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RACHEL'S RUMINATIONS: Book touts alternatives for trauma-based mood disorders

A review of "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel van der Kolk.

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Penguin Publishing Group, 2015

Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk is an East Coast psychiatrist whose intention in writing this book is to make us a more trauma-conscious society.

From certain comments scattered throughout “‘The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” I get the impression that he has become disillusioned with the current way conventional medicine treats mood disorders. For instance, he writes, “Over the past three decades, psychiatric medications have become a mainstay in our culture, with dubious consequences.

“Consider the case of antidepressants. If they were indeed as effective as we have been led to believe, depression should by now have become a minor issue in our society. Instead, even as antidepressant use continues to increase, it has not made a dent in hospital admissions for depression. The number of people treated for depression has tripled over the past two decades, and one in 10 Americans now take antidepressants.”

What drew me to this book was the intriguing title and a fascinating new vocabulary term introduced in the book aptly, which explains the origins of the title.

Alexithymia (Greek for “not having words for feelings”) is a condition where the person substitutes the language of action for that of emotion – meaning they tend to register emotions as physical problems rather than as emotional signals that something deserves their attention. For example, instead of feeling angry or sad, they experience muscle pain, gut problems or other unexplained symptoms.

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In the first and second part of the book, Van der Kolk delves into how trauma can alter brain development, self-regulation and the ability to stay focused and connected with others. Many mental problems (such as addiction and self-harming) start off as attempts to cope with unbearable emotions secondary to a lack of adequate human contact and support.

Unless you are really into dissecting dense technical neuroscience or are a healthcare professional, I recommend skipping parts 1 and 2 or skimming these sections. Taking that warning into consideration, he does include some interesting and startling case studies.

In part 3, “The Minds of Children,” the author focuses on why child abuse and neglect are the single most preventable causes of both mental illness and addiction. He asserts that “the gravest and most costly public health issue in the United States” is child abuse. This section is a must-read!

Part 5 is by far the best part of the book – absolutely packed with useful information. Van der Kolk concludes that people can learn to control and change their behavior, but only if they feel safe enough to experiment with new solutions.

He writes, “Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. … In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them.

“All too often drugs are prescribed instead of teaching people the skills to deal with such distressing physical reactions. … Medications only blunt sensations and do nothing to resolve them or transform them from toxic agents into allies.”

The author emphasizes the importance of teaching traumatized individuals to develop self-care skills with therapies such as journaling, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, yoga, neurofeedback/biofeedback, theater, and internal family systems therapy.

Rachel Oppitz has lived in Park Rapids with her husband, daughter and dog since 2006. She is a naturopathic doctor and owns Itasca Naturopathic Clinic in Park Rapids and Bemidji. In her spare time, she loves to read, workout with friends, play games, do jigsaw puzzles, camp, hike, bike, canoe, travel, do guided meditations on Insight Timer, try new recipes, listen to music and journal.

Rachel Oppitz is a naturopathic doctor and owns Itasca Naturopathic Clinic in Park Rapids and Bemidji.
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