Mindfulness and Trauma: Gentle Practices for Coming Back to the Present

February 26, 2024   •  Posted in: 

Processing trauma is a complex and deeply personal journey, often marked by emotional distress and a range of psychological challenges. In this context, mindfulness practices offer a profound and invaluable resource for those seeking healing and recovery.

In this article, we will explore why mindfulness practices can be profoundly helpful for healing from trauma. In particular, we look at how mindfulness can promote emotional regulation, self-compassion, and resilience, ultimately guiding individuals toward healing and post-traumatic growth.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness, rooted in ancient contemplative traditions, is a state of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. It involves intentionally focusing on thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and the environment without attempting to change or avoid them.

Mindfulness can be a powerful tool for trauma survivors as it provides a unique and gentle path toward understanding, acceptance, and eventual integration of traumatic experiences[1].

What is the impact of trauma on the nervous system?

Trauma can have a profound impact on the nervous system. When an individual experiences trauma, whether it’s a single traumatic event or prolonged exposure to stress and adversity, the body’s stress response systems can become dysregulated. This dysregulation can lead to a range of physical and psychological symptoms.

Trauma can activate the body’s “fight or flight” response, the sympathetic nervous system. This response involves the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare the body to respond to a perceived threat. While this response is adaptive in the short term, chronic activation due to trauma can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and a range of physical health issues.

Trauma survivors may become hypervigilant, constantly scanning their environment for signs of danger. This heightened state of alertness is associated with increased heart rate, muscle tension, and other physiological changes, which can contribute to chronic stress and anxiety.
Trauma can disrupt the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates the body’s response to stress. Dysregulation can result in irregular cortisol production, leading to sleep, mood, and energy regulation issues. It can also weaken the immune system.

Prolonged stress and trauma can suppress the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections and illness. It can also trigger chronic pain conditions, low-level inflammation in the body, contribute to high blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart disease. It has also been known to trigger gastrointestinal issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcers, and other digestive problems. Prolonged stress and trauma can also cause sleep disturbances, including nightmares, night sweats, and insomnia.

Trauma can alter the structure and function of the brain, contributing to mood disorders and difficulties with emotional regulation.

In response to overwhelming trauma, some individuals may experience dissociation, a disconnection between thoughts, identity, consciousness, and memory. This can affect the individual’s perception of reality and bodily sensations.

Processing trauma can be an intensely challenging and emotional journey. However, mindfulness practices can offer healing and self-discovery, allowing individuals to navigate their experiences with greater ease and self-compassion.

Gentle yoga as a mindfulness practice for trauma recovery

‘Gentle yoga’ is a therapeutic and mindful practice that can be profoundly soothing for individuals dealing with trauma[2]. It is essential for individuals dealing with trauma to work with experienced and trauma-informed yoga instructors who can create a safe and supportive environment for their practice.

Gentle yoga is a type of yoga that offers a unique blend of physical postures, controlled breathing, and meditation, all centered around the principles of self-awareness, self-compassion, and the present moment. It prioritizes slow, deliberate movements synchronized with the breath and encourages individuals to move at their own pace to honor their body’s needs and limitations.

This approach allows trauma survivors to reconnect with their bodies in a safe and non-threatening manner. It fosters a sense of physical and emotional safety, which is crucial.

In gentle yoga, the focus is on the external postures and the internal experience. Practitioners are guided to pay close attention to the sensations within their bodies as they move through each posture. This heightened awareness helps individuals become more in tune with their bodies and recognize areas of tension, discomfort, or stress. Through this awareness, they can release physical and emotional tension and promote relaxation.

The breath is a central component of gentle yoga. Controlled and conscious breathing is integrated into each movement, serving as a bridge between the body and the mind. Breath awareness not only enhances the effectiveness of the physical practice but also helps individuals regulate their emotions. Deep, mindful breaths calm the nervous system and reduce anxiety and stress, allowing individuals to feel more grounded and centered.

A core principle of gentle yoga is non-judgment. Participants are encouraged to practice self-compassion and to let go of self-criticism. This is particularly important for trauma survivors, as they often carry feelings of shame, guilt, or self-blame. Gentle yoga fosters a non-critical, accepting attitude toward oneself, creating a space for self-healing and self-acceptance.

In each pose and movement, individuals are guided to be fully present in the moment. This mindfulness component allows trauma survivors to momentarily step away from past traumatic experiences or future worries and immerse themselves in the here and now. This can be profoundly therapeutic, as it provides a break from the distressing thoughts and emotions associated with trauma.

The slow, intentional movements in gentle yoga can help individuals release stored emotional tension and trauma-related stress. As practitioners become more attuned to their bodies and emotions, they may find that tears, emotions, or memories surface during their practice. This is a healthy part of the healing process, and gentle yoga provides a safe and supportive space for this release.

Trauma often shatters an individual’s sense of trust, including trust in their bodies. Gentle yoga helps rebuild that trust by creating a nurturing environment where individuals can gradually regain a positive relationship with their bodies. This can be particularly empowering.

Gentle yoga’s emphasis on deep breathing and mindfulness profoundly impacts the body’s stress response. It activates the relaxation response, which can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. This relaxation extends beyond the yoga mat and can positively influence an individual’s daily life.

Mindful walking as a mindfulness practice for trauma recovery

Mindful walking is a contemplative and grounding practice that can be incredibly soothing and healing for individuals dealing with trauma[3].

Rooted in the principles of mindfulness, it involves deliberately and non-judgmentally paying attention to each step and the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise during the process.

For trauma survivors, mindful walking offers a gentle and supportive way to reconnect with the present moment, fostering emotional regulation, a sense of safety, and self-compassion.

Individuals intend to be fully present during the practice to begin mindful walking. This intention serves as a reminder to be non-judgmental and compassionate toward themselves throughout the process.

Mindful walking can be practiced indoors or outdoors. The choice of environment depends on personal preference and comfort. Being in nature, if possible, can enhance the practice, as it provides a soothing and grounding backdrop.

As individuals start walking, they begin by bringing attention to the physical sensations in their bodies. This includes the feeling of their feet making contact with the ground, the movement of their legs, and the subtle swaying of their arms. The goal is to tune into these sensations without judgment.

Breathing is integrated into the practice. Individuals synchronize their breath with their steps, taking one complete breath cycle for each step. For example, they might inhale for one step and exhale for the next. This controlled breathing helps regulate the nervous system and deepen the experience of mindfulness.

While walking, individuals engage their senses in the present moment. They notice the sounds around them—the chirping of birds, the rustling of leaves, or the hum of traffic. They observe the colors, shapes, and movements in their surroundings. Immersing themselves in their sensory experience anchors themselves in the here and now.

During mindful walking, it’s common for thoughts and emotions to arise. Individuals are encouraged to observe these mental processes without attachment or judgment. This can be particularly beneficial for trauma survivors, as it helps them create a safe space for processing difficult emotions and memories.

The central principle of mindful walking is non-judgmental awareness. Participants strive to let go of self-criticism or judgment about their thoughts, feelings, or practice quality. The focus is on self-acceptance and self-compassion.

Mindful walking helps trauma survivors feel more grounded in their bodies and safe in their environment. It creates a sense of stability and control, which is often disrupted by trauma. People can regain control over their bodies and surroundings by paying close attention to the rhythm of their steps and breaths.

Mindful walking also encourages the release of physical tension. As individuals become more aware of their body and sensations, they often find muscle tension eases and relaxation deepens.

Practicing mindful walking can help individuals regulate their emotions. It provides a healthy and non-confrontational outlet for processing difficult feelings and memories. Over time, this practice can contribute to emotional resilience and healing.

Mindful walking is not a race! It’s a slow and compassionate journey. Trauma recovery is a process, and mindful walking supports individuals in taking small, deliberate steps toward healing, one moment at a time.

Simple breathing exercises for soothing trauma

Breathing exercises are fundamental tools for managing stress and soothing the nervous system, making them particularly valuable for those dealing with trauma.

The following breathing exercises promote relaxation, reduce anxiety, and enhance emotional regulation.

1 – Deep Abdominal Breathing (Diaphragmatic Breathing)

  • Step 1: Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit or lie down. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen.
  • Step 2: Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, allowing your diaphragm to expand. Your abdomen should rise while your chest remains relatively still.
  • Step 3: Exhale slowly and thoroughly through your mouth, releasing any tension. As you exhale, imagine releasing stress and negative emotions.
  • Step 4: Continue to breathe deeply and rhythmically for several minutes. Focus on the sensation of your breath and the rise and fall of your abdomen.

Deep abdominal breathing activates the body’s relaxation response, calming the nervous system and reducing stress.

2 – 4-7-8 Breathing

  • Step 1: Sit or lie down in a comfortable position, keeping your back straight.
  • Step 2: Close your eyes and take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of four seconds.
  • Step 3: Hold your breath for a count of seven seconds.
  • Step 4: Exhale slowly and thoroughly through your mouth for a count of eight seconds.
  • Step 5: Repeat this cycle three times.

The 4-7-8 Breathing exercise is a powerful technique for reducing anxiety and promoting relaxation.

3 – Box Breathing

  • Step 1: Sit or stand in a comfortable position.
  • Step 2: Inhale through your nose for four seconds, imagining drawing a line up one side of a box.
  • Step 3: Hold your breath for four seconds as if you’re tracing the top of the box.
  • Step 4: Exhale slowly and entirely for four seconds, as if moving down the other side of the box.
  • Step 5: Pause at the bottom of the box for four seconds before starting the next breath cycle.

Box Breathing can help regulate the nervous system, improve focus, and reduce stress.

4 – Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)

  • Step 1: Sit comfortably with your back straight and left hand on your left knee.
  • Step 2: Use your right thumb to block your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril for a count of four seconds.
  • Step 3: Use your right ring finger to block your left nostril while releasing your right nostril. Exhale slowly and thoroughly through your right nostril for a count of four seconds.
  • Step 4: Inhale through your right nostril for a count of four seconds.
  • Step 5: Block your right nostril again and exhale through your left nostril for a count of four seconds.
  • Step 6: Continue this pattern for several minutes.

Alternate Nostril Breathing can help balance the body’s energy, reduce stress, and enhance focus.

5 – Grounding Breath

  • Step 1: Sit or stand with your feet firmly on the ground. Place your hands on your thighs or knees.
  • Step 2: Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose for a count of four seconds.
  • Step 3: As you exhale through your mouth, imagine any stress, tension, or negative energy released into the ground through your feet.
  • Step 4: Repeat this process several times, feeling the support of the earth beneath you.

Grounding Breath helps individuals reconnect with their bodies and the present moment, promoting safety and stability.

The common thread in all of these mindfulness practices is a compassionate and patient approach to being present. Trauma recovery is not a linear path, and healing takes time.

Mindfulness practices allow individuals to explore their experiences at their own pace, without judgment or the pressure to “fix” anything.

By fostering self-compassion and a gradual journey toward being present, these practices become invaluable tools for processing trauma, promoting emotional regulation, and building resilience on the path to healing and post-traumatic growth.

Trauma recovery at The Center • A Place of HOPE

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, trauma recovery is a comprehensive and compassionate journey guided by experienced professionals. It incorporates evidence-based therapies and holistic approaches to empower individuals on their path to healing and growth.

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1. Follette, V., Palm, K.M. & Pearson, A.N. Mindfulness and trauma: implications for treatment. J Rat-Emo Cognitive-Behav Ther 24, 45–61 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10942-006-0025-2
2. Taylor, J., McLean, L., Korner, A., Stratton, E. and Glozier, N., 2020. Mindfulness and yoga for psychological trauma: systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 21(5), pp.536-573.
3. Walser, R.D. and Westrup, D., 2007. Acceptance and commitment therapy for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma-related problems: A practitioner’s guide to using mindfulness and acceptance strategies. New Harbinger Publications.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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