Refugee youth have higher rates of trauma than those who remain in one country throughout their life. Trauma, particularly prolonged trauma, can have devastating effects on physical and mental health including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the development of chronic illnesses. Whilst not all refugees are subject to the development of these conditions - their displacement leaves them at a greater vulnerability.
The seven fundamental human needs provide a universal framework from which humans can hope to achieve fulfilment. The needs consist of safety, understanding, connection, participation, esteem/ identity, autonomy, and self-actualisation. When traumatic experiences interfere with the execution of these needs it’s crucial that individuals are given ways to take control of their lives again and open themselves up to fulfilment. In the case of refugees, this can be extremely difficult and the psychological effects of warfare can be fatal.
It’s difficult to distinguish between psychological and physical trauma due to the complex
relationship between the mind and body. Psychological trauma manifests in tangible and chemical ways in the body, and so physical treatments can help to alleviate psychological damage. Refugees often experience the fight-or-flight response when enduring traumatic experiences; during this state, the nervous system is flooded with stress hormones and the body prepares to defend itself by increasing its heart rate, blood pressure, and sweat production amongst other changes. An effect of this process is an increased sensitivity to stress, and severe PTSD can make this sensitivity crippling in day-to-day life. In an attempt to combat these daily stress responses, Dr. James Gordon investigated and published his book ‘Transforming Trauma: The Path to Hope and Healing’ which looks at the various ways that the body and mind can be used to heal from trauma.
Dr. Gordon discusses at length breathing methods, diet tips, meditation techniques, and more which can aid survivors of trauma and allow them to work towards healing their nervous systems and relationships. Unlike other forms of therapy which can be inaccessible and expensive, the focus of these techniques is their ability to aid everyone regardless of their experience, their location, their wealth, or their personal beliefs. The book discusses Dr. Gordon’s personal experience in refugee camps and the immediate and long-term effects of the treatments that he was able to witness. A key issue that he identified among survivors of warfare was a lack of hope. The loss of loved ones, witnessing of devastation, and isolation from their communities and homes left refugees with a sense of hopelessness and pessimism that had chemically harboured itself in the bodies of survivors.
Dr. Gordon worked with children affected by war in Kosovo, Gaza, and Ukraine - collaborating
techniques from osteopathy, acupuncture, herbalism, and mediation in order to produce his healing curriculum. The effectiveness of his techniques was seen amongst even the most traumatised of child soldiers in Mozambique. Soft Belly Breathing is one of the primary and most simple techniques which Dr. Gordon teaches; it involves the complete relaxation of the abdomen and a focus on breathing in a slow, deep, and controlled manner. By adding intentionality into breathing patterns, trauma survivors become more capable of establishing a connection to their bodies - something which is commonly struggled with. The positive effects of this technique include reduced agitation and anger, as well as the aiding of sleep.
Another key technique employed by Dr. Gordon and his team included the use of the arts in refugee camps. This included forms of movement, shaking, and dance, as well as the use of drawing as a form of expression. Dance and movement allowed for the physical release of tension and provided a way for the healing of the nervous system. Communal dance was an expressive and comforting experience for most participants, refugees were encouraged to relax and engage with the music entirely. Another form of movement that was encouraged was shaking. Inspired by the primal habits of wild animals, shaking offers a universal way to physically remove the body from the fight or flight response. Such activities were also inspired by ancient and indigenous practices, often neglected by Western medicine. The drawing was encouraged in refugee camps as it provided a medium of communication that could explain children’s experiences in a more comprehensive way than their language often could. It provided a way to share, communicate, and comfort. Children were encouraged to draw recreations of their fears and experiences, adults were instructed to draw the largest problems that they faced in their lives. Following this, they were instructed to draw a potential resolution to these issues - no matter how outlandish or unlikely it seemed to occur. By
simply encouraging the possibility of a resolution to the fears and problems of the refugees - Doctor Gordon was able to open their minds to the possibility of optimism.
Overall Doctor Gordon aimed to combine group work with self-care in an attempt to heal the
consequences of trauma. His goal was restoring the psychological and physiological state of
participants, and his verbal reviews speak for themselves. Between 80 and 90 percent of participants noted that they felt better after only one attempt at employing his practices.
The healing practices encouraged by James Gordon link directly to the restoration of the seven fundamental human needs which are treated by warfare and terror. The increasing connection between the mind and body helps participants to feel and process feelings of safety. The group work
which is encouraged in refugee camps facilitates understanding, connection, and participation. By
teaching vulnerable individuals techniques that they can consistently re-use themselves to improve
the way they feel and help them to process the stresses of daily life, their esteem, identity, and
autonomy are working towards restoration. And self-actualisation is hinted at with the
reintroduction of optimism into the lives of those whose experiences had filled them with despair.
The teaching of these mindfulness techniques is invaluable to the lives of millions of refugees.
Above all, the techniques discussed in this article allow for the restoration of autonomy and
connection, key components of the human experience. The takeaway from this post should be one
of hope; we have the techniques to help and heal those who have faced some of the worst
experiences that humanity has to offer. They are replicable, they are accessible, and they offer
potential benefits to all sufferers of trauma, tragedy, and violence.