Trauma and being present in the body

The energy body is more than a metaphor used to describe the activity we associate with the concepts of the chakras and prana. Western science and Eastern philosophy merge with the phrase “energy body,” to refer to the actual, physical reactions to external stimulus. The brains of people who suffer from various levels of trauma exhibit a wide range of physical reactions that can be described as a disconnect with their bodies and are often marked by the inability to be “present” in a way that allows clear focus and concentration.

Trauma, like many complicated ailments that appear as a wide spectrum, is easier to spot in their extreme expression. Recent studies into PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) are a good illustration of trauma in the extreme because the experiences of people who suffer from PTSD are cut in such stark relief against those who experience mild depression or the stress of everyday life. PTSD can be looked at as  over-the-top trauma that is so extreme as to be  paralyzing in every way: socially, psychologically, physically, emotionally, etc.

It is with great interest to bring together a discussion of two ends of the spectrum – the extremes of either being present in the body or being unable to be present. What are the physical, chemical, energy body reactions that pull us between these opposite poles of being in the world?

Every moment of our lives is characterized by our physical reaction to the world around us. As it turns out (surprise!) we are primarily operating from the emotions and the physical response to our environment. It is a secondary response when we act from our brains logical response to emotional stimulus.

The following article by Bessel A. Van der Kolk, a psychiatrist from Boston University who speaks and writes on the topic of PTSD demonstrates surprising details of what goes on in the brain of the traumatized person.

Clinical Implications of Neuroscience Research in PTSD, Bessel A. Van der Kolk, 2006

Around numbered page 10-11 Kolk describes the parts of the brain affected by trauma and explains an actual shutting down of parts of the brain that would normally help us process/understand/integrate our emotions:

Specifically, neuroimaging studies of people with PTSD have found decreased activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). The medial prefrontal comprises anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and medial parts of the orbitofrontal prefrontal cortices.  The anterior cingulate (ACC) specifically has consistently been implicated in PTSD. The ACC plays a role in the experiential aspects of emotion, as well as in the integration of emotion and cognition. It has extensive connections with multiple brain structures, including the hypothalamus, amygdala, and brain stem autonomic nuclei. Thus, the ACC is part of a system that orchestrates the autonomic, neuroendocrine, and behavioral expression of emotion and may play a key role in the visceral aspects of emotion. – B.A. Van der Kolk

Kolk goes on to discuss the effects of yoga, siting studies involving people practicing yoga. On page 12 he mentions the fascinating studies by Sarah Lazar involving yoga at Massachusetts General Hospital. As a related note, here is Sarah Lazar on TED Talk giving one of the best eight minute “elevator speeches” on the benefits of yoga and meditation and the physical change of thickening our grey matter:

How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains, Sara Lazar

Bessel A. Van der Kolk is featured on the syndicated radio show, To The Best of Our Knowledge in their show titled “Super Senses,” a broadcast from September 28, 2014. The show is vignette based on the theme of the senses. Skip over to the time on the sound recording 26:35 to hear Van der Kolk describe his research and how we can heal from trauma, starting with the truest statement, “We ARE our bodies!”

Neuroscience and Meditation

Highlights of the research of Dr. Richard Davidson, neuroscience professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

  • Develop a more consistent state of calmness
  • Control reaction to unpleasant stimuli
  • Return to calmness more quickly

Dr. Davidson is at the center of a field of research involving meditation and its effect on the brain. His numerous studies utilize structural and functional brain imaging technology performed in a state-of-the-art facility focused on neuroscience, psychology, physics and statistics.

One such study involving Tibetan Buddhist monks, with tens of thousands of hours of experience meditating suggests the actual structure and the function of the brain can be altered through the practice of meditation. The concept of “neuroplasticity,” the ability of the brain to change throughout our lives in response to our experiences is at the core of understanding the effects of meditation.

MonkWithElectrodesDavidson first studied Matthieu Ricard, a French-born monk from India by hooking up 128 electrodes to his head and recording his brain activity as Ricard meditated on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion.” Two strikingly unusually results were immediately apparent: Ricard produced powerful gamma brain waves oscillating at 40 cycles per second and oscillations from other areas of his cortex were in synchrony in a fashion similar to that of patients under anesthesia. Gamma brain waves are often faint and hard to pickup but in Ricard’s meditative state they appeared unusually strong, indicating his ability to maintain intensely focused thought.

These results led Davidson to expand his study to include more monks and to include college students with little or no experience at meditation. The end result was that the monks produced gamma waves 30 times as strong as the students. The other finding was that the monks had larger active areas in their brains as compared to the students. Of significance was the area of the brain responsible for positive emotions, the left prefrontal cortex.

After a negative event or emotionally charged situation meditators recover and return to a calm state faster than individuals who have not developed calming skills. The monks are an example of this skill where they have learned compassion mediation. Their ability to activate the prefrontal cortex in response to the situation and modulate areas of the amygdala helps them to reduce reaction and quickly return to a state of calm. The ability to “down regulate” the amygdala is key because that is the area of the brain that forms and stores memories associated with emotional events and is concerned with vigilance and threat detection.

Note: image of monk with Electrodes comes from National Geographic, photograph by Cary Wolinsky and associated with this story by James Shreeve: Beyond the Brain