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How to heal a traumatized brain

Rebekah Demirel meditating on a beach in Edmonds. Credit: Credit: Sinan Demirel

As a teen living on the streets of Vancouver, I learned to pay attention to people and things that could hurt me. I had to be aware of my surroundings and look closely at faces and body language to get the information I needed to keep myself safe.

And yet, even when I sensed that a situation was dangerous, I’d move towards it, like I was daring myself to see how far I could go. I couldn’t explain why I made those choices and for years I simply thought I was incapable of good decisions. I thought I was a flawed human being.

What I learned much later is that my faulty judgement was related to a chemical change in my brain, a change brought about by the trauma and loss I experienced as a child. I learned too that the way our brains develop shapes the decisions we make, how we feel, the way we experience life.  

“There's a real connection between early childhood adversity and how a person lives their lives and a later appearance of addiction and diseases, physical and of course mental illnesses,” physician and author Dr. Gabor Mate told Democracy Now! Being abused or neglected constitutes “childhood adversity.” So does living through domestic violence or a messy divorce, having a parent in prison or addicted to drugs or alcohol, or growing up poor.

Mate went on to explain that trauma alters brain chemistry in such a way that the brain fails to produce enough of the feel good neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, which helps regulate the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. This chemical imbalance is what sets us up for addiction and many other health related issues later in life.

Chronic stress also damages our brains. It atrophies the hippocampus — the brain region associated with self-awareness, compassion, introspection and regulating emotions — which impairs our ability to think clearly and rationally. Chronic stress also overstimulates the amygdala, the brain area that plays an important role in anxiety, stress and normal fear conditioning. The result is an exaggerated response to fear.

I grew up in a home where there was violence and sexual abuse. It was confusing and frightening. I didn’t even have the words to describe or speak about it. My nervous system was in “fight or flight” mode on a daily basis. I was a chronically stressed child who became a chronically stressed adult.

I tried meditation as a way to relax, to “quiet my mind.” But I’d sit there thinking of all the things I should be doing, then feel bad because I knew I shouldn’t be thinking at all, which made me feel more stressed.

As time went on, wisdom from Buddhist nun Pema Chodron made sitting quietly easier for me. She says to focus on the breath and when thoughts come up, just say, “thinking,” and let them go without judgement or condemnation. Then go back to the breath.

Recent studies from Harvard University show that daily meditation can help repair the brain by actually rebuilding the brain’s gray matter. Study participants who spent an average of 27 minutes per day practicing “mindfulness” exercises showed a major increase in the density of the hippocampus and amygdala and associated reductions in stress, compared to a control group.

A few short years after I got off the streets, I became a paramedic working in that same part of Vancouver. Ambulance work seemed like a natural fit. I’d lived with lots of stress and was used to suppressing my emotions. It took years of counseling to realize that my talent for shutting down feelings was a coping mechanism that was hurting me.

The ambulance work took a toll. I’d drive home, crying all the way. I’d lie awake at night and when I did fall asleep I’d have nightmares about all the people I’d seen suffering.

I eventually left my ambulance job to become a counselor, specializing in trauma and stress, and then a certified acupuncturist and East Asian medicine practitioner. I also began a simple Taoist meditation practice called qigong, which emphasizes conscious breathing, movement and visualization. For my stressed out nervous system, the simple act of taking time to just stand still and breathe was a tonic.

I see myself on a parallel path with my patients, all of us looking for meaning. Understanding some of the physiology of stress can be very helpful in understanding how our bodies, minds and spirits react to it.

The nervous system has a gas pedal and a brake. The brake is applied when we feel safe and content. When the brakes are on we communicate well, we are creative and our bodies renew, refresh and heal.

The gas pedal is the fight or flight response which revs up whenever we feel fear. In fight or flight mode, our bodies focus on one thing and one thing only: survival.

Even the thought of something distressing, whether there is an actual danger present or just the memory of some past traumatic event, can press the gas pedal, sending the danger signal to our nervous systems. Fear does not always mean danger. Often fear only means fear. But our nervous systems don’t make that distinction. They fire up their stress response to get us out of danger, whether the threat is real or perceived.

If we don’t then fight or flee, if we just freeze instead and internalize the stress, then the response that is supposed to save our lives ends up hurting us, can even kill us.

The terror and helplessness I felt as a child, stayed with me long after I left my abusive home. I’d often feel panic, and my mouth would go dry for no apparent reason. When life has been painful for me I’ve instinctively run or in some way tried to hide from the hurt. In retrospect, I realize that what wounded me most were all my desperate attempts to avoid feeling the pain.

It took many years of therapy, acupuncture, yoga and help from a lot of good people to help soothe my jangled nervous system. But daily meditation has had the most profound impact on my well-being and health. “Taking the backward step” is a Buddhist expression, meaning a perspective removed from our subjective experience.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called meditation a “type of hygiene” of the mind. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan is a believer. "I've seen it transform classrooms,” he told 60 Minutes recently. “I've seen it heal veterans. I've seen what it does to individuals who have really high chronic levels of stress and how it has helped their bodies heal. I wouldn't be willing to stick my neck out this far if I didn't think this is 'The Thing' that can really help shift the country."

I keep sitting every day. The regular attention to breathing and sitting silently nurtures a growing stability in me. Some days all I notice is my ragged breathing and crazy mind grasping at something. When that happens I don’t judge. I just let it be. Soon I can feel my breathing calming and my nervous system unwinding. I feel like maybe I’m okay.

Not every moment or every day feels okay, but I try to remember the times when I do feel good and why and build on those parts of life. Remarkably, the memories and effects of all the trauma and loss are healing for me. It’s getting easier to see light between the cracks.

Photo of Rebekah Demirel by Allyce Andrew.

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