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Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

Finding peace in turbulent times

Mindfulness is taking the world by storm as one of the most simple and effective well-being practices for the workplace. Despite the enormous health benefits for most people, it is particularly impactful for stress management, increasing resilience and for people who struggle with anxiety and burnout. Recent studies have shown however, that, if not facilitated correctly, it can be harmful for people who have recently experienced a trauma or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. When we take a moment to be still, often whatever is sitting in our subconscious, something we might be suppressing or avoiding, can be brought to the surface. In the process of silencing our racing thoughts and pausing our busy lives, we make space for what is sitting deep within us. If we have recently experienced a trauma, this can become unpleasant as it can create a blank canvas for flashbacks and/or challenging emotions and intrusive thoughts.

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.”. When practising meditation or mindfulness, undealt with traumas can produce invasive emotional experiences but there are many ways to support yourself during a practice which will be discussed below.

Trauma-sensitive mindfulness is when we practice mindfulness in a way that acknowledges, respects, and supports individuals who have experienced trauma. David Treleaven, trauma-sensitive mindfulness expert, states that it is when “We can recognize symptoms of trauma, respond effectively, and actively avoid re-traumatisation in our mindfulness work.”. Mindfulness is beneficial for trauma victims as it helps to combat against stress which is associated with trauma and pulls us back into the present moment as trauma pulls us into the past. However, when practising mindfulness traumatized individuals can be drawn to and fixate on traumatic stimuli. It’s important to support yourself or your participants if you are a mindfulness practitioner in the following ways:

  1. Create awareness and acknowledge the potential impact of trauma on your mindfulness practice

  2. Recognise which stimuli is triggering for you and make a conscious choice in the type of meditation or mindfulness practice you do

  3. In the event of a traumatic stimuli arising, attempt to focus your attention onto something that makes you feel safe and comfortable to ground yourself

  4. Try locating and using a sensation or stimuli that is neutral (this will differ according to individual)

  5. Sometimes the breath is not the best focus point as it is deeply linked to our autonomic nervous system and how we deal with stress and can easily bring about feelings of panic or overwhelm

  6. In the same way, our bodies hold trauma and so using the body as a core focus of our attention can also feel overwhelming for someone who is having a somatic experience of trauma

  7. Rather than traditional meditation, one can do informal mindfulness practices of present-moment awareness while doing physical movement or listening to music as an example

  8. Listening and allowing space for our emotions even if they are difficult is an important part of mindfulness

The Institute for Mindfulness in South Africa (IMISA) recently had a learning forum about trauma-sensitive mindfulness. Interestingly, Willoughby Britton, the Director of Brown University’s Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, highlighted the dangers of referring to it as trauma-sensitive as it can have an “othering” effect on people who have experienced trauma. She suggested it rather be referred to as diversity inclusive. Diversity inclusive means that we practice mindfulness in a way that respects and supports the individuality of people and meditate in a way that uniquely supports us and our personal experience.

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