The Challenge: Addressing past trauma is a difficult, dreaded, and often avoided process.
The Science: New studies show that certain mindfulness practices can be a powerful tool for overcoming trauma.
The Solution: Check out some of the techniques explored below to empower yourself over traumatic experiences!
Trauma occurs in all of our lives at some point. It can present in the form of an abrupt loss of a job or through that close call on the highway. Certainly watching the news for too long can begin to affect us in this way. Perhaps someone we love develops a difficult health condition, or we sadly lose them unexpectedly. Maybe it happens as a result of giving birth, experiencing intense anxiety, witnessing something terrible, or an uphill struggle to adjust to a new normal following a breakup. For others, it’s a memory that won’t relent. Trauma is a part of life that presents time and again in various ways. For some though, it presents more severely. In many cases, the body stubbornly decides that it isn’t ready to move on, and these physiological changes can present ongoing challenges if we don’t take active steps to intervene.
It has been established throughout history that trauma resides in the body or that the body remembers what the mind forgets. What’s more, we now know that trauma can have an aggregate effect and that early childhood stressors, such as abuse, neglect, and instability, make it more likely that someone develops trauma symptoms later in life. In order to most effectively recover, it is important to consider the scope of the entire lifespan rather than solely focusing on what happened at one significant point or over a short period of time.
But regardless of how symptoms may have developed, what is often true is that the body tends to over-correct for traumatic experiences in remarkably consistent ways. Indeed, new research clarifies what happens to us when we are traumatized. Namely, the body begins to act with or without the mind’s approval –– overwhelmed by stress, it experiences an influx of self-preservation responses that amount to nothing short of a chemical takeover. As a result, communication with the parts of the brain responsible for impulse control, emotional processing, and self-regulation is significantly reduced, in addition to increased toxicity in regions responsible for memory formation and mood regulation. It is unsurprising, then, that many complain of less effective thinking, disorganization, irritability, problems at work or school, and impaired relationships in light of recent trauma.
In effect, the body has entered an extreme mode of self-protection. Unfortunately, though, even when the actual stressor no longer poses any immediate threat, we find ourselves unable to turn off this innate chemical response. For most, this becomes unbearable, and for many, manifests as drug or alcohol dependence in a misguided attempt to reduce emotional pain and find psychological respite.
Recent scientific developments reveal the mind can often be quieted only when the body’s dysregulation is addressed or minimized. Drawing on the wisdom of ancient traditions, researchers have begun to explore the use of mindful breathing practices as a means of calming the body and, in turn, settling the mind.
Their clinical findings demonstrate the major positive impact of meditation, among other mindfulness techniques like yoga and Tai Chi. Benefits include reduced inflammation in the body, improved mental focus, increased compassion for others, and a decreased chance of depression-onset. Dr. Emma Seppala, as part of a research team at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, additionally demonstrated the lasting and profound impact of mindful breathing practices in treating war veterans diagnosed with PTSD. The results were startlingly clear: the effects of mindfulness-based meditation directly counter the body’s heightened physiological response to trauma.
Through my own experience in committing meditation to regular practice, I’ve discovered better quality sleep, clearer and sharper thinking, decreased mental agitation, and increased patience — not to mention more satisfying and enriching personal relationships. And while learning to meditate is certainly no walk in the park, I can personally attest to the limitless benefits of putting in the effort. The process is akin to housetraining a brand-new puppy. While at first, it may run all over the house, ransacking every bit of furniture and urinating on every corner, with sustained training it eventually learns to heel and obey basic commands. The unsettled mind is indeed no different from the unruly puppy. And like housetraining, meditation is dose-dependent – the more it’s practiced, the better its results.