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Book Review

How learning about trauma changed my life

What “The Body Keeps the Score” taught me

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April 13, 2021

He sat against the wall, looking at his phone, seeming to pay little to no attention to our discussion leader. His wife sat next to him with her arm looped through his, occasionally patting it lovingly. She was a regular attender to our class, but this was the first time I remembered seeing him. 

As our Bible study continued, the topic of mental illness came up in our discussion. I mentioned the book I was reading, The Body Keeps the Score, and explained how it was opening my eyes to the effects of trauma on an individuals’ health, behavior and relationships, and specifically, the effects of PTSD. I explained how it was changing the way I viewed many interactions and experiences, as well as the interpersonal dynamics of ministry, including small groups. 

He raised his head and said, “I have PTSD. It is hard for me to sit in this room. We’re too close. I have friends who would have never come in. And if I had thought that I would have been expected to shake hands or hug people in the worship service, I would have never come either. A lot of churches don’t think about me. I hope more people in the church read books like you’re reading.”

My mouth fell open, and my eyes filled with tears.

An exercise in compassion

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, an expert on trauma, has spent decades working with survivors, beginning during the time when Vietnam veterans were returning home. In his book, he walks us through his education, experiences, and research to explain how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain. 

Trauma is all around us. For example, van der Kolk points out that one in five Americans has been sexually abused, one in four grew up with alcoholics, and one in three couples have experienced physical violence. These are the shocking statistics of acute trauma experienced by so many. Van der Kolk’s research has also shown that chronic emotional abuse and neglect can also be devastating to individuals.

Reading this book and the patients’ accounts it features, although painful, ushered me into imagining experiences far from my own. Compassion requires imagination. After reading this book, I found myself pondering the stories and experiences of the people within my church. It was a profound emotional experience to consider how trauma has affected those I am called to disciple, encourage, and love. I was moved to tears when considering the effects of trauma on those I know, as well as those I’ve yet to find out about. 

Hope and dignity 

This book wasn’t written from a biblical perspective or to a ministerial audience, yet I was struck by the echoes of biblical themes it contained. The cohesion between van der Kolk’s scientific findings and the truths of Scripture was fascinating. One of the fundamental truths that he presents in the book is that, “Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another.” This truth echoes the power of the tongue as described in Proverbs, Ephesians, and James. It was a reminder of how powerfully we can influence those around us, whether positively or negatively, with our words. His findings also highlighted that simple acts of friendship, kindness, community, and encouragement are critically important in people’s lives.

While dealing with both the horrific past experiences and current realities of his patients, the author maintained hope and an uncompromising ethic of human dignity. Van der Kolk’s compassion and patience with those he helps and his work are inspiring. He attributed his mindset to his “great teacher,” Elvin Semrad. He described a formative experience with Semrad during his education. “I remember asking him once: ‘What would you call this patient—schizophrenic or schizoaffective?’ He paused and stroked his chin, apparently in deep thought. ‘I think I’d call him Michael McIntyre,’ he replied.” This reflects a biblical ethic of seeing and treating human beings according to their intrinsic, God-given worth, no matter their current mental and physical condition.

New practices

The greater awareness of trauma I gained through reading this book has shaped my ministry in the local church forever. I have changed how I situate myself and engage in group settings. I have a new focus on considering social conditions to make people feel safe, as well as a cautious awareness related to physical touch. I have lowered my expectations of participation in discussions, recognizing how difficult it is for some people to contribute. I also now believe understanding the deep physical and psychological effects of trauma is critical to helping others finding healing and freedom from shame. I have a desire to be more patient with others, as well as with myself.

Personally, van der Kolk’s research gave me a sense of permission to acknowledge how the experiences of my life, although not acute acts of trauma, do affect me, even in my physical body. My husband and I have ministered to people during the most difficult days of their lives as a part of local church ministry. The Body Keeps the Score helped me to articulate those experiences, understand the reality of the impact they had on me, and prioritize my own healing. This book was an encouragement for me to care for my body and my mind in more holistic ways. I am now convinced of the importance of physical activities such as exercise, breathing, and walking for my mental health. I see these as gifts from God, given to strengthen and equip me for ministry. 

The Body Keeps the Score influenced many areas of my life. It opened the door for conversation that day with a new friend in a God-orchestrated way that I will never forget. It gave me a vocabulary and awareness of trauma that has allowed me to discuss difficult things with friends and family in a new way. I pray that many Christians will read this book. I recommend it to everyone I know, but especially those who seek to disciple and minister to others. To love our neighbors well, we must have this holistic understanding of the way God made us, body and soul, and the way our experiences in this life shape us. 

Jill Waggoner

Jill Waggoner serves the ERLC in the areas of public relations and marketing. A 2005 graduate of Union University, she and her family reside in Lebanon, Tenn., where her husband Brandt serves as lead pastor of Fairview Church. She and Brandt have three boys. Read More by this Author