The Role of Mindfulness in Trauma Healing

I just returned from a family vacation — a Bahamas cruise — that was full of laughter and relaxation and a bit of schadenfreude because it was snowing at home — again. An observer might think that I did not have a care in the world; like some sort of mythical relaxed-mom creature only found in stock photography and Lunchables commercials, but of course the reality was more complex. On my first day back I answered a friend honestly when she asked about my trip. I said it was “Fine. Nice to be with my family, but I had a lot to hold and deal with in terms of my feelings while I was there.” It was the anniversary of my own trauma that resulted in my PTSD and I was immersed in what was a deeply triggering environment. In addition, as a family we were dealing with some of the stressors that are part of life — unexpected unemployment, the onset of adolescence, and the seemingly interminable recovery from influenza.

I was beyond grateful for the opportunity to relax in a warm climate but it was not going to be as simple as sliding into a deck chair with a piña colada. No cruise director was going to hold my emotions for my limbic system while I sipped. I was going to have to make space for both my enjoyable piña colada and my less enjoyable emotions. — I was going to have to spend time in the moments between the trigger and a reaction, a skill I have developed through practicing mindfulness meditation. I had to do that because only by truly feeling my emotions and their physiological counterparts could I figure out what I action I needed to take to care for myself right then and there.

The clearest explanation I have found on how mindfulness meditation practice allows a person to create and exist in the space between a trigger and a reaction was written by Ethan Nichtern in The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path. He writes about “the gap” when talking about the twelve steps of karma. In terms of healing trauma, “the gap” is the moment between trigger and response.

“Usually, when we think of a gap, we think of empty space. But the gap of the present moment is not a blank space at all; within the gap there is tremendous momentum and powerful energy. It is only called the gap because it represents the space of awareness in between feeling an intense impulse and choosing a reaction to it. Resting in the gap is the most difficult and vulnerable experience we can have, because when we show up for the present moment, we become infinitely more intimate with subtle intensity of feeling, both emotionally and physically, as well as with the strong momentum of habitual reactions we have chosen in similar situations in the past…
The gap is not a bliss space, but a courageous space where we stay with what is happening within our mind and nervous system…
Without any kind of mindfulness training, this gap probably feels more like a crack in the sidewalk than any space we could actually inhabit with awareness. Without practice we just rush from impulse to reaction…” (The Road Home pp. 69–70)

What Nichtern is saying, among other things, is that with practice, one can give themselves an opportunity to choose an action, and create new neural pathways, as opposed to simply following the habitual response ingrained into their neural network when they are triggered.

We all have triggers and habitual responses that may have served us at one point but no longer do. And we can learn all sorts of tools to change our behaviors but we cannot know which tools to use and when to them, unless we cultivate the self-awareness to recognize a trigger as it happens and spend time with ourselves before we initiate a response. As hard as mindfulness meditation can be at times I keep with it, because I realized that in the rest of my life I am increasingly able to do something akin to slowing down the time between trigger and response, allowing me to (a) choose a reaction as opposed to experiencing a seemingly instantaneous limbic system hijack (b) bring information about the trigger to my therapist so we could uncouple the trigger from whatever past experience it was linked to and (c ) allow me to create new neural pathways (habitual responses) to replace the old, no longer helpful ones.

So when my friend asked me how I kept it all together, and even had a fun time on my trip, while I was under so much duress I responded, that I would catch the trigger as soon as possible (mindfulness practice), really pay attention to how I was feeling physically and emotionally (exist in the gap), and only then could I use the appropriate embodied movement practice based on what I was feeling to ground myself once again. Rinse and repeat.

What all of that feelings-mindfulness-mumbo-jumbo looked like to my travel companions was completely normal. Everything happens so quickly and my reaction of choice is usually some pretty unremarkable behavior. Sometimes I excused myself for a quick walk — even just to the restroom — which on a cruise ship can be a hike. When I felt I hyperaroused I would stand up, stretch and fold forward touching my toes for a bit. In addition, I stuck with my training schedule and would lift heavy things to feel my resilience. I would sit outside and practice listening to all of the sounds near and far without judgement when I was getting stuck ruminating about all of the “should-haves” from my past. I looked just like what I was — like a woman on vacation.

There is a common misconception that mindfulness meditation is done with the goal of blissing out or being transported to place in which your mind is empty and you are devoid of feelings. That is some bullshit right there. Mindfulness meditation is learning how to be with yourself no matter how you are feeling. It is being very aware of the state you are in right then and there, no matter how lousy, disempowered, or painful it is. On its own you may wonder why you would want to do that when you could just sit in a deck chair, sip your favorite beverage, and laugh at your kid’s jokes and the answer is so that you can fully enjoy the sun on your skin and every sip of your favorite beverage, and wholy appreciate how amazing your kid is.

If you found this helpful and want to learn more about trauma healing, embodied movement, or coping with chronic stress let me know with the applause button and in the comments below.