There are moments and memories that live in our bodies for what seems like forever.
Some bring back sensory experiences that are pleasing, like the feeling of a brisk ocean swim, the smell of a loved one’s home, or the sound of holiday music.
Others can be heavy and frightening, like the memory of physical or mental pain, the smell of a hospital emergency room, or the uncontrollable loudness of slamming doors and shouting.
Many of us who have experienced trauma have complicated relationships with our bodies. We can find ourselves hiding from a painful past instead of embracing life and moving forward.
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies,” writes Bessel A. van der Kolk in “The Body Keeps the Score.” “The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort.”
It’s hard to move on when the threat still feels real, when you’re still deeply connected to that wound.
While it’s existed for thousands of years in ancient religious traditions, it’s only within the last century that the Western scientific community has caught up with and acknowledged its health benefits.
Unfortunately for trauma survivors, there can be risks associated with practicing meditation.
“Mindfulness meditation can actually end up exacerbating symptoms of traumatic stress,” writes educator and psychotherapist David Treleaven in an article for The Science of Psychotherapy.
As with any method or therapy, it’s important to understand these risks and use mindfulness in a way that helps rather than harms.
Here’s how to approach meditation through a trauma-sensitive lens.
“When asked to pay focused, sustained attention to their internal experience, trauma survivors can find themselves overwhelmed by flashbacks and heightened emotional arousal,” writes Treleaven.
I find sitting still and focusing on my body to be distressing at times, as my body is where much of my trauma took place. Some of these experiences came from the outside world and some came from self-harmful behavior.
I’ve survived two overdoses in my lifetime, and the physical impacts were life-threatening and deeply traumatic.
When my body is too still, those traumas can sometimes resurface. I feel the excruciating twists in my stomach, the loss of muscle control, the blurred vision, and an inability to speak.
The pain and shame come back to me, and I feel overwhelmed and want to escape.
“When we ask folks with a trauma history to be still, close their eyes, and pay close and continuous attention to an internal landscape that’s painful and overwhelming without adequate support, it’s possible they’ll feel an increase in emotional arousal and symptoms of traumatic stress including flashbacks and intrusive thoughts,” says Alison James, a trauma-informed psychotherapist from Ontario, Canada.
This is why it’s key to find a therapist or guide who’s informed on trauma, and your type of trauma in particular, so you can approach mindfulness from a place of comfort and security.
Trauma-sensitive care allows for guided meditation instruction while encouraging breaks and flexibility.
A trauma-informed approach to mindfulness uses techniques, like grounding and anchoring, which use the five senses to connect to the present. Finding a therapist who understands this approach and validates my trauma has been crucial.
The right therapist prepares me for the experience to come, empowers me, and reminds me that I’m in control of the process. They act like a guide, someone who emphasizes self-compassion and is trained to help if emotional distress does come up.
Having my agency affirmed by a trauma-sensitive person is so important, because I have felt out of control in the past. It helps me both take responsibility for my current self and actions and distance myself from the actions of others.
James says it’s key to build skills and resources that “help identify emotional distress and return to a state of nervous system regulation — providing choices and permission to act with agency and autonomy.”
She also recommends titration and pendulation, or slowly and gently getting in touch with distressing feelings and then backing off, similar to exposure therapy.
She suggests “approaching and exposing survivors slowly to their internal experience and teaching them to turn toward and then away from distress, anchoring to supportive resources.”
While these approaches to meditation can help, there’s still a chance that focusing so intently on your body will cause you distress if you’re a trauma survivor.
Fortunately, there are other ways to incorporate mindfulness into your life and reap its benefits.
As Treleaven says, mindfulness can increase self-compassion and awareness and help trauma survivors regulate their emotions.
“Mindfulness meditation isn’t bad: it’s powerful,” he writes. “And those of us offering it to others benefit when we continue exploring its risks and rewards.”
James defines mindful action as “paying non-judgmental attention to the present moment as it unfolds. It’s an attitude and quality of presence that can be brought to any ordinary activity, like knitting, walking, or even doing the dishes.”
She says an external focus rather than an internal one may be more accessible and less destabilizing for a trauma survivor.
Factoring in my tendency to dysregulate, I usually keep my eyes open when I’m practicing mindfulness. I typically avoid body scans and intense breathwork at home, and I’m increasingly drawn to mindful movement.
For me, this looks like swimming, cooking, eating, bathing, and listening to music, all while using what professor and mindfulness-based stress reduction founder Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness.”
While I make my way through the world, I try to appreciate the experiences and sensations around me, even if they’re not always pleasant.
I get in touch with how a sensory element makes me feel, and I try not to avoid it. I try to embrace it as best I can.
While this will never look perfect, and I’m frequently pulled out of the moment by distraction or restlessness, it’s still helped me regulate the emotions associated with my trauma.
I’ve been through several different individual and group therapies over the past 15 years.
I’ve used cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) along with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
While both helped me with depression and anxiety, I found the meditation and body scan elements particularly difficult and distressing when attempting them on my own.
What has worked best for me is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR).
DBT is a model of therapy with skills and strategies to balance acceptance and change, to build a life that feels worth living. Key components of this model include:
- distress tolerance
- interpersonal effectiveness
- emotional regulation
Mindfulness was the first skill taught in each module of my DBT program. It helped me:
- communicate more effectively
- manage dysregulation
- be more mindful of my triggers and the way they impact my actions
- decrease angry feelings
- decrease rumination on past experiences
EMDR is an interactive body-based technique used to accelerate the emotional process and relieve psychological distress.
Trauma-informed mindfulness is a key skill for preparing people for EMDR.
James says trauma survivors learn to “occupy a position of compassionate witness to their internal feelings, thoughts, sensations, and memories as they arise.”
My experience with mindfulness has been incredibly valuable as I continue through the EMDR process, but it hasn’t been without its challenges.
My first session was physically painful. I could feel a tremendous ache in my back. But as I went through reframing the memory, the pain dissipated.
Mindfulness prepared me to sit with that pain, rather than shy away from it. It helped me understand where it was coming from.
While EMDR involves being still and focusing on emotions and experiences that bring back unpleasant body sensations, I also know I’ve created a safe space for myself with my therapist, who understands what I’ve been through and respects my autonomy in the process.
Whether you mainly use traditional meditation, breathwork, and body scans, or you find, like me, that practicing mindful action along with other therapies feels safer and more effective, there’s help to be had and folks to assist you along the way.
Trauma can be a beast — it can sometimes feel insurmountable. But healing is possible, and mindfulness can be an excellent tool for reframing past experiences.
Whatever treatment you choose in your trauma recovery, let your healing take precedence over any expectation you or others might have about what the process should look like.
Your trauma matters, but at the same time, it doesn’t need to control your entire life.
JK Murphy is a freelance writer and food photographer who is passionate about body politics, mental health, and recovery. She values conversations on difficult topics explored through a comedic lens, and loves making people laugh. She holds a degree in Journalism from the University of King’s College. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.