Healing PTSD through Buddhist Therapy

wild flowers growing

PTSD is a disorder that develops following a scary, shocking or dangerous event. The clinical diagnosis as laid out by the DSM states that adults with PTSD must experience all of the following symptoms for a period of at least 1 month:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom:

    • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating

    • Bad dreams

    • Frightening thoughts

  • At least one avoidance symptom:

    • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience

    • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event

  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms:

  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms:

From a perspective of Buddhism, PTSD is addressed in various ways and through the application of techniques and concepts including mindfulness, meditation, non-judgment and self-compassion. Specifically, Buddhist psychotherapy recommends the following treatment for healing from trauma:

  • Stay Present

Staying present is at the core of Buddhist teachings. Presence in Buddhist terms is love, it is our pure, peaceful state devoid of thought. By remaining present with our experiences - internally and externally - we are able to bring love and compassion to whatever sensation arises. We also learn to de-identify with ego (the "voice in our heads") through presence.

  • "Lean In" to Suffering

Leaning in to pain or suffering is critical to healing. When we "lean in" to our experience, we're saying "yes" to whatever arises, and in that sense, we're validating our thoughts and emotions. We accept that whatever we feel in any given moment is okay. Rather than resisting our thoughts and feelings - which only serves to strengthen them - we learn how to surrender and flow with the ever-changing tides of life.

  • Breathe through Intense Emotions and Thoughts

In Buddhist therapy, the breath is essential in terms of learning how to stay present, quiet the mind and cultivate inner peace. The breath is used as an anchor, bringing us back to the present moment whenever our thoughts try to take us away. When intense thoughts or feelings arise, we can breathe deeply and in doing so, activate our parasympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for calming us down).

  • Learn Non-Reactivity and Mindfulness

The practice of mindfulness is one of non-reactivity, or suspension of judgment. Mindfulness has been defined as "moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness", and ensures we stay present, fully alert and awake to our life experience. All too often, we berate ourselves and invalidate our own experiences; the "inner critic", also known as ego, is a negative voice that creates a great deal of suffering. By learning how to be mindful and non-reactive to our experiences, we remain calm and centered through distress.

  • Maintain Body Awareness

Finally, and given the inextricable link between mind and body, a Buddhist aspect of healing trauma pertains to body awareness. Through practices such as yoga, Buddhism enables us to stay "in our bodies", avoiding disassociation that so often occurs in the aftermath of trauma. Remaining connected to and aware of our physical form is one way to stay present, and also ensures that we are taking care of ourselves and of our health.