Trauma-Informed Mindfulness: Relationship Building through Music

Sam Himelstein has developed several basic principles and a series of guidelines to assist mindfulness teachers to sensitively work with people who are impacted by trauma. While these principles have been developed over more than a decade working with trauma-impacted teens, the principles and guidelines are also relevant to anyone working with adults who have experienced trauma. 

Relationship building through music

In his podcast interview with David Treleaven, Sam discussed a particular case that was a primary catalyst to the development of his principles and guidelines.  He provides a more detailed discussion of the case in his blog post, Trauma-Informed Mindfulness with Teenagers – 9 Guidelines.  The case involved a 17-year-old high school student, Jeanette, who had experienced a traumatic childhood with many categories of traumatic events in her life, including drug addiction of her father.  She had approached Sam, a registered psychologist, for help with her trauma-related issues.

During initial psychotherapy treatment, Sam was helping her to locate her estranged father so she could establish a connection with him.  However, before this reconnection happened, the young woman learned that her father had died from a drug overdose.  This intensified her trauma and when she presented at Sam’s clinic after the death of her father, she was unable to talk about her father, follow a line of discussion or formulate coherent sentences.  Sam described this in terms of “her brain down regulating”.

Sam’s first principle – “do no harm” – came into play as he realised that getting her to talk would take her outside her window of tolerance.  As he knew about her interest in music and her favourite genre, he intuitively realised that listening to music that she liked would enable her to establish some degree of equanimity, build trust and reinforce the relationship through a shared pleasant experience. 

As they listened to the music together, she slowly began to move her head in line with the beat and rhythm of the music.  Then, she began to talk.  Sam described the effect on Jeanette of listening to the music as regulating her central nervous system, bringing her back within the window of tolerance and enabling her to access her language ability so that she could express her emotions such as anger, grief and sadness.

Sam had realised that while Jeanette was positive about the utility of mindfulness in the context of therapy, “conventional talk therapy or mindfulness meditation wasn’t going to work”.  This music intervention was in line with what he described as practising an INCRA, an “inherently non-clinical relational activity” that is not a therapy technique in itself but effectively builds the relationship.  Sam discusses case studies where he has used INCRA in a clinical setting with teens in his forthcoming book, Trauma-Informed Mindfulness for Teens: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can better access our intuition when working with or training people who have suffered trauma.   Being present to the person needing help will enable us to let go of conventional, trained responses and be open to activities that are non-clinical in nature but develop the relationship – the foundation for all helping.  Trauma-informed mindfulness, then, involves not only sensitivity to trauma-impacted people but also the flexibility to depart from habituated responses or processes.  Mindfulness helps us to tap into our innate curiosity and creativity.

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Image by obBilder 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: 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.

Meditation for Letting Go

Sometimes we can become consumed by anger and be captured by the thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations that accompany anger.  Meditation provides a way to let go of anger and its associated ill-effects.

The catalyst for your anger may be that someone did or said something that you considered unfair.  It may be that what was said or done frustrated your ability to meet your goal of helping other people to achieve something important.  You could feel aggrieved that the thought, effort and cost that you incurred for someone were unappreciated and/or devalued.  It could be that comments made by someone else are patently untrue or distort the real picture of your involvement.

The harmful effects of sustained anger

The problem with anger is that it is such a strong emotion, that we tend to hang onto it – we do not let it go.  We might ruminate endlessly on what happened, providing justifications for ourselves – our words and actions.  We could deflect the implied criticism by denigrating the other person’s intellectual capability or perceptual capacity.  We could make assumptions about their motivation and even indulge in conspiracy theory.

An associated problem with indulging in angry thoughts and sensations is that it harms both us and our relationships.  We are harmed because the negative emotions consume mental and emotional energy, distract us from the present moment (and all that is good about the present) and destroy our equanimity.

Indulged anger can lead to retaliation that harms the relationship with the other person.  It can also contaminate our relationships with other people who are important to us such as our partner, a friend or our children.  As a result of our sustained anger, we may appear aloof, critical, grumpy or unsympathetic to these important people in our life.

A meditation for letting go

Diana Winston offers a meditation podcast on letting go.  She emphasises the fact that when we indulge a strong emotion like anger, the bodily manifestation of this can be experienced as tightness, tension or soreness – a physical expression of holding on.  We can even experience shallowness of breath as we hold the negative emotions in our bodies.

The first level of release through meditation is to focus on your breath – the in-breath and out-breath.  This mindful breathing can be viewed as letting go with each out-breath, releasing the pent-up thoughts and emotions that make you uptight.

As you progress your meditation and begin to restore some semblance of relaxation, you can then address the “holding on” in your body.  Through a progressive body scan, you can identify the parts of your body that are giving expression to your anger – you can physically soften the muscles (facial, back, shoulder, neck or leg muscles) that have become hardened through holding onto your anger.

Once you have become experienced in meditation, you can then begin to reflect on your response to the negative trigger that set you off.  This opens the way to look at how you responded and whether there was an alternative way of responding other than defensiveness or attack (flight or fight).  You might discover (as I did recently) that active listening would have achieved a better outcome, an improved level of mutual understanding and reduced stress generated by angry thoughts and emotions.

Taking this further, you could explore a powerful mindfulness meditation that can help you overcome ongoing resentment by enabling you to put yourself in the position of the other person to appreciate how they experienced your interaction – to understand their perspective, their feelings and their needs in terms of maintaining their identity (their sense of self-worth, competence or reliability).  The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) recommends this meditation practice for handling residual emotions and resentment resulting from a conflictual interaction.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection we can practise letting go of anger and other negative emotions by focusing on our breath, bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts and behaviour in an interaction.  Through the resultant self-awareness, we can improve our response ability.  By exploring the interaction experience from the position of the other person, we can also increase our motivation and our options to behave differently for our own good and that of the person with whom we have interacted.

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

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.