Believe it or not, almost everyone has experienced trauma. Trauma does not only happen to soldiers and survivors of abuse. Trauma does not discriminate and it can happen to anyone. It is defined as experiencing a distressing and painful event that hinders one’s functioning and mental health.
The Brain and Trauma
Because experiencing trauma drastically affects a person’s emotional and mental health, survivors may experience this feeling of “being stuck in survival mode.” This is caused by changes and effects in three parts of the brain: the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus.
Another way to describe this feeling is known as the flight or fight response. Our sympathetic nervous system quickly gets activated and your mind has a split second to decide if you are going to fight the potential threat, or freeze in fear.
These significant parts of the brain control emotions, memory, and impulses. Understanding how the brain’s functions are altered after experiencing trauma, it’s no wonder survivors experience these symptoms that affect their daily functioning!
Symptoms of Trauma
Trauma can cause a severe reaction to one’s mental and emotional state and can lead to an array of symptoms such as lack of motivation, isolation, low self-worth, denial, dissociation, thoughts of hopelessness, and hypervigilance.
Have you ever experienced feeling detached from your body, self, or reality? That is dissociation, and it’s a very common symptom for trauma survivors. Dissociation is when someone disconnects from their thoughts, identity, bodily sensations, memories, and/or emotions.
This experience can be eerie, scary, and maybe extremely difficult to explain to others; however, the brain is doing this as an attempt to cope with too much distress and protect oneself. Dissociation can be viewed as the brain coping by mentally escaping when you are unable to physically escape a traumatic event. Disconnecting can make the trauma seem “less real” as a means to survive.
Retraumatization is when a trauma survivor re-experiences the traumatic event. Because the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory, is affected after trauma, the brain sometimes confuses the past with the present. Your brain may be re-experiencing the trauma and the sensations that come with it when the threat is not actually there.
This is caused by triggers. Usually smells, tastes, sounds, feelings, and sights are associated with the specific trauma. When those similar sensations pop up throughout a normal day, a person can experience retraumatization and relive the traumatic event.
For example, if someone’s trauma is experienced in an armed robbery at a clothing store, that person can become triggered anytime they shop at a clothing store. This is why being aware of your personal triggers is so important. Once you are able to recognize your triggers, slowly but surely it becomes easier to combat.
During retraumatization, a survivor may experience the symptom of dissociation. Since the brain’s defense mechanism is to survive and “mentally escape” the traumatic event, dissociation from one’s self, body, or identity may occur.
Ways to Cope with Trauma
Because trauma and the symptoms that follow can be difficult and distressing to combat, I would love to ignite hope by providing coping mechanisms and tools to remind you that healing and recovery are possible. Remember, the brain is an amazing organ. It has the ability to adapt and generate new connections.
If the brain can learn unhealthy thoughts and habits, the brain is just as capable of learning healthy thoughts and habits. With the right tools and some guidance, the brain can be retrained to reverse the damaging effects of trauma.
Some ways to cope with trauma are…
- Validate your experiences and feelings. Feelings are neither right nor wrong.
- Reach out and build a trusted support system.
- Ground yourself and self-soothe through your 5 senses.
- Practice self-love and self-compassion.
- Remind yourself you are not your trauma. Trauma does not define who you are as a person.
- Use a weighted blanket.
- Deep breathing exercises.
- Seek a support group or a licensed therapist.
- Move your body in ways you enjoy.
- Mindfulness meditation.
What is Mindfulness and Meditation?
Mindfulness is a practice in which someone is staying in the present moment and not judging that moment, whether it is an enjoyable or unpleasant experience. Practicing mindfulness can help us sit in uncomfortable feelings instead of running away from them.
By sitting in the uncomfortably, you can train your brain to learn unpleasant moments and memories do not last forever, and they are not as scary as they seem.
Meditation is the practice of focusing your attention on a particular subject, whether that is focusing on your breath, body, and encouraging phrase, a prayer, or an object right in front of you. Meditation is different for everyone. Meditation helps people to enhance their awareness and focus.
How Mindfulness Meditation can Help with Trauma
We understand now how specific parts of the brain’s functions are altered after experiencing trauma. Mindfulness meditation can help cope with trauma because this practice helps survivors stay in the present moment, get back in touch with their bodies and senses, and reconnect with their identities.
Mindfulness meditation can help those experiencing dissociation by learning how to ground themselves when detachment occurs. These practices can help survivors redevelop healthy relationships with themselves and their bodies.
Mindfulness meditation helps survivors learn how to take captive of traumatic thoughts. By taking captive your traumatic thoughts, you are more likely to notice yourself slowly going towards an unpleasant emotion before getting there.
Some ways to practice mindfulness meditation are…
- Progressive muscle relaxation.
- Listen to your favorite songs or go outside for your favorite sounds. Focus and try to notice things you’ve never noticed before.
- Do your favorite body movements, whether that’s walking, yoga, swimming, dancing. Notice the movements of your body and the textures of the ground.
- Guided imagery.
- Guided meditation from youtube or an app.
- Write a gratitude list. What feelings do you notice?
- Breathing exercises such as box breathing or 4, 7, 8 methods (inhale 4 seconds, hold 7, exhale 8)
These practices can be hard to do in the beginning, however, mindfulness meditation is about practice and progress, not perfection. It’s also important to not push yourself when meditating. It’s important to have a trauma-sensitive and informed perspective when practicing mindfulness meditation.
If you are noticing you are becoming retraumatized while meditating, simply stop, open your eyes, take a break, and revisit when you are feeling ready. This may also be helpful to practice with a trusted friend or family member so you are not alone if retraumatization occurs.
Utilizing these mindfulness meditation tools and skills can help us become successful in treating trauma. As we are becoming more aware of the complexities of trauma, it is important to remember recovery is possible.