“Trauma is a pervasive fact of modern life. Most of us have been traumatized,
not just soldiers or victims of abuse or attack. Both the sources and consequences
of trauma are wide-ranging and often hidden from our awareness."
- Peter Levine, PhD, founder of the Somatic Experiencing (SE)
approach to healing trauma
Fundamentally, Trauma-Informed Mindfulness is teaching that is responsive to an individual's particular experience (not technique-based) and is additionally grounded in an understanding of trauma and a recognition of how it presents. In the context of mindfulness practice, trauma may be expressed physically and further recognized by a variety of obstacles arising in practice. Trauma-informed teaching is guidance and instruction that is sensitive and responsive to an individual's expression and experience.
To do the very powerful work of cultivating an embodied awareness through mindfulness, a trauma-Informed perspective is not only a safer way to learn for those who are dealing with the unresolved impacts of past trauma, but it is also a more effective approach to teaching in general.
Trauma-Informed Mindfulness as a support for healing
Mindfulness practices have the potential to be deeply supportive in working to heal trauma (along with psychological supports,) but only if handled with understanding of both processes: mindfulness & trauma.
Bessel van der Kolk, PhD, noted for his work with trauma since the 1970's, emphasizes the importance of mindfulness and a body-centered awareness in healing trauma in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma:
“Mindfulness not only makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity but can also actively steer us in the right direction
van der Kolk speaks about the importance of cultivating the ability to feel the body as a necessary step to trauma work: "...for my patients, I always recommend that they see somebody who helps them to really feel their body, experience their body, open up to their bodies... You need to know what is happening in your body. You need to know where your right toe is and where your pinkie is. Your body — you need to sort of be aware of what it’s doing." (from OnBeing interview: https://onbeing.org/programs/bessel-van-der-kolk-how-trauma-lodges-in-the-body-mar2017/)
The practices of mindfulness, particularly those utilized within the MBSR curriculum, are focused significantly in cultivating a body-centered awareness and through learning to connect with the ‘felt-sense’ of the body as a direct path to the present-moment.
In order to work with and heal trauma, one must begin to be able to connect with this very same felt-sense. However, when trauma is present in the body, working with mindfulness practices must be done with care, since unresolved trauma often-times creates defense mechanisms designed to prevent accessing the body; and pushing that process too quickly or blindly can potentially be re-traumatizing.
Peter Levine, PhD, a leading expert in healing trauma, “[Does] not view post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as pathology to be managed, suppressed, or adjusted to, but the result of a natural process gone awry.”
“Trauma is about broken connections. Connection is broken with the body/self,
family, friends, community, nature, and spirit, perpetuating the downward spiral
of traumatic dislocation. Healing trauma is about restoring these connections.”
Levine suggests that traumatic symptoms are caused by unresolved ‘fight or flight’ response of the body; trapping the energy that in nature would discharge itself after the stressor has resolved; but within our modern disconnected environments can be prevented from occurring. Learning how to work with this energy and bring it to a resolution can bring healing. However, the forces of a trauma-reaction can be overwhelming to the system, and if not approached with care and understanding can lead to re-traumatization.
Some examples of presenting issues or maladaptive coping mechanisms that may be connected with trauma include; anxiety and panic disorders, OCD, difficulties with emotion regulation, and those in recovery from addictions. In addition, the effects of unresolved trauma may manifest somatically, with physical symptoms and disorders.
It is important to recognize that those who present with symptoms of unresolved trauma are not exhibiting personal short-comings or defects of character, but rather understanding that these are effects of past experiences that have caused harm where there have been a lack of resources (loss of connection!) to adequately recover. This very understanding and attitude - to hold an individual as part of the community, and not separate - serves as a resource that can support healing.
"... the more disembodied we are, the more isolated and disconnected we are, not just from our emotions,
but from a feeling of connection with other people and the larger world. Our disconnection and isolation
are reflected in the high degree of personalism (everything is about me, narcissism) and individualism
(I am a free agent with no inherent ties or obligations to anyone or anything) found in modern societies...
In other cultures, emotions are often understood within a much larger, less individualistic context. For
example, Malidoma Somé speaks of emotions within a different, more transcendent frame of reference. Malidoma says that when someone in his village is taken over by a strong emotion, the entire village attends to that person. The reason is that, for the Dagara people of Malidoma’s homeland, strong
emotion is never about just one person alone, but rather about the village community itself. In his or
her highly charged emotional state, a certain person is understood to be giving birth to something that the entire village needs to know and needs to address."
~ Reginald Ray, from "Touching Enlightenment"
What does it mean to be Trauma-Informed?
According to SAMHSA (The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,) a program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed:
Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery
Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma info policies, procedures, and practices, and;
Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.
and states: A trauma informed approach can be implemented in any type of service or setting or organization and is distinct from trauma-specific interventions or treatments that are designed specifically to address the consequences of trauma and to facilitate healing.
As a result of working with her own experience of unresolved trauma arising in the context of mindfulness practice, and additionally working with and training in the modality of Somatic Experiencing (developed by Peter Levine,) Genevieve has safely and effectively taught mindfulness to many individuals dealing with the impacts of trauma.
For those suffering from unresolved impacts of trauma it is important to have psychological support along with any training in mindfulness.
If you wish to use this description of trauma-informed mindfulness for professional purposes,
please cite & link to this page as a reference.