A few months ago, I was approached with a problem by a colleague who taught meditation in a classroom setting. A student of hers had lost her father to COVID-19 and was struggling with symptoms of traumatic stress. When she’d meditate, images and sensations would flood her field of consciousness, leaving her more rattled than before.
“Should I keep meditating?” she’d asked my colleague. “I want to work with my stress, but practicing seems to be making things worse. What should I do?”
This is a conversation I’d been having for years with meditation teachers and practitioners all over the world. Given the global pandemic, this conversation has become even more frequent and intense.
One of the frameworks that’s helpful in these cases is trauma-sensitive mindfulness practice. Trauma-sensitive, or trauma-informed, mindfulness means that we have a basic understanding of trauma in the context of our practice. We can learn how to recognize trauma, respond to it skillfully, and take preemptive steps to avoid retraumatization.
So what can we actually do in practice? One simple way is working with multiple anchors of attention. Meditation (as most of you will know) often involves working with an object, or anchor of attention—a neutral reference point that helps support mental stability. An anchor might be the sensation of our breath coming in and out of the nostrils, or the rising and falling of our abdomen. When we become lost in thought during practice, we can return to our anchor, fixing our attention on the stimuli we’ve chosen.
But anchors can also intensify trauma. The breath, for instance, is far from neutral for many survivors. It’s an area of the body that can hold tension related to a trauma and connect to overwhelming, life-threatening events.
As a remedy, we can work with different anchors of attention. For some of us, it could be the sensations of our hands resting on our thighs, or our buttocks on the cushion. Other stabilizing anchors might include another sense all together, such as hearing or sight. One client of mine had a soft blanket that she would touch slowly as an anchor. For some, walking meditation is a great way to develop more stable anchors of attention, such as the feeling of one’s feet on the ground—whatever supports self-regulation and stability. The key here is experimentation.