The Role of Mindfulness in Trauma Recovery

by Holly Miles, Counsellor at the Barbra Schlifer Clinic

July 2019

Popular culture has recently embraced the idea of Mindfulness as a means of stress reduction. However, it is a concept that is thousands of years old and rooted in Eastern spiritual practices such as Buddhism and Hinduism. In the last few decades, Western science has explored Mindfulness’s potential for improving self-awareness, resilience and emotional regulation. Perhaps you too may have heard about mindfulness, and you might be curious about how it works, and how to start your own practice.

A person can practice Mindfulness in a variety of ways. Some of the more well-known mindfulness practices are yoga, meditation, and mindful observation, but we also have the opportunity to be mindful at any time or place. The common element among the different practices is the emphasis on non-judgmental observation and present-moment awareness. This means focusing on what is happening for us right now, without distraction or thinking of the past or the future. This also means being able to acknowledge and feel emotions arising within us without letting them overwhelm us. Metaphorically, this would be like sitting on a riverbank and watching turbulent water pass by without being pulled into the current.

For trauma survivors who experience very intense emotions, peaceful reflection on ones experiences may feel unattainable. Mindfulness is not easy and requires significant practice, but once it has become an acquired skill, it can be very helpful. How can mindfulness help with trauma? We know that a trauma survivor may be re-traumatized by the memory of a dangerous situation months or even years later. Mindfulness may allow for someone to be more aware of what is happening to them in the present moment. Awareness can improve one’s ability to determine whether their emotional state is a reaction to a current threat or to the memory of a threat from the past. Secondly, the practice of mindfulness, especially through body-based activities such as yoga and Qi-Gong helps us detect the warning signs of an upcoming panic attack at earlier stages, thus making it possible to access coping resources that can prevent or lessen its effects.  

Mindfulness practice can actually alter the way the brain responds to stress. According to research discussed by Otto Van Der Kolk in “The Body Keeps The Score” (2014), the part of the brain responsible for the survival responses (fight, flight, freeze, or feign death) is located at the base of the brain, and manages instinctive and lifesaving responses. When someone is under threat, this part of the brain is responsible for triggering an immediate response that ensures survival at any cost. However, when the perceived threat is due to the effects of past trauma, this response can be unhelpful and frightening. Even though someone might know that they are not actually at risk, they may not be able to ‘turn off’ the response. Unfortunately, the part of the brain that is responsible for logic and complex reasoning is at the front of the brain. When the brain is in survival mode, the ‘logical brain’ cannot function at its best, because all resources are diverted to the ‘survival brain’. Survivors might feel frustrated that they can’t effectively ‘reason’ themselves out of their emotions or sensations when triggered, but it’s not due to a lack of strength or willpower, it’s a function of physiology. Fortunately, it is also something that we can unlearn, and mindfulness can help.

Mindfulness and self-awareness activate regions in the middle region of the brain, between the ‘survival brain’ and the ‘logic brain’. When someone builds the skill of mindfulness, it is like building a bridge between these two regions of the brain. This means that, over time, when the survival brain registers a threat, a person can more effectively access mindfulness strategies that can calm and ground them. Mindfulness strategies, thus signal the ‘survival brain’ that a false alarm has occurred, and from this place, the ‘logic brain’ can come back online.

If you are interested in learning mindfulness for stress relief, trauma recovery or both, you may not know where to begin. Trauma-informed groups such as Spirited Women at the Barbra Schlifer Clinic incorporate a mindfulness practice into every session, and many trauma therapists offer mindfulness-based approaches. There are also many helpful books and websites on the topic, some of which are mentioned below. Different mindfulness strategies will work better for different people. Therefore, it is a good idea to try out a few different strategies, and to try to get into the habit of practicing mindfulness at times of calm, as well as stress. Each time we notice that we are not in the present, and gently pull ourselves back, we are practicing mindfulness. The skill will develop with repetition, much like building strength in a muscle by exercising regularly.

In a world where distractions are around all the time, taking time to be mindful can be a challenge. We may be tempted to keep ourselves busy when we go through hard times. However, mindfulness can provide us with the skills to work through hardship and strong emotions without being consumed by them. With that approach, we can experience the world more fully, compassionately, and intentionally.

Suggested readings:

Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the present moment – and your life by Jon Kabat Zinn

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk

Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson & Elizabeth Hopper Ph.D.