Healing Trauma With Meditation

Childhood trauma is the biggest public health problem in the United States. Furthermore, chronic exposure is the rule, rather than the exception.

Childhood trauma exposure accounted for negative health outcomes across multiple diagnoses, from psychiatric (depression, anxiety, substance abuse) to physical (diabetes, heart disease, and cancer). Risk for disease increases across the board with exposure to multiple forms of traumatization.

Research has established that chronic stress, including traumatic events, leads to adverse health outcomes. Trauma sets the stage for ongoing psychological and physical distress, which can mutually affect one another, possibly for the duration of the survivor’s life span.

People who have experienced traumatic events have higher rates than the general population of a wide range of serious and life-threatening illnesses including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, and cancer.

A traumatic event may not register as such for an individual whose level of daily stress is extremely elevated. Conversely, for someone already burdened and depleted by extreme stress, an event that might be otherwise manageable might be processed as a traumatic event. Similarly, a traumatic event may not be “over” when it is over; in the eyes of the PTSD sufferer, the event may be re-experienced as intensely as when the event first occurred.

Compared with men without PTSD, men with PTSD were 27 times more likely to develop major depressive disorder, 38 times more likely to develop generalized anxiety disorder, and 28 times more likely to develop panic disorder. Compared with women without PTSD, women with PTSD were 23 times more likely to develop depression, 10 times more likely to develop generalized anxiety disorder, and 10 times more likely to develop panic disorder.

POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER

PTSD is characterized by three symptom clusters: intrusions (e.g., flashbacks, nightmares, emotional or physiological reactivity to reminders), avoidance/numbing (e.g., avoiding reminders associated with the event, loss of affect), and hyperarousal (exaggerated startle, hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping). To meet criteria for PTSD, one must have experienced a “Criterion A” traumatic event, characterized by an event in which the life or physical integrity of the person or a loved one is harmed or threatened with harm and that results in the emotional reactions of fear, helplessness, or horror. Though PTSD is among the most commonly recognized outcomes of trauma, trauma most often results in a broad array of co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses. Almost all people with PTSD have more than one diagnosis. Trauma results in forms of mental illness including (but not limited to) major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and substance abuse disorders.

One third of people with PTSD do not respond to currently established interventions, suggesting that PTSD is resistant to short-term treatment.

A person who has experienced a traumatic event is prone to a resurgence of the physical complaint when re-exposed to people, places, or things that evoke recollections of the event. This triggered reminder is not time limited and can be prevalent years after the initial trauma exposure.

The diagnosis of PTSD contains within it physiological symptoms (e.g., difficulty sleeping, physiological reactivity to reminders), as do other psychological disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Physical symptoms being embedded in psychiatric diagnoses must lead to recognition that psychological and physical processes are intertwined, and this relationship can be seen clearly in trauma.

Increasingly, oncologists have looked to psychologists to treat depression, anxiety and fear borne out of a cancer diagnosis. Western science is increasingly acknowledging that emotional and mental wellbeing as inseparable from physical health.

CHRONIC PAIN

Many people are already familiar with the fact that emotional stress can lead to stomachaches, irritable bowel syndrome, and headaches, but might not know that it can also cause other physical complaints and even chronic pain. One logical reason for this: studies have found that the more anxious and stressed people are, the more tense and constricted their muscles are, over time causing the muscles to become fatigued and inefficient.

Chronic pain is defined as prolonged physical pain that lasts for longer than the natural healing process should allow. This pain might stem from injuries, inflammation, or neuralgias and neuropathies (disorders of the nerves), but some people suffer in the absence of any of these conditions. Chronic pain can debilitate one’s ability to move with ease, may hinder their normal functioning, and the search for relief can lead to pain medication addictions, which compound the problem. Chronic pain is also often accompanied by feelings of hopelessness, depression and anxiety.

HOW MEDITATION HELPS

Meditation enables some active duty service members battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to reduce, or even eliminate, their use of psychotropic medications and to better control the often-debilitating symptoms of PTSD. 

In early 2012, Eisenhower Army Medical Center added Transcendental Meditation to their roster of treatments for PTSD. There was some skepticism among service members at first—but after regularly practicing Transcendental Meditation—soldiers began to report that they felt less irritable, slept better, and their relationships were improving. The clinic currently has a waiting list for the TM course.

It is also been proven that meditation reduces anxiety at a neural (brain activity) level. Anxiety is a cognitive state connected to an inability to regulate your emotional responses to perceived threats. Mindfulness meditation strengthens a person’s cognitive ability to regulate emotions. 

Neuroscientists have been studying the benefits of both mindfulness meditation, in which you focus on sustaining attention and guiding thoughts; and loving-kindness meditation, in which you focus on compassionate thoughts towards yourself and others. Both types of meditation have been proven to change brain structure and have dramatic physical and psychological benefits