How to heal a traumatized brain

Trauma and chronic stress damage the brain. Meditation can help fix it.
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Rebekah Demirel meditating on a beach in Edmonds.

Trauma and chronic stress damage the brain. Meditation can help fix it.

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.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Rebekah Demirel

Rebekah Demirel

Rebekah Demirel is an acupuncturist and East Asian medicine practitioner with a private and community practice in the Seattle area. She also presents workshops to social service agencies and the general public on a variety of topics, including meditation, qi gong, stress management and secondary trauma.