Mindfulness is nothing new. Bringing attention to our experience has been a foundation in many therapeutic approaches for over 50 years. What is interesting is that science is confirming the benefits and providing us with information to inform our practice. One of the benefits is how we can practice mindfulness to calm emotional reactivity.
Lose your mind and come to your senses
I was initially trained in Gestalt psychotherapy and this phrase was often quoted to represent the essence of Gestalt philosophy. It highlights the importance of experiencing the present moment and placing less emphasis on our logical and rational mind. We talked about awareness rather than mindfulness to help our clients to be in the present when working in therapy. This was revolutionary in psychology at the time when most approaches were not focused on awareness of the present moment.
What has science told us ?
Today there is widespread understanding that our brains can be re-wired from the effects of trauma/stress and family dysfunction by attention to the present experience through a mindful and focused attention
Emotional catharsis can re-traumatize people. Maybe in the days of hitting cushions to encourage an expression of anger and ‘get it all out’, it initially felt relieving. However, we now know that this ‘encouragement’ of emotional intensity can re-traumatizes clients, and furthermore, may keep them stuck in emotional overwhelm and traumatic patterns and responses.
Emotional expression is important, but if when we are in the crisis/emergency zone of our nervous system we experience it as part of a pattern of traumatic responses that are inflexible and fragmented. We end up not being able to tolerate and integrate the emotion. As we get more overwhelmed by these feelings we will end up cutting off from our emotions and our body. This is a re-enactment of trauma.
So what does it mean to be regulated ?
Quite simply it is a state of tolerance of our experience. A sense of well being in which we can process our emotional, somatic and mental processes. It is when we are in this state that traumatic and childhood experiences can be integrated and the patterns that are negatively impacting our life can be changed. We often need to learn to do this and this is where a mindfulness practice can come in.
Learning to be in the present moment, developing an observation of our body’s responses, focusing on breath, noticing shifts of relaxation, are all ways we can develop regulation.
How will this help me heal traumatic experiences ?
When we experience high stress our nervous system/brain can not integrate the experience. So we are left with parts of the experience in the form of sounds, images and sensations that cause us to go back to the trauma (flash backs). This keeps us in a high arousal state and un-integrated.
The experience hasn’t been processed and stored in the ‘autobiographical’ memory. Instead it is still alive and kicking in our present life. We need to calm this part of the brain down so that these parts of the experience can be processed into a coherent whole.
Being regulated allows you to approach your experience safely and helps you to experience your internal world. Here is an example of how that might look.
Image of ping pong ball
I was recently working with a woman who was experiencing a lot of activation. She had been involved with a traumatic event involving violence. We were working on regulating this activation. Starting off feeling her feet on the ground, noticing the sensations, breath and bit by bit the slowing down of the energy in her body. She reported that she felt her thoughts rushing around in her head, and then it was a sense of her thoughts going around like a ping pong ball. At first it was just a sense of the ping pong ball. As her attention went between her feet on the ground and noticing the effect on her body, noticing the slowing down, and ease in her breath, she began to see the image of the ping pong ball go back and forth. I knew that her racing thoughts were slowing down. Eventually the ping pong ball had stopped and she felt calm, in her body and present.
She was then able to access a piece of the experience that was bothering her and approach the feelings and internal conflict she was experiencing. At the end of this session she had gained a new perspective.
When we work through traumatic events it is always a small piece at a time
Regulation makes it possible to approach each part of it thoroughly rather than rushing through it because we can’t tolerate it. This is when we are more likely to just keep going over the story and not really feel like we are getting anywhere.
This really is the crux of the matter. As you become more mindful – you can see things happen and give your attention to it because you can tolerate the emotions, sensations and images associated with the trauma and ultimately ALL of your experience to come alive to your life now.