The Truth About Trauma: Can Mindfulness Help?
The Unspoken Truth
There is an unspoken truth about trauma that is becoming more and more evident. In varying degrees, we all have suffered trauma. It is the experience of the human condition, well tethered in the understanding and knowing of the wisdom of the ages. It is the pain that is experienced and regurgitated/suffered over and over and over again.
Trauma is a topic that has captured incredible attention and interest in the past few years. There are various understandings of what trauma is. Perhaps, the general perception is that trauma is a traumatic event like war or violence or an accident, a shock to the system that leaves an indelible imprint on the psyche that can cause emotional distress, severe anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, and difficulty adjusting or coping. If the symptoms get worse and interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Is it possible that trauma is embedded in the psyche in even more insidious ways? The accumulation of many traumatic experiences over time can leave a deep imprint on the mind and, more importantly, on the heart-emotions.
Imagine, envision, and explore if you wish, the experience of a child who fears abandonment. Without nurturing, those early experiences could leave an indelible imprint.
What is Trauma?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is an emotional (emphasis added) response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, and strained relationships and can include physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. The APA adds that trauma is any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting (emphasis added) negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning.
Three types of trauma are:
- Acute trauma, which results from a single incident.
- Chronic trauma, which is repeated and prolonged such as domestic violence or abuse.
- Complex trauma, which is the exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature.
There are also more complex traumas that are systemic or intergenerational. Research shows they can be found, for instance, in racialized or racial hierarchical systems that have embodied social values that diminish or deprecate and devalue a person of color. Inherent in that experience is what Brent Bezo and Stephanie Maggi found in a study (Bezo, B., & Maggi, S 2015) of Soviet Ukrainians who survived mass starvation from 1932 to 1933. It is considered to be an intentional genocide that was orchestrated by Joseph Stalin‘s regime. Bezo and Maggi’s research found that the horrific event continues to resonate generations later [long-term, as stated in the definition above] within Ukrainian families. He found that from one generation to the next, the trauma was passed on in the form of risky health behaviors, anxiety and shame, authoritarian parenting styles, high emotional neediness and low community trust–in essence, an ongoing “survival mode.“ The transgenerational effects are multidimensional that include psychological, familial, social, cultural, neurobiological and, perhaps even, genetic effects.
The above example only highlights the diversity of human problems that emerge because of trauma. They are nearly infinite, perhaps as infinite as they are unique to each individual, family, community, institution, country, and state. But yet, it would seem that for so long and even still today, trauma operates in secret–unconsciously and unmindfully.
How Mindfulness Could Help: Awarenessing Emotions
In the mindfulness community, trauma is a topic that is receiving a lot of attention currently. Mindfulness instructors are being made aware of and becoming sensitive to the trauma some class participants may be harboring and help them manage the symptoms they are experiencing. Instructors are learning to be more acutely aware of the impact of language, choice-making-guidance, non-coercion, shared experience, and interoception.
Perhaps, there’s more that mindfulness and MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) could contribute.
Mindfulness practices heighten the awareness of:
- Cognitive faculties through enhanced focus and clarity;
- The body’s intelligence, including the innate, the intuitive, the instinctual and more of a greater capacity that lies within the body;
- Emotional intelligence, or, perhaps, better said, intelligence of emotions and their triggering effect, as well as our emotions’ malevolent and adverse, oftentimes unconscious, expression.
Jon Kabat Zinn, PhD, who created MBSR, defines mindfulness as the awareness that arises by paying attention in a particular way on purpose and without judgment. It is intrinsically about awareness. It is about being present in the moment, moment by moment. This awareness is particularly salient when addressing trauma. Mindfulness practices cultivate the awareness of the mind thinking and the body communicating, as well as our heart emotions. Through the practices, one may gain a greater consciousness and clarity, as well as a greater understanding of thoughts and emotions that activate the sympathetic nervous system, anxiety, and stress.
Mindful awarenessing–being aware, noticing, observing, and paying impeccable attention moment by moment–oftentimes helps uncover:
- The unconscious trauma that are our stressors;
- Emotions that unconsciously trigger patterns of behavior, habits, conditioning and auto-piloting, avoidance and coping mechanisms;
- Our traumatic experiences which gradually/readily become hidden, forgotten, exiled, unwanted memories of the mind;
- Elements of the experience the body harbors, but which are often perceived as a transient discomfort and just ignored;
- An awareness of how the emotions associated with a painful experience or trauma languish, and have with far-reaching tentacles tethered into an experience of pain that is easily regurgitated by the misperception or unconscious feeling that the same painful occurrence of the past is happening again.
Mindfulness and awareness bring your attention to these perceptions and to being present, separating rather than reliving the past. This takes practice, however. Mindfulness engenders the practice and awareness of just being here and now–not ruminating on the past or worrying, doubting, predicting the future–and being aware that the emotions of fear, anger, hate, sadness, shame, guilt, et. al. you are feeling may be incongruent with the experience of the moment.
To be clear, I cannot even begin to overstate the incredible and insidiously powerful, tsunami effect of the traumas we experience. Intergenerational and systemic trauma are clearly evidence of how damaging that power can be. Mindfulness, however, is not a panacea. Some people are just not ready to bring awareness to their emotional pain.
Perhaps, however, as Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The key to liberation lay in each breath, each step, each pebble along the path.” It is a Herculean task, but mindfulness could be a step on the path of self-care, self-regulation and self-healing trauma, one breath, one step, one moment, one conscious emotion at a time.
Peter Calin has been teaching for almost 10 years, has privately counseled and coached individuals on ways to manage trauma, anxiety, and stress and find balance, authentic purpose, and more joy and happiness in their lives. As an MBSR teacher, Peter has taught over a dozen MBSR training programs and workshops in the past three years. Peter is also an Ivy-League educated attorney and MBA graduate, holds an LLM degree in Intercultural Human Rights, is a former Fortune 100 corporate executive, intercollegiate athlete, Aikido practitioner and triathlete.
Peter is an instructor for our MBSR course. Click here to learn more and view upcoming classes.
Bezo, B., & Maggi, S. (2015). Living in “survival mode:” Intergenerational transmission of trauma from the Holodomor genocide of 1932-1933 in Ukraine. Social Science and Medicine, 134, 87-94.