3 Tips for Teaching Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

We asked David Trelevean, guest faculty with iBme’s Mindfulness Teacher Training, to share his expert wisdom on incorporating trauma-sensitive mindfulness into working with youth. A writer, educator, and trauma professional, David’s personal experience led him to create Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness.

3 Tips for Teaching Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness
by David Treleaven

In 2006, I ran into trouble on a silent meditation retreat. One evening I felt something akin to a circuit breaker going off in my body, leaving me numb and dissociated. In the coming days my senses became muted and muffled, my appetite vanished, and I found myself bombarded by intrusive thoughts and images. When I returned home that summer, I was disoriented and having difficulty returning to my everyday life. When I talked about my experience with colleagues, I was surprised to hear them use the word trauma—a term I’d studied as a psychotherapist, but never associated with my own life.

This is why I created trauma-sensitive mindfulness (TSM). I wanted practitioners to be able to help people avoid the potential pitfalls of mindfulness practice for trauma survivors and leverage it’s powerful benefits, as well.

What is Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, and how does it apply to youth?

Trauma-sensitive, or trauma-informed, practice means that we have a basic understanding of trauma in the context of our work. A trauma-informed physician can ask a patient’s permission before touching them, for example. With trauma-sensitive mindfulness, we apply this concept to mindfulness instruction—we commit to recognizing trauma, responding to it skillfully, and taking preemptive steps to ensure that people aren’t retraumatizing themselves under our watch.

Over the past decade, mindfulness has exploded in popularity—including educational settings and through offerings to teens and youth. At the same time, the prevalence of trauma is extraordinarily high amongst the entire population, especially right now with the global pandemic. The majority of us will be exposed to at least some type of traumatic event in our lifetime, and a smaller percentage of us (studies suggest 10-12%) will develop debilitating symptoms in its aftermath. What this means is that in any environment where mindfulness is being practiced, there’s a high likelihood that someone will be struggling with traumatic stress. And while not everyone who has experienced trauma will have an adverse response to mindfulness, we need to be prepared for this possibility.

David Treleaven blog post

Why do people have adverse experiences in meditation?

One important thing is that trauma often lives on inside the body—often out of view to others. Traumatic events persist in the form of petrifying sensations, emotions, and intrusive thoughts. Consider, then, what it means to pay mindful attention to one’s internal experience if someone is struggling with trauma: In all likelihood, this person will be brought face to face with unintegrated remnants of trauma—feelings of terror and helplessness, or disturbing memories and images.

This isn’t automatically a bad thing. Mindfulness can help us get a bit of distance from these experiences and manage them more effectively. But, when left to our own devices, we’ll tend to over-attend to stimuli that suggests we’re in danger or not okay. By paying mindful attention to what’s predominant in their field of awareness, people struggling with trauma will naturally latch on to remnants of the trauma.

To manage traumatic symptoms, people experiencing posttraumatic stress require more than basic mindfulness instructions to thrive. They require tools to help them feel safe, stable, and having the ability to self-regulate. This is especially true when it comes to teens and youth. Unless a younger person feels seen, respected, and that they’re in a safe environment, mindfulness instruction can fall flat and be less effective.

3 Tips for Teaching Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

So what can we do? Here are three tips for working with trauma in meditation practice:

  1. Know the Signs

Before we can respond to trauma, we first need to recognize it. As mindfulness providers, it’s up to us to notice nonverbal cues that someone is struggling with traumatic stress. Because of the way mindfulness meditation is generally practiced, this presents a unique challenge.

The following are some of the basic internal and external signals that suggest someone may be outside of their window of tolerance. These are not necessarily indicators that a student or client is actively experiencing traumatic stress, but they are signals that suggest an intervention of some kind is warranted:

  • Muscle tone extremely slack (collapsed, noticeably flat affect)
  • Muscle tone extremely rigid
  • Hyperventilation
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Excessive sweating
  • Noticeable dissociation (person appears highly disconnected from their body)
  • Noticeably pale skin tone
  • Emotional volatility (enraged, excessive crying, terror)

In conversation or interviews:

  • Disorganized speech or slurring words
  • Reports of blurred vision
  • Inability to make eye contact during interviews/interactions
  • Reports of flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts

If I see someone struggling in practice, I might say something like, “I noticed during meditation that you were sweating a lot and it looked difficult for you to stand up after practice. Can we talk?” Or, “in our group interview, it appeared you were having difficulty focusing, and that you got a bit spacey. Could we sit down and talk about how practice is going for you?”

  1. Offer Different Anchors

Mindfulness meditation typically involves working with something known as an object, or anchor, of attention—a neutral reference point that helps support mental stability. But anchors can also intensify trauma.

The breath, for instance, is far from neutral for many survivors. As a remedy, we can offer people different anchors of attention, including different physical sensations (feet, buttocks, back, hands) and other senses (seeing, smelling, hearing). Each person’s anchor will vary: for some, it could be the sensations of their hands resting on their thighs, or their buttocks on the cushion. Walking meditation is a great way to develop more stable anchors of attention, such as the feeling of one’s feet on the ground—whatever supports self-regulation and stability. Experimentation is key.

  1. Be an Invitation

Trauma often leaves people feeling violated and absent a sense of control. Because of this, it’s vital that survivors feel a sense of choice and autonomy in their mindfulness practice—that they can move at a pace that works for them, and can always opt out of any practice. By emphasizing self-responsiveness, we help put power back in the hands of survivors.

The body is central to this process. Trauma survivors need to know they won’t be asked to override signals from their body but listen to them. We can accomplish this, in part, through our selection of language. Rather than give instructions as declarations, we can offer invitations that increase agency.

Here are a few examples:

  • “In the next few breaths, whenever you’re ready, I invite you to close your eyes or have them open and downcast” (as opposed to, “close your eyes”).
  • “You appeared to be hyperventilating at the end of that last meditation. Would you like to talk to me for a minute about it?” (versus, “You looked terrified. I need to talk to you”).

In all of our interactions, we can tailor our instructions to be invitations instead of commands.

Another way to emphasize choice is to provide different options in practice. We can offer students and clients the choice to have their eyes open or closed, or to adopt a posture that works best for them (e.g., standing, sitting, or lying down). Any time we are offering different ways people can practice, we can also work to normalize any choice they make—one way is not superior to the other. While we can encourage people to stay through the duration of a meditation period, we want them to know that leaving the room is also an option.

Emphasizing choice and autonomy isn’t about coddling trauma survivors. There’s still room for structure and rigor in trauma-informed practice. But while we want to encourage people to stick with structures that will support their transformation, we never want to force structures upon them.

Continued Learning

Continuing to educate yourself about trauma-sensitive practices is key to supporting trauma survivors. As a next step, you are invited to access the free, on-demand webinar I created, The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma. By increasing our skills in TSM, we are able to support survivors in preventing retraumatization and leveraging the benefits of mindfulness as part of their healing journey.

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David Treleaven, PhD, is a writer, educator, and trauma professional who founded the Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness (TSM) Community—a group of practitioners committed to setting a standard of care through mindfulness-based practices, interventions, and programs. He has also developed an online, self-paced course The Complete Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Training. Please visit his website for more information and resources: https://davidtreleaven.com/