“Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.” – Bessel A. van der Kolk
Research has repeatedly established the fact that trauma leads to dysregulation of the body’s stress systems, keeping the body in fight-or-flight mode for long after the traumatic event is over.
While trauma can persist for many years, it is possible to recover from such an experience. In his seminal work, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel A. van der Kolk elaborated on the value of reconnecting with our bodily sensations, and reacquainting ourselves with the mind, to start the healing journey.
Meditation is one technique that allows individuals to slow down, reconnect with one’s body, and be able to observe one’s thoughts and feelings. The American Psychology Association defines this age-old practice as a “profound and extended contemplation or reflection in order to achieve focused attention or an otherwise altered state of consciousness and to gain insight into oneself and the world.” It has been a successful part of trauma recovery programmes given its ability to soothe the body’s stress response.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when exploring meditation for trauma.
1. Seek professional guidance when beginning your meditation practice
Meditation connects individuals with their bodies, and trauma can make one feel unsafe within one’s body. Therefore, it is important to seek guidance when practicing meditation for trauma. If practiced improperly, meditation can intensify dysregulation. If in-person support is not accessible, individuals can explore credible mental health apps which are equipped with guided meditations.
2. Don’t use meditation as the only support through trauma
While meditation holds immense value in trauma recovery, it is important to understand that it is only one component of the healing journey. Treating meditation as the sole solution can be limiting, because it does not explore the interpersonal nature of trauma. To address this and to understand trauma better, psychotherapy remains the most effective. Meditation can then be used as a valuable complementary approach.
3. Explore different forms of meditation
Some forms of meditation are more suitable for certain individuals, particularly when working through trauma. Mindfulness and grounding-based activities are often good starting points, as they offer an anchor. Exploring different meditations is possible on various mental health apps which have an expansive collection. It can help individuals to select a form that resonates most deeply with them.
4. Create a safe space
Meditating in spaces that don’t fully feel safe can be counterproductive as they trigger the fight-or-flight response. Creating a safe external space to meditate plays a valuable role in building an internal sense of safety. Reducing as many external triggers allows the body to relax, and is conducive for meditative practice.
5. Be mindful of any discomfort
Individuals who have experienced trauma may initially have limited capacity to engage in introspective and body-awareness work. Meditation will bring discomfort to the fore as individuals reconnect with their bodies and emotions. It is important to pay attention to this discomfort, and to pause and ground when this discomfort feels overwhelming.
6. Witness the flashbacks
One key characteristic of trauma is that it is not simply remembered, it is re-lived. Individual’s bodies react as if the flashbacks were happening at that moment. Extending the meditative skill of witnessing emotions and thoughts to flashbacks can help reframe this experience. Individuals can learn to witness the flashbacks, rather than relive them. This would allow them to emotionally regulate and self-soothe.
7. Be compassionate and patient
It is important to remember that meditation is not an easy practice. Being compassionate, patient and consistent is key. Individuals could do this by starting practice for shorter periods of time, focusing on more grounding forms of meditation like mindfulness activities and seeking support when necessary.
Meditation can play a key role for individuals to know that they are not their trauma. It allows individuals to experience and then let go of the distress and move towards their healed selves. When practiced intentionally and from a trauma-informed lens, meditation can be a powerful transformative experience.