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Jun 12, 2020

Building Trauma Resilience Through Mindful Awareness

The latest events in this country, including our exposure to witnessing the horrendous, unjustified murder of George Floyd, will no doubt have ripple effects on our psychological health. The adversity people of color, in particular Blacks in USA, have endured for centuries was captured in a 10-minute video filmed by a 17-year-old woman. Events like this rip our psychological fabric and fall under the category of trauma. Has the necessary exposure of the video caused collective trauma? You bet it has.

Yet, there is a more important angle here: watching the video builds conscious awareness of the racial injustices that run rampant. So many murders and abuses are not captured on video. This nation and the world are feeling the discomfort of witnessing a painful truth. Leaving our comfort zone forces us to find a way out. Hopefully, we will come out of this more conscious and committed to work toward racial justice.

Buddha's teaching reminds us that suffering is part of being human; if you are alive, you are most likely to endure some form of pain. However, the suffering of racially based trauma is what is called unnecessary suffering. It is suffering that can be avoided.

Having said that, let us now focus on trauma as something that happens at small and big scales. The historical trauma of people of color, including that of the indigenous people, has shaped the societies we live in today. We counselors have the ethical obligation to think in a wider context when assessing what is happening to those we work with. To think how the context of our own history has shaped us. We respond from the vantage point in which we were raised. Racial justice is built by the coming together of humanity, seeing us in the other. In other words, recognizing our common humanity.

Why do some people seem able to transcend trauma and others get trapped in its forever-turning spirals? The difference between a trauma-ridden life and a life that is trauma-resilient resides in how we respond to what happens to us. Mindfulness is to be present in the here and now, recognizing the external and internal events as they impact us, and recognizing our reactions without judging them good or bad. They are what they are. That recognition, that acceptance, does not mean resignation. Mindful awareness is a call to action, to change the course of events so they are aligned with our most precious values.  

Mindfulness is to be present to what is happening in the here and now, and without judgment. Mindful awareness can be a powerful tool for recognizing our responses to trauma and promoting well-being. Finding our footing after extreme or minor difficulties can also lead to feeling more comfortable in our body and more confident in our ability to manage emotions and connect with significant others. Individuals who learn to shift their arousal levels are most likely to become trauma resilient.

Seeing the video of George Floyd moved me to the core. It unsettled me. Dan Siegel coined the term "window of tolerance," which refers to normal brain and bodily reactions to adversity. Siegel suggests that we have an optimal arousal level while we are within the window of tolerance, which allows our emotions to ebb and flow. There was a moment after I saw the video in which I felt numb. After traumatic or adverse experiences, it is normal for us to feel a wide array of emotions: anger, anxiety, hurt, and so forth. These emotions can bring us closer to the edge of our window of tolerance. I was there right after watching the murder of George Floyd. Most of us can regain balance by using specific strategies to stay within the window of tolerance. I sought refuge in meditation, yoga and walks in nature. After encountering adversity, we may also feel exhausted, sad, or shut down. I felt all of the above. Using mindful awareness has the potential to keep us within the window of tolerance. 

Simply put, trauma disrupts our nervous system, our senses heightened and our reactions intensified. Once we are in that stage it is hard to think about strategies to get us back into the window of tolerance. When our window of tolerance shrinks by adversity, we become overwhelmed and our capacity to ebb and flow diminishes. Mindfulness affords us the capacity to track and shift our inner experiences in reaction to external events. Mindful awareness can be a powerful tool for promoting regulation and integration throughout the brain, body, and mind. Racial injustice is a systemic problem and not an isolated incident. My doctoral dissertation spoke about how the historical trauma endured by my Taino people has trickled down to these days. The work at hand right now is to work on promoting individual and collective awareness of how trauma impacts us.

After adverse experiences, we encounter a variety of arousal states: hyper-arousal, calm arousal, and hypo-arousal. Logically, the ideal state is calm arousal. However, too much stimulation from fear, pain, anger, and other emotions pushes us out of the window of tolerance and into hyper-arousal. When excessive activation happens, very often in the shape of anxiety, panic, emotional flooding, and other feelings, our capacity to relax diminishes. Often, at that point sleep becomes disturbed and appetite gets disrupted, making it difficult to eat or digest food. It is at these high levels of arousal that dissociation could ensue. Once the mind surpasses the emotional pain, entering a stage of overwhelm beyond our capacity, we then begin the hypo-arousal phase. At this phase, we most likely shut down or dissociate, flying out of the pain.   

Within mindfulness, there is also compassion, lovingkindness. Practicing self-compassion by understanding and seeing where we are within the window of tolerance is very important. Extending lovingkindness and compassion to others is also part of the healing process. Mindfulness allows us to be curious about what is happening internally and externally. Understanding our behaviors with compassionate attention is part of building resilience. 

Here are two suggestions for shifting from one arousal level to the other:

  1. Understand what works for you and when. Know when activities or strategies regulate/ground you and when the same action or strategy is stimulating.
  2. Practice your strategies in moments of calmness. Practice regularly to build your capacity to access these skills under challenging moments. 

Here are simple, easy-to-follow activities or strategies for both grounding and increasing arousal if needed: 

Grounding activities:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing (deep and slow tummy breathing)
  • Running or walking vigorously or slow  
  • Weighted blanket
  • Warm water 
  • Shaking out excess energy
  • Yoga pauses that connect breath and movement
  • Heavy work (lifting, pulling, push ups, gardening, etc.)
  • Sounds/Music (soothing and calming)
  • Comforting food (anything that makes you feel loved and cared for—eat it slowly and with mindful attention)

Activities to increase arousal:

  • Aromatherapy/Smelling essential oils 
  • Movement
  • Jumping on a trampoline or running in place
  • Rocking chair
  • Weighted blanket
  • Finger painting or any hands-on activity
  • Water play/blowing through the straw
  • Dancing and music

Keep in mind that trauma, small or big, makes you feel out of control. Being aware of what is happening internally and externally with you is part of accepting and committing to doing something to self-regulate and stay within your window of tolerance. The history of people of color is one that shows generation after generation feeling the boot of injustice pressing relentlessly on our necks.

As you witness what is happening in the aftermath of the killings of Black people, remember, right-brain responses are sensory, and left-brain responses are cognitive. Do simple things, like regulating the tone and volume of your voice when talking to yourself, be gentle, be kind with yourself. Use your breath as an ally. Validate your emotions, know they are happening for a reason. "I know I am angry and I am going to go for a walk with my anger." Remember, choosing your reactions is freeing and it builds resilience.

Marianela Medrano is a counselor and Dominican writer living and practicing in Connecticut. She writes poetry, essays, and creative non-fiction; with publications including essays and seven books of poetry.

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