How Mindfulness Can Help Calm Traumatic Stress
The more I study the brain and how it is connected to the body’s stress responses, the more I realize the importance of a strong mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness is simply the art of staying present in the current moment within non-judgemental space. It is learning to simply *be* within whatever thoughts and emotions arise, and allowing them to move on, rather than take up space and clutter the mind. It is always happening in the now - the very moment you are in.
The thing about stress - traumatic or otherwise - is that it reflects a problem with time. Generally stress arises when we are filled with regrets of the past or worries of the future. Traumatic stressors particularly make these time warps come alive with flashbacks, nightmares, and other “triggery” feelings.
When these stressors appear in our lives and warp time by immediately transporting us to the past or future worries, the brain is that it has become dis-integrated. The various parts of our brain’s healthy response system have become high-jacked by the mind-body reaction system. The pre-frontal cortex which controls planning, logic and mapping abilities suddenly goes off-line. The limbic system which regulates our emotions becomes dysregulated, and the reptilian part of the brain, along with the vagas nerve, take over all responses. There is overall dysregulation and detachment between our mind and body and now anything goes.
Dr Dan Siegel has this wonderful analogy of the hand-brain. Take a minute to watch and get back to me (you can start at :30 if you don't want to watch the full video)….
Wasn’t that brilliant?! From that video, we can see exactly what happens when we “flip our lid”. Essentially we become dis-integrated so the goal towards recovery of healthy brain function, is to re-integrate.
How do we re-integrate? Mindfulness!
We pull the mind back into the present moment, out of the stress-induced time warp, by focusing on this very moment. When we do that in the midst of stressful moments, we pull the pre-frontal cortex back into action, reconnecting the brain’s wiring so that our nervous system now energetically moves correctly from one part of the brain to the other.
The best way to do this is to live an embodied mindfulness - look at your hands, notice how your feelings live in your body, count your breaths as you inhale and exhale, imagine the space between your organs, shake out your feet and hands and feel the energy flowing into them…
Be in your body - because your body can never be anywhere except the present moment.
Your mind can be all over the place - past, present, future, sideways - but your body always exists in the here and now.
And when you are in the here and now, the past and future begin to look very different. They become less worrisome, they occupy less space in the brain, they move more quickly through your consciousness and they intrude less and less...and the body relaxes.
Mindfulness is a very simple practice but it’s not easy. It takes a bit of discipline and dedication to retrain your mind to climb out of the time warp and enjoy the moment with consistency. Engaging in the practice of focusing on breath and body when you begin to feel pulled into the time warp will go a long way to creating a more relaxed, more present you.