Meditation is really difficult. Have you ever tried? If not, here’s a quick exercise you can do right now. Note: mindfulness isn’t for everybody. So if you feel unsettled by the idea, skip this exercise!
Set a timer for three minutes. Now pay attention only to your breathing, in and out, until your timer goes off. Try to notice the way your breath feels in your lungs, the sound it makes as you exhale. But try not to let you mind stray from your breath.
If you’re like me, the second you start that timer you’ll suddenly remember that there’s a hamper full of dirty clothes at home that needs to be washed, you can’t actually make that dinner with a friend later, you forgot to buy milk at the grocery store, and every other little stress inducing detail of your life.
A common misconception about meditation is that you’re not supposed to have any thoughts at all -- that your mind is supposed to be completely and utterly blank. But this isn’t necessarily true, and trying to force all the thoughts from your mind can actually lead to frustration which makes you more likely to just give up. Meditation can actually just be the practice of being “mindful,” meaning that instead of trying to force all thought out of your head you just pay attention to what you’re paying attention to.
For example, in the breathing exercise above you’re supposed to be thinking thoughts. About your breathing, “in, out, in, out, in, out…” About how the air feels in your lungs. About the way your chest moves up and down. Your mind will inevitably wander. And when it does, just think, “Huh, there’s a random thought. Oh well. In, out, in, out, in, out…”
But it’s easier said than done. Practicing mindfulness can be a bit of a paradox. In the long term, mindfulness is supposed to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Yet, practicing it can lead you down a rabbit hole of anxious thoughts and feelings. This problem can be especially troublesome for people who have experienced trauma.
Experts in the field of trauma informed mindfulness are aware of this paradox. “When we ask someone with trauma to pay close, sustained attention to their internal experience, we invite them into contact with traumatic stimuli—thoughts, images, memories, and physical sensations that may relate to a traumatic experience,” says author of Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness, David Treleaven. “This can aggravate and intensify symptoms of traumatic stress, in some cases even lead to retraumatization.”
However, studies show that practicing mindfulness helps people control their brains with greater ease, allowing them to put an end to anxious or traumatic thoughts. When you pay attention to what you’re paying attention to, it’s easier to notice a thought that might lead you to negative emotions before you even get there.
Luckily, there are many ways to practice mindfulness that work well for folks who have experienced trauma. Trauma informed mindfulness asks participants to focus on sensations and other practices that ground you in the present moment. These exercises can be incredibly simple, short, and enjoyable.
For example, grab a small, delicious snack that you associate with positive emotions like a grape or a piece of chocolate. Sit down in a place where you feel comfortable and safe and practice eating mindfully. Take your time. Notice the smell and all of the different flavors. Sweet? Bitter? Salty? How many bites does it take you to finish? While you’re doing this exercise, notice every time your mind wanders -which it will. It’s perfectly okay. Don’t judge yourself for it. Just think to yourself, “Huh, there’s a thought I didn’t mean to have. Oh well…” and return to your mindfulness practice. Try to focus your mind primarily on the positive sensations associated with your chosen snack. And remember, you can stop a mindfulness practice whenever you want!
With continued practice, paying attention to what you’re paying attention to will become easier. And you can use this technique to stop negative thoughts in their tracks by recognizing them for what they are -just thoughts.
Here are some recommended exercises for trauma informed mindfulness practice:
- Listen to your favorite song. Try to notice things about it that you’ve never noticed before.
- Walk around your space and notice different textures. What do the walls feel like? What’s the softest thing around you?
- Go for a walk and count your steps. See how many steps you can take before your mind wanders off without you. What’s your high score?
- Stretch. Notice how it feels in each of your muscles. Try to keep an even breathing rhythm.
- Take notice of all the colors around you. Which ones draw your attention? Which ones blend in?
Follow our social media feed throughout “Mindfulness March” for more suggestions on how to practice mindfulness in your everyday life!
Sara Sacks, Community Engagement Coordinator
David Treleaven: Why do we Need Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness?
Study adapted from Harvard Health Publishing: Benefits of Mindfulness: Practices for Improving Emotional and Physical Well Being
American Psychological Association: What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?