Developing Confidence through Mindfulness and Reflection

Rick Hanson, in a podcast interview on the topic Confidence or Narcissism?, focused on the fact that many of us confuse confidence with narcissistic tendencies –  in summary, being self-absorbed and pursuing the need to be valued in the eyes of others.  He suggests that our behaviours often derive from adverse childhood experiences where we have been deprived of what he calls, “narcissistic supplies” – a deprivation of expressions of love and appreciation for who we are, not for what we might achieve or become.  Later in life, we try to fill the gap left by this deprivation by seeking to draw attention to ourselves or pursuing self-interest at the expense of everyone else.

Rick suggests that one way to fill the gap is to be mindful throughout the day whenever we experience something that is self-affirming, e.g., an expression of gratitude, and to savour this in the moment.  He also recommends loving kindness meditation towards others who are engaged in extreme narcissistic behaviour – recognising that their bullying, belittling, and blaming behaviours are often the result of a deficit (not receiving positive affirmation in their younger years). Mindfulness meditation can increase our awareness of our own narcissistic tendencies, build a genuine confidence born of appreciated positive affirmations and help us to understand what drives behaviour that is perceived as “over-confidence” or “superior conceit”.

The disabling effect of negative self-stories

Negative self-stories can undermine our confidence, lead to procrastination and act as a barrier to creativity in our life’s work..  These can have their origins in parental messages, schoolyard experiences, workplace exchanges or other environment influences.  They are below awareness and are often reinforced by our own self-criticism throughout our life experiences.  The self-stories get reflected in our emotional responses and habituated behaviour, such as procrastination. 

Tara Brach, meditation teacher and practitioner, suggests that it is important to bring these stories “above the line” in order to prevent them from undermining our confidence and self-belief.  She encourages us to practice meditation and reflection to enable us to  name the stories, embrace the underlying feelings, understand recurring patterns, and increase our awareness about their origins and our self-reinforcement of the persistent false beliefs.  Leo Babauta recommends adding a dose of self-kindness, as well as loving kindness towards others.

A reflective framework

In a recent online webinar on Awaken Your Confidence, Empowerment Coach Amy Schadt provided a reflective framework that identified four categories of self-doubt.  After the workshop, she generously provided a worksheet for one of the four categories that you identified during the workshop as being the most prominent self-doubt category in your life at the moment.  The worksheet provided a means of reflecting on the thoughts and behaviours that were creating a blockage for you and undermining your confidence.

Amy usually works with women and offers a range of services such as personal coaching, workshops, and her signature online program, Design Your Unstoppable You.  However, I participated in the webinar because I wanted to address a blockage to undertaking what Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, describes as “your meaningful work” – your life purpose which involves actualising your knowledge, skills and experience in the service of others. It often entails uncertainty and moving outside your comfort zone.   The meaningful work that I found difficult to initiate is the conduct of a series of online mindfulness webinars.  So, I could readily relate to the category of self-doubt identified by Amy as Hesitation.

Viewed on a purely logical level, this hesitation is not rational.  I am trained in group facilitation and have run hundreds of paid, face-to-face workshops and, more recently, many via the Zoom platform.  I am very comfortable with the technology, have a paid subscription to Zoom (so I can control the medium) and have a group of over 200 potentially interested people in my paid Meetup Group, Brisbane Courses and Workshops.  I have conducted a number of paid workshops on mindfulness in organisations.  I have also written more than 550 blog posts on the topic of mindfulness and engaged in a wide range of regular mindfulness practices, including Tai Chi. 

It is as if my life’s study, training, and experience has been preparing me to undertake this meaningful work in the form of online, mindfulness workshops.  I am very conscious that there is a huge need for mental health support in the community and I am firmly convinced through my research, writing, and practice that mindfulness has a role to play in providing that support. While my hesitancy about conducting these specific mindfulness workshops has no rational basis, it clearly has an emotional one.

Reflection

As Amy points out, underlying hesitancy is a fear that something could go wrong, I might make a wrong decision or the workshops will not work out as I expect them to.  In combining Amy’s Self-Doubt Hesitation Worksheet approach and Leo’s approach to dealing with rationalizations that prevent us from undertaking our “meaningful work”, I decided initially to explore my rationalisations for hesitancy and identify “contrary arguments based on evidence of my past experience”.  

My Rationalisations

After some sustained thought and reflection, I identified the following rationalisations as blockages to my undertaking the desired workshops:

  1. I am uncertain about the needs/interests of potential participants
  2. The workshops may not meet my expectations in being able to help people
  3. Workshop participants might have questions that I might not have the answer to
  4. Workshop participants may have mental health issues that I do not know how to handle
  5. I am concerned that I might accidently trigger a trauma response.
My counter arguments for these rationalisations

Leo suggests that you explore counter arguments for your rationalisations to weaken their hold and open up new, creative possibilities. Here’s my attempt to provide counter arguments for each of my rationalisations listed above:

  1. Uncertainty re needs – It is likely that members of my Meetup group (people who have expressed an interest in mindfulness and related topics) have needs and issues in areas that I have covered in my blog, including effective leadership and creating a mentally healthy workplace. The workshop would also enable them to be aware of, and have access to, the numerous resources mentioned in this blog.  There are many other people who are members of Meetup groups across the world who have similar interests and would be interested in participating once the workshops were advertised throughout Meetup.  This increases the likelihood of my not knowing what their pressing needs are or how to address them in the workshop.  However, I could conduct a survey via Survey Monkey© to elicit these.  I could also just ask participants what topics they want to cover in future workshops (which is something I do on a regular basis in my manager development programs).
  2. Not meeting expectations – I know from my many manager development workshops over many years that you cannot control outcomes in workshops, you can only design the process the best you can with the knowledge and information that you have at the time.  People come to workshops with different expectations, orientations, readiness to learn and motivations.  People have different learning styles and they also learn differently in various situations.  For one person, something another participant says might be the catalyst to deep insight; for another, it might be something they read away from the workshop.  I cannot control outcomes, nor should I try.  Hugh Van Cuylenburg, author of The Resilience Project, and other creative writers, artists and performers, emphasise the need to focus on process not outcomes and explain how this perspective generates freedom and creativity.
  3. Questions I can’t answer – I am not intending to present myself as a mindfulness expert or mindfulness trainer.  I want to share what I have learned about mindfulness – its processes, benefits, challenges and rewards.  I will encourage participants to share their experiences, knowledge, practices and insights.  I also have a mountain of resources at my disposal to share with anyone who has a question that I cannot answer or that someone in the participating group does not have the answer to.
  4. Mental health issues that are too complex – I will not be presenting myself as a mental health expert but as someone who has had to deal with mental health issues personally and as an ongoing carer.  I will provide a disclaimer – “I am not a Medical Doctor or Psychologist/Psychiatrist; I am a retired Emeritus Professor of Management who has worked with many people within organisations on a very wide range of issues affecting human behaviour.”  I know that for some people in some circumstances the very opportunity to share their challenges in a supportive environment can be a healing process.  I have some understanding about when to refer people to a professional in the area of mental health and I am aware of many resources in this area (having provided organisational consultancy services to a number of organisations in the mental health field). 
  5. Trigger a trauma response – I have become acutely aware that some mindfulness practices, as well as facilitation activity (e.g., storytelling), can be a trauma trigger for an individual.  I became very aware of this through the work of David Treleaven on trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  I have researched this area and written a number of blog posts on the topic.  The staring point is to have the awareness about this possibility.  There are strategies I can employ such as providing a choice of anchors when undertaking meditation practices that will reduce the risk.  However, the reality is that I have no control over what will be a trigger for an individual – many people have had adverse childhood experiences and trauma in their life and the potential triggers are too numerous to mention or even adequately conceive. I think I also have a particular sensitivity in this area because I have seen on a number of occasions where a relatively harmless intervention activity has resulted in a major physical and emotional traumatic response – and it is something that made myself and other people present very uncomfortable.

These reflections on rationalisations and counter arguments have helped me to strengthen my resolve to undertake this meaningful work and clarified for me what I need to do to ensure I develop a quality process for my proposed workshops.  As I grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, I can gain greater self-awareness, insight and wisdom, increased clarity about what I am trying to achieve and heightened creativity to achieve outcomes people value. 

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Image by Couleur 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.

Healing from Trauma and Building Resilience to Manage Stress

Liz Stanley recently provided an introductory webinar for her course on Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)®.  The webinar explains the components of the course and how it helps people recover from trauma and enable anyone to build resilience and effectively manage stress.  She also discusses the traumas she has experienced, her personal search for healing and resilience and her in-depth training including her doctorate. 

The components of MMFT®

The online course covers 8 modules over 8 weeks (that you can undertake within your own time and availability).  The first four modules provide the framework to understand how stress and trauma affects us and provides an insight into the neurobiology involved.  As she explains in the webinar, stress and trauma reduce our window of tolerance (our tolerance of stress arousal).  In her view, each of us have our own window of tolerance which has been shaped from birth, and continuously widened or narrowed through our life experiences, encounter with trauma, our lifestyle choices and our stress response (creating implicit learning about what is threatening). 

If we are within our window of tolerance, we are better able to access our thinking brain (enabling accurate perception, clarity of thinking and wise decision making); when we are outside our window of tolerance we are captured by our survival brain and habituated stress responses in terms of bodily sensations, difficult emotions and harmful choices.

Liz explains that the second group of four modules of the MMFT® course deal with habits and related habituated responses, making effective decisions, managing difficult emotions and chronic pain, as well as ways to be more effective in our interpersonal interactions.  The course includes stress and trauma-sensitive mindfulness practices, ”somatic experiencing” and a unique sequence of exercises designed to achieve grounding and enable movement “from dysregulation to self-regulation”.

Liz’s course is offered through Sounds True and has been validated extensively through evidence-based research that has confirmed results in terms of improvements in cognitive performance, strengthened resilience and improved self-regulation, as well as positive developments in other areas of self-management.

Widening the Window of Tolerance

Liz explains that our repetitive experiences impact our implicit knowledge and shape our brains and neuroception (perception of threat/ safety).  We can choose experiences that are beneficial or others that are harmful – we have choice in how our brain is shaped and adapts (neuroplasticity).

In the MMFT introductory webinar and in her book, Widen the Window, Liz offers five lifestyle choices that can serve to widen our window of tolerance:

  1. Sleep
  2. Diet
  3. Exercise
  4. Awareness and reflection
  5. Social connection

She explains that the course details the beneficial effects of each of these elements and also the detrimental effects caused by their absence or deprivation.  She particularly notes the benefits of awareness and reflection.  Liz explains that awareness can be built through mindfulness practices, Tai Chi and yoga while reflective practices involve reflective thinking such as journalling, reading poems, reflecting on scriptural passages or work experiences and their implications, or maintaining some form of gratitude diary.  She highlights the benefits of mindfulness and reflective practices in terms of calmness, clarity, self-awareness, focus, resilience and intention building.

One of Liz’s key messages is that resilience is something that we can learn and develop through beneficial choices.  The result is that we will be better able to manage stress, heal from trauma and access our thinking brain which enables us to think clearly and creatively and choose wise actions – rather than be captive to stress-induced confusion and harmful habituated responses.

Reflection

Liz’s course focuses on how to heal from past, stressful experiences and how to deal effectively with future stressful situations, whether internal (e.g. chronic anxiety) or external (e.g. job loss or interpersonal conflict).  She emphasises the need for consistency not only in making beneficial lifestyle choices but also through engaging in regular mindfulness and reflective practices.   As we grow in mindfulness and the associated awareness of thoughts, emotions, and bodily responses, we can widen our window of tolerance and deal more effectively with the stressors in our life.

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Image by Candid_Shots 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Developing Gratitude through Meditation

Diana Winston recently conducted a meditation podcast on the theme of Gratitude, prompted by the imminent celebration of Thanksgiving in the USA.  Diana, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC, observed that as people grow in mindfulness, they become more appreciative of different aspects of their life and work.  Often, we operate on autopilot and as a result so much of our life passes us by – we are not conscious of what is happening for us or how we got to where we arrived.  There is so much of our life that we take for granted, especially the simplest things like being able to breathe, walk, listen and converse.  Through meditation we can become more focused on, and appreciative of, the present moment.

The benefits of gratitude

The benefits of gratitude are so great that it is well worthwhile consciously building appreciation as an integral part of your life.  Research in this area consistently shows that gratitude contributes substantially to the development of positive emotions such as happiness, resilience, and joy as well as the displacement of negative or “toxic emotions” such as resentment and anger that can gradually erode your sense of equanimity and contentment. 

Developing gratitude through a personal reminder

It Is usually when we lose something that we begin to really appreciate what we have.  For instance, one of the discs in my back collapsed in 1997, so for 18 months I was in extreme pain from sciatica – having difficulty standing and walking (and being unable to play my favourite sport of tennis).  Now when I am playing social tennis, I try to appreciate the fact that I can run, hit the ball and participate in rallies.  I am trying to make each mistake that I make a prompt or reminder to appreciate what I can do, rather than focus on what I did wrong when attempting to hit the ball.  Developing a relevant, personal reminder (based on your life experience) is one way to build gratitude and appreciation into your daily life.

Developing gratitude through meditation

Another way to consciously develop gratitude is to practice a gratitude meditation.  Diana offers one way to approach this in her meditation podcast.  The steps involved are:

  • Grounding yourself in your body through being conscious of your posture (the pressure of your body on the chair and your feet on the floor), and undertaking a body scan exploring points of tightness and releasing any tension that exists in places like your shoulders, jaw or arms.  The grounding can be strengthened by closing your eyes or looking down and/or touching your fingers together and feeling the sensation of your bodily energy flow.
  • Establishing an anchor for your meditation – this can be the experience of your natural breathing process wherever it is readily felt by you (in your chest or abdomen or through your nose), listening to sounds in your room or focusing on a particular body sensation (such as your fingers touching or your feet on the ground).
  • Appreciating the present moment – Diana introduces a 15-minute period of stillness and silence in this next stage of the meditation.  The basic approach is to focus on your anchor, appreciate that you can experience the positive benefits of your personal anchor (breathing, listening or feeling) and naming any distraction (e.g. “thinking”, “avoiding”, “wandering”, “complaining”) before restoring your focus to your anchor. Instead of beating up on yourself for being distracted (a normal part of the human condition), you can appreciate your capacity to be aware that you have lost your focus, that you have developed an anchor to return to, that you have the capacity to restore your focus and that, in the process, you are building your awareness muscle.  [I began to appreciate my capacity to focus on an anchor after I conducted a mindfulness session in my manager development course. One of the course participants commented that the meditation component did nothing for her because her mind was so agitated that she could not still her mind at all.  This person suffered from severe anxiety as a result of post-traumatic stress.  Fortunately, in line with the guidelines for trauma-sensitive mindfulness, I had offered everyone the choice of not participating in the exercise if they did not want to or were unable to for whatever reason.]
  • Free association – Diana suggests that you let your mind focus on something or someone that you appreciate in the present moment.  If you are in an intimate relationship, you could appreciate, or be grateful for, the opportunities to share your successes or failures, the times of quietness spent comfortably together, the chance to go walking  together in a pleasant environment, being able to enjoy a movie or a special location with each other, the pleasant feelings of friendship, sharing ideas and plans or the sense of support and unconditional love. 

Reflection

There are so many things to appreciate in our lives and to be truly grateful for – many of which we take for granted.  For instance, we can savour friendship, our achievements and rewards, the development of our children or, counterintuitively, savour being alone or experiencing boredom.  As we grow in mindfulness through daily personal reminders or formal gratitude meditations, we can develop an ever-present sense of appreciation and accrue the desirable benefits of being grateful.

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Image by Susan Cipriano 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.

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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.

Understanding Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress

In the previous post, I addressed the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  One of the observations of David Treleaven mentioned in the post, was the need for meditation teachers to develop an awareness of, and sensitivity to, the presence of people who are experiencing, or have experienced, trauma.  Failure to do this could lead to mindfulness activity that generates trauma stimuli leading to re-traumitisation.  Being trauma-sensitive means understanding the signs of post-traumatic stress as well as having the presence of mind to modify mindfulness practices to take account of people’s needs in this condition.

Recognising the signs of post-traumatic stress

Trauma results where a person experiences an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds their ability to cope and deal with the emotional fallout from that experience.  The effects vary with each individual and the nature of the traumatic event. Traumatic events can include the loss of a sibling or parent through death, separation from a parent at a young age, a life-threatening car accident or terrorist event, separation and divorce, a house fire, physical or sexual abuse or a natural disaster.

This variability in the nature and impact of traumatic events, and the individual’s reluctance to disclose through shame or the need to comply with an authority figure, means that it is often very difficult to ascertain whether a person has suffered from trauma and is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  According to several reports, up to 20% of people who experience a traumatic event together will experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

Trauma can impact a person’s thoughts, emotions, perceptions, level of arousal/reactivity and mood.  It can be reflected in behavioural change such as avoidance of a person or location, inability to sleep or sleeping too much, reliving the trauma through nightmares or flashbacks or withdrawal from social contacts or work colleagues.  The attendant emotions could be depression, anxiety and feeling unsafe.  Thoughts of suicide can also be one of the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The role of memory and embodiment

Peter Levine, in an interview with Serge Prengel, discussed the role of memory in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Peter is the author of the book, Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in Search of the Past – A Practical Guide for Working With Traumatic Memory.  His book is ground-breaking in that he highlighted the role of “implicit memory” and showed how to treat trauma sufferers by accessing the “complex interplay of past and present, mind and body”.  He termed his methodology, “somatic experiencing”.

In the interview, Peter stressed that we have several different forms of memory and the ones that are particularly relevant to trauma are episodic or autobiographical memories, emotional memories and procedural or body memories.  Episodic memory, also termed “defining moments” by Serge the interviewer, though low in emotive content are nonetheless impactful. For example, Peter describes a teacher who acted as a mentor to him and instead of blaming him for poor judgement encouraged him to learn and explore his curiosity.  Other mentors in his life as he progressed through his studies modelled similar behaviour.  This, in turn, led him to a career choice as a professional mentor – so the episodic memory acted as a “trajectory” for his progress in life. 

Emotional memories, on the other hand, “though further out of the realm of awareness” are “very powerful and compelling” and shape how we behave in our life.  Some interaction from the past is encoded with a very strong emotion such as sadness, anger or fear.   The emotional memory can interfere with a current relationship when something or somebody acts as a reminder of the past interaction so that we can be overwhelmed with either a very strong negative or positive emotion. 

While emotional memories operate at a deep level, body memories are deeper still.  At one level, they have to do with the acquisition of motor learning and skills, e.g. riding a bike.  At another level, they are determinants of our approach or avoidance behaviour.  Peter gives the illustration of coming across a former classmate more than 30 years after their schooling and finding that he had a strong desire to approach and reconnect with him.  The classmate had been his protector at school when other children tried to bully him – hence his approach behaviour.  An example of avoidance behaviour conditioned by body memory is when someone who has previously experienced sexual abuse actually freezes when touched by a loving partner.

David Treleaven reinforced the relationship between trauma and body memory when he stated in his video presentation that “the respiratory system is intimately connected to our sympathetic nervous system which is totally tied to traumatic stress”.  He pointed to two books by Babette Rothschild that highlighted the close connection between trauma and body memory, The Body Remembers and Revolutionizing Trauma Treatment.   David also explained further why meditation exercises such as mindful breathing can activate trauma stimuli.  He drew on the differentiation between exteroception (body’s perception of external stimuli received through the senses) and interoception (sensing conditions within the body such as deep breathing or tightness of the chest).  Normally exteroceptors and interoceptors integrate (e.g. the external sensation of viewing a sunrise is matched with the internal sensation of a warm feeling in your chest and a sense of looseness in your hands and legs); with trauma sufferers, “the relationship between interoceptors and exteroceptors can go awry”.

Peter Levine emphasised the need to recognise that we have a “fluid identity” – while our identity is shaped by the past, and the interplay of multiple events and interactions, it is possible to gently, but surely, release the embodied memories and progressively unearth the richness, power and sense of connection of an identity not locked into painful memories.  He has dedicated his lifework to training individuals and professionals in understanding the role of the different memories and in learning to use his trauma treatment methodology, somatic experiencing.  Other professionals, through an understanding of the mind-body connection, employ somatic meditation to assist trauma sufferers.

Reflection

We can grow in mindfulness as we develop an awareness of the role that memory plays in our own thoughts, emotions, moods and behaviour and learn to recognise the signs of post-traumatic stress in others.  As we develop this heightened awareness, we can make appropriate modifications to our meditation teaching and deepen our own meditation practice and reflection.

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Image – Sunrise over the water, 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.

Understanding Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

David Treleaven, through his doctoral dissertation and subsequent book, has raised awareness globally about the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  His book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, identifies three myths about mindfulness and trauma, discusses research-based case studies and offers clear options for the way forward.  His work is so critical to the teaching of mindfulness that Brown University has sought to integrate his work and findings into their Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute is exploring integration of David’s approach into their Mindful Leadership program.

Trauma and mindfulness

Trauma is described as “the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event”.  Many organisations and trainers/consultants/psychologists offer services, strategies and programs for trauma sufferers. Beyond Blue, for example, offers coping strategies and ways that friends and relatives can help someone close to them who is suffering from a traumatic event.

Mindfulness has become acknowledged as an effective way to deal with trauma.  For example, Boyd, Lanius and McKinnon (2018) concluded from a review of the relevant literature that mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches are effective in reducing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   They suggested that reduction in shame and self-blame could be key explanations of the efficacy of mindfulness-based approaches to PTSD.

David, however, warns that there are potential difficulties in using a mindfulness approach if practitioners are not sensitive to the interplay between mindfulness practices, beliefs about the universal efficacy of mindfulness and related messaging.  He points out that most people will experience at least one traumatic event in their life. So, in any one room of meditation participants, there is likely to be one or more people who are experiencing trauma in their lives.

David dedicates his life to making people aware of the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness through his book, videos, podcasts and workshops. He articulates his concerns about a lack of sensitivity to this issue amongst meditation teachers by identifying three “myths” about mindfulness and trauma that can potentially create harm for trauma sufferers.

Three myths about mindfulness and trauma

David’s research with trauma sufferers and practitioners in the field working with people who have experienced trauma, has led him to identify three “myths” (widely held false beliefs) that impede effective and safe use of mindfulness approaches. The myths are powerful determinants of the behaviour of mindfulness teachers:

  • Universality – David describes this myth as “one size fits all”.  However, David’s experience is that for some people who have experienced trauma, meditation can activate trauma stimuli so that the person re-experiences trauma.  As Peter Devine comments, “The nervous system can’t tell the difference between that [reliving the trauma] and the original trauma”.
  • Certainty – this myth relates to the assumption by meditation teachers that they will know when a person has experienced (or is currently experiencing) trauma.  David cites a case of a very experienced meditation teacher who failed to pick up the cues that some of his trainees were trauma sufferers.  He maintains that there are some very subtle non-verbal cues that can signal the existence of trauma, but it requires sensitised awareness to detect them.  He suggests that two major impediments that get in the road of someone openly disclosing their experience of trauma are (1) feelings of shame and (2) compliance (felt need to conform to an authority figure).
  • Neutrality – the myth that breath is always neutral, with no emotive content.  David recounts the experience of one person who was traumatised by a violent parent when a child.  Focusing on his breath “reconnected with the need to hide”, caused him to re-live his trauma and led to increased anxiety.  So, instead of being a calming anchor, mindful breathing acted as a trauma stimulus.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: some strategies

David provides considerable detail, explanation and case illustrations of these myths in his book on Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and in a video presentation on The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma, which was a promotional webinar for his course for practitioners on recognising trauma, responding to trauma and preventing the re-living of trauma during mindfulness practice.

In the video mentioned above, David suggests a range of strategies that address the limitations and potential damaging effects of the three myths:

  • Develop awareness about possible difficulties for people during mindfulness practices
  • Increase knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the signs of trauma
  • Provide space for people to experience different aspects of mindfulness practice and be ready to make modifications after asking, “What would work for you?”
  • Acknowledge at the outset that some people may have a very different experience to the calming effects of mindfulness meditation
  • Offer the opportunity for participants to approach you privately to have a conversation about their experience
  • Don’t reinforce the “shoulds” of mindfulness experience, e.g. avoid saying, “you should experience calm and peace”
  • Avoid “close and sustained attention to breath” as this may be a stimulus for re-experiencing trauma
  • Offer a range of options for people to practice mindfulness so that they can choose their own anchor for paying attention, e.g. breath, sounds, the sensation of the feet on the floor, feeling of the body on the chair or fingers touching each other.  According to David, Paula Ramirez, a Director of Breathe International, maintains that this choice of options gives participants a sense of agency (the opposite of a loss of control).

As we grow in mindfulness through our own meditation, research and reflection, we can become more sensitive to the needs of people who have suffered (or are suffering) trauma; be better able to respond to their needs; and also learn to adopt strategies that avoid re-traumatising participants in mindfulness training groups.

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Image by Anemone123 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.