What is the Impact of Mindfulness in Trauma Recovery?

This week I’ve been in Amed, north Bali, a sleepy little rural village well known for idyllic diving. Whilst here, I’ve been lucky enough to have some amazing dives, including a night dive on the USAT Liberty Wreck which houses an abundance of beautiful marine life due to the nutrient rich waters flowing through the lava encrusted wreck.

As well as scuba diving, I’ve also had an Ayurvedic Consultation at Aiona, the health and wellness centre in Amed, and it’s led me to think about mindfulness and what it means to me. Previous to this consultation I didn’t know much about Ayurveda, but I had actually navigated towards living some aspects of an Ayurvedic lifestyle whilst looking for the trauma recovery strategies that suit me. Things such as daily meditation, exercise (yoga/stretches) and eating a balanced (mostly) vegetarian diet. I guess this is because therapies from different parts of the World have become more accessible with the rise of globalisation and travel, so naturally in my quest for trauma recovery, I’ve ended up practicing such therapies as I avoid going down the more Westernised ‘take a pill to fix it’ kind of route. I’m also currently listening to The Peaceful Warrior’s Path to Everyday Enlightenment audio book, which is a book about spirituality but in a practical manner, so Ayurveda fits into this perfectly. There are many facets to an Ayurvedic lifestyle which you can read about in my review, but what struck me the most in the consultation, is that it encouraged me to reflect upon how I currently live my life and assess whether it works for me. This is something which I constantly try to review in my quest for healing and personal development, but in this session, there were a few things that arose which had escaped my attention. For example, one being how important it is to my general wellbeing for to me to be near the ocean.

When I think more about this, it makes perfect sense. Being a Pisces, the sports that I enjoyed most as a child were water sports – swimming, water skiing and scuba diving. In fact, my necessity to be by the ocean might be the reason that I left the environmental construction industry and ended up working on yachts. It’s certainly the reason why I find myself back by the ocean whilst I recover from trauma because the thought of trying to recover in the middle of a rainy, landlocked town made me feel pretty miserable.

Scuba diving, in particular, is something that I personally find very therapeutic, Just me, the sea and the sound of my bubbles as I float amongst the colourful fishes, suspended midocean with the space to move about in any direction. Having scuba dived for over 10 years it’s something that now comes to me as easy as riding a bike and during the dives I’ve experienced after my trauma, it feels like more of a meditation that a sport. The dives I’ve done in here in Amed have tended to last for an hour, and when we surface the rest of the group can see how chilled out I am because I usually have a lot of air left in my tank. We’ve even joked about how I don’t breath underwater, and might actually be a fish (or a mermaid is what I like to argue). This is because when I’m in the water I’m very relaxed and  my breathing really slows down, and this is a technique used in meditation to help slow down the mind and build mindfulness. Through breathing slowing and focusing on the individual breath in and then breath out, it allows me to become aware of, and listen to my own thoughts. It’s not about controlling the thoughts and trying not to think, instead, it’s about watching the thoughts come and go, and when I catch myself running away with a thought or a feeling, acknowledging it and bringing myself back to the focus on my breath. What has gradually happened over time is that I’ve developed a greater sense of awareness and presence, to the point where I can sense a thought or an emotion as and when it arises. This also gives me the ability to reflect upon it and question where it has come from. To me, this is what it means to be mindful, and it’s then that you start to see things that you might otherwise miss in the busyness of the mind. Things like the quick judgement of a person based on a common stereotype, the arising of an emotion as it becomes overwhelming in intensity or the sharp knee-jerk reaction to something that causes an emotional stir. Being mindful means that I’m aware of these feelings before I react upon them, and what’s incredible about practicing mindfulness is that it gives me a perspective of my emotions, while I’m experiencing them, so I can literally stop myself before I act upon them (most of the time – I’m only human).  During the times when I can’t stop before I act, I’m usually mindful enough to reflect upon my actions before they’re pointed out to me (most of the time.. I am still just a regular human). This is most noticeable when it comes down to experiencing post-traumatic stress because I can feel when a ‘fight or flight’ reaction is triggered and when that urge inside comes up wanting to react and protect me, the way I did when I actually was attacked. However, being aware of what is happening, allows me to see that I’m not actually being attacked and that I am just experiencing a trigger which is evoking the same feelings. I’m not saying that I’ve mastered this because experiencing so many traumatic events in such a short space of time obviously presents me with overwhelming emotions, especially in triggering situations. However, what I am saying is that practising mindfulness has been such a strong power in managing my trauma recovery that it has allowed me to manage and process these traumas in a very healthy way. It’s ultimately given me a lens to see things through more clearly and has provided me with a tool to help me stop getting into self-destructive behaviour such as physically and verbally attacking people who trigger me (a common PTSD response… remember that to survive I fought my attacker which then became the strongest neuro pathway to reactivate when triggered). It has also stopped me from falling into common broken hearted and grief-stricken spirals such as self-depreciation, self-hatred and depression. It is such a strong element of my trauma recovery that I truly believe that if more people practised mindfulness, then the world would be a much happier place. Simply because we wouldn’t get carried away with such strong negative emotions. If you’re still sceptical, then there is a magnitude of scientific research on this – check out the headspace science page and the referenced journal papers, the articles by mindful.org and the research done by Present Minds in a variety of aspects where mindfulness can positively affect behaviour.

Being mindful doesn’t necessarily mean taking up yoga, scuba diving or meditating every day. It does, however, mean slowing down regularly to the point where you have the awareness to sense-check yourself and your environment. It’s actually a skill that I’ve seen demonstrated by many delivery sailors. People who I know don’t meditate, but are naturally mindful because of the nature of their job: sailing across oceans for weeks on end, which encourages such a slowing down in pace that they naturally become mindful and present. Obviously, not everyone is lucky enough to work in a role like this and I can imagine that many people are reading this post thinking I’m too busy to practice mindfulness every day, especially those who have full-time jobs, children and a variety of commitments to balance in their life. The thing is, that at the moment I’m lucky enough to have the time and ability to practice a variety of mindful activities, however I also found the time to at least meditate for 10 minutes a day when I was working three simultaneous job contracts, trying to nurture friendships from far away countries and working through intensely overwhelming emotions straight after my Dad died. I simply made it a priority because I understand the amazing power that this small daily act has on my general wellbeing and trauma recovery, and right now my recovery is the most important thing.

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