Mindfulness of Trauma

When it comes to post traumatic stress, the brain’s ability to reinvent itself can be a double-edged sword.

At 5:00 AM Saturday morning I was unloading my computer monitor and some other equipment from the back of my hatchback when I noticed a brawny dude in shabby clothing standing nearby.

He said, “I’m gonna need that.”

For a moment I was unclear about his meaning. Then I noticed he was looking at the things I was unloading from the car.

The man seemed out of it so I assumed he was on drugs. I assumed he intended to take the computer equipment to sell it to buy more drugs. My mind raced as I totaled up the cost of replacing the equipment. I didn’t want to fight him for it. I didn’t know if the guy had a weapon, but as I looked at his face, I noticed his nose had been broken. He had been in more fights than I had.

“This isn’t worth much,” I said.

There was more anger in his voice when he repeated, “I’m gonna need that!”

I didn’t like where this was going so I stepped away from the equipment and said, “Okay.”

Instead of calming down, the man seemed more agitated. He looked around to see if anyone was watching us.

There was a gun in my face. My heart raced. He pulled the trigger.

It was over.

I woke up. It had all been a nightmare.

I’m no stranger to nightmares, anxiety dreams. It’s always a relief to wake up and shake them off.

I would have shaken this one off, too, because I can’t think of a form of fiction more interesting to the creator and mind-numbingly boring for everybody else than dreams.

But later that Saturday morning, during a conversation about mindfulness and anxiety, the topic of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) arose. Out of curiosity, I read an article entitled “The Science of Trauma, Mindfulness, and PTSD,” by Jennifer Wolkin, which contained the following quote: “I believe that there’s nothing truly disordered about having a reaction to seeing atrocities and tragedies beyond our mind’s ability to fathom.”

This makes perfect sense when we recognize that almost all of the brain’s activity, including the tiny sliver that we can consciously control, is geared to keeping the body alive. Memories of life threatening moments will naturally receive the highest priority. Associations that trigger those memories will naturally create stress. And, thanks to neuroplasticity (the way the brain subtly rewires itself every time we repeat a certain thought process) the more often these memories come to mind, the more we increase the likelihood that they’ll come to mind in the future.

This mental activity becomes a “disorder” only because the physical stress it produces is more harmful than the associations that trigger it.

Virtual Atrocities and Tragedies

Let me briefly recount the “atrocities and tragedies” I witnessed in the hours before my nightmare.

I tour a quadruple murder scene in a hotel suite where bloody hand prints stain a carpet at a dead man’s feet, a second man’s corpse has been sliced at the skull and jawline. A severed arm on the floor. The corpse of the armless man has been thrown against a grand piano with such force that the piano has broken in half. Everything in the room has been smashed. There is blood everywhere. Another dead man’s legs lead to an unseen room.

A young man wakes up in his apartment to the sound of his landlord outside destroying his car with a hammer, he runs outside to stop him but the landlord continued his destruction, demands his $600 rent, and threatens to kill him with the hammer if he doesn’t pay up today.

A woman lay handcuffed to a bed when a stray bullet from a sniper’s rifle kills the man who has apparently abducted her.

Another young man is trying to use his computer hacking skills to break into a secure, remote building, guarded by a skinhead with a shotgun. A woman drives up and hacks the skinhead to death with a machete. She then comes for the hacker.

The first young man is taken on a reckless, life-threatening ride by an oblivious driver.

The machete woman drives the hacker to a gas station where she discovers the attendant has been murdered. When a man with a gun pops up from behind the counter, she shoots him. When a second man with a shotgun emerges from the gas station, she shoots him, too.

The first young man visits his sister. They play music together, he on the guitar, she on the drums. She looks down at her hand and sees that instead of holding a drum stick, she’s holding a carving knife that is cutting into her hand.

A band of destructive marauders with baseball bats and crow bars emerge from a van and start destroying everything in their path to the first young man’s apartment. He cowers behind his guitar as the marauders destroy everything he owns. Seeing he’s lost everything, he smashes his guitar against the wall as well.

The landlord bursts into the destroyed apartment with a gun and threatens to kill the young man. He shoots, and the bullet ricochets off a microwave, several other things, and lodges in his skull. He drops dead.

Another pair of men murder a hotel manager with an electrified crossbow.

All of this stuff is, of course, run of the mill for a dramatic, hour-long TV show these days. What caught me off guard is that this graphic violence and destruction had all occurred during the first episode of a comedy series based on the work of Douglas Adams, best known for the mostly harmless “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

Prior to this, “Breaking Bad” and “Homeland” were probably the most violent TV shows I’d watched. It’s likely not the violence that affected me, but the way the violence caught me off guard.

The intention was to watch a light and funny diversion at the end of a more-stressful-than-usual work week. Not exactly what you’d call trauma. Not exactly what you’d call stress.

Genuine Threats

On two occasions, I’ve been hit by drunk drivers while behind the wheel of a car. After those accidents, I noticed a mild trepidation when approaching the intersections where they had occurred. When I recognized the trepidation arising, I made a mental note that there was nothing special about the intersections (like their proximity to a bar) that made them more susceptible to drunk driving. My brain gradually reconfigured itself so that I could pass through them without undue stress.

I recognize that if someone had been injured or killed in either of those accidents, each time I approached those intersections, the strength of the unpleasant memories might well have reinforced the trepidation.

And it’s much easier to use mindful awareness to supplant a stressful event when you can anticipate a trigger (as you can when approaching a physical location) than when it comes out of nowhere (like unexpectedly graphic violence in a silly comedy).

Ten Minute Exercise

Some of the instructions from the mindfulness literature on building a more stress-resistant mind that are well worth ten minutes before bedtime include:

1. Recognizing the kinds of thoughts and emotions that lead to stress in yourself and others.

2. Recognizing the situations where these thoughts and emotions arise.

(Apparently watching graphic violence in comedy shows is stressful for me.)

3. Either avoiding those situations when optional or being vigilant about proactively supplanting stressful thoughts and emotions by cultivating beneficial thoughts and emotions if the situation is not optional.

(It’s easy for me to avoid watching violent comedies. I try to maintain vigilance while driving.)


Climate of Change

When faced with changes in our environment, our internal climate can be shaped by grief or gratitude.

Over the past week I got the opportunity to witness man-made climate change up close.

The Eagle Creek forest fire spread to 33,000 acres and counting, the smoke was so thick that it transformed the sun into a weak red orb so weak that I had to remind myself not to stare at it, the temperature fell far short of forecast highs, and the area was covered with more ash than it’s seen since Mt. St. Helen’s blew its top in 1980.

The fire affected many people’s internal climate, too. It was allegedly started by a teenage boy from Vancouver, Washington carelessly tossing firecrackers around on the popular trail. Those who have hiked that beautiful waterfall-lined trail faced the challenge of coming to grips with the destruction and the insult that it didn’t have to happen.

Maybe it did have to happen.

The young man who sparked the destruction was simply combining two things that he loved. I can’t blame him for loving Eagle Creek. I love Eagle Creek. I can’t blame him for loving fireworks. I was disappointed by the cancellation of the Oregon Symphony’s annual Waterfront Concert, which usually culminates in a performance of the 1812 Overture and a big, bombastic fireworks display. I know that fireworks are bad for the environment. I always keep my asthma inhaler handy in case wheezing is triggered by the air pollution the fireworks create.

What’s more fun than setting off firecrackers? How about setting off firecrackers and listening to them echo through Eagle Creek?

It’s not something I would do. But, I’m glad that I didn’t have the opportunity to do it when I was a teenager, before the judgment center in my frontal lobe developed.

When it comes to facing change in our environment, we can choose grief or gratitude. We grieve when we think of the good things we’ll miss. We’re grateful when we think of the good things we’ve had. I’m grateful that I knew Eagle Creek as it was before the fire, and I hope I’ll have a chance to return.

I’m also grateful for the ongoing efforts of the firefighters to preserve what remains. I’m grateful that folks will still be able to visit the Multnomah Falls Lodge. I know many homeowners are grateful that their houses were saved.

And, when the fire finally burns out, as it will, I’m grateful that the fire scar will be there as a reminder that we mustn’t take such precious gifts as the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area for granted. Maybe the lasting impression of one moment of carelessness will cause others to think twice before accidentally sparking fires of their own.

This weekend I hiked the Heart of the Park loop of Forest Park and added a little extra gratitude to my forest bathing. I try never to take Forest Park for granted. But I’m grateful for what destruction has taught me.

The first time I took an awe walk by Mt. St. Helen’s, sixteen years after the blast, my jaw dropped at the scope of the blast zone. Yet the ranger on the tour by Johnston Ridge kept pointing out signs of how new life was taking hold where the old had been obliterated.

On the drive back home, I marveled as I walked along the Hummocks Trail at the miniature forest taking root in the wake of the one that had been decimated. On a subsequent visit, ten years later, I marveled again at how fast the trees had grown.

Awe Walks Made Easy

Awe can be a powerful antidote to the apathy that arises from depression. But, since it sometimes takes effort to chase it, here are some ideas for finding it right outside your door.

According to The Greater Good Science Center’s recommendations for an awe walk, places of great physical vastness and novelty increase the likelihood of awe.

Though I can check off most of the recommended natural, urban, and indoor settings for awe walks within a two hour’s drive of Portland, I wanted to see what I could do simply by adjusting the route of my daily walk.

I usually head for a lovely tree-lined park, which always fills me gratitude and awe. It also lets me relax because I don’t have to cross so many streets. Today, I decided to change up and go with novelty.

To begin with, I separated myself from my phone. I didn’t want my awe to be interrupted.

I did a couple rounds of breathing with longer exhales than inhales. This helps engage the parasympathetic nervous system: rest and digest vs. the sympathetic’s fight or flight. Since an awe walk asks us to tune into our senses and let them guide us, I wanted to start from a place of calm instead of anxiety. If low energy keeps you from getting out the door, you can try a few long inhales and short exhales for starters.

Crater Lake

The sight of a U-Haul truck prompted some interesting thoughts about the awe-inspiring Crater Lake, reminding me that it’s the deepest in the United States. I wonder whether the deepwater discoveries inspired this section of the mural that I encountered later on the walk.

Mural Fish

The first sound that caught my attention was unexpected running water. It reminded me of my connection to the vast array of pipes that run just beneath the city’s surface, and the path that water takes, down from the melting snows on Mt. Hood to get there.


My sense of sight was first to notice this flower that I didn’t recognize as being in bloom yet this year. I leaned in to let it engage my sense of smell, too.


I passed a couple restaurants on my return trip, but didn’t stop in to explore my sense of taste. I came across the official vehicle of Pip’s Original Oregon Dept. of Doughnuts, which I occasionally pass on other walks. The smell of the fresh doughnuts has, on occasion, drawn me in to inspire my taste buds.

Pip's Original

When it comes to touch, I was aware of the summer sun on my skin. I was grateful that I wasn’t wearing a dense fur coat like my canine friend here, but the pooch seemed happy to have found a shady spot.

I certainly found last week’s eclipse experience to be awe inspiring, but finding awe in everyday life is often just a matter of having the right mindset and leading where your sensory experience takes you.

Sure, it’s fun when the sun eclipses the moon, but under the right circumstances, it can be pretty awe inspiring when we eclipse part of the moon, too.

Bat Night

Ten Minute Exercise

Check out the interview between Academy Award Winning Pixar Director Pete Docter and Dacher Keltner about the benefits of a savoring walk on this episode of The Science of Happiness Podcast.  The entire episode takes twenty-three minutes, but you can start at the three minute mark to catch the discussion of the walking experience in ten minutes.




Anti-Social Media and Social Comparison

The media has been selling social comparison for generations. Imagine it’s 1928 and you’re paging through the local gazette where you learn about a newly discovered medical condition.

Social Insecurity

No matter how charming you may be or how fond of you your friends are, you cannot expect them to put up with halitosis (unpleasant breath) forever. They may be nice to you–but it is an effort.

Listerine Halitosis ad from 1928

Read the Facts: 1/3 had halitosis. 68 hairdressers state that about every third woman, many of them from the wealthy classes, is halitoxic. Who should know better than they?

Recognizing these truths, nice people end any chance of offending by systematically rinsing the mouth with Listerine. Every morning. Every night. And between the times when necessary, especially before meeting others.

Social Comparison Sells

In her article “How Halitosis Became a Medical Condition With a ‘Cure’” Laura Clark writes, “Ultimately, the bad-breath campaign was so successful that marketing historians refer to it as the ‘halitosis appeal’—shorthand for using fear to sell product.”

Fear of TV

One evening I came home exhausted from my advertising job to watch the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It. It aired during a Nielsen Ratings month so the miniseries benefited from heavy promotion. The hook for me was Tim Curry playing Pennywise, the killer clown.

Tim Curry as Pennywise
The scariest thing about Stephen King’s It was how bad it was.

I thought the show was lame. Whatever I imagined it would be, it turned out not to be. It wasn’t holding my attention, so I flipped the remote during the commercials hoping to find something better. As bad as It was, the shows on the other channels were worse.

I had no expectation that I was about to witness a moment of television that I would never forget.

I returned from one unsuccessful channel surfing commercial break to find Pennywise had morphed into a giant unterrifying sewer spider, and one of our lackluster heroes took aim at It with a makeshift slingshot. This was a moment of TV so bad I swore at the set and pulled the cord out of the wall. Enough!

Unplugging Social Comparison

The unintended consequences of my separation from commercial television surprised me.

I thought that I watched TV to relax, but I felt more relaxed without it. My paycheck hadn’t grown, but without constant reminders of things I couldn’t afford, I suddenly had enough money.

I worried that I might miss out on the next big whatever, but my co-workers kept plugged in, I heard it through the grapevine, without the commercials.

Social Media and Social Comparison

I felt a similar reduction of social insecurity and increased well-being when I pulled way back from social media.

“More and more studies suggest that electronic communication—unlike the face-to-face interaction it may replace—has negative consequences for mental health,” writes Jean Twenge in her Newsweek article about the 10th anniversary of the iPhone. “One study asked college students to report on their mood five times a day. The more they had used Facebook, the less happy they were. However, feeling unhappy didn’t lead to more Facebook use, which suggests that Facebook was causing unhappiness, not vice versa.”

Curating Your Life

As a recovering advertiser, I sometimes find it hard to resist Amazon’s share your purchase feature, which allows you to dazzle your friends by posting what you just bought. My most recent purchase was replacement bungee lacing to repair my zero gravity chair. Exciting, right?

Regular participation in social media requires a mindset of judging post-worthy events. Real-life friends may grow tedious in our eyes if they post things that irritate or bore us. We may grow self-conscious about our appearance sifting through photo after photo trying to find the one in which we look best. If we post about something that’s important to us and it doesn’t get enough likes or favorable comments, it might make us wonder about our friendships. And it’s hard to be fully present even in life’s happiest moments if we have to stop, snap a photo, and upload.

The only real winner here is the social media platform, which uses your relationships to turn your friendships into uncompensated sales pitches.

Take the Ten Minute Test

The next time you’re plugged in to media, social or otherwise, take ten minutes to consider whether the program you’re watching or posts the posts you’re reading make you feel more or less content with your quality of life. Ask whether they increase or diminish your satisfaction with the world around you.