A growing number of psychotherapists and other mental health practitioners are incorporating Buddhist-based meditation and mindfulness practices into their therapeutic work, especially with trauma victims. When someone experiences a traumatic event – anything from childhood abuse or violence to a car accident or war zone – an 'imprint' of the experience remains on his mind and body, impacting future responses. Using mindfulness to discover, explore, and release these imprints is the major focus of mindfulness trauma healing.
Trauma can impact someone on every level of their being – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. During traumatic experiences, our 'fight, flight or freeze' response is triggered, and can then resurface in response to seemingly unrelated experiences in our daily life. We may find ourselves unable to sleep or function in certain environments. We may experience constant anxiety, or may experience periodic intrusive thoughts or dreams. We may be unable to ever feel safe or deserving, and become plagued by negative thoughts or beliefs.
Many survivors of ongoing abuse develop coping mechanisms for surviving their situation, usually involving disconnecting from their physical body and escaping into a purely mental realm – in some cases imaginary, and in others more idea-based. Either way, abuse survivors may 'shut down' parts of their bodies, which can lead to health problems and limits their ability to exercise, or engage with life.
Whether a trauma survivor suffers from emotional or physical symptoms, mindfulness meditation can provide a wonderful tool for connecting with trapped energies held in the body, in order to release them. While these energies remain unexplored they subconsciously impact a survivor's emotions and thoughts, but once they are faced, accepted, and no longer feared, a survivor can work to accept and even transmute them. Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach puts it this way in her book, Radical Acceptance:
"In both Buddhist psychology and Western experiential therapy, this process of experiencing and accepting the changing stream of sensations is central to the alchemy of transformation. Emotions, a combination of physical sensations and the stories we tell ourselves, continue to cause suffering until we experience them where they live in our body. If we bring a steady attention to the immediate physical experience of an emotion, past sensations and stories linked to it that have been locked in our body and mind are "de-repressed." Layers of historic hurt, fear or anger may begin to play themselves out in the light of awareness. When we feel and release the past pain held in our body, we become increasingly free to meet our present feelings with a wakeful and kind heart."
Here she describes mindfulness as "bringing a steady attention to the immediate physical experience of an emotion." In mindfulness meditation we strive to follow our breath, and to pay a deep abiding attention to all of the sensations and emotions that arise within us, without 'reacting' to them or getting sidetracked by the 'story' of them. In this way we can gently face emotions and sensations we have long avoided.
Of course for individuals suffering from debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this work is best guided by a qualified therapist. But many of us contain the residue of much smaller traumatic events within our being, and can safely work with mindfulness in this way ourselves. Individuals who have already done some therapeutic work may also find it useful to supplement it with mindfulness meditation.
To experiment with this yourself, try this basic mindfulness breathing technique. If difficult emotions arise for you, know that you are in control of this work, and can halt it at any time. If this happens to you, you may want to explore doing this in a guided setting instead:
- Sit comfortably with a straight spine if possible.
- Take a few deep breaths, focusing to expand your belly as you do so.
- Now breathe naturally, and bring your awareness to your breath. How does it feel going in and out of your nose or mouth? What does it smell or taste like? Can you feel your chest or belly rise and fall?
- Simply focus on your breath, and its effects on your body, for a few minutes.
For many people, this may be more than enough. Allow yourself to work with this for a few days before proceeding further. If you wish to explore mindfulness in a more focused way, you can add on the following:
- Bring your awareness into your body, perhaps scanning yourself from head to toe. Do you note where you are holding tension? Can you release it as you breathe? Are certain parts of your body difficult for you to bring your awareness to? Can you breathe through this discomfort?
- If any intrusive thoughts or emotions surface for you, take a moment to observe them if you can. Try to breath into them, just as you did your physical tension. Perhaps some insights will arise for you about them. Perhaps you will feel you have had enough, and if so, accept this and move on to something else. Perhaps over time you will discover that your ability to explore these emotions, instead of fearing them, strengthens.
Many people find that journaling after a meditation is very useful for processing any sensations that arise. As mentioned above, if you are suffering from serious trauma symptoms, and/or were the victim of sustained abuse that you have not yet explored in therapy, you may want work with a professional before experimenting with mindfulness. But when you are ready, and in the right setting, it may be a wonderful way for you to aid your healing.
Here is Tara Brach's wonderful book, from which the above quote was taken:
Note that I work with sexual trauma and abuse survivors, incorporating chakra energy work with a mindfulness approach. This approach isn't right for everyone, and it should never be used in place of therapy, but if you are interested in exploring this work with me, please visit me at my blog, Mommy Mystic.