meQ Talks with Mind-Body Medicine Pioneer Dr. James Gordon

Welcome back to our Cup of Calm interview series, where we feature interesting people and experts, their journey to resilience, and their wisdom on well-being.

It doesn’t take more than a few moments of watching the news to know that trauma is an issue of global proportions, with terror attacks, the refugee crisis, and ongoing political turmoil dominating the headlines. But, in the words of beloved television host Mr. Rogers, when something scary happens, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” There are powerful ways to help ourselves, and our communities, cope with trauma—just ask James Gordon, MD.

Gordon thinks the world would be a better place if everyone practiced mind-body medicine, which uses the power of thoughts and emotions to influence physical health. Founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM) and author of “Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey out of Depression,” Gordon has spent the last two decades working with traumatized populations in war-torn regions like Bosnia, Kosovo, Gaza, and Israel. Gordon and his team have also worked in post-earthquake Haiti, post-Katrina New Orleans, and in U.S. communities experiencing their own unique traumas, such as the Pine Ridge Reservation, veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, and Appalachia.

His approach is unique: He and his staff train community leaders—aid workers, doctors, teachers, chaplains, community elders—in mind-body techniques that they then teach to trauma survivors in their communities. The techniques range from deep breathing to “shaking and dancing,” a kind of expressive meditation. We asked Gordon how he remains resilient in this work and to share his tips on vanquishing anxiety using mind-body approaches.

You just returned from a training in Amman, Jordan for aid workers who work with Syrian refugees. What keeps the aid workers and others who help Syrian refugees resilient? 

The first thing that we’re able to do is help them understand that they deserve to pay attention to themselves. Part of the problem is they think, “I’ve gotta give it all to the job. I’m not important.” That’s especially true when you’re caring for people who are worse off than you. So we say to them, “Take some time for yourself. You’re worth it. And here are some basic techniques that you can experience here and now.” Techniques like soft-belly breathing—where you take deep breaths while relaxing your abdominal muscles—quiet the nervous system and the fight or flight response.

In the trainings, you use a variety of techniques from soft-belly breathing to self-expression through drawings. I know different therapies resonate for different people, but was there one or two that seemed to work better in Jordan?

The soft-belly breathing is so useful. There was a guy—a Palestinian refugee—who works for one of the major aid organizations there. He said for the first time in all the years that he’s been out of Gaza, he was able to hear the sound of a helicopter without jumping out of his skin. So I think the soft-belly breathing is of foundational importance.

The work you do must be exhausting—physically, mentally, and spiritually. What keeps you resilient? 

The work. There are certainly times when I think “Ohh! I’m going to have to travel 6,000 miles to get there, and it’s going to be an intense five days, and I have to work with interpreters.” But once I start doing the work, it gives me energy. The work itself is a joy.

Over the years, I’ve learned to become more meditative and mindful as I do whatever I do. So every morning, I spend 45 minutes or so stretching and breathing.

Much of your work, including your book Unstuck, focuses on helping people relieve depression and anxiety. It seems our country is suffering a communal state of anxiety—due to our current political climate, fear of violence, and financial struggles. What tips do you have for readers who might be experiencing this anxiety?

There’s a tendency to hunker down, get more angry and less self-aware. It’s the “get in a foxhole” mentality. But it’s not terribly helpful psychologically.

At times, I’m very troubled by political actions that I see as dangerous to the planet, to Americans. If I can relax and bring the tools of self-awareness and self-care to the way I look at these issues, I understand that things are not set in stone. Change is always happening. And then I do what I can do. Everybody has something they can do in their community. Doing that as best you can, in as mindful a way as you can, is enormously therapeutic.

What’s most exciting to you about the work you’re doing? 

Being with somebody who has experienced profound change. At the end of the training in Jordan, there was a man from Syria who had been very depressed. He lost his brother, his home. And he was worried about his family all the time. But little by little, he began to focus on what was going on right now. He became more meditative and aware. On the final day of the training, he gave me a Syrian banknote, signed it, and said, “When we go back to Syria we will spend this together!” It was so beautiful to see this man who was horribly discouraged coming back to life.

Everybody experiences trauma at some point—whether it’s a death of a loved one, a financial calamity, or war and natural disaster. Do you have any tips for readers going through trauma?

First of all, I want to invite anyone reading this to come to our next training, which is August 7th to 11th in Monterey Bay, California. The only criteria we have is that you want to learn these mind-body techniques yourself and that you want to share them with others in your community or workplace.

My book “Unstuck” is a guide for people who are depressed or anxious. Virtually all the techniques we use in the trainings are in that book.

Then, begin some kind of meditative practice. There is no one practice that everybody likes. So if you don’t like sitting quietly and meditating, you can do active, physical meditation like dancing. But do something that helps you relieve your stress. Experiment with different approaches!

Hannah Wallace is a Portland-based journalist and editor who writes about integrative medicine, sustainable agriculture, and wine for Food & Wine, Vogue, Fast Company, and other publications. She attended the Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s training in 2014 while reporting a feature about Gordon’s Healing Our Troops program for Southwest Airlines’ magazine. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @Hannahmw23