Being alive in the 2000s, you almost certainly have heard of the benefits of mindfulness meditation (https://www.mindful.org/mindfulness-how-to-do-it/). As a transgender or non-binary survivor of domestic or dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking, however, you may find the thought of mindfulness meditation very scary. Or maybe you’ve even tried it and found that it painfully retriggered some of your trauma symptoms.
For example, meditation can prompt flashbacks (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/conquer-fear-flying/201408/is-what-you-are-feeling-flashback) and increase distress. Trauma survivors may find paying attention to their body sensations increases panic and distress if those sensations remind them of their trauma(s). “Staying with” their painful trauma-related feelings or memories may increase distress rather than providing insight or resolution. Sitting still may spark feelings of being trapped (again).
David A. Treleaven’s new book Trauma-sensitive mindfulness: Practices for safe and transformative healing (W.W. Norton, 2018) (https://www.powells.com/book/-9780393709780) describes the problem this way:
“By asking survivors to pay close, sustained attention to their experience, we invite them into contact with unintegrated remnants of trauma: the sensation of being unable to breathe, for instance, or a jaw that’s tightened in terror. This, importantly, can spark the fear/immobility cycle. Survivors become locked in a self-perpetuating loop that leaves them more helpless, isolated, and alarmed.”
It doesn’t have to be this way, Treleaven (https://davidtreleaven.com/about-david/) says. Although he admits some trauma survivors may simply want to avoid mindfulness meditation, he goes on to list many ways in which survivors may benefit. A regular mindfulness meditation practice can help trauma survivors:
- Strengthen body awareness;
- Boost attention;
- Increase ability to regulate emotions;
- Direct their attention in purposeful ways that help support stability;
- Increase ability to be flexible and adaptive;
- Keep their attention in the present (rather than defaulting to past memories);
- Regain agency;
- Observe and tolerate their inner world;
- Investigate thoughts and emotions with compassion rather than habitually avoiding them;
- Increase their awareness of subtle body sensations and create a realization that these are always changing;
- Be present with challenging emotions and thoughts without overreacting; and
- Pay attention to demanding stimuli while maintaining awareness of a larger context.
Long-term practice can even foster long-term positive changes. Treleaven notes:
“Mindfulness practice has also been associated with decreased volume of gray matter in the amygdala, which decreases reactivity to trauma-relevant triggers.”
What are some of the ways to make mindfulness meditation safer for trauma survivors? Here are four.
- Learn your own window of tolerance (https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/window-of-tolerance), the area between being hyperaroused (emotionally reactive, hypervigilant) and hypoaroused (numb, poor ability to think). Treleaven says:
“To find stability, survivors can begin tracking their window so they can self-regulate. They need to learn what they can stay present for, and, conversely, what they can’t tolerate.”
Once you’ve mapped your window of tolerance, respect it. If you feel yourself moving out of your window of tolerance, be willing to interrupt your meditation practice.
2. Develop a mindfulness gauge (https://www.marthawhitney.com/2016/02/mindfulness-gauge/). This is a body-based way of checking in with oneself. “Mindful gauges can include body sensations, moods, feelings, or thoughts.” Look for which “gauge” is strongest and most accessible to you, and then use it to monitor how you are feeling. One client, for example, found that her breath was her most powerful gauge: how she was breathing could tell her which decision was best, for example.
3. Recognize when to apply the brakes. To help stay within your window of tolerance, learn ways of stopping or shifting:
- “Open one’s eyes during meditation practice.
- Take structured breaks from mindfulness practice (e.g., walking, stretching, unstructured time).
- Take a few slow, deep breaths.
- Engage in a soothing form of self-touch (e.g., hand on heart).
- Focus on a resourceful, external object in one’s environment….
- Engage in shorter practice periods.”
4. Pick a different anchor of attention (https://fitbottomedgirls.com/2018/01/4-ways-to-anchor-your-focus-in-meditation/). Many meditation practices have you focus on the breath. There are other physical sensations you can focus on (feet, back, hands, buttocks), or use other senses (seeing, smelling, hearing). Consider using a beloved item. Another good option is doing a walking meditation, which may be especially helpful if being still has a tendency to bring up trauma memories.
A bonus for trans and non-binary readers of Treleaven’s book is his extended discussion of a consultation he did with a transmasculine meditator. Dylan’s traumas began when he transitioned as a teen and experienced bullying both at school and at home. Unfortunately, Dylan lived in North Carolina during the years HB2 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2lNSvg1flY)– a law to ban trans people from public bathrooms – was being debated. Having the news filled with attacks on his identity caused a resurgence of classic trauma symptoms: sleeplessness, problems with his attention, stomach problems, a sense that someone was about to strike him, and sudden bouts of being unable to move. He also began searching for a particular shade of blue that one of his earlier bullies wore. Unsurprisingly, he no longer found meditating to be a calming activity.
Treleaven worked with Dylan over several weeks to identify areas of attention in his body that helped him feel comfortable and grounded. They talked about the realities of how trauma plays out in the body and mind (http://forge-forward.org/wp-content/docs/self-help-guide-to-healing-2015-FINAL.pdf, pp. 13-31). Because Dylan found that paying attention to his breath brought back trauma memories and made him feel immobile, they worked on discovering more safe anchors of attention. One time, Dylan started to dissociate (https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/dissociation-overview#1) and Treleaven worked to re-ground him by shifting his attention to items in the room.
“After a few months of working with me, Dylan had new knowledge and tools to bring to his meditation practice, which he’d resumed at home. We came up with a structure together that would keep him in his window [of tolerance]: He would start his meditation by focusing on the anchor of hearing, then expand his attention to include physical sensations and then thoughts. If traumatic memories or intense sensations surfaced, he’d shift back to hearing. If unsuccessful in self-regulating, he would open his eyes and orient to his surrounding environment. If this didn’t work, he’d call for his dog, Milo [who always brought him joy].”
Treleaven’s extended, in-person work with Dylan is a luxury out of the reach of most of us. However, his book is affordable (particularly if you borrow it from a library!) and he makes both videos and courses available at https://davidtreleaven.com/. If you once had a rewarding meditation practice before trauma or body dysphoria disrupted it, or you think it might prove helpful to you now, these new resources can help you (re)establish a peaceful balance in your life.