This content is also available in: Vietnamese
In my practice, both in the west and abroad, I have worked with patients who have experienced significant traumatic events such as the mass displacement and disruption caused by war as well as personal suffering from abuse and neglect. Working to understand their trauma, I have referred to texts and treatises from current medical leaders on the subject and also explored traditional spiritual practices such as those found in Eastern philosophies.
In both schools of learning I have found that the human reaction to traumatic events is not limited to the emotional and physical. We also connect to deeper wounds which are much less accessible and thus more difficult to heal. In understanding trauma, most of us are familiar with the concept of fight or flight – within milliseconds we determine our probability of success in a given situation and proceed to either fight or run. Psychologist and author Peter Levine, after studying animal research on the subject, reveals that in nature there is a third option. To freeze.
What differentiates fight and flight from freeze is that the latter does not easily discharge from our system once a stressful situation ends (unlike in animals that might shake or tremble). Without discharging, the trauma ends up stuck in our nervous systems. Traumatic symptoms (increased heart rate, altered breathing and body temperature, uneasiness, anxiety, insomnia, fear, shame, and guilt) are not caused by the “triggering” event itself, rather they stem from a residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged.
Peter Levine has developed one of the most promising therapies for healing trauma. It is called Somatic Experiencing and adopts the core concept of meditation, which is to quiet the mind so that you can observe the sensations that occur in your body. These feelings, if we can quiet our mind enough, are actually the trapped energy in our nervous systems. As we become aware of these sensations, and observe them with equanimity, they are discharged and our body and mind initiate the process of healing.
The practice of meditation is steeped in history and legend but also has disciplines geared towards today’s world. Examples are the Vipassana tradition and transcendental meditation. The descriptions of meditation are varied and sometimes vague. The consensus, however, is that the practice is associated with feelings of peace and relaxation.
Once it was believed that some individuals are inherently better suited to meditating. That was until 2011, when a team at Harvard conducted a study lead by Sarah Lazar demonstrating that meditation results in structural changes in the brain. After eight weeks of daily meditation (an average of 27 minutes per day), researchers using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), found an increase in gray matter density in the hippocampus – important for learning and memory, self-awareness, compassion and introspection. They also found a decrease in gray matter density in the amygdala – which plays a role in anxiety and stress. All of the participants had zero prior experience with meditation.
The study proves that anybody can meditate and structural changes in your brain become second nature. Eventually, you don’t have to consciously or intellectually will yourself to be compassionate or peaceful. That happens automatically, it is who you now are. In previous studies, it was observed that experienced meditators had thickened gray matter in the prefrontal cortex – important for memory and executive decision-making. Although this area shrinks with age, it can be preserved through meditation so that a 50 year-old experienced meditator can have the same density as a 25 year-old.
As a global community it is important for us to understand the role that trauma plays in our approaches and outlook on life. In the early 1990s, it was estimated that 30 per cent of the homeless people in the United States were Vietnam veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This statistic is staggering and frightening since these are the known, and more extreme cases. How many more cases go unreported?
Vietnam has endured a legacy of war, the most recent being the American/Vietnam War followed by displacement – first boat people, then refugees and immigrants. At each of these stages, people have been traumatized to varying degrees. Just as a storm might not destroy a tree completely, over time it can dictate the eventual shape, size, angle and form of its trunk and branches. This is what makes each tree individual and unique, but we must ensure that the tree remains healthy and beautiful both within and on the outside.
As Peter Levine states in his book Waking the Tiger – Healing Trauma, “Trauma begets trauma and will continue to do so, eventually crossing generations in families, communities and countries until we take steps to contain its propagation.” Meditation is a tool that allows us to look within, to unchain, to have fulfilling, purposeful lives and to make the world a better place. As Sara Lazar’s study pointed out, meditation is a type of exercise for the brain. To reap the benefits, you have to do it regularly otherwise your brain will atrophy. Meditation is a powerful tool. To facilitate a daily habit, as well as gain confidence in the practice, it is a good idea to seek an inspiring teacher for guidance and support. You could also consider joining a retreat to begin or help to maintain a practice that will hopefully continue for the rest of your life.