When Vulnerability and Trauma Collide

Point of View Podcast Episode 4: How mindfulness can help us work through trauma and PTSD in order to build resilience.

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Episode 4 of Point of View with Barry Boyce, Editor-in-Chief of Mindful Magazine, and Heather Hurlock, Senior Editor-Digital at Mindful.org, explores how mindfulness can be used to help people deal with trauma.

Twenty Two. It’s a number many people associate with veterans these days—That’s because it’s the number of veterans who commit suicide every day according to a study done by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The suicide fact sheet on the VA website says that going through trauma or suffering from PTSD makes people more likely to commit suicide.

Just last week, a study just came out in the journal Depression and Anxiety suggesting that mindfulness practice actually changes the way the brain responds to traumatic memories.

HH: Barry, let’s start off looking at trauma. That word means something slightly different to everyone.

BB: So, I think the interesting thing to do before looking at trauma is to consider our situation as human beings. We’re out in the world and very vulnerable. We have our toughness, but we are also quite vulnerable, not just psychologically, but literally. If you are driving a car and somebody else hits you and your body gets thrown about, the body is going to get broken. And we experience, first a lot of pain, but then, our reaction to that pain. Because as human beings we like security, and because of that security we like to ignore our vulnerability—And when we get hit hard it pushes our psychological buttons.

HH: So trauma is not just a physical thing, it’s also a psychological thing. And both physical and psychological trauma lead to emotional reactions that you might not even be aware of, but need to be part of the healing process too.

BB: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I’ve talked to various teachers who have done mindfulness training in corporate settings, sometimes with leaders, like CEOs, and the CEOs come because they want to increase their performance and effectiveness, and then after they practice some mindfulness for a while, and start to get in touch with their thoughts and emotions a little bit more, they discover that there are deep-seated traumas down there that are unacknowledged and that have a big influence on their thinking and way of being, and bring along with them a lot of stress.

For example, maybe their father yelled at them, or maybe even beat them constantly when they were a teenager. This formed their whole way of being and they begin to uncover that. So, many of us will have traumatic events that not only happened once, but may have been repeated. And that’s something I want to talk about. There’s having a one-time traumatic event, like a car accident. But then there’s the damage the we suffer from repeated traumatic events, and there’s a scale there from verbal abuse, to physical and sexual abuse, to the threat of death, and to war and chaos. And when those events get repeated over and over again they cause an extremely deep level of trauma.

“If you’ve been in war…and you’re in the midst of a threatening environment that has you hypervigilant 24 hours a day, every day, for months and maybe even years on end—There’s nothing disordered about the reaction you’re going to have to that.”

It’s interesting, we talk about it as PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, but that’s tricky in a number of ways. First off, many people believe, and I am among them, that it is not technically a disorder—In a sense that, if you’ve been sexually abused or violated, if you’ve been in war where you’ve seen people killed, you’ve been maimed yourself, perhaps you’ve been responsible for taking other’s lives, and you’re in the midst of a threatening environment that has you hypervigilant 24 hours a day, every day, for months and maybe even years on end—There’s nothing disordered about the reaction you’re going to have to that. That’s more than our gentle vulnerable human body can take on board. So, all sorts of things start to happen. So, first off, it’s not a disorder. I think that’s a very important point. If someone who’s suffering from PTSD feels it’s a disorder, it’s a double whammy, because they’re already feeling disoriented and bad about themselves, and now they’re being told that there’s something wrong with them.

By saying it’s not a disorder I don’t mean to imply that it’s not a mental health problem. It is a problem of your mental health and wellbeing, for sure. Most people go through an undiagnosed period where they self-medicate, and they have extreme difficulty with anxiety, and they can’t regulate their emotions well, they can have fits of anger or sudden bouts of depression, they can have manic phases, hyper-vigilance, you know, just sitting in a cafe and then hearing the clink of a coffee cup across the room can cause you to jump.

These kinds of symptoms, if one is in the middle of the situation, the traumatic event, it becomes the environment that you are used to. And then when you get pulled out of that, such as you’re in a war zone and then you leave, or you’ve been going through years of abuse and you leave your abuser, there’s usually a period of adjustment to the new reality. You’re now in post-traumatic stress, but you don’t recognize that. You have all the symptoms and you get very scared—You’re hypervigilant, your emotions are all over the place. Also, people in your life may not be able to handle it, and not know what to do for you. And very commonly people contemplate and succeed in committing suicide.

I think one of the first things to recognize to come back to what I was saying earlier is that trauma is something we all know and understand. We are highly sensitive beings, and as safe and secure a world as we’ve managed to create for ourselves and our climate-controlled comfort, we are still incredibly vulnerable. And lots of us end up being damaged or abused and the rest of us tend to ignore that until it happens to us at that level. But we all share in this world where our vulnerability meets various kinds of dangers. So it’s not just something for a select few .

HH: Lots of people think about the word vulnerability as a negative but you seem to be talking about it as a collective human gift that mindfulness can protect.

BB: Yes. Very much so. Vulnerability is something that’s inevitable. It’s just simply physically true. At any moment we are vulnerable. We are not made of solid iron and if something falls on us we break. First of all we are vulnerable in that way. We’re also vulnerable in that we have feelings, and we feel our way through the world and all sorts of uncertain events occur in our lives that we need to navigate. So, if we were completely invulnerable, we’d be able to plan our lives out and have it work out perfectly, exactly as we planned, once safe step after another, with no uncertainty and no waywardness whatsoever. Of course that wouldn’t be life with it?

HH: It certainly wouldn’t be fun.

“To be alive is to be vulnerable and open. But it naturally carries with it the danger that we could be subject to a very extreme event or a repeated series a very extreme events.”

BB: Exactly! There’s no joy there, in any case. So, it’s like the difference between a real flower and a plastic flower. Part of a real flower’s beauty is that it will wither and die—It’s vulnerable. It’s alive. To be alive is to be vulnerable and open. But it naturally carries with it the danger that we could be subject to a very extreme event or a repeated series a very extreme events.

So, I think it’s interesting then, when we think about us all sharing in this vulnerability and the possibility of trauma, and pretty much everybody at some level has experienced some kind of trauma or another in their lives, and some of us many more traumas. Where does the practice of mindfulness fit in? And I think that it’s important to recognize various phases of working with trauma—and they are identified differently by different people, but I think in terms of three basic phases: The acute phase of trauma, the trauma has either just happened or, in terms of post-traumatic stress, you’re coming to grips with it, you’re starting to deal with it. And the most important thing there is safety and stabilizing.

So, for example, in working with, say, a veteran who’s come to a mindfulness course recognizing recognizing, either themselves or because they’ve been diagnosed by a professional, that they have anxiety and extreme difficulty with emotional regulation. They’re hypervigilant. they have loss of sleep, et cetera, et cetera. If you just say: okay, let’s sit down and meditate for two hours paying attention to our breath, that’s going to be pretty hard to do.

Think: If you just came out of a car accident and somebody said: okay, here’s how we’re going to deal with this, we’re going to meditate for a couple of hours. That’s not going to work that well because trauma, whether it’s psychological or physical, it all ends up in the body. So, a lot of the practices for the acute phase have to do with working with body and breath and movement. Getting us to breathe deeply and begin to be able to re-enter our body. That can help slow down some of the speediness of mind that comes with all of the anxiety, and all the raciness of our thoughts. If you’re just sitting there, it’s easy for your thoughts to race. We can calm ourselves down with a lot of the body techniques, so certain kinds of yoga and breathing and movement are very helpful.

The next phase, some people talk about it as, or I think about it about it as, the phase of connecting with yourself. You’ve calmed down your hyperreactivity enough that you can begin now to connect more with what’s going on in your own body in your own mind—And to be able to do that with non-judgmental acceptance. You begin to see the kind of triggers that set you off. You begin to see how your thoughts can form to create and foster that anxiety and hypervigilance. So, the basic relaxation that you get from breathing practices and basic mindfulness practice opens the door for you to be able to see and understand your emotions with more clarity and spaciousness, and, as Zindel Segal likes to say, it provides insight.

HH: So it’s not like these emotions and feelings aren’t going to happen, it’s about how you respond to them.

BB: Yes, first of all, you’re becoming familiar with them. And then, it is about how you respond to them, and understanding that it’s happening and allowing it, allowing your anxiety to develop a bit, that has a freeing effect in and of itself. Because we have a tendency to pile pain on top of pain when we respond to our fears with more fear and more anxiety, it just builds momentum. But with non-judgemental awareness, we can actually see it and diffuse it.

HH: So, it’s more than just recognizing that you’re having these emotions, mindfulness allows us the insight we need to help us to not get caught up in them.

BB: You need not just insight, but we need to develop habits, too—practices and habits that begin to provide prevention and begin to interrupt some of our negative mental habits. So, to use a simplistic example, the habits you have around sleep: You may have an insight about why it is you have trouble getting to sleep. It’s one thing to have an insight, it’s another thing to have a practice of winding down in the evening and creating the conditions where you can get a better night’s sleep. You may notice that you binge eat because of anxiety. It’s one thing to have that insight, it’s another thing to have a practice to begin to interrupt those habits and create new habits. And I think this is where the third phase of connecting with others comes in.

The first phase is like getting yourself back down on Earth in the first place. The second phase is connecting with yourself, and the third phase is connecting with others. It’s not as if others aren’t around and you’re not connecting with them in the other phases, but here it becomes more available to you. Some people talk about this as developing a healthy tribe.

So that, in terms of your habits, you’re not having to do it solely on your own, but you get help from others, and from the environment of others. So, for example, if binge drinking is a big problem for you, and you were suffering from undiagnosed trauma for several years, maybe your buddies who always want to take you out for all-night drinking benders are not the best folks to be in your tribe when you’re coming out the other side. So, this phase is about relationship building, and building and rebuilding a community for yourself.

Compassion really begins when you begin to see that we all have this vulnerability, and we’re all exposed to traumas—And that opens you up to other people, and then it opens them up to you.

So, a good healthy tribe is really helpful. And here’s where mindfulness can fit in in terms of what some people sometimes call relational mindfulness, and kindness meditation, for example, where you open yourself up more to others. And you gain, not only from being helped by others, but from helping others, from developing your own compassion. And compassion really begins, the real seed of it is not thinking that you have some sort of special problem that isolates you from everybody else, but you begin to see, oh, we all have this vulnerability, and we’re all exposed to traumas, and that opens you up to other people, and then it opens them up to you.

And what develops over time, and can increase over time, is our resilience. Ultimately, our resilience is the strong part of us that goes along with the vulnerability. Resilience means that we have bounce-back. So, our false view of the world tells us that we’re going to be able to get through unscathed, as if we were not vulnerable. But the truth of the matter is that we are vulnerable, but we have tremendous bounce-back. We have to understand that we’re not going to bounce back instantly from something that’s extremely traumatic. Time heals.

One final thing to say: It’s really vitally important for all of us to never forget those others who are suffering around us, including those people who are suffering from trauma. We have a tendency, all of us, as human beings we’re so attuned to finding comfort that it’s very easy to forget the pain of others, and frankly, the more that we can appreciate the pain of others on a regular basis the more resilient we are all together, because we are not going around with the false notion that everything needs to be absolutely hunky-dory for us to have well-being.

Editor’s note: If you are suffering from trauma, please consider seeking professional help. Thank you.