How to Vanquish the Effects of Trauma    

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The embankment along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India, is the holiest burial place for Hindus. The bank is densely packed with sick and dying pilgrims and mourners, while tourists fill the boats on the river. For as far as one’s teary eyes can gaze and grip the horizon, the city skyline is dense with the smoke of cremated bodies. I was reminded of my mother’s similar description of pogroms, including the smoke from burning synagogues, books, and murdered corpses. “Holocaust survivors shouldn’t be here,” I thought as we waited patiently with hordes of people for Brahman priests to lead them in prayer. 

The service featured seven incense-waving priests draped in majestic black and gold robes. A spiritual and entertaining extravaganza ensued with song, choreographed dances, instrumentalists, acrobatics, and fire eaters. 

After some sleep at the hotel, we returned to the river a few hours later at dawn, shivering in the cold night-time air while battling fatigue, stinging eyes, and nearly singed mucous membranes. We boarded a small sailboat and watched locals perform morning ablutions dressed only in loincloths. No one cringed as a human femur and tibia floated past us, the bones that don’t burn, heading downstream. Vultures flew overhead. 

My husband and I resembled hooded cockroaches. We had carefully prepared ourselves with N95 face masks, hats, and goggles. Nevertheless, my senses were overloaded. My eyes stung and my throat was raw. My pulse quickened as the sweet, putrid smell of burning flesh alarmed me, setting off traumatic iterations of millions murdered and burned in ovens.  

More than that, when I was two years old, in an infirmary to address an infected bite at a vacation resort, a sadistic nurse with a steaming metal iron seared my bottom. Held down and immobilized, I howled and screamed into a deafening silence as the tip of the scorching iron landed on my tender baby flesh.   

Into my young adulthood, I struggled with the odor, visuals, and pain of burnt flesh. Not until my surgical rotations in medical school did I recognize and reckon with the odor of roasted flesh. 

Before I made these connections, I experienced free-floating anxiety but didn’t understand the links to my history, which puts the present day in perspective. 

I could stomach this trip now. I categorized these associations and memories without angst or the physical stress response of my sympathetic nervous system outpouring cortisol and adrenaline. I could experience it contextually as spiritual and sacred. These pilgrims were not murdered. On the contrary, I was privy to a holy demonstration in this culture; this is a way to pay the highest respect to your loved one. And I understood the religious significance of it. The smell was terrible, the floating bones I could live without having seen, but narrative context is essential.  

We have different genetics, temperaments, environments, personal histories, and education. Notwithstanding these apparent variables that make us unique, self-reflection and mentalizing are unifying. Our automatic mental constructs (AMCs) don’t disappear.  

We all have AMCs that are as unique as we are individuals. However, we can creatively anticipate and manage our triggers and minimize or eradicate effects once we’ve identified them. Besides breaking trauma cycles, the experience can be very growth-promoting because overcoming fear necessarily means expanding the repertoire of problem-solving behavior and ideas.  

Overcoming fear and anxiety is a liberating eye-opener. The accomplishment is self-enhancing and fuels successes as it gives us a new lease on life.  

Practicing mindfulness is an effective way to become aware of buried events from our past that can continue to trigger us. With mindfulness we see our reactions more clearly — like a fly on the wall watching the way we conceptualize the world around us. 

To minimize the triggers related to past trauma, practice this 5-minute mindful meditation daily: 

1. Find a comfortable place to sit and relax. 

2. Close your eyes and breathe easily.  

3. Observe your thoughts and feelings as they come and go. If a thought or feeling distracts or preoccupies you, acknowledge it and set it aside for attention later.  

4. Notice your thoughts without becoming entangled in them.  

5. Move your attention to your heartspace. Pay attention and note any feeling of tightness, pain, or grief. See if you can identify any sensations and breathe into them to remain relaxed. 

Getting to know ourselves is one of the greatest acts of self-love we can undertake. It enables us to make peace with any personal trauma, avoid uncomfortable situations, and know how to deal with our feelings when facing difficult events. 

Written By: Jacqueline Heller, MD 

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Jacqueline Heller, MD, a psychoanalyst, is board certified in psychiatry and neurology. Her professional experience as a practicing clinician has allowed her extensive insight into the vast range of human experiences. Her new book, Yesterday Never Sleeps (Greenleaf Book Group Press, August 1, 2023), delves into her personal experience with family trauma and helping others work through their own. Learn more at

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