Survivors of traumatic experiences, especially those who have suffered multiple episodes while young such as child sex trafficking, face many challenges in recovery. One challenge is mastering the ability to balance both their emotion and reason when approaching life.
In many cases, emotional responses from victims of trauma are survival reflexes of fight, flight, or freeze. For those who endured terrifying and overwhelming victimization as children, their brains can become over-developed for emotional survival responses and under-developed for rational executive functions.
Improving the brain’s executive functions of inhibiting impulsive behaviors; controlling and focusing attention; and making, following, and altering plans empowers trauma survivors in their recovery. They will also benefit from being able to observe and acknowledge their emotions rather than attempting to ignore them or judging themselves for having them.
According to psychotherapist, Bowbay Liang-Hua Feng, “Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of your thoughts, reactions, physical sensations, and emotions in the present moment without criticizing or judging the experience.”
Feng says “trauma increases the risk of misinterpreting danger.” This threat bias can lead trauma survivors to make inappropriate or even unsafe decisions when they feel threatened yet not actually in danger. Mindfulness, Feng says, “helps executive brain functions to regulate and moderate natural reactions that occur in trauma victims, such as their fight/flight/freeze response.”
In short, according to Feng, “mindfulness creates the space in which to make decisions.” The end result is being able to “control your mind rather than letting your mind control you.”
Doing so is facilitated by observing and describing what is occurring at the moment according to all relevant senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) and describing it. The next step is interpreting activities and thoughts without judgment, such as whether they are good or bad or what one should be feeling or thinking or not. Instead, one acknowledges which thoughts are helpful or hurtful without judgment in order to avoid an emotional response, which typically occurs because of judgmental interpretations.
Another mindfulness skill is being single-minded about doing one thing at a time with full attention, whether working, walking, listening, planning, etc. Other actions or thoughts that distract or intrude should be let go in order to return to the action or thought at hand—again and again, if necessary.
The brain is not designed to multi-task and, according to MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller, “there’s a cognitive cost for doing so.” Multi-tasking can increase stress and anxiety while interfering with memory and the ability to concentrate. Those same issues are common effects of trauma in trafficking victims, so multi-tasking can exacerbate them. A March/April 2016 Psychology Today article reported that a 2013 British research study concluded that “mulling over worries is the biggest predictor of depression and anxiety.”
To teach single-tasking, “thought defusion” is helpful. It allows someone to observe and then choose which thoughts to focus on and which ones to release. It’s an imagination process to prevent distressing and distracting thoughts from intruding by visualizing them being cast off. Examples include seeing such thoughts as balloons released into the sky or leaves dropped into a river.
According to PTSD Trauma Treatment, distressful thoughts and unwanted memories are symptoms of trauma and can “be preoccupying and debilitating, interfering with the performance of daily activities and even leading to suicidality.” The recommendation is “choosing more positive mental activity to replace an undesirable one” through visualization stress management skills.
Another symptom of trauma is hypervigilance, which post-traumatic stress disorder researcher Dr. Matthew Tull defines as “the experience of being constantly tense and ‘on guard.’” According to Tull, sufferers of hypervigilance “live in a long lasting state of insecurity. To prevent the traumatic experience they lived through from happening again, they become preoccupied with spotting potential threats.”
Tull wrote that “mindfulness methods may also help because they focus the mind on the here and now” rather than being trapped in the pain of past trauma or in fear of future threat. For those with PTSD, Tull advises that “mindfulness can be used to take a step back from your thoughts and reduce their ability to affect your life.”