The Facts About Healing Trauma Through Meditation
Healing trauma through meditation is becoming more and more popular as a form of therapy, and with good reason! Believe it or not, more and more studies are showing just how effective healing trauma and treating PTSD through meditation can be.
A study done on war veterans with PTSD suggests that the regular practice of transcendental meditation can reduce symptoms of PTSD by calming the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the “fight-or-flight” response to danger, reducing stress hormones. What is transcendental meditation, you ask? It’s just a fancy way of describing meditation in which you focus in order to calm a busy and overactive mind into a state of inner quietness, i.e. normal meditation.
A more recent study done in 2016 even showed that in some cases, this regular transcendental meditation practice was so effective in treating PTSD symptoms that subjects stopped taking the psychotropic drugs they had previously used to treat their PTSD symptoms. In this study, half of the active duty service members practiced transcendental meditation as well as their normal therapy and treatment, while the other half did not practice transcendental meditation. After one month, an astounding 83.7% of the meditators had “stabilized and reduced, or stopped their use of psychotropic drugs to treat their PTSD conditions.”
A similar study done in 1985 on Vietnam veterans showed similar results, where soldiers who practiced transcendental meditation instead of taking medication had significantly reduced PTSD symptoms. Dr. Vernon A. Barnes, a physiologist and the 2016 study’s lead author explains that “regular practice of transcendental meditation provides a habit of calming down and healing the brain.” He recommends meditating twice a day for 20 minutes each to experience these results.
Not to mention, meditation, unlike psychotropic medications, is free and has no adverse side effects, making it a healthy and highly accessible alternative! Meditation is such an effective way to heal trauma because in practicing meditation, the mind processes the emotions of the trauma, while the body is concurrently trained to relax and be in a state of calm, rewiring your response to trauma-related triggers and stimuli.
Healing trauma through meditation isn’t all roses and butterflies, though. In healing trauma through meditation practice, often the trauma survivor experiences flashbacks, and has very emotional experiences as they enter meditative states and process the trauma. This is normal, but it can be scary and put you off to meditation if you don’t know how to navigate it. So, here are some tips!
4 Tips for Healing Trauma Through Meditation
1. Meditate Somewhere You Feel Safe
First and foremost, find a place where you feel safe and can relax. Many times, flashbacks are triggered during meditation because the place in which you are meditating isn’t one in which you feel totally comfortable and at peace. It’s important to find a neutral location that is free of all triggers and that will help you steer clear of any intrusive, negative thoughts.
Sometimes, the most seemingly tranquil places can trigger your trauma and that’s ok, it’s whatever makes you feel most comfortable. For example, silent places might actually trigger some trauma survivors because it can remind them of feelings of isolation, and perhaps being silenced by someone or something. So, you may need to choose a place with calming sounds instead of silence, and that’s perfectly fine!
A good meditation spot should have a predictable schedule so you won’t be interrupted in your meditation. It should also have comforting sounds, smells and sights. You can create this by lighting candles or incense, lying on a soft cushion or surface, decorating with crystals, pictures, and trinkets that incite feelings of safety and calm, even using a sound machine or playing your favorite meditation playlist. The sky’s the limit!
2. Awareness of Breath and Body/ Body Scanning
Awareness is the key to meditation, and all good meditation practices start here. When it comes to healing trauma through meditation, however, awareness of your thoughts can be overwhelming at first if they tend to jump to painful flashbacks and the trauma itself. So, a great way to ease into a trauma-healing meditation is to start with awareness of your breath and body, as opposed to your thoughts.
Calming your body and controlling your breath is the foundation to your practice, and an easy way to slip into this state is by doing a body scan. You can do your own body scan by mentally walking yourself through every part of your body, piece by piece, from head to toe or vice versa. When you get to each body part, simply focus on relaxing the muscle, releasing any tension, and letting it melt into a calm, resting state.
You can separate your body into large and general areas, like an entire arm, or leg, or incredibly small and specific parts like one eyelid, or one toe, or even a part of a toe at a time, the choice is yours! And if you don’t want to guide yourself through your own body scan, there are great guided body scans available online, or through meditation apps, youtube, etc.
Body and breath awareness are great anchors in your meditation practice that you can use to return yourself to a calm equilibrium, removing yourself from a toxic train of thought, or painful memory you don’t want to revisit.
3. Experiencing Strong Emotions: Witness Your Flashbacks
When you experience flashbacks in your meditations, it’s important to properly process them, which includes experiencing the strong emotions associated with them. With time, the goal is to experience the flashbacks and observe them, as opposed to reliving and re-feeling them.
However, in the initial stages of healing trauma through meditation, the goal is to simply get through your flashbacks and the emotions that come with them, to face them, so you can start your journey to conquering them and the physical and emotional reaction you have to them. Just as you are taught to observe your thoughts in classic meditation, eventually you will be able to simply observe your flashbacks without interacting with them, or having a physical and emotional reaction to them.
A great tool for this is talking to yourself as the flashbacks occur, telling your rational mind that this flashback is just a thought, and not reality. Remind yourself that thinking about your trauma doesn’t mean it’s happening again, that you can detach yourself from the thought and simply observe it like any other thought.
Imagine watching the sky as clouds pass. The clouds are your thoughts passing through your mind. You are just observing the thoughts, you aren’t interacting with them and immersing yourself in them. Your thoughts and flashbacks are separate from you.
You may get frustrated at the beginning, as it takes time for your mind to actually believe what you’re telling it and get the hang of detaching from the flashbacks. But it will come with practice and patience. And when you slip into the intense emotions that the flashback triggers, don’t be hard on yourself. Just feel the emotion, and go back to Tip 2, bringing your awareness back to your body and breath, and away from the flashback.
Complete a body scan again from head to toe, restoring a calm, slow breathing pattern, and releasing any tension in your joints and muscles. Accept the feelings and emotions your trauma has left you with, understand the physical and mental reactions to the stress, and that they are just that, reactions. Then pull yourself back to a calm and tranquil state and realize that you have just healed yourself from a stress reaction to trauma. Realize that you have just self-regulated with only the power of your mind.
The good news is that with time, this practice of detaching from the flashback mentally and emotionally is exactly what will allow you to take control of your emotions again and permanently break free from the triggers that used to send you into a physical and emotional tailspin. You’ll learn how to feel and accept strong emotions without being overwhelmed and hijacked by them, and eventually you’ll learn how to observe thoughts without even feeling the strong emotion previously associated with it.
You’ll be normalizing your mind and body’s response to trauma-related stimuli, effectively healing yourself of the symptoms of the post-traumatic stress. This is the exercise that with time and regular practice will rewire your brain and its response to flashbacks and reminders of trauma. This is how you regain control of your mind and body and take it back from the trauma. You are not your thoughts, and you are not your trauma.
4. Awareness of Mind and Thoughts
This step goes hand in hand with the last tip and you can’t really do one without the other, but what we want you to do here specifically is to process and solidify the detachment of your thoughts/flashbacks and emotions. One way to do this is taking some time after meditation to journal the thoughts and emotions you experienced in your meditation.
This allows you to step back and actually look at the thoughts and emotions on the page and process them. Are you judging them? Are you internalizing them? Are you reacting to them? Or are you just observing them, accepting them, and detaching yourself from them? Journaling allows you to practice mind and thought awareness in retrospect and from a more external, and big-picture perspective.
It allows you to see where you are in your trauma healing process, and where you were, and need to be. Journaling can facilitate and further your emotional evolution and trauma healing by allowing you to track your progress with milestones, and even setbacks. It holds you accountable, yet allows you to celebrate notable changes and successes in your meditation practice as it heals your trauma.
After a traumatic experience, you have the power to choose how it will affect you and how to deal with it. You can let the emotional pain and physical manifestations of your trauma control you and wreak havoc in your life, or you can choose to move through and past the trauma, facing it head on to heal it through meditation, journaling, and awareness practices. Don’t let your trauma define you, conquer it and kick it to the curb where it belongs.
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