Archives for : recovered memory movement

Peter Levine goes further than Bessel van der Kolk on the importance of body memory

Peter LevinePeter Levine goes further than Bessel van der Kolk on the importance of body memory.

Peter Levine’s work on body memory of trauma has a devoted following.  His is a more practical, methodical, and focused version of Bessel van der Kolk’s speculations about trauma’s embeddedness in the body.  Van der Kolk wrote the forward to Levine’s Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past.  It reads,

For well over a century we have understood that the imprints of trauma are stored not as narratives about bad things that happened sometime in the past, but as physical sensations that are experienced as immediate life threats — right now. (loc 90)

Or as Levine puts it,

It is crucial to appreciate that emotional memories are experienced in the body as physical sensations. (p 22)

The practice

Levine works by observing the position and attitude of the body, seeing where the tension lies, and working on that body part almost like a physical therapist, helping it to relax.   “Expand” is his term. The difference is that Levine does this body work while talking with his patient about the trauma he or she experienced.  It’s a good idea: talk about your trauma while your therapist works on your body to help it relax.  In this way, psyche and soma and integrated.  In practice, it doesn’t work so well, primarily because Levine focuses entirely on trauma confined to a single event manifested in a particular bodily contraction, as he calls it. 

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A surprisingly good article on the social function of Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: We’re all victims now

“Tell Me Why It Hurts: How Bessel van der Kolk’s Once-Controversial Theory of Trauma Became the Dominant Way We Make Sense of Our Lives,” is a strikingly good article on the appeal of The Body Keeps the Score (New York Magazine, July 31, 2023).    It’s not long, and you can read it for yourself (the web address is given in the references).  The article, and my comments, are not about whether van der Kolk (vdK) is right or wrong, but why his book has become so extraordinarily popular, spending 248 weeks on the New York Times paperback-nonfiction best-seller list and still counting. It’s sold 3 million copies and has been translated into 37 languages.  It’s made vdK the world’s best-known psychiatrist. 

The book’s thesis is that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not just something that happens on the battlefield.  It happens in childhood, and for many of us throughout our lives.  PTSD is the intrusion of experiences that cannot be emotionally or cognitively assimilated, in many cases because we are too young or overwhelmed to make sense of them.  Instead, these experiences are stored in a special type of memory he calls somatic memory that is based in the body, not the mind.  Because these memories are stored in the body, they can’t be reached by talk therapy or reflection.  Body work is necessary, by which vdK means virtually any therapy that involves the body and its movements.  Yoga and massage are exemplary, but dance, play therapy, and psychodrama, in which people replay traumatic experiences with others, also count.  Indeed, almost any therapy counts that isn’t just talk, but involves the body (I’m not quite sure why vdK includes psychodrama; it’s almost all talk). 

But why did the book become so popular?

The book has been so influential because it says that you are emotionally ill not because of something in you, or about you.  You are in a state of anxiety, depression, and despair because of what was done to you by others, frequently parents who paid insufficient attention to your needs, or responded inappropriately. 

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