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Lesson 4, Topic 1
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A primer on trauma-informed meditation from MTT alumn Brenda Bacich KEVINCOPY Copy

Guiding Meditations With A Trauma-Informed Perspective: A Paradigm Shift

By Brenda Bacich, MA, NCC, LPC

The APA defines trauma as a “disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning. Traumatic events include those caused by human behavior (e.g., rape, war, industrial accidents) as well as by nature (e.g., earthquakes) and often challenge an individual’s view of the world as a just, safe, and predictable place.”

Trauma is more common than you think

Many people carry symptoms of trauma through their lives, but are considered sub-clinical or not meeting the criteria for a trauma-related mental health diagnosis. 

Nearly 61% of women and 51% of men have survived a traumatic event. Approximately 6% of US citizens are diagnosed annually with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder which equates to about 12 million citizens in any given year, according to The National Center for PTSD. The National Council for Mental Wellbeing estimates that 70% of adults, equaling 223.4 million people, have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. 

My career revolves around helping people who have experienced trauma. I am a Licensed Professional Counselor, specializing in trauma and grief and loss. My experience of walking with individuals who have survived significant and life altering events has provided a deeply personal and intimate knowledge of trauma. 

On a daily basis, I bear witness to, and hold space for, the pain, the anger, the helplessness, the fear and the sense of physical and emotional paralysis that often accompanies life after the trauma. 

As meditation teachers, we will meet these people in our meditation classes and offerings. We must be prepared to gently support our students, by being aware of the number of people who carry silent scars. We can do this through adopting a trauma-informed perspective. 

Adopting a trauma-informed perspective

In the medical and mental health fields, a “trauma informed perspective” sees trauma-related symptoms and behaviors as individuals’ best and most resilient attempts to manage, cope with, and rise above their experiences of trauma.

The CDC defines The Six Guiding Principles of Trauma-Informed Care as: promoting an environment of safety; trustworthiness and transparency; peer support; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment voice and choice; and cultural, historical and gender issues.  

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Our responsibility as meditation teachers & guides

People who have survived trauma typically experience the opposite of the balance and equanimity they are likely seeking from you, as a meditation teacher. 

What responsibility does that place on you as the meditation guide? 

By recognizing that a majority of people have experienced some kind of trauma in their lives, an opportunity emerges to share tools and teach practices that can assist in leading the seeker to a place and space of equanimity, holistic stability and personal integration. 

Creating a safe space

In initiating a yoga or meditation class, I ask those journeying with me to create and hold a space of safety which will be held for ourselves and the others in the room throughout our time together. 

I ask that within that space, we let go of competition or judgment of ourselves and others, and begin to allow ourselves to feel a sense of safety as we connect with the energy in the room. 

I ask that we give ourselves permission to experience any thought, emotion or sensation that emerges from a space of observation, and with the knowledge that no state is permanent. 

I ask for gentleness with self and others, therefore, setting a space of safety and support. 

Using trauma-informed language and wording

Many of the traditional words and cues we use when guiding meditations can be activating to those who are living with trauma.

Activation in an individual can occur from words and cues that can remind them of painful emotions, thoughts and images that often live just beyond the realm of conscious thought in those who have survived trauma. In some cases, it can take them back to the space in their memory in which the trauma occurred and they may experience emotions that feel like the event is currently occurring. This is often called a “flashback” or a “trauma reminder,” and can result in the physiological response of fight, flight or freeze. We can also think of this state as run, hide and disappear. 

Shifting from directive to inclusive/inviting language (with examples)

Often, in guiding our meditation sessions, we speak in a directive manner, leading our attendees to do and feel certain things. While this is offered in a gentle and well-intentioned manner, shifting to a trauma-informed perspective can build trust and offer transparency to invite people into the space in their own time.

Example: invitational language

Through the use of inclusive language, we punctuate that we are in this together – no one will be alone. An example of inclusive language is: “I invite you to join our meditation space today. We will begin by asking ourselves to draw the oxygen deeply into our lungs. If it feels comfortable, let’s pause at the top of that inhale and then allow our lungs to deeply exhale”. To compare, an example of directive language may be “Welcome to our meditation class. Begin by taking a deep breath in. When you reach the top of the breath, pause for a moment and then let your lungs deeply exhale”. The first statement implies collaboration and mutuality as well as empowerment voice and choice: allowing our students self determination even while leading them. 

Example: closing the eyes

The natural flow of the meditation may include direction to close the eyes. This is shared in a benevolent manner, to promote the entrance to their own space and to assist in minimizing possible distractions.  However, to a person who has experienced trauma, particularly sexual trauma, the prompt to close eyes results in an inability to see what is happening in front of, behind and beside them. 

The person who has experienced trauma has learned to stay hyper-vigilant, always aware, to keep themselves safe. In addition, some individuals can experience dissociation when eyes are closed. Dissociation, while often viewed as negative, is our mind doing its job to help to keep us safe from too much overload. It is often first experienced within a traumatic situation, and is protective, but can become a place to which a person retreats when they are feeling unsafe. 

Inviting our students to soften their gaze rather than close their eyes is promoting the core value of safety. An example of replacing the closed eyes prompt is: “As we continue our grounding breaths, we can choose to close our eyes or to soften our gaze, picking a focal point on which to rest our eyes through our time together”.  

Example: using alternatives for the word “relax”

The use of the word “relax” is central to many meditative practices including body scans and progression relaxation. The cue to “relax” an area of the body seems like a core aspect of the meditation; after all, an intention of meditation can be to reach that state. 

The word “relax” wouldn’t seem to conjure fear for most people, but when thinking of the person who has experienced sexual trauma, our recognition that the perpetrator likely told them to relax at some point during the assault is imperative. 

Yoga and meditation students, as well as clients, have shared that the word “relax” can lead to trauma responses. Replacing this word with alternatives such as: “let’s soften our knees”;  “we will move toward gently letting go of any tightness in our necks”; “let’s send out the message to release any stress or tightness in our feet”; “now, we will invite our minds to rest in safety”;  “we can envision that our hands feel as if warm water is flowing over them” or “let’s see if our toes would like to settle into a calm state as we feel the tension of the day dissipate”.  Using a derivative of “relax” linked with inclusive language can also promote safety: “In this space, we feel ourselves settle into the safety of deep relaxation”. 

Example: From “defense mechanisms” to “protective responses”

Additional areas to be aware of when leading from a trauma-informed perspective include shifting our thoughts from identifying physiological protective responses as “defense mechanisms”, and using words like “protective response” instead. 

Our bodies and minds have been designed to enter certain states to protect us from overload of senses or emotions – an attempt to maintain homeostasis. An experience of dissociation, for example, is not inherently pathological unto itself. Think of the times in which you drove to work but do not remember stopping at any traffic lights. This is a form of dissociation. The body completes motor skill activities and the brain is engaged at a subconscious level; however, our conscious thoughts may be on the workload waiting for us, and we fail to register the trip. 

Example: From “triggered” to “activated”

References to “triggers” can be replaced with “activating”- for instance- “The word relax can be triggering to people” vs “The word relax can be activating to people”. 

The rationale behind replacing the word “trigger” is due to gun violence. According to Pew Research Center, in 2020, 45,222 people died from gun violence. The data indicates that 43% of those deaths were murders and 54% died by suicide. Sandy Hook Promise indicates that each day 12 children die from gun violence in the US and 32 children are shot and injured. They further report that since 1999, 300,000 students have been on campus during a school shooting. In being mindful of these numbers, we recognize that avoiding the word “trigger” to describe a person’s response to a trauma reminder is necessary, kind and empathetic. 

Evolving our language while treating ourselves with patience and kindness

Like many things in life, use of the words, phrases and directive explored in this article carry no purpose of inflicting pain or suffering. Words have meaning, and help us to communicate and to understand through shared definition. 

By recognizing that a vast majority of us have experienced some kind of trauma in our lives, we can show more empathy and kindness, and share understanding. This trauma-informed perspective can help us to move toward living a life of intentional compassion and loving kindness. 

At the same time, in being gentle with ourselves, we keep in mind that we, as human beings, can sometimes lose our intention of mindfulness, and slip into past patterns. When we recognize that this is occurring, we can modify our language and focus, take responsibility for our actions and make the necessary micro-adjustments to our thinking – the same way in which we would shift if we noticed that we are not appropriately positioned in our Tree Pose in our yoga practice. 

The evolution toward trauma informed guidance is a journey in being gentle and compassionate, both with ourselves and with those we serve.   

The Buddhist understanding of compassion is the wish for others to be free of suffering and causes of suffering. Guiding meditation from a trauma informed perspective allows us to embody that compassion. 

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