On Trauma and Meditation

By: Emmie

emmie.jpgI’m not a naturally calm and harmonious creature; rather the opposite. Due to having developed complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) in the aftermath of childhood abuse, I tend to be hypervigilant, extremely self-critical and overly cautious around people. Let me put it like this: when there are other people in my vicinity, all my senses are activated; my attention is directed at the tiniest shift in body language, facial expression and tone of voice, in an involuntary and subconscious attempt to observe, foresee and manage their emotional state and behaviour. As one would suspect, this can be exhausting.

CPTSD is caused by prolonged, interpersonal trauma, rather than any single, traumatic event such as a car crash or a natural disaster. Flashbacks and nightmares brought on by triggers are common symptoms of post-traumatic stress resulting from such single events, while lingering states of depression and emotional distress are more common in people dealing with CPTSD. By now, I’ve learned to cope quite well with my symptoms. I make sure I get enough sleep, recovery and alone time, since exhaustion and social overexposure is likely to accentuate them. And – more to the point of this blog post – I meditate. The scientific evidence of meditation is nothing but staggering. Its ability to change the structure of the brain is particularly interesting in relation to trauma, since trauma does just that – namely, rewire the brain in deleterious ways.

The following explanation is offered in this article about PTSD and brain damage:

“The most impacted region is the hippocampus, responsible for memory. This area regulates the storage and retrieval of memories, as well as differentiating between past and present experiences. Since the nervous system is stuck in high gear, stress hormones remain elevated. This damages glucocorticoid cells in the hippocampus, making it difficult to form synaptic connections, and thus sustain or recall memories. As a result, those with PTSD lose precious volume to the hippocampus. This causes an inability for the victim to tell the difference between past and present experiences. Due to this phenomenon, environments that even resemble where the trauma took place can cause panic, fear, and aggression. The victim cannot tell the difference between the past memory and the present situation. Since it is unknown to them whether the threat has passed, the victim remains hypervigilant. They are stuck in reactive mode.”

The good news is that the brain is malleable; it can be healed. Once I was diagnosed with CPTSD, I set out to do just that. For some people, medication is necessary, but I prefer other methods based on deep understanding of the disease and the brain. In the Swedish health care system, it’s very easy to get a prescription for addictive medication, but next to impossible to get therapy or any other kind of treatment dealing with the inherently interpersonal nature of CPTSD. Life style factors like diet and excercise are seldom considered as part of the healing process (although awareness is growing).

Instead of taking medication that could possibly cause addiction and effect my brain and body in unforeseeable ways, I’ve decided to do what I can to combat my CPTSD myself. I’m attracted to the possibility of being in charge of, and responsible for, my healing process. One of the changes I’ve made is switching to ketogenic eating, which will help with cortisol levels and any hormonal imbalance or stress (stress can change the serum levels of many hormones). Hormone balancing effects can also be achieved by weight lifting or other kinds of strenght training; I engage in this a couple of times a week with growing enthusiasm. Another way to aid the healing process is doing yoga. I do yoga as often as possible. But, back to the point of the post – meditation is surprisingly efficient. In this video, the yet unexplicable structural changes of the brains of frequent meditators are described:

I’m nowhere near the level of meditation behind these kinds of effects, but I already start to reap what I have sown during my daily 30 minutes. They usually go like this:

Before lunch, I sit down with legs crossed, spine errect and eyes closed – no music or distraction. I focus solely on the sensation of my breath flowing softly through the nostrils. At first, my monkey mind jumps in all directions, from recent events to distant memories. I patiently accept that it does so, gently calling it back to the sensation of the breath. After a while, thoughts become few and far between. I experience a sensation of absolute presence and center. Then, one of my legs usually fall asleep, and the spell i broken. I go on to practice my head stand, which is quite meditative in and of itself.

After a few months with this daily routine, I enjoy no less than the following benefits:

  • Greater clarity as to my priorities in life
  • Better work performance and efficiency
  • A sense of being “above” small problems that once provoked me
  • Enhanced creativity and inspiration
  • More empathy with self and others
  • Less CPTSD-symptoms overall

Isn’t it amazing? Do try it at home.

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