A Mindful Way of Healing Traumatic Memories
While driving home from work, it hit, and this time I didn’t have to pull over. I had practiced mindfulness enough with this specific traumatic memory that I was able to walk myself through it while still driving. I was pretty proud of myself, I’m not gonna lie.
My son has choked twice in the past. The choking face, you know the one, eyes wide open in panicked fear, desperately trying to gasp for air. This memory would pop up whenever if felt the need to and completely halt my life. Anxiety would rush me, and I would rapidly do what I needed to do in order to shove it away.
The problem with traumatic memories and flashbacks is that if you don’t deal with them, your body will.
The problem with traumatic memories and flashbacks is that if you don’t deal with them, your body will. The nightmares would start again, and my daily anxiety level would increase each time I tried to ignore it. I knew it was time to find a better solution.
Mindfulness and Self-Compassion
Enter Mindfulness and Self-Compassion. Mindfulness, simply stated, is bringing awareness to what is happening in the moment and our response to it. Self-compassion is the art of bringing acceptance to what is happening in the moment.
I’m not much of an “in the moment” type of person. I like to stay busy and be on the go. I get bored at the sink waiting for water to fill my cup, and I personally think stop signs should be called “stoptionals.” So, mindfulness was particularly challenging for me.
Truly, who wants to just sit with thoughts, feelings, and sensations of something that you are trying to never experience again? It’s natural to do anything to forget. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work. It will wreak havoc on your physical body and your spiritual zeal, affecting your dreams and sleep. It will spill over into your relationships and every other area of your life in ways you won’t expect and can’t imagine. You can continue on like that and cross your fingers that it all works out, or you can sit still in your moment of angst and allow compassion to render peace.
Peace it was. So I chose one of the many effective mindfulness activities. I said (yes I talk to my flashbacks now), “Hey buddy, you need some loving attention? OK.” I actively chose to be aware of my son’s panicked face in the kitchen that day. I thought my thoughts, sensed my senses, and felt my feelings. First, changed the image of his panicked face with the image of his natural laughing face. Then, I went back and forth from one image to the next until I could let go of the negative one. I felt increased peace as I saw my laughing son. (It should be noted that it took training to get to that place, and I’m still practicing.)
Weird? Maybe. Effective? Yep.
Our Self-Healing Brain
The brain is amazing in that it is incredibly flexible. What you imagine over and over again will become the brain’s reality, and thus, your reality. The more I practice mindfulness, the more I shape my brain to respond as it should. The amygdala will become less activated with negative reactions to stressful emotions. The hippocampus, which regulates the amygdala, will grow in gray matter and become more active to better regulate the amygdala’s response to stress. The prefrontal cortex will also grow in gray matter, becoming more active in making wise decisions emotionally and behaviorally. How merciful is our God to create our brain in such a way that it can heal itself?!
The Practice of Peace
As with physical exercise, mindfulness takes repetition and time to notice changes. And over time, thanks to neuroplasticity (another blog for another day), it can change the physical structure of our brain — just as physical exercise can change the physical structure of our body.
In fact, we already practice mindfulness. You know those times when you’re listening to a speaker and your mind wanders off to your to-do list, and you have to redirect your mind back to the speaker? That’s being mindful. The time you read a sentence 4 times before realizing you have no idea what you just read, so you refocus and read it to actually retain it? Yep, mindfulness. We do this every day, but what if we made a conscious effort to make this a way of being? Being fully here, fully present without the negative emotions pulling us back to the past or tugging us in to the future.
Although there are depths to mindfulness that are explored further in therapy, it essentially works by training ourselves to pay close attention to what is going on in the present moment with compassion. So much of anxiety comes from worrying about the future, regretting the past, and judging our present. After learning to be mindful of the present, just as it is, we can then begin to explore these habitual and often terrifying thoughts and feelings with curiosity instead of judgment. When we observe these negative responses non-judgmentally, they loosen their grip, and this allows us to create a healthier way of responding to our emotions.
The experience of my son choking caused such great anxiety. There was the fear that it would happen again (future). I worried that I could have done something differently to prevent it (past). Also, I judged myself for being so overcome by something “so insignificant compared to other traumas in the world” (present judgment). But when I took a few deep breaths, sat in the safety of the moment, and looked at it with compassion and curiosity, I could see that those thoughts and feelings were trying to help me heal. Once I knew that, I was able to redirect them to a more helpful role.
Turning Toward The Pain
There is a healing benefit in the courageous act of turning toward our emotional pain instead of away from it. Dr. Christopher Germer, a Clinical Psychologist and Instructor at Harvard Medical School, states, “Suffering is what results when we resist pain. Suffering is the physical and emotional tension that we add to our pain, layer upon layer.” (The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion)
There is a healing benefit in the courageous act of turning toward our emotional pain instead of away from it.
There is concern for many that turning towards pain can lead to a flood of emotions that will be too overwhelming to overcome. This is where a trained mindfulness and trauma-informed therapist assures progressing in the safest way possible.
The benefits of mindfulness-based therapy are supported by ever-growing evidence. However, there are numerous ways to work through traumatic memories, and together we can find the safest and most effective way. At Watershed, you will never be forced to retell traumatic stories or unearth unbearable memories when you aren’t ready. The therapy process is yours to guide and emotional safety always comes first.
Make an Appointment with Watershed Counseling
If you are struggling with flashbacks, nightmares, and tormenting thoughts, consider scheduling an appointment with me to start your journey to peace of mind. To make a first appointment, call us at (601) 362-7020 or send us a message.