Transforming Trauma for Hope and Healing


We are living in a time of unprecedented planetary trauma, said James Gordon, MD, at the Integrative Healthcare Symposium in New York City.

“Every patient we see, every one of us, is affected by what is happening in the world around us, the questions that are being raised and the turmoil that chronic illness and COVID-19; political, social, and economic division; war and climate change are bringing.”  

The psychiatrist and founder of the Center for Mind Body Medicine (CMBM) said that this challenge before us, healing population-wide trauma, is one that we can meet when we are willing to undergo transformation through the process of post-traumatic growth. But first, we must understand what is at stake, said Gordon, who shared indices of trauma in recent years:

  • Mental Health: According to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics, the Covid-19 pandemic has severely affected mental health. More than four in 10 U.S. adults had developed signs of anxiety and depression by the end of 2020, a dramatic increase from 2019 when the pandemic first started.
  • Racial Bias: Between 2020 and 2021, bias-motivated incidents in 37 major U.S. cities increased by nearly 39 percent. According to research compiled by Voice of America, the ten most significant metropolitan areas reported a record increase of 54.5 percentVoice of America.  
  • Wealth Disparities: A Pew Research study on income and wealth inequality found that the gap between high-income and families was the only income tier able to build on their wealth from 2001 to 2016, adding 33% to the media. On the other hand, middle-income families saw their median net worth shrink by 20 percent, and lower-income families felt a loss of 45 percent. 
  • Youth Depression: The last ten years saw a progressive increase in mental health challenges for high school students, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including higher incidence of sadness, hopelessness, suicidal ideation, and attempted suicide.
  • Political Division: Partisan antipathy has increased significantly in the last two decades. According to the Pew Research Center, about six-in-ten Republicans (62%) and more than half of Democrats (54%) have a very unfavorable view of the other party. They noted that while the highly negative thoughts have remained constant, the share expressing these views has increased considerably in the last five years.
  • Global Distress: Gordan, who has taken several trips to Ukraine since the war began, said that at this point, the social, political, and economic turmoil created by the war has significantly affected the entire world, producing high levels of anxiety about the spread of war, amongst other tangible fallout.

“We cannot help others until we help ourselves,” said Gordon, who outlined methods to deal with trauma incurred by the fallout from fight or flight and freeze responses, including social withdrawal,  post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and adverse childhood experiences  (ACEs): 

Soft Belly Breathing

Citing research by Stephen W Porges, Phd, author of The Polyvagal Theory, Gordon said,

"Soft belly breathing is the antidote to fight-or-flight and promotes easier connection to others," he said. 

It stimulates the vagus nerve, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, relaxes big muscles in the arms and legs, and enhances digestive activity. In the mid, it decreases fear and anger in the amygdala and stimulates the frontal cortex, affecting decision-making and self-awareness. It also promotes relating to and bonding with others.

Shaking the Body

A foundational approach at CMBM, shaking the body and dancing are the oldest forms of expressive meditation that indigenous peoples still use. They are a direct response to fight or flight and calm the parasympathetic nervous system. 

These techniques provide different and complementary ways to enter the state of relaxed, moment-to-moment awareness, which is the essence of all meditation and the foundation for our healing journey,” Gordon said. 

Quiet, Mindfulness Meditation

Producing stress reduction and structural changes in the amygdala, studies have shown that three days of intensive mindfulness meditation training reduced connectivity between the bilateral amygdala and anterior cingulate, which is associated with chronic stress.  According to studies, meditation also increases cortical thickness in regions responsible for attention and sensory processing studies.

“I look at trauma with the hopefulness that a profound change can happen after trauma," Gordon said. “When our notions of who we are and what we are meant to do come into question, that disintegration becomes the path to reintegration.”

Editor's note: This article is part of Integrative Practitioner's live coverage of the 2023 Integrative Healthcare Symposium at the Hilton Midtown in New York City. Click here to catch up on the live coverage.