I feel like everyone talks about meditation or mindfulness like they talk about exercise. It’s good for you, it will make you feel better and everyone should do it. I have tried for years to meditate and also tried to be mindfully present with day to day activities, but it always just exhausted me and usually made me feel worse. I experience moments of calm. But mostly it brings up difficult and painful feelings, and at worst it triggers emotional flashbacks. What can I do about these difficult feelings? Jo
I’ve been writing about the benefits of mindfulness all this month in Club Soda, exploring what it means to be mindful about drinking, how mindfulness can help us with triggers for drinking, and how mindfulness meditation can help us change. But you’re right to highlight something that gets overlooked: meditation and mindfulness practices can cause problems. So thank you for raising this important issue.
When we discuss mindfulness and meditation as an approach to changing our drinking, we should tread carefully
You mention emotional flashbacks, so it is worth saying this: difficulties with meditation can be especially present when we are living with a legacy of trauma. And trauma may well emerge as an issue when we are changing our drinking. Many researchers and psychologists have observed that there is a relationship between childhood trauma and later alcohol dependence. Of course, that’s not to say that everyone who experiences trauma in childhood will drink problematically as an adult. Or that those of us who struggle with alcohol were necessarily traumatised at an earlier point in our lives. But we need to acknowledge that this relationship between trauma and problematic drinking will be true for some of us. So when we discuss mindfulness and meditation as an approach to changing our drinking, we should tread carefully.
In this article, I want to talk about the relationship between trauma and mindfulness. And I’ll also share some practical ways to make meditation and mindfulness easier and less emotionally triggering.
The textbook definition of trauma is that it is an emotional response to a terrible event. Trauma can arise in response to a wide range of dangerous and sometimes life-threatening situations and experiences. If our lives have personally been untouched by trauma, we are sadly in the minority; almost all of us are affected by trauma of some kind. By some estimates, 90% of the world’s population will be exposed to a traumatic event during their lives, and around one in 20 of us will experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
One of the biggest misunderstandings of trauma is that it relates to the past. Well-meaning people might encourage us to get over it, move on and focus on the present. But as Bessel van der Kolk points out in his book The Body Keeps The Score, “trauma is much more than a story about something that happened long ago. The emotions and physical sensations that were imprinted during the trauma are experienced not as memories but as disruptive physical reactions in the present.” It’s the ongoing, present-day impact of trauma in our lives that makes it so hard to live with.
If our lives have personally been untouched by trauma, we are sadly in the minority; almost all of us are affected
For some of us, drinking is a way of coping with the disruption that trauma causes. So stopping or cutting back on drinking can leave us exposed to reliving past traumas without alcohol’s numbing effects. Mindfulness and meditation – as a tool for coping with big emotions – can seem to ride to the rescue. And mindfulness does have a lot to offer us if we experience the ongoing impact of trauma. As writer and trauma specialist David Treleaven writes “mindfulness can enhance present-moment awareness, increase self-compassion, and strengthen a person’s ability to self-regulate – all important skills that support trauma recovery.” But that doesn’t mean we can necessarily leap straight in and expect mindfulness to make everything better.
Mindfulness meditation can actually make symptoms of traumatic stress worse. Flashbacks, emotional arousal, and dissociation – meaning a disconnect between your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations – are not uncommon experiences. As Treleaven puts it in his book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, “while meditation might appear to be a safe and innocuous practice, it can thrust trauma survivors directly into the heart of wounds that require more than mindful awareness to heal.”
So it comes down to this: mindfulness can help us change our drinking and it can help us cope with trauma. But it’s not a panacea or a quick fix. And we may need to make change our mindfulness practice to be more trauma-sensitive, in order to keep ourselves happy and well.
The analogy of exercise is actually very appropriate. Exercise is good for us, it does make us feel better and everyone can benefit from it; these facts are indisputable. But it is also true that training too hard and too fast can cause injuries. If we want a new exercise regime to last, we’ll take things slowly, build up gently and – critically – listen to our bodies. We may need to adjust our technique, or even switch to an entirely different activity.
Likewise, when it comes to meditation, it does have the ability to help us. But it’s not a cure-all and it won’t work perfectly for everyone. We may need to make some adjustments, and we might need to find other ways to be mindful.
Practical tips for meditation and mindfulness
If you are changing your drinking, affected by trauma and thinking about meditation and mindfulness, here are eight practical tips:
- Get to know your “window of tolerance”. First coined by Dr Daniel Siegel in his book The Developing Mind, the window of tolerance is your internal safe space. Within it, you feel stable, regulated and present. Outside of it, you feel triggered and out of control. As you develop a mindfulness meditation practice, it is important to recognise and stay within your window of tolerance. A meditation that leaves you disturbed does you no good. Prioritise your wellbeing above all else.
- Meditate where you feel safe. Your environment has a profound impact on your sense of wellbeing. If you are embarking on a mindfulness meditation practice, you will want to be somewhere comfortable, in a place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. If you are scanning the world around you for threats as you begin meditation, you are unlikely to enter into the experience.
- Take things at your own pace. Meditation isn’t an endurance sport. While you can feel the pressure to build up the length of time you spend meditating, long periods of meditation might leave you feeling ungrounded and unsafe. But any amount of meditation will give you some benefit, even just a few minutes.
- You don’t have to close your eyes. It is such a common instruction, you might think that closing your eyes is an essential requirement for meditation. But if losing your visual connection with the world is triggering, it’s OK to lower your eyes or simply soften your gaze.
- Focus on your out-breath. One of the physical symptoms of traumatic stress can be shallow and rapid breathing. If you are focusing on your breath during meditation, this can lead to an unpleasant feedback loop of panicked breathing. So shift your focus to a long, slow out-breath. This is a physiological signal to your body that it can relax.
- Find a different anchor of attention. It may be that focusing on your breath is triggering. If that’s the case, and you want to persevere with meditation, find something else that you can centre your attention on. Perhaps your physical contact with the world helps you feel grounded and secure? Then focus your attention on your feet on the floor or the feeling of your clothes on your body.
- Apply the brakes if you need to. There are no points for persevering through pain. If you find yourself drifting outside your window of tolerance, take action. Open your eyes, reconnect with your environment, place your hand on your heart if that is soothing to you.
- Explore other ways to be mindful. There is a world of mindfulness practice beyond sitting in silent meditation. Mindful walking and eating can be useful ways to slow down and pay attention to what is going on in and around you. If meditation doesn’t work for you but colouring books do, embrace that option.
On a personal level, I’ve been working to incorporate trauma sensitivity into my own mindfulness practice. And I try to practise these principles when I lead mindfulness meditations for people on Club Soda’s courses. In my experience, I’ve found it is possible to benefit from meditation and mindfulness even if you are living with traumatic stress. You just need to find ways to make it work for you.
So keep experimenting and don’t give up. You’ve got this.