What rises to the surface of our awareness when we practice mindfulness is not always easy to witness. Some things we might not feel ready to take a look at, which can stir strong emotions and give rise to past trauma. Given that some people have indeed experienced strong, unexpected side effects of mindfulness practice, it might lead us to wonder:
Can mindfulness be harmful?
In and of itself, mindfulness is simply the act of paying attention to our present moment experience. It is as simple and straightforward as watching the rise and fall of our belly or chest as we breathe. It is also as calming as watching the way the wind shakes the leaves or noticing the sensations of petting our favorite furry friend. In this sense, mindfulness is generally a soothing practice that grounds, settles, and relaxes us.
With that said, mindfulness practice is quite broad and runs deep. When we explore the more nuanced aspects of our experience, such as the complexity of emotions related to past trauma or loss, we run the risk of witnessing more than we can handle for the moment. For this reason, mindfulness practice can be explored with the same commitment to safety as when we are learning to swim. It is better not to jump into the deep end before we learn the basic skills required to safely navigate the waters.
There are many ways we can explore mindfulness to help ensure that it does not harm us. It is important to note, however, that harm is not the same as temporary discomfort. During even safe mindfulness practice, uncomfortable or challenging feelings may (and often do) rise to the surface. This is a part of the natural process. Harm, on the other hand, is a sustained damaging result of practice. When the negative effects of practice endure, this can be understood as harm.
The following tips for safe mindfulness practice apply to both mindfulness students and teachers. This helps to ensure that not only are we practicing safely but that if we are offering mindfulness teachings to others, we are doing so safely and responsibly.
5 Tips for Safe Mindfulness Practice
1. Begin with low-intensity practices
If we are new to mindfulness practice or have a history of trauma, it is important to start with short, low-intensity practices. Mindfulness of walking, breath awareness, or other forms of mindful movement can be a good place to start. Note, however, that even certain breathing practices can be challenging for some, and so it is important to know yourself (or get to know those you are working with) to best assess what will be the most nourishing introduction to the practice.
2. Move gently and compassionately from there
Once we have gotten our feet wet, it can be tempting to dive straight into more in-depth practices. If we are not prepared for this deeper descent and/or have experienced past trauma, this can be deeply unsettling. Take it slow, remembering there is nowhere we need to rush off to. Self-compassion practices might be a good next step, but again, this will vary from person to person.
3. Remember that your wellbeing is the priority
During practice, remember that your wellbeing is of top priority. If certain instructions feel too unsettling or challenging for you, remember that you can stop the practice at any time you need to. If you are in a group setting, you are welcome to leave the room if needed. Whatever is required for your safety is wholeheartedly welcome in any practice. Practice patience and self-compassion as you explore this.
4. Consider working with an advanced practitioner
If you are worried about what mindfulness might bring up for you, or if you simply would like some support in going deeper into your practice, seek out the services of an advanced teacher that you trust. You do not have to do this work all on your own; there are many experienced practitioners that can support you.
5. Consider trauma sensitive mindfulness training
If you are a mindfulness teacher yourself, consider taking a trauma sensitive mindfulness training program. This can help you to gain the skills to safely and gently guide your students through a nourishing practice. Likewise, if you are a student of mindfulness, you might seek out a teacher or program that is designed specifically to help those with past trauma.
As with anything, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to safe mindfulness practice. For some, deep breathing exercises might contribute to harm, whereas others might struggle in this way with body awareness. Cultivate compassion, intuition, and patience as you navigate the waters of mindfulness – whether for yourself or for another.
To learn more about trauma sensitive mindfulness, you might explore: