The Traumatic Stress Institute fosters the transformation of organizations and service systems to trauma-informed care (TIC) through the delivery of whole-system consultation, professional training, coaching, and research.

Mindfulness Series:  Practices for Sustaining Trauma-Informed Care

August 7, 2020 / by John Engel, MA

Part I: Mindfulness – Finding Balance When the World is Upside Down

This is the first in a series of blog posts on the role of mindfulness in sustaining trauma-informed care.

Our Current Challenge

Adopting and sustaining trauma-informed care can be overwhelming. Senior leaders, managers and direct care staff must accept the reality that creating a culture of trauma-informed care is more journey than destination. Unfunded mandates, high staff turn-over, staff shortages, and the ever-present and very real cumulative impact of vicarious trauma on treaters further diminishes the ability of staff and agencies to fulfill their grandest trauma-informed care vision. And all of this was true before the COVID-19 pandemic!

Agencies in our Risking Connection community are reeling from the forces impacting our wider world. The harsh reality of racial inequity—laid bare by the murder of George Floyd and many others—and the widespread impact of the global pandemic are taking a toll on our personal and professional lives, as well as on the lives of the children, families, and communities we serve. Accessing tools and practices that build our individual and collective capacity to be present, grounded, and focused is more important than ever. Though mindfulness practices are not a substitute for public health precautions, medical intervention, or trauma-informed care delivery, they can help us cultivate greater peace within, even when surrounded by turmoil.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness, in the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), simply means “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” As individuals we can build our mindfulness capacity through both formal and informal practices.

Formal practices include many forms of meditation (sitting, standing, walking, and compassion), body scans, yoga or dance, Tai Chi, ceremonies and rituals, and deep listening. For more examples of mindfulness practices (also known as contemplative practices) see the Tree of Contemplative Practices. These formal practices are akin to taking our mind to the gym, where through gentle, non-judgmental repetition we practice returning our mind to the present moment whenever we notice that our mind is whirling and bouncing from one thought to the next about past and future events.

Informal practices offer day-to-day opportunities to apply our growing capacity for mindfulness to enhance our lived experience. Examples include mindful eating by paying attention, without judgment, to our full experience of eating. We can apply this to tooth brushing, deep listening with a loved one, writing and sending an email, reviewing an important document, or making a major (or minor) decision.

While the idea of mindfulness is new to many, it is a tradition that reaches back thousands of years in diverse cultural traditions. While many religious traditions include mindfulness practices, mindfulness is available as a fully secular, non-religious practice. Additionally, mindfulness, though once considered fringe-like or cultish by some, is a growing global movement at home and in the workplace. This is partly due to the growing scientific evidence base supporting mindfulness benefits.

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

A basic premise of mindfulness is that to truly connect with ourselves and each other, we must be aware of our moment-to-moment experience and not fixated on the past (including experiences of adversity and trauma) or the future (including worry or concern about events that have not happened). To be present in this moment is to be fully alive.

The book Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body is a seminal work in the growing list of publications documenting the scientific evidence-base for the short and long-term benefits of mindfulness. These benefits include:

  • Improved physical health (stress relief, heart disease treatment, decreased blood pressure, improved sleep)
  • Improved well-being (greater happiness and positive outlook on life, decreased anxiety and depression)
  • Improved workplace productivity (increased mental focus, increased mental resilience, and better decision-making)

Direct mindfulness benefits to the RC community include:

  • An expanded capacity to notice our reactions (both the helpful and the problematic) to our clients so that we can skillfully respond, support healing, and avoid causing harm
  • Compassionate connection to self and others, which is a key antidote to compassion fatigue
  • Increased attunement among staff and between staff and clients

And, like trauma-informed care, while mindfulness offers a host of benefits for trauma treaters and survivors, it can unwittingly cause harm too. So if you are new or are returning to mindfulness practice, go slow, resource yourself with supportive relationships, and stop if you feel unsafe or overwhelmed. More about the emergence of trauma-sensitive mindfulness principles and practices will be offered later in this blog series.

Next Steps

With so many benefits, a growing scientific evidence-base, and a variety of ways to formally and informally practice, mindfulness offers a timely and promising resource for finding personal and professional balance in an upside-down world. To further explore mindfulness and the ways that it can support the Risking Connection community, register today for Mindfulness: The Inner Work of Racial Healing and Trauma-Informed Care, a virtual day-long event on October 13, 2020, for all Risking Connection Trainers and Champions (at both local and distant agencies). Learn more and register at here.

As a suggestion, you can visit Mindful Magazine at www.mindful.org to access a host of free articles and resources, including how to get started, daily practices and online courses, and other health information.

Tags: Mindfulness

John Engel, MA

Written by John Engel, MA

John Engel is a Program Coordinator for the Traumatic Stress Institute of the Klingberg Family Centers, where he serves as a trainer and consultant for client agencies adopting whole system change to trauma-informed care. John also facilitates strategic change initiatives and product development for TSI, including development and launch of the online ARTIC Scale. Additionally, since October 2011 John has promoted public and private conversations about fatherhood through the Fatherhood Journey, a monthly column appearing in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and at www.fatherhoodjourney.com.