Stress Management and Trauma Recovery with Mindfulness
If you’re unsure about seeing a therapist because you don’t particularly feel comfortable talking about yourself, OR if you’ve tried therapies and they haven’t helped as much as you hoped, then beginning a practice of mindfulness may be the thing that finally shifts you into greater peace and self-empowerment.
However, there is more to mindfulness than just stopping, breathing, and paying attention to the ‘now.’ Read more on that below.
First, the research.
Research now definitively proves that mindfulness techniques work powerfully to reduce stress and improve health. Whether your are suffering from past trauma, overwhelm, anxiety, or depression, neuroscience points to a similar pattern of reactions in the mind-body. Mindfulness approaches can stop the habitual patterns and reset your nervous system. A major study recently concluded:
Mindfulness-based meditation has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological and physiological well-being, and to reduce stress levels. The present study examined the effects of a 16-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program on stress levels and self-compassion of 22 executives of a large public sector oil company located in the south of India…Results from the present study suggest that a 16-week MBSR intervention not only had a positive impact on various stress indicators (physical, sleep, behavioral, emotional, and personal habits) and self-compassion but also reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure and blood cortisol levels.
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What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about simply becoming aware of the present moment, right here, right now, without creating a story around what anything ‘means’, and without having judgement. As an example, mindfulness means that when you cook your dinner, you are just aware of yourself cooking, rather than losing yourself in fantasies, or being so completely on auto-pilot that you aren’t even aware that you’re cooking! It roots you in the present moment, and allows sensation and emotion to pass through you, rather than to adhere to thoughts, stories, worries – which prolong unhelpful states! Sound easy?
Well, it takes practice and some specific skills to be able to effortlessly shift into the present. There are a few ways to begin to cultivate the ability for mindfulness, such as heart breathing (the HeartMaths Institute has done tons of research on this), meditation, and noticing and working with sensation (all of which I do in my sessions).
How Mindfulness Works With Stress
As a regular practice, mindfulness is one of the most powerful ways to create lasting change in your body’s stress response, because it activates the ‘witness’ – or what some call ‘awareness’: the part of you that is aware of what you are doing, thinking and feeling, without becoming over-identified with doing/thinking/feeling. This is the part that says, “Oh, I notice that I’m feeling anxious; it feels like a tightness in the chest.” Awareness takes you out of ‘becoming’ an anxious person, because you are able to achieve some distance from it (which gives your nervous system a rest).
At an emotional level, mindfulness practice are absolutely brilliant at detaching sensation (e.g. the contraction of ‘fear’) from the story of why we feel it, in order to allow the sensation (and thus the emotion) to simply pass. So often (as I explain in greater detail in my teaching), the story we tell around our emotional pain is the velcro that keeps the pain there. When we are able to greet our feelings and thoughts in the present moment, aware that they do not define us, we can begin the process of rewiring our bodies to react differently to events and sensations (and triggers)!
There are various ways of doing this, from watching one’s thoughts and feelings, to developing somatic (sensation-based) awareness, to breathing practices, meditation practices, and direct inquiry practice. A good coach or class can help you learn the right skills, and get on track to making the skills a regular practice – three months of regular practice can create a lifetime of change.
What is Stress versus Trauma?
In my experience, stress and trauma are on a spectrum, and can both tremendously benefit from mindfulness techniques. Acute trauma, characterised by daily, ongoing inability to function normally, does require a slightly different approach initially, although over time, the cultivation of daily mindfulness practices can speed recovery.
It’s important to realise that the label ‘trauma’ cannot adequately convey the type, breadth, or depth of experience which leads to what we experience as ‘trauma’.
Some conventional thinking holds that trauma is, strictly speaking, the psychological consequence of being the victim of an extreme event like a violent attack, rape, war, natural disaster, or a terrible accident. This thinking focuses on the event, rather than on the consequence for one’s moods, emotions, reactions, and coping abilities – and in so doing it underestimates the impact of ‘lesser’ events.
The impact of any event/events on YOU is the most important factor. As an analogy, you can drown in water three inches deep – it need not be an ocean.
Thus, in my work I focus on the symptoms of severe stress and trauma, emphasising the psychological effects of the event/s, rather than the specific event itself.
According to the Trauma Centre of Australia, trauma is defined as:
“a psychological wound that has occurred due to a person’s perception of a stressful event…Psychological trauma can arise from many events including accidents, workplace injury, death, robbery, harassment, and emotionally intrusive thoughts. Emotions including, shock, confusion, numbness, depression, anxiety disorders and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are often associated with a traumatic experience.”
Some indications that you have experienced an event with a traumatic effect on your nervous system include:
- emotional numbness
- emotionality (extreme emotion)
- chronic feelings of anxiety
- sudden and upsetting re-triggering of memories, images, sensations which cause your body to go into a highly stressed state (such as shock, immobility, extreme emotionality)
- sexual dysfunctions, including numbness, PE, ED, and a lack of interest in intimacy
- difficulty establishing or maintaining healthy relationships
- feeling that you are stuck and in particular, unable to change ingrained habits or ways of being in order to ‘move forward’
- lack of trust in yourself and those close to you (or even more broadly a lack of trust in life)
- chronic fatigue and/or inexplicable and undiagnosable physical pains/symptoms, especially auto-immune diseases
Some events which have, in my experiences, led to a ‘traumatic’ nervous system response such as those mentioned above:
- verbal/emotional abuse during childhood (you were bullied by a parent; or you were abandoned by a parent)
- physical/sexual abuse
- divorce / relationship breakdown
- suffering from an addiction or being in relationship with someone who suffers from addiction or mood disorders
- accidents/natural disasters/working in the armed forces or police
Some examples of highly stressful events and their consequences which I see quite often-
- Ongoing high-stress lifestyle including one or more of the following: working 50 hours+ a week, poor sleep, high-pressure job, parenting young children, caring for sick family members, financial pressure – this can lead to chronic anxiety, depression, hormonal instability (females), and illness;
- Death of a parent in childhood contributing to adult sexual dysfunction, chronic fatigue and/or depression;
- Emotional abuse by a parent (constantly being insulted, bullied, told off), leading to chronic fatigue and depression;
- Lack of physical affection or words of affection by parents in childhood leading to PTSD, and delayed sexual intimacy/relationships (or lack thereof);
- Relationship breakdown filled with acrimony leading to depression, anxiety, and difficulty coping in life;
- Being a victim of a violent attack (including rape), leading to PTSD, anxiety, difficulty with intimate relationships.
Sometimes I see clients who have themselves not experienced a clear instance of trauma, but who have the symptoms of traumatic events. In many cases, I have found that there is trauma in the family which is unspoken or else otherwise not properly treated in the person who experienced it, and sometimes this leads to another family member experiencing the symptoms and consequences in their nervous system.
YES, this is not uncommon!
I have seen this in adults whose parents were sexually assaulted or abused, even when the adults had no idea of the attack/abuse of their parents before our work together. I have also seen this in adults who have a parent who is suffering or has suffered from addiction, depression, or chronic illness.
How exactly this happens is a separate article – it relates to the neurological phenomenon of mirror neurons, energetic patterns, family dynamics and roles, and much, much else.
Whatever the case, the body holds trauma, and can be cleared of it whether it is yours or someone elses!
The Nervous System and Limbic System
Our bodies draw on our memories and the associated emotions, and when there is a trigger (such as a sensation or an experience), our bodies begin to react in a way that it remembers from earlier associations made with that memory. The limbic system is the key to this experience, and involves many parts (such as the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the thalamus), in a tightly orchestrated symphony which happens simultaneously and without any conscious awareness of the process.
So, for example, in the case of sexual trauma, during a present experience of intimacy, the brain’s natural linkage to associated sensations can trigger a memory which informs the body that the appropriate response in the present time in any intimate scenario, is to contract, increase heart rate, produce cortisol, and so on.
This process can happen for any conceivable event that caused us emotional pain in our lives. For example, if we lived with a parent who was prone to angry outbursts in our childhood, the emotional experience could have created a brain-body response to high-stress events: such that in the present, our bodies go through a cascade of reactions (anger, or shutting down, contraction, fear, etc.) when we experience the trigger of ‘high stress’.
If you want more personalized support, you can book in a session with me.
Addiction and Chronic Depression
If you suffer from a substance addiction, chronic depression or suicidal thoughts, it is best to seek psychiatric treatment (and especially a residential program) before coming to see me. The reason is that before you are able to work deeply with your emotions, thought processes, and life plans, you need to have weaned yourself off substances, destructive negative thoughts, and suicidal ideation. That is always the first step.
Once you have cleared your body and mind enough to function without crisis, and have started the journey of owning your deepest wounding, it’s the perfect time to further your ability to self-regulate by working with me.