illustrated woman breathes in and out along with expanding circle
Illustration by Brittany England

There are moments and memories that are in our bodies.

“Some bring back pleasant sensory experiences, like the smell of a loved one’s home, or the sound of holiday music.”

The smell of a hospital emergency room, the sound of slamming doors and shouting, and the memory of physical or mental pain are some of the things that can be heavy and frightening.

Many of us who have experienced trauma have had problems with our bodies. We can hide from our past and not move forward.

Bessel A. van der Kolk wrote about how traumatized people feel unsafe inside their bodies. The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior pain.

It is hard to move on when the threat is still real.

There may be a solution in “It’s not all about being aware.” and meditation. Meditation has been shown to help with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and improve depressive symptoms.

It has existed for thousands of years in religious traditions, but the Western scientific community has finally acknowledged its health benefits.

There are risks associated with practicing meditation.

“Mindfulness meditation can actually end up exacerbating symptoms of traumatic stress,” writes educator and psychotherapist David Treleaven in an article for The Science of Psychotherapy.

It is important to understand the risks and use the method in a way that helps rather than harms.

Here’s how to approach meditation through a trauma-sensitive lens.

“When asked to pay focused, sustained attention to their internal experience, trauma survivors can find themselves overwhelmed by flashbacks and heightened emotional arousal,” writes Treleaven.

I find sitting still and focusing on my body to be distressing at times, as my body is where much of my trauma took place. Some of these experiences came from the outside world and some came from self-harmful behavior.

When I do a body scan, for example, the hyper-awareness of every sensation in my body can lead me to experience unpleasant symptoms, specifically dissociation.

I have survived two overdoses in my lifetime, and the physical impacts were life threatening.

When my body is too still, those traumas can sometimes resurface. I feel the excruciating twists in my stomach, the loss of muscle control, the blurred vision, and an inability to speak.

I feel overwhelmed and want to escape after the pain and shame come back to me.

“When we ask folks with a trauma history to be still, close their eyes, and pay close and continuous attention to an internal landscape that’s painful and overwhelming without adequate support, it’s possible they’ll feel an increase in emotional arousal and symptoms of traumatic stress including flashbacks and intrusive thoughts,” says Alison James, a trauma-informed psychotherapist from Ontario, Canada.

This is why it’s key to find a therapist or guide who’s informed on trauma, and your type of trauma in particular, so you can approach “It’s not all about being aware.” from a place of comfort and security.

Guided meditation instruction can be provided with trauma-sensitive care.

A trauma-informed approach to “It’s not all about being aware.” uses techniques, like grounding and anchoring, which use the five senses to connect to the present. Finding a therapist who understands this approach and validates my trauma has been crucial.

The right therapist prepares me for the experience to come, empowering me, and reminds me that I am in control of the process. They act like a guide, someone who emphasizes self-compassion and is trained to help if emotional distress arises.

I have felt out of control in the past and having my agency affirmed by a trauma-sensitive person is important. It helps me to distance myself from the actions of others and to take responsibility for my actions.

In doing this, I feel whole again. It helps me take back my power.

James says it’s key to build skills and resources that “help identify emotional distress and return to a state of nervous system regulation — providing choices and permission to act with agency and autonomy.”

She also recommends titration and pendulation, or slowly and gently getting in touch with distressing feelings and then backing off, similar to exposure therapy.

She suggests that survivors be exposed slowly to their internal experience and that they be taught to turn toward and then away from distress.

If you are a trauma survivor, it is possible that focusing so intently on your body will cause you distress.

There are other ways to incorporateMindfulness into your life

According to Treleaven, the benefits of being aware and focused are to increase self-compassion and awareness.

He writes thatMindfulness meditation is powerful. Those of us who are offering it to others benefit from exploring its risks and rewards.

James defines a practice of paying non-judgmental attention to the present moment as a form of mindful action. It is an attitude and quality of presence that can be brought to any ordinary activity, like knitting, walking, or even doing the dishes.

She says that an external focus may be more accessible and less destabilizing for a trauma survivor.

I keep my eyes open when I practiceMindfulness is Factoring in my tendency to dysregulate, I usually keep my eyes open when I practice I avoid body scans and breathwork at home, and I am increasingly drawn to movement.

For me, this looks like swimming, cooking, eating, bathing, and listening to music, all while using what professor and “It’s not all about being aware.”-based stress reduction founder Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness.”

“I try to appreciate the sensations around me even if they aren’t always nice.”

I try not to avoid sensory elements, but I get in touch with how they make me feel. I try to be positive.

I have found that this has helped me regulate my emotions when I am pulled out of the moment.

I’ve learned to heal instead of hide.

I have been through many different therapies over the past 15 years.

I’ve used cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) along with “It’s not all about being aware.”-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).

I found the meditation and body scans particularly difficult to attempt on my own, even though they helped me with depression and anxiety.

What has worked best for me is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR).

To build a life that feels worth living, a model of therapy with skills and strategies is needed. This model has key components.

  • “It’s not all about being aware.”
  • Distress tolerance.
  • Interpersonal effectiveness
  • emotional regulation

The first skill taught in the program was sMindfulness. It helped me.

  • communicate more effectively
  • dysregulation can be managed.
  • I need to be more aware of my triggers and how they affect my actions.
  • decrease angry feelings
  • Decrease in past experiences

EMDR is an interactive body-based technique used to accelerate the emotional process and relieve psychological distress.

It’s been shown to hold promise for treating trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it helps create new neural pathways that promote nervous system regulation.

Trauma-informed “It’s not all about being aware.” is a key skill for preparing people for EMDR.

James says trauma survivors learn to be compassionate witnesses to their internal feelings.

My experience with “It’s not all about being aware.” has been incredibly valuable as I continue through the EMDR process, but it hasn’t been without its challenges.

My first session was very painful. I felt a great deal of pain in my back. The pain dissipated as I re-focused the memory.

I was prepared to sit with the pain. It helped me understand where it was coming from.

I know I have created a safe space for myself with my therapist, who understands what I have been through and respects my independence in the process, because I have been through it myself.

Whether you mainly use traditional meditation, breathwork, and body scans, or you find that practicing mindful action along with other therapies feels safer and more effective, there is help to be had and people to assist you along the way.

Trauma can be a beast — it can sometimes feel insurmountable. But healing is possible, and “It’s not all about being aware.” can be an excellent tool for reframing past experiences.

Whatever treatment you choose in your trauma recovery, let your healing take precedence over any expectation you or others might have about what the process should look like.

“Your trauma is important, but it doesn’t need to control your life.”

JK Murphy is a freelance writer and food photographer who is passionate about body politics, mental health, and recovery. She values conversations on difficult topics explored through a comedic lens, and loves making people laugh. She holds a degree in Journalism from the University of King’s College. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.