Trauma-Informed Mindfulness: Guidelines for Effective Helping

Sam Himelstein, in a podcast interview with David Treleaven, discussed the principles for teaching mindfulness that he has developed over more than 12 years working with teens impacted by trauma.  His principles and related guidelines have relevance for anyone using mindfulness to help people who have experienced trauma. 

Besides his discussion in the interview mentioned above, Sam provided a blog post that addresses the guidelines explicitly.  The principles and guidelines (together with examples from real cases, teaching material and  practical exercises) are explained in depth in his forthcoming book,  Trauma-Informed Mindfulness for Teens: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.

Guidelines for effective helping of people impacted by trauma

The guidelines developed by Sam Himelstein provide clear and consistent actions that can be taken by anyone helping people impacted by trauma:

  • Do no harm – this is a fundamental guideline informing the others.  Through research, study and practice of trauma-informed mindfulness practice, we can be more aware of potential harm and have the tools to do the best we can to avoid further harming the person suffering from trauma.  Sam mentions two resources that he draws on, The Meditation Safety Toolbox and Chris Willard’s Guidelines for Ethical Teaching of Mindfulness.
  • Avoid prescription about “meditation logistics” – people who are impacted by trauma are often unable or unwilling to start with formal meditation.  Sam urges us to avoid being inflexible through insisting on a set posture or closed eyes when initiating our helping interaction.  This requires letting go of the structural prescriptions of our own meditation training.  It is important to recognise that the people we are helping will be in a “different space” but can still develop mindfulness (inner and outer awareness) with processes other than formal meditation.  We need to acknowledge that mindfulness is more than just meditating.
  • Establish safety – it is critical that the person we are helping feels safe.  If they do not feel safe, they may experience re-traumatisation.  In addition to physical safety, this involves relationship and emotional safety through developing trust, being authentic and being prepared to modify our approach to suit where the person is at.  A more involved aspect of safety is what Sam calls cultural safety developed through “intersectional awareness”.  This requires an awareness of our implicit biases when dealing with people who have characteristics different to our own, e.g. gender, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual preference, disability or “class”.
  • Employ somatic practices first – this involves recognising the role of body memory in trauma and being cognisant that cognitive approaches commenced too early in the intervention can exacerbate the situation for the trauma-affected person.  Sam indicated that he often uses deep breathing exercises and basic somatic meditations.
  • Understand the “window of tolerance” – relates to a personal zone within which a person is able to effectively employ their cognition to “receive, process and integrate information”.  If a person is outside their window of tolerance than are unable to engage effectively in talking, telling stories or undertaking meditation practices.  Sam suggests that a sign of this “intolerance” is the person’s inability to use language, e.g. unable to formulate complete sentences or follow a line of discussion.  He recommends the book Trauma and the Body, as a resource for understanding the “window of tolerance” and learning about somatic approaches to trauma healing.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices, research and reflection, we can develop our awareness and understanding of the sensitivity of trauma-impacted people to formal meditation.  This requires that we become more aware of the “window of tolerance” and develop our capacity to pay attention to the signs that someone we are working with is not coping with our processes.  Associated with this, is the need to build the relationship through establishing safety and trust.  Employing somatic approaches will be more effective if we have experienced their utility ourselves as part of our own mindfulness practice and experience.   The more mindful we become, the better we will be able to help people impacted by trauma – for one thing, we will be able to let go of our assumptions and become more aware of our biases.

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Image by enriquelopezgarre from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Trauma-Informed Mindfulness: Principles for Effective Helping

Sam Himelstein has specialised for more than 12 years in using mindfulness to help teenagers impacted by trauma.   In a podcast interview with David Treleaven, Sam explained in depth his approach to teaching mindfulness to teens affected by trauma, as well as the evolving principles that shape his practice. While his focus is primarily on teens and educating others to work with teens, his approach and principles have relevance to anyone who is using mindfulness to assist people impacted by trauma (or anyone who is teaching mindfulness where a participant is a trauma sufferer).  He has developed his principles through ongoing reflection on practice.

Sam is a psychologist and youth worker and the author of A Mindfulness-Based Approach to Working with High-Risk Adolescents and the forthcoming book, Trauma-Informed Mindfulness for Teens: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.  He is also the founder of the Center for Adolescent Studies.

Principles for trauma-informed mindfulness practice

In discussing his approach to working with teens impacted by trauma, including incarcerated youth, Sam identified several principles that guide his practice:

  • Avoid “adultism” – the assumption that as an adult you are superior to teens and have a lot to teach youth and they have very little in the way of wisdom to offer.  Associated with this false belief, is the assumption that you know best what is good for them – implying that they should learn from your teachings (that you try to impose on them).  This also involves recognising the wisdom they gained in their transition to a teenager. [You can also test your assumptions when working with adults – do you assume that they have no insights into the nature and practice of mindfulness?]
  • Work from where they are at – do not begin with formal meditation as they are unlikely to be ready for this.
  • Focus on relationship-building – consciously build trust in every aspect of your interaction, as their level of trusting others will have been severely damaged by their trauma experience(s). 
  • Assist teens to become comfortable with “sitting with themselves” and exploring “inner awareness”.
  • Be genuinely curious about what is happening for them and what they are doing to cope – bring an open mind to the interaction.  It can be helpful to identify and test your own assumptions before interacting.
  • Develop your own mindfulness continuously – your inner and outer awareness – and learn to let go of “ego” and the need to control the process.

Reflection

When teaching mindfulness to adults and youth, we need to be aware of the possibility that they may have been impacted by trauma(s) in their life.  Being conscious of the principles employed by Sam will help us to demonstrate sensitivity, build trust and relationships, and work at their pace – rather than to a pre-ordained progress schedule.  It will be imperative for us to grow in mindfulness – becoming fully aware of the assumptions we bring to the teaching/interaction, letting go of ego and the need for control, and genuinely engaging with curiosity, humility and openness.

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Image by Lubos Houska from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Ways To Discover the Benefits of Nature

In earlier posts I discussed the healing benefits of nature and the ways that trees can reduce stress. Jill Suttie in her article Why is Nature So Good for Your Mental Health, points to recent research that demonstrates that awe experienced in nature is a source of well-being and decreased symptoms of stress. How then can we discover these benefits of nature in our everyday life?

Ways to discover the benefits of nature

Heather Hurlock, Mindful Digital Editor, discusses three ways that we can access these benefits:

  1. Savour your neighbourhood nature – so much of our observation is superficial as we race from one task to another. You can look out the window and admire the tree on the footpath or notice the species of trees in your tree-lined street. You can closely observe the clouds that provide fascinating shapes, patterns and colours. If you live near water, a river or the bay, you can take a mindful walk along its shores taking in the sunrise/sunset, the ebb and flow of the water and the patterns that are formed through the movement of the water. Alternatively, you can absorb the stillness of the water on a calm, cool day. You might be privileged to share the awe of a visitor to your area who sees your natural surrounds with a fresh set of eyes – not through sight dulled by routine.
  2. Soak up the healing power of a forest – trees reduce agitation and stress and are good for the health of your heart. Forest Bathing – a mindful, slow walk through the trees in a forest – is a great source of mental health and wellness. The stillness and resilience of a forest can be a source of awe and well-being. A forest can intensify your awareness of your senses – through the sounds of birds, the sights of colour/shape/patterns, the smell of the flora, the roughness and contour of the bark as you touch it and the taste of native fruit. Individual trees can be a source of meditation.
  3. Finding a moment to experience awe in nature – it can be humbling and also increase your sense of connectedness that can lead to increased cooperativeness and compassion. You can learn to breathe with the earth and experience gratitude for all that nature offers as well as for what you have in your life. The sense of awe can be experienced within you own backyard or in a mindful garden walk through a botanical garden. Heather recommends the guided awe walk as another way to access the benefits of nature.

As we grow in mindfulness through being in, and closely observing nature, we can enhance our outer awareness and achieve calm, well-being and awe. The healing powers of nature generally, and trees in particular, are well-researched and documented. We can discover these benefits by exploring different ways to access nature, whether in our neighbourhood or in a forest or a botanical garden.

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Image: Manly Foreshore, Moreton Bay, Queensland, taken on 2 July 2019

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Can Your Experience Compassion Fatigue?

Kelly McGonigal in her presentation for the Mindful Healthcare Summit challenged the widely held belief that you cannot experience compassion fatigue. Many people contend that compassion fatigue does not occur because the heart is capable of endless kindness and love for others. Kelly maintains that motivation and goodness of heart are not sufficient to prevent the depression and burnout that can result from compassion fatigue. She asserts that compassion has to be supported by adequate self-care if it is to be sustained.

Compassion and the stress response

Kelly argues that compassion is like the stress response when viewed physiologically. Compassion floods the body with hormones such as dopamine and marshals the body’s energy to relieve the suffering of others. However, while this can be very energising and exciting in the short term, compassion takes its toll in the longer term both bodily and mentally, as we do not have endless physical and mental reserves.

The possibility of compassion fatigue can be increased where a helping professional or carer experiences vicarious trauma or moral distress – the latter being defined as being required to do things that clash with a person’s values or moral perspective, a frequently occurring ethical dilemma within the medical profession.

Compassion fatigue

Kelly suggests that compassion fatigue occurs when a person lacks the energy and resources to pursue their motivation to care in such way that it achieves personal satisfaction (activates the reward system). Outcomes achieved fall short of personal expectations and/or the expectations of others, despite the strength of the caring intention. The compassionate person feels exhausted and feels that the more they give the less they experience satisfaction – the gap between input of energy/time and the expected satisfaction increases, leading to burnout. The depletion of energy and satisfaction could be the result of factors outside the helper’s/carer’s control – such as structural blockages, breakdown in information exchange, overwork or under-resourcing.

Compassion needs nourishment

One of the issues that exacerbates the problem of compassion fatigue is the belief in the endless capacity of an individual to be compassionate through the goodness of their heart or the purity of their intentions. As a result of this false belief, helpers/carers fail to take the necessary actions to nourish themselves (and their compassionate action) and/or are reluctant to accept compassion extended to them by others.

Personal nourishment can take many forms – getting adequate sleep, meditation (especially self-compassion meditation), listening to relaxing/inspiring music, prayer (whatever form it takes) or drawing strength and healing from nature. It also requires an openness to receiving compassion from others – challenging false beliefs such as “no one else can do this”, “I will be seen to be weak if I accept help from others”, “I really shouldn’t pander to my own needs by having that short break or having a reasonable period for lunch”, “I can’t afford to become dependent on others for assistance”. Additionally, positive social connection– to offset the tendency to withdraw under extreme stress– is a critical source of self-nourishment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation our awareness of others’ suffering and our motivation to help are heightened. The capacity for compassionate action is not limitless and needs nourishment. Central to this nourishment is self-compassion.

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Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Becoming Healed by Nature

In the previous post, I discussed the stress-reduction effects of trees.  Florence Williams takes this discussion and research focus further when she explores the healing power of nature. Florence, a journalist and writer, is the author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative. She draws on the latest science, proven practices from around the world and individual case studies to promote the healing power of nature.

Experiencing “nature-deficit disorder”

In a TED Talk given in 2016, Florence described the effects of her own nature-deficit disorder resulting from moving home from the openness of the wilderness environment of Boulder, Colorado to the dense, built environment of Washington D.C. She explained that her sense of wellbeing declined rapidly – she experienced depression, anxiety, irritability and a “sluggish brain”. She was hyper-sensitive to the sounds of planes and noise pollution that surrounded her. However, her saving experience was to be assigned to write for Outside Magazine about the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” (Shinrin-yoku) – absorbing nature through your senses
(sights, sounds, smell, touch, taste). This, in turn, stimulated her interest in the power of nature to make us happier, healthier and more creative.

Global trend to use the power of nature to heal

Following on from the research and writing project in Japan, Florence undertook a global project on behalf of National Geographic. In researching practices involving the use of nature for healing, she discovered different practices in a range of countries. Besides Japan’s “forest therapy trails”, Korea has established “healing forests” along with “forest healing rangers” to take children on programs designed to overcome everything from digital addiction to bullying. Based on their experience and scientific research, Finland has recommended that people spend at least 5 hours a month in nature – a minimum that reflects how nature-deprived we are in the cities of the world. where so much time is spent indoors and on digital devices.

Florence describes the research and practices she uncovered in her global project in a video presentation titled, Your Brain on Nature. This video summarises her book on the power of nature to heal. She gives examples from across the world where nature has been used to help troubled teenagers, people suffering from depression, adults who have experienced trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and people working in jobs that create a lot of stress such as the role of firefighters.

In her introductory chapter, Florence points to Wordsworth and Beethoven as creative people who drew their inspiration from nature, thus serving as forerunners to modern day neuroscience research which is exploring the impact of nature on our brains – and on our health, happiness and creativity. She points out that the research from the Mappiness app (daily mood monitoring by thousands of people over an extended period) concluded that people are much happier outdoors in nature than they are in urban environments devoid of natural features. She notes the research by Elisabeth Nisbit and John Zelenski that suggests that because of our habitual “disconnection from nature” we tend to “underestimate the psychological benefits of nature”. Their research highlighted that even green spaces in urban environments can elevate mood and generate happiness.

Science shows us how we can be healed by nature

In a landmark article on the impact of time in nature on our wellbeing, Kevin Loria advances 12 science-based reasons we should spend more time outside:

  1. improves short-term memory
  2. helps us to de-stress
  3. can reduce inflammation
  4. reduces fatigue by restoring energy
  5. helps overcome depression and anxiety
  6. my have a protective impact on vision (e.g. reduced rate of myopia)
  7. improves capacity to focus
  8. enhances creativity
  9. improves the immune system
  10. lowers blood pressure
  11. promotes the production of anti-cancer proteins
  12. lowers the risk of an early death.

The science in support of the benefits of nature on health, happiness and creativity is building rapidly as scientists and medical professionals become increasingly aware of the negative impacts of “nature-deficit disorder”.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindful immersion in nature and growing awareness of nature’s healing powers, we can begin to enjoy the benefits of improved health, happiness and creativity. In turn, we can deepen our awe of nature – its energy, beauty and majesty.

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Image by Sven Lachmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.