The Body Keeps Score: Real Recovery Includes Emotional Healing

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When I started recovery, the stories that people told me about both their addictions and the families they came from fascinated me. As a man named “Dan” once said, “My family put the fun in dys-FUN-ction.” 

Over and over again at 12-step meetings, I have heard people mention the early roots of their addiction—being sexually abused by a family member or friend, having one or two alcoholic parents, having their fathers abandon their family, struggling to make friends and fit in. The stories go on and on. I have never met someone with an addiction that hasn’t had something traumatic happen to them—if not multiple traumatic things happen.

One of the interesting things that a therapist once taught me was that we can still feel our trauma in our bodies. I learned that the knot that I consistently experience in my throat is not insignificant—it’s attached to an experience, if not many experiences. The sayings “pain in the neck” or “pain in the rear end” are not trivial truisms but actually reflect real biological manifestations in our bodies because of trauma. 

For me personally, the lump that I continually experience in my throat is largely attached to an inability to speak my mind and my suppressed emotional regulation. To my knowledge, this comes from the fact that I was afraid of my father growing up because of our enforced-silence culture around the dinner table. Those experiences aren’t just in the past—my body has kept score.

What Is Trauma?

Psychologists and others involved in the addiction field will say that most, if not all, addicts have a significant amount of trauma in their lived history. Often times this is passed on from generation to generation. Trauma is an intense emotional experience that has triggered our bodies survival mechanisms to keep us safe. If the experience is never processed and integrated, similar types of experiences can trigger the same frightening emotional responses we had when the real traumatic event actually occurred.

You do not have to be raped or have gone to war to experience trauma—repeated neglect or emotional abuse can accumulate and be as damaging of an emotional wound as a major traumatic event. Other traumatic experiences can include sports injuries, car accidents, losing a loved one, etc. And because we are wounded, often times we seek out relationships and experiences that further wound us and prevent us from the healing that God wants for us.

How Can We Heal from Trauma?

In the past, I have written briefly about my experience at inpatient rehab. As I have spoken to other people that have gone to inpatient rehab, I have noticed that the experiences seem to be mixed. I can speak for myself and say that my 35 days in an inpatient facility were absolutely splendid. 

Part of this was because of the incredible community in which I was immersed. Another was because of the amazing therapist with whom I worked. However, I believe most of all it was because their whole philosophy was that all addictions flow out of traumatic experiences. Trauma prevents healthy bonding and relationships to develop and encourages addictive behavior to fill the void. And so it isn’t so much about stopping the addictive behaviors as it is about healing trauma.

While I was there, I got to work through different emotional wounds that I had been carrying but felt unsafe to talk about. And I also got to listen to and help others work through their emotional pain. A lot of this happened in group therapy, but it also included “horse” therapy and “play” experiences, which involved kayaking and trust falls. 

One of the most powerful therapies I got to experience was EMDR therapy. EMDR stands for “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.” In essence, it’s a technique that mimics the processing that occurs in the brain during REM sleep cycles. I had such a powerful healing experience with EMDR that I had to lie on a couch for a greater part of the day afterward. The next day I woke up, didn’t feel the lump in my throat, and had an amazing awareness of God’s love for me (toxic shame can often hurt our connection with God).

Integrating Therapy into Our Recovery

I can’t say this any clearer—while working the Twelve Steps is great, it is not enough for full healing. You can stop your behavior and still be walking around wounded. The suffering of this world is not something that God had intended from the beginning—it is the effect of sin. And therefore, we must not think that it is our job to just “tough it out” or “white knuckle it.” Jesus wants to heal us and reveal our true longings.

Psychology is a relatively new field of study that helps us understand human nature. We should see this as a blessing and opportunity for learning and healing. Once, I had a priest explain to me that I needed to see a counselor and that I should see this as Jesus healing me through others. I took the advice to heart. 

I have written about my healing experiences through the Eucharist so I don’t want to downplay the importance of the grace that Jesus offers us in the Eucharist and the sacraments. However, it’s my opinion that our healing comes in multiple ways because Jesus wants us to be fully alive within a community. Allowing ourselves to receive help from various members of our human community is one way Jesus often leads us to health and well-being.

Are you currently seeing a therapist? Have you ever thought about seeing one? Is there someone in any of your 12-step groups who could help you find a good one?

Catholic Resources

Be Healed by Dr. Bob Schuchts

Experts in Humanity by Dr. Josephine Lombardi

Integrity Restored by Dr. Peter Kleponis

Secular Resources

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

Healing the Shame That Binds You by Dr. John Bradshaw

Dr. Gabor Maté (books, podcasts, and YouTube)

Dr. Brené Brown (books, podcasts, and YouTube)


Quarter Joe is a lifelong Catholic and has been in recovery for pornography addiction for nearly three years. He is passionate about the spiritual path of the 12-step model and the power of Jesus in the Eucharist in bringing healing and transformation.