Mindfulness, Traumatic Stress & Best Practice Guidelines

9:20 am 22 March 2021 Jose Fernandez 0 Comments

In the words of David Treleaven, an educator and psychotherapist whose work focuses on the intersection of trauma and mindfulness “placed beside one another, mindfulness and trauma can seem like natural, even inevitable, allies. While trauma creates stress, mindfulness has been shown to reduce it.”

Given this, the assumption that anyone experiencing traumatic stress would automatically benefit from practising mindfulness is understandable. The relationship between mindfulness and traumatic stress, however, is not quite so straightforward.

On the one hand, mindfulness can be an extremely valuable resource for people experiencing traumatic stress. Mindfulness enhances awareness of the present moment, strengthens the ability to self-regulate and increases self-compassion, each of which are important skills for trauma recovery. However, mindfulness can also exacerbate the symptoms of traumatic stress as paying close, sustained attention to one’s inner world can mean coming into contact with trauma related stimuli in the body (e.g. flashbacks, heightened emotional arousal) potentially leading to feelings overwhelm and dysregulation.

Given that mindfulness can be an invaluable aspect of trauma recovery, how then can the potential pitfalls of mindfulness be minimised and the benefits of mindfulness maximised? Having tools inside your mindfulness practice that you can use if you start to feel overwhelmed or dysregulated is one of the ways we can do this - tools to support you to return to your ‘Window of Tolerance’.

The ‘Window of Tolerance’ is a concept, coined by Dr. Daniel Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, which proposes that we all have an optimal level of physiological arousal level. When we’re inside our ‘Window of Tolerance’ we’re somewhat stable and regulated and able to handle the waves of stress that will inevitably happen in our day, it is our optimal zone of physiological arousal.

When we’re outside of our ‘Window of Tolerance’ there is either too much or too little physiological arousal in our system . We’re either hyper (i.e. over) aroused (e.g. highly anxious, hypervigilant, overwhelmed, stressed) or hypo (i.e. under) aroused (e.g. we’re feeling numb, spacey, dissociated, deeply disorganised). People who have experienced trauma often experience something known as ‘dysregulated arousal’, which is uncontrollably cycling back and forth between hyper and hypo-arousal and their ‘Window of Tolerance’ becomes narrower. These are some of the most painful aspects of traumatic stress.

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