How Mindfulness Practice Can Help Heal Trauma
The body, mind, and soul. All three can reap the benefits of the individual being fully in the present moment. As well as paying attention on purpose, and being wholly without judgment. This state of mind and body is defined by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts in the US, as “mindfulness”. Now, an increasing number of studies are showing that the practice of mindfulness can do more than we initially thought. It can really help us deal with trauma. Decrease emotional reactivity, stress, anxiety, and irritability, as well as depression.
But how far can it go, and can it be applied to other types of issues too?
For example, can we use mindfulness for severe social issues? Can it help address racism, trauma, separation, healing connections with those around us? Can it enable a healthy connection with our best selves? The Mindfulness Conference 2019, worked to tackle these questions with some of the world’s leading teachers of contemporary mindfulness. As it turned out, mindfulness has a way of bringing together a variety of society’s experts for a common cause, from academics and medical professionals to political and social activists, and even traditional healers.
IMISA (the Institute for Mindfulness South Africa), a non-profit organization working to develop and apply contemporary mindfulness and its practices in South Africa, was the host of the conference, held at Maropeng in the Cradle of Humankind. With the word translating from Setswana as “returning to the place of origin”, Maropeng was a logical venue for the conference.
The role of mindfulness in dealing with trauma
It was immediately evident that mindfulness and meditation can be a double-edged sword for people and communities struggling with trauma. Mindfulness should not be regarded as a panacea for all ills. Dr. David Treleaven, an educator and trauma professional, is the author of Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness.
His presentation – going by the same name as his book – defined trauma as follows:
1. That which is unspeakable.
2. A horrific experience, undergone either on an individual or community level.
Furthermore, trauma gets enacted in:
- the individual,
- the family/intimate network
- in the community
- the institution
- social norms/historical forces, and
- in the spirit
Trauma Can Have Severe Repercussions
The problem with trauma is that it can have severe repercussions. In cases like sexual or domestic abuse, childhood neglect or conflict situations – such as war – the ripples continue long after the actual event or period.
“As I was starting to do more trauma work,” explains Treleaven, “one of the things that was frustrating was that trauma was still being relived.” In his presentation, Treleaven mentioned some correspondence he was receiving. It related to the way that meditation caused traumatic experiences to resurface. “One person emailed me and said that he was having a lot of traumatic memories in his meditation practice. He said: ‘My teacher is telling me to pay close attention to the memories. However, it seems to be making matters worse. What should I do?’
Mindful Meditation Is Sensitive To A Person’s Trauma
“Another mentioned that they had issues with dissociation. This is disconnection from their physical and emotional experiences. They said: ‘I’ve been doing this for several years – it’s connected with trauma. In my meditation community, I can sit very peacefully for about two to three hours at a time. I’m very good at leaving my body. And then the teacher comes up to me and commends me for being such a good meditator. But I don’t think I’m there. I think I’m dissociating.’”
After considering these cases, Treleaven concluded that mindful meditation was not necessarily helpful for those who had undergone extensive trauma. It is, therefore, necessary to modify the practice to be sensitive to the person’s trauma.
What is trauma-sensitive practice?
Someone who is trauma-sensitive or trauma-informed is someone who realizes the widespread trauma. This person can recognize traumatic symptoms, respond effectively and actively, avoiding amplifying the trauma. This can also be seen as “do no harm”. On the other hand, research does indicate that mindfulness is a valuable tool against stress. But just because trauma is a form of stress, it doesn’t mean one should necessarily treat trauma with mindfulness. If you do so blindly, you may well not get the result you are looking for.
According to a study called the Varieties of Contemporary Experiences, which looked at several mindfulness practitioners who were having difficult experiences in their practices, mindfulness could result in the de-repression of traumatic memories. In other words, pay attention long enough, and you will start to feel the trauma that is buried deep within.
Why does this happen?
In short, as explained by Bessel van der Kolk in his book The Body Keeps the Score, trauma lives in the body – and it goes further than just our mental health. Treleaven’s presentation mentioned a woman who had been sexually abused by her father as a child and had suppressed the memory. Years later, she approached Van der Kolk for therapy after randomly attacking her
new partner. It was discovered that her eyesight had begun to deteriorate due to an autoimmune disease that was ravaging her retina.
According to a study in New Scientist, in particular, female survivors of incest showed abnormalities in the ratios of immune cells, when compared with women who were free of such experiences. As a result, they were more vulnerable to autoimmune diseases. Therefore, if the body shows such a dramatic reaction to trauma, even if it had taken place years before, it should come as no surprise that our mind struggles to work past it, and keeps reliving it in mindfulness practice.
Treleaven asked the crowd to imagine, for a moment, that we were someone struggling with traumatic stress. “You keep experiencing these gut-wrenching sensations in your chest and belly, and you feel like you are not safe, that things are not okay,” he illustrated. “Then you go to a meditation class, and in the class, you’re being asked to pay close attention to your breath. And in doing so, you start to notice you’re becoming even more dis-regulated.
Looking around, everyone else seems to be doing fine. You came to meditation thinking you would feel calmer, but instead, you are feeling more anxiety. When explaining this to the teacher, he or she says: ‘That’s fine, just keep on paying attention to your breathing; eventually this will change.’
Frustration in Mindfulness
“Many people experience frustration in mindfulness practice when they cognitively know they are in no immediate danger, and their rational thought confirms this, but they can’t shake the feeling that they are not safe.”
When it comes to mindfulness practice and trauma, modifications are required to take the trauma into account.
Treleaven’s 6 Key Mindfulness Tips For Those Who Are Trauma-Sensitive
1. Having different anchors of attention.
Instead of focusing on the breath, it can help to focus on the hands, or the sensations of the feet, as well as sound and hearing.
2. Asking and giving consent for a physical touch.
For someone who is struggling with trauma, too much physical touch can be overwhelming.
3. Take more breaks.
It may be better to practice shorter periods than long, three-hour sessions.
4. Having flexibility in posture.
Being too stiff in posture and forcing yourself to maintain one position for too long might not have the reaction you’re looking for.
5. People need to have a choice when it comes to their practice.
For example, if, instead of closing their eyes, they want to keep them open, they should have this freedom.
6. It is okay for people to use external anchors.
If the trauma is extensive, the person may feel that focused on themselves, and the sensations in their body are overwhelming. For mindfulness to be a useful tool to address trauma, we need to understand that different people can have different reactions to the same treatment. We need to have a personalized approach when applying mindfulness to trauma. We also need a lot of patience when it comes to how we heal.
Mindfulness and a better understanding of our fellow humans
In an age when everyone has an opinion, it would be almost impossible not to find oneself engaging in some form of debate – be it over religion, politics, gender equality or race. However, the art of mindfulness not only teaches one how to have healthy, constructive debates, but it also provides one with the opportunity to see life from another individual’s perspective.
We can also use mindfulness to help us develop steadfastness. We can stay in a conversation that may be uncomfortable – an important element when it comes to righting historical wrongs and coming to terms with how we, as a species, will move forward.
Mindfulness is available to everyone, in any and every moment, given that it is an inherent human capacity. All it takes is a willingness to pay attention to what is arising right where we are, and infusing that with a quality of kindness and curiosity, rather than judgment.
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