Is Mindfulness Always a Good Thing?

I believe in mindfulness and count myself among its practitioners. Through the twin aspects of awareness and kindness, it helps me relate to and cope with what’s happening in my inner and outer worlds with greater freedom and ease. I feel more connected to my body and listen more attentively to the signals it provides. I’m less likely to get stuck on repetitive thoughts or vexing emotional states. I’m gentler on myself and others. And the research would suggest that I’m realizing improved health with reduced stress, lower blood pressure, less inflammation with the attendant calming of immune response, and so on.

It all sounds so great. Yet, are there times when mindfulness isn’t such a grand practice? Well… yes.

emotional traumaIt turns out that mindfulness may be contraindicated when undergoing emotional trauma. When I speak of emotional trauma, I’m talking about a threatening, overwhelming experience that robs us of our sense of security and safety. It takes away our capacity for being the “observing self” that can explore such sensations with openness and curiosity. And in lieu of placing these emotions amidst a vast ocean of experience, we may feel caught up in a patch of seaweed, unable to extricate ourselves and breathe. In short, asking ourselves to connect mindfully with trauma may escalate anxiety and suffering rather than quell it.

The vast majority of us experience trauma at some point in our lives. Ideally, we find our way through it without undue harm or risk of triggering it in response to future stimuli. We may need to avail ourselves of professional help, or the love and support of trusted associates. We may heal with the passage of time.

We don’t have to forego meditation or mindfulness entirely when processing trauma. In reading David A. Treleaven’s book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, I came across several strategies that can help us remain in practice while exercising appropriate self-care.

FIRST: Stay within the window of tolerance, avoiding the extremes of agitation (aroused, hypervigilant) and numbness (foggy, listless). Be aware of bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts during practice and apply the brakes, as needed, to stay within the window. Return to the breath, perhaps taking deep breaths to calm an agitated state (hyperarousal), or trying short, intense breaths to counteract listlessness (hypo arousal). Consider use of a soothing touch (e.g., hand to the heart) while breathing. And, of course, it’s always an option to open your eyes and be OK with a shortened practice.

SECOND: Direct your mind and energy to neutral stimuli versus sustained focus on the trauma. Where possible, use stable anchors of attention when meditating (breath, sound, bodily sensations). Open your eyes and focus on the objects around you to ground yourself in the present. Try focusing attention on what makes you feel safe, loved, resilient, strong, energized. If you connect a place, activity, memory, or person to a state of well-being, lean into it. Consider taking a walk or sitting with a friend. Note that these activities are not intended to bypass or put a band aid on the trauma; they simply provide resources to get back to the window of tolerance.

THIRD: Stay with the body even though it might be tempting to dissociate from it. Trauma can make us uneasy with bodily sensations. We lose sight of what’s safe versus threatening and may tend toward shutting down. A waking meditation may prove useful as movement makes it easier to reconnect with sensation. It also provides a neutral focus of attention.

FOURTH: Cultivate trusted relationship. Trauma proves challenging when processed in solitude. It’s difficult to get unhooked from it when facing it alone. Other people can be a wellspring of support, both trained professionals and level-headed, compassionate laypersons with whom you feel seen, heard, and safe. I feel immeasurably blessed to have several people in my orbit who have lovingly provided just the right support when I’ve needed it.

FIFTH: Learn the flashback halting protocol: “Right now I am feeling __________ and am sensing in my body __________ because I am remembering __________. At the same time, I am looking around where I am now in [month or year] and can see __________ and so I know __________ is not happening now/anymore.”