There is no timestamp on trauma. There isn’t a formula that you can insert yourself into to get from horror to healed. Be patient. Take up space. Let your journey be the balm.
What is trauma?
Trauma is the reaction or emotional response to a significant event. Trauma is often associated with a physical injury, which I will not talk about today. I am focussing on emotional trauma, how to use mindfulness meditation in healing trauma and how to avoid making the trauma experience worse.
As stated earlier, trauma is an emotional or mental response to an event. No one event is more distressing or worse than another. What affects one person could have no impact on another, depending on the level of resilience, past experience of the person, or any number of other factors. Everything is relative. An event can be a car accident, an attack against a person, a natural disaster or some other upheaval in the person’s life.
Trauma can manifest itself in flashbacks, night sweats and panic attacks. It can result in diagnoses of anxiety disorder, depression or post traumatic stress disorder. With 20 years of experience as a social worker, I have seen people with all these manifestations resulting from childhood and other traumas.
Mindfulness meditation and the treatment of trauma
Many psychological therapies can be used to treat trauma and mindfulness meditation can also be used as one of the treatments.
This blog makes reference to Dr David Treleaven’s book, Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing. Dr Treleaven is a psychotherapist with decades of clinical experience in the areas of trauma and research into mindfulness meditation and its use with trauma. Dr Treleaven has seen firsthand the negative impacts of mindfulness meditation when people with a history of trauma jump into it, being told it will be the answer to all of their problems, only to make things worse.
Mindfulness meditation has been, and still is, marketed as the answer to all of our stressful problems such as lack of sleep, stress, anxiety and even some illnesses. This type of marketing has led people to believe that all their problems will be solved, when nothing else has worked, and many unfortunately have experienced negative side effects. Whilst meditation can have very positive affects on reducing stress and improving sleep, it is not the same for everyone.
Why do some people experience negative side effects?
Because the role of meditation, and in particular mindfulness meditation, is to bring forward unresolved issues or underlying emotions and have them come to the surface to be dealt with. What many people don’t understand is that in order to become less stressed or sleep better, you may need to face the underlying issues that are causing the sleep or stress issues. If someone has experienced a traumatic incident, and their day-to-day life is adversely affected by it, this will only become heightened during meditation. If the meditator is not ready or has no skills to manage an increase in their emotions, it may exacerbate the trauma.
Making meditation safer for people with a trauma history
Does this mean people with a history of trauma cannot practice mindfulness meditation? Of course not. It just means adjustments need to be made that are suitable for the person. There are a few ways this can be done. I have made some points, taken from Dr Treleaven’s book, that may assist a meditation teacher in making meditation safer for people with a history of trauma.
- Acknowledge the reaction to trauma. Dr Treleaven has developed what he calls the medusa method as a way of educating people about trauma and what they are experiencing during meditation. My approach is to support people to understand that what they are experiencing is a normal reaction given their trauma experience. Acknowledge their feelings and don’t discount them as being unreal. At the same time let the person know they are safe.
- The teacher should support the person in finding or developing an anchor point to help them support their mental stability. This may need to be done in conjunction with the person’s therapist, if they have one. The breath is a common anchor, but it’s not neutral and can escalate trauma feelings. The person needs to find a focus that works for them and these can include:
- Listening to sounds outside the room
- Feeling their feet on the ground
- Standing and possibly walking around the room
- Opening their eyes to look at something that makes them happy or grounds them such as their pet or a photo of a loved one
- Cease the meditation if a person is becoming destabilised during meditation and anchoring isn’t working. Sometimes people who have histories of trauma are not in a position to meditate just yet. Consider shorter practices such as encouraging people to be more mindful throughout the day, including asking questions such as, ‘What am I choosing to eat today?’, ‘Do I want to exercise today?’ or, ‘Will this be good for me or not?’
- Attend to the environment. Dr Treleaven describes a client opening their eyes during mediation to reorient to the environment and present moment if they are experiencing a traumatic memory during meditation. This reminds the client that they are safe. Other ways to attend to the environment are to name objects in the room or the noise outside, feeling their feet on the ground or their bottom on the chair.
- Use open monitoring to widen out. After the client has spent some time focussing inwards, get them to widen out by using open monitoring in meditation. Not all trauma survivors will be able to manage open monitoring and it can make them feel dysregulated (unable to manage their emotional responses). Dr Treleaven advises people to begin with focussed attention on the breath and then gradually widen their attention to include more stimuli. The person must track their own window of tolerance, which will vary from person to person.
- Support the person to focus on resilience in their day-to-day life. In his book Dr Treleaven refers to the quote from Staci Haines: “Resilience is our inherent capacity to see beauty, find connections, commune with something larger than ourselves and create - even in or after the horrendous experience.” Support the person to find love and joy in their life and to focus their energy more and more on what gives them joy. This can be spending fun time with their loved ones or making time for self care each week such as taking a bath, reading a book, exercising, or simply enjoying nature as they go for a walk.
Mindfulness meditation can be used as part of a person’s healing journey through trauma, but it needs to be practised with care and, dare I say it, with mindfulness. Avoid haphazard approaches to encouraging someone to join in a group and meditate and, worse, persevere with the meditation when things are going wrong. Mindfulness meditation can be just as dangerous as it is beneficial. But with suitable modifications and care from the teacher, it is a wonderful tool for the healing journey of trauma.