We often hear about the life-enhancing benefits of mindfulness meditation practice. As teachers, we have likely experienced these benefits ourselves and have therefore become inspired to share the practice with others. But is mindfulness always healing? Or, is there a potential for mindfulness and meditation to cause harm to those we share it with?
As mindfulness meditation teachers, it is important to understand that where trauma is present, re-traumatization through mindfulness practice is possible. As we know, mindfulness brings us into contact with our direct experience – and, with whatever lives beneath the surface of it. What we discover in our inner world isn’t always comfortable, and in some cases it can be completely overwhelming.
The answer is not to avoid mindfulness or meditation where trauma is present; however, it is important to navigate these practices with skill and care. This is the work of trauma-sensitive mindfulness.
What Is Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness?
Trauma-sensitive mindfulness is the practice of taking a trauma-informed approach to the work that we do during mindfulness and meditation exercises. As David Treleaven notes, trauma-informed practice indicates that we have a basic understanding of trauma as it relates to our work.
When it comes to mindfulness, trauma-sensitivity begins with the recognition that mindfulness and meditation practice can cause things like flashbacks, overwhelm, and dysregulated emotions. Since mindfulness is about paying attention to our experience exactly as it is, each one of us will have a different experience. For those who have experienced trauma, paying close attention might bring things to the surface that we are not yet ready to address (or, that we need professional support to manage).
We can also define trauma-sensitive practice through ‘the 4 Rs’. To be trauma-sensitive (regardless of whether this is in mindfulness teachings, healthcare, or elsewhere) means to have adopted the following:
"Think of trauma as an injury and meditation as an exercise. Sometimes, we need modifications to an exercise to build strength and heal. That’s trauma-sensitive mindfulness.”
- David Treleaven -
Who Can Teach Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness?
Many wonder not only how to teach meditation with trauma-sensitivity but also who can teach it. The important thing to note is that trauma-sensitive practice is not a ‘style’ that we must be qualified to teach (though studying it can help). It is something that everyone can bring to their teachings and it is something that we will learn more about through study and experience.
With that said, it is important not to claim that we are trauma experts if we are not. For example, we can naturally bring trauma-sensitivity into the classes that we lead, but we might not hold a workshop specifically on ‘trauma care’ or ‘trauma sensitivity’ unless we are adequately trained. It is important to be open and honest about what we have knowledge and expertise in.
Tips for Teaching Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness
If you are wondering how to teach mindfulness with increased trauma awareness, there are a variety of tips that you can bring into your teachings. The following list is certainly not exhaustive, but it does highlight some key considerations to make to ensure that you are guiding others as safely and responsibly as possible.
1. Create a safe environment.
First and foremost, we want to ensure that when we are teaching mindfulness, we have created as safe an environment as possible. Safety is multi-dimensional, including elements such as physical safety, emotional safety, and social safety. Therefore, we can cultivate a safe practice environment not just by ensuring that the space is free of physical danger but also by showing up with compassion, care, authenticity, and full presence.
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
- Bessel van der Kolk -
2. Be aware of signs that trauma is coming up.
If we are teaching trauma-sensitive mindfulness, we probably already realize the impact that trauma can have. However, are we aware of the signs that trauma is present? Signs can include: slack or rigid muscle tone, hyperventilation, excessive sweating, emotional volatility, and pale skin. Awareness is key if we are to respond appropriately.
3. Offer suggestions and instructions that are flexible.
Another tip for how to teach mindfulness with sensitivity to trauma is to offer options or invitations in your instructions. If you are leading a group, it is difficult to ensure that your instructions are supportive for everyone, so to be inclusive of everyone, you might offer flexible guidance. For instance, you might say something like: “If it feels comfortable for you now, you might gently close your eyes; or you might instead soften your gaze.” You can also offer options as to where your students can anchor their attention (i.e. the breath or the seat or their hands).
4. Teach your students how to ‘change the channel’ or ‘apply the brakes’.
If a mindfulness practice is becoming too much for someone, it is important that they know how to modulate their emotions or shift focus. One idea is to teach people that they can ‘switch the channel’ in their mind if feelings of overwhelm begin to rise. Additionally, we can always give people the option to open their eyes if they need to, shift their posture, or even leave the room.
5. Be available before and after the session for questions and comments.
Furthermore, it is important to make yourself available to your students for them to share their experience with you. If they have questions or concerns beforehand, can they come to you before the session begins? Or, if they had something troubling come up during practice, can they discuss this with you at the end of class? This can help your students to feel safe and supported.
10 Resources for How to Teach Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness
For additional guidance on how to teach mindfulness or meditation with trauma awareness, consider the following resources. Learn from top mindfulness teachers and trauma researchers to strengthen your ability to lead with sensitivity and care.
When you are working with people who have experienced trauma, you want to make sure that they have tools required to modulate their experience. David Treleaven calls this ‘applying the brakes’. As mindfulness meditation teachers, we can equip those we teach with practical techniques that can support them in this.
It is also helpful to have an understanding of the ‘Window of Tolerance’. A term coined by Dan Siegel of the Mindsight Institute, this term refers to when the body is in its optimal state of arousal and a person is able to function most effectively. Being aware of the Window of Tolerance can help us to understand when students are entering into either hyperarousal (can’t calm down) or hypoarousal (shutting down).
Bonnie Duran explores the power of body scans to help us connect with and release stored trauma. She notes that while practicing a body scan meditation, strong emotions can arise because our emotions need to be known before we can let them go.
“Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.”
- Peter Levine -
The Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast, hosted by David Treleaven, features discussions with expert speakers who explore the intersection of mindfulness, meditation, and traumatic stress. David Treleaven also wrote the book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, and has a training program for those that wish to dive deeper.
Another model to keep in mind if we want to teach mindfulness meditation with trauma-sensitivity is the four Rs. In this video, David Treleaven explores what these are: Realize, Recognize, Respond, (Avoid) Re-Traumatization. This definition of trauma-sensitivity comes from the National Center for Trauma-Informed Care.
David Treleaven highlights the importance of cultivating curiosity when teaching others mindfulness. We might not always know what someone needs in a given moment, but by coming from a place of curiosity, we remain open and adaptable. This creates room for us to learn and grow.
In this clip, Bonnie Duran explores the importance of two things: cultural humility and deferring to affinity groups where appropriate. In cases of specific trauma (such as racial trauma), we can consider sharing resources of specific affinity groups that we know of. At the same time, we can welcome all those who come to us with a sense of cultural awareness and humility.
Sean Fargo notes that part of the job of being a mindfulness teacher is to encourage courage. However, in order to do this we need to create a safe environment for our students to explore their experience. By taking mindfulness as a step-by-step process (and addressing difficult emotions in baby steps), we express sensitivity for any trauma that someone might be carrying.
In this talk, Tara Brach explores how to work with trauma, noting that it is sometimes important to not dive straight into what is present. If we are too forceful with our exploration, we might end up feeling retraumatized. If it does not feel right to explore a difficult sensation with greater attention, we can practice loving kindness instead.
Lastly, in this talk, David Treleaven responds to a question about how to teach trauma-sensitive mindfulness when working with groups online. He notes that it is a challenge but shares simple tips to get a sense of what participants are experiencing when teaching virtually.
Learn more about how to teach mindfulness meditation and become certified.