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. Supporting Members get full access.

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

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