What to know before you meditate or practice mindfulness.
Meditation and mindfulness are wonderful practices, but if they are not trauma-aware practices, they can trigger a reaction you may not like!
This study found that meditators experience a range of reactions, from joy and bliss, to pain and stress, visions and de-personalization.
Don’t be alarmed! As a mindfulness coach and someone who works with trauma, I can tell you that there is a crucial factor that goes largely unaddressed:
Unresolved past trauma.
If you are *just* undergoing a stressful time, meditation and mindfulness can be truly life-changing.
If you have unresolved trauma, the same practices can trigger flashbacks, disassociation and worse.
If you have unresolved trauma and you use mindfulness and meditation practices specifically designed for those with a trauma history, then again, it can be hugely, wonderfully healing and peace-inducing.
So, before you commence a meditation or mindfulness practice, how can you tell if you are traumatised or in a state of extreme stress?
It may be true that to some extent, everyone will experience some form of trauma in their lives.
In fact, trauma can be considered any event which adversely affects your nervous system and by extension, your emotional responses.
Even moving home at a young age is a form of trauma (you know the animated film “Inside Out”? There is a great interview with the creators of this film which explains the significance to a child of moving schools!)
My point is that first, you may not realize how past events have impacted your nervous system.
Second, stress – the normal, day to day stress of living in our modern world – is still interpreted as a trauma event to the nervous system.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the body cannot necessarily tell the difference between a heart rate that is elevated because you are running from a sabre-toothed tiger, and a heart rate that is elevated because you have a work deadline.
Symptoms of Extreme Stress v. Trauma
You will have a clue that you’re suffering from stress rather than trauma because on a day to day basis your symptoms are subtle rather than ‘acute’ – they are not interrupting your life in any dramatic fashion.
Still, stress can take a long-term toll on you and your health if you don’t do anything about it.
In terms of symptoms, those of extreme stress and trauma are often the same:
You may be having difficulty connecting to loved ones in a relationship. For example, sexual intimacy may pose challenges (some may call it ‘dysfunction,’ but it could very well be a symptom of a traumatised nervous system).
You may have difficulty falling asleep and have restless nights, or episodes of anxiety.
You may notice that your symptoms are circumstantial – that you have certain triggers but only in certain situations.
Triggers can sometimes indicate whether your symptoms come from past trauma, or ongoing life stress. If from past trauma, your reaction will likely be more acute, shutting you down, or causing a panic attack – in some way stopping you from getting on with your life.
Here’s the thing – you may not know if your symptoms relate to past trauma or present extreme stress, so developing a self-practice for healing is crucial in determining it.
I suggest starting with a mindfulness and/or meditation practice – slowly, just for a few minutes, paying attention to how your body and mind react.
If the mindfulness/meditation practice reduces your symptoms – it was extreme stress and you are on the road to peace.
If the mindfulness/meditation practice does NOT help your symptoms OR worsens them (yes, this can happen), then stop immediately. You are dealing with trauma and require something a little different.
The path to healing ideally includes mindfulness practices, but with a trauma practice, I recommend starting with the body. To learn more about what steps I have taken and take with my clients, you can grab my guide below!
Get my 6 Step Roadmap to Healing Trauma Holistically