Trauma eventually comes for all of us. It isn’t just stereotypical things like war or assault that are traumatic, there is also the everyday realities of things like illness or job loss. As painful as it is, trauma can be an invitation to a process of growth and change.
Join us as today’s guest, Dr. James Gordon, explains some of the techniques of trauma healing, including some surprising ones, like laughter and spending time with animals. Dr. Gordon also shares with us how he personally handles his own trauma and the programs most often used by the Center for Mind-Body Medicine.
James S. Gordon, MD, author of The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma, is a Harvard educated psychiatrist and a world-renowned expert in using mind-body medicine to heal depression, anxiety, and psychological trauma. He is the Founder and Executive Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM), a clinical professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Family Medicine at Georgetown Medical School, and served as Chairman of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy.
Inside Mental Health Podcast Host
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to the Psych Central Podcast, where guest experts in the field of psychology and mental health share thought-provoking information using plain, everyday language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Podcast. Calling into the show today, we have James S. Gordon, M.D. He is the author of The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma. He is a Harvard educated psychiatrist and a world renowned expert in using mind body medicine to heal depression, anxiety and psychological trauma. Dr. Gordon, welcome to the show.
Dr. James Gordon: Thank you very much, Gabe. Good to be here.
Gabe Howard: Well, we really appreciate having you. So let’s kind of start with the basics. What exactly is trauma? I think people are familiar with, you know, post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. But what is a good working definition of trauma?
Dr. James Gordon: Well, the good working definition really is the Greek word for trauma, which means injury, it’s injury to the body and mind spirit to our social life. And I think the important thing to understand about trauma is that it comes to all of us. It’s not just restricted to people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder who’ve been through a war or been brutalized or raped or lived in horribly abusive families. It’s a part of life and it may come to us when we’re young. Our parents are somewhat abusive or neglectful or discriminated against at work or living in a violent or poverty stricken situation. It is likely to come to us as we grow older and we deal with real distress and losses of relationships or disappointments and jobs or physical illnesses or the death of parents. And it will definitely come if we’re lucky enough to grow old and be frail and have to face them also people we love and our own deaths. So trauma is a part of life.
Gabe Howard: It’s interesting that you phrase it that way, trauma is a part of life because I think that many people spend their lives trying to avoid a trauma. You gave some examples of things that are understandably traumatic and then you gave some examples of things that people are like, well, that’s just part of life, so therefore, it can’t cause trauma. Can you talk a little bit about sort of like the trauma scale? Right. Because I think the average person is thinking, well, if trauma is part of life, therefore it’s no big deal.
Dr. James Gordon: Well, hopefully life is a big deal. I think that’s really where we have to start. And that’s really what is part of what enables us to move through trauma. We need to value our lives. And so when something comes into our life that is extremely distressing, could be the loss of a relationship. It could be a divorce. More than half of American marriages end in divorce. I’ve never seen a divorce that wasn’t traumatic. I think we have to appreciate the fact that these are injuries to us, that they distress us. They throw our lives into chaos. They sometimes stop us in our tracks. And this is real. This doesn’t mean indulging in it, and, you know, kind of continually pitying ourselves. It means being realistic about the fact that we do experience this kind of suffering, this kind of pain. And if we can learn how to deal with it and move through it, we can also learn from it and grow through it. It’s a really valuable, although not a pleasant part of life. It’s not something that I would necessarily invite, but it’s something that’s going to come to us. And it’s an opportunity as well as a calamity.
Gabe Howard: And I think maybe a larger point that you have. And again, please correct me if I’m wrong, is that just because there are worse traumas doesn’t mean that what you’re going through isn’t real and damaging and persistent and needing to be addressed.
Dr. James Gordon: Absolutely. I think this is absolutely crucial. I’m glad you made that point because we often feel, oh, what I’ve gone through is not as bad as what the other person has gone through. And I really shouldn’t be so focused on it. I was just with a group of military veterans yesterday, as a matter of fact. And, you know, some of them had obvious traumas. They’d lost legs, you know, they’d had traumatic brain injury. And others were dealing with the sort of ordinary challenges of life, you know, dealing with relationships and whether or not they were gonna be able to make enough money to send their kids to college and worried about tight economic circumstances. And what I was struck by is the level of mutual understanding and compassion. And that’s what we need to cultivate rather than competitiveness, whose trauma is bigger if mine is bigger then I deserve more time and more space. And if mine is less, well, I really shouldn’t talk about it. It’s more like we all are going to go through difficult times and we are very much alike in that way. All humans are going to experience trauma. And if we acknowledge that and accept that, it gives us more compassion not only for other people, but also for ourselves. And that’s really what what this life is about. Trauma is a teacher ultimately to learn. If we can learn the lessons, we can grow through it. And it is not helpful to be comparing one person’s trauma to another person’s trauma. Obviously, I mean, I’ve worked with people who’ve lost quite literally 20, 25 members of their families during the war. And I’ve worked with people who are struggling with more ordinary problems like divorce and the illness of a child, serious illness of a child. But I think the idea is to have compassion for all of those kinds of suffering when they occur to others. And also when they occur to ourselves. And that’s the way we can begin to move through them. If we’re busy comparing, we’re never going to get anywhere.
Gabe Howard: I really like what you said there, I tend to call that the suffering Olympics and nobody really wins when you’re comparing yourself to others because the things that we go through are very real and meaningful and disrupt our lives. And finding out what disrupts other people’s lives isn’t necessarily the best path forward. But one of the things that you said is you said that trauma is an opportunity, I believe were your exact words. Now, most people think of trauma as just a disaster. But I know that through your work, you feel that it can also be an opportunity. Can you please explain why and how?
Dr. James Gordon: Sure. Why first. First of all, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by seeing it as an opportunity, by seeing it as something from which we can learn and not an unmitigated disaster. That’s the beginning of it. And how. The first step is to begin to balance the disorder that comes to our bodies and to our minds. So I teach a very simple form of concentrated meditation, just breathing slowly and deeply and through the nose, out through the mouth with the belly soft and relaxed. What that does is it quiets the agitation that comes after trauma. It helps to relax the muscles that get tense, because when we’re traumatized, we go whether it’s the cause of psychological or physical or social rejection. We go into a kind of fight or flight response. It’s just as if there were a predator, just as if there were, you know, we were in the jungle and a lion were chasing us. Our body reacts the same way. Big muscles get tense. Our heart rate goes up or blood pressure goes up. Our digestive system doesn’t work well. The centers of the brain are responsible for fear and anger are firing like crazy. And we’re suppressing centers in the brain that are responsible for self-awareness and thoughtful decision making and compassion. If we breathe slowly and deeply, it is very simple, not always easy. But if we can do this, we activate the vagus nerve which balances out the fight or flight response, quiets the body, slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure, calms the mind, helps us to focus, makes it easier to connect with other people and have compassion for them.
Dr. James Gordon: So very simple, very basic technique that lays the groundwork for all the other techniques that can help us move through and learn from trauma. First, we need to contend with the disruption the trauma has caused. This kind of soft belly breathing is fundamental. Another technique that is also crucial, it is less well-studied, but I would say equally important is the use of what can be called expressive meditations. Soft belly breathing is a concentrated meditation. All the world’s religious traditions have concentrated meditations. In western religions, repetitive prayers can be seen as concentrated meditations, or focusing on a sound or focusing on an image. Expressive meditations are meditations that work with the body moving very fast, breathing fast, whirling, jumping up and down, shaking and dancing. These are the oldest forms of meditation on the planet, and they’re very helpful. They’re very helpful with fight or flight when we’re tense and agitated and anxious and angry. And they’re also very especially helpful when we feel frozen, because sometimes when trauma is both overwhelming and inescapable, we just shut down. Our whole body closes down. We may go limp. We may collapse to the ground. We feel distant from our body. Both fight or flight and this freeze response can be lifesaving. If you think about an animal running away from a predator, fight or flight can save the animal’s life. Freezing can also save an animal’s life. If you think about your pet cat catching a mouse, the mouse goes limp in the cat’s jaws.
Dr. James Gordon: And sometimes if the cat doesn’t chomp down too much on the mouse, she loses interest in the mouse, puts the mouse down, mouse shakes herself off and runs off to the mouse hole. The freeze responses comes and saved the mouse’s life and has gone. The problem for humans is that we continue in fight or flight, and we continue in freeze response long after the traumatic event is over. Soft belly breathing balances out fight or flight. These active, expressive meditations helped to free us from the freezing response that we have. Just yesterday, I’m thinking about these vets that I was with. There was a guy there who’d been a Marine. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder ever since a combat incident where he witnessed two young boys who were shot and who were bleeding to death and he couldn’t do anything. He was frozen. He couldn’t even do basic first aid. And he was totally shut down and couldn’t connect with other people and felt his body all tight and tense. We did some shaking and dancing and he began to open up. He began to feel the feelings coming back into his body. So these are two ways quieting fight or flight, breaking up the tension and the withdrawal of the freeze response. These are fundamental processes that make it possible for us to use all the dozens of other self-care approaches and the other therapies that may help us move through whatever trauma we’ve experienced.
Gabe Howard: We’ll be right back after these messages.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing trauma with Dr. James S. Gordon. In addition to paying attention to nature and animals, you also talk about how laughter is an important part of trauma healing.
Dr. James Gordon: Sure.
Gabe Howard: I like this because I love humor. I love laughing. And I kind of feel like I understand why this would be helpful. But I think that maybe the average person is like, wait. So when I’m traumatized, you want me to laugh? It all seems so counterintuitive.
Dr. James Gordon: Absolutely. That’s what people say, and I’ve done this laughter, meditation with refugees, I’ve done it with people who’ve lost family members. I’ve also done it in people who were just dealing with more ordinary kinds of trauma. And often they look at me like I’m crazy. I said, OK, maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’m not. How about doing it? Just give me three minutes. Give laughter, three minutes. And what happens is, and I see this again and again, that the laughter, if you laugh with a ha ha ha ha ha. A total belly laugh, or sing it at first. It all of a sudden within a minute or two, your body begins to loosen up. Some energy comes back, a little feeling of freedom. And sometimes that laughter that was forced at first becomes spontaneous. And now there’s actually research showing that laughter not only relaxes the muscles in our bodies, it improves mood, decreases levels of anxiety, improves immunity. Just generally gives us a more positive outlook. So laughter is also an expressive meditation. Again, it breaks up that frozen state and I’ve used it again and again with people who’ve been shut down after major trauma. All of these set the stage and make us so much more receptive to the other approaches. Two others that I write about, one is being in nature and the other is having animals around us. Now, many of us I don’t know about you, but when I was going through really difficult times in my life, I just naturally, if you go gravitated toward walking in nature.
Dr. James Gordon: I happened to be in the city so I would go to a park to walk in the park. And as soon as I would get in the park, I would feel a bit of the weight lifting off me. And if I spent more time there, I feel a bit more easy. I could feel a little breathe a little deeper. And my shoulders weren’t as tight, and my mood lifted. We now know 60 years after, as a kid, I would do that spontaneously. Now, there’s lots of research showing that if we spend time in nature that we do to decrease levels of anxiety, we do improve our mood. We do decrease blood pressure or immunity may improve. So being in nature clearly is therapeutic for us when we’re going through a hard time and it’s good for us in any time. And animals, again, I remember as a little kid being very, very lonely. And one of the things that made me feel better was taking care of rabbits. Now, nobody showed me any research on this. This is now 70 years later. There is research showing that people who spend time with animals, people have gone through a difficult time, are going to do better. One of the most striking studies is a study of people who have had heart attacks.
Dr. James Gordon: They were divided into two groups comparable in every other way. Severity of the heart attack, age, general physical status, etc. Those people who had pets at home lived far longer than those people who did not on average. I think it was something like the death rates were three times as great for those people who did not have animals as for those people who did. And even brief periods with animals can be very, very therapeutic. I’ve done a lot of work after school shootings here in the United States with kids who’ve been terribly traumatized by the death of other kids in the school and the death of teachers. Many times the kids don’t particularly want to talk to adults, but they do want to talk to animals. They do want to be close to animals. They feel better when they’re petting a dog or sidling up to a horse and grooming a horse or maybe getting on a horse. That’s what makes them feel better. These are just laughter, nature, pets, these are just three of the powerful therapeutic approaches that any of us can use. And you don’t have to own a pet. You can go pay attention to animals in the park. You can visit in a petting zoo. You can go visit a friend or relative who has a pet. Even those brief visits turn out to be therapeutic.
Gabe Howard: I like how you said there are three simple things that anybody can do. And you also talk about a fourth and a fifth, gratitude and forgiveness. Can you talk about how gratitude and forgiveness help us heal from our own trauma?
Dr. James Gordon: Sure. Meditation kind of opens the door for gratitude. So if you are in that state of relaxed moment-to-moment awareness and by meditation, I don’t mean anything fancy, that slow, deep, soft belly breathing. Anybody can do. You don’t have to pay anybody for it. You don’t have to change your religion or go anyplace special or change your clothes. That relaxed, soft, belly breathing creates a state in which appreciation of each moment is possible. And that appreciation is a form of gratitude. People who are grateful tend to be less anxious. Their mood is better. They move through difficult situations more easily. And keeping a gratitude journal is another way of kind of making gratitude easier. Simply writing down three or five things for which you’re grateful. You can do it in the morning. You can do it in the evening. And there’s a lot of research showing that writing down those things, and it could be something very simple. I’m grateful for my morning coffee. I’m grateful that the guy who got me the coffee said hello to me and smiled at me. I’m grateful that I had a comfortable place to sit in the coffee shop. Just those simple things. Write them down. That in itself improves mood. That’s a kind of counterweight to the negative distressed thinking we have when we’re traumatized. And I’ve seen many, many people for whom that’s been a kind of lifeline through difficult times.
Dr. James Gordon: Now forgiveness is not so easy for many people, even though all the religions teach us the importance of forgiveness. It’s not so easy for us, so it’s something that we have to practice. Most of us. Some of us are naturally forgiving and those people are blessed. Most of us have to do some exercises to encourage forgiveness. The one that I teach in The Transformation is a pretty simple one. It’s imagining somebody sitting across from you whom you’ve harmed and asking forgiveness from that person and then imagining somebody who’s harmed you sitting across from you and forgiving that person and then imagining you’re sitting across from yourself and allowing yourself to forgive yourself and then letting forgiveness spread from there out into the world. Now that third one. Forgiving yourself is often the hardest for most of us. But all three can be difficult and it’s a matter of practice. And I don’t force people, I don’t push people to forgive. That’s why I teach forgiveness toward the end of the transformation. That’s why at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, we’re working with a whole population that’s been traumatized. We do our forgiveness meditation toward the end of our training. It takes some time. We have to come into a more relaxed state. We have to have some sense of appreciation and gratitude.
Dr. James Gordon: Some of the confidence that comes with using some of the other tools in addition to the ones we’ve already mentioned, like guided imagery or written exercises or drawings that help us mobilize our imagination in forgiveness comes a bit more easily. And if you’re working with forgiveness, don’t necessarily start with the person you believe has destroyed your life. Start with the guy who cut you off in traffic this morning. Start with something a little easier and work up to the big ones. And it’s a process, but it’s really important. And what’s most important is to bring that forgiveness, that compassion into your life. It’s important for you. It’s not so important for the other person, really. And if we’re able to do this, if we’re able to begin to feel more forgiving toward other people as well as ourselves, that helps to balance our whole physiology, gives us so much more hopeful outlook on life, helps us relate to other people, helps us deal with future situations more easily. We’re not so easily angered anymore. We have more of a sense of other people’s reality that maybe they weren’t really trying to hurt us. Maybe they were going through a hard time. Again, this is a gradual process and be patient with yourself as you embark on it.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much, I really appreciate all that information. For our listeners out there, can you share your favorite self-care technique?
Dr. James Gordon: Well, it’s the soft belly breathing. It’s what I teach everywhere. It’s what I do every day. It’s how I keep myself in balance. It’s fundamental to all the other techniques. It’s portable. It’s easy to do. I do it when I’m standing on line in the supermarket and I’m getting impatient. I just do it before every meeting I have with our staff at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, keep me balanced and keeps me at ease in the world. One other that I’ll mention that we haven’t gone into, but I do use a lot and that I teach in detail in The Transformation is the use of wise guide imagery. That is relaxing, imagining myself in a safe, comfortable place, and then imagining that a guide comes to me. It could be a person, it could be an animal, a figure from scripture, or a book, or who knows where. And this may represent my imagination or my intuition or my unconscious. And it’s a way of accessing my intuition, my imagination, my unconscious. It’s a way of solving problems. And I create this image, and I have an imaginary dialogue with the image. And I must do this twice a week when I’m coming up against a situation and
Dr. James Gordon: I’m not quite sure what to do. And I don’t have an immediate response and I can’t figure it out rationally. I know I need to go to that deeper part of my inner knowing. And the whole script for the wise guide imagery is there in The Transformation and people can look at me doing it at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine Website, cmbm.org. But those two I would say, are the fundamental. Soft belly breathing, always, always, always. Wise guide imagery whenever I’m in trouble. But I think the other thing I want to say is that my favorite technique may not be yours. And that’s why I in The Transformation described 20, 25 different techniques because we’re all different and different techniques are going to appeal to different people. And we need to use techniques that are most appealing and most effective for us. So I want to emphasize that as well. What I do in The Transformation is encourage you to trust yourself more and more and say, OK, this works for me. This doesn’t work. Let me use what works and don’t get preoccupied with what doesn’t work. That way lies more trouble.
Gabe Howard: Along those same lines, what is your top advice to a listener who wishes to recover from a traumatic situation?
Dr. James Gordon: Know recovery is possible and know the trauma is the soil, it’s the ground in which both wisdom and compassion can grow. Know that this is the perennial wisdom of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions. We have evidence for this with modern scientific research has shown that this is possible. This is what I’ve discovered in 50 years of working with people who’ve been traumatized. And what I’ve learned and working with my own trauma know that it is possible for you not only to rebalance yourself and recover and become more resilient, become more joyful and wiser and more compassionate and more fulfilled than you’ve ever been. And that trauma can be an invitation, as painful as it is, to that process of growth and change.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Gordon, thank you so much. Where can our listeners find you and where can they find your new book, The Transformation?
Dr. James Gordon: The Transformation, Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma, you can get it at any independent bookstore, you can buy it on Amazon.com. Wherever you’d like to. It’s widely available. The Center for Mind-Body Medicine Web site CMBM.org has me describing and showing many of the techniques that are in The Transformation, as well as information about programs we’re doing all over the country and opportunity to join mind body skills groups where you can learn the techniques with other people and feel the support of other people and learn from somebody who I’ve trained, who is well-schooled in the techniques and the approach that I describe and that you could read about in The Transformation. You can look for me. James Gordon, M.D., that’s my Web site. Also on Instagram, James Gordon, M.D. And on Twitter. This is also an invitation to become part of our community at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine. We’re growing all the time and we’re reaching out and working with many hundreds of thousands of people here in the United States and overseas, giving them the tools, teaching them the techniques, giving them the perspective and the understanding that’s there in The Transformation.
Gabe Howard: Thank you again so much for being here, we really, really appreciate it.
Dr. James Gordon: Thank you for giving me the opportunity.
Gabe Howard: You’re welcome. And remember, to all of our listeners, we need you to share us on social media wherever you downloaded this podcast. Rate us as many stars, bullets or hearts as you feel appropriate and use your words. Tell other people why to listen. And remember, you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counselling anytime, anywhere, simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. We will see everybody next week.
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