Training the brain to fend off stress and trauma
Some occupations and lifestyles are inherently stressful, even traumatic.
Symptoms are often bravely hidden to the detriment of the person suffering the growing levels of stress.
The results of prolonged exposure to the trauma of others can result in vicarious trauma, where people rendering assistance become traumatized. One third in this group will develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It’s long been believed that some people are just “stronger” than others, and weather trauma better. It’s not so much about strength, but about resilience, and other supports, such as strong family, religious/spiritual connections and healthy lifestyle choices, which can help people process what they’ve experienced.
Resilience itself can assist workers at high-stress professions in being less affected by what they experience.
Good science is now showing that mindfulness training actually physically changes important areas of the brain which assist in increasing resiliency, helping fend off trauma.
Harvard professor Sara W. Lazar showed how mindfulness training actually physically changes the brain. Lazar’s work initially showed increased cortical thickness in the neocortex, but later fMRI’s showed that after an eight-week mindfulness training (MBSR), the amygdala, the smoke alarm of the brain, actually shrunk in size. There was also increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that determines whether an event (traumatic or otherwise) occurred 20 years ago, or is happening right now.
All of these physical improvements support resilience and better response to traumatic events.
In 2004, U.S. health care provider Aetna ran a study on 289 employees. A third of the group were used as a baseline, one third were given yoga classes and one third were trained in mindfulness (MBSR).
Biometrics were taken before and after the training. In both the yoga and the mindfulness training, clinicians found huge drops in cortisol levels and in heart rate fluctuations. There was no difference in the baseline group. The cortisol drops and difference in heart rate fluctuations are indicative of what the groups were self reporting. They experienced a 28 per cent drop in stress, a 20 per cent increase in sleep quality, and a 19 per cent drop in chronic pain.
The findings were published in a 2012 article in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, titled Effective and Viable Mind-Body Stress Reduction in the Workplace: A Randomized Controlled Trial.
An article on the findings was later published in the New York Times, by Mindfulness At Work author David Gelles.
In April, 2017, researchers also found positive outcomes in first responders trained in mindfulness resiliency.
One of our first coaches at Still Here Mindfulness was first responder who was treated for PTSD. We were training her through the anxiety module in 2017, and she told us this was exactly how they treated her for PTSD.
We talked about what would happen if we moved that training upstream, and examined how that might prevent PTSD in the first place. The science is young, but extremely promising.
We believe if we took participants through an eight-week mindfulness resiliency course, with some follow-up supports, it could greatly diminish the incidence of vicarious trauma and PTSD among first responders, including firefighters, police, paramedics, doctors and nurses, to name a few.
We are already seeing these changes in clients who have self-reported unresolved trauma and PTSD.
Call us to learn more about what mindful resiliency training can do for you and your organization.