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Your Body Keeps Score

This may be an emotionally difficult Health Tip for some of you. Imagine you’re a small child and for as long as you can remember, no one’s face has ever lit up with a smile when you walked into a room. In fact, to avoid being struck by a family member, you’ve learned a variety of avoidance strategies, maybe even unconsciously tensing your muscles to ward off the blow or daily sexual assault. That’s home life.

Now try to imagine you’re one of the estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children in North America sold every year into the sex trafficking industry. Worldwide, that number skyrockets to 2 million.

What about other sources of childhood emotional and physical trauma? Again, we’re not in the realm of the cheeriest breakfast reading. (Maybe a few minutes of Taylor Swift or ebay bidding, buying something—anything–just to get your mind off child abuse.) But we’re dealing with a vital issue here, one that might have a real bearing on you and your health.

A new book entitled The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma is being hailed as a masterpiece. From the book’s description:
Renowned trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk has spent over three decades working with survivors. In The Body Keeps the Score, he transforms our understanding of traumatic stress, revealing how it literally rearranges the brain’s wiring specifically areas dedicated to pleasure, engagement, control, and trust.  He shows how these areas can be reactivated through innovative treatments including neurofeedback, mindfulness techniques, play, yoga, and other therapies.

You and your biography
We’re only just beginning to grasp the emotional and physical consequences of being the victim of traumas as diverse as bullying or date rape. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study from Kaiser Permanente in California gave the simple questionnaire on page 1 of this link to 17,000 people with chronic illnesses and found an astonishing correlation between self-reported childhood trauma and a smorgasbord of apparently unrelated medical and psychological disorders.

More grim statistics:

  • Since 2001, the number of people in the US killed by other family members exceeds the number of Americans dead in all Middle East conflicts.
  • Most cases involve children in the household as witnesses, scarred for life, usually winding down their remaining childhood years shunted from foster home to foster home.

I first began to appreciate the consequences of childhood trauma more than 20 years ago when I attended a conference held by Carolyn Myss, PhD, whose book Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can had become required reading for members of the American Holistic Medical Association. Her phrase “Your biography becomes your biology” became a mantra for physicians attending her talks. It was Dr Myss who led me to shift dramatically from the medical history-taking techniques I’d learned in med school (which focused on current illness) to the biography-oriented interview all our physicians use at WholeHealth Chicago today.

Patients virtually never volunteer information about physically or emotionally traumatic childhoods, but in a quiet, private, and utterly nonthreatening setting, this information is begging to come to the surface. The Kaiser Permanente study allowed for total anonymity in its questionnaire, allowing participants to reveal deeply held secrets of the past without fear.

Health consequences of childhood trauma
Years after Dr Myss’ pioneering work, conventional medical journals started publishing articles on the connection between childhood trauma and adult health issues. When one study showed that 25% of fibromyalgia patients had endured some form of trauma when younger, doctors were shocked. The survey and results went on to be repeated in different parts of the world.

I devoted an entire chapter to this connection in my book Healing Fibromyalgia and to this day I’m surprised to find that most, if not all, of the dozens of fibro books available don’t mention it at all.

The Kaiser Permanente study showed that a group of psychological disorders (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, drug abuse) as well as seemingly unrelated physical illnesses (coronary artery disease and a variety of autoimmune diseases) were linked to respondents who had high ACE scores. It was estimated that high-scoring victims would lose 20 years of their expected life expectancies. Other confirmatory studies link childhood trauma with chronic migraines, diabetes, stomach ulcers, chronic lung disease, and a variety of arthritic disorders.

What’s happening in the body of a chronically traumatized child or young adult that renders him or her so susceptible to a possible lifetime of chronic physical or emotional ill health and potentially reduced longevity? As I tell my patients, if you’re a reasonably thoughtful person you know you’re pretty complicated, that there’s a lot more to you than anyone will ever know, regardless how close that “anyone” might be. Nod. Nod.

“Well,” I add, “Even with your keen self-awareness, you’re just scratching the most superficial surface. Your personal mind-body unit and its ability to record virtually everything that’s ever happened to you, as well as the consequences of recording all this information, whether you wanted to or not, is deep, complicated and profound.”

In fact, quite possibly everything you’ve experienced–from chronic depression and alcoholism to fibro and chronic fatigue, with susceptibilities to cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disease, and early heart disease–is related to the effect of the chronic, deeply contained stress felt from all those terrible events and your brain’s massive memory capacity.

With fibromyalgia, the connection is apparent. Stress triggers the fight-or-flight response, but there are two kinds of stress.

  • With sudden acute stress, such as a near-miss auto accident, adrenaline shoots into your muscles to prepare them for a quick response. Then they relax.
  • Chronic stress leads to constant muscle contraction, which is fibromyalgia. It’s as if a person with fibro, protecting herself from old childhood trauma, unconsciously creates a suit of muscle-armor to protect her from re-injury. Except it’s a suit of armor that hurts and she can’t take it off. That’s fibro.

Healing childhood traumas
Learning about the connection between childhood trauma and such seemingly unrelated conditions as autoimmune disorders and cancer from Dr Myss years before scientists had published their research findings, I knew she was one of a small group of truly skilled medical intuitives.

Say what you will about the terms “intuitive” or “energy readings,” I’ve seen so many misdiagnosis disasters at our nearby mega-medical centers that it would behoove their medical staffs to hire Dr Myss to teach a course in energy reading.

Dr Myss explains that our immune systems are hard-wired to protect us from infections, like viruses and bacteria, and cancer cells. When a child is faced with repeated trauma, in an attempt at protection her immune system gets overly excited and then starts to turn against its own physical body. This situation is worsened by the child’s profound loss of self esteem (“Who could possibly love me?”) in the wake of the trauma. Combine low self esteem with an overly stimulated immune system and you’ve set the stage for an autoimmune disorder, immune system attacking her own body.

Cancer works in a similar setting, but this time low self esteem is combined with an utterly exhausted immune system that’s burned itself out trying to protect its owner. Such thinking, Dr Myss was first to point out, has the potential to be very badly misinterpreted if blame for an illness is placed on the victim.

“Am I responsible for my cancer?” “Did I deserve my autoimmune disease?” The answer is a loud and clear “Not at all!” These machinations in your mind-body are so deep within you as to be inaccessible to your conscious mind. Everyone in the field of mind-body medicine is quick to point out that the majority of people with cancer or virtually any chronic illness had perfectly happy childhoods and aren’t carrying larger knapsacks full of psychic baggage. For this majority, the causes are usually lifestyle choices such as poor diets, tobacco use, or lack of exercise. But for a small and important subset of people with chronic illnesses, if any “cause” is to be discovered, it may be the final phase of a childhood from hell.

Much of Dr Myss’ subsequent work deals with healing childhood traumas. At WholeHealth Chicago, our Healing Touch practitioner Katie Oberlin has a series of treatments called Trauma Release. She teaches these release techniques at several locations around the city. Both our staff psychologists, Meghan Roekle, PhD, and Janet Chandler, PhD, have long clinical experience treating patients with early life traumas.  And each of our physicians–Casey Kelley, MD, Kristin Donigan, DO, and myself–begins new patient conversations with some variation of “So tell me about your life…starting from the beginning.”

That the body/mind would keep score makes sense. I’ve heard variations of the following from many survivors of childhood trauma: It took a long time to come to terms with what happened, if not forgiving then a lot of letting go.

But once you release the toxins of the past, your body can heave a sigh of relief and, if it could talk, say something like, “Okay, now, let’s get on the path toward a healthy, happy, and fulfilled human being.”

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD


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17 comments on “Your Body Keeps Score
  1. Mary Ellen Siemens says:

    Very insightful commentary. Thank you for sharing this wisdom.

  2. Tara says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, for caring about this subject. I am almost seventy and a victim of some of the things you mention in your article. At a time when the nation is becoming more aware of PTSD in returning veterans, the silent victims, the children, are still being ignored by the majority. Your article will increase awareness in these travesties. The sexual, physical, and mental assault of children touches almost everyone of us in some way and we need to bring this issue out of the darkness and into the light so that we may all be healed.

  3. Bravo, David! Beautifully and succinctly said.

  4. Patrice Wooldridge says:

    Ah, if it were to be that easy – “once you release the toxins of the past, your body can heave a sigh of relief” – some of us have spent our whole adult life working deep methods to untangle a childhood of extreme physical and sexual abuse by our fathers. It seems unbelievable to me that after years of therapy and practicing meditation and tai chi for extensive periods of time as well as short practices every day that I still have a overwhelming sense of fear that things will go badly for me. And what makes this even more shocking is that my adult life has been very successful with a wonderful marriage of 33 years. Thank you Dr. Edelberg for writing on this subject.

  5. Guillaud says:

    I do agree with the fact that our bodies have a memory of what happened to us !
    This article does confirm what i am feeling for a long time ! Thank you Dr E.
    Looking forward to seeing you again !

  6. Vivian Hood says:

    So happy you speak of trauma and its effects on the body. Having attended Caroline’s workshops for ten years I am aware that she does make a body connection. However, the person who actually works with the body in releasing trauma is BRENT BAUM. It is called Holographic Memory Resolution. Unlike the name. the work is easy and quite profound. I have seen miracles. By following a series of steps always directed by the person the trauma is NOT relived but reframed. As the body is in present time, it works. Brent Baum is often in Chicago and has books and CDs. He has worked with 20,000 trauma survivors, including 9/11.

  7. Beverly says:

    Thank you for this…..I read _Feelings Buried Alive Never Die_ by Truman many years ago. The Emotion Code/Body Code has helped me tremendously to ferret out those buried emotions, as well as improve my Emotional Quotient. I also like APPPAH – Association for Pre and Perinatal Psychology and Health. Perinatal Psychology/Psychiatry is an up and coming branch of knowledge and care. We are deeply affected by mom’s stressors even in the womb, and how she feels about the pregnancy. It is amazing!!!! So thankful that I have also found out that I was not alone in my severely emotionally damaged family of origin. My Guardian Angel was right there with me all the time…..God is good!!!!

  8. Kathy Heafey says:

    Just finished The Body Keeps the Score–It is so rare that people acknowledge trauma and its impacts. This book is one of the few things I have read both validates my reality and that of my children (who we adopted as infants) and offers suggestions about how to work toward healing and good health. Thank you for continuing the conversation!

  9. Colleen Delegan says:

    Thank you for shining the light on this painful subject. Let us all network with healers from many areas to spread the word so, as a community, we can help bring healing, love and caring to critical mass.

  10. Beth says:

    This is valuable information. I am wondering, however, about a group of us who did not have traumatic childhoods, but, for whatever reason, have suffered from chronic pain as adults. I think years of this pain is a form of trauma as well, and I wonder if the techniques described by you, Dr. E., and some of the respondents would also help us. Can you comment, please? Thank you.

  11. kelley says:

    Thank you for sharing. I have found dancing and yoga to be extremely cathartic after many years living in a fight or flight state. Somehow, at least for those who benefit from physical modalities, the New movements showed my body a New freedom to express and get unstuck.

  12. Rennie Gade says:

    Finally somebody said it!! I have suspected this was the case for years. One thing I would add is that physical damage like this is not exclusive to survivors of ‘extreme’ trauma as above. There are sensitive people who can hear about things happening, for example. Or living a life of constant ‘mild’ tension(I can think of ssomeone I know with fibro just like that).

    You can be in a ‘priveliged’ lifestyle and still feel this pain. Not that I want to take the focus off the sufferers of these appalling incidents, but
    I think this infact touches on a huge subject, involving things like exogenetics (am I the only one to have heard that word?) and the passing on of fear that is not even yours. I also believe that if we could get to the root of these things we could find out why the perpetrators continue, and perhaps prevent so much of it happening.

  13. Walt Polsky says:

    You are right on, Dr. Edelberg. I know a woman who was sexually and physically abused throughout her childhood. She exhibits several of the ills mentioned in your article, though miraculously, her body has begun healing itself after years of psychotherapy.

    Now, Dr. Edelberg – you can put your money where your mouth is by prescribing low-dose naltrexone (sp??) – 3-4mg – according to Dr. Julian Whitaker, who insists in several articles that this can provide tremendous help for fibromyalgia. Please check it out, as you’re in a position to help many clients suffering from this illness.

  14. Beth says:

    Dr.E does prescribe LDN. I use it and I think it is very helpful, but it’s not a silver bullet. Finding ways to manage stress, nutrition, and an array of supplements are all needed.

  15. Mery Krause says:

    An excellent article, Dr. Edelberg. I forwarded it to my brother and sister-in-law who run a residential counseling service in Madison, WI. They are both licensed and use a variety of techniques to help people. They attend a workshop out in Oregon each year to keep abreast of the latest techniques. They host groups for day seminars and also welcome individuals and couples for therapy, and provide them room and board. You can learn more about them by going to their site: inneressencecenter.com. It’s wonderful that you shed some light on the physical and emotional effects of events that happened in our past, which affect every one of us, even if we don’t think they do. Thank you. I always look forward to your weekly newsletter.

  16. Dr E says:

    Hi Beth
    Yes we do prescribe LDN

  17. Suzanne says:

    As a sufferer of sustained childhood trauma plus trauma that extended to my adulthood, I have worked my entire life to resolve the mental, emotional and physical damage it caused me. I tried almost everything, but nothing provided more than a band-aid effect. After 30 years of searching, I went to see yet another psychiatrist desperate to discover what was “wrong” with me. He suggested EMDR and referred me to a therapist trained in the technique. It changed my life. It is difficult to do because for a brief time in the sessions I had to relive each type of trauma, but when the memory was reprogrammed in my brain, all resulting thoughts, behaviors and physical reactions were gone AND NEVER CAME BACK. It was like magic. I was so impressed I took my kids in and it worked like magic for them, too. For example, my son is an avid reptile enthusiast, but an attack from a snake he had when he was young terrified him and prevented him from being able to touch or feed his other reptiles. After about 6 sessions, he was completely relieved of any fear and now works at a reptile center with everything from alligators to venomous snakes. His PTSD threatened to keep him from his passion, but EMDR got him back on track. I can’t say enough about the effectiveness of EMDR. I wish everyone with traumas big and small knew about this treatment so they could reclaim the life and joy that is theirs deep down inside. It IS possible, and I am living proof.

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