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Mindfulness and Trauma
Prof Chris Goto-Jones explores the subject of Trauma in the Mindfulness field.
Greetings, again. Many mindfulness classrooms today, there’s a tacit or sometimes even explicit assumption that the body is a safe place for everyone in the room. We’re constantly told to return to the body, to return to the feeling of our breath in the body. To feel that breath in our body as a kind of anchor or a safe haven to which we can always return. While this anchor might be accessible and reliable for many, what would it be like if our bodies were not safe places for us?
Now, over the last 10 years or so, trauma clinicians and researchers like Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine, Gabor Mate, and Patricia Ogden have conclusively demonstrated that our bodies hold the residue of all kinds of experiences, especially traumatic ones. In van der Kolk’s famous phrase, ‘‘The Body Keeps the Score.’’ In practice, this means that someone who experiences trauma might carry the residue of that trauma with them in their somatic being, where it waits lurking able to disrupt and terrify us whenever it awakens. Now, data suggests that about 80 percent of adults will have experienced a traumatic event, but only a minority of these, perhaps 10 percent, will carry that experience with them in the form of traumatic or post-traumatic stress.
They might have nightmares and flashbacks. They might experience physical sensations and pain. They might find themselves suddenly triggered by something in their environment that seems completely innocent to other people around them, causing them to experience that trauma all over again. In fact, people who are struggling with traumatic stress are often also hyper-vigilant regarding factors in their environments and in their bodies that remind them of their traumatic experience in some way. That is, they’re constantly alert for danger, and their bodies remember how that danger felt before. The trigger could be a word, a sound, a smell, a pattern of light, a sensation, it could be anything.
Now, in the words of David Treleaven, who is a real pioneer in the field of trauma-sensitive mindfulness, “Post-traumatic stress causes the effects of trauma to live on in our bodies way past the end of the event itself.” He says, “Because we are unable to integrate the experience, the imprint of trauma follows us into the present, destined to replay itself over and over again.” As van der Kolk puts it, “Traumatized people do not feel safe inside. Their own bodies have become booby trapped. Your body has become the container of dread and horror. The enemy who started on the outside is transformed into an inner torment.”
So perhaps you can already see how these insights into traumatic and post-traumatic stress might be relevant to mindfulness practice, even if they’re not pertinent to you in your own experience. What this means in practice is that as more and more people practice mindfulness today, the greater chance there is that some of those people will not only have suffered traumatic experiences, but they might also knowingly or not be enduring post-traumatic stress, even as they sit onto their cushion at the start or in the middle or the end of a class. A rough estimate is that we might expect this to be the case for about one in 10 people.
Even though most of the major mindfulness-based intervention protocols, like MBSR and MBCT, specifically list traumatic and post-traumatic stress as counter indicators for the practice of mindfulness. Many people show up for such classes unaware that they even fall into those categories. Many more people struggle with trauma than are diagnosed with trauma after all. Actually, this bears repeating probably, traumatic and post-traumatic stress are counter-indicated in MBSR, mindfulness-based stress reduction. That is, people who know that they are suffering post-traumatic stress should not be in MBSR or MBCT programs.
In fact, as we’ll see in her videos in this module, this was one of the things that inspired Elizabeth Stanley to create MMFT, Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training, specifically to support populations with higher proportions of trauma survivors in them. In her case, in the first instance at least, military veterans. Insights and learnings from trauma-sensitive mindfulness are not only for the military, but they are gradually now spreading throughout the mindfulness landscape. Yes, thankfully, there do seem to be some ways in which mindfulness can help with post-traumatic stress. In particular, the emphasis on cultivating our capacity to respond to experiences with deliberate, skillful choices, rather than to react with automaticity seemed helpful.
This is connected to the cultivation and mindfulness of a form of dual awareness, which we’ve seen in the adoption of an observing self, or what we’ve sometimes called metacognitive standpoint, and an experiencing self at the same time. Here, the experiencing self might be encountering pain or difficulty, but the observing self might have sufficient distance from that pain to enable a more measured considered response to it, which might involve just letting it be. To some extent, these skills can help support mindfulness practitioners with traumatic experiences that might resurface during meditation. Now as the work of Willoughby Britton and others has made very clear, at some point in their practice, many if not, most practitioners, will encounter adverse experiences.
People sitting with post-traumatic stress are even more likely to do so. By paying deliberate attention to moment by moment experience, meditators naturally invite themselves into contact with the somatic residue of their trauma or traumatic stimuli, like memories and images of feelings, frustrations, immobility, fury. In fact, some people will learn they have traumatic experiences from their past in this way, which they were previously ostensibly unconscious or unaware of. Any trauma survivor who pays enough attention to their body and mind for long enough will eventually encounter the trauma that lives inside them. As David Sullivan suggests, mindfulness not only unearths these difficult experiences, but it can also help us to cope with them skillfully.
If I can stay encounter with traumatic stimuli, to an ocean diver who encounters a patch of seaweed. The diver who drifts into a massive seaweed and panics and thrashes around desperately trying to free themselves is only going to succeed in entangling themselves even more, perhaps beyond the scope of escape or rescue. With careful guidance, mindfulness can help that diver to remain calm, to make slow, careful, deliberate, skillful movements with a clearer understanding of the situation and its dangers. One of the key issues here for both teachers and students of mindfulness is what it means to get such careful guidance. In the field of trauma-sensitive mindfulness, teaching is gathering pace.
Thanks to the work of Elizabeth Stanley, David Sullivan, Willoughby Britton and others. Indeed, we’re so fortunate that there’s this teaching in this module for us. There are many considerations. It’s a complicated field. But perhaps the simplest and most foundational one is something like this. Careful guidance from a trauma-sensitive standpoint leaves practitioners in their own choice. The teacher should not assume that the body or the breath are immediately safe places for everyone in a group. Rather than insisting on returning to the breath or to the chest or stomach, wherever, as the anchor, a teacher might open the possibilities. Perhaps mindfulness of sounds will feel safer for some. Perhaps keeping eyes open, working with mindfulness of images will feel safer for some.
Perhaps the safest place for grounding might be the points of contact between the meditator and the ground or the cushion, rather than the breath. At the very least, ensuring that participants are aware that making these choices is absolutely fine and that they will not be judged for doing so can be helpful. Careful and responsible guidance by appropriately trained teachers to make the difference between mindfulness helping to alleviate trauma and mindfulness working to exacerbate and to trigger it. This approach can sometimes sit in tension with more traditional Buddhist-inspired teachers who might tell their students simply to sit. Perhaps even to sit with whatever difficulties arise for them until they can push through to the other side of the pain.
Putting faith in the practice of mindfulness itself to guide us through. Of course, Buddhism is a complex and sophisticated tradition and contains many teachings on dealing with difficulties. But this breathe and bear it approach is relatively common today and a little bit macho. In fact, in many cases, mindfulness today tends to just leave practitioners to deal with all of these issues themselves in their own heads and bodies. Even worse, the commercial image of mindfulness that’s full of simplicity, beauty, and tranquility can even make people feel guilty about encountering difficulties in their practice in the first place.
Research has shown that most people who encounter adverse experiences in their practice don’t report them because they fear they’ll be seen as evidence that they’re just not doing it right. Trauma sensitive mindfulness teachers should be holding a space in which any participant will feel able to share whatever arises for them in a session, including and perhaps especially the adverse experiences. But this also means that the teacher needs to be able to cope and to help when difficulties arise. This requires training and experience and ideally a professional network for referrals and for supervision.
One intriguing question here, of course, which many of you must have been asking yourselves for the last few minutes is probably this. What is a traumatic experience anyway? It’s a really good question. I’ve left this important question until the very end of this session on purpose, partly because the answer to it isn’t really the point here. Being trauma sensitive means that we need to accept that other people’s traumas are whatever they are. As Pat Odgen explains, and I quote here, “Any experience that is stressful enough to leave us feeling helpless, frightened, overwhelmed, profoundly unsafe, is considered trauma.” Traumatic experiences can take the form of humiliations.
They can also be connected to feelings of shame, which can cause people to self isolate, to turn in on themselves. Trauma survivors often blame themselves for whatever happened to them, or feel that others will see the event as somehow self-invited. Injustice, which can involve a false attribution of blame, can cause both shame and trauma at the same time. That is trauma can arise from an assault on our safety, our sense of belonging, or our dignity. While many people think that trauma is the preserve of soldiers, emergency first responders, and victims of violent crime who are absolutely people who are exposed to traumatic and dramatic events unlikely to be encountered by most.
In fact, trauma can arise in all kinds of ways in everyday life too. For our purposes in this module, one really important insight is that traumatic stress is not always caused by a singular isolated event. It can also be caused by sustained or repeated exposure to oppressive, humiliating, or intimidating events. In some cases, this might mean traumatic stress can be caused in, for instance, an abusive relationship, whether there’s physical abuse or not. But it might also mean that someone could become traumatized by an institution or an organization that persistently mistreats or dehumanizes them.
The category of moral injury, some of you know, which refers to the harm done to somebody in an institution when that institution requires them to act or the institution itself acts in a manner that contravenes that individual’s values, this moral injury is thus related to trauma too. It might also mean that social structures and systems that grant differential privileges to people based on their race or gender or sexual orientation, for instance, could cause traumatic stress to those people who are subjected to unjust treatment in those societies. In other words, issues like systemic racism might find their way on to the mindfulness cushion in the form of emergent trauma.
Now this brings us to our next session in this module, in which we’ll explore mindfulness and social justice more explicitly and especially the connections between trauma sensitivity and social justice in mindfulness. Thanks for being with me today. Bye for now.
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In this video I explore the subject of Trauma in the Mindfulness field.
In mindfulness practices we often consider the body as an anchor, a safe haven, to which we can return. However, what would it be like if our body is not a safe haven for us?
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