How To Heal Yourself From Past Trauma, with Dr. James Gordon

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

People who have experienced trauma in their past are often affected in their present. Many of them think that their only options for treatment is to spend long hours on a psychiatrist’s couch. But what if you could conduct your own treatment, on your own time, in order to process your trauma? In the third episode with “The Transformation” author Dr. James Gordon, Dr. Daniel Amen, Tana Amen, and Gordon give you some practical tips to take control of your care and your life.

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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.
Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen In our podcast, we provide you with the tools you need to become a warrior for the health of your brain and body.
Dr. Daniel Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we have been transforming lives for 30 years using tools like brain SPECT imaging to personalize treatment to your brain. For more information, visit
Tana Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is also brought to you by Brain MD where we produce the highest quality nutraceuticals to support the health of your brain and body. To learn more, go to
Welcome back. We are still talking to our friend Dr. Gordon, and we're talking about his book Transformation and it's just so interesting. I'm just so enjoying this. Dr. Gordon specializes in trauma and we left off the last podcast talking about something you called expressive meditation. You're making a distinction for me about the difference between martial arts, which I love because it just clears my brain of whatever else I was thinking. But you were distinctly talking about the difference with why you have patients do expressive meditation in an intentional, disorganized, it's not an organized pattern like martial arts.
Dr. James Gordon: Right.
Tana Amen: So can you finish explaining why that's important, what it does for you?
Dr. James Gordon: Sure. Martial arts is more of an exercise in mindfulness as well as the physical exercise and it's beautiful and helpful. And expressive meditations understand that when we've been in the freeze response that we were talking about before, when our body is shut down or we've gone limp and our mind is stuck, we're ruminating all the time, we're removed from our physicality, we feel distant from our body, somehow we need to break up those fixed patterns. And one of the easiest way ways to break them up is by shaking them up. And the easiest way to shake them up is quite literally by shaking. And what happens if you stand up and shake for five or six or 10 minutes is the body starts to loosen up and emotions that have been buried start to come up.
So I can tell you a little story. I'm working in Haiti after the earthquake there. You may remember there were 90 nursing students killed during the earthquake in Haiti. One of the buildings collapsed. And I was doing a workshop with about 100 nursing students. This is about a year after the earthquake. I've been talking about trauma, teaching them soft belly breathing, talking about fight or flight, talking something about the freeze response. Then I got everybody up shaking, these 90 17, 18, 19-year-old girls and me and a couple of members of my team and within two minutes at least half the girls are weeping, crying, crying, and we continue the shaking for about five or six minutes and then we pause for a couple of minutes, which is a kind of mindful pause to become aware of the breath and the body.
The girls are still crying. Then I put on Bob Marley's Three Little Birds, and so all the girls are dancing. Now girls are crying, they're laughing, they're dancing. Afterwards I say, as I always say, “What was that like for you?” And the girls say, “This is the first time we've been able to cry since the earthquake. We've had to be strong for the little children, for our parents, for our grandparents. We're nurses, we have to be strong for everybody else. It felt so good to cry, to let go, and it's also the first time that we've been able to laugh and the first time that we've danced in a year and we're girls.”. And then one of them stands up and she says, “And Jim, we love Bob Marley. We are Haitian girls, we have wonderful Haitian music.” So I said, “Great. Next time, we'll use Haitian music.”.
But what's happening is that these emotions that they've buried because of their trauma, that they've kept it under wraps because they have to move ahead, they felt they had to help other people, they're able to release the emotions. And by the end of it, they're feeling like teenage girls again. They've recovered themselves. So they're able to cry, they're able to laugh, they're able to dance, they're able to joke around with me, which they have not been for a year. The trauma has completely overwhelmed them. And I've seen this ...
Well, I'm here in the VA in Orlando. We're working with veterans and people who are training people to work with veterans. And we see this all the time with vets, that they are suppressing all these terrible things that have happened to them. They start shaking and dancing, it starts coming up and they start feeling back in their bodies again for the first time, maybe in years. So these expressive techniques are really important. And the combination of the soft belly breathing as the antidote to the fight or flight, the shaking and dancing antidote to freezing sets the stage in which people are balanced enough to be able to learn and effectively use all the other self-care techniques that I teach in the Transformation.
Tana Amen: Wonderful.
Dr. Daniel Amen: You know one of the things that brings up for me is SPECT scans we do show the activity in the cerebellum really well, and I think of the cerebellum as the Rodney Dangerfield part of the brain. It gets no respect. It's 10% of the brain's volume, but it has 50% of the brain's neurons. And there's a whole literature, actually much of it developed from Harvard, on its role in emotion, mood, cognition. And what we often see is low activity in the cerebellum. And so I'm thinking by you getting people up, dancing, moving, it's actually activating their central processing unit because when the cerebellum's low we don't process information as quickly or as well. And doing coordination exercises is activating because there's this dance between the cerebellum and the frontal lobes that you're probably calming their emotional brain, activating their thoughtful brain. It's just so interesting for me to think about it from an imaging perspective, but I love that.
Dr. James Gordon: That is interesting, yes.
Dr. Daniel Amen: What are some other techniques? We've talked about breathing, we've talked about dancing, we've talked about hand warming that people can do if they grew up in trauma or they had a single incident. And I know in the book you talk about that's really very different.
Dr. James Gordon: Well, but the techniques, the approach is the same. I think this is an important point that whatever the source of trauma, that the approach for helping people to move through that trauma, to learn and grow through it and beyond it, and to become who they're meant to be is the same approach. It's the same whether I'm working with veterans here or traumatized kids, kids who've grown up in abusive families. The same approach works and seems to be able to mobilize the same emotional and brain functions.
Now, the other techniques, one of the ones that I really like personally is guided imagery. I don't know how much you've used that.
Tana Amen: I love it. I do meditation with guided imagery all the time.
Dr. Daniel Amen: So I don't know if you knew Hal Wayne, when he was at Walter Reed.
Dr. James Gordon: Sure. I knew Hal, yeah.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Hal was my teacher and I spent a month elective learning hypnosis and so guided imagery was ... And imaging just sort of fell into my lap later. My natural bent as a psychiatrist, hypnosis, guided imagery, biofeedback, teaching people skills, not just giving them pills. And so I love guided imagery. It's so helpful.
Tana Amen: It's so powerful.
Dr. James Gordon: Guided imagery, as you know, is enormously powerful. We use it in a couple of ways. One is to help control physiological functions and anybody can do that simply by sitting quietly, breathing deep. The idea is if you imagine you're in that state and you imagine yourself biting into a lemon and people can do this either, maybe they've done it right now or they can do it at home, What you notice is you start salivating and puckering up. That's the power of an image to create a physiological response that's out of our conscious control.
So that's number one. And then we use imagery to create a safe place. This is very important when you're traumatized is to imagine you're in a safe or comfortable place. And I've done this with people in the middle of wars as well as with people who are in abusive relationships who feel there is no safety where they are. They can imagine a safe place, it gives them some relief from the situation. And then once people get a little bit comfortable with imagery, you can teach them to use a guided imagery to make contact with what we call, what I call in the Transformation, wise guide, which represents ... You can think of it as intuition, imagination or unconscious or greater knowing, a deeper wisdom, whatever you want to call it. But that's the part of ourself that can help inform us about things that we need to know that are not easily available to our conscious mind. And this is a very powerful part of healing.
In the Transformation, I described people whose wise guides, the guides they imagine, help them save their lives, give them ways, the reasons and perspectives on their life that make it seem no longer reasonable to kill themselves.
Tana Amen: Yeah.
Dr. James Gordon: A wise guide can show them how to get out of situations that they felt impossible to solve because in many ways that imagination, that intuition knows more than our conscious mind knows, and all of us can use those techniques. So that's just one of many techniques.
Tana Amen: That's so powerful because at first I thought I can't meditate, I don't know how to do it, but when I finally figured it out and started doing it and started doing guided imagery, it's so powerful that within a week I noticed a massive change in my physiology, in my mindset, in just how I feel and it's like exercise now. When I do it, I feel good. When I don't do it, I don't feel right. It's just, it's that powerful.
Dr. Daniel Amen: How can people-
Dr. James Gordon: Right and what I find is when I'm not doing something, I asked my wise guide what should I do.
Tana Amen: Right. Exactly. Exactly.
Dr. Daniel Amen: How can people learn more about your work? They can pick up your book, The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma. How else Jim?
Dr. James Gordon: They can look at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine website,, Charlie, Mary, Betty, They can learn about the work. Some of the videos of some of these techniques are available. They can take part or find somebody near them who is leading mind-body skills groups where they can work with somebody in person to learn the techniques I teach in The Transformation.
If they are interested in learning this material to work with other people, they can come to our training programs. We have training programs in the US as well as around the world and they can see the work that we're doing. They can read about the research we've done on it. They can read articles from the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post about what we do and look at the videos. I think the videos are very, very interesting to see people using these techniques and making major changes in their lives.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Great. When we come back, I have a very important question for you about my wife. Stay with us on The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast, and I promise it's not going to start a war.
Tana Amen: Uh-oh.
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