Trauma Resilience

David Treleaven presented on the topic, Resilience to Trauma, at the recent Embodiment Festival 2023.   He made the point that while meditation and mindfulness practices can help some people recover from trauma, meditation may not work in individual cases.  He argued that suggesting “more” meditation is not the answer – we have to recognise the complexity of trauma and how it plays out in different people’s lives.  Individual’s hypervigilance as a result of trauma may impede their capacity to be still and reflect and they may find themselves continuously oscillating between a trauma response and temporary wellness – impeding their capacity to develop resilience.

David commented that trauma can create a level of rigidity in our response to stressors.  He noted that in some cultures such as Australia, Ireland, and South Africa, humour plays an important role in helping people to develop resilience.  Mark Walsh, Festival organiser and interviewer, commented that after undertaking trauma recovery work in Ukraine, he realised that humour is an integral part of the resilience of the Ukrainian people.  It was noted, too, that the current President, Zelenskyy, was previously a comedian and actor.

When Mark asked David what advice he would give to young people in these present challenging times, David suggested that it is important to undertake a regular practice that builds personal resilience.  He maintained that this is very much a personal choice but whatever practice you choose, to do so purposefully and “don’t be afraid to make a mistake”.   This wide-ranging discussion increased my interest in the relationship between trauma and resilience.  I decided to explore David’s podcast series, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, where he interviews trauma experts to explore the intersection of mindfulness, meditation and traumatic stress.

Trauma and Resilience

I was immediately attracted to David’s podcast interview with Anjuli Sherin on the topic, Resilience, Mindfulness and Trauma RecoveryAnjuli is a Pakistani American who specialises in trauma recovery with families, especially members of immigrant families.  She is a highly qualified and experienced therapist who offers individual therapy sessions, healing groups, guided meditations, training and her Joy Blog.  Anjuli is the author of Joyous Resilience – A Path to Individual Healing and Collective Thriving in an Inequitable WorldThe interview is very rich in its discussion of resilience and Anjuli’s book, because she shares insights from her own life experience and the resilience journey of her therapy clients.  David, himself an expert in trauma and trauma recovery, acknowledged that he learnt some new things as a result of the interview.

Anjuli begins with recounting her own trauma recovery journey, highlighting the trauma she experienced as an 18 year old, female immigrant to America.  Not only did she feel totally disconnected from her new cultural environment, she was also carrying the scars of intergenerational trauma resulting from living with her family in the “systems of oppression” present in Pakistan as she was growing up.  She found herself alone in America with no “compass”, family or community, while still in her early 20’s.  

Anjuli experienced what Bruce Perry describes as a “sensitised stress response” which led to overreactivity and maladaptive behaviour.  She describes her trauma as translating into “anger, fear and violence”.  She found that she did not cope with the stressors in intimate relationships, partly because she could not access, and express, her feelings and needs.  She was experiencing “emotional dysregulation” where she lacked control over her emotional responses. Her reactivity in her relationships led to more stress and feelings of shame.  Anjuli describes this trauma experience as the ”cycle of trauma” – the “vulnerable self” experiences stressors that lead to reactivity which, in turn, increases a sense of vulnerability, fear and helplessness that, again, heightens reactivity and maladaptation.  The trauma cycle results in negative self-evaluation, avoidance, and  questioning “what’s wrong with me?” – creating a further “cycle of suffering”.  An alternative mindset explores “what happened to you?” and seeks to understand trauma, its complexity and impacts.

The ”circle of resilience”

Anjuli describes the trauma recovery journey experienced by herself and her clients as a journey towards, and into, the “circle of resilience”.  This is a process, not a set state, that involves developing or accessing “four aspects of self” that enable the development of resilience and facilitate trauma recovery.   These aspects of self replace self-criticism, self-neglect and denial of feelings.  Anjuli maintains that people who have experienced trauma are often not able to use the “tools of resilience” (such as mindfulness, yoga, Tai Chi or exercise) in a sustainable way because of their “vulnerable self’ and being stuck in their reactivity and sense of helplessness.

Anjuli noted that in her early stages of arrival in America she ignored advice to seek a therapist to help her with her trauma recovery.  It was only after the stressors she was experiencing increased (e.g. graduation and relationship stress) that she heeded advice to seek therapeutic assistance.  She had been mired in her negative self-evaluation and her maladaptive behaviour up until that time. 

The “four aspects of self” for the resilience journey

Through her own therapy and consulting with her clients, Anjuli identified what she calls the “four aspects of self” that enable anyone who has experienced trauma to undertake the resilience journey.  She found that her own therapy “changed everything” and helped her to develop resilience by providing “foundational teaching” to shift from emotional dysregulation to emotional regulation, to move from stress and shame to self-care, and to develop “healthy control and agency over actions, emotions and relationships”.  Her reactivity diminished and she was able to understand her own needs and ask for what she needed.

During therapy she developed the “four aspects of self” that enabled her to enter the path, and move along the journey, to healing and resilience, thus enabling her to utilise the tools of resilience, such as mindfulness and exercise, in a sustainable way.  The four aspects described in depth by Anjuli in her book are:

  1. Nurturing – self-talk that recognises feelings (naming her feelings) and “turns to those feelings with attunement and loving kindness”, leading to acceptance
  2. Protection – establishing healthy boundaries and limits
  3. Play and creativity – accessing the things that bring pleasure
  4. Awe and Gratitude – through the experience of beauty and “interdependence  with the larger world”.

Anjuli explained that these four aspects of self, enabled her to let go of her “vulnerable self” and to acknowledge that she is able to deal with challenging emotions such as grief and fear.  She stated that these four states “are not built outside of relationship”.  She reinforced the critical role of supportive relationships in the journey to recovery and resilience.  Brooke Blurton in her memoir, Big Love: Reclaiming myself, my people, my country, highlighted the relationship orientation of her Aboriginal culture and its role in helping her through multiple sources of trauma to heal and develop resilience.  She experienced intergenerational trauma, poverty, homelessness, sexual abuse and racism, yet throughout she was sustained by the “constant love” of her addicted mother and the love of her family (especially her Nan and siblings), the extended family of “Aunties” and “Uncles” and what she calls “the mob”.  Anjuli reinforced supportive relationships as a “source of resilience” in that they provide protection, nurturing and a readiness to listen and positively affirm a person’s experience and emotions and offer reassurance that they “are not alone”.

Reflection

Supportive relationships appear consistently as a key element for trauma recovery and the development of resilience.  When I reflect on my own experience of recovery from personal trauma, I am able to acknowledge the central role played by nurturing, protective relationships.  Anjuli’s book promotes personal and collective healing and recovery, and offers supportive practices and insightful case studies that facilitate the development of resilience and encourage joyful thriving.

Resources that can help us achieve trauma resilience, and the ability to cope with life’s challenges, include the Healing Trauma Program offered by Sounds True which involves 13 key trauma recovery experts such as David Treleaven.  Sounds True also offer a shorter course, Trauma and the Embodied Brain, facilitated by Bonnie Badenoch, PhD.  Bonnie is the author of the book, The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships.

________________________________

Image by Alex Hu 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.

Perspectives on Recovering from Trauma

Trauma is a complex area and the process of recovery is rarely linear.  It often involves progress/regress over an extended period, sometimes a lifetime.  Various experts have studied trauma and its impacts from multiple perspectives, drawing on research, clinical practice and reflection on their personal experience.  They have adopted different approaches to facilitating recovery from trauma, recognising that the experience of a traumatic event and its subsequent impacts vary from individual to individual.  Health Means bring many of these conceptual and practical perspectives together in their Biology of Trauma 2.0 Summit.

Recovering from trauma and its impacts

There can be differential impacts for people witnessing the same traumatising event, such as a mass shooting, sudden death of a close relative or a car accident.  The depth of trauma response, according to Bruce Perry, is influenced by the timing, pattern and intensity of the initiating event as well as the degree of mitigating factors, especially “relational health” – the quality of connectedness and of supportive relationships.  In his view, “connectedness can counterbalance adversity”.  Improving relational health with a therapist as well as supportive others is a key element in recovering from trauma.  Dr. Elena Villanueva provides a pathway to relational health by offering a group-based recovery process, incorporating facilitation by health experts and a personal care plan.  Her holistic process is offered in the form of a Mind/Body/Energy Program.  Bruce Perry is a co-author with Oprah Winfrey of the book, What Happened to You: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing

Bessel van der Kolk places considerable emphasis on the “visceral impact” of trauma – the generation of deep inner feelings.  He argues that recovery processes should focus on the “emotional brain”, rather than the “rational brain’.  He maintains that the mind-body influence is bi-directional and that a person can  experience “visceral overload” when exposed to a traumatic event.  He suggests employing healing modalities that recognise the mind-body-emotion connection, such as movement (e.g., Tai Chi), singing or chanting, and a wide range of mindfulness practices.  Bessel is the author of The Body Keeps the Score: brain and body in the transformation of trauma.

Dr. Arielle Schwartz draws on neuropsychotherapy when treating traumatised people.  This integrated mind-body approach incorporates psychotherapy practices along with neuroscience findings. She contends that it is possible to develop resilience through trauma recovery.  Her approach is multi-modal, incorporating practices as diverse as exploration of family history, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic therapy and mindfulness.  Relationship building, positive psychology, reflection, reprocessing and resilience development are integral to her approach.  Arielle is the author of The Post-Traumatic Guidebook: Practical Mind-Body Tools to Heal Trauma, Foster Resilience and Awaken Your Potential.

Gabor Maté agrees with the approach of exploring what happened to a traumatised person, rather than trying to find out “what’s wrong with them”.  He also adopts a non-judgmental approach to addiction, asserting that many people who suffer from addiction have experienced trauma in their life.  In line with this thinking, he adopts and teaches an approach he calls “compassionate inquiry” which among other things helps a person to discover their “negative self-messaging” resulting from the experience of trauma.  He aims to help the traumatised person to confront and name the underlying pain resulting from an identified trauma.  He also employs a holistic approach incorporating “body-work”, mindfulness, connection with nature and self-care approaches such as proper nutrition and stress management.  Gabor is the author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

David Treleaven, creator of the Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast, discusses the importance of understanding the window of tolerance when working with people who have experienced trauma.  The window of tolerance is the level of arousal that an individual can tolerate in a productive way – they are able to share, process, and receive information when they are within this personally tolerable zone.   Trauma, such as that suffered by some people during the pandemic, reduces the window of tolerance.  David stresses the need to offer people who have been traumatised a choice of meditation anchors to avoid unconsciously triggering a trauma response.  He is also acutely aware of the need to ensure that mindfulness practices are accessible for people with disabilities, especially physical disabilities. David is the author of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing.

There is widespread recognition that various forms of mindfulness can assist in trauma recovery.  However, researchers and clinical  practitioners such as Sam Himelstein, who has dedicated many years to working with traumatised teenagers, highlight the need to tread cautiously and sensitively when dealing with people who have experienced trauma.  Sam offers insightful principles and guidelines for trauma-informed mindfulness.  He found too that in some situations a conventional approach to mindfulness would not work as it would take a traumatised teenager outside their window of tolerance.  He found, for example, that listening to music together built a connection and a trusting relationship so that the impacted teenager felt free to begin sharing both their trauma experience and what was happening for them.  Sam is the author of Trauma-Informed Mindfulness with Teens: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.

Reflection

Recovery from trauma frequently involves some form of somatic therapy such as somatic meditation, resting in your body or resting in your breath.  This is often supplemented by other therapies that address the visceral impact of trauma, negative self-thoughts, supportive relationships and the flow of energy in the body.  Overall, the complexity of trauma suggests the need for a holistic approach, as adopted by most of the practitioners discussed in this post.  Health practitioners are becoming increasingly creative as they develop a deepened understanding of trauma and its impacts.

Underpinning many of the approaches discussed is mindfulness practice in one form or another.  It is acknowledged that as we grow in mindfulness, we can identify our own traumas and their impacts, strengthen our connectedness and relationships, build resilience and adopt a positive mindset.  Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor and author of The Choice: A True Story of Hope, encourages us to explore our “inner landscape” and move from a victim mindset to true freedom.

Sounds True offers a Healing Trauma Program conducted by 13 of the world’s top trauma recovery experts including Gabor Maté, Jeffrey Rutstein, Peter Levine and Arielle Schwartz. The program offers practices, skills and tools that have proven effectiveness. The time frame for the program allows you to lean new behaviours and put them into practice, as well as offering Q & A sessions to explore what worked for you and any blockages to your progress.

Sounds True also offers a shorter 8 week course, Trauma and the Embodied Brain, conducted by Bonnie Badenoch, PhD – therapist, consultant, trainer and author of The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships.

________________________________

Image by Gerd Altmann 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 Sensitive Mindfulness: Accessibility for People with Disabilities

David Treleaven, author of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, organised an online Meet-Up to explore how to provide accessibility for people with disabilities.  While many of us experience psychological disabilities or hindrances because of trauma and adverse early childhood experiences, the focus on this Meet-Up session was on facilitating access for people with physical disabilities.  The insights and suggestions are relevant to facilitators of any group of people, not only those seeking to engage in trauma-sensitive mindfulness training or facilitation.

Awareness of disabilities

To increase awareness of the nature and range of physical disabilities for facilitators/trainers, David introduced the topic of accessibility by highlighting the “massive and complex” area of people who have a physical disability or impairment.  He stressed that as trainers/facilitators we are not aware of the different impairments of participants and the impacts on their ability to access what we are sharing in a group environment.  He emphasised the need to undertake an “accessibility check-in” early when facilitating a group to ascertain the particular needs of people in the group.  

Given the interactivity and diversity of physical impairments, it is not possible to anticipate all the access needs of everyone – so a check-in is essential.   David helped the Meet-Up group increase their awareness of the complexity of disabilities and their impacts by having three people with lived experience of disability (and experience in advocacy for people with disabilities), who told their stories in a moving, disarming way.  Among other things, their presentations highlighted the prevalence and unique combinations of impairments that people do experience.

For instance, each of the three presenters identified that they experienced hypermobility – pain in joints (e.g. knees, fingers, hips) that typically extend beyond the normal range.  It can manifest in diverse ways including the inability to stand, sit upright or walk for any length of time and can vary over time or on any given day.  A specific form of the hypermobility spectrum, known as the Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, can be particularly debilitating and limit the capacity of an individual to engage in the normal range of mindfulness activities such as mindful walking, adopting an upright sitting position or standing.  The Ehlers-Danlos Society provides a wide range of community resources for people suffering from this syndrome and others who wish to learn about its manifestations and impacts.

Different manifestations of disabilities and their impacts

Each of the three presenters reinforced the benefits of mindfulness meditation for people experiencing disability and/or chronic pain.  However, they drew on their lived experience of disability and pain to share their stories of experiencing difficulties in effectively participating in meditation groups because of a lack of awareness of facilitators/trainers and willingness to make adaptions to their meditation process to enable full access for people experiencing disability. 

Heather Boyes spoke about her chronic pain from hypermobility and her environmental sensitivity and, in particular, her sensitivity to fragrances – an impairment exacerbated by the ubiquitous presence of fragrant hand sanitisers and cleaning products as a result of COVID -19 in the community.  Her allergic response can range from swollen lips to a “series of stroke-like headaches” and anaphylaxis.  She has found that mask wearing brought on by COVID-19 restrictions does not help her as pointed out that we have “olfactory receptors” in every organ, especially the skin.

Heather’s sensitivities extend to touching things like mould, experiencing a lack of airflow and transitioning from inside to outside (changing to a different environment which includes temperature differences).  

Heather also explained that public places could result in allergic-type reactions due to sensitivity to lighting, “blue light” from computers and other digital devices and sunlight.  All of her senses are heightened  by her condition, so that she is even affected by phone transmission.

Heather’s suggestions to make a meditation space accessible to her and others include:

  • Ensure people are aware of fragrance sensitivity and advise participants in advance not to wear strong fragrances to the meditation sessions
  • Ensure there is ready access to clean airflow
  • Be conscious of potential industry smells from nearby factories/workplaces
  • Have all mobile phones on flight mode before switching them off
  • Be aware of a person’s emergency contacts and whether they use medication or an EpiPen for emergencies (such as anaphylaxis)
  • Don’t assume that products branded safe (such as essential oils) are safe for everyone.

Cheryl Harris spoke about her connective tissue disorder that was diagnosed 19 years previously.  Her hypermobility manifests in difficulty in walking and standing and pain in her arms, hands and shoulders leading to migraines.  Associated with these disabilities is “visual impairment” and difficulty with computer screens.  Cheryl found that she experienced considerable difficulties during chronic pain meditation classes despite the trauma-sensitive approach adopted by the trainer.   Her physical impairments meant that the meditation sessions were relatively inaccessible for her.

While everyone in Cheryl’s meditation class had chronic pain, she was the only one with mobility limitations.  This meant she could not participate in standing meditations or mindful walking.  It left her watching and not participating.  She left her initial meditation class after 12 years because of the physical and emotional strain involved and joined another group that she was better able to engage with.

Cheryl’s suggestions for meditation trainers and facilitators include:

  • Recognise that you have the responsibility to find out students’ accessibility needs – it is not the students’ role to initiate this discussion
  • Establish access needs early on, e.g. “What would help you to feel welcome?” (she stated that the specific words do not matter – it is the awareness and sensitivity that really matter)
  • Recognise that students may have experienced stigma because of their disability
  • Don’t assume that people in pain have a disability or that all people with a disability are experiencing chronic pain
  • Use the language that the person in front of you uses (How do they describe their impairment? – textbook labels do not help because disability is a highly individualised and complex phenomenon)
  • Consider how intersectionality plays a role, e.g. in increasing the possibility of social isolation, for instance, for someone who has a disability, is a woman and an Aboriginal.

Cheryl provided an excellent resource titled, Adapting Mindful Practices to People Who Have Special Physical Needs.

Tara Beech explained that she suffers from fibromyalgia and hypermobility.  She indicated that chronic pain meditations are particularly difficult for her.  When she pays attention to her pain she experiences a burning sensation under her skin – resulting in the only pain-free area of her body being under her lips and her left eye. 

Tara has decided that she has to treat pain like trauma and adopt a pain-sensitive approach to meditation (not unlike trauma-sensitive mindfulness).   Her approach involves:

  • Cutting slack for herself through self-compassion
  • Meditating when she feels well
  • Lying down as the stress of sitting up triggers an allergic reaction
  • Avoid going beyond her “window of tolerance”.

Tara’s suggestions for facilitators include:

  • Helping people differentiate between “difficulty” and “distress”
  • Allow people a choice of anchors (and, where possible facilitate this choice through a session dedicated to choosing)
  • Encourage a change of posture where appropriate
  • Be aware that some anchors can cause stress, e.g. the increasing number of people who experience distress/trauma when using breath as an anchor because of personal experience with COVID-19 illness and/or asthma.
  • Encourage participants to savour something in their life, e.g. a person, an image, an experience, a skill-set or an achievement – this can provide a very pleasant and positive anchor and enable a person to focus on something other than their pain , loss or distress
  • Willingly explore the “space of disability” (Including neuro-divergence, auditory sensitivity and auditory impairment)
  • Be willing to explore “work arounds”, be patient, and be flexible (not static).

Understanding shame

Each of the presenters spoke about the shame they had experienced in certain meditation situations.  Shame was catalysed by being different, being the only one with a particular impairment, inability to fully participate, and/or divergent behaviour (e.g. having to lie on the floor which was considered “poor form”).  They experienced shame because they felt that they were creating a disruption, distraction or dislocation as a result of their unique set of needs arising from their diverse disabilities.   In the text chat during the Meet-Up, Dana Baron commented that shame is “stigma turned inwards” and that shame can impede/hinder a person from accessing necessary resources or adaptions/adjustments.

The presenters suggested that “shame will be in the room” and there is a constant need to be gentle. It will also require of the teacher/facilitator a willingness to “have a go”, to accept that you will “not know what to do” in some situations. Some impairments will be invisible (especially in an online environment), so it is important to offer choice and support (despite the inconvenience and the challenge to move outside your “comfort zone”).

Reflection

At the time of listening to the Meet-Up, I was spending most of my days with my feet elevated as I was suffering from an infected ankle – I could relate to the pain associated with walking and standing when you have a disability.  It reminded me of the time when a disc in my back collapsed and I spent 18 months in continuous sciatic pain (along with pneumonia in the early stages) – a condition resulting from the trauma of my mother dying and an arduous flight to and from Cartagena in South America (36 hours each way) as well as the cultural shock.

Listening to the presenters, I also became aware that I have some form of environmental sensitivity (which I had not named before) – I experience “exercise asthma” when playing tennis in cold environments and sweating at night when the humidity is very high (over 80%) and the wind speed is low (below 10 kph).

As we grow in mindfulness we can become more aware of what other people are experiencing, more sensitive to their needs and more courageous in taking appropriate, compassionate action.

___________________________________________

Image by Jackson David 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.

The Pandemic and Narrowing of the Window of Tolerance

David Treleaven and Liz Stanley discussed the current pandemic In their interview podcast on Widening the Window of Tolerance.  They both asserted that COVID-19 had effectively narrowed the window of tolerance of many people.  There are many people who are becoming increasingly stressed and traumatised by unfolding events, whether because of the death of relatives and friends, loss of a job, dislocation from their normal place of work (and way of working) and/or stringent “lockdowns”.

Narrowing the window of tolerance

In these very challenging times, people are becoming controlled by their “survival brain” – resorting to a fight, flight or freeze response.  Their window of tolerance is becoming narrowed, both in terms of their inner tolerance of challenges and external tolerance of differences.  Everything has been “thrown up in the air” so that they have lost their grounding in accurate perception and balanced body sensations. 

Polarisation , racism, and hate thrive in this disrupted state as people seek refuge in their “own tribe” (flight) and attack others who are different from themselves (fight).  Liz suggested that many people are “uncomfortable in their own skin” so that lockdowns and movement restrictions , creating disconnection, exacerbate the tendency to dysregulation (inability to control emotions).   The sense of hopelessness and helplessness in facing continuous and growing uncertainty adds to the incidence of anxiety and depression.

A compounding factor is that social media becomes what Liz calls an “echo chamber” – it gives unregulated voice to “dysregulated communications” that increase the tendency towards polarisation.  People retreat to social media and television only to find that these media are increasingly disorientating and disturbing.    

Further compounding the issues for individuals is the fact that we tend to make a “bargain” with ourselves – e.g. we can put up with lockdown for three weeks by adding some new routines such as working different hours, taking more regular breaks and expanding project timelines.  However, when other people blatantly and inconsiderately breach lockdown regulations or social distancing requirements leading to further lockdowns, conforming people can feel betrayed – intensifying a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

Hope and widening the window of tolerance

In the previous post I discussed trauma-sensitive mindfulness and widening the window of tolerance.    Liz provides several strategies in her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.  In the interview podcast she shared some of her own strategies for becoming grounded during the current health and economic crisis – mindfulness meditation, gardening, walking and playing with the dog, and focusing on connectedness to others.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® provides detailed strategies and tools to navigate effectively through times of trauma and stress.  She makes the point that whenever we are controlled by our “survival brain”, we are disconnected from our “thinking brain” and shut off from the opportunity to access our creativity and ingenuity. In discussing “hope” in the current challenging times, David noted that the tendency to “hyperfocus on what is not working” (as he has done at times) tends to narrow the window of tolerance and our capacity to cope.  He suggests that accessing stories of successful transition can help to widen our window of tolerance, e.g. successful career changes by people who have lost their jobs. Another strategy that he suggests is to effectively reframe what is happening.  By way of example, he draws on the comments of Adrienne Maree Brown in her article on living through the unveiling:

Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered, we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

Liz reinforces this view when she suggests that it is really only in times of turbulence when everything seems to be “thrown up in the air”, that genuine and sustainable change can happen.

Reflection

As David suggests, we can choose to stay in the fog bank by continuing to absorb negative messages, both external and internal, or we can free ourselves from this befuddled state by growing in mindfulness and developing our own strategies to build resilience and stay grounded.

______________________________________

Image by My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: 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-Sensitive Mindfulness and the Window of Tolerance

In the previous blog post I discussed several resources on the topic of trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  One of these was David Treleaven’s Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast which includes interviews with people who have expertise in the area or a related area.   In a recent podcast, David  had a conversation with Liz Stanley who not only experienced very considerable trauma, the impact of mindfulness meditation on her traumatic experience but also has developed her own resources and training for people, both civilians and military personnel, who have experienced trauma.  The conversation with Liz on the topic of Widening the Window of Tolerance draws on her personal experiences, study and training and incorporates ideas from her training program and her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.

The Window of Tolerance

The concept of the Window of Tolerance has been attributed to Dan Siegel, clinical psychologist and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), UCLA.  Dan is the author many books, including Aware: The science and practice of presence.  Many people, including David Treleaven and Liz Stanley, have applied the concept of the Window of Tolerance in their research and training in relation to trauma-sensitive mindfulness.

The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (nicabm) provides an infographic that illustrates the concept in a very clear and easy-to-understand way.  They explain that the window of tolerance is about our capacity to deal with the challenges and stresses of the moment and take wise action to deal with them.  When stress takes us outside our window of tolerance we can experience hyperarousal (related to the fight/flight response) which manifests in uncontrolled anger, emotional overwhelm, or extreme anxiety; or, alternatively, experience hypoarousal (related to the freeze response) which manifests in the body trying to shut down resulting in numbness, “zoning out” or “spacing out”.  

The Attachment and Trauma Treatment Centre for Healing (ATTCH), drawing on the work of Dan Siegel and colleagues, provides a more detailed explanation of the concept in an article titled, Understanding and Working with the Window of Tolerance.  Pooky Knightsmith, on the other hand, provides a simple explanation in her short video on the window of tolerance and how to apply it to managing our emotions in everyday life (for those who are not experiencing trauma or trauma stimuli).

Trauma and narrowing of the window of tolerance

In her podcast interview. Liz reinforced the view that trauma causes a narrowing of a person’s window of tolerance.  She explained that she is a living example of someone who has experienced multiple traumatic events and who tried to cope in the only way she knew how, conditioned as she was by familial and social determinants.  Liz suffered an incredible range of traumatic experiences – active military duty in Asia and Europe, PTSD,  a near-death experience (NDE), rape, and whistle-blower harassment as a result of formally complaining about sexual harassment by her senior officers.

Liz described her response in terms of the compulsivity that comes with hyperarousal (which can occur when a person is outside their window of tolerance).  Instead of dealing with her traumatic stress, she intensified her activities, completing two undergraduate degrees simultaneously.  She explained that like a lot of people, she “compartmentalised” the stress, suppressed it and just kept going harder than ever, managing on two hours sleep each night – she “soldiered on”, both literally and metaphorically.

Liz had to make changes when she temporarily lost her eyesight – something she described as “cosmic coping pain” when her body which had “borne the brunt” of her hyperactivity decided “enough was enough”.  It was then that she explored mindfulness and researched trauma and trauma healing.

Liz explained “trauma” as impacting “neuroception” – “how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or life threatening”.  In effect, trauma can distort our neuroception and effectively narrow our window of tolerance.  She explains the effect in terms of our “thinking brain” and our “survival brain”.

Our thinking brain enables us to analyse, make decisions, accurately perceive stimuli, and take wise action; our “survival brain” responds to perceived threats with the fight/flight/freeze response.  With trauma, the connection between the two is “compromised” so that, for example, seemingly harmless stimuli can be perceived as a threat and engender an inappropriate response negatively impacting a person’s health, relationships and capacity to undertake their work.   When we perceive a situation as hopeless or ourselves as powerless, our survival brain and nervous system can become flooded with heightened “emotional arousal”.

Liz explains, however, that when the thinking brain and survival brain are in harmony and working together, we have a wider window of tolerance – e.g. better tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty and the ability to identify and make effective choices, build sustainable connections, and perform optimally. 

Experience of mindfulness for dealing with trauma

Liz turned to mindfulness meditation to help her cope with her traumas which had deep-seated antecedents in the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by her father and grandfather (along with all the distorted coping mechanisms and fractured relationships that this entailed). Her initial experience with mindfulness was one of helping her to achieve some degree of self-awareness and associated self-regulation.  However, over time, she found that her “survival brain” took over as it began to “peel back deeper layers” – deep emotional scars hidden behind her hyperactivity (just as the happy-go-lucky “joker” or “larrikin” can hide the deep emotional pain of depression).

As some mindfulness practices acted as “trauma stimuli” she experienced panic and shallow breathing in-the-moment and flashbacks, nausea, claustrophobia, and inability to sleep for days afterwards.  Liz explained that a potential problem with mindfulness done in isolation and without appropriate modifications can lead to such heightened emotional awareness and arousal that the traumatised person can lose their ability to regulate their emotions and their unhealthy condition can be exacerbated rather than diminished, both mentally and physically.

Developing a trauma-sensitive approach to mindfulness training

Liz explained that she spoke to scientists and neuroscientists, explored multiple skills and techniques, and wrote a book about her experiences and her journey out of trauma disablement.  She found that the myths surrounding mindfulness could make matters worse unless the mindfulness trainer recognised the impact of traumatic experience on a person’s window of tolerance.

In her book on widening the window, she draws on her own experiences and stories from people she has trained in a areas such as healthcare facilities and the armed forces.  Liz maintains that you can build resilience even in stressful jobs or when healing from traumatic experience(s).  She provides strategies involving paying attention in certain ways to increase the capacity to access choice and creativity and to make courageous decisions while effectively connecting with others through curiosity, openness, and compassion.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® which was developed in 2008 and evaluated on four occasions by neuroscientists and stress experts is now available online through Sounds True.  The comprehensive course includes video training and live sessions on topics such as resilience, stress and trauma recovery, effective decision making and relationship building along with “new tools for successfully navigating the interpersonal aspects of stress, trauma, emotions, and conflict”.

Reflection

When you first hear about the potential harmful effects of mindfulness meditation training for trauma sufferers, you can understandably become concerned about conducting mindfulness training for any group.  Alternatively, you might initially dismiss the trauma-sensitive mindfulness movement as a movement to counter the growing global popularity of mindfulness.  However, the evidence to support the trauma-sensitive approach is growing and cannot be ignored.

On the other hand, both Liz and David strongly encourage practitioners not to be put off from training others in mindfulness by this new information nor to behave as if they are “walking on eggshells”.  They strongly encourage mindfulness trainers to persist, especially in these challenging times when mindfulness and resilience is needed by some many people.  They do, however, suggest to proceed with “some discernment”, develop increased awareness of trauma and its impacts, learn about new tools available for trauma-sensitive mindfulness training and intensify their own efforts to grow in mindfulness so that they can train with increasing awareness, insight and sensitivity.

_______________________________________

Image by skeeze 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.

Resources for Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

The core resource that I have used to understand and practise trauma-sensitive mindfulness is the work of David Treleaven.  David experienced trauma as a child and was a committed to mindfulness meditation practice which he found to be essential for healing trauma, but of itself insufficient.  His own clinical practice as a psychotherapist working with trauma sufferers confirmed this view of the essential nature of mindfulness meditation but its insufficiency in healing trauma sufferers.  David has dedicated his life’s work to researching and educating others about the relationship between mindfulness meditation and trauma.  This has culminated in his book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing and a website with additional resources. 

The potential for harm to trauma sufferers during mindfulness meditation

In his book and a free webinar on The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma, David explains that a lack of understanding by mindfulness trainers of the relationship between trauma and mindfulness meditation can result in overwhelm for a current or former trauma sufferer.  This overwhelm can be manifested in heightened anxiety, dissociation, or emotional dysregulation – the inability to control emotions elicited by a trauma stimulus.  Harm to the trauma sufferer by a meditation teacher can be exacerbated by a lack of understanding of trauma and perpetuation of the myths surrounding mindfulness meditation.  Typical responses that show this lack of understanding and sensitivity are statements like, “Stick with it” (by implication, “if you persist, your trauma response will go away”) or “Most people find this meditation relaxing and calming” (by implication, “there must be something wrong with you”).

The difficulty is compounded by the incidence of trauma and related adverse childhood experiences (ACE).   One study of 17,000 members of an integrated health fund found that two thirds had experienced an adverse childhood experience and 20% had experienced more than three such events.  There is now an ACE instrument whereby people can identify the number and type of ACE’s they have experienced in a lifetime.  David mentions other research that indicates that everyone will have at least one traumatic experience in their lifetime.  He goes on to say that the implication of this is that in any room of people practising mindfulness meditation, there will more likely be at least one person suffering trauma.  Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections, identifies disconnection from childhood trauma as one of the seven social causes of the pervasiveness of depression in society today.

The three myths about mindfulness meditation and trauma

In the 60-minute webinar on his website, David identifies three myths about mindfulness meditation that have been perpetuated in the popular press and in mindfulness training.  The three myths are as follows

  1. The Panacea Myth – the belief that mindfulness meditation will heal all kinds of stress, even stress generated by trauma.  David’s own experience and his clinical experience working with trauma sufferers reinforces the fact that mindfulness meditation alone will not heal trauma – mindfulness meditation processes need to be modified and, in some cases, supplemented by other methodologies such as professional psychological support.
  2. The Breath Myth – the belief that breathing is emotionally neutral.  David explains that because the respiratory system is biologically proximate to the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for excitation of our “flight/ flight/freeze” response) “close and sustained focus on the breath” can re-traumatise an individual for whom “breath” is a trauma stimulus. He states categorically and importantly that “people have different relationships to breath at different moments”.  He encourages the listener to experiment with this throughout the day to confirm that our breathing can be relaxed, tense or emotionally neutral at any point in a day.
  3. The Sufficiency myth – the belief that mindfulness meditation alone is sufficient to heal trauma.  David draws on case examples to illustrate the need for modifications to mindfulness meditation practice and the introduction of additional “self-regulation” tools to enable a person to heal from trauma.

Overall strategies to develop trauma-sensitive mindfulness training practices

David and other authors, practitioners, and researchers provide a range of strategies to “do no harm” when educating others in mindfulness meditation.  Here are some key strategies:

  • Understand trauma – First and foremost, understand trauma and its components on a biological, psychological, and social level.  Without this understanding, it is difficult to develop the sensitivity and flexibility required to do no harm when facilitating a mindfulness meditation session.  Associated with this, is the need to understand trauma-sensitive mindfulness and different strategies that can be adopted by mindfulness trainers and educators.
  • Provide choice re participation – this can be as basic as the freedom not to participate in any or all mindfulness practices on a particular occasion.  It can be the freedom to choose to close your eyes or leave them open (downcast or in wide-ranging exploration) and/or the option to sit, stand, walk  or lie down during meditation practice.  David points out that choice reinforces a sense of agency and is an important and healing aspect of mental health.  He also warns about the potential of offering too much choice in one session which can result in stress for participants, particularly those who already experiencing anxiety (David learned this by making this mistake himself in his zeal to provide agency).
  • Provide choice of anchors – this is a key area of choice that not only recognises that some anchors can be trauma stimuli for some individuals but also that anchors in meditation are an area of personal preference (what works for one person does not work for another).  Anchors enable meditators to restore their focus when they have been diverted by a distracting thought and/or emotion.
  • Adopt modifications to mindfulness meditation practices when needed – In the webinar mentioned about, David provides examples of how he has been able to offer modifications to mindfulness meditation practices for particular individuals when working one-to-one, including  allowing brief breaks to walk around, suggesting a shift in posture and encouraging the use of deep breathing at different intervals or at appropriate moments.  Sam Himelstein, who works with traumatised teenagers, has found, for example, that where a teenager cannot talk about, or focus on their feelings about, their traumatic experience, listening to appropriate music together can be relationship building and enable progress to be made in healing teenage trauma.
  • Develop awareness of principles, guidelines and practices for trauma-sensitive mindfulness – David provides a comprehensive, two-part, online program for training mindfulness practitioners in trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  He also provides a free Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast featuring  people such as Liz Stanley on Widening the Window of Tolerance and Sharon Salzberg on Loving-Kindness Meditation.   Sam Himelstein, author of Trauma-Informed Mindfulness With Teens, offers both guidelines and principles to enable mindfulness trainers and educators to develop the awareness and sensitivity to work with people who have experienced trauma.

Reflection

Reading about the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma-sensitive mindfulness made me realise that I had suffered multiple traumas as a child and that my five-years’ experience in daily mindfulness meditation and Gregorian chant as a contemplative monk in the late 1960’s had helped me to heal from these traumas. 

Recently, I had two participants out of a group of 20 in a management training program who openly stated at the beginning of the program that they suffered from chronic anxiety – one of whom experienced trauma as a result of their manager shouting at them and abusing them in public.  This facilitation experience confirmed the need to modify the training program and also led me to further explore anxiety through Scott Stossel’s book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope and Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind.  This book helped me to become more aware of the pervasiveness of trauma-induced anxiety across the world, intensified by the global pandemic, and how such anxiety can pervade every aspect of an individual’s life.

I have also witnessed two situations of emotional dysregulation during training courses when individuals have experienced a trauma stimulus – one during a singing course when a person experienced acoustic trauma and another where someone experienced re-traumatisation during observation of a success posture exercise being undertaken by another individual with the guidance of a workshop facilitator.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and research, we can become more self-aware, develop insight and sensitivity to work with people who are experiencing trauma and anxiety and build the flexibility and confidence to adopt mindfulness practices and approaches that are more trauma-sensitive.

________________________________________

Image by Maria Karysheva 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-Sensitive Mindfulness: Providing A Choice of Anchors

David Treleaven recently published a book on Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness. The book enables mindfulness trainers to recognise a trauma-affected individual, provide appropriate modifications to their mindfulness processes and avoid aggravating the individual’s trauma experience.

David argues that two factors are foundational to trauma-sensitive mindfulness, (1) choice and (2) anchors.  He observes that people who are trauma-affected have experienced an unwanted negative event that endangered them, a total loss of control over the situation and a lack of agency (capacity to influence the outcomes).  Providing choice, especially in relation to anchors, is critical for the welfare of the trauma-affected individual – it avoids reactivating the sense of helplessness associated with the traumatic event and reduces the likelihood of triggering a painful “body memory”.

Providing a choice of anchors – internal sensations

An anchor enables an individual to become grounded in the present moment despite being buffeted by distractions, negative self-stories or endless thoughts.  The choice of an anchor is a very personal aspect of mindfulness – it relates to an individual’s preferences, physical capacity and emotional state.  An anchor enables a person to experience ease and emotional stability.

Jessica Morey, an experienced teacher of trauma-sensitive meditation, begins a meditation training session by offering participants a choice of three internally-focused anchors – a bodily sensation, attention to sound within their immediate environment (e.g. the “room tone”) or a breath sensation (air moving through the nostrils, abdomen rising and falling or movement of the chest).

Participants are given the opportunity to try out these different anchors over a five-minute period and to make a choice of an anchor for practice over a further period.  Providing this choice of anchors avoids locking individuals into a mindfulness process that can act as a trigger for reexperiencing trauma, e.g. sustained focus on breathing.

Alternative anchors – external sensing

David notes that the five senses offer further choices of anchors – in addition to the internally focused anchors suggested by Jessica.  The senses enable a participant in meditation training to focus on some aspect of their external environment:

  • Hearing – tuning in to the external sounds such as birds singing, the wind blowing or traffic flowing past.  The downside of this approach is that it may trigger our innate tendency to interpret sounds and this may lead to focusing on a particular sound – trying to identify it and its potential source. So, this may serve as a distraction pulling us away from experiencing (the “being” mode) to explaining (the “thinking” mode).  The aim here is to pay attention to the experience of hearing, not to focus on a single sound. Sam Himelstein has found that listening to music can be a very effective anchor for a person who is in a highly traumatised state – choosing music that aligns with the individual’s musical preferences can serve as a powerful anchor.
  • Touch – a trauma-affected person could have an object, e.g. a crystal or a stone, that provides comfort and reassurance and enables them to become grounded in the present moment through the sensation of touch.
  • Seeing – taking in the natural surroundings, e.g. by observing closely the foliage of a tree – its colours, shape and texture or observing the patterns in the clouds.

Other options include sensations of smell or taste.  However, in my view, these tend to be less neutral in character and can re-traumatise a trauma-affected person.

David Treleaven offers a wide range of resources to help meditation trainers build their awareness, skills and options in the area of trauma-sensitive mindfulness (TSM).  These include an online training course, interview podcasts, a TSM Starter Kit (incorporating an introductory video and a comprehensive “TSM Solutions Checklist”) and a live meetup of the TSM Community (registered members of a community of TSM-aware practitioners).

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, research and reflection, we can become more flexible about how we offer mindfulness training.  A trauma-sensitive approach to mindfulness requires an awareness of the manifestations of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), identification of different sources of anchors and the willingness and capacity to offer participants the choice of an anchor and an approach to mindfulness.  This means that we need to move beyond our own fixation with “meditation logistics” and be flexible enough to offer trauma-informed mindfulness practices.

____________________________________________

Image – Trees on the foreshore, Wynnum, Brisbane

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: 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.

____________________________________________

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.

____________________________________________

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.

____________________________________________

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.