Featured on Hello San Pedro Podcast –
Featured in San Pedro Today –
Trauma Control & Mindfulness
Presented by Artemis Tegan, LMFT before a Los Angeles church congregation
Psychological trauma refers to an emotional or psychological injury, usually resulting from an extremely stressful or life-threatening situation. Often it is the experience of encountering an event or events that overwhelm the individuals ability to cope and remain present in their lives.
Trauma survivors employ many strategies to cope with their highly charged emotional terrain that is littered with intrusive memories, high anxiety, flashbacks, panic, irritability, inability to trust, rage or depression.
Some of the strategies employed by trauma survivors to manage unmanageable feelings include engaging in compulsive drinking or overeating, taking drugs, over working, gambling, speeding, thrill seeking, compulsive sexual behaviors and self-mutiliation.
When we understand that avoidance is the primary psychological defense human beings employ to cope with trauma, then we can begin to understand that all of these strategies enable the trauma survivor to delay or avoid encountering their own painful internal worlds.
Addictive and compulsive behaviors can, for a time, effectively soothe or numb the psyche of the survivor, thereby allowing the trauma survivor to create the allusion of control over their chaotic internal worlds. Ultimately these strategies are dangerous responses to the persistence of trauma reactions, avoidance and the need for control.
As a Marriage & Family Therapist specializing in the field of trauma recovery, I can appreciate the many strategies I see clients utilize to regain a sense of control over seemingly unspeakable and insurmountable traumatic events.
One survivor keeps herself locked away in her apartment, only coming out at 4am, in order to avoid any perceived threat or danger. Another engages in such obsessive attempts to clean her home that no one is allowed to visit. Another verbally abuses his wife to keep her at a safe enough distance from his psychological wounds.
Sadly, these strategies at avoiding and controlling their worlds mirror the ways in which these survivors were traumatized.
Further, when we engage in avoidance we merely increase the persistence of that which we are trying to avoid. As an example, if I ask you to not think of an embarrassing moment in your life, you will probably think about it and continue to think about it until you stop trying to avoid thinking about it.
Therein lies the problem. How do survivors of trauma navigate the minefield that is their internal world without utilizing avoidance and control strategies?
Research and practice informs us of an ancient Buddhist technique known as Mindfulness. Mindfulness is described as a calm awareness of one’s body functions, feelings, content of consciousness, which supports the development of wisdom.
Mindfulness practice, inherited from the Buddhist tradition, is increasingly being employed in Western psychology to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and drug addiction
In the early texts, it is taught as a state of full-body awareness in which mind becomes very powerful and still but not frozen, and is thus able to observe and gain insight into the changing flow of experience. The mind becomes fully absorbed in the chosen object of attention.
Participants in a study who practiced mindfulness techniques for five minutes a day over a period of three weeks reported significant reductions in stress along with increases in life satisfaction, positive relations with others and mastery of one’s environment.
In my practice I utilize a variety of mindfulness based practices. I would like to lead you all in a demonstration of some of these practices.
First Tetrad: Contemplation of the Body (kaya)
- Discerning long breaths (thru your nose, breathe into your belly for a count of 4 then exhale thru your mouth for a count of 8 We will repeat this 5 x)
- Discerning short breaths (thru your nose, breathe into your belly for a count of 3 and exhale thru your mouth for a count of 6- We will repeat this 5x)
- Experiencing the whole body (sabbakaya) ( Breathe into each section of the body from head to feet)
- Calming bodily formations ( Breathe into any areas of the body still holding tension)
Second Tetrad: Contemplation of the Feeling (vedana)
- Being sensitive to rapture (pīti) (Become aware that you have moved into a deeper state of calm and see if you can enjoy this feeling)
- Being sensitive to pleasure (sukha) (Linger awhile in this space where you allow pleasure to expand)
- Being sensitive to mental fabrication (citta-saṃskāra) (Without judgement notice what ideas your mind is creating If the mind is especially busy; allow yourself to observe this is a busy mind
- Calming mental fabrication ( Without judgement just notice your emotions like clouds passing across the sky)
Third Tetrad: Contemplation of the Mind (citta)
- Being sensitive to the mind (Notice each thought that passes)
- Satisfying the mind (Give full awareness to each thought and breathe)
- Steadying the mind (Breathe as you notice each thought)
- Releasing the mind (Now allow the thought to drift like that cloud drifting across the sky)
- Fourth Tetrad: Contemplation of the Mental Objects (dhamma)
- Focusing on impermanence (imagine your thoughts are being written acrosss your mind, like writing across a sky and and as soon as they appear, they just as quickly evaporate)
- Focusing on dispassion (even if your thoughts are intense, know that you can observe them as temporary, impermanent, always changing)
- Focusing on cessation (see each letter of each word of each thought evaporating in your minds eye)
- Focusing on relinquishment (allow a willingness to release each thought, one by one, without judgement.)
Another philosophy I utilize in helping trauma survivors to become present is that of existential awareness. One existential philosopher, Kierkegaard (181355) advocated for the courage to take the leap of faith and live with passion and commitment from the inward depth of existence.
Another existential philosopher, Nietzsche (18441900) took this philosophy of life a step further. He encouraged people to transcend the mores of civilization and choose their own standards. He explored important existential themes of freedom, choice, responsibility and courage.
Viktor Frankl developed an existential therapy called logotherapy (Frankl, 1964, 1967), which focused particularly on finding meaning.
We can pair the teaching of mindfulness with existential awareness to become more present in our lives.
I would like to lead you in another experiential exercise to demonstrate this technique.
Write about what you would do if you had one year left to live.
Write about what you would do if you had one month left to live.
Write about what you would do if you had one week left to live.
What would you do if this were your last day on the planet?
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently replaced its food pyramid with a needed revision, a “choose my plate” pictorial example of a dish of food groups to
remind us of what a daily diet should consist of to optimize physical health. What
would be the equivalent of a recommended daily diet for a healthy mind?
I got together with my colleague, Dr. David Rock, and created what we’re calling
The Healthy Mind Platter, practical mental habits that can help people with their diet of “daily essential mental nutrients” to strengthen integration in our bodies and in our relationships on a daily basis.
Seven daily essential mental activities to optimize brain matter and create well-being:
Focus Time. When we closely focus on tasks in a goal-oriented way, we take on challenges that make deep connections in the brain.
Play Time. When we allow ourselves to be spontaneous or creative, playfully enjoying novel experiences, we help make new connections in the brain.
Connecting Time. When we connect with other people, ideally in person, and when we take time to appreciate our connection to the natural world around us, we activate and reinforce the brain’s relational circuitry.
Physical Time. When we move our bodies, especially aerobically, we strengthen the brain in many ways.
Time In. When we quietly reflect internally, focusing on sensations, images, feelings and thoughts, we help to better integrate the brain.
Down Time. When we are non-focused, without any specific goal, and let our mind wander or simply relax, we help the brain recharge.
Sleep Time. When we give the brain the rest it needs, we consolidate learning and recover from the experiences of the day.