Trauma Sensitive Meditation

Researchers estimate that a little more than half of the general population experiences major trauma at some point in life, whether from an accident, attack, combat duty, or abuse. Some individuals experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while others experience less severe, but still challenging, impacts. As research on trauma increases, it’s becoming clear that mind-body healing modalities can play a powerful role in the recovery process. The Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Boston has developed a trauma-sensitive yoga program that is spreading around the country. Acupuncture, massage, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Processing), biofeedback, and reiki are all increasingly offered in trauma recovery programs.

Meditation has also proven to be tremendously beneficial, because in meditation we learn to slow down and release the onslaught of thoughts and emotions that might normally overtake us. Breath-based mindfulness meditation – in particular Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction (MBSR) – has proven to help PTSD sufferers reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, insomnia and chronic pain. In my own work with sexual trauma and abuse survivors, I incorporate both mindfulness and chakra meditation work, to help survivors identify and release energies and patterns that may be stored in their physical and/or subtle bodies as a result of the trauma they have experienced.

However, for mind-body modalities, and particularly meditation, to benefit trauma survivors, they need to be taught and practiced in a way that takes the potential impact of trauma into account. Many aspects of meditation as it is often taught – with closed eyes, in dim lighting, trying to sit quietly and still – can be triggers for trauma survivors, increasing feelings of anxiety rather than reducing them. Offering trauma survivors choice and control are key to presenting meditation, creating a sense of empowerment.

Whether you teach meditation, or are someone who has experienced trauma and are interested in learning to meditate, the following guidelines for approaching meditation in a trauma-sensitive way will help you:

  • Create an environment of choice. This is the guiding principle behind all of the other guidelines offered here. Every trauma survivor has different triggers, and whether you are working with others or just yourself, you cannot possibly anticipate them all. So approach meditation with openness and options, without a fixed sense of how it has to be practiced.
  • Prioritize a sense of safety. This is another guiding principle, and is also highly individual. What creates a sense of safety for one person might be a trigger for another. Of course in a group environment, you will have to strike a middle ground. But when practicing alone, create a space that personally represents safety for you, and encourage anyone you are teaching to meditate to do so also.

Based on these two guiding principles, there are several common trauma –sensitive steps to consider:

  • Present the option of eyes open or closed. For some, closing the eyes creates the sense of a private, safe space, while for others, not being able to see what is going on around them may trigger feelings of anxiety and vulnerability.
  • Be cautious with dim lighting, incense, candles and other common ‘mood-creating’ conditions. While these may represent relaxation to some, to others they may do the opposite. Ask for consensus, and/or do all of these in moderation.
  • Consider sitting with backs to the wall. In a group setting – or if you are practicing alone at home – consider creating sitting spots near the wall. An exposed back is triggering for some.
  • Allow – and even incorporate – movement. While many meditation modes emphasize a fixed meditation posture and little physical movement as an important support for stilling the mind, for trauma survivors (abuse survivors in particular) it may feel stifling and trigger feelings of anxiety. Incorporating some movement-based mindfulness can be a wonderful way to work through this.
  • Offer options on controlled-breathing techniques. While breath-based mindfulness meditation is the starting point I like to use, some individuals find focusing on the breath constricting or too physically based. Controlled-breathing exercises – in which individual breathe to a certain count – can also be problematic. Consider visualizing instead – visualize a peaceful place (real or imagined), breathing naturally, and/or offering the option of centering with breath or visualizations.

For more insight into how trauma impacts the mind and body, look into the work of Peter Levine, and in particular his book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. The books of psychotherapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach are also very trauma-sensitive.

Finally, the trauma-sensitive yoga resources offered by The Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute are also very applicable to meditation.

Meditation has so many wonderful healing and therapeutic benefits, and so much to offer everyone, including trauma survivors. Keeping these trauma-sensitive guidelines in mind will help you and those you share meditation with feel supported and empowered as you develop your/their practice.