Though I am trained to teach mindfulness, yoga, and compassion and have undergone trauma-informed training, I am not a trauma healer. As a meditation teacher, however, I have had questions arise about whether meditation is right for a person who has been diagnosed with trauma or had a traumatic experience. To be sure, meditation is something that can help people who have experienced trauma because it can increase mental focus, body awareness, and self-compassion.
Even so, meditation could include some risks for those who have experienced trauma. The experience of meditation can allow traumatic experiences to resurface, whether in the body or mind, and this can result in adverse symptoms. Moreover, trauma is exceedingly common and researchers now understand that it can be caused by a broad range of experiences. Thus, the reality is that past trauma may be a concern for a large portion of people who explore meditation.
With this background in mind, my perspective as a mindfulness teacher and someone is that meditation practice can be beneficial for those who have experienced trauma. With that said, individuals who are experiencing symptoms associated with trauma may need additional supports to ensure that their practices help them heal. Here are my recommendations for those supports.
1. Take Your Time.
I recommend a gradual approach to building a meditation practice for all people. It makes sense to give yourself time to acclimate to the experience of mindfulness and it is much easier to find a few minutes of free time in your schedule. When it comes to trauma, though, this is even more essential. Trauma is more common than you’d think. Though less than 10% of people are diagnosed with PTSD, it is estimated that as many as 70% of people worldwide have experienced a traumatic event.
Traumatic experiences can occur for incidents that may fall outside of the incidents that give rise to a PTSD diagnosis, including medical procedures, auto collisions, work-related incidents, or interpersonal experiences especially when they intersect with issues of race, class, religion, sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. This can even be true if we don’t have a clear memory of the traumatic event. Thus, the reality is that many of us may not know how a practice will affect us or what might surface in practice. Taking a gradual approach can allow you to monitor this more carefully and adjust or seek support if you need it.
2. Get Support.
Technology has enabled us to learn meditation on our own but this doesn’t mean it is necessarily ideal. Social support is helpful when it comes to meditation and can be essential for dealing with trauma. If you are working with a care provider to treat symptoms associated with trauma, consult them first and keep them updated about your progress. Likewise, skilled meditation teachers or meditation groups may offer social or technical support for your practice. Trusted relatives and friends may also be able to help you process your experience if you feel comfortable sharing your experience.
Even if you meditate on your own, you do not have to face whatever arises during meditation alone. Moreover, there is no reason for you to strive to use meditation alone to support your healing. Meditation is a powerful tool but it is most effective as part of an overall self-care regimen that may include therapy, medication, coaching, exercise, and robust social support. Getting support with your practice may help you find or learn the strategies that will work best for you and accelerate the healing process.
3. Protect and Use Your Own Agency.
Many people start meditation thinking that they must do exactly as they are told. This isn’t necessarily true and when it comes to trauma it is certainly not true. Trauma can create a variety of different symptoms for different people. Some have difficulty with mental images or scenes. Some struggle with intense physical sensations or sensory experiences. Some may not be able to relax because they don’t feel safe. And some people may not be immediately aware how an experience has affected them due to unclear or missing memories.
The good news is that you can modify most meditation practices just like you could any physical exercise. You can open your eyes or change the length of your sessions. You can incorporate movement into your practice, with light yoga, walking meditation, or practices like tai chi or qigong. You could even do interval training for your mind by, for example, meditating for intervals with periods of rest. You can use touch or smell or sound to offer support to your practice as long as you avoid the sensory items that may be triggering or problematic for you.
Since trauma is something that can affect the agency of the people involved, modifying your meditation practice to suit your needs is a way to build skills and personal efficacy. For more ways to modify and support a mindfulness practice in a trauma-sensitive way, I highly recommend the book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness by David A. Treleaven.
4. Find Your Window – Not Your Edge.
Some yoga teachers and internet gurus encourage people to find there “edge.” The use of this term has rarely been defined but I generally understand it to mean that one should toe the line of their personal limits. This may sound cool and there may be times when it is empowering to see what you can do. But when it comes to meditation, I strongly prefer windows to edges.
By this, I mean the window of tolerance, a term coined by Dr. Dan Siegel. It refers to the optimal zone of arousal, where you aren’t bored and listless but not dysregulated. Segal wasn’t necessarily referring to meditation practice when he coined this term, but it applies. When it comes to trauma or any deep-seated emotional issue, going for the edge too fast runs the risk of overwhelm, repeating trauma, and demoralization. Focusing instead on finding your window of tolerance, however, is about building skills over time. You focus on facing what you can handle from a mental, emotional, and physical standpoint and you allow that window to gradually open.
For difficulty in life, most of us want the suffering to go away immediately. We want to feel like we can just push a bit harder and get over the mountaintop. Though mindfulness can help us get there, it rarely happens so quickly. While discipline is a part of the process, so is developing wisdom about what you can’t control. Identifying and staying within your window of tolerance in meditation paradoxically may help you learn to honor your limits and expand them over time.
5. Start with Kindness.
Many people who start meditating want focus and calm, but in the pursuit of that we find something much more important: self-compassion. People who are experiencing trauma may benefit from this because shame and self-judgment are common symptoms following a traumatic experience. Even though self-compassion isn’t automatic for many people, you don’t have to wait weeks and months to learn this lesson.
If you have past trauma or challenging life experiences, kindness should be a cornerstone of your practice. It may take some time to internalize this, but any meditation practice should reinforce the ideas that you are worthy, loved, and deserve to be respected, feel good, and have your wishes honored. Thus, in starting or structuring a practice, self-kindness should be a focal point. As one of my teachers aptly noted, meditation is a healing art instead of a material art. We shouldn’t be battling through every session, but instead learning how to take better care of ourselves.
Sometimes meditation gets tangled up with self-improvement because the practices can help you behave better out in the world. But one of the big reasons that is true is because the practices can help you understand and care for yourself better. The practices don’t fix you; they help you see without judgment. The way to achieve this is through self-kindness. As you proceed with your practice, kindness should be the focal point and the guide.
These are a few ideas to raise awareness about trauma in the context of mindfulness from the perspective of a meditation teacher and fellow practitioner who has used mindfulness as one aspect of personal healing. In the end, you and your care providers know best whether meditation can support a healthy lifestyle for you. Meditation can support healing for people who have experienced trauma but supports, including help from trained professionals may be needed. Whether you meditate or not for personal healing, know that your efforts to care for yourself are so important and will contribute to a better world.
Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.
Like this post? Subscribe to the blog here or follow us on social media: