The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma
By James S. Gordon, MD
HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; hardcover, $27.99; available today, Tuesday, September 10
James S. Gordon, MD is a Harvard-educated psychiatrist, former researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health and Chair of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy, and a clinical professor of Psychiatry and Family Medicine at Georgetown Medical School.
In his new book, The Transformation, Dr. Gordon offers the first comprehensive, evidence-based program for reversing the biological and psychological damage that trauma does, and for learning from and growing through its challenges to become who we’re meant to be.
Dr. Gordon has, over the span of his career, developed and implemented a program for moving through and beyond these ordinary but daunting life traumas. Over the last 30 years he has focused on developing comprehensive trauma healing programs for survivors of wars and state-sponsored torture, mass shootings, and climate-related disasters. He has also worked extensively with violent extremists of many political and religious persuasions.
Dr. Gordon is the founder and executive director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM) in Washington, D.C., where he has created and implemented what may well be the world’s largest and most effective program for healing population-wide trauma.
In study after study, the program described in The Transformation has produced remarkable, life-changing results. One published study of child survivors of war in Kosovo was the first randomized controlled trial of any intervention with war-traumatized children.
It demonstrated that more than 80 percent of the kids with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who participated in an 11-week-long group where they learned the skills taught in The Transformation ended the group without the symptoms of PTSD.
Dr. Gordon writes of one of his favorite methods: Meditation is the antidote to trauma.
Trauma, as you know, create storms of fear and aggression in the amygdala and the sympathetic nervous system. It suppresses the executive functions located in the frontal parts of the cerebral cortex, functions that help make us distinctly human, like judgment, self-observation, and compassion. Trauma binds us to the painful past and makes us continually apprehensive about the future. And trauma may override our intrinsic urge to connect with others, forcing us to fear and avoid those whose care and concern could help and heal us.
Meditation frees us from those chains. It brings us into the present moment.
Meditation is not fancy or esoteric. You don’t have to change your clothes or your religion, or be a paragon of virtue or patience, or go to the mountains to do it. It is, above all, practical, easy to learn and do, and firmly grounded in science. People of any faith can do it and receive its benefits. And so can agnostics and atheists. No belief is necessary.
When we meditate, we are reversing the biological damage that trauma does. Meditation calms the storm. It quiets the amygdala’s frenzy and balances the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response with the rest and digest of the parasympathetic nervous system’s vagus nerve.
Scientists have shown that if you meditate regularly, the tone of your vagus nerve – its level of functioning – increases. And with better vagal functioning, you get better self-regulation, enhanced memory, clearer thinking, greater ability to deal with life’s stresses, and quicker recovery from anger and distress. The improved vagal tone that comes with meditation also activates the nerves associated with facial expression and speech, which make it easier for us to recognize and welcome the support that others may want to give.
Meditation enhances fiunctioning in the hippocampus, a crucial structure for quieting agitation and consolidating memory. As you meditate, you also repair the brain connections that trauma has ruptured and rebuild brain tissue that has been damaged and destroyed. In recent years, researchers such as Harvard’s Sarah Lazar and Britta Holzel have repeatedly shown that meditation actually promotes the growth of new brain tissue in areas of the frontal cortex that trauma often damages, areas responsible for self-awareness, thoughtful judgment, and compassion.
More than forty years of research on meditation has also demonstrated its capacity to prevent physical illness. Meditation reliably reduces high blood pressure and decreases the inflammation that contributes to so many chronic conditions.
Meditation may help us to live longer as well as calmer, happier, and healthier lives. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), including Elissa Epel and Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, have shown that meditation helps preserve the length of the telemeres, the structures at the end of our chromosomes that shorten with age and shorten more rapidly under the influence of stress. When we regularly meditate, we lower our level of stress and maintain or enhance the length of our telomeres – and perhaps lengthen our lives.
We may also be able to pass on the benefits of meditation to our unborn children. Meditation, as researchers at Harvard and UCSF have shown, can help reverse the epigenetic damage from trauma and enhance beneficial and inheritable changes in our resistance to stress and our resilience.
And it’s not just Tibetan monks or long-term meditators who an reap the benefits of meditation. In one of Lazar’s studies, beginning meditators, like most of you, created significant changes in brain structure after an intensive eight-week course. And in another study by Fennell, beginning meditators were able to slow their breathing and heart rate, lower their blood pressure, and calm angry reactions just as well as more experiences practitioners – after only one twenty-minute session.
Much of the research on meditation has been done with people who meditate for forty minutes a day or more. However, this recent research, as well as my own experience, strongly suggests that you may be able to reap similar benefits from meditating for briefer periods.
The bottom line: MEDITATION IS MIRACULOUS.