Toward a Trauma-Informed Mindfulness Practice

by | Feb 10, 2019

It’s easy to think that if something works for us, it will work for anyone. How could the action that brought us peace, say, or joy not bring that same good feeling to everyone who tries it?

We come to each moment from our own history, our own tastes, our own habits, our own way of understanding the world. While there is so much that we share, so much that connects us with each other, there’s no one-size-fits-all way of pursuing anything.

Take mindfulness.

While we all know the image of a person sitting, eyes closed, breathing with a deep calm, that meditative state is just one way of practice. And it can be difficult for someone with a history of trauma, when we focus on the sensations of the body.

For those who have experienced trauma, the practice of mindfulness can become physically intolerable. The physical sensations experienced as the mind turns to focus on itself are overwhelming; to a point where intense agitation and physical pain or illness occur. For others with PTSD, the experience of physical discomfort has meant that they have learnt to dissociate themselves from feeling anything at all. The benefits of mindfulness then become inaccessible.

When Mindfulness Can Become Triggering

When we introduce mindfulness to the classroom, it’s important to remember that roughly half of all students have experienced at least one adverse childhood event. A good number may be experiencing one right now – from parents separating to homelessness, substance abuse in the family to sexual abuse.

boy yelling and shaking fistTypical mindfulness practices such as body scans and observing sensations can be triggering for such students. They may “act out” or otherwise resist what we’re asking them to do.

Where trauma is in play, such “bad behavior” may be better understood as a trigger or coping mechanism, however ineffective or even destructive it may seem. It’s a way to protect oneself when feeling threatened – even by something as seemingly benign as closing one’s eyes.

Trauma-Informed Mindfulness

It’s interesting to note that in the yoga tradition, meditation practices weren’t the first skills to be taught. Instead, they often followed training in social mores, physical movement, and breathing practices. I think there is wisdom to that, especially when it comes to teaching mindfulness for trauma recovery.

kids in community-building activityBefore anyone with trauma can close their eyes in a group, they first must feel safe. There needs to be a sense of community, rules of conduct, and a structure. As kids work together in a positive, supportive environment on social and emotional skills, they are in the process of building relationships and this trust – a foundation critical for all but especially those who have experienced trauma.

Secondly, trauma is held in the body, and that needs to be addressed early on. The world’s foremost trauma researchers, including Bessel van der Kolk, PhD, and Dr. Bruce Perry, recommend yoga and other “bottom-up” (sensory motor/brainstem-based) approaches as beginning treatment for traumatized children.

Yoga Calm Chair 15 yoga flowActivities that physically release the neurological imprint of trauma, such as our Woodchopper activity, can be very helpful. Other somatic tools, such as repetitive physical yoga flows and our Hoberman sphere breathing activity, both release stress and soothe the overactive amygdala.

The physical discharge of tension and calming of the amygdala turns on the “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex), which is not only key for trauma survivors but useful for all students to help them regulate their nervous systems, build resilience, and inoculate them from the effects of stress.

Body-based practices also help trauma survivors to explore present-oriented experience in the context of playful sensory motor experiences – further developing arousal regulation skills and their “Window of Tolerance” (Siegel, 1999). And these activities are just as beneficial for the adults that teach them to help keep us regulated, too!

Thirdly, combining physical movement with supportive cognitive themes like our Yoga Calm Strength principle, as well as student leadership and choice, can help kids develop a sense of control and efficacy – another key aspect of trauma recovery.

Yoga Calm Tree CircleAdditional cognitive integration can occur through the strategic use of relaxation stories to not only echo and reinforce the class themes of strength, safety and community, but to generally reframe and give meaning to life’s challenges as a hero’s journey.

The routine of all these activities provides a reliability they need, as well. Often, trauma survivors are coming from environments where chaos was or is the norm, where stability may be fleeting. Yoga Calm becomes something they learn they can rely on; their teacher and classmates, as well.

Over time, they may find it easier to close their eyes during a Mindful Moment or guided relaxation. Or they may choose to keep their eyes open. There are, as we’ve noted, many ways of mindfulness.

Click here for General Guidelines & Tools for Working with Trauma from our online course Transforming Childhood Trauma.

Community building image by US Army

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