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Friday, May 22, 2020

A Very Brief Introduction to Trauma-Informed Mindfulness Teaching

Photo by Isabell Winter on Unsplash

by Catharine Hannay

Over the past couple of years, one of the phrases I keep hearing from reputable mindfulness trainers is first, do no harm.” That may seem surprising. After all, no one becomes a mindfulness or meditation teacher with the intent to cause harm. But even well-meaning teachers can unintentionally mislead students about what they'll experience in meditation.

In his Seven Ethical Guidelines for Teaching Mindfulness, Dr. Chris Willard says that, 
To protect everyone, we need to ethically and honestly characterize the benefits of practice, as well as potential risks. Overstating the... benefits sets up students for disappointment and... is risky not only to our credibility but to the movement's credibility at large... Likewise, understating any known risks, especially when working with higher risk populations, can do the same.

There are many benefits to mindfulness and other types of contemplative practices. But these tend to be more subtle and harder to measure than what's often reported. (See, for example Mind the Hype, as well as my own perspective on Three Challenging Questions About the Benefits of Mindfulness.)

There is also the potential to reactivate trauma. If you work with so-called high risk populations, you're likely aware of this. But teachers may not know their students have experienced trauma until they've had a negative reaction to meditation or relaxation practices. And even then, the students may not feel comfortable telling the teacher about their experience.

Here is a brief introduction to some of the issues that can arise, along with a few recommended resources to learn more about how to teach mindfulness without unintentionally causing harm.

Meditation can trigger a trauma response.

In his book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, Dr. David Treleaven tells the story of RJ, who was learning mindfulness meditation at his high school. 
He’d initially been open to the idea—appreciating the diversion from his usual studies—but quickly found the practice to be excruciating… He couldn’t focus on his breath and found that he left each meditation extremely agitated for the rest of the day.”
Unfortunately, RJ's teacher encouraged him to keep meditating and noticing his experience. It would have been far more helpful to let him stop, and offer other types of mindfulness instruction that didn't involve meditation. (I go into this in more detail in a post on Three Dangerous Misunderstandings About Mindfulness at the Center for Adolescent Studies blog.) 

In another example, Treleaven mentions a woman who asked her teachers how to handle memories of abuse.

The first teacher: 
appeared startled... [and] asked a series of inappropriate questions that provoked a sense of shame (e.g., 'Where did this person touch you, exactly? Why wasn't there anyone around to protect you?'). 

The second teacher, on the other hand: 
maintained comfortable eye contact, thanked my friend for letting her know, and normalized the experience of such memories arising in meditation.
(Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, p. 10-11)

In this case, the student continued meditating, under the support and guidance of an instructor who understood how to work with trauma. 

Caverly Morgan of Peace in Schools explains how mindfulness and yoga teachers can support their students: 
When teachers know the background of their students, they can recognize the reason a [student] might say “I can’t do this.” Is it just resistance to a challenging pose? The student might just need some encouragement to give it a try.
On the other hand, the student might be reacting, consciously or unconsciously, to trauma. For example, one of our students found guided visualizations scary. After talking with the school counselor, we decided to let her opt out of them if she didn’t feel ready. Having that option gave her a feeling of safety, so she actually did feel comfortable trying the visualizations along with the rest of the group.
(from her interview on Teaching For-Credit Mindfulness Classes

Trauma affects every community.

All of your students have likely experienced trauma if you work in a community that's been impacted by violence or a natural disaster. 

But any student, adult or child, could have experienced trauma. 

According to Daniele Ancin of the Niroga Institute,
I would say it is important to employ trauma awareness when working with any young folks. (And although many funding agencies use the term “at risk”, I have learned that the label itself can be hurtful and may get in the way of us seeing each individual’s strengths, needs, challenges, and goals.) Being trauma-informed means you are making the practice inviting and inclusive for all.
(from her interview on Teaching Yoga and Mindfulness to Students Affected by Trauma and Violence)

Caverly Morgan of Peace in Schools echoes this perspective:
We offer our classes at Wilson, a public high school, and at Rosemary Anderson, a community- based alternative high school for at-risk students. At the end of December, there was a suicide at Wilson and a school shooting at Rosemary Anderson. 
That made us realize it’s not accurate to say one school has “at-risk youth” and another doesn’t. There may be more socio-economic deprivation at one school, but all teens are exposed to risk, sometimes extreme risk. The potential for internal isolation is universal. Economic security is no safeguard.
(from her interview on Teaching For-Credit Mindfulness Classes

Relaxation time may not be relaxing.

Alice Sebold describes how she felt when her yoga teacher put heavy sandbags on her arms and legs: 
As the teacher explained how they help in relaxing our muscles and that most people find them very soothing— I listened to my mind going ding-ding-ding being held down no don't like this! and interrupted her so she'd come get [them] off me.
(See: 'Healing After Trauma Doesn't Mean Making the Pain Disappear' from Oprah magazine)

If the name Alice Sebold sound familiar, that's because she's the author of The Lovely Bones, as well as Lucky, a memoir about her own brutal rape and the trial of her assailant

The teacher likely didn't know Ms. Sebold's background, but should have realized that any of her students might have a negative reaction to being pinned to the floor

Whether you teach adults or kids, it's wise to assume the possibility of someone being triggered in a situation other students might find relaxing.

As Meghan DeMatteo explains, 
Many students are comforted by low lights, sound machines, and cozy, snuggly sleeping pads. A survivor of abuse, however, can be overcome by fear in this environment... Let the child take a quiet break in a well-lit room where they aren’t required to lie down.
(See '7 Surprising Classroom Triggers for Kids Who Experienced Trauma (and How to Avoid Them)' at We Are Teachers)

Conclusion and Recommended Resources

The ever-increasing popularity of mindfulness, plus the prevalence of trauma, means there's a very high likelihood that every mindfulness class will have at least one student who's experienced trauma. It's essential that teachers be aware of this and always give students the option to skip or modify any practices that may reactivate their trauma.

For more information about trauma-informed mindfulness teaching, I recommend the following resources:

About the Author

Catharine Hannay is the founder of and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance. (Sales of the book help me continue to run with no sponsorship or advertising.)


related posts with 'very brief introductions' to key topics in teaching mindfulness: