Is Mindfulness Meditation Beneficial for Those With Trauma?

A woman mindfully meditating in the woods at sunset.

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By Kimberly Spivey, APRN-CNP, PMHNP-BC, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Lindner Center of HOPE

The many health benefits of mindfulness practices are well known but, like any good medicine, it is important to also be aware of risks and side effects, not only the benefits. This is particularly important when those with trauma incorporate mindfulness meditation into their healing journey. While mindfulness meditation can be a greatly beneficial tool for a person who is a survivor of a traumatic experience, there are potential side effects that may interfere with the progression of their treatment.

When defining what trauma is, we recognize that trauma is not the event itself but rather the emotional response that can occur when a person is exposed to an event or situation that is intensely distressing or disturbing (APA, 2022). Events such as accidents, physical/sexual assaults, combat, natural disasters or divorce can overwhelm the person’s coping mechanisms leading to traumatic stress symptoms including flashbacks, hyperarousal, emotional dysregulation and avoidance behaviors (NIMH, n.d.). Trauma is quite prevalent. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2018) 6 of every 10 men (or 60%) and 5 of every 10 women (or 50%) experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime and about 6% of the population will qualify for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Mindfulness can be described as bringing awareness to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. A mindfulness practice involves employing a sense of curiosity, stillness and compassion while observing what is arising in the moment. Mindfulness meditation is a mindfulness practice in which a person sits quietly for a set amount of time and attends to the present moment, oftentimes focusing on the breath (Harvard University, 2022). Benefits of mindfulness for those with trauma symptoms are many and can help the person navigate intense emotions and physical sensations with awareness rather than avoidance. While mindfulness is not a standalone treatment for traumatic stress, it is an essential skill that can be utilized through the recovery process. Many survivors of traumatic experiences struggle with attention and can be caught off guard and immediately brought back to the event through sight, smell or sound that reminds them of the perpetrator or event. Through practice of focused attention those with traumatic stress can gain more awareness and control over their experiences, leading to more of a sense of safety and stability (Treleaven, 2018). Another benefit that mindfulness can provide is a stronger ability to stay in the present moment while working with frightening memories of the past during recovery. Many survivors of trauma can be left with a sense of self blame and a feeling that they did something wrong or should have done something different to prevent the event. Appropriate anger towards the perpetrator might be directed inward toward the self, leading to feelings of guilt and shame. Mindfulness allows for practice of nonjudgmental attention which can provide a better sense of self compassion (Boyd, Lanius & McKinnon, 2018).

Treleaven (2018) tells us that mindfulness meditation can be a “double-edged sword”, potentially causing negative effects in someone with traumatic stress. He describes that when a person with traumatic stress has not yet built the necessary skills to work with the intense sensations, intrusive thoughts or flashbacks that can arise when bringing attention to the present moment, the person can become retraumatized. Stressful stimuli that may have been hidden in the body and psyche can surface and cause new or heightened symptoms. This can lead to self-blame and a fear of mindfulness practice all together, which is unfortunate given the many benefits. It is important for the person to work within what’s called the window of tolerance (Trelevean 2018). If the nervous system becomes overwhelmed with stimuli the person may experience hypoarousal (dissociation) or hyperarousal (exaggerated startle response, intense emotions, flashbacks) leading the person outside of their window of tolerance. If a person finds themself outside of their window of tolerance, they can try opening the eyes during meditation, focus on an external object in the room, taking a few deep breaths, use touch such as placing their hand on their heart or belly and decreasing the practice times (Treleaven 2018). While it is clear that mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool in the recovery for those with traumatic stress, due to the potential for harm, it is recommended that people who have traumatic stress work with a mindfulness practitioner who is trauma-informed in order to mitigate side effects from the practice.

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American Psychological Association. (2022). Trauma and shock. American Psychological Association. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/

Boyd, J. E., Lanius, R. A., & McKinnon, M. C. (2018). Mindfulness-based treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder: a review of the treatment literature and neurobiological evidence. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN, 43(1), 7–25. https://doi.org/10.1503/jpn.170021

Harvard University. (2022). Mindfulness & Meditation. Center for Wellness and Health Promotion. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://wellness.huhs.harvard.edu/mindfulness

National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Coping with traumatic events. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/coping-with-traumatic-events#part_2860

Treleaven, D. A. (2018). Trauma-sensitive mindfulness: Practices for safe and transformative healing. W.W Norton & Company.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2018). Va.gov: Veterans Affairs. How Common is PTSD in Adults? Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp#:~:text=About%206%20out%20of%20every%20100%20people%20%28or,about%204%20of%20every%20100%20men%20%28or%204%25%29.