How Western Therapies & Eastern Philosophies Heal Trauma

By Robert Common, Managing Partner, The Beekeeper
Our blog to mark Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) month

If you’ve ever experienced anything life-threatening, deeply traumatising or shocking – it could be an assault or a dangerous accident you have experienced, or witnessing the death or grievous injury of someone else – it probably still affects your life, in ways you may not understand. In some people an experience like this can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (commonly known as PTSD), which can manifest itself in a range of troubling symptoms, including persistently feeling unsafe, having difficulty sleeping, or recurringly re-experiencing difficult memories.

Like most mental health conditions it is both much more common than we believe and much less understood. Clinical psychiatrist Paul J Fink has claimed that 1 in 5 children experience significant trauma before they are 18, and we believe that figure to be higher here in Cambodia. Some have said that Cambodia as a country could be diagnosed as having PTSD following the national trauma of the Khmer Rouge, though Cambodians more often use the term “broken courage”. It’s certainly something we have witnessed here at our centre in Phnom Penh.

That’s why this June we have been pleased to take part in the annual PTSD Awareness month. It’s an important topic not just because we’ve seen the distress it has caused clients but because we also have more personal experiences with PTSD. We’ve signed up to an international pledge to create better understanding of what PTSD means and also raise awareness of effective ways of treating it.

At The Beekeeper we are big believers that therapy and Buddhist principles can be combined to particularly powerful effect in the case of PTSD. One of The Beekeeper’s foundational principles is that the talking therapies that have emerged from the west can be complemented and supplemented by the principles that have driven Buddhism for two and a half millennia.

According to Germer, Siegel, and Fulton’s “Mindfulness and Psychotherapy”, talking therapy can have similar effects to meditation in Buddhist practices. Both make a person feel whole and more alive in the long run. Buddhist psychotherapy practices recommend the to stop focusing on interpreting their feelings and instead “just feel.” The approach can appear simplistic, but if one develops the ability to do so, the outcomes are high.

Many have argued that cognitive theory demands change, while Buddhism seeks acceptance. Buddhist psychotherapy and meditation practices contribute to what Tara Brach, the celebrated practitioner of both, has called “radical acceptance.” Similar to psychology, Buddhism embraces the principles of non-resistance, mindfulness, compassion, and embracing paradoxes and polarities in life. Mindfulness perfectly complements human trauma therapy because it makes one accept situations without judgment, which is a crucial aspect of overall happiness and stress reduction.

The best way of demonstrating the effectiveness of this approach is the real experiences of PTSD victims. We were particularly moved to read this story by Tessa Clare who describes a very familiar situation where she had been told by therapists that meditation might be able to help her recover from childhood trauma but resisted for a long time. This is what happened next.

“I unexpectedly encountered the practice of loving-kindness meditation for a second time at a Buddhist meditation center. I decided, on whim, to attend a meditation class… I recognized the pattern as soon as I heard it — and, in a moment of panic, I thought about leaving. I thought that doing the meditation would cripple me. But the opposite happened. After the first time, I felt free. I was no longer weighed down by my circumstances. I was in control of my own destiny. We don’t realize how heavy our burdens are until they’re lifted.”

It’s this kind of change which overjoys us when we see it in our own clients, whether through psychotherapy, meditation, mindfulness or all of the above. That’s why we believe it’s so important that people become more aware of the impact of PTSD and feel more able to discuss it. This is the first crucial step to recovery.

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