some thoughts on “The Body Keeps the Score”

I don’t consider myself an avid reader, yet lately that’s all that I’ve been doing. What i’m about to say is in no way to shame others for doing things solely for enjoyment… but for whatever reason i personally have found myself frustrated, more than anything, any time i tried to play video games or watch TV. When I read, at least i feel like im learning something. and when i’m having “too” much fun, it starts feeling empty somehow.

it’s not necessarily that i feel some profound need to be productive. it’s more that whenever i did these things — scrolling through facebook, sometimes listening to music even — i had the sense that i wasn’t doing it for fun but merely as a distraction. to keep my mind off of whatever I was feeling at the moment. (Except as a result i ended up too distracted to focus on the distraction itself…)

Self-indulgence — such as overeating — is a coping skill first and foremost. So i guess it’s only logical that the less stressed out I am, the less I need it. But that’s not all.

I’m currently reading the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. In it he discusses the impact of trauma on your life. And although i don’t suffer from PTSD or anything like that, the book has resonated with me immensely. You don’t need to have experienced anything horrendous in your life order to benefit from all the insights it offers about people, our needs, and the way we process our emotions.

A lot of it also makes intuitive sense and kind of confirms certain things I have suspected for a while now (while backing it up with research).

The major thing that i personally can relate to is the disconnect between your body and mind when you find yourself unable to cope with something (I do not know why i personally struggle with this, but, as always, I have some theories). Basically “all trauma is preverbal” and unless you have a vocabulary to deal with it (and also address it in a way that activates specific brain regions associated with linguistic expression), it will manifest itself in physical ways.

The author provides many alternative methods that will bring the traumatic memories to conscious awareness where they can be faced head-on, arguing that conventional talk therapy is not enough to put those feelings behind you.

among others, he talks about mindfulness, and does so in a way that for me, a person who’s been playing with the idea for ageesss but could never muster the courage and/or self-discipline for it, finally makes it more appealing than scary. Or maybe it’s just that I’m ready now?

whichever it is, i’m becoming increasingly annoyed with my habit of just numbing out.

A few passages in particular have stayed with me:

[Many traumatized people] lose their sense of purpose and direction (…) How could they make decisions, or put any plan into action, if they couldn’t define what they wanted or, to be more precise, what the sensations in their bodies, the basis of all emotions, were trying to tell them?

Traumatized people are often afraid of feeling (…) [Many of them] are compulsive eaters and drinkers, fear making love, and avoid many social activities: Their sensory world is largely off limits.

Although widely understood to be harmful to health, each adaptation [such as smoking, drinking, drugs, obesity] is notably difficult to give up (…) [T]he presenting problem is often only the marker for the real problem, which lies buried in time, concealed by patient shame (…).

at the risk of coming off as tone-deaf, i will admit that i have noticed these patterns in myself. by no means am I trying to appropriate the term “trauma,” i think I’m just … oversensitive, and poorly equipped to deal with it.

Van der Kolk perfectly captures the feeling i had in therapy of being somehow removed from the experiences & feelings i was describing. Even while i was crying my heart out in the comfy chair, it still never felt like i was getting to the core of the feeling.

that was because my memories and sensations are so scattered and fragmentary that I cannot put them into a coherent sequence which I could integrate into a larger narrative. everything bad that happens to me feels like the end of the world

…that never ends but goes on, and on, and on.

PTSD is an extreme reaction to an extreme situation. but the strategies proposed in this book are not limited to such severe distress. they’re about cultivating self-awareness, which is the only way we can manage how we feel and behave.

Self-awareness was the very thing I had always lacked, and now you’re telling me I can develop it by simply practicing yoga? 🙂 …It’s not that I didn’t know it would help; everybody kept telling me so. But my body felt so foreign, and i was so reluctant to get in touch with it.

on a seemingly unrelated note, i had this massive realization a few days back … that obsessed as i am with it, I don’t actually care how stupid or intelligent I am. Or i do, but only to the extent that it influences other people’s perceptions of me. I have carried so much shame about being “dumb.” but only because i thought of it as a factor based on which other people would reject me.

mind you, i know this might be true most of the time.

but the rejections don’t hurt because i desperately need this particular person in my life. they hurt because every.single.person’s pronouncement on my negative qualities, I take as gospel. it doesn’t even have to be articulated in these terms; my boss laughing at me for being too straightforward with a customer does the trick, and bam! I’m depressed for the rest of the day.

Maybe i wouldnt feel as bad about myself if i didn’t assume everyone had all these expectations? or even if they do, it isn’t my job to meet those expectations. I never realized I could be happy and satisfied with what I was; that I could be comfortable in my skin just the way that I was. because i felt i was always being judged, my own feelings never seemed like enough, never mattered.

in other words, my body and mind were out of sync.

The book covers so many topics in such detail that i could never do it justice, but i highly recommend it, not only to survivors of trauma. everyone can take away something valuable and relevant to themselves from a really good book like that.

so much of life is just passing the time, just going through the motions. it is okay to be kind to yourself. I used to dismiss it as a waste of time. But … if enjoying yourself isn’t worth it, then … what is?

I’ve been doing some strange things lately, spontaneous things like somersaults in the meadow, which i could go into how that reconnected me with my body and my childlike sense of joy and all that, but it was just SO MUCH FUN. yesterday i went for a walk in the rain late in the evening; that felt amazing, too.

i think i used to discount physical ways of managing negative emotions because i thought they made me weak. i thought i should be able to rationalize my way out of sadness and anger, to self-regulate intellectually. But the truth is, feelings have a very real physical dimension. I mean, even in the most basic sense of neurotransmitters and stuff, they literally are physical.

of course ultimately i ended up distancing myself from what i felt with distractions that were very physical indeed.

luckily, turns out you can do very basic things with a sense of purpose.

regulating the dys

having agreed on postponing our sessions until July, one of the things my therapist emphasized during our last appointment was that i really need to keep talking about whatever it is that i feel i need to talk about. this seemed counterintuitive, but also validating. guilty as i feel about it, much as i wish i could stop it, there’s still loads and loads of things i need to share before i can process & get past them.

and yes, i’m aware that talking about shit in abstract terms is one of my favorite ways of avoiding real responsibility. it’s a coping mechanism of sorts. not a very productive one, to be sure, but a skill nonetheless.

what i will try to do is i will try to make the abstract concrete, and to put a more positive spin on things. I can’t help being a verbal processor; might as well turn it into a strength. if all i do is hypothesize, i should at least be able to shift my perspective, and potentially it can make all the difference.

to my surprise, after my all time low didn’t come the biggest high of my life. that’s what would normally have happened. but this roller-coaster ride wasn’t sustainable. and so i settled on a place in between, or rather removed from, depression and happiness. i put a hold on experiencing my emotions, because i needed to break the pattern in order to examine it.

examine it i did, though i’m still not clear on why it’s there or how to change it for good — but at least I know about it. and i know that certain things contribute to my mood getting better or worse, and there’s not that One Thing that i was looking for that would solve All My Problems.

The concrete has always sounded incredibly banal to me, but I have come to understand that there’s no shame in admitting that it does help.

for whatever reason, i resented the fact that im actually relatively low-maintenance, and I don’t need that much to be happy. solution? i didn’t do any of those things, because they seemed pathetic. unambitious. boring.

it’s almost as if i wanted to amount to fuck knows what, without meeting any of my most basic needs first. but you know what, you can’t just skip steps like that, and neglecting self-care catches up with you eventually. I have to take care of myself not out of vanity, but because nobody else will.

i also now appreciate that self-regulation is a complex skill, but very much a teachable one. And that precisely because it is so complex, sometimes baby steps can take you further than you thought they would (or could).

i get sad sometimes, but i can be okay with that sadness. i may not be able to make it go away, but there are things i can do to get through it. make it more manageable. learn from it. and if all else fails, distract myself from it until it passes on its own as it always does.

it will come back. but i will be better prepared to deal with it.

PS i haven’t yet figured out how to credit the artist, but the featured image is one of my favorites by @PDLComics (obviously).