Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. James Gordon, Harvard trained psychiatrist, Director for the Center for Mind Body Medicine, and author of the new book, The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma.
Our conversation blew my mind on many levels. Not only is Dr. Gordon an expert on dealing with trauma, he gives practical steps for addressing trauma that anyone can do!
What is your background in psychiatry and what led you to mind/body medicine?
My own “wanting something more.” I understood the effectiveness of psychotherapy, I understood it as a patient and as a medical student and resident. I became a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, and I appreciated the benefits, but I wondered what else there was. I became interested in how to work with people on a physical level without using medication. I was also interested in the spiritual dimension and how we could become much more loving and living in harmony with who we are meant to be. I had a sense I wanted something more, and by working with myself physically, emotionally, interpersonally, and spiritually I wanted to share it with other people. As a researcher, I saw it as a mission to explore the new frontiers and bring back whatever understanding I could find and share with others.
Who is the intended audience of this book?
This book is for everyone. Sooner or later, trauma in one form or another comes to everyone. If it doesn’t come early in life because of discrimination, neglect, poverty or abuse, it will come as young adults as we enter mid-life, with breakups, relationships, significant disappoints, work life, death of our parents, illnesses. Trauma is a Greek word that means injury. If it doesn’t come then, it will come as we are old. I wanted to write a guidebook that would help us all navigate the inevitable challenges and trauma that’s going to come to us. It is written in a way that the order of the chapters makes walking on this path to transformation much easier for everyone. It’s putting together 50 years of professional experience, almost 80 years of lived experience, the best science and evidence we have, stories that are inspirational, and also an understanding that comes from traditional wisdom. I’m doing my best to make it available to everybody.
What is the biology behind trauma?
The way to understand it is that there are two basic reactions in dealing with a traumatic event, any kind of injury – physical, psychological, social, spiritual. There’s the fight or flight reaction – or the freeze reaction. The fight or flight reaction was discovered by Walter Bradford Cannon. He observed that all vertebrates, when threatened by a predator or a life-threatening situation, all had similar response. Heart rate goes up, blood pressure up, big muscles are mobilized to fight or run, digestion doesn’t work so well – there’s no point in stopping for a snack when a lion is chasing after you. We know now that kind of trauma increases activity in the amygdala, responsible for fear and anger, and decreases activity in our frontal part of cerebral cortex, the area responsible for self-awareness, thoughtful decision making, and compassion. Fight or flight is responsible for priming us to fight or to get us out of there. Genetics generally determines our response.
Human beings have the blessing and curse of having a big brain. When something traumatic has happened, we tend to play it over and over again in our brain,we see the image over and over, and we still have the same feelings in our body days, weeks after the event. The traumatic event does certain amount of damage, but more damage is done by being in chronically fight or flight mode. You stay irritable, angry, have difficulty sleeping or focusing, can’t connect so well with others or thinks straight. Situations that are reminiscent of the trauma make us extremely anxious.
The other major physiological response is the freeze response. It shuts us down, puts out endorphins, and we remove ourselves. It comes when the feeling is overwhelming and inescapable. You may not be in as much of contact with other people or be able to appreciate the help they’re offering, because you’re walled off as a protective mechanism. Humans, unlike animals, stay shut down. Any approach that deals with trauma must work directly with fight or flight or freeze response.
What is the epigenetic effect of trauma? How is trauma passed down?
There are two ways trauma can be passed down in families. One, through anxious parents or living with irritable and impatient parents. There’s a family culture, and things get passed that way. That’s social transmission. Epigenetic transmission comes when the results of trauma (fear, emotional withdrawal, tension, difficulty coping) is transmitted through the chromosomes. Epi means “above” in Greek, so this is a change in structure that is “above the genes,” not in the genes. Structures called histones, or CH3 methyl molecules, modify the ways the genes work, so when we experience very significant trauma, there are epigenetic changes so that we’re no longer able to deal with stress effectively. The genes in our bodies that are responsible for helping us deal with stress don’t work as efficiently as they did before we were traumatized. Those changes in the chromosomes can be passed on in utero from the mother, but they can be passed on from both mother and father to a child not yet conceived through the chromosomes, and that child can pass on those epigenetic changes to his/her children. A researcher named Rachel Yehuda studied the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. The kids, even when they had no contact with the survivor themselves, or when they were adopted, exhibited the same genetic changes and vulnerability to stress. It’s something to be aware of. When we have symptoms that we don’t understand, like “why am I so nervous about going out at night – I was never attacked, nothing happened, why do I feel such anxiety?” Sometimes this kind of feeling may be magnified through epigenetic changes. But this is not a life sentence. We can reverse those changes with precisely the techniques I teach in The Transformation.
One of the techniques is soft belly breathing. What is it?
It’s a technique I learned about 45 years ago. I like it because it’s simple, nondenominational, you don’t have to change your religion, pay money, go somewhere, or change your clothes. You can do it anywhere and it’s extremely effective. (Refer to podcast interview for a demonstration) This activates the Vagus nerve, which quiets the fight or flight response. It’s the antidote to the fight or flight response. It slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure, helps to relax the big tense muscles in our body, and improves our digestion that’s shut down when we are in fight or flight. It quiets activity in the amygdala, the emotional brain. It increases activity in the frontal part of our cerebral cortex, the part responsible for judgment, self-awareness and compassion. One branch of the Vagus nerve connect with other nerves that make it easier for us to read facial expressions and tune in to what other people are saying. It quiets the body, and calms and focuses the mind. It makes it easier and more satisfying to connect to other people.
There’s a message from doing this. That message is you can make difference in how you feel. When you’re going through a hard time, or under stress over time, often the worst part is we feel hopeless and helpless like we can’t do anything about it. Doing soft belly like this tells you from your own experience that you can make a difference in how you feel. What I’ve seen working with people with this in the last 45 years or so, often this is the first step toward healing a variety of different kinds of trauma, dealing with chronic stress, and getting on the road to much greater resiliency. It’s an antidote to fight or flight – but it’s also an antidote to those feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Once we’re able to quiet ourselves and get more relaxed, all the other techniques I teach will be so much easier to learn. If you can relax quiet your mind and open your heart, you can learn so many new techniques.
With meditation, you’re in the present. The more you’re in the present, the less of a grip the trauma has on you. The easier it is to live your life fully and freely.
How often should one meditate?
As often as possible, but don’t make that another burden. The original research on the effectiveness on meditation decreasing anxiety, improving mood, and rebuilding the brain was done on people meditating up to 45 minutes a day, usually 20 minutes twice a day. That’s a lot for a lot of people. My experience is that it can make a difference with 5 minutes, 2-3 times a day. There’s some interesting research out there in which beginning meditators who learned how to do something similar to soft belly, after 2 hours a week (20 minutes a day) were able to make all these changes in brain function and rebuild parts of their brains damaged by stress and trauma in the frontal cortex, and also subdue activity in the amydala, center for fear and anger. So I suggest begin with 5-10 minutes, 2 or 3 times a day and see what happens. After awhile, I find that just a few deep breaths, just one or two minutes, really relaxes me and brings me to the present moment. The script for this and all the techniques I mention are in The Transformation, and some are available to download on our website. I teach each technique in an order that makes sense, and each one builds on the previous. All of them are grounded in my understanding that we have the capacity in ourselves to heal the damage that trauma and chronic stress have done.
If you could give one piece of advice to spark someone towards wholeness, what would it be?
Relax into the present moment, and whenever possible, open your heart.