The majority of people will endure at least one traumatic event in their lifetime — often during childhood. For many of them, recovery is a long and winding road. If you have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), getting treatment is imperative. While traveling down the road to wellness, you might wonder about meditation and trauma recovery.
Meditation and Trauma Recovery?
Fortunately, there is a growing body of evidence supporting an array of meditation treatment approaches. This includes complementary measures like concentration meditation and mindfulness.
Generally speaking, meditation is considered to be fairly safe when compared to other interventions. But it is wise to work with a clinician who knows how to adapt meditation techniques to help you reach your own mental health goals.
Research on meditation indicates that meditation can be helpful for a variety of physical and mental health conditions.
There are documented clinical benefits for:
- High Blood Pressure
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
This post isn’t meant to send trauma survivors to YouTube to search for “how to meditate” videos. Instead, it makes an awful lot of sense to talk to your trauma therapist and see how meditation might fit into your treatment plan. A competent trauma therapist will be happy to discuss integrating meditative approaches into your trauma recovery plan, and how best that might work for you.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Meditation is a vast, ancient practice. Legions of people dedicate decades to the practice. But, I’m not here to offer a comprehensive history. Instead, I’d like you to consider what it’s like to be deeply aware of what you’re feeling in the moment. Mindfulness meditation practices are designed to bring you into that state.
Meditation is a method of experiencing the present. And a classic definition of mindfulness is “being aware of the present moment”. This awareness includes the contents of awareness such as sensations, thoughts, images, emotions and perceptions of the external world.
This is often accomplished via methods like:
- Breathing exercises
- Guided imagery
- Meditation practices
- Movements like yoga or Tai Chi
For survivors of trauma, these practices can offer myriad benefits. These can include:
- Stabilizing your attentional focus
- Calming and regulating the nervous system
- Defusing (dis-identifying) from automatic thoughts, feelings, moods and beliefs
- Increased freedom from reactivity.
But there is a catch when it comes to meditation and trauma recovery. Mindfulness, and indeed many meditation practices, can can also be quite triggering, especially to those who have a history of developmental trauma. In my own practice, I’ve seen this in spades. I can’t count the number of clients I’ve worked with who have had decades long, dedicated meditation practices. Many of these clients turned to meditation because they sought methods to replace trauma treatment. They preferred to avoid treatment and attempted to use spiritual practices as a way to avoid psychological healing.
One challenge is that most of the trauma that we suffer from is relational and interpersonal in nature. And it’s in deep relationship that much of the healing of our brains, bodies and minds occurs. Regardless of what we tell ourselves, as human beings, we don’t do well on our own. At the bottom of it all, we are social and relational creatures. While “self help” is great, it has it’s limits.
Many people limit their own recovery because they over-rely on self help methods. Why? Because possibly the biggest obstacle to healing trauma is avoidance. Many people will simply steer clear of that which triggers them. Many trauma survivors avoid trauma therapy because they can’t go anywhere near their relational trauma. Psychotherapy often triggers fear, shame or irritability in traumatized people. And meditation practice can become the perfect way to hide away and avoid turning to others for help.
But there is more. While for most people, meditation is pretty well tolerated. Some meditators may also encounter another problem; overwhelm. When they attempt to step out of the river of distracted busyness, and turn inside, several troubling things can happen:
- Their anxiety or fear spikes
- Emotions overtake them
- They dissociate
- Old memories flood to the surface
Over the years, I’ve had way more than one client who began a meditation practice that unleashed more than they were prepared for. I’ve seen firsthand how beginning a mediation practice has:
- Unearthed chronic anxiety
- Brought dissociated emotional pain flooding to the surface
- Triggered a manic episode
- Loss of motivation
- Derealization and depersonalization
- Increased interpersonal reactivity
Meditation and Trauma Recovery- Adverse Effects
While for the general population, meditation is well tolerated, that may not be so for the clinical population. A recent study at Brown University indicated that 37% of those who participated in a meditation study had had an adverse effect on daily functioning after one session. About 6% of the participant’s adverse reactions lasted for more than a month.
That’s why, if you have a history of early trauma, or struggle with mental health issues, it’s a very good idea to seek treatment from someone that knows their way around doing the deep spiritual and psychological work of healing trauma. A seasoned and experienced trauma clinician will know how to help you adapt your mediation practices so that they are useful for your psychological healing and growth.
Meditation and Trauma Recovery-6 Reasons Why It Might Be Part Of Your Plan
1. Stress Reduction
The ongoing stress of PTSD can lead to an increase in a stress hormone called cortisol. High cortisol levels, in turn, can result in added issues. Common problems include high blood pressure, fatigue, sleep problems, anxiety, and depression. Meditation has been found to interrupt this cycle. Generally, less stress leads to less cortisol which produces fewer negative outcomes.
2. Changes to Your Brain
PTSD symptoms can intensify due to your brain being unable to regulate emotions and memory. Mindfulness directly addressed these patterns. To get a little technical, mindfulness engages the hippocampus rather than the amygdala. This can effectively reverse the brain dysfunction that is the engine behind many trauma-related symptoms.
To put it more simply, mindful meditation can help get you “unstuck.” PTSD can keep you mired in a feedback loop of negative thinking. As an answer to the distress and lack of control you feel, meditation soothes and counters with acceptance and a more objective perspective.
3. Increases in Positive Emotions
Practitioners of meditation usually have fewer negative emotions. They are more likely to display a higher positive self-image than those who do not meditate. This is essential when working in the realm of trauma recovery.
4. Enhanced Sleep
PTSD is often an enemy of healthy sleep patterns. In particular, a hallmark post-trauma sign is nightmares. Meditation helps you control the kind of runaway thought patterns that can increase the likelihood of insomnia and/or nightmares.
5. Anxiety Control
PTSD usually leads to a state of hyper-vigilance. Your fight-or-flight response is stuck in the “on” position. This ramps up your anxiety levels. Mindful meditation directly counters this unpleasant cycle by lowering anxiety levels and cultivating self-awareness.
Negative thoughts can consistently hamper trauma recovery. Mindful meditation can heighten self-awareness and short-circuit these counterproductive thinking habits. You will grow less susceptible to triggers and hence, more open to psychotherapy.
Speaking of Psychotherapy…
Finally, trauma recovery requires the guidance of a skilled professional. Therefore, it’s important to consult with a qualified trauma therapist before introducing a new approach like meditation. I’ve worked with countless trauma survivors. Personally, I’ve witnessed the benefits experienced after engaging in mindfulness practices. I’d love to do the same kind of work with you.
What do I bring to the table?
- A decades- long meditation practice. Beginning in 1991, I dove into meditation. I’ve practiced and trained in several different approaches. These have included mindfulness, Advaita, Kashmir Shaivite and Non-Dual paths.
- 20 years of training in mindfulness- based psychotherapy modalities. These include- Internal Family Systems, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, M-CBT, ACT, DBT and EMDR.
If PTSD has you feeling stuck, let’s connect and talk about it. Meditation might be a powerful step forward for you. Read more about trauma treatment. Then, please schedule a confidential consultation to talk about your situation.