Psychologist, Author, Teacher of Mindfulness and Compassion

How to Meditate if You're Going Through Trauma

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How to Meditate if You're Going Through Trauma

Hi, this is Dr. Susan Pollak.

I'm a psychologist who has treated trauma for over 30 years. So it is with some experience that I say that millions of people are feeling profoundly traumatized right now by the sudden and unprecedented upheaval in our world and the staggering numbers of lives that have been lost. Simply stated, trauma is the response to a deeply disturbing event that overwhelms our ability to cope, causing feelings of helplessness, diminishing our sense of self and our ability to feel a full range of emotions. If any of this is your experience, you are not alone. Traumatic experiences disrupt our lives, and can retrigger old trauma that we might ordinarily be able to cope with, but now cannot. Just keeping up with the constant onslaught of daily events is more than most of us can bear, and our "bandwidth" for processing more is diminished.

We usually cope with trauma in ways that can make it worse. We are often told just to "get over it" and "move on." While this can be adaptive, it can also lead to denial and numbing out. There is a saying that what we can feel we can heal. For most of us, the natural tendency of the mind is to distract and distance ourselves from the pain—binge watching Netflix, working too much, sleeping, drinking, drugging, or mindless eating. Many of our healthy habits such as exercise, yoga and daily meditation have been disrupted as well. Even those with established meditation practices are reporting that it is hard to sit still.

For the past few decades, with a number of colleagues, I have been exploring a variety of meditation techniques that are safe and grounding for those who have been traumatized. Notably, while many forms of meditation work with the breath, for those who have a trauma history, or struggle with intense anxiety, it is often better not to do this. So, I'd like to offer three examples of non-breath-based meditation that are taught on the Ten Percent Happier app, or that you can easily try on your own. Now, in terms of responding to trauma, one size never fits all. Feel free to experiment to find what feels safe and comforting for you. However you meditate, remember to be as gentle and kind as possible—there is no need to muscle into addressing the trauma you might be holding. And if at any point you feel overwhelmed, feel free to open your eyes or stop.

The first practice is 'Simply Listening.' After you've settled into a comfortable seated or lying down position, listen to the sounds around you. They may be the sounds in your home, or the sounds outside, perhaps rain, traffic, bird songs. No need to name them, just let them come and go. No need to hold on to any sound. Bring your awareness to the sounds around you, noticing one sound at a time. If thoughts or feelings arise, acknowledge them with kindness, but don't get caught in the story. If you find yourself ruminating by something that happened in the past, say to yourself, "If it isn't happening now, it isn't happening." Return to the sounds around you and let them bring you into the present moment. A second non-breath meditation practice is to pay attention to the play of light and color on your closed eyelids. Let your eyes continue to soften. Let your jaw relax and soften. Let your neck and shoulders soften. For many, this can be a new portal of awareness that feels safe and comforting. If you get distracted, just return to what you are noticing behind your eye lids.

A third option is to bring your attention to the sensations in the soles of your feet. You can do this lying down, sitting, or standing up. Just feel your feet. As you notice the sensations, let the floor hold you and meet you. Feeling the soles of the feet helps us feel anchored in the present moment and helps us develop the capacity to ground, even when we are feeling distress. Walking meditation can also be quite calming. After feeling the soles of the feet, take one step and then another. Move at a speed that feels comfortable to you. Try to feel each step. Try this even if you are in a small apartment. The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we let each step be a step of peace. Experiment with this. You might want each step of be one of compassion or kindness, connection or ease. You decide what you need. Let that quality suffuse your body and mind.

These simple meditation practices can help soothe the mind and the body so that it becomes possible to gently turn toward the trauma and pain without making them worse. Again, what we feel, we can heal.

Give yourself that gift.