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The Physiological Echoes of Trauma

I have spent the entire day so far with my dad at his cardiologist. A routine check-up, but when you are 80 years old and ailing, there are really no routine check-ups. Yesterday we were in Baton Rouge for most of the day at a different specialist. I am honored to be able to serve my father in this way, and indeed this is one of the main reasons we moved to Louisiana after my sister died: to help like this. Still, it takes a lot out of me, physically, even though it’s not at all demanding of anything but time.

Why does it affect me so? Because of this autoimmune condition that has come back on after a year in remission. I talked to the therapist who helped me, along with Dante, get past being so sick with it a year or so ago, and asked him why I was struggling today, given that, thanks to Dante, him, and my priest, I have put into the past the hard issues that initially kept me so sick. I mean, I know the three months of intense stress late last fall and winter spent writing the book was the most recent trigger, but why am I still struggling with this three months later?

During that long sick period before my Dante healing, I knew exactly why I was in the ditch. But now? I don’t get it.

The therapist explained that it’s not easy for any of us to watch our parents decline physically. Big changes are coming — death, he meant — changes that are a natural part of life, but if we already have compromised immune systems, even stress that’s not normally a big deal can have an outsized effect on us. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes sense. To see my once-strong father suffering so much is really hard, especially because I have always regarded him as a sort of monument to vitality and command. And now, he shuffles forward on a walker, his aging body a shell of itself, and can command nothing. At a subconscious level, said the therapist, it must be harder on me to see as one of his caregivers than I am aware of.

I bring this up now not only to explain the lack of extensive blogging yesterday and today (and because I’m about to have to go crash for a little mono nap), but because on a friend’s recommendation, I picked up a book called The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. Dr. van der Kolk is one of the top specialists in his field. My friend, whose spouse suffers from a very serious autoimmune condition, said the book talks in part about the role of trauma in persistent autoimmune disorders (in which the body attacks itself), and suggested that I might learn something from the book.

I don’t have time to start it now, but I did find an October 2014 Krista Tippett interview with the psychiatrist. In this excerpt, Dr. van der Kolk tells the radio host that most people take difficult experiences and place them in context of a story that helps them make sense of the event, and therefore to process it. But traumatized people don’t do that; for them, the story remains the same. It’s like they are stuck on it, and can’t move on. Excerpt:

MS. TIPPETT: And also, that gets at the fact that it’s not just cognitive, right? It’s not just a story that you could tell. I mean, it may eventually become a story, but that it’s body memory. It’s a neural net of memory. It’s not just about words that you can formulate.

DR. VAN DER KOLK: Yeah, yeah. It’s amazing to me what a hard time many people I know have with that. This is not about something you think or something you figure out. This is about your body, your organism, having been reset to interpret the world as a terrifying place and yourself as being unsafe. And it has nothing to do with cognition, with, you know, you can say to people, “You shouldn’t feel that way” or “You’re not a bad person” or “It wasn’t your fault.” And people say, “I know that, but I feel that it is.”

It was very striking in our yoga study because we see yoga as one important thing that helps people who’ve been traumatized because they get back into their bodies. How hard it was for people to even during the most blissful part of the yoga practice called Shavasana, what a hard time traumatized people had at that moment to just feel relaxed and safe and feel totally enveloped with goodness, how the sense of goodness and safety disappears out of your body basically.

It’s as if the memory of the awful event becomes incarnate, and part of our flesh. I’m not sure what this might have to do with my own situation, but I find the idea fascinating. I know a couple of people who had traumatic childhoods, and who still, much later in life, never quite feel safe and at ease anywhere.

Your thoughts? I’ll be back with you in a couple of hours.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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