Mindfulness has become wildly popular over the last few years, and for good reason. Practicing mindfulness can positively impact mental health and powerfully support our healing and growth. It anchors us in the present moment and helps us cultivate the ability to respond intentionally to life, rather than react from a purely emotional, conditioned place — both important aspects of trauma recovery. The catch is that mindfulness practices are not always safe if we have experienced trauma. David Treleavan, the creator of Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness, has found that if we don't take care in how we practice, mindfulness can actually make things worse.
Traditional mindfulness meditation practice asks us to sustain focus on the breath, the body, or internal experiences like thoughts, emotions, and mental images. These very things, however, are often what trigger overwhelm for trauma survivors. Staying with these experiences when they become overwhelming is painful and scary. They get too big to hold and instead take over. At this point, it’s like we are right back in the situations that hurt us in the first place, experiencing them yet again on an emotional level.
The good news is there are many ways to adapt mindfulness practices to make them more safe for trauma survivors. A bit of flexibility is all it takes to tap into the wealth of benefits that mindfulness has to offer.
A key aspect of mindfulness practice is having an anchor — something to orient attention toward and return to when we notice the mind has wandered. While meditation apps and teachers often suggest internal anchors, such as the breath or body, pretty much anything can be an anchor. If orienting to internal experience tends to trigger overwhelm, you can choose to orient to external stimuli instead. Pay attention to the sounds around you, choose a spot in your space to look at, or introduce a scent to focus on. To connect with your anchor, you can keep your eyes open or closed. All that matters is you pick something that feels safe to come back to each time your mind slips into autopilot. If you want to use your body as an anchor, know that you can do this in whatever way works best for you. You can pay attention to the body as a whole or to a particular part of the body. If connecting to your body seems daunting, try focusing on a body part that feels neutral or non-threatening, such as the pinky fingers or the bottoms of the feet.
You also don’t have to stick to stillness while practicing mindfulness meditation. Choose a posture that feels comfortable and allow yourself to take breaks to move around, open the eyes (if you’ve closed them), and change positions. Breaks and movement can help bring you back to emotional safety if you start to notice overwhelm creeping in. If stillness really doesn’t feel good, you can also practice mindfulness while moving or doing an activity. Whether it’s walking, stretching, crafting, or gardening, the activity itself can be your anchor for attention.
Finally, seek out support. Helpful as it is, mindfulness alone is not enough to heal trauma. Working with a professional can give you the space to process what you can’t alone. It can also help you learn additional emotion regulation and self-soothing skills, which you can incorporate into your mindfulness practice when you need to.