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Arguments have been made that mindfulness meditation, the gentle act of tuning into one’s own thoughts, feelings, environment, and sensory experiences, could be upsetting for people who are living in recovery from trauma. A generous amount of science proves, however, that mindful meditation, among other relaxation practices, are beneficial in positively changing brain chemistry for survivors of trauma. Still, without long term practice and the proper instruction it is possible that someone would be triggered as they become familiar with their own mind. Sitting with their eyes closed, deeply breathing, and attempting to focus on the breath could turn the focus elsewhere, causing discomfort.

The truth is that few people are genuinely comfortable with their own thoughts at the beginning of their mindful meditation practice. Part of the purpose of the practice is to reveal what goes on in the mind and learn how to make compassionate peace with it, slowly programming the brain to turn its attention to the breath instead of the noise of the mind. When that noise is deeply entangled with sights, sounds, flashbacks, and painful memories, the nervous system gets activated and starts taking over. It can be hard to take deep breaths when your system thinks it is time to start hyperventilating and producing stress hormones. Thankfully, with time, patience, and practice, these reactions to mindful meditation can be overcome and you can start to benefit from the practice itself.

First, identify exactly what is coming up for you during meditation. It is best to do this with a trusted individual like your therapist, your twelve step sponsor, a clinician, or a friend. Instead of running from what is going on in your mind, by naming it you can confront it and work through it.

Though the suggestion may seem ironic, the best thing to do when the dysfunction of a trauma-influenced nervous system kicks in is take some deep breaths. Trauma affects the nervous system, which connects the brain to the spinal cord and the rest of the body. Once is is activated in fight or flight mode, the whole body can react. Breath is a proven way to calm the nervous system effectively in those moments.

Choose a meditation style that works for you. There is no rule or standard that meditation has to be practiced with your eyes closed, focusing on the breath. Mindfulness exercises come in variety, giving you plenty of options to choose from. Meditation could be applied to activity, for example, instead of sitting. Find what works best for you in a way that inspires you to feel like you can safely come back to mindful meditation anytime.