Trauma and Mindfulness

January 29, 2020 by

By John Schorling and Susan Stone

Almost all of us have suffered trauma during our lives—that is, a time or times when we were unable to effectively meet a threat, whether physical and/or emotional, and were not supported by others. Sometimes such experiences result in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD include the fight, flight or freeze responses in which a person reacts to a situation reminiscent of the original traumatic event by leaving, shouting, or going numb. Often, however, trauma results in symptoms that are not as severe, such as an increase in anxiety when one returns to the site of a near-serious accident.
The complex relationship between trauma and mindfulness has become better understood over the last several years.  Mindfulness can be helpful in dealing with trauma. The practice of mindfulness can increase awareness of the effects of trauma and may lead to the recognition of additional choices in how to respond effectively.  For example, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction has been shown to improve the symptoms of PTSD in studies conducted by the Veterans Administration.
Although mindfulness can be beneficial in addressing trauma, it is important to understand that it can also exacerbate symptoms arising from trauma.  For example, paying attention to present moment experience in formal mindfulness practice can result in becoming more aware of underlying anxiety and other distressing symptoms, and thus intensify them. Sometimes simply recognizing that this is happening and allowing whatever feelings are arising to be present, with self-kindness, can be helpful, as can shifting the attention to the hands, the feet or the seat. If anxiety escalates, however, it is advisable to stop formal practice, open the eyes, and shift attention away from stressful thoughts and emotions to positive or neutral objects. Examples are turning attention to neutral objects in the room and naming them silently; or silently listing names of states, flowers, cars, or any other category of things, people, or places that are positive or neutral. This can help one regain a sense of calm and feel stable and safe. Another mindfulness tool includes taking ten normal breaths, allowing the exhale to be slightly longer than the inhale, and saying “ah” on the exhale.
With these guidelines in mind, individuals with any significant history of trauma are advised to speak with a mindfulness teacher or therapist before beginning a mindfulness course to determine the best approach.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings