The Self-Help That No One Needs Right Now

Nothing about The Body Keeps the Score screams “best seller.” 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 Showbeen profiled in The Guardian, and watched his book become a meme. (“Kindly asking my body to stop keeping the score,” goes one viral tweet.)

“You can kind of understand why the sales of these books are going up in this stressful, pressurized situation,” Edgar Jones, a historian of medicine and psychiatry at King’s College London, told me. In a moment of personal and collective crisis, the siren song of a self-help book is strong.

There’s just one problem. In spite of their popularity, trauma books may not be all that helpful for the type of suffering that most people are experiencing right now. “The word trauma is very popular these days,” van der Kolk told me. It’s also uselessly vague—a swirl of psychiatric diagnoses, folk wisdom, and popular misconceptions. The pandemic has led to very real suffering, but while these books have one idea of trauma in mind, most readers may have another.

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