Transforming trauma with mind-body medicine

Jackson David/Unsplash

We live in a time where trauma has come to all of us, said James Gordon, MD, at the 2022 Integrative Healthcare Symposium in New York City.

“Trauma comes to all human beings sooner or later. It is a part of life and not apart from it," he said. 

Gordon, who is founder and executive director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington D.C., defines mind-body medicine as grounded in the scientific understanding of the complete interpenetration of mind and body. It incorporates tools and techniques of self-care.

It’s good to be here with you, it is becoming increasingly important for us to connect in person, said Gordon. 

We’ve been gotten used to being on screens but being able to see people and to touch them, it is such an extraordinary gift, he said.

“We are a human community and a community of healers,” said Gordon, “I’m going to talk with you about how we work with trauma, but this is also an invitation to find out more about this community of healers.”

You can integrate this work into your practice as it suits you, and as it moves you, reach out to the larger community, Gordon said.

Mind-body medicine enables us to enter the constant communication that is going on among all our organs and to affect in a positive way every aspect of our physical and psychological functioning.

The other part of mind-body medicine, since there is omnidirectional communication between the organs and cells in our body, is that it is possible to enter the conversation that is going on in a powerful and therapeutic way with biological measures, thoughts and feelings, the way we relate to people.

Self-care is critical to this work, Gordon said. There is a shift from a system that is dominated by professionals and that relies on almost exclusively on professionals telling people what to do and doing it for them, to a system where self-care is crucial. It challenges everything from the power structure in medicine to the therapeutics that are used to the economic structure.

“It’s no longer an order, it’s an invitation, it’s a true partnership,” Gordon said.

Mind-body skills surrounding self-care includes relaxation, meditation, autogenics and biofeedback, prayer, exercise, nutrition, imagery and self-hypnosis, and self-awareness.

This is not part of our conventional medical training and yet it is so profoundly helpful to be in a group of people that can share some of their experiences together, he said.

Gordon talked about polyvagal theory, where humans are wired to be able to use our “social engagement system” to address a stressful circumstance via the myelinated vagus parasympathetic circuit.

When humans are in threatening situations, most will exhibit a parasympathetic “freeze” response. This includes inhibition of motor function, slow heart rate, and decreased blood pressure. This can be compared to a “deer in headlights” type situation. A freeze response may be most prevalent with those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Gordon pointed to children who are abused. They may go into a freeze response, where immobilization or a disassociation takes place. They are removing oneself psychologically from the situation.

Fight or flight and freeze are important adaptive responses, he said. They are natural and lifesaving and are meant to be turned on and off, according to Gordon. People are often oscillating between these three responses.

Meditation is the antidote to flight or flight. It is central to mind-body medicine and to healing. Gordon pointed out meditation and medicine come from the same Sanskrit root word, meaning to “take measure of” and “to care for.” Meditation is defined as a relaxed moment-to-moment awareness. Medicine is defined from indigenous cultures as whatever is helpful or healing.

Gordon talked about three different kinds of meditation: concentrative, mindfulness, and expressive.

Concentrative meditation is simple; it focuses on a word, sound, or image. He asked audience members to close their eyes and relax. Closed eyes remove a great deal of external stimulation, he said. He asked the audience to focus on their breath, feel their belly softening and relaxing, and then focus on the words “soft” as they breathe in and “belly” as they breathe out.

When we breathe slowly and deeply like this, we are quieting our bodies, calming fear, and anger, encouraging clear thoughtful, self-aware, compassionate feelings and it is easier to read other people’s facial expressions, hear their speech and to bond with them, Gordon said.

“If thoughts come, let them come, notice them and let them go,” he said.

Doing soft belly breathing, experiencing the fact that you can make a difference in how you feel, this is profoundly important, he said. And the more depressed and despairing you are, the more important it is, he said. “I can make a change, I’m not helpless.”

It’s simple, basic, it doesn’t cost anything – anybody can do it anywhere, Gordon said about meditation. You can make a difference. I have seen thousands of people who have shifted from feeling utterly helpless to having a sense they can make a difference, he said. “They are responsive rather than reactive.”

Mindfulness meditation is the second kind of meditation, which is noticing thoughts, feelings, and motivations when they arise.

Lastly, expressive meditation is defined as jumping up and down, shouting, he said. 

Meditation can alter every physiological function in a beneficial way, Gordan said, listing off immune function, gastrointestinal function, and sexual function. It can not only make a difference in neurochemistry but also in brain structure. He shared some basic research about meditation and the effect it has on the cerebral cortex and cerebellum. People who never meditated before and then take a course and learn to meditate for 20 minutes a day, grow new parts of their frontal cortex and their center for fear and anger gets smaller.

“This is very powerful medicine," he said. 

Gordon then dove into talking about trauma, defining it as “injury to the mind, body, and spirit.”

Trauma can come from a variety of sources including war, child abuse, genocide, racism, and loss and separation. The trauma that comes to us can be passed down to children and grandchildren. “It’s important to deal with trauma for ourselves and also for any descendants.”

Today, he said, we are living in a time of unprecedented trauma. There have been more than 120 million confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) worldwide and this has been compounded by racism and police brutality cases around the country.

He said it’s not like the 60s, because there are less feelings of hope. This time is far more uncertain and traumatic, he said. “We are all living in the midst of great trauma right now.”

Pandemic stress has had a negative impact on mental health and social isolation, for patients, practitioners, and the general public. All groups are experiencing higher rates in depression and psychological distress. Chronic stress brings a variety of health issues, including elevated levels of serum cortisol, abdominal fat deposits, higher cholesterol, and an increased appetite. Immunity and the amount of cells in the hippocampus decrease when an individual is under constant stress. Stress influences the onset of nearly all diseases, Gordon said. In addition, stress makes us more vulnerable to COVID-19.

But according to Gordon, trauma may lead to a psychological/spiritual crisis which leads to transformation. Post traumatic growth (PTG) is the positive change that can happen after challenging situations.

Indigenous people have always known this, and they have ceremonies and rituals to help people move through that trauma, Gordon said.

He said expressive meditations, such as shaking and dancing, melt bodies frozen by trauma and help to bring up suppressed emotions to facilitate PTG.

To demonstrate, Gordon asked the audience to stand up and described the three phases of expressive meditation. The first is shaking, the second is to stand up and relax, and in the third phase he put on some music. In the third phase, he articulated the importance of not telling people to dance because there are too many ideas attached. “It’s about allowing the body to move you in whatever way it wants to move,” he said. He also recommended audience members close their eyes if they didn’t have trouble with balance.

Practitioners and audience members moved and shook in the Grand Ballroom East here at the Hilton Midtown. Then he told everyone to stop, relax, and be aware of their body and breath. “When the music begins, let it move you,” he said. Then Bob Marley lyrics filled the room, “Don’t worry about a thing, cause everything is gonna be alright.”

It is a way of letting go of whatever stress and trauma that we accumulate, he said.

“People are able to move through the most horrendous trauma with a little bit of support, practice, and patience,” he said.

Editor's note: This article is part of Integrative Practitioner's live coverage of the 2022 Integrative Healthcare Symposium at the Hilton Midtown in New York City. Click here to catch up on the live coverage.