During one of these episodes, I happened to be the platoon leader for the week and we were executing some drills for an upcoming marching ceremony. We had been practicing this particular drill for about forty minutes when we finally executed it with no mistakes.
So there we stood, at the position of attention waiting for the “At Ease” order, when I suddenly felt a tickle in my right ear. My initial urge was to bat away what I perceived to be a fly. However I thought it through and decided it would not be worth the risk to get caught flinching, when I was supposed to be at attention. The consequences, would have been that the entire platoon execute fifteen push-ups and repeat the drill.
So I stood still, hoping that this stupid fly would simply leave, but it continued. I then heard a grunt followed by a quiet giggle. It was then I realized that I wasn’t dealing with a fly, I was dealing with my head drill sergeant who had taken it upon himself to once again make things difficult for me. He was tickling my ear with what I later found out to be a blade of grass.
Once I realized what was going on, I became angered. I suddenly found myself fixated with the urge to make a right turn, snatch the grass away from him and push him away. It is pretty obvious that things would not have gone well for me if I had followed through with that urge. So after weighing my options, I decided to do nothing.
I told myself that whatever he was doing to my ear was not going to harm me, and that he would give up soon enough, once his arm got tired. Then he stopped, and gave the “At Ease” order.
Years later in my graduate program, I came to learn that by coincidence I had practiced a fundamental aspect of mindfulness. The best way I can describe mindfulness, is to say it’s the practice of being mindful of your physiological and emotional self, to include the world around you with the commitment of not being reactive.
Mindfulness is an effective practice that works best for people who struggle with trauma. Considering that our feelings are gate keepers to our past memories, traumatic memories recalled (voluntarily or involuntarily), are usually recalled with the same intense and painful feelings that were used to encode these memories into long term storage.
This means that people who go untreated with trauma risk falling into the vicious cycle of unknowingly being triggered by subtle reminders of their traumas, which sends them into a tail spin of being reactive to intrusive memories due to experiencing the same level of emotional hurt and pain experienced when these events first took place. The more frequent people with trauma are triggered, the more difficult it becomes for them to even realize when they are being triggered.
To date using a combination of eye movement desensitization reprocessing and mindfulness is the best approach I have found for treating those who struggle with trauma.
A common assignment I initially introduce to clients, is a brief mindfulness technique for overcoming urges. Just like I coincidentally practiced the technique in resisting the urge to engage my drill sergeant, anyone who struggles with trauma on any level can find this technique useful for overcoming his or her urge to overreact to difficult and painful feelings.
The exercise goes like this.
- Find a quiet place, where you are certain you will not be distracted externally.
- Sit down (preferably without a back rest)
- Listen to your body. Listening to your body means paying attention to yourself from head to toe. Initially the only thing you should start noticing is your breathing. After which you would probably begin noticing some discomfort within yourself. Like an itch on your head, an ache on the back of your next, perhaps your watch is strapped on too tightly.
- Make a commitment to not adjust yourself, no matter what. This is the most important part of the exercise, you are practicing the discipline of not giving into your urges. What you will notice is that the initial discomfort fades away after about two minutes.
- Do this for five minutes (the first time you do this). You want to build yourself to about twenty minutes daily.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.