Trauma-informed mindfulness: how to meditate when the nervous system is caught in traumatic reactivity.
Who needs trauma-informed mindfulness?
Trauma is a pervasive fact of life in our society. Whether we realize it or not, all of us carry some sort of wounding from our past that shapes our personalities and our behaviours. When something reminds us of our trauma, we can get triggered: we find ourselves reacting emotionally to a situation, rather than responding wisely, from our best selves; we may notice that our muscles contract, as if bracing for imminent danger, and that our heart rate increases; other times, we can become frozen, like deer staring at headlights.
What happens in those situations is that our autonomic nervous system, led by the brain stem and the polyvagal system, perceives danger. The limbic structures in our brain, designed to produce emotions that help us react quickly to immediate threats, take over. A cascade of messages ranging from hormones to electric signals flood our bodies, getting us ready for four fundamental reactions: fight, flight, freeze or fawn. In other words, our mind-bodies get ready to fight an aggressor, flee to safety, freeze to minimize the damage done to us, or fawn and submit to someone else who, we hope, can protect us.
These are visceral and emotional reactions that may not track at all with how we rationally perceive a situation. That's the nature of triggers: they may have us react to a dangerous situation in our past rather than what is actually present around us. As the saying goes, "if I'm hysterical, it's probably historical". When we are triggered, we lose access to the prefrontal cortex, the most evolved part of our brain that allows us to be present and intentional about our behaviour. We are then unable to be fully engaged with our environment, and have difficulty responding from the wisest part within us.
Triggers commonly present themselves during meditation. As we quiet the mind, the thoughts, emotions, memories and wounds that normally live in our subconscious, below the line of awareness, can bubble up. Sometimes, the material that emerges is not yet integrated: we haven't felt our feelings fully, we haven't released the traumatic energy stuck in our nervous system, or we have actively tried to suppress a memory in order to function. When this is the case, becoming aware of this material as we sit on the cushion can be triggering, and we may experience a sense of overwhelm in the nervous system.
Examples in my own work with students and clients include a sixty year-old woman - let's call her Susan - who had been sexually assaulted as a teenager, and never got a chance to evacuate the fight-or-flight energy that arose in her during that horrible event. She had assessed that fighting back her aggressor may have put her in further danger, and did not end up doing so; after the fact, her family and peers encouraged her to keep quiet.
As Susan took on meditation again after retiring, she noticed that she was often feeling overwhelmed by anger and grief. Sitting on the cushion, she would feel her body become hot as blood rushed through her head and limbs. Her meditation sessions would often leave her feeling sweaty and defeated. Initially, Susan thought she had to "keep it together" and maintain composure. Wasn't meditation all about finding peace?
As we began to work together, Susan began developing a completely new relationship to meditation, and to herself. She realized that despite her best efforts, much of that trauma still lived within her. She began allowing herself to evacuate that fight-or-flight energy somatically (with a punching bag!), and implemented simple but powerful trauma-informed techniques that allowed her to sit in silence for increasingly longer stretches while bringing love, support and healing to her wounded inner teenager.
Whether or not we have been through a discernible traumatic event like Susan, many of us can have similar experiences on the cushion. If this sounds like you, do not despair: there are solutions!
How to meditate when we get triggered
The first point to emphasize is that meditation should not be about suppressing, denying or bypassing emotions. Spiritual practice is about learning to feel the fullness of our experience - the good, the bad and the ugly - and welcome it with an open, compassionate heart. Only then can we reach and stabilize the promise of meditation to greatly reduce or eliminate suffering.
With lots of practice, we can develop the two fundamental qualities of the heart-mind: mindfulness and compassion. It helps to work with a teacher, who can offer guidance, help welcome the difficult material as it emerges, and witness us with support, care and encouragement as we do the work.
Once we are committed to this project of healing and growth, what can we do to navigate our nervous systems' reactions to triggers? Here are a few effective strategies:
- Titration: take the meditation in small increments at first, and track the nervous system's reactions. How long can you sit without leaving your window of tolerance? Can you increase this time gradually as you become more comfortable?
- Pendulation: allow your attention to pendulate between the difficult material or trigger as it comes up, and a different object or part of the body that feels safe reassuring.
- Choose one or more embodied safety anchors: find a part of the body - for many people it's those that are in contact with the floor, chair or cushion - that feels stable and safe, and rest your attention on it. Track the state of the nervous system and notice as things calm down, and see whether you feel ready to allow your attention to come back to the difficult material or challenging feeling that is emerging.
- Choose one or more external safety anchor: find an object that conveys an immediate sense of safety and relief to you, and allow your attention to dwell on it. This object could be a picture of your family, your dog or your favourite beach, for example. It should be something immediate and uncomplicated. Pendulate back and forth as appropriate.
- Choose sensorial safety cues: select several objects to have near you that give you that same immediate sense of safety and belonging; a "home, sweet home" kind of feeling that allows you to exhale and let go. Choose something tactile that you could ideally feel on your cheeks, like a blanket or a teddy bear; a familiar and reassuring scent like lavender essential oil; a delicious, warm herbal tisane; your favourite song ready to play on your devices; and visual safety cues sprinkled around the room.
- Hug yourself and hum: place one hand slightly under the opposite armpit, wrap the other arm around, rock from side to side, and produce the deepest hum you can, for as long as you can as you exhale, then inhale slowly.
- Inhale and exhale to the count of six, counting as slowly as you can, with a pause in between. Allow the belly to rise and fall rather than the chest, and focus on the release as you exhale.
- Evacuate 'stuck' fight-or-flight energy: if you feel like you might want to punch a pillow and scream, then allow yourself to do so! It'll feel much easier to sit in meditation afterwards and bring compassion to the wounded parts of you.
- Resource yourself: sometimes it's just not wise to meditate. If your batteries are empty, perhaps it's necessary to recharge them with some time in nature, cuddles with a loved being - human or not, a conversation with a good friend, or time spent doing an activity you love. Come back to the cushion when you feel ready.
These strategies may seem simple, but they're in fact extremely effective in my experience. I often encounter trauma in my own practice and working with clients, and these simple techniques can make a world of difference in empowering us to know that we can speak to and regulate our nervous systems. We are not at the triggers' mercy!
That being said, it is important to emphasize again that sometimes the trauma is too strong for us to hold alone. In those cases, it is wise to work with a teacher who can hold the space, witness us as we allow the wounds to unfold, and help us come back to planet earth if our triggers cause us to "take off" in a traumatic reaction.
I hope this article empowers you on your meditation journey and inspires you to seek healing and growth.
With palms joined,