Why Do We Need Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness?

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When people hear my work is about trauma and mindfulness, they often expect to hear exclusively about the ways mindfulness can support trauma recovery. And it can: Mindfulness can enhance present-moment awareness, increase our self-compassion, and enhance our ability to self-regulate.

But mindfulness can also generate problems for people struggling with traumatic stress. When we ask someone with trauma to pay close, sustained attention to their internal experience, we invite them into contact with traumatic stimuli—thoughts, images, memories, and physical sensations that may relate to a traumatic experience. This can aggravate and intensify symptoms of traumatic stress, in some cases even lead to retraumatization—a relapse into an intensely traumatized state.

This raises crucial questions for those of us offering mindfulness instruction. What is our responsibility to people experiencing trauma? Is a certain amount of pain to be expected in practice? How can we know when a survivor should or shouldn’t be meditating? And how can we grasp our own limitations in understanding other people’s experiences of trauma, as a way to best support them?

In sum, how can we offer mindfulness in a trauma-sensitive way?

Trauma-sensitive (or trauma-informed) practice means that we have a basic understanding of trauma in the context of our work. A trauma-informed physician may ask a patient’s permission before touching them, for example. Or a trauma-informed school counselor might ask a student whether they want the door open or closed during a session, and inquire about a comfortable sitting distance.

With trauma-informed mindfulness, we apply this concept to mindfulness instruction. We commit to recognizing trauma, responding to it skillfully, and taking preemptive steps to ensure that people aren’t retraumatizing themselves under our guidance.

More Trauma + More Mindfulness = A Greater Need

The need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness is a reflection of both odds and statistics. Over the past decade, mindfulness has exploded in popularity. It is now being offered in a wide range of secular environments, including elementary and high schools, corporations, and hospitals. Any number of workshops, retreats, conferences, seminars, and institutes offer mindfulness instruction. Books and articles on the subject have flooded the marketplace.

At the same time, the prevalence of trauma is extraordinarily high. The majority of us will be exposed to at least some type of traumatic event in our lifetime, and some of us will develop debilitating symptoms in its aftermath. If we’re targeted by systemic oppression—as someone who is poor or working class, disabled, a person of color, transgender, or a woman— we face a greater likelihood of experiencing interpersonal of trauma over the course of our lives, and live inside of traumatic conditions every day.

What this means is that in any environment where mindfulness is being practiced, there’s a high likelihood that someone will be struggling with traumatic stress. From a student who witnessed domestic violence to an elderly person who recently lost their partner in a fall, trauma will often be present. And while not everyone who has experienced trauma will have an adverse response to mindfulness, we need to be prepared for this possibility.

Skillfully Responding to the Barriers of Fear & Shame

Why is it that some people become stuck in traumatic symptoms, while others are able to integrate a traumatic experience? This is the million-dollar question with trauma. If we had a clear answer, we’d be much more successful at helping people heal from PTSD.

The neurophysiology of how trauma affects the brain and body offers us important insights about how some people integrate traumatic experiences and others don't. Additionally, there are two factors that are immediately relevant to trauma-sensitive mindfulness: fear and shame.

Trauma can make us terrified of our internal experience. Traumatic events persist inside survivors in the form of petrifying sensations and emotions. Understandably, survivors become afraid to feel these again. This is one of the most haunting, visceral costs of trauma: being forced to continually cope with gut-wrenching—often terrifying—sensations that live on inside.

Consider, then, what it means to ask a survivor to pay mindful attention to their internal experience. In all likelihood, they’ll be brought face to face with unintegrated remnants of trauma: feelings of terror and helplessness, or disturbing memories and images. This isn’t automatically a damaging experience, but it can quickly become overwhelming.

Survivors are scared of their internal experience for a reason. As mindfulness practitioners, we need more than our best intentions to ensure people can successfully navigate the minefield within them.

A second barrier to integrating trauma is shame. Connected to humiliation, demoralization, and remorse, shame is a complex, debilitating emotion that often arrives with traumatic stress.

A person who was sexually abused may berate themselves for not having fought back—even though they may know it would have made matters worse. A soldier who freezes under fire during combat is demeaned by others, and comes to feel fundamentally flawed. Someone who is discriminated against can internalize the form of oppression being directed at them and begin to feel defective and unworthy. Shame is a powerful, paralyzing force.

It’s important for trauma-sensitive practitioners to respect the fear and shame that can endure in survivors. While it can be tempting to think of trauma as simply an intensely negative emotion, trauma is an incapacitating form of stress. It involves survival-based responses that correspond with the deepest aspects of our psychobiology. Playing fast and loose with trauma threatens people’s sense of security and stability.

Our role is to understand, as best we can, how mindfulness interacts with this. Doing so opens the door to recognizing trauma, responding to it effectively, and preventing retraumatization—in other words, offering mindfulness in a trauma-sensitive way.

Jenn Brown