Feb 19

Healing Trauma with Body-based Mindfulness Practices

The Breath: #1 in a series of body-based mindfulness lessons.

Trauma causes many symptoms, both in the body and in the mind. These can include disconnection from self and others, anxiety, a felt-sense of uneasiness, heightened reactivity to stressors, and a loud inner critic.

Body-focused mindfulness practices can help to reduce or eliminate these symptoms and to heal from trauma. It’s well known that body-focused mindfulness can reduce symptoms of stress. It’s less widely known that by utilizing the awareness practices of mindfulness you can learn to regulate your nervous system, release the imprints of trauma, gain greater connection to your felt-sense of self, and realize other benefits of healing.

Mindfulness of the body for healing trauma means learning to pay attention to various aspects of our body and mind in a relaxed yet alert fashion. Trauma is imprinted and held in the body, not just the mind. This focus on the body and the felt-sense of experiences can open us up in ways that talk therapy alone can’t.

Learning to pay focused attention to our breathing is a good place to start with body-based mindfulness, and it’s the place we’ll focus on for this lesson. People who’ve suffered trauma have a nervous system that’s dysregulated much of the time. This means they’re overly anxious in a high-energy state, or shut down in the low-energy state. A non-traumatized nervous system, on the other hand, is alert and alive in the high state and relaxed and recuperating in the low state. The dysregulation shows up in the breathing pattern which will typically be more shallow and rapid than in a non-traumatized person.

By practicing paying attention to the breath mindfully, you’re using awareness in a relaxed yet alert fashion. At first you’re not trying to modify the breath, but to merely watch it. You can practice this either by sitting in meditation and watching the breath, or by checking in on your breathing several times throughout the day. Either way or both can be beneficial.

Sitting meditation is easy and pretty much anyone can do it, contrary to what some may think. If you’d like to experience this rather than merely think about it, here’s your chance. I encourage you to go along with these steps.

An exercise in mindfulness of the breath:

  1. Pick a time limit of five or ten minutes and set an alarm.
  2. Sit comfortably and breathe naturally. Don’t try to modify the breath.
  3. Place your attention on your breath. Watch it with relaxed curiosity as you breathe in. Then watch it with relaxed curiosity as you breathe out.
  4. What do you notice? Is it shallow or deep? Is it slow or rapid? How about smooth or choppy?
  5. After a few breaths see if it’s steady like a metronome, or does it fluctuate?
  6. Ask yourself; what can I learn from my breath? What does it tell me?
  7. Continue watching the breath for five or ten minutes.
  8. When your mind wanders (it will), bring the attention gently back to the breath.
  9. When you’re done, ask yourself; what does my breath tell me about my state of anxiety or calm?
  10. And ask; what does it tell me about the regulation of my nervous system?

Sitting meditation can be beneficial with as little practice as five to ten minutes per day.

Most people think they can’t meditate because they assume that they’re trying for some special state like an empty or peaceful mind. The goal is to merely sit and watch the breath, and when the attention wanders, to bring it back to watching the breath. That’s it.

Usually after a few practices you’ll begin learning:

  • Your attention likes to wander
  • This is training in attentiveness
  • Your body likes this and becomes more calm
  • This is good training for paying attention in a way that you may not normally; that is in a relaxed yet alert way.
  • This relaxed curiosity (alertness) is the opposite of dysregulation of the nervous system.
  • You’re learning to consciously regulate your nervous system to a state of greater calm.

After doing this in seated meditation for a few times, you may want to practice it on-the-fly throughout the day. Doing it when you’re in lines, driving, or taking a break are optimal times in the beginning. With a little practice doing this you’ll soon be able to do it while working, conversing or doing other activities. Over the ensuing weeks, set the intention to incorporate it more and more. You’ll see yourself doing it more often without even thinking about it. That means you’ve begun to train your nervous system to self-regulate to a state of calmness.

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