Trauma is loosely defined as “an emotional response to a terrible event”. which can be anything we’ve experienced that has left a profound impact on us. Not only does it cause mental injury, to our mind, it physically changes the structure of our brains.
When we’ve experienced prolonged suffering, our brain doesn’t inhibit the fight-or-flight response. Why? Because it’s always been in that state, it never left it. Living with trauma every day means our brain reacts as if we’re in danger all the time, even when we’re safe.
So what does that mean? We’re always reacting from a place of emotional pain because our brain perceives everything as a threat. But this becomes a vicious cycle. One that stops us from moving forward and past our past. It paralyses us from doing anything that could help us change our circumstances for the better.
And we feel helpless, trapped in our thoughts and a body that is conditioned to keep us traumatised. Trauma imprints our being, subconsciously, and every day is an unconscious re-experiencing of unaddressed pain.
Unfortunately, this goes on for many years, and, tragically for some, a whole lifetime. But it doesn’t have to be this way. And this is where mindfulness meditation can be life-changing.
I’ve been meditating everyday for over three years and my mindfulness practice has benefited me in many ways, the most profound change being processing and healing from many years of trauma. And I wanted to share how.
A Little Science
Research has shown that the human brain is in a constant state of change, what science has dubbed ‘neuroplasticity’, and studies have proven that the brain can heal from injury using mindfulness, specifically a meditation practice.
There is significant research supporting mindfulness mediation as a natural treatment approach for trauma. The benefits are twofold — it can help to relieve psychological suffering caused by our thoughts and it causes neurological changes that help heal the brain.
In recent years, studies have shown the impact it has on changes to brain structure and function for people suffering from PTSD, helping to reduce the symptoms from trauma and increasing activity in the default mode network, the part of the brain associated with thoughts.
Trauma & The Mind
The memories of our past that are associated with emotional pain leave scars on our minds, and they manifest throughout our lives as toxic, negative, and very dark thoughts. Mainly towards ourselves — our life, our story, and our perception of the world.
Without us realising, we get attached to the thoughts that tainted our minds by people and events that caused us pain. What we think, we become. Self-identifying with the negativity of our thoughts creates more pain within us than the trauma did initially.
Over time, they continue to loop in our minds and turn into a vicious cycle of negative thought patterns that are perpetuated by the expectations and demands placed on us by life and society.
And then we find ourselves trapped in our heads. So, how does mindfulness meditation help? It frees us from being identified with the pain inside it.
With mindfulness meditation, we can train ourselves to stop reacting to the vicious cycle of traumatic thoughts ruminating in our minds, and I’ve Personally experienced this to be true.
When going through the process of educating myself about trauma, mental health, the mind, and how they are all linked, I came across meditation many times. At the time, I felt suffocated by my thoughts. I started to practice, using Buddhist and Indian teachings, both of which shared the same core lesson — we can stop our suffering by separating ourselves from our thoughts.
They teach that, with consistent meditation practice, we gain heightened self-awareness aka metacognition. This gives us the ability to see our thoughts, to question them, to think about our thoughts. The goal? We can acknowledge the thoughts that exist in our mind, rather than react to the fact they do. Meditation allows us to become conscious of the way our mind works and gives us control over how we react to it.
Trauma & Mindfulness Meditation
In the context of trauma, through meditation, we have to face the pain, not run from it. Accept the negative thoughts, the pain, are there, but not be consumed by the feelings and emotions they create within us.
Rumi said it best:
“Don’t get lost in your pain, know that one day your pain will become your cure.” — Rumi
Becoming observers of our traumatic thoughts means we can stop being victims by identifying with them.
The lesson in all this? The act of observing our thoughts means we are separate from them.
Simply put, you are not your thoughts. You are the observer, not the thinker.
As Eckhart Tolle says -
“Be the silent watcher of your thoughts and behavior. You are beneath the thinker. You are the stillness beneath the mental noise. You are the love and joy beneath the pain.”
It isn’t easy. I couldn’t at first. My mind was filled with painful thoughts and facing them without feeling overwhelmed by emotion was extremely hard. But I stuck with it, and eventually, every time a painful thought in my mind arose to distract my attention, I learned how to move my awareness back to my breathe without reacting. My pain became my therapy and my medication. Facing my suffering is how I healed a lot of my trauma.
It completely broke the vicious cycle of pain in my mind. Eventually, I had some self-compassion for the first time in my life but, the benefits of meditation? That’s a whole separate piece I’ll write.
You are not the negative thoughts that trauma filled your mind with and made you believe you are. You are not your trauma.
I will say, meditation isn’t a cure. It won’t completely erase our traumatic pasts, nothing can completely. But it gives us the chance to fix and learn from it. It is a tool to accept our trauma and separate ourselves from it. To get out of mental suffering and be in the present when our mind is stuck in the past.
All you need is you, your breath, and your bravery to face your thoughts and persevere through the pain until your mind submits to you. With consistency and commitment to practice, you can heal too.