Mindfulness Meditation and Trauma: Proceed with Caution

man training yogaAs Roger—not his real name—sensed his body, he began to notice a deep contraction in his heart that pained him deeply. He had been hearing from his meditation teachers that he had to stay with it and continue sensing his body no matter what, even if he felt emotional pain.

Given how much faith he had in the method, he followed the instructions diligently, even though his emotional response was too overwhelming to put aside. The pain became so intense that it began to feel like sharp shards of glass inside his chest—and he began experiencing deep rage that turned against himself.

“What is wrong with me that I can’t do this?” he thought. Images of self-injury and hitting himself began to flood his mind. He didn’t know what to do with this level of self-hatred. At the same time, he was determined to stay with his body at all costs.

At that point, he had two opposing forces inside him that kept him frozen in great emotional pain and intrusive mental images. Finally, the intensity became so strong that he jumped up and bolted from the meditation hall, running out toward nature, where he found relief at last.

Roger’s heart was pounding, and his level of arousal was too much for his nervous system to tolerate. He wept deeply. As a result of his intense meditation, Roger experienced a resurfacing of old trauma that he did not even know he had. This incident happened to Roger many years ago, on the sixth day of a silent 10-day Vipassana retreat. The episode had a big impact on his well-being, and he didn’t learn how to deal with it until years later, after much therapy.

Roger’s experience at the retreat can happen for anyone who engages in deep meditation and carries a great deal of unprocessed or unconscious trauma. “I didn’t even know back then that I had such a level of trauma. I thought everybody had so much difficulty being with themselves, and I naively also thought that meditation was the grand cure-all,” Roger told me during a session.

Although meditation can be a great support for many of us and can even be helpful in dealing with psychological difficulties, it can also trigger traumatic responses that may need further processing. Without appropriate guidance, meditation can be more of a stressor than a support for some people.

Unconscious Trauma

Trauma is the result of our nervous systems being overwhelmed by experiences that we are unable to tolerate and process. This can be the result of a single life-threatening event, or of repeated stressors accumulating over time. Trauma is particularly devastating if we’re young and vulnerable, so early traumatic experiences tend to have deep impacts that, as adults, we may be completely unconscious of. Mindfulness meditation can reopen these old wounds, and without appropriate support, anyone can get lost in these deeply painful experiences.

One common meditation technique that is taught at many mindfulness courses and retreats is the body scan. During this practice, participants bring their attention to their body sensations in a methodical way. This is a great tool to develop sensitivity and self-awareness. However, as we sensitize ourselves to our bodies, we may end up encountering previously unconscious trauma.

Titration Is Key

Titration is a concept borrowed from chemistry that Peter Levine, creator of the Somatic Experiencing method, uses to illustrate how to approach traumatic material. Levine (2010) gives the example that if one were to mix two reactive chemical compounds all at once, the result would be an explosion. However, if one uses a glass valve and mixes them one drop at a time, the result would be safe; each drop creates a small, manageable fizzle.

The same principle applies when working with trauma. If we are able to turn our attention back and forth between sources of support (e.g., pleasant bodily sensations, views, or touch) and the safer edges of a difficult inner experience, we have a much better chance of working effectively with the traumatic material than if we try to simply stay present with the material all at once. This takes a great deal of skill and is very difficult to do without support. If we don’t know how to titrate or skillfully work with the challenging sensations that can arise, we can end up retraumatizing ourselves.

Not All Retreats Are Created Equal

A meditation retreat can be a fantastic way to deepen your meditation practice and develop your capacity to be with experience. Meditation retreats are also great for giving us a continuous experience of presence; during sustained meditation practice, after a couple of days you can experience deep levels of absorption and profound wellness. But not all meditation retreats are the same.

If you know you have trauma and are engaged in serious meditation practice, be cautious and seek help to deal with it.

Depending on the tradition and the teachers, retreat leaders may or may not have psychological experience or expertise with trauma. The good news is that, nowadays, many meditation teachers are informed about trauma, and some even get training in working with it. In order to work with your own trauma at a meditation retreat, flexibility is important. Allowing yourself to deviate from the schedule and seek support with teachers or nature can make all the difference.

The retreat mentioned at the beginning of this article was not very flexible. Its guidelines were strict, and it was designed for people to achieve deep levels of concentration—a format that can be fantastic for someone with a relatively intact ego structure, but retraumatizing for someone with deep trauma, as it was for Roger.

It’s about Staying with Our Experience

Staying with our experience without trying to change it is at the core of mindfulness meditation practice. This practice has many benefits, such as developing self-acceptance and self-awareness. However, staying with ourselves does not mean we have to bear inner torture. If an experience feels overwhelming, it is probably not helpful to stay with it in a continuous way. At this point, finding an external resource such as nature or someone to support us becomes more important than staying directly with the experience.

If you know you have trauma and are engaged in serious meditation practice, be cautious and seek help to deal with it. Part of doing inner work consists of discovering the right balance between challenging and supporting ourselves; when trauma is present, this point tends to be skewed toward either too much challenge or complete avoidance of the situation that triggers the trauma. Neither approach will help you metabolize and transform traumatic psychological imprints. This is why having someone to help you traverse this difficult territory is key.

In sum, mindfulness meditation is a fantastic tool for supporting our well-being, and if taken seriously, it can truly transform our lives. However, because it is a serious practice, it can reopen old wounds in unsuspecting participants, so please be careful and seek the guidance of a trained therapist if you know you have trauma in your background.

Reference:

Levine, P. A. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2010.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Manuel A. Manotas, PsyD, therapist in San Francisco, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Mary S

    Mary S

    October 21st, 2015 at 7:30 AM

    Isn’t it amazing the pain that we so often have buried on the inside that can come through and we then are able to feel it on a physical level when engaging in something like deep meditation?

  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    October 21st, 2015 at 2:17 PM

    I have been a therapist for 28 years, and have worked with many individuals with severe trauma histories, including many who did not have conscious knowledge of the trauma. Neurofeedback typically reduces reactivity and helps the brain to rewire old trauma. It could help someone like Roger be able to participate in such a retreat without risking being flooded with more than his system can tolerate and it can be very complementary to good psychotherapy.

  • Kris

    Kris

    October 21st, 2015 at 4:02 PM

    You do the things that you think will be so helpful to you and ultimately many of them, without the right frame of mind as well as professional guidance could in the long run wind up being quite harmful.

  • Dr. Efrain Centeno PhD, LCSW

    Dr. Efrain Centeno PhD, LCSW

    October 21st, 2015 at 8:24 PM

    I have been working with survivors of trauma for over 25 years. I began integrating mindfulness into my practice 10 years ago and in the process learned many lessons. Gradual exposure of mindfulness is necessary to use it successfully with survivors of trauma. It has made an enormous and powerful difference in lives.

  • ron

    ron

    October 22nd, 2015 at 7:45 AM

    I think that this may have been the only time that I have read anything about proceeding with caution with meditation. Usually it is all about how good it is for you and how everyone should be doing it.

  • Grace

    Grace

    October 22nd, 2015 at 5:19 PM

    Deeply illuminating article on mindfulness and trauma. Thanks for the great read!

  • Andrew C.

    Andrew C.

    October 24th, 2015 at 2:21 AM

    Actually, if mindfulness is also taught alongside an understanding of the ANS, it is useful. We then end up with 3 or 4 classifications of sensation to help us decide whether to stay in that part of the body for a while or whether to move on. Which is in line with Buddha’s teaching about Vipassana – sense, then move on. If someone is not very skilled in mediation, then certain sensory zones are difficult to move out of and become like a black hole with an even horizon. With a simple map of what is a useful sensation to “be with” (and what is not) moving on is still possible.

  • hannah

    hannah

    October 24th, 2015 at 6:45 AM

    one would indeed have to be very skilled to be able to successfully go back and forth between the things that have hurt you and then the things that are actually holding you back in your life.

  • Lewis

    Lewis

    October 26th, 2015 at 7:23 AM

    I am not sure that I could continue with feeling the kind of pain that Roger was feeling. I mean even people who run will tell you that sometimes it is better for you to not run through the pain, that there are going to be certain injuries that you can cause more harm to if you do not pay attention to them. Do you think that this would have been wise in his case?

  • RG

    RG

    June 7th, 2016 at 2:32 AM

    I recently attended a 7.5 hour silent meditation retreat as part of an MBSR course. I’d been attending 45 minute meditation classes about 3 times a week for about a year prior to this and was having some minor but manageable problems with emerging trauma symptoms which I was discussing in therapy, but I didn’t think they were that big an issue. Turns out I badly underestimated how stressful even one day of meditation and lack of social interaction could be in the context of trauma, and the retreat was REALLY HORRIBLE. At first I was able to manage just sitting with the discomfort, but it escalated over the course of the day until I was in severe mental pain and crying continuously during the meditations (I did take a couple of breaks to walk around outside which calmed me down but as soon as I went back in I was back to where I was before). The mountain and loving-kindness meditations were particularly bad (accompanied by overwhelming feelings of isolation, emptiness and paralysis in the case of the mountain meditation; and thoughts of self-hatred, shame and wanting those who had harmed me to die a slow and painful death in rivers of blood in the case of the loving-kindness meditation). When I got back home I was a wreck, spent the entire night throwing up and had to take a couple of days off work.
    I had discussed the retreat ahead of time with both the instructor and my therapist and the plan was to talk to the instructor if I ran into problems and stop if necessary, but I found myself completely unable to do that when I was on the spot. I felt bad about the idea of making a fuss, didn’t want to delay or interrupt the class, felt as if I would be “failing”, and I couldn’t go home until the end of the day anyway as I was travelling with others. It is relevant that some of my past traumatic experiences relate to not being allowed to say no, being punished for refusal or showing discomfort, plus bullying accompanied by deliberate social exclusion. Also, a lot of the time the reactions to meditation preceded actually remembering the traumas. In retrospect it’s easy to say “well, you should have known better than to go on the retreat because those triggers are so obviously likely to cause problems”, but I genuinely did not anticipate this degree of difficulty.

  • sandra

    sandra

    October 27th, 2015 at 8:47 AM

    I would want to make sure that I was working with someone who was very much prepared for something like that to happen and that they would know how to help me through it. What good does it so to get to those feelings and then not know what to do with them and have no guidance with working through it?

  • Addie

    Addie

    October 28th, 2015 at 10:12 AM

    At first it makes very little sense to me that you need to go back and forth with the processing of the material, but I guess that like anything else, if you can discover a way to ease through it then it could make the process a little bit easier to handle.

  • John

    John

    February 12th, 2017 at 10:54 AM

    The idea is that you are not merged with what is there so you process the feelings rather than merge with them and become traumatised . It does take some skill , and feeling safe enough to do it, and often being with someone who you feel safe and secure with and who will not get freaked by the process.

  • Isabel Diamond

    Isabel Diamond

    October 30th, 2015 at 10:12 AM

    I’m a psychotherapist and have been studying and practicing mindfulness for over a decade. I wholeheartedly agree with your article.

    In working with clients, I have found that these issues arise most often in lengthy retreats. The combination of hours of meditation, a reduced amount of sleep, and a different diet can lead to de-stabilization. Unprocessed trauma can also be an issue in overseas retreats in monastic environments, where the leaders may not be as familiar with western psychology, and there might also be a language barrier.

    For clients affected by trauma, I recommend that they start by trying a loving-kindness meditation.

  • John Threadgold

    John Threadgold

    February 11th, 2017 at 3:03 PM

    I am a therapist who has worked with a number of clients on trauma issues so I am trauma sensitive. I recently participated on a Mindfulness course and was shocked by the fact that the teacher did not mention how to remain safe during a mindfulness exercises. I did mention it, but seemed to be blanked by the teacher. The reason that mindfulness exercises can trigger unresolved trauma, is that when we bring awareness into our body, we are activating the limbic system and bypassing our usual defenses. This means that any unresolved trauma can be unleashed. There are ways of staying safe which can include 1) Telling people in advance that they can stop if they feel unsafe. 2) Use of grounding, eg concentrating awareness on the feel and the solid ground underneath 3) use of inner relationship language eg ‘ I am just noticing these feelings and keeping them company 4) Imaginatively getting space from the feelings and combining this with measures 2 and / or 3. I deliberately gave feedback on safety, and one person on the course used my methods so stay safe during a whole body scan. But the Mindfulness teacher was not at all receptive to what I had to offer re safety. I was appalled.

  • Steve

    Steve

    March 7th, 2017 at 6:18 AM

    👏👏👏👏👏👏
    Finally an article on what I have been preaching for years!! Well done!!

  • Bennett

    Bennett

    March 8th, 2017 at 12:41 PM

    In a general sense the meditation did exactly what meditation is for with Roger: It uncovered a deep samskara and brought it to awareness so it could be dealt with. Meditation is not a universal sedative; it is in the yogic tradition a fireplace where the sacred fire of the shakti shines bright and in doing so may illuminate both joy, peace, Self, but also blocks, samskaras, negativities, truths and traumas. Meditation is not about bliss per se; it’s about clarity, which may lead to bliss and may also lead to a host of other things that lay within. It does this to burn them away, or bring them to light, ultimately so that we may deal with them and work toward freedom. The article is absolutely right to bring us this awareness. Retreat leaders must prepare methods to encounter practioners who uncover trauma and then to assist them in dealing with it or learning more about it. Programs should be flexible for these encounters: ie, resuming sitting for the meditation may not be productive at all if the kriya or emergence of the trauma is too intense. Having someone available to talk with or to suggest ways of relating to the new found trauma would be invaluable: for example, rather than going back into the meditation, taking time in nature and then writing or journaling about what came forward would help a lot. Making art about the experience could help. Certainly discussing with, someone trained, a plan to deal with the trauma once back from the retreat would be important. There is no flaw in meditation itself, in Roger’s case it worked to bring out something needing attention. But a more careful understanding of its application and use of additional tools is key for those for whom meditation uncovers trauma. Some instruction and education about what going with in may bring out could also help so that a meditator might understand what is happening to them and have an avenue to deal with it already at hand.

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