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Mindfulness is a word that gets used a lot, and like many trendy topics, can be over-saturated and discarded. However, mindfulness is a powerful tool and one that trauma survivors should make use of. But first you need a deeper understanding of long term effects of trauma to accept mindful healing as a strategy. 

So what does mindfulness and trauma recovery have to do with each other? This post will cover that, as well as how to add this learning to your recovery toolkit.

Mindfulness Explained

I first began the serious practice of mindfulness as therapy strategy. It worked so well, I applied it to mindful travel. But what does it really mean?

The concept of “mindfulness,” frequently utilized as an umbrella term, teaches the importance of maintaining focus on the present moment. This principle is valid, yet there is so much more to it than that. The underlying psychology and science behind mindfulness, once examined through the lens of trauma effects, will show powerful potential to use mindfulness to change your physiology, thoughts, and behaviors.

is it safe to solo travel as a female with autoimmune disease

Trauma Explained

The dynamics of how long-term trauma creates neural pathways in the central nervous system is pivotal to understanding how mindfulness helps heal trauma. For example, let’s recognize Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is trauma stored in the body. This includes your physical, psychological, and emotional body. This stored trauma can manifest itself later in ways that make healing very difficult, because your body is used to reacting to your environment in very specific ways. Kind of like a loop.

One dilemma of the trauma survivor is not only what happened in the past and how it affects the present, but how to tolerate facing the past to heal from it. Specifically, ‘sitting with’ the trauma to ‘re-feel’ the damage in order to reprocess the pain. The overall goal is healing and releasing, but to do that takes a balance between pain of the past and understanding the present. All of these represent using mindfulness to self-heal your trauma. Some sayings include, “The only way out is through,” and, “You have to feel to heal.” But not only is this process scary and triggering, it can be confusing and many people get and stay stuck along the way.

Person practicing mindfulness meditation in a serene outdoor setting to illustrate the concept of mindfulness in trauma recovery

How Past Trauma Creates Current Triggers

A trauma trigger is something that reminds someone of an abusive or neglectful experience they’ve had, usually in childhood, causing them to feel upset or scared again. It can be anything like a sound, smell, or place that brings back those bad feelings. Triggers can make someone feel really strong emotions suddenly and can be tough to deal with. The brain links these triggers to the trauma, and when they’re encountered, they can make the person feel like they’re going through the trauma all over again. This isn’t something the person chooses to happen; it’s an automatic response by the brain trying to protect them from what it sees as danger. 

Getting to know the specific things that can cause triggers helps identify them in advance. Recognizing triggers is an important part of healing from trauma. It helps you learn ways to handle these feelings when they come up, making the triggers less powerful over time.

What You Can Do 

Try to put space between your emotions and the event. You do this by taking deep breaths and practicing mindful pauses. As you continue practicing checking in with yourself around your words, you’ll start to recognize when your current life is reflecting wounds from your past trauma. Journaling helps. Recognizing, identifying, and putting space between yourself and your triggers is the first step toward understanding that your past is being reenacted in your present life. There is no judgment for being triggered. If you have had trauma, you will have triggers. Bringing your awareness in non-judgemental ways helps create space and compassion when triggers arise. 

author bending by the water's edge in solitude. Detailed brain illustration depicting neural pathways, highlighting the impact of trauma on the brain for an article on mindfulness and trauma recovery

Mindfulness To Heal 

Using mindfulness to handle triggers involves noticing your immediate reactions to a trigger with a calm, nonjudgmental mindset. For instance, if a loud noise triggers anxiety because of past trauma, mindfulness teaches you to recognize the anxiety, acknowledge the physical reactions like a racing heart, and remind yourself you’re safe now. This practice creates a pause between the trigger and reaction, allowing for a choice in how to respond, rather than being overwhelmed by emotions. Over time, this can lessen the trigger’s impact, as you learn to stay grounded in the present, understanding these intense feelings are temporary and not a current threat.

Recycling Trauma vs. Processing Trauma

But this is waaaaay easier said than done. That’s because trauma distorts perception. Therefore, what is happening in the present is being subconsciously impacted by past trauma, which is how the cycle continues. Truly, nobody would choose to relive the pain, shame, and blame characteristic of trauma. However, that’s what frequently happens.

So what is the difference between recycling / reenacting trauma, and mindfully reprocessing trauma to heal? It can be nearly impossible to differentiate between the two. However, there are very big differences. There are ways that you can check to see if you are using your past to learn from, grow, and heal, or if you are stuck in the cycle of dysfunction. Then, mindfulness techniques are provided for each scenario. With patience and determination to heal, these strategies will bring kindness and compassion to you and your relationships. 

Here are three ways to recognize you are being triggered and reenacting past trauma, and how to use mindfulness techniques to process heal yourself.

1. Storytelling

While potentially therapeutic, storytelling can become dysfunctional if it reinforces the trauma, inhibits healing, or isolates you from support systems. It’s telling and retelling trauma stories primarily to seek validation or attention from others, rather than as a means of genuine healing. This can lead to a dependency on external validation rather than developing internal coping mechanisms.

When you consciously or subconsciously repeat the story to yourself and your support system, at its core is a plea for love and attention. This was a typical pattern of mine that I’ve since healed. At the time, I sought support and feedback to help me through things that I couldn’t process on my own. Unfortunately, it was a form of acting out that reinforced my need to be a victim and to get love by having people pity me. Today I have compassion for that version of me who felt lost and alone and was desperately looking for connection.

What It Looks Like

  • Saying, “He did this to me”
  • Focusing only other peoples’ behaviors and words (codependency). 
  • Seeking an ally in a way that persecutes the other person.
  • Narrating one’s life story with a strong focus on victimhood, without moving toward resolution. 
  • Repeatedly telling the story of the traumatic event without engaging in emotional processing. 
  • Altering the story of the trauma in ways that either minimize or exaggerate the severity of the event. 
  • Sharing traumatic stories in inappropriate contexts or without boundaries

If these are familiar behavior patterns for you, then you are re-enacting the trauma that still lies dormant in your body.

What To Do Instead 

So what should you do if you find you are stuck in this pattern? It’s not necessary to stop sharing events of your life with friends and family to help you process and move through. The difference is that instead of talking about the other person, you keep the focus on yourself. That means you focus on your feelings in ways that help you grieve.

Author contemplating by a tranquil water body, symbolizing personal reflection and mindfulness in the healing process from trauma

You would say, “I felt angry” or “I feel sad”. It’s important to check that the word coming after “feel” is an emotion. Try to use the present tense, which focuses on you and where you are in the present moment. It’s okay to use “felt” as long as you stay aware of your needs. For example, your feelings are an expression of what’s going on inside you. Therefore, even though another person may trigger an emotion in us, it’s still our needs we must take full responsibility for if we want to heal.

This is where mindfulness comes in. It brings you out of the drama triangle from the past, and into the healing mode of processing in the present. 

Also, if you are in a codependent pattern with your support person, meaning they are contributing to your victimhood by rescuing you or are keeping you in the ‘one-down’ position, you need to find a different outlet. You won’t be able to heal in that dynamic, and it’s up to you to change, not them. Simply stop sharing that aspect of your life with them, and find someone else who has healthy boundaries, not entangled with enabling.

Mindfulness Strategy

Using mindfulness while you are in the middle of sharing the events that are bothering you will also serve you and your healing. You can ask yourself what your motives are at that moment. These checking-in techniques will help you be more aware of the connection between your thoughts, feelings, and needs, and how to better meet them. In addition, holding these internal inventories will build strength and trust within yourself, which is the ultimate goal of healing.

2. Over-Reactions

Overreacting as a trauma response trigger means reacting much more strongly to things than the situation calls for. It happens because trauma makes your stress response more sensitive. A small problem might cause a big emotional outburst or aggressive behavior. This isn’t something you choose; it’s how the trauma affects your ability to handle stress, often causing problems in daily life and relationships. Moreover, it reinforces feelings of shame, fear, and isolation, and out of control.

What It Looks Like

You’re upset over a situation, and may be confused or angry about it. You may wonder if you’re at fault. If you muster the courage to look honestly at yourself, resisting denial and shame, you will gain great healing. 

Graphic representation of emotional overload, symbolizing the intense and overwhelming feelings associated with trauma and chronic illness burnout

Imagine someone who experienced trauma gets slightly criticized at work. Instead of taking it as constructive feedback, they might burst into tears, become extremely defensive, or even storm out of the room. This intense reaction is far beyond what the situation typically warrants. This shows how past, unprocessed trauma can make it hard to manage stress and emotions appropriately.

What To Do Instead 

A simple trick is to ask yourself… “Is my reaction matching the situation’s intensity?” and, “If I saw another person reacting like that in this situation, would I think that it matches?” You want to test it out with another person like a neighbor or acquaintance so you can measure your own emotions from an objective point of view. So you are substituting another person in your place to gain perspective. Sometimes writing in a journal gets it clearer.

One saying that is helpful is, “If it is hysterical, it is historical”.  When emotions are really big, too big for the situation, it’s a telltale sign that it’s historical trauma, and usually trauma (PTSD). 

Mindfulness Strategy

In an overreacting situation, emotions are very high. That’s why it’s even more important to use mindfulness to protect your mental health.

Pay attention to physical sensations in your body. Notice where tension or discomfort is located. Is your heart racing? Are your palms sweaty? Redirecting your attention can momentarily distract you and help you get to safer grounding in the present.

Be where your feet are to ground yourself in the present

Then, after calming down, reflect on the situation and the feelings it evoked. Consider how you can respond to the trigger in a way that is kind to yourself or the other person. Moving forward, is there a need for self-care or a boundary to be set?

3. Pouncing

Pouncing on someone due to a trauma trigger refers to the sudden and intense reaction someone might have towards another person. Usually this is in response to something that unexpectedly activates trauma memories or feelings. This isn’t a physical attack but an emotional or verbal outburst that seems out of balance to the situation at hand. Pouncing works both ways, you pouncing on someone else, or you being pounced on. For this explanation, I’ll describe the situation as if you’re on the receiving end of the unhealthy trigger behavior.

What It Looks Like

Illustration of a confrontational scenario, portraying the concept of 'pouncing' as a trauma response in interpersonal relationships

You make an offhand comment that unknowingly relates to your partner’s clothing or appearance. Your partner responds with sharp anger or accusation. This reaction is rooted in past trauma, not in the present interaction, and can be confusing or startling for both of you. Without awareness that your partner is triggered, and it has nothing to do with you, helps keep you safe and out of harm’s way.

What To Do Instead

When someone reacts strongly due to a trauma trigger, stay calm and avoid arguing. Let them know you see they’re upset and didn’t mean to upset them. Listen, but also kindly remind them that respectful communication is important. Suggest talking more when everyone feels calmer. This approach is about understanding, de-escalating, and keeping the conversation healthy.

Mindfulness Strategy

  • “I can see this upset you a lot; I didn’t mean to cause you distress.” 

Acknowledge the person’s feelings without judgment. It’s important to listen and provide space for them to express their feelings if they’re willing, not at the expense of more harsh, unwarranted words. You’re not responsible for someone else’s feelings. Step out of the way so you don’t become a target of their turmoil. Once you recognize it as a trauma response, it’s best to mindfully detach until you have more information about what is going on.

  • Say these words: “It’s not about me” 

So, for example, if you are the recipient of being pounced on or any other inappropriate behavior, rather than getting drawn in and triggering your own trauma, simply remind yourself, “It’s not about me”. It’s a compassionate but very direct and effective way to remind yourself that other people are acting out their trauma and it has nothing to do with me. This is mindfulness in the moment.

3. Proactive Triggers

Sometimes processing triggers in the moment is completely impossible no matter how good you are at mindfulness. Therefore, planning ahead or working backwards is best. Even though you might not always react in the healthiest ways during the trigger, that’s okay. Practice patience and forgiveness with yourself. This is painstaking work. Don’t  allow old patterns of self sabotage slip in and tell you you failed. Give you discouragement loving space, and focus back on your healing goals.

What It Looks Like

I created this easy strategy when I was coping with a long, difficult trauma bond relationship. It worked wonders for me, and it can for you, too. 

For this strategy, create small index cards and be ready to report times you get triggered. Then, carefully and mindfully observe your triggers. You want small index cards because if you write too much, chances are you’ll actually be recording three or four different triggers instead of just one. This is because triggers tend to overlap. You need to pinpoint one at a time, so if you have more than two sentences, analyze it to see where it’s more than one issue triggering you. 

Individual writing in a journal, utilizing mindfulness strategies to identify and process trauma triggers, depicted in a calm and introspective setting
In a quiet space, write your triggers on small index cards

Then put them aside and go about your life. Eventually, a situation will produce a trigger response in you. So when you have a quiet moment, write down the trigger on the index card. Make sure you can ‘see’ it and it makes sense. You’re not just writing the event. You’re pulling out a buried wound inside you.

Then keep the card in a place you can go back and carefully reread when you’re feeling safe and at peace. As you give yourself time to reflect, acceptance of your part will come. When you’re ready and you have clarity, flip the card over and create ways to handle it differently next time. Over a period of months you’ll probably collect many of these cards. I sure did!

What To Do Instead

Once you become familiar with your triggers, it not only puts you in touch with your feelings, but also  your buried wounds. This  will create deep compassion for yourself when you see how much trauma was locked in your body. 

As you reread the cards when not in a triggered state, it will help you gain an objective perspective, which counteracts the over-emotional responses characteristic of stuck trauma. In time, you’ll be able to look at the trigger in a more logical, healthy, mental state. Finally, you’ll transform and shift, and become able to see your responsibility clearly. You’ll accept how your trauma behavior patterns fueled the destructive situations. It’s humbling, but liberating to see the truth. 

As you gain this clarity, you stop acting out your mental illness. With patience and forgiveness, you’ll slowly change your thoughts. This compassion opens your heart, making more space to give and receive love.

Mindfulness Strategy

On one side of the card:

“He purposely ignored my text. It was manipulative. I felt abandoned and angry”

On the other side of the card:

“I’ll put my phone away and stop compulsively checking and reinforcing my abandonment from my childhood when my mom when she left me with my abusive father. I need a relationship where I can be heard and valued.”

This writing of your thoughts is a step toward slowing down emotions. It’s important to reread the cards many times, as a way to reprogram your brain. Once you have a grasp on your thoughts, you can think before you react and choose healthy behaviors. This is a proactive approach to combat reactivity.

Eventually, by pausing and acting in different ways, you’ll have the power to see the trigger for what it is. As you identify it in the moment, you calm the anxiety in your body. This is creating new neural pathways which rewire your brain. With more practice and success, you’ll start to see your growth, feel empowered, and grow your self-esteem.

Author in a thoughtful pose, reflecting on the interplay between trauma and physical health, in a black and white photograph for added emotional depth

Does Mindful Healing Really Work When Triggered?

Yes, absolutely. Each of these strategies were created from my tireless and painful determination to heal myself. Although there is no quick fix, it always comes back to mindful pausing for trauma work. It’s simple, but not easy.

Taking time to pause and take a deep breath is acknowledging the root of the trigger. Remembering that childhood trauma becomes locked in a small person’s body as unprocessed grief helps you have compassion for the small person you were when trauma took place. As long as it continues to remain unprocessed, it stays trapped and can spring out in unhealthy ways like physical ailments, addictions, and codependency.

But when you use mindfulness, processing your trauma by remapping your thinking, then your emotions, and your body will change. It is a very painstakingly slow process, but it works. One trigger at a time. 

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