Working With and Healing Trauma

The experience of trauma is a loop where we're unable to imagine a future different than the traumatic past. Mindfulness can help us begin to unwind from trauma.

Stress is often seen in terms of being a stimulus, and however, obviously the response is different for different people, and for different reasons, anywhere from genetics, to heredity, to generational aspects of stress and trauma, and so the key really is how we are able to respond organismically, how our nervous system, how the primitive parts of our nervous system are able to reset themselves when there’s been a disturbance, a stressor.

I would say that trauma basically is intense fear or threat along with the feeling of being over helpless, being in the face of helplessness. I think that’s a reasonably good working definition, and it really, again, depends on so many factors, because for the same situation, for three different people, for 10 different people are going to have three or 10 different responses. Everybody has a breaking point at which our core parts of our nervous system, our bodily experience, don’t reset, doesn’t return to equilibrium. Everybody has a breaking point, even the most courageous of the Navy SEALS has a breaking point.

Trauma is seen often as a disorder of the brain or of the mind. That, of course, is true. It’s the mind and the brain are deeply affected by these kinds of stress, accumulated stress and trauma, but the part that’s been left out really historically, at least, is what goes on in the body when we experience threat or fear. Our shoulders may come up. Our guts tighten. We’re caught in a situation when we’re not able to fully breathe out, which affects the whole chemistry of the body, and so again, these are things that happen when we’re experiencing or perceived threat. They’re things that the body does, all right? We stiffen. We retract. We collapse, and until we can help people create new experiences, those that contradict the experience of overwhelming helplessness, the trauma continues to replay so that the past is occurring in the present. Said another way, we’re unable to imagine a future different than the traumatic past. I think these are some of the key things that we, really important to know about trauma.

The Skills to Settle Trauma

Of course, I think you probably want to talk about this at some time. Trauma is very different when it affects a child or an infant, or when it affects an adult. The whole idea, again, in being able to change the internal experience, that’s a key, and that’s where I call it embodied mindfulness really comes in. In other words, if our shoulders are chronically up here, we’re probably not going to be aware of it, because, after a while, it seems normal. However, as we learn to tune into our bodies, we start to be able to begin to feel the tension there, or that our breath is held, or that our guts are twisted, and so the first year of the training really is about helping people learn to find in their own bodies where they’re stuck, and also to be able to help track that stuckness in another person

It’s really important that we have the skills to settle ourselves. Indeed we’re actually developing some programs specifically for the general public and for educators to learn these kinds of basic skills. In working in therapy, it’s really, really important to know, to become aware of what’s going on in our own body, because if we’re not aware of that, then it’s going to stay stuck. We don’t have a way of releasing it. This became really, really clear to me when I was working, started working with Vietnam vets in the seventies, and this … Long story, how I got to be involved with this, but the first man that I worked with was a Marine, and he just came in, and just started telling me all of the horrendous things that he’d witnessed, and even did. I could feel myself getting dizzy. I could feel nausea, and I said to him, I said, “You know, Jim, when you told me about that, I experienced nausea, dizziness, almost like I was gonna pass out, but I knew how to deal with that. I knew how to let it move through my body, down into my legs, and into the ground.”

And when you see a kid, for example, that’s been hurt, and your first impulse is to run to the child, but if we’re feeling fear, they’re going to pick up on that fear. If we take those just two or three seconds to experience where the threat is lodged in our body, letting it move through, then we’re able to be with the child, and give them the support that they need to move through and out of the shock, and back into life.

Talk about your guts being twisted when we experience something horrible, so primitive parts of our brain recognize this as being dangerous. We tighten our guts. That is transmitted through what’s called the vagus nerve, and it’s the largest nerve in the body, by far. Vagus means wanderer, really, vagabond, and it goes to all the different organs, particularly sub-diaphragmatically, below the diaphragm, so our gastrointestinal system, and all of the organs, really. Actually, Darwin had recognized this in the 1800s, that this nerve is actually bidirectional. He called it the pneumogastric nerve, and over 80% of that nerve is sensory, in other words, taking information from our guts, and sending it back up to the brain, to the brain stem. What happens is you see something horrible, somebody’s been injured, and our guts twist up, and we’re feeling nausea. That is actually perceived by the sensory receptors, and goes back up into the brain, and reinforces the yuck.

It’s what I call a positive feedback loop with negative consequences, so it gets worse and worse. An exercise that I’ve developed to help break that cycle, to give a new experience to these organs which will then go up to the brain, and say, “All clear,” is to take an easy, full breath. I’ll demonstrate it, and on the exhalation, make a sound, woo, as though it’s coming from your belly, and then let the air and the sound all the way out, and then just let the next breath come in feeling the belly, and in through the chest, and then again, again, I’ll demonstrate. Ooh. I’m vibrating here in my belly. Then let the sound and the air all the way out. This allowed the next breath to come in still feeling belly, so in the belly, and then chest. Yeah, so everyone else joins in, if you want. Easy, full breath, and then just rest. Noticing your hands, your fingers, feet, belly. Just notice the sensations.

If it’s an unpleasant sensation, just know that by touching into it, it will pendulate, it will shift. It will always do that. Again, this is something you can easily do, and I would imagine that kids would love to do this, but you want to do it first yourself, of course, so you really know what the sensations are like. You can certainly make a game out of it.