Traumatized people, because of the chemical changes in their brains, tend to walk around like zombies. The parts of the brain that facilitate rational thought, gives interpretation to experiences and manages emotional responses virtually go offline after trauma, while the part of the brain that screams that everything and everyone is dangerous is on hyper-drive. This causes a disconnection between the person’s cognitive abilities and awareness of their bodies and emotions. They become distracted easily and are typically unaware of the body sensations that are driving their agitation and distress. They are unaware of their shallow breaths, their eyes darting back and forth, and the tension and pain riddling their bodies because paying attention to those things don’t allow for a quick escape if needed. The part of the brain responsible for telling us to run, the limbic system, doesn’t allow a traumatized person to rest, or to engage fully in anything that distracts from what it tells you is potential threats everywhere. This part of your brain tells you that you are not safe and that you must be alert at all times for any and all possible threats. This creates the perfect setup for the development of PTSD and behaviors that are destructive as well as devastation in relationships and functioning in general. Oftentimes, people do not recognize themselves in the mirror when this brain system is functioning and cannot truly understand what is going on around them. People who are traumatized tend to live in the past, where the things they have experienced intrude into their present and convince them that they are still living in the trauma. People who have experienced trauma tend to live in fear, have severe anxiety and are paranoid about everyone and everything because they cannot trust their ability to perceive true danger and do not have a way to feel safe. This tendency to remain in the past, constantly reliving and reacting to the trauma they have experienced, results in significant disruption to present relationships, the ability to maintain a successful and fulfilling career, and the ability to experience life in the present.
One of the crucial components to treating trauma, is addressing this issue and helping people stay in the moment, to stay focused on the present and not the past. Retraining the brain to interpret everyday events correctly, and to give meaning to what you are experiencing in the present, allows the limbic system to return to it’s baseline instead of always being on. This, however, is not something that can be done just by willing it, “getting over it,” or just “deciding” to stop the trauma response. These brain and body responses are automatic and because of the mind/body disconnect, not easily retrained and controlled. The question then becomes, how do you help someone whose rational brain is essentially on a timeout while the part of the brain that controls basic functions is constantly going, to remain in the present and rewire the brain? Numerous studies and anecdotal evidence have demonstrated a positive response in a traumatized person’s ability to regain their life, including combat veterans, when they practice mindfulness techniques and begin to reactivate the rational side of their brains. Mindfulness at it’s most basic definition, is the practice of focusing on your body, your breath and your present surroundings. Beyond that definition, there are many different ways a person can practice this important technique. Many people already practice this behavior with daily meditation, yoga, and prayer. Traumatized people, however, do not stop long enough to engage in these behaviors successfully because of that hyper-alert limbic system. Additionally, these behaviors when done due to tradition or obligation, do not provide relief, because there is often little intention behind the practice, but rather a desire to just get it done and keep going. Therefore, it is important to understand how to be intentional with this practice and be willing to take the time to slow down and refocus on the moment in which you are living.
In my own life, I pray regularly and have had moments of clarity and peace that have come from that practice when I truly slow down and engage in the conversation. There are more times, though, that I am in a rush or I am not able or willing to slow down and truly engage and be present in the moment. This leads to a feeling of agitation, a need to rush, or I give up because the mental distractions are so intrusive that I cannot or do not want to take the time to address what’s going on. Mindfulness can actually be really successful in immediately addressing anxiety, insomnia, anger, and agitation once a person has developed a habit of intentionally focusing on being in the present. The key is to develop the habit of focusing on what is going on in and around you in that moment and letting the thoughts that intrude, just move through your mind without addressing or reacting to them. This is much easier said than done and requires intentionally and consistently setting aside time before you are triggered and throughout your day to regularly practice these activities. Once you begin to develop this habit, when you do get triggered by something, your body will begin to automatically stop you and engage in mindfulness to address the agitation that results from the trigger.
Practicing mindfulness does not have to be complicated. Generally, when I am teaching a trauma survivor to learn mindfulness, I begin with helping them learn to breathe deeply and focus on their breath. This alone can be immediately beneficial in lowering anxiety and assisting with insomnia and other unwelcome sensations as they begin to get fully oxygenated blood into their brains. This is the first step I take, before starting any other type of treatment, because it helps the person get in touch with their body sensations and their emotions and can help them feel a sense of safety. This can be easily done by placing your hand on your stomach, focusing on breathing only moving your hand, and imagining seeing your breath moving in and out of your body or counting to 4 with each breath. Once the breathing has been addressed, you can begin to evaluate your body and see if you are feeling pain, tension, nausea or any other unpleasant situation. This process helps reconnect those parts of your brain that have taken a time out, and can help you learn to give meaning to the things you are feeling and thinking, so you can decide if you want to respond or not.
There are many different ways of staying in the present when you have been traumatized. Mindfulness, meditation, and prayer are only a few of the ways you can stop and focus on living in the present. Taking the time to sit, lay down, walk, stand, whatever you need, to focus on breathing, hearing and experiencing what is going on around you, and focusing on those sensations is oftentimes the first step to healing. This practice takes time, especially when you have a lot of intrusive thoughts and external distractions that are begging for you to pay attention. These distractions are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, but rather, keep you focusing externally or on what happened or what you need to do rather than what you are doing and feeling in that moment. I recommend practicing these techniques in a quiet place first so that you can minimize external distractions and truly develop the habit of living in the present moment.
In addition to the following resources, you can find auditory guided meditations and mindfulness techniques on iTunes and similar avenues. There are also numerous books that can teach you many techniques to practice. Take the time to focus on you and focus on beginning the healing process by staying in the moment and not letting the past rule your present.