5 Tips for trauma sensitive meditation

This blog discusses five ways to account for trauma symptoms while practicing your meditation, based on my experiences as a health psychologist.

What is trauma sensitive meditation?
Meditation is about being fully present with your thoughts, feelings and/or body sensations, even if it feels unpleasant. Turning inward, becoming quiet and observing inner experiences can make you aware of unpleasant feelings, which can lead to an increase in anxiety symptoms or self-dissociation. In dissociation, you lose contact with your body and the present moment and may feel confused or absent.

In such a case, meditation can cause feelings of helplessness and can be retraumatizing. Such experiences lead some people to believe that meditation is not for them or that they have done something wrong. However, instructions may have been insufficient, leaving you with the wrong goal and not knowing what to expect.

Trauma sensitive meditation means that the person offering the meditation takes into account underlying anxiety – or trauma – symptoms.

The meditation teacher has sufficient knowledge of anxiety and trauma symptoms and understands this in the context of meditation. However, not all teachers are aware that meditation can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and trauma.

During a meditation, it is more important to feel safe than to master the technique perfectly. In this blog, I share five tips you can apply to consider trauma symptoms during your meditation practice.

5 Tips to consider trauma during your meditation practice

1. Return to your inner resource or breath
During meditation, you work with a focus point. This can be breathing, an object, thoughts, physical sensations or emotions. If the attention object of a meditation is a trigger for you, try shifting your attention. It can help to have an anchor point. This can be a place in your body, the breath, or your inner resource.

The inner resource is an important anchor you can develop. It is a safe place within yourself where you can feel at ease, calm and relaxed. This can be a real place, a place in nature or a place in your imagination. You can bring this place to mind whenever you feel restless or overwhelmed and want to feel safe and at ease. You can do this at any time in your daily life and during meditation practice.

It can take time to develop your inner resource, especially for those suffering from unprocessed trauma. If you have not yet developed your inner resource, returning to your breathing can help you feel grounded. Breathing is always in the present moment and can be used as an anchor.

Other anchors may be the sensation of the surface providing support (e.g., feeling the ground, a chair or a blanket), or perceiving a particular body part, such as a hand or foot.

2. Try different positions
A meditation teacher usually gives instructions to meditate in a sitting or reclining position. Some positions can be triggering and cause anxiety. If lying on your back and closing your eyes is a trigger, try sitting up straight. Similarly, if sitting is a trigger for you, try lying down. It is important to find a position that is most comfortable for you.

During meditation, you are regularly instructed to close your eyes. If this feels uncomfortable for you and makes you restless, try doing the exercise with your eyes open. When you keep your eyes open, try to look at one point, as this will help you focus.

3. Be kind to yourself
There is no right or wrong way to meditate. Meditation is also called consciousness training. It is learning to be in the present moment without judgment, without wanting to change anything about it. This increases your awareness of yourself and the present moment. It means not striving for anything. If you are critical of how you meditate you are judging and that is precisely not the intention.

Remember that meditation is a practice and it takes time to learn something new. Try to stay focused and also realize that everything is optional. If staying with a particular sensation is still too difficult observe that and make an adjustment. This way, you will last longer.

4. Don’t try to quiet your mind
Often people think meditation is all about clearing the mind and experiencing complete calm and stillness. However, this is not what meditation is about. Our mind is like a wild animal that cannot be easily tamed. If you expect to experience immediate inner peace and tranquility, you will be disappointed.

When you are invited to turn your attention inward, various thoughts, emotions, images, memories and/or body sensations may arise. This can cause discomfort, especially for someone suffering from anxiety or unprocessed trauma. If you do not know that these experiences and sensations can surface, you may feel overwhelmed or think you are not meditating in the right way. So that’s not true.

Meditation is about observing and accepting everything, without wanting to change it. As humans, we always want to run away from pain and instead experience more pleasure. These tendencies will also come up during a meditation. The desire for more peace and quiet, without feeling uncomfortable. Meditation offers an opportunity to practice being in the moment without judgment and being curious about your experiences.

5. Talk about your experience
Support is very important in any healing process. Often, feelings of guilt and shame keep people from speaking out. This makes them feel alone and different. This while psychological complaints are common. In fact, depression is popular disease No. 1! By sharing difficult feelings and experiences, you can experience that you are not alone.

This also applies to learning something new, such as meditating.

If, despite your best efforts, you are overwhelmed by thoughts, feelings and/or body sensations during your meditation, it is important to talk about them. Try talking to your teacher or someone else with experience. If that is not possible, talk to a friend or someone in your community who can offer support. This will support you to not give up, but keep practicing.

Want to try a trauma sensitive meditation and be part of a supportive community? Then check out my instagram page

Saskia is a GZ psychologist, yoga and mindfulness teacher living mostly in the Netherlands. She works both in her practice in The Hague and online. Her own journey to inner peace began when she was a teenager and has led her to study psychology, Buddhism, yoga and psychedelics. She founded House of Awareness to share her knowledge and guide others on their inner journey

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