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Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing

Published by W. W. Norton & Company


From elementary schools to psychotherapy offices, mindfulness meditation is an increasingly mainstream practice. At the same time, trauma remains a fact of life: the majority of us will experience a traumatic event in our lifetime, and up to 20% of us will develop posttraumatic stress. This means that anywhere mindfulness is being practiced, someone in the room is likely to be struggling with trauma.

At first glance, this appears to be a good thing: trauma creates stress, and mindfulness is a proven tool for reducing it. But the reality is not so simple.

Drawing on a decade of research and clinical experience, educator and trauma professional David Treleaven shows that mindfulness meditation―practiced without an awareness of trauma―can exacerbate symptoms of traumatic stress. Instructed to pay close, sustained attention to their inner world, survivors can experience flashbacks, dissociation, and even retraumatization.

This raises a crucial question for mindfulness teachers, trauma professionals, and survivors everywhere: How can we minimize the potential dangers of mindfulness for survivors while leveraging its powerful benefits?

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness offers answers to this question. Part I provides an insightful and concise review of the histories of mindfulness and trauma, including the way modern neuroscience is shaping our understanding of both. Through grounded scholarship and wide-ranging case examples, Treleaven illustrates the ways mindfulness can help―or hinder―trauma recovery.

Part II distills these insights into five key principles for trauma-sensitive mindfulness. Covering the role of attention, arousal, relationship, dissociation, and social context within trauma-informed practice, Treleaven offers 36 specific modifications designed to support survivors’ safety and stability. The result is a groundbreaking and practical approach that empowers those looking to practice mindfulness in a safe, transformative way.


Praise for Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness


"Meditation is sweeping through our culture, offering unprecedented potential for healing our psyches and transforming consciousness. Yet, like all powerful processes, if not well understood it can be mis-used and cause damage. This is particularly the case for those who are living with trauma. In his groundbreaking exploration of meditation and trauma, David Treleaven looks at this issue through multiple lenses, drawing on current research about the physiology and psychoneurology of unprocessed trauma,  and shining a light on the potential impact of a well articulated, popular and highly regarded form of mindfulness meditation called Vipassana, or Insight meditation. This is essential and fascinating reading for meditation teachers, mental health practitioners and all those who have suffered from trauma and want to engage on a meditative path in a wise and healing way."

TARA BRACH, Ph.D., author of Radical Acceptance and True Refuge

"What a timely gift David Treleaven has offered us with this book! Finding ways to shape mindfulness practices that won't fall apart under the weight and truth of collective and systemic trauma is a path. The first step is understanding that trauma is not merely an individual experience, but a set of collective experiences that systematically enforce an oppressive social construct. David walks us along the path with curiosity, solid research, stories of individuals woven in with stories of historical and modern movements, and then clear tangible practices for anyone who is teaching and guiding mindfulness meditation. An accessible and loving guide through the complex territory of trauma and healing."

ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN, author of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

“In this highly readable, sensitive, and respectful volume, David Treleaven illuminates the hidden risks of mindfulness and meditation for those who have backgrounds of unresolved trauma. At the same time he offers practical and protective strategies which greatly expands the reach of these vital practices to populations that previously were unable to benefit from them. Teachers of mindful practices, including meditation and yoga, as well as helping professionals of all sorts who endeavor to weave mindful practice into their work, will all find the wisdom in this book essential for helping traumatized students and clients."

— BABETTE ROTHSCHILD, MSW, author of The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma, Volumes 1 & 2

"Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness is a much-needed addition to our field. With mindfulness going mainstream in corporate, mental health, education, and other settings, it’s critical that those charged with teaching have sufficient knowledge of how trauma might impact practice. David Treleaven skillfully weaves historical knowledge with practical skills and offers mindfulness teachers from community to retreat settings a strong conceptual map and the necessary tools for working with and responding to meditators impacted by trauma. Treleaven’s analysis of the intersection of mindfulness and trauma is multifaceted; from single event shock trauma to the complexity of how historical trauma and oppression have painted the landscape for who finds themselves on the meditation cushion in this day and age, and how we, as mindfulness teachers, should respond in such situations. This is a must read for mindfulness teachers in all settings!"

— SAM HIMELSTEIN, Ph.D., author of Mindfulness-Based Substance Abuse Treatment With Adolescents: A 12 Session Curriculum

What David does here is important. He reveals and breaks open the limitations of mindfulness as it's often practiced, and he pushes conceptually and practically for a much needed shift. The questions raised in this book—of how mindfulness can become more sensitive to trauma, and more aware of the often overlooked traumas of ongoing and generational oppression— are necessary and timely investigations. We all deserve the kind of allyship and thoughtful practice this book calls us towards.

— PRENTIS HEMPHILL, former Healing Justice Director, Black Lives Matter Global Network

A seminal work of outstanding scholarship, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing is impressively informative, exceptionally well written, organized and presented so as to be of enduring value for both academia and the non-specialist general reader with an interest in the subject. Featuring twelve pages of References, ten pages of Endnotes, and a five page Index, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness is a critically important and unreservedly recommended contribution to community, professional, college, and university library.


"Integrating Dr. Treleaven's wisdom, the mindfulness movement can gain an inclusive and trauma-informed vision which the practices truly need for integrity and effectiveness. If you are a mindfulness teacher or practitioner, Dr. Treleaven's book should be required reading to receive the profound benefits of mindfulness while practicing in a safe and nourishing way."

— DANIEL RECHTSHAFFEN, MFT, author of The Way of Mindful Education

"David’s writing connects our inner and outer work. It locates mindfulness amidst the real, lived experiences of the people practicing. He acknowledges the trauma that so many of us experience, and the healing that so many need.  And, as few in the meditation world do, David reveals the reality and impact of social inequities, and how they are at play in mindfulness training and practice, and trauma healing.”

— STACI HAINES, author of Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma

"In his ground-breaking book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, David Treleaven has opened necessary and critical conversations around the complex issues of mindfulness practice and the healing of trauma. With rigor, compassion, lucidity, and his personal intimate experience as a somatic therapist, researcher, and pilgrim on the path, Treleaven presents evidence-based scholarship that makes these distinctions accessible, and actionable, for the professional as well as the lay person. In an important radical leap, he goes a step further in addressing the systemic, social conditions that are so often overlooked around the topic of trauma. I unequivocally recommend this important book for those teaching and practicing mindfulness as well as those in the helping professions."

—  RICHARD STROZZI-HECKLER, Ph.D., author of The Leadership Dojo and The Art of Somatic Coaching

"This book is so desperately needed. It addresses a glitch in the mindfulness movement that weakens its potential contributions to healing the miseries that are currently raging throughout the world, fed by extreme ignorance, bias, and unchecked greed. That glitch occurs when those many people who have the urge to change their lives in the highly effective ways offered by mindfulness practice enter unprepared for the onslaught of residues of earlier damaging experiences—physical assaults, personal emotional abuse, and social disruptions—that, long displaced into outer regions of their consciousness, now have the room to intrude into awareness with recurring tides set off by this emergence, leaving the person disoriented sometimes dysfunctional. David is rare in bringing such a broad scope of history to these challenges: his understanding of the original contexts in which meditation practices were developed within a religious and communal context; the wide variety of kinds of trauma ranging from the results of slavery and war to the small worlds of interpersonal abuse; the rapid development of clinical psychology and the neurosciences with their understandings of how to deal with these various traumas. It is a brilliant and useful book, emerging at a critical time in the history of consciousness."

— DON HANLON JOHNSON, Ph.D., author of Body, Spirit, and Democracy and editor of The Body in Psychotherapy