What neurobiology can teach us about trauma, stress and the power of meditation

Inside of Inside

The other night I made the mistake of opening a questionable computer file.

It was late, and I was tired when I got duped by “Mackeeper”, and its picture of the nerdy, arms-crossed, “Apple Certified” technicians. They looked convincing, and I naively believed the ad’s promise that it would scour my computer of potential intruders, and restore computer mojo.

When I clicked on it, I soon discovered that rather than free up my machine’s capacity, the file actually threatened to slow it down. My heart began to race when Google queries came back with dire warnings to avoid Mackeeper at all costs.

When I suddenly realized that I couldn’t open any files on my computer, I felt my body become tense, frozen on the edge of my seat.

In some ways Mackeeper’s impact on my computer resembles how our brain adapts to trauma. In the midst of a traumatic event, and when a person’s ability to cope is overwhelmed, the amygdala, the equivalent to the brain’s fire detector, goes on red alert. When this happens our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that helps us maintain perspective, and make rational decisions, goes offline.

A part of the limbic system, the amygdala is the second level of the triune brain. Based on the work of Paul D. McLean, the triune brain belongs to a theory of evolution in which the brain develops in stages from reptilian (brain stem), to neomammalian (limbic), and finally to the outermost layer, our neo-cortex (prefrontal cortex).

When MacKeeper hijacked my computer, I started to panic which for me feels like tightening of my chest, and breath becoming shallow. As my attentional resources narrowed to the issue at hand, I felt the beginnings of the stress response which is characterized by the impulse to either freeze, run or fight.

Because meditation and mindfulness practice have given me opportunities to witness this tendency toward reactivity, I was able to pause, and remind myself that I do have choices about how I respond to stress. Meditation, and the practice of mindfulness in everyday life, instills the ability to choose not to react but to make contact with the present moment, and stay calm even under stressful circumstances.

Sometimes making contact with the present moment is challenging. Our thoughts can feel dense like a thicket, or like dead weight. We can get pulled into reactions that feed old patterns, and do not serve the deeper wisdom of who we are. It takes a strong will to transform old behavior patterns, and rewire new neural pathways. The term neuroplasticity reflects this idea that the brain changes itself based on experience.

In my own experience, and as numerous research studies attest, meditation strengthens the prefrontal cortex. A well wired prefrontal cortex supports our ability to step back, and observe all the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that come and go. Executive functions such as emotional and social intelligence, capacity for empathy, and self understanding are all derived from the prefrontal cortex (Siegel, 2012). This ability to observe without needing to push away or grasp is known as mindfulness. Mindfulness and the prefrontal cortex are like brothers from another mother.

Some studies have shown that mindfulness practice can increase a person’s resilience to trauma because the ability to remain present mitigates post traumatic symptoms. Ranging from complete hyperarousal (the impulse to fight), to hypoarousal (what animals do when their only chance of escape is to pretend they are dead), the stress response is adaptive when quick reactions are needed. However when it persists and becomes habitual, reactivity can interfere with our ability to enjoy a healthy and fulfilling quality of life.

When survival responses become overused, and flare up in everyday situations, such when someone cuts us off in traffic, or when we accidentally open an unfriendly computer file, the habitual flushing of stress hormones through our system can take its toll.

The key is to…

PAUSE, BREATHE, and open up to receive some much needed PERSPECTIVE.

The inner dialogue can go something like this:

“This is one of those moments I warned you about” said not so much in words but sensing into it.

“I feel reactive but I can override my reaction and bring my awareness response online…”

“Breathe…this too shall pass”.

Stressful situations are part of life but they don’t have to take us down the rabbit hole of reactivity. Every time we choose to stay calm under pressure, we build new neural pathways that support a more intelligent prefrontal cortex. Remembering to pause, breathe, and stay balanced is helpful as we navigate intense emotions, and stressful situations. Mindfulness is the practice of being present with what is even if it’s uncomfortable and undesirable. Choosing to be mindful helps us to become more attuned, flexible, empathic, and emotionally balanced so that we embody our greatest aspirations for ourselves, and for others.

For more on this, check out:

Perry, B.D., & Szalavitz, M. (2006). The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Siegel, D.J. (2006). An interpersonal neurobiology approach to psychotherapy. Psychiatric Annals, 36 (4), 248-256.

Siegel, D.J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.

Siegel, D.J. (2010). The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration (pp.133-151). New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.