fire alarm in an old school building

Have you ever lived in a home with a fire alarm that was too sensitive?

It creates quite the scene! You’re innocently boiling water on the stovetop, when the merest thread of smoke happens to emanate from the burner. You don’t notice it. You can’t see it. You can’t smell it. Your husband across the room can’t smell it. Not even your dog can smell it.

And then—BLEEEET!!!! Ouch, your ears hurt! and you can’t think and you and your husband are crashing into each other as you lunge for the same towel and the dog is barking and howling and you try to fan the alarm, but it’s too high up and you realize you need to grab a chair and stand on it and meanwhile your ears, ouch! and you finally get the chair in place and stand on it and fan the darn thing, and it stops blaring. Whew! You decide to take out the battery, because this happened three times this week, and you put the chair away. But then you think, “What if there’s a real fire?” So you put the chair back and put the battery back in, and the darn thing starts blaring again because the water is now boiling over the sides of the pot and creating another minuscule emission of smoke so you fan it off again. You shut off the burner, and meanwhile it fails to occur to either you or your husband to notify the landlord, partly because the landlord is annoying to deal with, but mostly because you’re in your 20s . . . which is an excellent excuse for all kinds of mistakes!

I read the most amazing and scholarly and mind-blowing book recently. In it, the author compares a certain structure within the brain—the amygdala—to a smoke detector. This alarm system warns the body of danger and triggers a quick response. Trauma, according to the author, can cause the body’s smoke detector to become too sensitive. This creates an internal state as chaotic as the scene described above.

The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., is one of the best books I have read in the past year. It’s long, but every page is a gem.

The book means a lot to me personally. Trauma can arise in different ways; fighting in a war and being raised by a psychopath are only two of many possible causes. I feel confident in saying that I have experienced trauma. I also feel confident in saying that navigating the U.S. health care system to find the help I needed was a disheartening—and traumatic—experience in itself. That’s why passages from the book like this one mean so much to me:

“Psychologists usually try to help people use insight and understanding to manage their behavior. However, neuroscience research shows that very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most originate in pressures from deeper regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention. When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it.”

I tried so hard to heal myself through rational thinking! And others tried so hard to heal me by encouraging me to think rationally! But this failed. Using the logical, conscious part of the brain to try to heal trauma is like waving a towel at an overly sensitive fire alarm. Sure, it works . . . but only if you attend to it continuously and avoid doing anything else in life, for fear the alarm starts blaring again.

When I was in the thick of my struggles, each of these helped me significantly more than talk therapy:

  • Yoga
  • Neurofeedback and learning to meditate
  • Unconditional support from loved ones and professionals, especially those who were empathetic listeners and who urged me to contact them anytime
  • Joining a choir
  • Attending spiritual services, as well as personal spirituality and prayer
  • Medication

Most of these aren’t considered mainstream medical services in the U.S. Thus, most are not covered by health insurance. But as I read The Body Keeps the Score, I was astonished to see every one of these strategies pop up as effective and recommended treatments for trauma. Dr. van der Kolk devotes an entire chapter to yoga, for example, and another to rhythms and theater (which includes a discussion of singing and ceremony). As it turns out, the strategies I gravitated toward in my search for healing, some of which are classified as “alternative medicine”—a term often used pejoratively—are supported by research conducted by leading medical specialists. And yet the U.S. health care system has a long way to go in incorporating this research into practice.

Note that none of the strategies on the list involve rational thought. In metaphorical terms, none of them affect one’s ability to wave a towel. Instead, the strategies work by accessing and repairing (or, in the case of medication, artificially rigging) the smoke alarm itself.

How do you access the unconscious areas of your brain?