I have a tremendous amount of faith in awareness as a way to wisdom but that doesn’t mean that sometimes other approaches are helpful or even essential on the path. Sometimes what’s needed is found outside the Buddhist tradition. I’ve been exploring some ideas and recent research, that say that mindfulness is helpful for a lot of people but not necessarily so if you’ve experienced trauma. Or at least, the mindfulness practice may need to be tailored in such a way that takes into account how the body and mind of someone affected by trauma might react. Such approaches are known as ‘trauma sensitive’ mindfulness, or ‘trauma informed’ mindfulness.
Most of us probably think of trauma as the big life threatening one offs like a violent assault or a car accident. Or sustained physical or sexual abuse as a child. But trauma has been redefined in recent years in two important ways.
Firstly, the term is used as applying to the body-mind system that regularly feels overwhelmed by some aspect of their life, after the traumatic event. It is less about what has happened than how the individual mind-body system responds to what has happened. In her book ‘Widen the Window’ Elizabeth Stanley uses the example that if a dozen marines go into a combat situation, there will be a dozen different responses to what they’ve experienced once they’ve returned home. Some may go on to develop PTSD or depression, and others will not. She says this is not about who is a stronger person or better able to ‘cope’ but is down to involuntary responses coded into the nervous system from earlier life experiences.
Secondly the definition of trauma has broadened to include ‘relational’ and ‘developmental’ trauma. Developmental trauma is often experienced as more chronic ‘micro’ events in childhood. A recent massive study looked at the effects of ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ on adults ‘being frequently sworn at, insulted or put down, pushed, slapped, grabbed, injuries causing marks or being touched in a sexual way’. When these things happen to us as children the study found the traumatic effects often continue to affect us in adulthood. Between adults, ‘relational’ trauma manifests when coercive, violent, or controlling behaviours are present within a sexual relationship.
Because of the involuntary and ongoing nature of these physical (heart racing, sweating, ‘awful’ bodily feelings) and emotional (compulsive mental ‘stories’ and feelings of threat and unsafety) feelings, meditation by itself might not be enough, and in some cases, can make things worse. In meditation we are often focusing inwards and this can heighten ‘symptoms’ such as negative thoughts, frightening memories, and unpleasant body sensations, leading to re-traumatizing. We’ve known for many years that meditating while clinically depressed is not advised, because it can cause a vicious spiral of increased painful rumination on difficult thoughts and feelings, and it now seems that a similar mechanism is at work with trauma, through the nervous system.
If you find that meditation or mindfulness (which is where most of the research has been carried out) leaves you feeling worse off than when you started, stimulates a lot of negative self-talk, or you feel somewhat numb and frozen after meditation, or if meditating regularly leaves you feeling tense or ‘out of your body’, pause. It’s not necessarily a bad technique or that you are doing it wrong. Or that you just have to try harder or for longer to get it ‘right’. It might just be that you need something more tailored to the needs of a dysregulated nervous system to help it settle into a regulated state.
This is where somatic based approaches such as Somatic Experiencing come into their own. They are able to work directly with the nervous system in the body (bottom up) rather than the ‘top down’ approaches of most therapies using the rational mind. And somatic approaches work well in conjunction with awareness cultivated through mindfulness practice. Trauma informed and trauma sensitive mindfulness is not about being more cautious or careful about how you use mindfulness, but about having more information. You can use the gentle curiosity of a receptive mindfulness to assess how your practice is going, looking honestly at what is or isn’t helping. And then it may be useful to look at simple exercises from SE, Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness (https://davidtreleaven.com/) or MMFT (Mindfulness for Mind Fitness) that work directly with orienting the nervous system to a bodily experience of safety that we might consciously not have known we were missing.
It made a big difference to me to understand that the nervous system, once dysregulated (which can happen to anyone), usually cannot find its own way to equilibrium without help. It takes away a lot of the judgement or feelings of failure or ‘not good enough’ in relation to practice. Once we understand how to bring the body and mind into regulation, we regain the initiative in our meditation. Practice begins to bring more fruits rather than struggle, and a feeling of potency and possibility.