You Can Recover from Trauma with Mindfulness and Embrace a Happier Future
Unlike our physical bodies, the human brain doesn’t ever achieve a state of maturity — it continues to grow and learn for as long as we live. Scientists refer to this concept as neuroplasticity, and under normal circumstances, it’s a good thing. As we’re exposed to new experiences, our neural circuitry adapts to deal with them, developing new and changing pathways.
However, a problem can arise when we’re exposed to a traumatic event and become stuck in endless, destructive neurological loops. Our brains can erroneously trigger stress responses that recall the event, even when we’re no longer in danger. In these cases, we have to consciously help the brain to relearn more appropriate and productive responses. Mindfulness can be a powerful tool in this process.
The Neurological Components of Our Stress Response
At all times, the human body communicates through a system of electrical and chemical impulses that we’re mostly unaware of. However, when we’re under stress, we receive strong messages from our bodies to “pay attention.” Feelings of hunger, needing to use the restroom, or other routine messages may be suspended at this time so we can focus on the danger facing us.
The three main areas of our brain affected by trauma are the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). The amygdala is the part of the brain’s limbic system known as the “emotional seat” of the brain. It identifies danger and initiates the fight-or-flight response. It also tells our bodies when we’re no longer in danger. But, in severely traumatized individuals, the amygdala can become hypersensitive and interpret even non-threatening stimuli as dangerous, erroneously triggering stress responses.
The amygdala constantly interacts with the hippocampus, which plays a role in memory function. When we process information, we form explicit, factual memories and implicit, emotional memories that relate to feelings rather than facts. Explicit and implicit memories travel different neural pathways to the brain but are later united by the hippocampus to create a single, unified memory of an event.
When experiencing trauma, this contextualization of memory can be broken, and the hippocampus may struggle to distinguish past from present and fact from feelings. Individuals may even have gaps in memory because their bodies are focused on getting them to safety rather than encoding memory. Or it can result in intrusive flashbacks, which then set off the hypersensitive amygdala in a reinforcing loop of responses. Things as simple as a smell, a touch, or even the tone of someone’s voice could trigger this reaction.
The PFC, meanwhile, regulates behaviors, overriding the hippocampus if necessary. But in traumatized individuals, it can be severely impaired and incapable of signaling to the amygdala that the perceived danger is in fact not a threat. Therefore, the body will continue to experience all the same signals: a fast-beating heart, heavy breathing, sweating palms, and so on.
Using Mindfulness to Respond to Trauma
To deal with trauma, the body’s “alarm system” needs to be recalibrated. Only once the physical symptoms are dealt with can work begin on the mental and emotional aspects. Mindfulness is about being present in the body, recognizing the messages it’s sending, and consciously responding to them. Research involving brain scans and neuroimaging shows that mindfulness and meditation practices correlate with an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus and a decrease of gray matter in the amygdala, which can help activate the PFC.
Coping with severe trauma may require the assistance of a trained psychologist. However, you can start work on your own by becoming conscious of your body and understanding that it is trying to protect you. By letting your body know it isn’t in danger, you can calm down the hormonal responses and start to retrain and redirect your neural pathways.
There are many different coping mechanisms, and you’ll need to experiment with finding one that works for you. For example, diaphragmatic breathing techniques are excellent because they work against the short, gasping breaths involved in the fight-or-flight response and signal the brain that you are safe. You could also try meditating. There are many guided meditation smartphone apps, and following the instructions can help keep you focused and calm.
Regularly practicing mindfulness can help train you to free yourself from the vicious cycles of negative thinking, often the cornerstone of trauma. The first step in rebuilding trust lies in learning to trust our body’s response to situations. So the work you put into retraining your neural pathways will be well rewarded. Remember, processing the body’s reaction doesn’t deny your trauma; instead, it allows it to be part of your story without it dictating your present and future.