For many, “living mindfully” can seem like nothing more than memorizing mantras and striving towards an unattainable goal. Yet for those living with trauma, mindfulness can play an important role in healing. Individuals recovering from trauma often have feelings of helplessness and anxiety. It can leave us feeling paralyzed and overwhelmed. Survivors may get looped into a vicious cycle of emotional triggers and negative thinking causing them to feel stuck. Living mindfully can help us break that loop.
What is mindfulness?
While living mindfully has been practiced in the Hindu religion since 2300 BC, it has only recently become popular in the western world. This is attributed to Jan Kabat Zinn, a New York native. While Kabat Zin was studying for his Ph.D. in molecular biology at MIT, he became a Zen missionary and was a student of Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Zen master. Kabat Zinn opened a now renowned clinic, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic, in 1979. Since then, he has gone on to write books on mindfulness, anxiety, and depression. He defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness focuses on becoming aware of your incoming thoughts and feelings, accepting them, but not reacting to them. It is a practice that gives us the grace to validate our traumatic emotions while allowing us to be fully present and appreciate the world around us.
How can living mindfully help survivors?
Trauma primarily affects 3 parts of the brain: the amygdala (responsible for emotions), the hippocampus (responsible for learning and memories), and the prefrontal cortex (responsible for personality and behavior). The stress caused by trauma “results in acute and chronic changes in neurochemical systems and specific brain regions, which result in long term changes in brain ‘circuits’ involved in the stress response.” In other words, traumatic stress causes short and long-term changes in the chemical makeup and the aforementioned regions of your brain. This results in deep-rooted changes in your stress response to those triggers.
So how can we help this? Research proves that living mindfully can help our brain’s stress response. Specifically, studies have shown that Mindfulness Based Exposure Therapy (MBET) causes a purposeful shift of attention from the brain’s “default mode.”
Mindfulness therapy allows the amygdala (the emotional center of the brain) to take a back seat and increases activity in both the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. This helps your brain form new pathways and get “unstuck.”
How can I start?
There are many exercises that can facilitate living mindfully such as:
- The 5 Senses Exercise: Calling attention to your five senses can ground you back to the moment. Notice 5 things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste.
- 3 Minute Breathing Space: While doing this exercise, don’t try to block thoughts. Observe them. Let them filter through your mind. Allow them to happen, and then let them move on. The first minute is spent answering the question, “How am I doing right now?” and focusing on the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise. The second minute is spent being aware of breath. The last minute is used for an expansion of attention outward from the breath, feeling the ways in which your breathing affects the rest of the body.
- The Raisin Exercise: Pick a unique food such as a raisin. Start by pretending you have never seen a raisin before this moment. Focus on the way the raisin looks, how it feels, how it smells, how it tastes, and how your skin responds to the manipulation. Take notice and focus on what is in front of you.
- More exercises can be found at: https://positivepsychology.com/mindfulness-exercises-techniques-activities/
Additionally, there are apps that can help you reflect on each day, furthering your mindfulness practice. Examples of such include:
- Additional suggestions can be found: https://www.mindful.org/free-mindfulness-apps-worthy-of-your-attention/
Personally, I have a go-to playlist on Spotify for when I start to feel any anxious triggers. I made it during a good day and usually start my mornings listening to it. I pull it up and listen to a song or two during stressful situations. It’s been my favorite emergency go-to.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give is to find a group of people who will love and support you on your journey of recovery and facilitate your healing. Our Wave helps survivors by providing a safe community and the tools to use your voice to make an impact with your story. Be patient with yourself, give yourself grace, and thank yourself for taking one step. We see you, we believe you, and we are here to help you.