Using Mindfulness to Heal From Complex Trauma and Why You Need to Integrate Into Your Daily Routine
Healing from complex trauma is possible. Complex trauma has its roots in early childhood abuses (physical, sexual, emotional, etc) and/or neglect, and can often feel like it’s apart of your identity. Having lived your whole life in survival mode, using survival adaptations just to get through your day to day experiences, you often vacillate between feeling too much or not feeling anything at all. Furthermore, you struggle with your identity, constantly questioning who you are and your own self worth. Your body does not feel like a safe space and you struggle daily to experience safety and happiness.
The Broad Category of Trauma
The hard truth is that trauma comes in many different forms, and not every person will develop PTSD or have PTSD symptoms as a result. More important, developing PTSD or complex trauma is not a personality fault or means that you are not strong or resilient. The fact that your body did its job (the Stress Response System) and kicked in to keep you alive, is testament to this. What is plaguing you now, the residual effects, are survival adaptations.
You see when your brain was forced to deploy your Stress Response System it became sensitive to the triggers for threat in your environment. The result is that it kept you alive in those moments when your emotional, physical, and/or sexual safety was at risk. It worked! The brain likes to conserve energy, which is why it puts things in categories, so the through your early experiences your brain has linked certain stimuli to threat and threat to deploying the Stress Response System. Now that you are out of that unsafe environment, it’s time for you to learn different skills. To slow down and decouple these early learned trauma adaptations so you can feel more in control over yourself and your emotions.
Don’t Let Your Negative Thoughts and Beliefs About Mindfulness Deter You
This is where mindfulness comes into play. Mindfulness gets a bad wrap, largely because it is misunderstood. Many people think mindfulness means ignoring life problems or falsely focusing all your attention on the positive, which leaves people feeling fake and phony. But in reality this is not what mindfulness is. You see research has shown that mindfulness actually changes the brain. As a trauma survivor your brain is incredibly sensitive to the cues in your environment (both external and internal) that signal threat. This may make you feel constantly vulnerable, unsafe, and like you’re unable to protect yourself, leaving a dark cloud over everything you do. But when you incorporate mindfulness techniques you actually rewire your brain for the positive. When you utilize mindfulness techniques you actually increase the activity in the areas of the brain associated with positive affect and you also increase executive functioning (the frontal cortex which also helps mediate your impulses).
Affect Regulation Is The Foundation
One of the most important things to remember is that emotional regulation or affect regulation is not the absence of experiencing negative emotions or replacing negative emotions with positive ones. Affect regulation actually includes the ability to fully experience positive emotions in their own right. This means being fully present and enjoying the experience of joy when you accomplish something, including the physical sensations that occur in your body when joy is experienced, not the experience of joy and negative thoughts that come along with it, which is typical for many survivors.
Regulation of positive affect begins with the parent-child dyad. As an infant you relied on your primary caregiver for everything, including developing the tolerance for experiencing a wide range of arousal stats. With attuned parenting, the primary caregiver engages the infant in playful experiences repeatedly. This then pairs high arousal states with interpersonal relatedness and pleasure, which then helps a child learn to tolerate rapid shifts in arousal. During these interactions, sensations within the body, increased heart rate when stressed followed by deceleration in response to a smile from the primary caregiver, are coupled and the child learns what joy and pleasure are (as well as fear an discomfort). In this simplistic example the infant experiences a discomfort (increased heart rate) but then learns how to tolerate the discomfort and alleviate their distress (smile from caregiver). They also learn that increased heart rate can be a signal for both fear/anxiety and also excitement/pleasure.
But if a child doesn’t have these types of experiences or only experiences a rise in heart rate with the paring of threat, then they will continue to interpret increased heart rate with danger and the Stress Response System will deploy as a result. By using mindfulness techniques you are resetting or rewiring this old connection, severing the old fixed trauma reaction states, in order to make broader interpretations of your body sensations which include making space for positive affect.
5 Questions to Ask Yourself To Live More Mindfully
When beginning to incorporate mindfulness in your healing process I want you to start by just becoming curious about yourself. Slowly begin to tap in and pay attention to your different body sensations. You can do this on your own, using grounding techniques to help keep you centered or find a trauma sensitive yoga instructor to help you with as well. The goal is to pay attention to your body sensations and get curious about the different emotions and thoughts that come up in relation to these sensations. You don’t want to try to change them or dismiss them (unless you become overwhelmed then please stop). In this first stage all you’re doing is becoming curious and noting links. When you become more mindful or aware of the different links then you automatically slow down the automatic trauma reactions that are deployed largely without your awareness.
As you begin to incorporate mindfulness, paying attention to the different sensations and the affect that comes along with them, you can begin to explore the different interpretations you are making about these pairings. Again, just being curious and asking your self why, what, and where questions. As you do this more and more the associations with traumatic memories begin to shift from automatic and exaggerated reactions to more mediated and observable responses.
Here are a list of questions you can ask yourself to increase mindfulness in your day to day life:
#1 What do you feel in your body right now? What do you feel in your body right now?
#2 Where exactly do you experience that tension?
#3 How big is the area of the tension-the size of a golf ball or the size of an orange?
#4 What sensation do you feel in your legs right now as you talk about your abuse?
#5 What happens in your body when you feel angry? Sad? Afraid? Happy? Pleasure?
Mindfulness is a useful tool for anyone who is struggling with emotional regulation as well as negative/distorted thoughts. By remaining curious and exploring the different links and connections between your mind and your body you will learn a lot about your triggers but also how to tolerate changes in your arousal system, by allowing your cortex to come online and put the breaks on your trauma related impulses.
Are you stuck in life and feeling like you have no other options? Do you feel like you’ve tried everything all ready but you’re still feeling unhappy, unsatisfied, and angry? Let’s explore what’s keeping you stuck in life and create a plan to help you move forward. Schedule your first session today.
These are just a few strategies and steps and recommendations! I hope you found this post helpful! I’d love to hear from you in the comment section!
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Until we connect again,
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