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January 12, 2015
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How Mindfulness Can Help Resolve Childhood Trauma

The mindfulness resurgence has been a gift to us all especially in our fast paced and un-present tech-driven lifestyles. While empirical research has yet to officially conclude that mindfulness is effective with trauma/PTSD, good trauma therapists have known for decades that being aware of a trigger instead of being the trigger is the start to a path of long-lasting recovery.

Non-judgmental awareness and curiosity (mindfulness) about our beliefs and reactions (triggers) can create space in our neurological system. Being mindful about our triggers creates room for clearer thinking and management of emotions from a grounded place rather than a reactive one. Mindfulness can be extremely helpful in hindering the physiological process of fight/flight/or freeze which is more prevalent in our systems than we’d like to think.

During a fight, flight, or freeze reaction, we markedly either shut down or animate in ways that often do not match the present situation and within us is the presence of an emotional “charge” that doesn’t feel good to us. Fight flight or freeze is a built-in distant warning system that serves us well. We’ll come back to this later.

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I liken this prevalence of negative memorized feelings/being in our inner child to a computer’s operating system. Our computers get glitchy and slow if we have too many applications going or the operating system is outdated. Trauma itself is like running our lives on an outdated operating system.

Dr. Joe Dispenza who wrote Changing the Habit of Being Yourself discussed trauma and emotional stuckness as living in “memorized feelings.” He does an amazing job at spelling out how prevalent these memorized feelings are and how much space they take up in our psyches, and how they go hand in-hand with the fight, flight, or freeze response. My mentor and supervising therapist Amanda Curtin LICSW, uses a similar language on this prevalence of “memorized feelings.” 

Her trauma work centers on the idea that a prevalent and underdeveloped inner child is running our adult lives in the here and now yet that child emotionally relates to the world from the past i.e., anticipating criticism and reacting ahead of time, black and white thinking or shutting down in the midst of relational conflict. Her work with clients is to help them develop a prevalent adult part who can re-parent the child part as a separate entity. 

This essentially is mindfulness – where the pragmatic adult part is aware of a trigger held by the inner child as opposed to being the trigger i.e. shutting down, negative narratives, fight/flight/freeze, overly intellectualized, living in fantasy, irresponsibility, etc. In Amanda Curtin’s model, she works with clients to be aware how much they are “in their kid”, reacting from a charged “memorized feeling”.

I liken this prevalence of negative memorized feelings/being in our inner child to a computer’s operating system. Our computers get glitchy and slow if we have too many applications going or the operating system is outdated. Trauma itself is like running our lives on an outdated operating system (memorized feelings and habituated reactions/behaviors) where present opportunities and experiences absolutely do not jive with our old software. Think running Windows 95 and attempt to seamlessly change from Internet Explorer to Chrome or Firefox. Not happening. 

The os is faulty – not the present. For example, let’s say that a childhood/dysfunctional family trauma survivor starts a new job and experiences vast amounts of anxiety that goes beyond normal first-day nervousness. The old OS (childhood memorized feelings) inhibits being present. Being calm and comfortable in the new job isn’t possible due to being extremely triggered back to a time when they felt they were never good enough. Their inner child is reacting from a place of fear or shame and perhaps: over compensates, can’t remember new co worker’s names, stays late going over protocols that may not be necessary and does not allow for beginners mind. 

Perhaps in childhood there was no process to being new to things. The old OS is dysfunctional with the current software. Our strategies, reactions, and programming in childhood allowed us to survive emotionally and should be honored. New strategies need to be developed just as Windows 95 is long overdue for an update.

An outdated OS takes a heavy toll on the hardware (the body and the body’s energy levels). Let’s say the clunky photos application with hundreds of pictures loading, takes up 75% of our computer’s CPU (Central Processing Unit) usage or perhaps an app is perpetually wanting to update and it takes up to 75% of the systems usages (memory). The high usage of the problematic application leaves very little room for smooth sailing and limits resources: energy, cognition, processing. For a traumatized human being, which is many of us, let’s say the application is a core belief of shame. 

Think of how exhausted, glitchy and not present we are if 75-85% of our emotional and cognitive experience in the world is immersed in a baseline of either shame, fear, sadness, anxiety, anger, or lack that runs us. Think of how the thought/feeling “I’m such a loser” drains our focus and vitality. Here is the prevalence Dispenza’a memorized feeling and Curtin’s inner child running our adult lives and slowing us down.

As a therapist trained in Amanda Curtin’s model of childhood trauma and family of origin dysfunction, I see my new clients struggle with trying to live in the joy of the present but they cannot make feeling the present tangible. I know they are in need of deeper work to awaken to the present. In their defense, it was not safe to fully feel all their emotions growing up, and they are programmed to be disconnected from themselves making full whole hearted living very difficult. Deeper work needs to happen and an uncomfortable yet noble turning towards repressed feelings and difficult personal history needs to take place. 

The mindfulness practice of turning towards symptoms and triggers is the beginning of processing our childhoods: recalling the dynamics of our parents’ marriage, how we were treated, learning about what is not good enough parenting, naming neglect, naming co-dependency, naming terror, naming a family rule that emotions are to be suppressed and are messy. Trauma work is usually formulated in a beginning, middle, and end framework. The beginning phase or “awareness” phase is a noble effort in being mindful, that our negative feelings and reactions are based in history rather than deep flaws.

Richard Curtin Psy. D., RMT of Cambridge MA who recently published his second edition of Psychotherapeutic Reiki –A Holistic Body-Mind Approach to Psychotherapy discusses the use of Reiki in the treatment of trauma symptoms. The book is a treatment manual for therapists and Reiki practitioners. Dr. Curtin consistently discusses the concept of when symptoms are avoided and or controlled, those symptoms intensify

Curtin likens avoiding or controlling symptoms to fighting white water current. Fighting against it is exhausting. Surrendering to symptoms and edging our way safely to the shoreline is a very different and mindful approach. Psychotherapeutic Reiki practice brings the mindfulness practice to the body, which is a deeper level of understanding ourselves and in essence coming home

Reiki treatment brings deep relaxation and insight, which allows clients the ability to gradually or immediately sit with and explore their symptoms (depression/anxiety/ruminations/reactions) without being intensely upset that they feel them. This year I have incorporated Psychotherapeutic Reiki into my trauma practice with the goal of getting my clients to install the practice of Reiki on themselves – getting them to self-sooth and inhibit flight/fight/freeze outside of the therapy hour. For this practice, I am forever grateful.

I believe good trauma work means the return to our bodies with a new healthy belief system. Mindfulness is the vehicle of the trauma process and the process is a brave and bumpy ride. When clients return to their bodies via inner child work, finishing old business from childhood, their capacity to live in the present is profoundly enhanced. They experience authentic selfhood and joy and begin a new journey with a new operating system. 

The new OS is very adaptive and efficient compared to the old. It now has new neural connections that can experience old triggers (intimacy, conflict, struggle, being visible) with lightheartedness, resiliency, and openness. This is achieved when clients can reclaim their truth, and build a foundation of safety and love for themselves.

Patrick Teahan LICSW is a Clinical Social Worker with ten years experience working in community, corporate and private practice settings working with individuals, couples and families. He has worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Community Outpatient Agencies, and several private practices. Patrick has trained extensively with Amanda Curtin LICSW of the Center for Change in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He utilizes her highly effective trauma therapy model in his work in group, couples, and individual.

Currently Patrick’s focus is helping people identify and heal long seated negative beliefs and behaviors stemming from dysfunctional family-based trauma. Patrick’s expertise as an individual and group therapist helps individuals reclaim their true self, allowing for the creation of a healthy and joyous lifestyle. His approach is holistic – incorporating family systems, mind and body, and Reiki. He has a passion seeing his clients experience deep change via experiential and cathartic work.

About the author 

Sean Fargo

Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]