avatar

Beth Patterson, MA, LPC is a licensed psychotherapist and grief counselor in Denver. She is a graduate of the Transpersonal Counseling Psychology masters program at Naropa University. Learn more at Beth's website.

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.”

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...

    Comments

  1. avatar Vicki says:

    I just lost my husband of 29 years four months ago to suicide. It has been more than I can bear, and the pain, suffering and grief I feel makes me understand more why after prolonged depression he would do anything to stop this pain.I have only felt it since his loss and it is more than I can manage. I would do anything to work thru the guilt, loss, trauma of seeing his death, etc…..

    I am seeing a phychitrst that helps some, but in the end, this road is too long and grueling. Any advice or guidance you can offer regarding this mindful meditation would be greatly appreciated, I am located right outside of Washington, dc and would appreciate any assistance….

    Vicki

  2. Dear Vicki – I am so sorry to hear about your loss and the pain of your grief. As someone who has also lost a loved one to suicide, I know what a difficult , confusing and painful loss this is. I specialize in traumatic grief in my psychotherapy practice, and would be happy to talk to you further to give you some guidance on your journey. I can be reached at 303-817-8571 or via bethpatt@mac.com.

    The best first step is taking good care of your physical health – I know it’s easy to succumb to the urge to stay in bed and eat comfort food. It’s important to get good rest and nutrition and get some exercise – walking in the beautiful autumn weather can be very healing.

    Find some partners on your path – people who can listen to your pain, a grief support group, a caring grief counselor, etc. I would be happy to connect you to some resources in that regard.

    I know this can feel overwhelming and, as you say, more than you think you can manage. These initial steps will help quite a bit. Journaling about your feelings can help too. It is very important to get all those swirling thoughts, feelings and emotions out.

    I hope to hear from you. Please take good care of yourself.

  3. avatar Jack Elias says:

    Vicki, I would add to Beth’s guidance that you take the attitude that your loved one is watching you with love and encouragement(on a “what if” basis if necessary) — remember again and again that your loved one wants you to heal and flourish.

    Such a loss is so deeply moving that we forget that we have subtle beliefs and attitudes about loss that create unnecessary torment and hopelessness.

    The natural acute pain of the loss which we of course do not want to deny or dishonor can blind us to the infiltration of unnecessary thoughts of guilt, unworthiness, and absolute absence.

    It is tremendously strengthening to think of them again and again with love, and to see them at their best cheering us on.
    Good luck!

  4. avatar Margaret Allan LCSW PsyD says:

    Vicki
    As a practitioner and psychotherapist I would want you to really be able to feel understood by you therapist..I lean heavily on “the incomparable power of understanding” as George Atwood says. This might mean looking further and seeing someone more frequently to feel truly held. You may get a lot from Robert Stolorows book Trauma and Human Exxistence, which captures the profoundly isolating aspect of trauma in catapulting us out of the human fold in the shattering of comforting norms, he calls absolutes,,caught in ideas of permanence. I suppose my message is seek another to find a relational home fro this terrible pain.
    Margaret

    P.s. international Assoc of Self Psychol. May b another place to look

Submit a Comment