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.

The Practice of Noticing - Using Support Anchors

July 12, 2021 / by John Engel, MA

Monthly RC Mindfulness: Come Fill Your Cup - July 2021

Nearly 40 RC Trainers, Champions and staff attended the third RC Monthly Mindfulness session. This blog offers a brief summary of the session, initial feedback from participants, and resources to advance learning and practice.

Enjoy the read and remember that all staff, Champions, and Trainers at RC agencies are welcome to attend this free, monthly drop-in offering – share this registration link with your coworkers today.

Please note that the August 4th Session has been cancelled due to staff vacation. A self-guided mindfulness practice will be emailed instead and we will return to in-person Monthly RC Mindfulness on September 1st.

Session Summary

We returned to the topic of two wings of psychological growth and practice. When first exploring this topic in June, we noticed that as RC treaters, many of us are more inclined to work with difficult events and less inclined to practice being with difficult events. There are benefits and pitfalls with each way of being (see the June blog with embedded PowerPoint slide deck for a refresher). Ultimately, as the metaphor goes, we need two strong wings to fly. So, strengthening our capacity to be with helps us as RC treaters clearly see our experiences in the moment and without judgement - to notice our reactions to others.

 

One way to build our capacity to be with is by practicing sitting meditation (as well as walking meditation and body scan, which we will explore in future sessions). Some–including RC treaters–have reported mixed experiences with sitting meditation, ranging from a calming experience to emotional dysregulation. While sitting meditation may not be a good fit for some, there are important techniques that can be used to help minimize the harm and maximize the benefits of sitting meditation, such as support anchors.

 

First, the very basics of sitting meditation: Find a position of comfort in a safe space. There are three common body positions for meditation:

  • Sitting in a chair, feet grounded on the floor
  • Sitting on a cushion cross-legged on the floor 
  • Kneeling on a soft surface with the buttocks resting on a cushion
Whichever you choose, sit with a straight (but not rigid) back. Choose to have eyes open, closed or partially closed, as you are comfortable. Setting a timer (perhaps 2-5 minutes) helps let go of time and focus on meditating (especially helpful for busy RC treaters).

Now let’s add support anchors to this body position: We might think of support anchors as touch-points that help create a sense of safety so that we can maintain focused attention on the present moment. This is especially important for trauma survivors whose nervous systems are often on high alert, scanning the environment for signs of threat. There are both internal and external support anchors:

  • Internal anchors include our breath – the in and out of our breath, the rise and fall of our belly or the feel of breath in our nostrils – as well as the feeling of our feet on the floor or buttocks on the chair or cushion
  • External anchors include objects in our environment, such as a plant in the office where we are seated or a tree outside that we see through a window, the sound of a white noise machine or smell of fragrance

Next, let’s put together body position and support anchors to see how they work together in sitting meditation. Once in a supportive meditation posture, simply notice your support anchor (internal or external). As an example, you might sit and simply notice the sound of a white noise machine in the hallway. Sooner or later–likely in a matter of seconds–your mind will start wandering...to your to-do list, your evening family plans, the dispute you just had with a colleague, or your concern for a client. This wandering mind is simply part of being human. Once you notice your mind is wandering, gently direct your attention back to your support anchor–in our example it's the sound of the white noise machine. To review, this is the practice:

  • direct your attention to your support anchor
  • your mind wanders
  • you notice your wandering mind
  • you gently and without judgement direct your attention back to your support anchor

Resist the temptation to try to have a certain experience (to calm your mind, to experience bliss, to feel comfortable, to be a great meditator). Rather, explore the idea that regular practice, even a few minutes each day, supports the ability to be present in the moment and to notice our reactions to others.

 

Now a special note about using the breath as an internal support anchor. Breath is perhaps the most common internal support anchor for meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness practices. But breath as a support anchor can be triggering for some–especially trauma survivors–since breathing is uniquely connected at the somatic level to trauma experiences. It may well be that some people are resistant to sitting meditation because it is triggering, and the trigger is the use of breathing as a support anchor. Given the benefits of sitting meditation, then, it is particularly important for all to realize that support anchors other than breathing are available. (See more on this topic in Anchoring Our Awareness: Alternatives to Breath, in resource section below).
 

Invitation to Practice – Sitting Meditation with Support Anchors

In the coming month, invite yourself to experiment with sitting meditation and the use of support anchors. Bring a sense of curiosity, exploring what does and does not work for you. Here are some thoughts about how you might engage in this experiment:

  • Sit 2-3 times per week for 2-5 minutes per session
  • Set a specific time to practice and explore which works best for you (e.g., upon rising, mid-morning break, lunch time, end of work day, or just before bed)
  • Explore different body and eye positions
  • Explore different internal and external anchors
  • Take care of yourself, seek support as needed
  • Notice your reactions and have fun!

Closing Thought

Meditation is not recommended as a way to move from a highly dysregulated state to a place of calm, especially for trauma survivors. Rather, movement-based activities, including gentle rhythmic motion, walking, yoga, and other forms of exercise better support nervous system regulation. More on this in the August RC Webinar: Widening the Window of Tolerance – Strategies for Individual and Collective Healing.

Participant Feedback  

"During our recent accreditation site visit surveyors lifted out how they appreciated our staff being with as well as working with those we serve, which was good to hear from an outside source."     

Resources for Noticing with Support Anchors

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, John has been piloting mindfulness in the workplace, including design and delivery of a national training webinar entitled Mindfulness in the Workplace: Practices for Sustaining Trauma-Informed Care, design and facilitation of a day-long virtual training event, Mindfulness: The Inner Work of Racial Healing and Trauma-Informed Care, and a Monthly RC Mindfulness pilot in 2021. Since 2011, John has written a monthly column, The Fatherhood Journey, for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, with a mission of promoting public and private conversations about fatherhood.