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The Self-Help That No One Needs Right Now

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Nothing about The Body Keeps the Score screams “bestseller.” Written by the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, the book is a graphic account of his decades-long career treating survivors of traumatic experiences such as rape, incest, and war. Page after page, readers are asked to wrestle with van der Kolk’s theory that trauma can sever the connection between the mind, which wants to forget what happened, and the body, which can’t. The book isn’t academic, exactly, but it’s dense and difficult material written with psychology students in mind. Here’s one line: “The elementary self-system in the brainstem and limbic system is massively activated when people are faced with the threat of annihilation, which results in an overwhelming sense of fear and terror accompanied by intense physiological arousal.”

And yet, since its debut in 2014, The Body Keeps the Score has spent 150 weeks—nearly three years—and counting at the top of the New York Times best-seller list and has sold almost 2 million copies globally. During the pandemic, it seems more in demand than ever: This year, van der Kolk has appeared as a guest on The Ezra Klein Show, been profiled in The Guardian, and watched his book become a meme. (“Kindly asking my body to stop keeping the score,” goes one viral tweet.)

After all the anxiety and social isolation of pandemic life, and now the lingering uncertainty about what comes next, many people are turning to a growing genre of trauma self-help books for relief. The Body Keeps the Score is now joined on the best-seller list by What Happened to You?, a compilation of letters and dialogue between Oprah Winfrey and the psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry. Barnes & Noble, meanwhile, sells about 1,350 other books under the “Anxiety, Stress & Trauma-Related Disorders” tab, including clinical workbooks and mainstream releases. Sometimes, new installments in the genre seem to position themselves as a cheat code to a better life: Fill out the test at the back of the book; try these exercises; narrativize your life. One blurb I read, on the cover of James S. Gordon’s Transforming Trauma, basically said as much: “This book could give you back your life in unimaginable ways, whether you think of yourself as a trauma victim or not.”

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An image of a book with an arm coming out of itMatt Chase

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Click the link below for the article:

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/10/trauma-books-wont-save-you/620421/

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