Does the body really keep the score?

February 18, 2021 | 2 comments

The idea of the Body Keeping the Score is a newer movement coming into the mental health world. Thank goodness for this! The idea that emotions and distress are not held in the body never made sense to me. Many of my friends and family members have experienced trauma, grief, and/or large stress events. These individuals have struggled for years with immune issues and other physical illnesses. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, my mother was tested for physical issues and was told it was all in her head. I remember her feeling very discouraged, disrespected and hopeless due to the conclusion of the medical community. She was indeed experiencing these physical symptoms, was there nothing to do about them? Was she just imaging the symptoms? Certainly not! I have heard many stories like this, which saddens me.  

According to Bessel Van Der Kolk, trauma and extreme stress is in the head and the body. In the book The Body Keeps the Score, Van Der Kolk discusses the brain, mind, and body in the experience and in healing from trauma. For further study on this topic, I highly recommend this book. Van Der Kolk challenges the assumptions within the medical model that many comfortably function in, and gives a greater hope to healing from trauma of all sorts. 

Grief is a form of trauma. When grieving, one has to endure a full-being response. Grief is stored within your body, and the stress caused by grieving can cause health problems. This includes emotional health problems (depression, anxiety, traumatic responses, ect.) and physical health problems can also ensue.  It is normal to experience somatic symptoms, especially during acute grief periods. Common grief responses in the body include, but are not limited to: 

—Fatigue

—Body aches

—Chest tightness and shortness of breath

—Headaches

—Brian Slush: forgetfulness, focus challenges, recall challenges

—Stomach issues

—Lack of appetite or an unassailable appetite

—Immune system challenges

Common comments individuals have expressed after a loss include things like: 

—“Why can’t I remember anything? My brain isn’t any good. I can’t even find the words I want to say.” 
—“I am exhausted all of the time. I feel like I have been run over by a truck.” 
—“I truly can’t get out of bed. What is wrong with me?”
—“My body hurts all of the time. I am so sore. My muscles are cramping or feel like lead weights.” 

People frequently report extreme tiredness and getting sick. Muscle tightness, spasms, and other muscular issues are reported. There have even been reports of hearing loss due to the flooding of sinuses after much crying over a period of time. Grief, trauma, and extreme stress certainly have a large impact on the body and is stored in the body. 

Peter Levine explains the term “somatic” as coming from the Greek word soma, which means “body.” 

When we experience traumatic events, they reside somewhere. While at first glance it might seem that they reside in the event itself, the truth is they reside in the body. Understandably, not everyone will have the same response or perception of an event, depending on biological, psychosocial, and contextual variables. (If this interests you, you can read more here.) Therefore, as we have discussed before, each person has a unique experience and response to grief, trauma and stress as well. Levine (1986) explains that the body can get stuck in an overwhelmed and dysfunctional response, which thankfully can be reversed; but the dysfunction will not be reversed by changing the external event (the trauma) or external circumstances. It must be work that is done within the body and the mind in order to reverse the dysfunctional response.

As you consider the trauma you’ve been exposed to on the field, and the grief you have experienced, I encourage you to pay attention to your body and allow it to be a mouth piece for you. I have begun to listen to my body rather than attempting to silence it, as I have done in the past.  Now as I walk or exercise, I will cry if my stress has been high, or often I am able to release my stress through my movement. Sometimes I feel myself pounding my steps more than other times. As I have allowed for this, I have been able to release my stress and grief in a fuller way. Here is a link with 64 ideas for self care for grievers. As we all strive to function in greater freedom and wholeness, these are some ideas to help. I also encourage you to look at the resources below to understand the topic more fully. 

Resources: 

When Grief Gets Physical: Dealing with Physical Grief Symptoms
What’s Your Most Basic Grief Need?
Somatic Experiencing: Healing Trauma With Body–Mind Therapy


Feelings stuck in places with your own small “t” trauma or big “T” trauma and not sure what do to next? This month’s workshop will unpack the basics of what is going on in your brain and body and equip you with several resources you can use where you are. Get it today.

Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash

Katie Brown

Katie Brown

Wife, Mama, Counselor, Friend, Grief Specialist

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I’ve been slowly reading The Body Keeps the Score. It’s hard reading (because the content is heavy), but so good.

    Thanks for the link to the 64 things to do. Reading is my thing. 🙂 The number of books I’ve read in the past few years has grown quite a bit when my grief has been deepest.

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  2. Katie Brown

    Thank you Phyllis. Yes the body Keeps the Score is so helpful, but also very intense. I ended up listening to it on audio book as it made it easier for me to process.

    I am glad the list of 64 things to take care of yourself are helpful. I can always use ideas on this 🙂 Also I am so glad you read a lot. With grief In particular connections to other people’s stories and remembering how grief works is important to remind us we are not alone and that grief is a normal process that we all experience.

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