Meditation & PTSD
August 26, 2012 § 2 Comments
Perhaps the strongest “not me” thought arises in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder where a survival mechanism of the brain acts to suppress all behavior long after the traumatic event has passed. This mechanism is one of three an organism uses when presented with life threatening danger. These are to attack, take flight or play dead (“freeze”). It is the latter that’s active in PTSD.
Essentially, the freeze mechanism is the brain sending commands to the body to suppress activity and feign death when faced with a threat that it can neither attack nor run from. In PTSD this mechanism continues to send these commands long after the threat has passed.
As might be expected from something that suppresses bodily activity, the freeze mechanism is related to PTSD depression. It is the source of various avoidance symptoms such as emotional numbing, feelings of detachment, showing less of ones moods, and avoiding places, people and thoughts that remind one of the traumatic event. It is involved in PTSD hyper-vigilance, insomnia, feeling irritable and difficulty concentrating. These and other symptoms are all the result of a neural mechanism that acts to negate all individual activity on the false directive that to act is to die. The range of suppression is not limited to physical but psychological activity as well, such as simply being assertive or affirming your own worth. In this way it is an ultimate “not me” directive or thought.
Naturally, one suffering from PTSD would be attracted to the meditative technique of inhibiting thoughts believing the cure lies in suppressing symptoms. But attempts to inhibit thoughts only lead to more thoughts and attempts to suppress PTSD symptoms only reinforce the neural suppression mechanism. When using meditation to alleviate PTSD it therefore becomes necessary to face thoughts and symptoms with the intent of seeing their unreality and essential emptiness.
It is, of course, not possible here to investigate meditation and PTSD in its entirety. But there are two simple methods I can suggest that may be of help.
First, as activity is the antithesis of the freeze mechanism it is necessary to start making decisions and taking action on those choices. It does not matter how big or small the activity or whether it is a good decision or bad. In fact, stopping to consider an action’s rightness is itself a symptom of the freeze mechanism. With PTSD, just acting is part of the cure.
Second, when faced with PTSD symptoms it helps to affirm that it is just your brain reacting to a threat that does not exist. Of course, the first reaction to this statement is that the threat did exist or might exist. But what was or might be again are, after all, just thoughts in the head. And even if the events that traumatized an individual exist somewhere in the world today, they still only exist to one suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as thoughts in that person’s head.
Affirming that PTSD is a neural activity, or just “the brain”, takes the apparent reality of the trauma out of the surrounding environment where it has been projected and places it squarely back where it belongs, in the brain. Building on this affirmation leads to the realization that if all the reasons for PTSD exist only in the head, then they have no basis in reality. Building further on this one realizes it isn’t “as if” the brain is reacting to nothing. It is the brain reacting to nothing. This realization enables the progressive release of the reactions and symptoms of PTSD.
Incorporating the above two recommendations into their daily thinking will help PTSD sufferers. The benefits of this retraining may not be immediately apparent but neuroscience has shown that it is possible for stroke victims to rewire the brain via the process of neuroplasticity. If this is true with irreparable brain damage then how much more so is it when there is no brain damage, as with those that suffer from PTSD.
A final note, the everyday meditator should know that avoiding “not me” thoughts will eventually lead to inaction and a frozen view of themselves and the world. Negating the self via denial is a road to unconsciousness, not a royal road to Consciousness.