Some Principles towards a Trauma-Informed Mindfulness Praxis
In 15 years of teaching mindfulness to children and adults with multiples ACES in medical, mental health, and incarceration settings, we’ve reflected deeply on what it takes to make mindfulness practices methodically trauma-informed. Working with attention is very powerful, and for clients who have experienced significant trauma, it makes sense to be very careful with how we encourage them to direct attention, as their own adaptive processes may be focused on keeping certain aspects of their experience outside of their awareness. Therefore, as we invite people into greater mindful awareness, it is useful for us to keep some things in mind…
1) Focus first on creating safety
While this sounds obvious, certain common features of the way mindfulness is ordinarily practiced don’t prioritize a neuroception* of safety. For example, closing the eyes. If a person doesn’t, at the bodily/ sensate level, feel totally safe, closing the eyes can heighten a sense of danger.
2) Allow the body to move and respond
Often people practicing mindfulness are directed to sit still. To do so, they must over-ride impulses of the body to move. Since much of our self-regulation comes through unconscious motor movement (this is even more so with children!), this often deprives people of a primary source of self-regulation.
3) Start by bringing attention out
For clients with an internal sense of dysregulation, or simply a lot going on in the mind, bringing attention inward right away is not necessarily regulating. Instead, try bringing attention outward, in the present moment, through the senses (Dr. Peter Levine calls this oreinting). Bring attention to what people are noticing around them- through the eyes, ears, sense of touch, etc. in the present moment.
4) Context is critical
Since attention potentiates experience, context is extremely important! If we bring attention out into the external environment, in an environment that is chaotic, or cues threat, we’ll become more aware of feeling threatened, therefore:
5) attend to creating environments that cue safety
By practicing, if possible, in places that have a) things to look at that support safety/ regulation- e.g., plants, pleasing non-triggering imagery, natural light, etc., b) sounds that do not cue threat, like continuous sirens, deep bass sounds of ventilation, machinery, etc. More importantly,
6) attend to the relational environment before going inward
For many people, what is felt yet unnamed are the relationships in the room- does everyone sitting together (in a classroom for example) know each other, feel safe with eachother, etc. (probably not) Are there differentials of power/ privilege/ positionality that shape felt dynamics in a room? (probably) If so, start by building connection and community (have people meet someone/ introduce themselves/ check in/ go around the circle, etc) or at least acknowledge these dynamics so that they are named, as what is felt yet unnamed colludes with secrecy and trauma and shame, while naming what is in the room invites the wisdom of the felt sense into relationship with the wisdom of the cognitively known, uniting the mind and the body, which is a movement towards healing in its own right
7) Understand and be able to read nervous system states, and attune mindfulness interventions to these states
In the Polyvagal Theory, pioneering psycho-physiologist Dr. Stephen Porges identifies 4 fundamental nervous system states.
-Social Engagement and Connection (VVC- ventral vagal parasympathetic)
-Fight (SNS- sympathetic nervous system)
-Flight (SNS- sympathetic)
-Freeze (DMX- dorsal vagal parasympathetic)
Each of these states is a neural platform for behavior, and will condition our experience, what we perceive, and our behavioral repertoire. Traditional mindfulness presumes that people are baselined in a social engagement state, or at least are not dominated by a fight/flight/ or freeze state. Yet for many of the folks we work with (and increasingly for folks in modern western technological culture), these states are the baseline. If someone is in fight or flight, for example, because that is a mobilization state, sitting still will be extremely uncomfortable. Therefore, that’s not generally the most useful place to start! Attune the intervention to the present-moment nervous system state of the client. In fight or flight, then, begin practicing mindfulness while moving, or dancing, or shaking, or do a mindful movement practice, or play basketball mindfully, etc.
8) Use invitational rather than directive language
Invite people to try things. Don’t tell them to do things. Invite them to notice things. Don’t tell them what they should be noticing, or should be feeling. Support people in bringing attention to what is regulating for them.
9) In your guiding of practices, model using vocal prosody, which cues neuroception of safety, and be embodied and attuned to your own felt sense, so that you can notice shifts in the room and adapt accordingly. This takes practice.
10) Get more training around facilitating neuro-physiologically informed relationally-oriented mindfulness!
Have a genuine mindfulness practice of your own before you begin faciliating others.
11) Psycho- and physio-educate
Educate people about their stress response/ stress physiology, and the triune brain as a way of normalizing experiences where a person’s reptilian brain may have taken over to keep them safe in a way that may not have seemed that adaptive to them, or of which they may have been ashamed. Educate about fight/flight/freeze. Help them appreciate the wisdom of their body, which has kept them alive, Thank God!, through all they have experienced.
Some further recommended resources/ readings:
Dr. Stephen Porges
Dr. Sam Himelstein
*neuroception- term coined by Dr. Stephen Porges, creator of the Polyvagal Theory, to denote the deep brain moment-to-moment neural detection of safety or threat. Neuroception is a continuous moment-to-moment process, informed by our life experience, that assesses present moment safety vs. threat at the level of implicit memory and attunes neural platforms of behavior accordingly. When we have a neuroception of safety it cues social engagement and connection states, which are the foundation of wellbeing and resilience. Conversely, neuroception of threat cues fight/ flight/ freeze states, which are the substrates of stress.