How to Find Wholeness and Healing After Trauma
Psychiatrist James Gordon, founder and executive director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, contends that we will all face some form of trauma sooner or later in our lives. He also believes that the heartbreaking devastation that trauma causes can open our hearts and minds to deeper understanding as well as enhanced meaning and purpose. In his new book The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma, Dr. Gordon offers a step-by-step, evidence-based guide to healing the psychological and biological damage that trauma brings about to become the people whom we are meant to be.
1. You say trauma will come to us sooner or later. How do you define “trauma” and why is it inevitable for each of us?
Trauma is a Greek word that means “injury” to the body, mind or spirit. When trauma comes, it disrupts the biological, psychological and social order of our lives. It can throw us into chaos or stunt the ordinary processes of our growth and development. Trauma may force us to question who we are, our relationships with other people, and the meaning and purpose of our lives.
The understanding that trauma comes sooner or later to everyone is present in all the world’s great spiritual and religious traditions. It may come early if we grow up in neglectful or abusive families, if we live in poverty, or are subject to racial or gender discrimination, or become seriously ill. If it hasn’t come early, it may well come in young adulthood or middle age, as we suffer significant disappointments in relationships or in our expectations for ourselves, develop chronic illnesses or deal with the deaths of parents. And if it doesn’t come then, it will surely come in old age as we contend with physical frailty, the loss of loved ones, and our own impending death.
2. What are some of the initial steps we need to take following trauma in our lives?
We need to begin by understanding that we have been traumatized. So many of us feel we have to be strong all the time, that we “shouldn’t” be as disturbed as we actually are by major disappointments and losses. If we accept that trauma is a reality, that the distress we’re feeling is worthy of attention, then we can begin to address it.
Next, we need to re-establish the biological and psychological balance that has been disrupted. Generally speaking, when we’re traumatized, we react with the “fight-or-flight,” and/or the “freeze” responses. Both responses are an intrinsic part of the biology of vertebrates, including humans. They are lifesaving responses meant to be turned on quickly and turned off just as quickly.
The difficulty is not the responses but their persistence long after the traumatic event is over or because we remain in situations that are continuously traumatizing.
Ongoing fight-or-flight raises heart rate and blood pressure, tenses our big muscles, and depresses digestion. It stimulates storms of activity in the amygdala–a center of fear and anger in our emotional brain–and decreases activity in centers in the frontal part of our cerebral cortex that are responsible for thoughtful decision-making, self-awareness, and compassion. It interferes with our ability to connect easily with other people.
When the trauma is overwhelming and inescapable, for example, when we’re assaulted or raped, we go into the freeze response. Then our bodies go rigid or feel limp. We put out endorphins to numb our pain and we withdraw emotionally. In post-traumatic stress, the freeze response can persist after the violence is over; it can also become chronic if we feel we can’t get out of the situation that causes it, as with an abusive relationship.
The best way to deal with prolonged fight-or-flight is to develop the relaxed moment-to-moment awareness of meditation. The technique I teach first is a simple, easy to do, non-denominational, “concentrative” meditation called “Soft Belly Breathing”: slow deep breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, concentrating on the breath and on the words “soft” as you breathe in and “belly” as you breathe out, and on the feeling of your belly relaxing. Soft Belly stimulates the vagus nerve and provides an antidote to fight-or-flight.
The best techniques for dealing with the freeze response are active, body-moving, tension-releasing, “expressive” meditations like shaking and dancing; fast, deep breathing; pounding pillows or a heavy punching bag; or laughing really hard.
The one I teach first in workshops, in training sessions around the world, and in The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma is shaking and dancing. There are three stages:
- You stand up, knees bent, and shake from your feet up through your knees, chest, shoulders, and head–as hard as you can, for about five minutes,
- Two minutes of standing still with relaxed awareness of the breath and body,
- Three to five minutes of letting your body move to music that inspires and energizes you.
The shaking breaks up the fixed, inhibitory physical and emotional patterns that come with freezing. It can bring feeling back into our bodies and can release emotions that have been suppressed. The two minutes of silent standing allows us to become aware of what’s happening. The movement to music invites us to self-expression and a feeling of freedom.
These two strategies–concentrative and expressive meditations–help rebuild brain tissue damaged by trauma and re-establish the biological and psychological balance which makes it possible to use all the other self-care techniques that I teach in The Transformation. They also make it far easier–biologically and psychologically–for us to reach out to and connect with other people whose comforting presence can contribute in significant ways to biological, as well as psychological trauma healing.
3. Tell us a bit about The Center for Mind-Body Medicine and the work that you do worldwide?
The Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM) is a non-profit, educational organization that I founded in 1991 to help all of us to better use our great and largely untapped capacity to understand and help ourselves, to connect with and support one another, and to build community.
Everywhere my CMBM team and I go, we teach local people the method of self-awareness, self-care, and group support that I present in The Transformation. First, we teach them to use it for themselves, and then how to bring it to the people whom they serve. Health and mental health professionals, educators, clergy, leaders of women’s groups, and concerned community members participate; anyone who wants to help heal themselves and others.
Over the last 25 years, my CMBM colleagues and I have led training sessions in every part of the United States and traveled to sites of overwhelming violence, devastation, and poverty. Our now international faculty of 130 has trained more than 6,000, and they, in turn, have shared our program with many hundreds of thousands of children and adults: people here in the U.S, just like those of you reading this article, survivors of war in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Israel, Gaza, Syria, and South Sudan; those who’ve lived through hurricanes in New Orleans, Houston and Puerto Rico, the earthquake in Haiti, the wildfires in California and school shootings in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, Broward County, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas, and for New York City firefighters and their families after 9/11.
After years of training clinicians and veteran peer counselors, we’re now bringing our program to the largest division of the VA system, in Florida, South Georgia and the Caribbean. And in 2015, after several years of volunteering, we began to work intensively on the impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Twenty-two kids had killed themselves in the year before we were invited to offer our training to teachers, counselors, and elders. We combined it with traditional Lakota healing. In the almost four years since there have only been two youth suicides.
We’ve published many papers on the effectiveness of our evidence-based model. It’s regularly been shown to reduce PTSD symptoms by 80 percent to improve mood and enhance hope.
Readers who are interested, can look at our website, cmbm.org, and find U.S faculty in their area who are offering the program in The Transformation to individuals and families, and in small groups. We also have an online group program.
In addition to bringing our model to communities in need, we each year offer an open U.S training. I invite any of you who want to learn this approach for yourself and to share with others to come.
4. Your book is described as "a step-by-step, evidence-based journey to heal the psychological and biological damage that trauma brings and to become the people whom we are meant to be.” Can you elaborate?
After I explain the biology of trauma and how it affects every organ in our body, including our digestive tract, I teach concentrative, mindfulness, and expressive meditations, including soft belly breathing, shaking and dancing, and mindful eating and walking. Some people prefer one; some another; but all can be useful at different times.
I then share more than 20 of the self-care tools and techniques that I’ve successfully used over the last 50 years. I show readers how each can reverse the biological and psychological damage that trauma has done and provide the scientific evidence for their effectiveness. I give guidance in accepting, learning from, experiencing, and moving through the emotions that trauma inevitably has brought, and offer suggestions for connecting with and enjoying our trauma-constrained bodies and with other people.
I help each reader to maximize the benefits of each approach and technique, and to create comprehensive, individualized programs of trauma-healing and resiliency building.
From the beginning, my emphasis is on helping my readers to develop their own intuition and imagination, their inner-knowing so that they will choose wisely among techniques that will be most beneficial to them and use them most effectively.
Each chapter builds on the one before. For example, I teach practical techniques for accessing our intuition and imagination that we can then use to befriend, mobilize, enjoy and care for our bodies which may have been damaged by physical and sexual trauma. I explain how to best deal with the triggers that may re-awaken past trauma and I encourage readers to heal more deeply by spending time in nature and with animals and by using laughter to break trauma’s spell. Then as my readers feel more comfortable and confident, I help them embrace gratitude and, when appropriate, forgiveness.
One chapter provides a comprehensive, evidence-based program for using diet and supplements to repair the damage to our trauma-disrupted digestion and trauma-damaged brain. It’s a long chapter because the information is really important, and because no other book gives information on this powerful, therapeutic approach.
Each technique gives people practical experience in reversing trauma’s negative biological, psychological and spiritual effects. Each chapter encourages readers to look at themselves and their troubled minds in a kinder, more generous and hopeful way. All of them reassure my readers that they deserve to be healthy and whole.
5. What do you hope readers will learn from the book?
I hope readers will learn that it is possible to repair the damage that life’s inevitable traumas do to us, to learn from, grow through and beyond them, to become more resilient. I hope, too, that they will discover as the world’s great religions and spiritual traditions teach us, that trauma is the soil in which wisdom and love, meaning and purpose can grow and flourish, and that this opportunity is open to all of us.
James S. Gordon, MD, a psychiatrist, is author of “The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma”, and the founder and executive director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine.
To read more of Dr. Gordon’s book, “The Transformation,” click here to order .
This Q&A was featured in the December 8th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.