The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk [Actionable Summary]

This is a comprehensive summary of the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.

Deluxe printable: Download this summary to read offline.

The Book In Three Or More Sentences:

The stories shared inside The Body Keeps the Score will shock you. The studies will enlighten you. The healing methods will give you hope and the power to push forward. In short, this book can help people conquer human misery. Bessel van der Kolk, the author, patiently uncovers what makes combat soldiers act harshly with their families after they return from war. Why people who have experienced abuse when they were young shut completely and are unable to properly function. But The Body Keeps the Score is more than just a detailed study of people experiencing trauma. It offers scientifically informed approaches to help individuals reduce suffering in their lives and fully recover.

The Core Idea:

The author devoted his life inside medical facilities with a single goal: To understand how the mind works so he can pinpoint what actually caused a victim of trauma to feel lifeless. From there, to treat appropriately the patient. What the actual title represents is that experiencing stress is not only in someone’s head. When you’re chronically angry or scared, this also shows in the body. Spasms, headaches, chronic fatigue, and other kinds of pain become an inseparable part of the victim’s life. Thus, the title: The Body Keeps the Score.

Reason To Read:

Surely not everyone will feel inspired and even capable of reading all the horrifying stories mentioned inside this title. Nonetheless, the book offers something unique. It gives the reader the ability to see the other side of the coin. That it’s not only rainbows and butterflies. Life is, a lot of times, painful. Even if you’re living a cozy life, reading this will help you understand what others might experience (or even you in the past). And most importantly, help them recover. Give them support. For me, The Body Keeps the Score is about reminding yourself that you’re responsible for providing the best possible care for your children.


  • Problems in the mind often manifest in the body. The way someone walks, talks, and behaves.
  • Helplessness is a state of mind. A mental cage often created by our caregivers. Breaking free involves experiencing something you’ve never experienced before.
  • Self-sabotaging habits are present in most traumatized people because that’s the only way they feel safe. The only way they feel something.

8 Key Lessons From The Body Keeps the Score:

Lesson #1: Trauma Affects Both Our Minds And Our Bodies

Trauma bruises both our minds and our bodies. When not dealt with, trauma can completely remove someone’s ability to feel joy and intimacy with others.

On top of this, it has the power to negatively impact our immune system – make us more vulnerable to diseases.

And that’s not all!

Sadly, the negative effects of being part of a disturbing experience in the past have even more consequences.

As reported in the book, you reach a state where you simply can’t construct new ideas or concepts. You can’t remove the bad memories because you can’t imagine a place where the bad memories are not negatively affecting you. Creativity in the brain is suspended.

One of the stories at the beginning of the book is about a soldier who was unable to return to his normal life after the war in Vietnam. His mind was constantly bringing horrifying flashbacks of things that he has done on the battlefield. The underlying thing that made this person soulless what his inability to visualize a way out. That’s why he was unable to love his family.

According to Dr. Kolk, this person was emotionally numb. Even when he tried, the desire to experience love was quickly displaced by horrendous memories.

When this happens to someone, the person forcefully distances himself from others. He lives in his own lonely bubble where he doesn’t understand anyone and no does anyone understand him.

In these situations, the key component of trauma healing is to connect with the victim and help him share his whole experience.

And to stimulate people in a similar situation to express what they feel inside, Bessel van der Kolk tested soldiers with the famous Rorschach test. The goal was to hear what people will imagine by looking at a blot of ink. This helped doctors see how their minds work.

However, what happened in most of the cases when soldiers were tested is that they saw nothing. They seemingly lost their ability to construct meaning and imagine new things. When this feature of the human mind is not properly functioning, there is no nope. Nothing to fire creativity or relieve the person from the devastating past experiences.

“When people are compulsively and constantly pulled back into the past, to the last time they felt intense involvement and deep emotions, they suffer from a failure of imagination, a loss of the mental flexibility. Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.” Bessel van der Kolk

Lesson #2: You Might Be Stuck Inside A Cage And You Might Not Know It

I’ve read about the Maier and Seligman dog’s experiments long before I became a book nerd.

If you are unfamiliar, what these scientists discovered – or animal torturers who many pet lovers will probably label them as – is that you can teach someone to feel hopeless. Embed a sense of discouragement in someone’s mind, even if you don’t realize this.

Basically, these guys were electrocuting a group of dogs who tried to go outside a cage. The control group, a squadron of another group of dogs, were in the same condition but had never been shocked.

After several sets of electric shocks, the electrified dogs never attempted to flee the cage even when the doors were wide open. They gave up. Laying inside the steel frame, defeated.

What does this teach us?

Well, a couple of things. First, that continuously telling someone that he/she can’t do something will make this person believe that this, indeed, cannot be done. Secondly, that people just give up. Instead of escaping a bad relationship or adopting a new viewpoint, they prefer to stay inside the “cage” and be stuck with fear they are familiar with. An abusive boyfriend, or belief that you are not good enough, for example.

The saddest part of this concept is that there are situations in life where you simply cannot escape a damaging environment. A child cannot escape, at least not easily, brutalizing parent figures.

Parents neglecting their children leads to many complications. They become unrepairable. With a fragile and unstable psyche. This doesn’t only make the child helpless when he/she is older. But also unable to realize why he/she is so inadequate.

Bessel van der Kolk explains that restoring your sense of hope is possible, but hard. You have to first acknowledge that you have a problem and then seek help. Find someone who can show you that there is a way out of the cage. And that our abilities are far greater than what we imagine.

The difficulty of the situation is that trauma victims are so damaged, that their stress hormones are always up, always alerting them. Whispering that everything is potentially dangerous. Instead of feeling alerted when there is a real danger, PTSD patients can’t balance this and imagine that there is always danger around. They think that everything can hurt them, and thus they never try anything.

All of this got me thinking.

Hopefully, you’ve never, and never will, experience an event that can basically cut your wings and transform you into a submissive person who only observes and never engages. But sometimes, without realizing it, we instill crippling thoughts in ourselves and in potentially our children.

Think about it, every time you are saying to yourself, or to your kids, “this is not possible”. We hit the brain with “electric shocks.” We teach ourselves, and possibly our kids, that this is indeed not possible. Instead, we can try to ask this: “In what ways this can become possible?”

There is always a way out. Sometimes, though, we need someone to drag us out of the mental cage so we can see the light.

“I had to talk with Steve Maier. His workshop offered clues not only about the underlying problems of my patients but also potential keys to their resolution. For example, he and Seligman had found that the only way to teach the traumatized dogs to get off the electric grids when the doors were open was to repeatedly drag them out of their cages so they could physically experience how they could get away.” Bessel van der Kolk

Lesson #3: Chronic Pain Can Lead To Addiction to Pain

We’ve all heard stories of people who are unable to exit a relationship where their partner is physically hurting them. Or, where people are deliberately pursuing dangerous experiences.

According to the studies in the book, people who had an uneasy childhood, suffered trauma, or experienced physical abuse, become addicted to self-destruction. This happens unconsciously.

These people are so numb, that only pain can give them a sense of aliveness. As stated in the book, “patients often complain about a vague sense of emptiness and boredom when they are not angry, under duress, or involved in some dangerous activity.”

In a way, experiencing pain becomes part of your reality. You get addicted to it. And it kind of makes sense. You get used to being treated badly because you’ve been treated badly for the most part of your life. Internally, only this type of experience makes you “feel alive” and your body seeks this.

We become so addicted to strong sensations that only these experiences help us handle the unbearable dullness of everyday life. That’s why people get addicted to drugs. Some harm themselves. And that’s why people love participating in dangerous sports (e.g., bungee jump). And also, sadly, that’s why people stay in damaging relationships. While harming, the high-level experiences make them feel something.

A simple way to give the mind what it needs – strong emotions apparently – is to substitute harm with something more productive. Heavy-weight lifting. Intimate relationships. Running a marathon.

The point is that if you feel alive only when you’re feeling pain, instead of seeking agony, redirect this energy to something more productive. Something exciting, but painless.

“At this point, just as with drug addiction, we start to crave the activity and experience withdrawal when it’s not available. In the long run people become more preoccupied with the pain of withdrawal than the activity itself. This theory could explain why some people hire someone to beat them, or burn themselves with cigarettes. or why they are only attracted to people who hurt them. Fear and aversion, in some perverse way, can be transformed into pleasure.” Bessel van der Kolk

Lesson #4: Calm People Who Don’t Bother Anyone Usually Need More Help

Whether by playing basketball or by hanging out with friends in the local cafeteria, experiences shape our brains.

As the author shares in the book, the brain is a cultural organ. It craves being part of a group. This is part of our DNA.

That’s why we feel so alive when we are amongst others. Oftentimes, we don’t have the words to describe it, but we are always thirsty for social connections. We want to feel that we belong.

Trauma violates this system. On one hand, a person who was neglected or abused wants to hang out with others. But on the other, his safety sensors are running all the time and ruining the social experience because of what people did to him in the past. Such people are always on the lookout, ready to fight potential enemies or run away to their safe place.

This tendency to have your assault mode never at rest is commonly observed in the patients the author treated. The explanation is that it’s hard for a person who has been mistreated to relax. He associated humans as pain givers. Thus, the defensive mode.

But what happens if you’re always on the lookout for danger? What happens when you can’t relax and you don’t feel safe when there are people around you?

You are merely being in the presence of others. You are not connecting with them. There is a distance that your body and mind can’t allow shrinking because of the things that happened to you in the past.

This creates lasting marks on the person. You can’t calm down. You don’t trust others. Imagination, playfulness, and learning are all paused.

For this person, being in a room full of people or being all alone in the woods barely makes a difference. Attack mode is in full swing in both situations.

Everyone is a potential enemy for a traumatized person.

To help us understand what happens in the brain when we’re threatened, Bessel van der Kolk shares the three fundamental psychological states that try to keep a person feel safe:

  1. The social engagement system: When we sense danger, we seek assistance from others. If no one responds to our cry for help, we go to stage 2:
  2. Fight or flight: Fight or flight mode is activated. This is a safety mode. We either prepare for a fight – muscles tighten up and we seek for a weapon. Or, alternatively, we flee the scene.
  3. Collapse: If we can’t protect ourselves, the last stage is signaling defeat. We disengage. Heart rate plunges. We have a hard time breathing. We collapse and freeze.

All of this comes down to the following:

People can see and thus help children who are abusive. Children who act violently. The typical bullies. They get all the attention. And not that they don’t need help. They do. But they are bouncing between stages 1 and 2.

However, the ones who are close to complete destruction are the other kids. The seemingly calm and silent. The ones that don’t talk much. Who are suppressing their emotions.

But since they don’t bother anyone, they are left alone. Unsupported. Desperately trying to figure out how to cope with stage 3. They feel like no one cares. And this makes them even more powerless. Or, as shared by the author, they are “left to lose their future bit by bit.”

“One thing is certain: Yelling at someone who is already out of control can only lead to further dysregulation. Just as your dog cowers if you shout and wags his tail when you speak in a high singsong, we humans respond to harsh voices with fear, anger, or shutdown and to playful tones by opening up and relaxing. We simply cannot help but respond to these indicators of safety or danger.” Bessel van der Kolk

Lesson #5: The Solutions To Our Deepest Problems Are Other Problems

Obesity is considered a major health problem. But for many trauma victims, it’s a solution to a much deeper problem.

The book shares a story of a woman who had surgery that helped her lose ninety-six pounds. However, after the physical transformation, she experienced an emotional breakdown. Now, she was suicidal.

Her eating habit, while unhealthy, was protecting her. “Overweight is overlooked, and that’s the way I need to be.” Simply put, she was gaining weight to prevent mеn from desiring her. It was a way to feel safe, protected. After her weight was gone, everything and everyone was a potential threat now. And who can live like this?

Men do this as well.

Consider the confession of a man who grew up with a violent alcoholic grandfather. The person said, “It wasn’t that I ate because I was hungry and all of that. It was just a place for me to feel safe. All the way from kindergarten I used to get beat up all the time. When I got the weight on it didn’t happen anymore.”

These types of habits, according to the research in the book, are based on how we grew up and how we were treated.

As the author explained, people who were raised by caregiving parents became confident and productive citizens. The ones who lived with parents who were unpredictable and erratic became physiologically and emotionally unstable. Feeling distressed when even small challenges face their way.

Probably the gloomy thing about the above is that these things are not isolated cases. Child abuse is a widespread problem.

That’s why a future where we provide our children with the attention and the care they need should be a must. Raise strong individuals who are able to quickly bounce back from adversity.

“By far the most important predictor of how well his subjects coped with life’s inevitable disappointments was the level of security established with their primary caregiver during the first two years of life. Sroufe informally told me that he thought that resilience in adulthood could be predicted by how lovable mothers rated their kids at age two.” Bessel van der Kolk

Lesson #6: Sharing Painful Past With Others Heals

The thing that actually traumatizes a person is usually not the experience itself. It’s the beliefs the person creates based on the experience.

A story of an adult called Annie is shared in the book. The author explains that she blamed herself for what her father did when she was young. After all, why would her father molest a little girl if she wasn’t to blame?

The same thoughts circle inside the minds of a lot of traumatized people. Someone injures them, whether this will be a physical or psychological terror, and they blame themselves. After all, if you’re a kid, you think that adults know best, therefore it’s your fault for being beaten up.

You become stuck in the past. Unable to move forward. Unable to feel fully alive in the present. You feel unsafe in your own skin. Broken, is probably the right word here.

To correct things, trauma victims usually do one of these two things: 1) Try to dull their senses with drugs; 2) Seek, usually, dangerous sensations, to feel something – cutting themselves, gambling, involve in extreme sports. All of this, to numb the past pain.

Is this helpful? Certainly not.

To recover, what Bessel van der Kolk suggests is to go through a phase of self-discovery. First, to tell the full story of the past experience that is damaging your life, no matter how painful it might feel. Then, to realize that it wasn’t your fault.

The goal is to share your deepest thoughts and feelings so you can let yourself know what you have been trying to avoid. You can do it verbally or on a piece of paper. The challenge is probably finding a safe place where you can express your past pain. Thankfully, nurturing support groups are now widely spread.

“When the students themselves were asked to assess the study, they focused on how it had increased their self-understanding: “It helped me think about what I felt during those times. I never realized how it affected me before.” “I had to think and resolve past experiences. One result of the experiment was peace of mind. To have to write about emotions and feelings helped me understand how I felt and why.” Bessel van der Kolk

Lesson #7: Activate The Leader Inside You To Heal

Why it’s so hard to let go of a horrible accident? Something bad that happened to us in the past?

Rationally speaking, we should leave it there, where it belongs – in the past. In reality, though, we keep the memory in our brains. And often, a single experience negatively affects our every experience.

Trauma victims, people who have wounded hearts, are hurt because horrible experiences damage the emotional part of the brain. In a way, they feel stuck. Unable to take full control of their lives. They feel weak. Constantly fear that what happened might repeat. As Bessel van der Kolk writes, “Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself.”

The fundamental solution to past suffering is not an easy task. Intuitively, the brain keeps repeating what happened to ensure that we can avoid similar situations. However, this re-living of a traumatic past can crush our soul and make us unable to function. We shut down the outside world and stop seeing others for our own protection.

How this can be changed? How we can start functioning normally if we have a painful past?

Become aware of our inner experiences and regaining control over our mind.

Instead of avoiding all thoughts related to a painful event, we should confront them. We need to understand what exactly is going on inside our brains so we can feel what we’re feeling.

This is a feat on its own for the following reason:

By default, we focus on what is happening outside. What to say. Who we meet. How to behave. But these actions, don’t help us understand our inner selves. The neuroscientific studies mentioned in the book say that we should do the following: “feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed.”

If we can use a single term for this strategy, we should restore the leader in us. Take full control over our body and mind and ensure that there is someone in charge when things get tough – when a memory of the past tries to ruin something that we’re doing now.

This is called self-leadership. We start to realize that there are parts of ourselves that are hurt, experiencing pain. But we also acknowledge that not everything is lost. Not every part is fully corrupt. There is also a part that can handle the stress. Our job is to find it and use its power to keep operating normally.

If we can rephrase, we stop saying things like, “I want to hurt myself,” or “I’m weak.” We frame it like this: “A part of me gets triggered when specific things happen that makes me want to hurt myself.” Or, “A part of me is weak.” And then we add: “But there is another part inside of me that can make it work.”

“The second assumption is that, rather than being a passive observer, this mindful Self can help reorganize the inner system and communicate with the parts in ways that help those parts trust that there is someone inside who can handle things.” Bessel van der Kolk

Lesson #8: There Is More Than One Way To Deal With Trauma

What about treating trauma?

While a large part of the book goes through different trauma cases. Case studies. And the personal story of the author. Near the end, we find ourselves exploring various techniques. Proven and tested techniques, that are meant to heal.

Personally, I found the part where the author explained the different healing methods quite fascinating. Bessel van der Kolk explains in depth why a certain method was created. Why it works. The types of studies that support its relevancy, and also stories of patients going through the curing.

Below I have listed just some of the ways to recover from trauma mentioned in the book:

  • Mindfulness: Inability to notice your feelings and understand them leads to an unescapable pitfall. But it’s common for traumatized people. Therapists use a simple approach to help their patients recover faster. The steps are: First “notice that” and then ask yourself: “What happens next?” This technique allows you to understand your body in full. When there is pain, you spot from where this pain is coming from and then you think about how this sensation makes you feel. You no longer ignore what is going on inside you. You become an active explorer of your inner self.
  • Acknowledge that we have different parts: Understanding that we are not 100% good nor 100% bad is powerful and liberating. We have different parts in ourselves. War veterans have a hard time coping with the calm post-war life because they can’t accept what they did on the battlefield. This haunts them. The idea here is to realize that something you did in the past shouldn’t define your future identity. There is a part of you that did something bad, or experienced something unpleasant. Each time you remember a past horrible experience, you can remember that this part of your life was bad, not your whole life or identity.
  • Reconstruction: Probably the most interesting section of the book is where trauma victims reconstruct past experiences. The goal is simple: Remember and reconstruct the whole incident in detail with a help of a support group. Then, when you explain how all of this made you feel, create an ideal experience – what you wished had happened instead of what actually happened. For instance, a lot of people in the book report that they feel bad for not acting when their father was treating their mother badly. Thanks to this approach, they had the opportunity to say things to their father in the past. Confront them. Also, imagine the life they wished they had when they were younger. Basically, the traumatized person acts as a director of his own life. Creates a past he never had – but wished. This can help people finally let go of the past and find calmness. Plus, power and motivation to move forward.

If I can put everything learned from the book in a simple framework for healing trauma, it will be this:

  • Finding a safe place (support group) where you can express your deepest feelings.
  • Acknowledging that the past shouldn’t define your future.
  • Understanding that you’re a complex organism and sometimes feeling sad is totally normal.
  • Finally, build competence. Build relationships. Gain knowledge. In the book, this is called creating interdependence. You build strong inner foundations that allow you to bounce back and recover when things are tough.

“The idea that we’re asking our young people to go out in the world completely alone and call themselves independent is crazy. We need to teach them how to be interdependent, which means teaching them how to have relationships.” Paul Griffin

Actionable Notes:

  • Keep a feeling journal: Understanding yourself and thus recovering from a disastrous event requires work. That’s for sure. But this work also involves understanding your feelings and clearly expressing them. Sadly, many traumatized children and adults don’t have the words for what they feel. They can’t articulate what they experience. This state is called alexithymia. You feel anger, but since you can’t clearly explain why you feel anger, you say that all is fine. This creates a disconnection between the body and the true needs of the person. You don’t know how to take care of yourself because you don’t know what exactly is the problem. You feel nothing familiar. And to compensate, you probably focus on (familiar) destructive actions: hurting yourself, overeating, being violent. To correct this, you can try keeping a feeling journal. Keeping a log of how you feel about even the smallest things. This will help you see color in the grimness of your daily life and get out of the senseless tunnel.
  • Build relationships: Dealing with trauma caused by people is harder because to heal, you need to trust people. But since you were hurt by people. You have a hard time trusting them. It’s kind of a paradox. You need strong friendships to feel better but you avoid creating such. To build these relationships, you need to take it slow. Going fast will only make things worse. This is important for both people who were wounded and for such who are trying to help. Experts know how to do this effectively. They realize that trusting people is often the last thing injured people want to do. That’s why therapists move slow. Allow victims to open up by building a safe place. They don’t rush things, they understand that trauma victims need time and space.
  • Acting and musicals: Can someone prepare for all the hardships that will occur in life? Not in full, but the author shares that participating in drama classes can equip you with helpful options when tough situations arise. Trauma Drama, is a school mentioned in the book that aims to give participants ready scripts for different situations in life. The idea is to recreate real-life scenes by using props and costumes which can later be discussed. For instance, after a session, people get asked questions like: “How was this scene similar or different from what happens in your school?” One interesting insight was that students who were between 16 and 18 were really aggressive and always sided with the aggressive actor. Youngsters did this because they despised the weakness in themselves and could not accept it in others. What made them calmer was experimenting with different roles. Showing their vulnerable side. For me, this means the following: If you tend to support an aggressive person, there is probably a weak trait you’re trying to hide. Sharing it with others will make you feel much better (and calmer).
  • Gain competence: Besides friends who you can trust, gaining competence in a specific field is probably the other best thing you can do. Experiencing trauma makes you feel weak. Unable to control your life. It instills a sense of helplessness and a belief that you are somehow broken. By becoming competent in a specific field, you create your own safety net that will give you power over your destiny. Many trauma victims mentioned in the book explained that when they have some sort of goal to strive towards, they feel alive and hopeful.
  • Write your own play: When foster kids were asked to share their stories, they froze. The Trauma Center run by Paul Griffin was trying to help abandoned children find inner strength. He nudged them to share their experiences by saying, “If you could write a musical or play, what would you put in it? Punishment? Revenge? Betrayal? Loss? This is your show to write.” Paul was trying to help children discover their inner voice and explain that they are responsible for creating their own show – future. With time, children learned to write better screenplays. They created their own scripts and then these scripts were incorporated into songs or dialogues. The better they were able to write the story, the better the play. Eventually, students learned that if you tell a story well enough, other people will listen. Once this realization was seeded in their minds, they focused on becoming better directors, choreographers, dancers, writers. They now had a purpose. To gain experience, so they can better present their stories.

Commentary and Key Takeaway

Suffering emotionally is not an infection solely poisoning your mind. It also infects the body. The way you walk, talk, breathe becomes quirky.

Bessel van der Kolk, after years of studying and treating traumatized patients. Explains that one should look at the body of a person as a scoresheet. Note the visible defects to uncover what probably happened, or still occurs, in the mind.

Many people think that this book is “just” for specialists or “just” for trauma victims. And while they might be right, this book offers something unique. It allows you to investigate yourself and find suppressed anxiety. Figure out the real reason you can’t sleep, or the real reason you behave extraordinarily violent in specific situations.

But that is just part of the benefit of reading this book.

Frankly, the thing that I enjoyed most is the sense of responsibility the book instills in you. Responsibility to nurture your children. Support them, understand them. Help them become functional adults.

This idea gets in your head and becomes central after reading horrifying stories of how parents badly treat their own kids. And sadly, how these disturbing events that happened in the past corrupt their future life.

The Body Keeps the Score won’t only help you become a better parent, but also a more responsible person.

Key takeaway:

Trauma, if not attended, can become all-consuming. Sadly, healing is a long process. Often taking years. But there are different ways to recover. Don’t try to suppress your past negative experiences. Find support as quickly as possible to start your healing journey.

Notable Quotes:

“Being traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past; it is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.” Bessel van der Kolk

“Most of our conscious brain is dedicated to focusing on the outside world: getting along with others and making plans for the future. However, that does not help us manage ourselves. Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.” Bessel van der Kolk

“Simply noticing what you feel fosters emotional regulation, and it helps you to stop trying to ignore what is going on inside you. As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.” Bessel van der Kolk

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