Healing the Wounds of Trauma

Corey De Vos of Integral Life and Ryan Oelke discussed the need to address the effects of trauma at sometime in our life.  Their discussion, Inhabit Your Wound, was wide-ranging and covered the impacts of trauma, barriers to addressing the wounds and processes for uncovering the wisdom that lies beneath the pain of trauma.  They suggest that each of us has our own “unique constellation of trauma” but if the wounds are addressed with a gentle curiosity, social support, professional help and self-compassion, they can release new insights and energy to enable us to more fully realise our purpose in life.

Trauma tends to impact many facets of our life, often below the level of consciousness.  It might be reflected in irrational fears, reluctance to appear in public, constant anxiety and depression, inability to develop and/or maintain intimate relationships, eating disorders or addiction, indecisiveness, inability to hold down a job or an overall sense of lack of meaning and purpose.  Many things can trigger a trauma response, including objects, people, news, conversations and observing a violent incident – because trauma impacts at a “cellular level”. Trauma can leave us directionless, powerless, confused and disoriented.

Barriers to healing the wounds of trauma

Corey and Ryan maintain that the shadow of trauma follows us throughout life, but we typically have defence mechanisms to prevent us from dealing with the pain and healing the wounds.  The memory of a trauma is often submerged below our level of consciousness because we sense that recollection is potentially too painful.  We may even have experienced dissociation to keep the memory away from our inner awareness.  We may have developed an internal narrative that is based on denial – “it really didn’t happen” – and this acts as a barrier to exploration and healing from trauma.

Ryan and Corey also observe that sometimes we could be part of a collective trauma experienced as a result of systemic discrimination or jointly experienced life events.  These life events could take the form of war, mass incarceration, natural disasters or a terrorist incident.  They can lead to “culturally inherited dramas” imprinted on our psyche.  Experience with religion during childhood or later in life can leave its own “baggage” and can be “harder to unpack” and deal with because it can become caught up with other traumatic experiences.  Corey and Ryan suggest that sometimes people want to hold onto their trauma because it makes them feel special and may even elicit a desired, sympathetic response from others (neediness in this area my be symptomatic of the trauma itself).

Processes to heal the wounds of trauma

We may have developed the ability to operate productively and confidently with our work environment but become aware of some disfunction in other arenas of our life.  Alternatively, we may have noticed a habituated and unhelpful response to a specific kind of incident such as personal criticism, open conflict or someone challenging our ideas or perspective.  These experiences can be the catalyst to deal with the “residual effect” of trauma and provide the necessary motivation to change our behaviour.

Corey and Ryan suggest, in line with Jon Kabat-Zinn, that a potential starting point is to “reinhabit our body” – to start noticing our bodily sensations and reactions.  This can lead to curiosity about what has triggered these responses and what prior experiences underly the nature and intensity of our response.  Ryan suggests that we need to work with any resistance we may experience in our body, but we should proceed slowly with a tender and caring curiosity.  A key here is our readiness to open the wounds and our resilience in dealing with the result – timing and support are of the essence.  Somatic meditation has proven to be an effective way to deal with the wounds of trauma and it is often undertaken with professionally trained facilitators.

There are a wide range of therapists to assist anyone who wants to deal with trauma and its effects.  Some employ cognitive approaches (such as Dialectic Behaviour Therapy) requiring voicing our thoughts, feelings and assumptions, others use less cognitive approaches such as art or music as tools for therapy.  A more recent development is the use of equine (horse) therapy which may be more appropriate for someone who loves animals and particularly horses.  Organisations such as Beyond Blue provide links to resource centres and professional therapists and others such as the Black Dog Institute offer support groups.  Keith Witt offers two books, Shadow Light and Shadow Light Workbook, that provide insights into our trauma-induced, unconscious responses and offer practices to illuminate the nature and potentiality of our “shadow self”.

The experience of Clare Bowditch in healing the wounds of trauma

Clare Bowditch – singer, songwriter and actor – captured her healing journey in her “no holds barred”, personal memoir, Your Own Kind of Girl.  Clare indicated that she wrote the story of her early life to encourage others to speak to someone and seek assistance if they are suffering from the effects of trauma, especially if they are experiencing anxiety and/or depression.  She describes in detail her own battle with anxiety and depression brought on by adverse childhood experiences and the trauma of seeing her sister die at the age of seven, after two years of hospitalisation with a rare, incurable illness that progressively eroded her muscles and caused paralysis. 

Clare, like Corey and Ryan, stressed the critical importance of relationships (family and friends) for her successful healing journey.  She encourages people to set out on the painful journey because it is “well worth it”, even if it turns out to be tougher than you first thought.  Clare experienced a nervous breakdown – she had fled to London, unprepared economically and emotionally, after she experienced shame and depression following a relationship breakup.  She experienced severe symptoms of her trauma wounds such as an inability to listen to music, write songs, watch TV, listen to the radio, eat well, sleep adequately or go outside.  She was consumed by all kinds of irrational fears and images of death (grieving her sister’s death).   Her response was to return home to her family and spend up to six months healing herself including meditating and learning about the impact of stress and unhealthy foods on the body’s nervous system.

Clare was able to reframe her nervous breakdown as a “nervous breakthrough” because “it was at this time that I got a really deep sense of what made sense to me, which was music” (p. 326).  She had finally found herself.  She rediscovered her need to be creative, to avoid things that did not make sense to her and to sing and write songs that really spoke her truth – her real, raw feelings.  She stated that the journey required the discipline to control her negative self-talk, the insight to realise that despite her life circumstances she had a choice in how she responded and the courage and resilience to persist despite setbacks.

Consistent with Corey and Ryan, Clare maintains that it is important to celebrate the small steps forward because they collectively make up the journey:

… a career is a thing that’s made up of one tiny step, one small act of courage after the other.  It’s only really when you look back later that it all makes sense. (p.313)

Reflection

Trauma affects many people in multiple, idiosyncratic ways.  The problem is that it works away as our shadow self and unconsciously impacts our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, behaviour and responses to triggers.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and self-observation, we are better able to gain insight into how we have been impacted, to develop the courage to address our trauma-induced wounds and move forward (however slowly) to realise our life purpose. 

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Trauma-Informed Mindfulness: Relationship Building through Music

Sam Himelstein has developed several basic principles and a series of guidelines to assist mindfulness teachers to sensitively work with people who are impacted by trauma. While these principles have been developed over more than a decade working with trauma-impacted teens, the principles and guidelines are also relevant to anyone working with adults who have experienced trauma. 

Relationship building through music

In his podcast interview with David Treleaven, Sam discussed a particular case that was a primary catalyst to the development of his principles and guidelines.  He provides a more detailed discussion of the case in his blog post, Trauma-Informed Mindfulness with Teenagers – 9 Guidelines.  The case involved a 17-year-old high school student, Jeanette, who had experienced a traumatic childhood with many categories of traumatic events in her life, including drug addiction of her father.  She had approached Sam, a registered psychologist, for help with her trauma-related issues.

During initial psychotherapy treatment, Sam was helping her to locate her estranged father so she could establish a connection with him.  However, before this reconnection happened, the young woman learned that her father had died from a drug overdose.  This intensified her trauma and when she presented at Sam’s clinic after the death of her father, she was unable to talk about her father, follow a line of discussion or formulate coherent sentences.  Sam described this in terms of “her brain down regulating”.

Sam’s first principle – “do no harm” – came into play as he realised that getting her to talk would take her outside her window of tolerance.  As he knew about her interest in music and her favourite genre, he intuitively realised that listening to music that she liked would enable her to establish some degree of equanimity, build trust and reinforce the relationship through a shared pleasant experience. 

As they listened to the music together, she slowly began to move her head in line with the beat and rhythm of the music.  Then, she began to talk.  Sam described the effect on Jeanette of listening to the music as regulating her central nervous system, bringing her back within the window of tolerance and enabling her to access her language ability so that she could express her emotions such as anger, grief and sadness.

Sam had realised that while Jeanette was positive about the utility of mindfulness in the context of therapy, “conventional talk therapy or mindfulness meditation wasn’t going to work”.  This music intervention was in line with what he described as practising an INCRA, an “inherently non-clinical relational activity” that is not a therapy technique in itself but effectively builds the relationship.  Sam discusses case studies where he has used INCRA in a clinical setting with teens in his forthcoming book, Trauma-Informed Mindfulness for Teens: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can better access our intuition when working with or training people who have suffered trauma.   Being present to the person needing help will enable us to let go of conventional, trained responses and be open to activities that are non-clinical in nature but develop the relationship – the foundation for all helping.  Trauma-informed mindfulness, then, involves not only sensitivity to trauma-impacted people but also the flexibility to depart from habituated responses or processes.  Mindfulness helps us to tap into our innate curiosity and creativity.

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Image by obBilder from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): A Specialised Mindfulness Approach

In this blog I have been discussing different approaches to mindfulness and mindfulness meditation that are self-initiated and self-directed in the main.  Some of the approaches to mindfulness discussed entailed the involvement of a teacher or mentor to guide the participant through various forms of meditation.

One such approach is provided by the Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training conducted online by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.  Even in this course, led by teachers and mentors, there is ample scope for participants to pick and choose what types of meditations and mindfulness practices they will focus on – the choices are not individually focused or directed.

What is different about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT as the name suggests is an approach that provides therapists with a structured approach to mindfulness development for their clients.  This approach is therapist-led with a defined sequence of exercises designed to enable clients to move from the entrapment of destructive thinking to taking effective action guided by their values (committed action).  Colleagues vouch for the fact that ACT often achieves the desired results in therapeutic situations.

ACT aims to enable clients to experience a full, rich and meaningful life that is built on internal and external awareness.  The approach actively discourages ineffective avoidance strategies and encourages acceptance of pain as a natural part of a life that is lived fully.    Just as mindfulness trainers are exhorted to deepen their mindfulness practice, so too ACT therapists are encouraged to practise the ACT approach and exercises to be able to act more consciously and effectively in therapy sessions.

The ACT approach to mindfulness

Mindfulness in the context of ACT is defined by Russ Harris, author of ACT Made Simple, in terms of the quality of paying attention:

Mindfulness means paying attention with flexibility, openness and curiosity.

In this definition, mindfulness is explained in terms of three key elements – awareness through paying attention, an open attitude and flexible attention enabling a narrow or wider focus or a focus on the internal or the external.

ACT incorporates six core processes as part of its therapeutic approach:

  1. Being here now – consciously focusing on the here-and-now, including our inner and outer worlds.  Fundamentally, it is about being present in the moment, rather than lost in thought.
  2. Watch what you are thinking – this involves standing back from your thoughts and observing them in a detached way. It means not entertaining them and being caught up in them as if they are reality.  Mindfulness expert, Kabat-Zinn suggests that we view our thoughts as bubbles in boiling water floating to the surface and bursting.  He provides the liberating idea that “we are not our thoughts” nor should we be captured by the “narratives” in our head.   In ACT, the process of observing our thinking is called “cognitive diffusion”.
  3. Accepting and being open to painfulness – Russ Harris describes this process as “making room for painful feelings, sensations, urges, and emotions”.  ACT provides exercises to develop this acceptance.  In our mindfulness discussions, we have offered mindfulness practices such as forgiveness meditation to address this pain and suffering.
  4. Observing yourself – ACT encourages awareness through getting in touch with the “observing self” rather than the “thinking self”.   Russ Harris describes the former as “the aspect of us that is aware of whatever we’re thinking, feeling, sensing or doing in any moment”.  Mindfulness practitioners encourage meditation practices like somatic meditation to develop this awareness.
  5. Knowing what matters – getting in touch with the way we want to be in the world (our values).  Values guide behaviour, give meaning to our lives and facilitate decision making.  Consciousness about our values can enable us to lead our lives with energy and vitality and provide mindful leadership for others.
  6. Doing what it takes – this involves doing what it takes, despite pain and discomfort, to live out our values in daily life (described as “committed action” in ACT).  It requires congruence between our words and actions and a readiness to commit to “valued living”.

ACT is a therapeutic approach that aims to help clients grow in mindfulness in order to lead a life that is richer and more meaningful, while reducing the impact of harmful thoughts and narratives and pain-avoidance.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.