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

September 30, 2020 / by John Engel, MA

Part III: Mindfulness for Trauma Treaters and Survivors – First, Do No Harm

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

Mindfulness practice can support transformative healing. But it can also cause harm, especially for trauma survivors. Maximizing healing and minimizing harm is imperative for trauma-informed treaters and champions, so the emergence of trauma-sensitive mindfulness (TSM) is both timely and welcome.

David Treleaven is a TSM thought-leader and his seminal book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, offers principles, practices and modifications that both minimize the potential dangers of mindfulness for trauma survivors and leverage the powerful benefits for healing trauma. This blog highlights key insights about mindfulness and trauma from Treleaven’s book.

Potential Harm

One troubling way that mindfulness can cause harm is by inducing shame. This is particularly true for trauma survivors who often experience internalized shame, characterized by harmful beliefs, such as: I am unworthy, what happened to me is my fault, and I don’t deserve to feel better.

Mindfulness is often described as only having positive outcomes, including more calm and relaxed states of being. But as Treleaven notes, engaging in mindfulness practices can amplify trauma symptoms and stress through flashbacks, heightened emotional arousal, and dissociation. Survivors often stay in constant motion because when they sit still, they are often flooded with unwanted memories and emotions.

For some, this dysregulation can result from a few minutes of meditation practice or a day-long or weekend retreat. Pairing the common belief that mindfulness is always good with distressing experiences can trigger negative self-talk, such as: I can’t even do mindfulness right, everyone else at the retreat seems so calm and I’m a mess, or I’m never going to learn how to relax. In the silence often experienced during mindfulness practice, trauma survivors may become overwhelmed by negative messages and disturbing memories.

Trauma-Sensitive Modifications

Despite the very real harm that trauma survivors can experience, there are trauma-sensitive modifications that can ensure that mindfulness fits with best-practice trauma-treatment strategies and supports healing.

To start, experimenting with different forms of mindfulness practice and noticing reactions to each can lead to insights about what practice works best and in what circumstances. For example, in moments when the nervous system is moderately or highly dysregulated, some might find sitting meditation heightens the sense of activation or dissociation. In these situations, some may find walking meditation or gentle movement through yoga, Qigong or Tai Chi useful in returning the nervous system to an optimal state (within the window of tolerance). Alternatively, upon awaking each morning, a brief sitting meditation or body scan can support clarity of mind and body leading to increased self-regulation during the day.

In his book, Treleaven unpacks a number of modifications that can support trauma survivors. A few examples include: meditating with eyes open; alternating one’s attention on bodily sensations and an object outside of one’s body (a chair, plant or pet); and careful attention to breath. The good news is that mindfulness--when practiced with trauma-sensitive modifications as part of a supportive community or with the direct support of a skilled practitioner--can help trauma survivors stay well-regulated while experiencing the healing benefits of mindfulness.

Next Steps

To learn more, consider attending Mindfulness: The Inner Work of Racial Healing and Trauma-Informed Care, a virtual day-long event on October 13, 2020, where David Treleaven will offer a keynote address that includes experiential, trauma-sensitive mindfulness practices. Learn more and register here.

For further reading, two great books on the topic of trauma-sensitive mindfulness are:

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.