Extreme Mental Pain
We have seen in other articles that I have previously published on this site that, if we have suffered severe and long-lasting childhood trauma, and, in particular, were brought up by parents who were emotionally disconnected from us, rejecting, indifferent, absent, abusive (verbally, physically, sexually, psychologically) or neglectful (or, as is frequently the case, a combination of these), we may go on to develop serious psychological conditions in our adult lives such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In such cases, we are likely to suffer an array of painful symptoms including loneliness, emptiness, self-hatred, despair, thoughts of wanting to be dead or of committing suicide, and excruciating and unremitting mental pain and anguish.
In my own case this mental suffering was so profound that I underwent electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) several times – to no avail, I might add, other than giving me a headache and a feeling of deep confusion for about fifteen minutes after coming out of the anaesthetic (however, it can be effective for some people).
Desperation To Escape Mental Pain
Just as when we are in deep physical pain we are desperate to make it abate, the same is, of course, true of mental pain; indeed, the same brain region is involved in the experiencing of both these types of pain.
Study Shows PTSD Sufferers Can Be Willing To Risk Life For Cure
The mental anguish and pain involved in trauma-related conditions such as PTSD, complex PTSD, and borderline personality disorder(BPD) are impossible to convey fully in words to those who have been fortunate enough never to have experienced such conditions much in the same way as it would not be possible to describe to a person who has been blind from birth what it’s like to experience the colour red (or any other colour, for that matter).
It may well be useful, therefore, to outline the findings of the following study which helps to demonstrate how desperate sufferers of PTSD may become to be free from their ineffable suffering.
Zoellner and Feeny (2011) carried out interviews with 184 individuals who had been diagnosed with PTSD.
Two main findings that help convey just how desperate people can be to be free from the constant distress PTSD can induce were as follows :
- On average, participants in the study said they would be prepared to undergo a treatment that would completely cure their PTSD even if such a treatment carried a 13 per cent risk of resulting in their immediate death.
- On average, participants said they would be prepared to give up 13.6 years of their lives to be relieved of their PTSD symptoms.
The most effective form of dealing with psychological, mental and emotional pain that I have found is mindfulness meditation, which is most effective if it is carried out every day (even if you can only afford to spend ten minutes on it per day).
Unprocessed Trauma: Do Your Thoughts Feel ”Out Of Control?’
Childhood trauma, if it is severe enough, has a profoundly adverse effect on how we think and how we process information.
In order to explain why this happens, it is first helpful to recap how the brain is organized. In simple terms, we can split the brain into three parts: the brain stem, the limbic system, and the neocortex. The functions of these three parts of the brain are as follows:
THE BRAIN STEM: The brain stem consists of the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata. It is the most primitive part of the brain and controls essential bodily functions such as swallowing, blood pressure, and heart rate.
THE LIMBIC SYSTEM: The limbic system is involved in emotion, motivation, memory, and learning. It also controls the brain’s ‘alarm system’ (i.e., its fight/flight response).
THE NEOCORTEX: The neocortex is involved in the brain’s higher functions, such as reasoning, language, and logic.
Now, regarding the above brain components, let’s compare and contrast how the brain processes information under normal circumstances with how it processes information related to traumatic experiences.
THE NORMAL WAY IN WHICH THE BRAIN PROCESSES INFORMATION:
Under normal circumstances, the brain receives information and processes it via the limbic system to determine its emotional content and then passes it on to the neocortex where it can be logically analyzed and reflected upon in order to produce a rational response.
THE WAY IN WHICH THE BRAIN PROCESSES INFORMATION RELATING TO TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES:
However, when the brain receives traumatic information because it could potentially mean we are in danger, the brain needs to process it as quickly as possible so that we can respond with the utmost alacrity, thus improving our chances of avoiding harm. In these situations, then, when a lightening-quick response is called for, there is no time for the luxury of allowing the neocortex to leisurely analyze and reflect upon the traumatic/threatening information received until it can determine the appropriate response.
Instead, the brain takes emergency action and processes the traumatic information quickly via the brain stem and the limbic system, bypassing the neocortex and, thus, allowing an instant, reflexive reaction. A simple example of when the brain might process information in such a way would be that of a person out for a walk who sees what s/he (mistakenly) takes to be a snake in the grass (though it is, in fact, just a piece of rope). In such a circumstance, s/he is likely reflexively to flinch and immediately step-away. This happens because the limbic system, working on an emotional level, has detected possible danger (emotional response: FEAR) and activated the ‘fight/flight’ state.
It is only when the neocortex comes back online and the person can logically analyze the situation that s/he realizes that what s/he initially took to be a snake is, in fact, a harmless length of dark, green rope. To reiterate: the reason the neocortex does not take part in the initial assessment as to whether the snake-like object is dangerous or not is that it would take up too much time (after all, if it is a snake it could be poisonous and strike at any second); an immediate response is called for, working on the principle of ‘better safe than sorry.’
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE HAVE TO LIVE IN A STATE OF CONSTANT FEAR AND ANXIETY?
Of course, we can swiftly recover from a minor incident like the one just described above However, if we have existed in a situation (e.g., living with an unpredictably violent, alcoholic father when we were a child) whereby we lived in a perpetual state of fear and anxious uncertainty, the type of information processing just described above (involving mistaking a rope for a snake) becomes increasingly REINFORCED and ENTRENCHED.
Thus, we come perpetually to respond to stimuli via an analysis of information by the emotionally driven limbic system, bypassing the rational analysis that the neocortex would typically supply. This, in short, makes us highly vulnerable to behaving in ways that, objectively speaking, may look deeply IRRATIONAL.
Indeed, eventually, this form of emergency, instant, fear-driven information processing (sometimes referred to as the traumatic neurological response), instead of only operating very occasionally when needed, becomes the brain’s DEFAULT METHOD of information processing and habitual. And, because of this, the brain becomes stuck in a state of constant read alert, leading us to feel constantly on edge and under threat as well as to be continually prone to vastly over-reacting to even the most minor (objectively speaking) of stressors and our whole lives can feel as if they have been subsumed into a kind of living nightmare in which everything seems a threat and potential source of danger – it is as if we have lost control of our thought processes which, in a very real neurological sense, we have.
FRAGMENTARY, UNPROCESSED MEMORIES STORED IN THE SOMATOSENSORY PART OF THE BRAIN LEADING TO UNCONTROLLED THOUGHTS IN THE FORM OF FLASHBACKS, INTRUSIVE MEMORIES AND NIGHTMARES:
Traumatic experiences overwhelm our arousal system, which prevents them from being processed immediately and as a coherent whole. Instead, they are mentally absorbed in a fragmentary way and stored in the somatosensory part of the brain to be processed and made sense of at a later date. Such fragmented memories, therefore, remain unprocessed and unhealed.
It is these unprocessed, unhealed and fragmentary pieces of information stored in the somatosensory part of the brain that gives rise to uncontrolled thoughts which manifest themselves in the form of flashbacks, intrusive memories, obsessive ruminations, and nightmares; such psychological phenomena are likely to be triggered by any stimuli that even vaguely reminds us of our original traumatic experiences (often on an unconscious level) and, whilst deeply unpleasant, represent the brain’s attempt to process our unresolved experiences properly.
Evidence Supporting The Effectiveness Of Mindfulness Meditation
There are now, quite literally, thousands of published research studies that support the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation. It has been shown not only to help relieve symptoms of mental illness but also to greatly benefit those suffering from physical conditions as well as with pain control.
Those who meditate regularly actually beneficially alter the physical structure of their brains. Just as someone who spent years practising the piano would develop a physically denser area of the brain that is involved with the skills of piano playing, those who are experienced in meditation have been found to have undergone beneficial physical changes in the areas of the brain involved in meditation, in particular, the amygdala (which is involved in emotional control/regulation), leading to the development of a generally much calmer disposition and, also, the insula (the part of the brain related to feelings of empathy) leading to not only greater empathy towards others but also towards oneself (this is of especial benefit to those who suffer clinical depression as such individuals are invariably highly self-critical, self-blaming and psychologically self-lacerating).
In this article, due to the theme of this website, I want to concentrate on the benefits of mindfulness meditation which are specifically related to mental health. As this is really an introductory article to the relevant research findings, I will list those mental health conditions which studies have so far shown can be ameliorated by it :
MENTAL CONDITIONS THAT CAN BE HELPED BY MINDFULNESS MEDITATION
1) DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY (e.g. Hick and Chan, 2010)
2) SUBSTANCE ABUSE (e.g. Alterman et al, 2004)
3) STRESS REDUCTION (e.g. Austin, 1997)
4) EMOTIONAL SELF-CONTROL/SELF-REGULATION (e.g. Caldwell et al., 2010)
5) SLEEP DISORDERS (e.g. Ong et al, 2008)
6) RELAPSE OF CLINICAL DEPRESSION PREVENTION (e.g. Beckerman and Corbett, 2010)
7) POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER (e.g. Lang et al., 2012)
8) DISTRESS ASSOCIATED WITH PERSONALITY DISORDERS (e.g. Nyklicek et al, 2012)
9) OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER (e.g. Wilkinson, 2010)
10) EATING DISORDERS (e.g. Kristeller and Halleh, 1999)
11) BIPOLAR (e.g. Weber et al, 2010)
12) AGGRESSION (e.g. Borders et al, 2010)
Mindfulness Meditation: An Escape Route Away from Obsessive, Negative Ruminations
Mindfulness helps us to become aware of our CURRENT experience, of things we would normally take for granted. These may include becoming aware of our breathing, of the feeling of our clothes against our skin, the furniture on which we sit, the feel of the temperature in the room etc; anything, in fact, which we are presently experiencing through one of our five senses. It teaches us, as I have said, to accept things as they are rather than to fret about want them to be. We may, too, become aware of our thoughts; again, we are encouraged to accept them non-judgmentally – to simply observe them floating through our minds in a detached manner and not get caught up in them.
This state of mind of existing intensely in the present, accepting it as it is in non-judgmentally, is, at its best (it takes time to master the skill), the polar opposite of obsessive, negative ruminative thinking which can be so painful and destructive.
Below, I summarize the principles which underpin MINDFULNESS :
1) IT IS INTENTIONAL – it helps us to become aware of current reality and the choices which are open to us. This is in direct contrast to rumination (in which we are caught up and trapped in the destructive downward spiral of our automatic negative thoughts).
2) IT IS EXPERIENTIAL – mindfulness trains us to experience the present moment (unlike rumination, which fills us with concerns about the past and the future and causes us to be preoccupied with abstract thoughts detached from present experience).
3) IT IS NON-JUDGMENTAL – mindfulness helps us to accept things as they are right now rather than to get caught up in judgments and frustrations about how we think things should be.
By cultivating MINDFULNESS, it stops us from becoming stuck in a futile cycle of depression and anxiety creating negative ruminations; instead, it helps us to develop new and wiser ways to relate to our actual experience IN THE PRESENT MOMENT.
However, MINDFULNESS is about more than noticing things around us that we had previously taken for granted and ignored; it also helps us to develop an awareness of THE HABIT OF A PARTICULAR STATE OF MIND WE USED TO FIND OURSELVES IN, WHICH GOT US STUCK AND CAUGHT UP IN RUMINATIONS DESTRUCTIVE TO US AND TO OUR EMOTIONAL LIVES. The skill of mindfulness allows us to DISENGAGE from such destructive, ruminative thinking and shift to an enormously healthier frame of mind which frees us from our self-defeating emotional struggles. Mindfulness allows us to accept the different emotions which drift through our minds non-judgmentally and with self-compassion.
A Week’s Neurofeedback Equivalent To Years Of Zen Meditation
According to Buzsaki, Professor of Neuroscience at Rutgers University, Zen meditation needs to be undertaken for years until the person practising it can slow the frequency of the brain’s alpha waves and spread the alpha oscillations more forward to the front of the brain; slowing these brain waves have many beneficial effects including :
- reducing fear
- reducing ‘mind chatter’
- increasing feelings of calm
- reduce anxiety
- reduce feelings of panic
However, Buzaki states that (as alluded to above) while it takes years of Zen meditation to alter alpha wave brain activity optimally, the same results can be obtained after a mere week’s training with neurofeedback.
WHAT IS NEUROFEEDBACK?
Neurofeedback is sometimes also referred to as EEG biofeedback. It is a form of technology that helps the individual to learn how to alter his / her brain waves beneficially, and it works by operant conditioning.
It is based on the idea that dysregulation of the brain forms the basis of many emotional, cognitive and behavioural problems and, as such, this brain dysregulation needs to be corrected. Research has demonstrated that neurofeedback training leads to beneficial alterations in the neural substrates in the targeted area of the brain, alleviating associated pathological behaviour. Such beneficial changes in behaviour have been found to last for months, and it has also been found that such amelioration of behavioural pathology is correlated with structural alterations in the brain’s architecture (in relation to both white and grey neuronal matter).
However, further research is needed to establish more firmly neurofeedback’s potential benefits.
Buzsaki, G., Rhythms of the Brain. Published by Oxford University 2006
Sitaram, R., Ros, T., Stoeckel, L. et al. Closed-loop brain training: the science of neurofeedback. Nat Rev Neurosci 18, 86–100 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn.2016.164
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.