A trauma-based approach can make mindfulness more accessible to those who have experienced trauma.
Mindfulness is widely touted for its mental health benefits — but for those who have endured trauma, it has the potential to cause harm.
Around 61% of adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes, as estimated by
“Sometimes meditation will be helpful for someone who’s traumatized, and other times it’ll exacerbate that person’s pain,” says David Treleaven, PhD, a trauma educator and researcher in Oakland, California and acclaimed author of “Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness.”
A trauma-informed approach is shifting the way clinicians, mental health professionals, and mindfulness practitioners and teachers are addressing trauma.
What is trauma?
Trauma is an emotional or physical response to one or more harmful or life-threatening events or circumstances with lasting adverse effects on your mental and physical well-being, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA).
Trauma-informed mindfulness is a mindfulness practice that’s adapted to the unique needs of trauma survivors.
Traditional mindfulness practices assume that everyone has the capacity to engage in any mindfulness activity and also benefit from it. But a trauma-informed approach acknowledges that some aspects of mindfulness can be activating for trauma survivors.
“The goal of trauma-informed mindfulness is to help people befriend physical sensations, improve self-regulation, ease their experiences of trauma, and cultivate mindfulness,” Treleaven says.
“Trauma-informed work involves learning what someone might need in their meditation to get the most out of practice.”
A trauma-informed mindfulness teacher will work to facilitate healing in a safe and supportive environment while taking into consideration certain triggers.
For instance, paying attention to the breath is often a starting point for a meditation practice, as it helps bring stability to the mind. But Treleaven says that the breath may not be the best place for trauma survivors to begin a meditation practice.
“Our respiratory system connects to our sympathetic nervous system, which is often out of balance for traumatized people,” Treleaven explains. “Trauma-informed mindfulness might involve choosing a different place to focus attention, say, on the sensations of the feet on the ground, or sound.”
A large and growing body of evidence — as reviewed in 2018 — shows that mindfulness practices can be beneficial for those with post-traumatic stress. Yet recent studies have shown that mindfulness practices can sometimes cause distress and even exacerbate symptoms of anxiety in some individuals.
“In meditation, we ask people to bring close, sustained attention to their inner world,” Treleaven says. “This inevitably brings someone face-to-face with their trauma. That’s not automatically a bad thing, but unless someone has specific tools to work with the pain they encounter, they can end up overwhelmed in their meditation practice.”
Many people, whether traumatized or not, find it difficult to sit still in meditation for any duration. Stillness can be activating for traumatized individuals, even worsening symptoms.
Trauma-informed mindfulness works to avoid triggers and overwhelm, while also strengthening a person’s ability to face painful experiences.
“Trauma often lives on in the mind and body in painful ways,” Treleaven says. “We might have intrusive thoughts or memories of a trauma, or painful sensations that just don’t go away.”
According to modern understandings of post-traumatic stress, memories and emotions from trauma are often stored in the body. Consequently, some people with a history of trauma tend to feel disconnected from their bodies — known as dissociation — as a defense mechanism.
Traditional mindfulness practices often ask individuals to connect with sensations in their bodies. For trauma survivors, this form of connection doesn’t always feel safe.
A trauma-informed approach to mindfulness works by modifying traditional meditation practices with grounding, anchoring, and self-regulation techniques to maintain balance in the nervous system, which can help traumatized people manage their symptoms and feel safer in their bodies.
Trauma-informed mindfulness can also involve:
- performing a physical activity with present moment awareness rather than sitting still in meditation
- observing objects, colors, or the space around you
- listening attentively to music as a mindful practice
Trauma-sensitive modifications to mindfulness such as these could benefit anyone who’s experienced some degree of trauma, especially those with symptoms of post-traumatic stress or nervous system dysregulation. Here’s what recent research shows:
2016 studyindicates that trauma-informed mindfulness-based stress reduction (TI-MBSR) is a promising intervention for female survivors of interpersonal violence.
- A 2021 study suggests that an 8-week mindfulness-based, trauma-informed program promotes resilience among women veterans with PTSD and chronic pain, improving both physical and psychosocial well-being.
Aspects of mindfulness have made their way into many clinical and therapeutic settings.
According to a 2018 review, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can be effective adjunct or alternative treatments for individuals with PTSD — but only recently have they begun to adopt a trauma-informed approach.
Although MBSR has evidence to show its effectiveness, the program itself is not explicitly trauma-informed, which can be potentially problematic for some individuals dealing with the lasting effects of trauma.
Treleavan, who is widely regarded as a thought leader on trauma-sensitive mindfulness, says that MBSR founder Jon Kabat-Zinn has acknowledged his work as “an upgrade” to the original 8-week program.
Still, many therapists have found success in bringing mindfulness into their work with clients, particularly those who practice trauma-focused therapy (TFT) and emotionally-focused therapy for trauma (EFTT).
“Listening to our emotions is a form of mindfulness,” says Myriame Lyons, MA, RCC, a trauma-informed psychotherapist on Coast Salish Territory in Vancouver, BC, adding that mindfulness can help inform us what we’re really feeling. “This practice helps us to move through traumatic experiences with gentleness and compassion.”
Lyons says she has introduced mindfulness with her clients by reframing trauma as what occurs in the body, mind, and emotions as a result of what has happened to you. She says that becoming a mindful observer of your experience can help release physical, mental, and emotional pain in a safe and gentle manner.
“Learning to tune into our whole experience allows us to show up with compassion and love for the part of us who has been feeling alone,” Lyon says. “This is transformational.”
Trauma-informed mindfulness is a relatively new concept and research is still limited, which means that not every meditation teacher or therapist may be trained in this approach. Ask your mental health practitioner about their knowledge of trauma-informed care and whether they have recommendations.
When working with a trauma-informed mindfulness therapist, Lyon suggests finding someone who:
- creates a sense of safety and connection with you
- uses gentle inquiry methods
- works at a slow, gradual pace, especially if you’re feeling distressed, dissociated, or disconnected
- shares and practices grounding and anchoring techniques
- checks in regularly about the process
Find a safe space
When choosing a space, venue, or therapist’s office to practice mindfulness,opt for a safe and supportive environment that’s accessible, inclusive, and welcoming.
“Many vulnerable and marginalized groups are more likely to experience trauma,” says Hannah Guy, MSW, LCSW, a social worker offering trauma-informed mindfulness in Philadelphia. “A trauma-informed practice prioritizes the safety of those who participate.”
Be mindful of your triggers
Be cautious of certain smells or visual elements that could potentially activate past traumatic memories and emotions.
“It can be easy to assume that the smell of lavender, certain lighting, and music would be calming for everyone,” Guy says. “This could potentially have the opposite effect on someone who’s been through trauma.”
Whether practicing in a group setting, one-on-one with a therapist or teacher, or setting up your own space at home, surround yourself with objects and visuals that soothe your senses in order to maintain balance in your nervous system.
Personalize your space
Here are a few tips to create your own sacred space:
- Choose an area in your home where you won’t be interrupted by others.
- Find something comfortable to sit on, such as a blanket, bolster, cushion, or chair.
- Gather soothing objects that invite a sense of calm, for instance: light a candle, use crystals or spiritual totems, burn incense or sage, or diffuse essential oils.
- Listen to calming ambient music or binaural beats.
Your options for trauma-informed mindfulness programs, books, and other resources also broaden. For instance, you could enroll in Treleaven’s free webinar on his website or try one of his digital courses.
Mindfulness is a tool that many people can benefit from. Mindfulness meditation can have many positive outcomes, from reducing psychological stress to promoting general well-being.
But for trauma survivors, traditional mindfulness practices may not always be the best intervention to promote healing.
While the goal of meditation is to invite calm and ease into the mind and body, the goal for trauma survivors is to embody a sense of safety without becoming activated. The aim isn’t to avoid stress and pain, but to utilize certain tools and modifications to work with your symptoms.
As trauma therapy of any kind becomes increasingly accepted by the medical and mental health communities, it’s not necessarily the be-all end-all approach to healing. As a
“Many of us are experiencing various degrees of trauma and adversity related to the pandemic, and trauma-informed practice works with this,” Treleaven says. “But given the level of trauma in so many communities right now, knowing how to recognize and respond skillfully to trauma is key.”
Andrea Rice (she/her) is an award-winning journalist based in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a staff writer for PsychCentral, she covers mental health news and trending topics. Her work has appeared in news outlets such as The New York Times and INDY Week, and wellness publications such as Yoga Journal, Verywell, and mindbodygreen. As a yoga and meditation teacher since 2010, Andrea’s book, The Yoga Almanac, offers seasonal practices to nourish the body and mind. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter, and read more of her work on her website.