve trauma was done in 1986, when James Pennebaker at the University of Texas in Austin turned his introductory psychology class into an experimental laboratory. Pennebaker started off with a healthy respect for the importance of inhibition, of keeping things to yourself, which he viewed as the glue of civilization. But he also assumed that people pay a price for trying to suppress being aware of the elephant in the room.

He began by asking each student to identify a deeply personal experience that they’d found very stressful or traumatic. He then divided the class into three groups: One would write about what was currently going on in their lives; the second would write about the details of the traumatic or stressful event; and the third would recount the facts of the experience, their feelings and emotions about it, and what impact they thought this event had had on their lives. All of the students wrote continuously for 15 minutes on four consecutive days while sitting alone in a small cubicle in the psychology building. …

The team then compared the number of visits to the student health center participants had made during the month prior to the study to the number in the month following it. The group that had written about both the facts and the emotions related to their trauma clearly benefited the most: They had a 50 percent drop in doctor visits compared with the other two groups. Writing about their deepest thoughts and feelings about traumas had improved their mood and resulted in a more optimistic attitude and better physical health.

Van der Kolk adds, “Numerous experiments have since replicated Pennekbaker’s findings. Writing experiments from around the world, with grade-school students, nursing-home residents, medical students, maximum-security prisoners, arthritis sufferers, new mothers, and rape victims, consistently show that writing about upsetting events improves physical and mental health.”