Mindfulness meditation as a way of treating trauma and PTSD is a hot topic. There is a growing amount of research that shows meditation is beneficial to people with PTSD. Unfortunately, there’s also a growing realization that meditation can actually bring on traumatic memories and cause renewed distress for people with trauma.
So is meditation safe, or not?
How Meditation Changes The Traumatized Brain
The symptoms of PTSD in part come from deregulation of the brain areas associated with emotional regulation and memory. The prefrontal cortex and hippocampus become less active and the fear center, the amygdala, becomes over-active. Mindfulness reverses these patterns by increasing prefrontal and hippocampal activity, and toning down the amygdala.
In fact, brain scans confirm that mindfulness meditation is correlated with an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, a decrease of gray matter in the amygdala, and neuroimaging studies have found that mindfulness meditation also helps to activate the prefrontal cortex.
So meditation can help “rewire” the brain to be less afraid in the here and now, less convinced that we are still in the situations that traumatized us. But there is a caveat.
Re-experiencing Trauma Through Meditation
Asking someone with trauma to pay close, sustained attention to their internal experience, we invite them into contact with traumatic stimuli—thoughts, images, memories, and physical sensations that may relate to a traumatic experience. This can aggravate and intensify symptoms of traumatic stress, in some cases even lead to retraumatization—a relapse into an intensely traumatized state.
In May, 2017, Dr. Willoughby Britton, who has studied the adverse effects of contemplative practices for more than a decade, released a study that identified 59 different kinds of negative meditation experiences. For certain practitioners (specifically those with a history of trauma) “Releases of tension in the body or subtle body also sometimes coincided with an upwelling of emotionally charged content. Practitioners reported emotional upwelling during subtle body practices as well as during other Vajrayāna practices, such as visualizations.”
This is similar to my own experience of flashbacks. They often tend to come when I’m focused on feelings in my body, or when I’m not focusing on a routine activity (like doing the dishes) and my mind is unoccupied.
So if you’ve had negative experiences with meditation in the past, you’re definitely not alone. And there are precautions you can take to meditate safely, so that you can reap the benefits of meditation without opening yourself up to retraumatization.
Meditating Safely When You’ve Experienced Trauma
Nothing in life will ever be 100% safe, and there is no way to guarantee you will not experience a trigger while meditating. But there are some things you can do to make triggers less likely when you meditate.
- Meditate with the aid of a mental health professional. This may be the safest way to start a meditation practice, so that even if you are triggered your therapist can help you through the experience. Even if you’ve established your practice and are able to dodge unwanted emotions, meditating with your therapist is a great way to begin de-sensitizing yourself to those negative feelings. Remember, healing is about being able to think of what happened without reliving the trauma. A mental health professional is able to help you do just that.
- Meditate only where you feel safe. As nice as it might be to meditate in a park in order to connect with nature, you may want to avoid this if you don’t feel 100% safe out in public. The slightest bit of unease can manifest during your meditation by bringing back the fear you felt during your trauma. Get lots of practice meditating in your safe space at home, or with your therapist, before you try to take your practice out into the wild.
- Meditate while being active. We think of meditation as sitting still and emptying our minds, but mindfulness is about being present in the current moment. (This is one reason why it’s beneficial for trauma fighters.) Any activity that you can focus on completely can be an experience in mindfulness and meditation. Knitting, macrame, pottery, carpentry, cake decorating – you get the idea – are all ways of being in the present and can be safer ways to meditate.
- Meditate while being creative. Research has shown that creating or tending things by hand enhances mental health and makes us happy. When you’re deeply absorbed in something that is truly interesting to you; there’s almost a loss of self and you lose track of time, that’s when your thoughts shift from your past traumatic time frame to being absorbed in the NOW.
- Meditate with a script. Guided meditations and journeys are another way of giving yourself something to focus on while you meditate. On a guided journey you focus on the voice that is leading you and on imagining the situation they are describing. I’ve had tremendous success with my friend Lora O’Brien’s guided journey method, and I cannot recommend her classes highly enough.
Follow these guidelines and you can meditate much more safely. What are your experiences with meditating? Share them in the comments below.