Mindfulness practices can help us work with fear and trauma to cultivate safety, stability, and a sense of inner relationship. Because fear and trauma both involve turning away from present-moment experience, they present specific obstacles to life and mindfulness. Based on my own experience as a therapist, a meditator, and a survivor of trauma, I’ve put together some thoughts and suggestions for working with fear and trauma with mindfulness and compassion.
Mindfulness and Fear
Fear is a natural response to life situations that functions to keep us safe and alive. In situations that are actually threatening, fear helps mobilize us to run away or freeze, and once the situation passes, fear normally subsides. Because we are human beings with complex brains, we can symbolize experience to ourselves in words and images, and this is a handy ability. However, we can also react to the words and images that we symbolize to ourselves as though they were real, and this can get us caught in fear loops, reactive patterns, and build a cocoon of habit and misplaced belief.
Sitting meditation practice can help us cultivate kindness towards our own fear when it arises, and it can help us evaluate whether our fear is in relation to a real external danger, or towards something we have merely imagined or believed out of habit. When there is a real external danger, fear is an appropriate response, and we should react by leaving the situation or changing it. When there is not a real threat, however, we can work with fear by becoming curious about it, softening our hearts, and getting underneath the storyline to work with the raw experience of fear itself. The life energy thus liberated becomes available to us as the ongoing flow of life itself, and we are able to step into a more intimate relationship with ourselves and the world. When mindfulness practice works in this way, it is good, wholesome, and healthy.
Mindfulness and Trauma
Trauma is a specific response to overwhelming situations of the past, when the organism felt threatened beyond its ability to cope. Traumatic affect remains lodged in the nervous system as unintegrated impulses, sensations, and behavior patterns that are characterized by nervous system hyperarousal (e.g fast breathing, flushed skin tone, sense of fear, desire to run or fight, flinching), experiential constriction (e.g. avoiding situations that resemble the original experience), and intrusion (thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories from the original experience intrude in present-day life).
Mindfulness practice can help people work with trauma, and it is important to adapt mindfulness practices to present-day needs. For example, sometimes sitting alone in a room focusing on your breath can help you calm down and feel better, and sometimes it can just make you feel more alone, scared, and unstable. For these reasons, it is important to use a mix of self-care skills in working with trauma, and not to overrely on one skill (e.g. meditation practice, distraction, socializing) when building a network of wellness skills is more likely to lead to health and success in trauma healing.
Mindfulness Practices for Trauma
Here are some suggestions for mindfulness practices in working with trauma.
1. Noticing present-moment level of arousal
Notice the signs in the present moment of nervous system arousal (e.g. fast breathing, wanting to run, pain or tightness in chest or stomach, racing thoughts— whatever your signs are that you are starting to feel anxious or frightened). Rate your level of arousal on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the least activated and 10 being the most activated. Optional: Track your level of arousal throughout your day.
2. Noticing arousal level, choosing what to do, and learning your soothing activities
Rate your present-moment level of arousal. Based on how activated you feel, what could you do to lower your arousal by just 1 point? Experiment with different grounding, soothing, resourcing activities, such as slowing down to breathe, feeling your feet, going for a walk in the park, petting a cat or dog, mindfully drinking a glass of water, etc. Learn the different soothing activities that work for you in different states of arousal.
3. Awareness of a present-moment resource
Choose something in your environment that feels soothing, relaxing, and resourcing to you. Pay attention to it. Notice how paying attention to a soothing object feels to you. (This can be particularly helpful if your nervous system is activated [e.g. aroused in a fight-or-flight way] and the external situation is actually safe.) Practice in different situations with different present-moment resources until you understand how to work with a variety of feelings and situations, and until you gain the habit of soothing your nervous system by choosing what to pay attention to. (In many situations that are safe in the present moment, but feel unsafe, you can change your level of activation simply by choosing to pay attention something soothing in the present moment, rather than paying attention to something frightening in your thoughts or memories. Practice cultivating safety until you have made a habit of it and it comes easily for you.)
4. Awareness of the feeling of fear itself
Once you are skilled at calming yourself down and feeling safe, you could experiment with bringing your attention directly on to the feeling of fear and activation. If you are able to observe the fear and pain without being sucked into it, you might be able to understand it better and find ways to see through the painful and fearful experiences. By letting the trapped nervous system activation move through you, you can free yourself from the past and integrate what once felt overwhelmingly scary. By bringing your awareness onto the present-moment experience of fear from within a nervous system that is anchored in safety and abundance, you can befriend and liberate those aspect of you that have been held in thrall to the past. (Note that this is an advanced skill, and often in trauma healing it helps to have trusted, skilled others to accompany you in your journey.)
There are lots of great books, friends, and professionals out there, as well as many wonderful life-affirming practices and activities. I wish you well in your journey, and I hope you find just the right combination of things to work with your fear and trauma, and find liberation from them. Please feel free to get in touch with questions or feedback!
Cori, J. L. (2007). Healing from trauma: A survivor’s guide to understanding your symptoms and reclaiming your life. Cambridge, MA: Marlowe & Company.
Herman, J. L. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence— from domestic violence to political terror (Revised ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books.
Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT skills training manual (2nd ed). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Rothschild, B. (2000). The body remembers: The psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment. New York, NY: Norton.
Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Trungpa, C. (2010). Smile at fear: Awakening the true heart of bravery. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Trungpa, C. (1984). Shambhala: The sacred path of the warrior. Boston, MA: Shambhala.