Trauma is all around us. The most obvious examples are tragedies like 9/11, hurricane Katrina, the Tsunami in Asia, and the most recent being the Earthquake and aftershocks in Haiti. Let’s look at how trauma works and what we can do about it.
When a person has an experience of an event that is emotionally overwhelming or traumatic a conditioning of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations occur that resemble a stress response (e.g., tightness in muscles, rapid breathing, etc…). Because this is overwhelming, the mind puts it away, suppressing and repressing it, with the strategy that this will allow you to focus on other things.
In the background, sensitivity in the mind develops in order to be on guard for this happening again. This makes sense, our brains naturally adapt to try and protect us. Unfortunately, now this means, many things that are really not dangerous may be interpreted as dangerous and trigger this stress reaction, making life difficult to handle. For example, in Haiti right now, people are sleeping in tents outside their houses because of the trauma from the earthquake and aftershocks. Their bodies are on constant alert, with present tension, rapid breathing and a rapid heartbeat. Nightmares of the trauma are occurring nightly. The mind and body are ready at any moment to jump into fight or flight. This physical and emotional havoc lead to states of intense anxiety and depression.
On a more subtle level, many of us experience trauma as children through our relationships. Maybe we grew up in a home where there was constant criticism and when someone is critical now, the body goes into a defensive reaction either shutting down (flee) or reacting with aggression (fight). Trauma can also come in the form of a depressive episode or a panic attack.
Daniel Siegel, M.D., author many books the most recent being Mindsight, describes that we all have “a window of tolerance.” The heart of working with trauma is to get to a point where the emotional reaction from the trauma memory is no longer overwhelming. We can learn to ride the edge of this window and allow ourselves to look onto the emotional and physical distress associated with the memory with “nonjudgmental awareness.” While it seems counterintuitive, we want to very carefully bring the trauma into awareness so we can eventually change our relationship to it. This is challenging and takes practice and skilled support.
One way to do this is to know what your edge is. If when bringing up the trauma, on a scale of 1 to 10 your edge is a 7, then allow yourself to ride the physical sensations of the 7 until it begins to lower. If it begins to rise, then you can shift your attention or distract yourself with something else. The ground is that there is always permission to stop approaching if you move out of your edge of tolerance. As we do this the window starts to open a bit more each time and we continue to ride the edge of it. Also, more emotions may arise that we didn’t know were there during this process of approaching and in approaching our fears, we begin to understand that we do indeed have the strength and power to be with them. This is where the work becomes transformative. Now, this is easier said than done, it takes time, and it is done best in treatment with a skilled healthcare professional.
The people in Haiti right now will be experiencing trauma for years to come. If you are interested or enjoy mindfulness as an approach to your mental health you may want to look into A Mindful Dialogue: A Path to Working with Stress, Pain and Difficult Emotions. 100% of the proceeds go to HOPE FOR HAITI NOW which will help give the Haitian people better opportunity to deal with the trauma they are experiencing individually and socially.
As always, please share your thoughts, questions and stories below. What helps you work with your edge of tolerance? Your interaction here provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.