As a psychotherapist specializing in trauma and grief, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 gave me the opportunity to contemplate anew working with trauma — including my own. I was an eyewitness in New York City to the horrors of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that otherwise beautiful September day. All of the media attention about the 9/11 anniversary could have reactivated serious traumatic reactions if I were not mindful of my thoughts and body sensations. I was aware that seeing footage of the collapse of the towers and revisiting other events of that day made my heart race and my hands tingle. I was also aware that my thoughts were careening back to the events of that tragic day and my feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Staying mindful of the present moment helped me work with my thoughts and feelings. Focusing on my breath rather than my thoughts, I was able to breathe into my body sensations and emotions of fear and anxiety, and breathe out calm, healing and compassion for myself and all others experiencing those feelings.
Unresolved trauma — whether from abuse, witnessing or being a victim of violence, grieving a sudden or painful death, being in a car accident, or a myriad of other difficult events — can affect every aspect of a person’s life: physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively and spiritually. For example, intrusive thoughts and images can impact a person’s sleep, eating and overall health. The body’s flight, fight or freeze response to unresolved trauma can impact a person’s social and emotional life. Trauma is usually accompanied by negative beliefs such as “I am not safe”, I do not deserve love”, “The world is a terrifying place”, “God cannot help me”, “I deserved to be hurt,” which affect the traumatized person’s sense of self, world view and spirituality.
Mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based psychotherapy can be powerful tools in healing trauma. Mindfulness meditation helps free people from the seeming power and “truth” of their thoughts, helping them stay in the present, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. In addition, many people dealing with depression, anxiety or trauma are not connected to their bodies. They literally live in their heads. This is a coping mechanism to escape the pain of their feelings — it may have served them in the past, but is no longer serving them. Mindfulness meditation helps a person focus on the present moment and notice where thoughts and emotions are felt in the body. This experience can help the traumatized person feel grounded. The simple act of feeling one’s feet on the floor, feeling the support of the floor and Mother Earth, is especially effective in letting go of racing thoughts about the past and future and being grounded in the present. This grounding helps clients feel safe in the present.
Mindfulness practices keep us in contact with things as they really are, helping us let go of the seeming power and solidity of our thoughts. Dealing with the past in the present moment creates spaciousness and workability around swirling and claustrophobic thoughts and feelings. In this way, mindfulness based psychotherapy allows traumatized clients to re-experience the traumas of the past while staying in touch with their present thoughts, feelings and body sensations. The experience of the present moment actually provides a sense of safety and distance from past horrors. We are able to experience as a witness the thoughts, feelings and emotions associated with the past without being stuck in them, simply letting the experiences come and go. This witnessing ability is extremely powerful, allowing us to see that we are not our thoughts or our past experiences.
Physiologically speaking, working with the present body sensations, emotions and feelings associated with the past actually releases traumatic material that is literally stuck in the amygdala, or “reptile brain.” This stuckness affects our adrenal system and other body systems as well as our brains, resulting in the automatic flight, fight or freeze response Mindfulness practices facilitate the release of traumatic images from the brain, making them less intrusive. In turn, it becomes easier to choose more healthy responses than fight, flight or freeze, let go of negative thoughts about oneself, and actually replace those thoughts with positive thoughts.
As one client grieving the traumatic death of her husband said, “I still miss him, and still have images of him being in the ICU on life support, but those images are no longer intrusive and disturbing. They are now just memories, and the negative beliefs about myself and the world are gone. I know that my husband’s death was not my fault and I am OK.”