Meditation May Aggravate Trauma, Mindful Action Is A Better Alternative


As of date, there have been enough studies to show that meditation is not the cure-all for trauma. In fact, it could bring on further emotional distress and even psychosis to those who have a history of abuse. During meditation, there is the danger of spontaneous surfacing of painful repressed memories.

According to Dr. Willoughby Britton, who has studied the adverse effects of contemplative practices

Meditation can lead people to some dark places, triggering trauma or leaving people feeling disoriented, She released a study that identified 59 different kinds of negative meditation experiences. Their research has also shown that these distressing experiences are not limited to people who have a history of mental illness.

When one has suffered from trauma, one's mind is filled with anger, rage, hatred, self-loathing. You have negative thoughts spinning your mind into a turmoil, You want to lash out, scream and get even. Intrusive thoughts fill your days and nights and forcing your thoughts to stay still and silent is just not possible.

I did try meditation earlier on in my healing journey and felt more angry and depressed. I felt like a volcano waiting to erupt.

Asking someone with trauma to pay close, sustained attention to their internal experience, we invite them into contact with traumatic stimuli—thoughts, images, memories, and physical sensations that may relate to a traumatic experience. This can aggravate and intensify symptoms of traumatic stress, in some cases even lead to retraumatization—a relapse into an intensely traumatized state.

Zen Mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness.

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School mindfulness is “not really about sitting in the full lotus… pretending you’re a statue in the British Museum. Simply put, mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness. 

Today mindfulness is erroneously associated with stillness but in Japan, it has always been a way of life.

Zen is an attitude that permeates every action: bathing, cooking, cleaning, working. “Every activity and behavior in daily life is a practice [of Zen],” This present-moment awareness has been deeply ingrained into the Japanese psyche for centuries.

The Creativity Cure - Happiness Is In Your Own Hands

Trauma gets stored in our brains like a time capsule, we think and react like frozen zombies still stuck in the horror of our childhoods.  Our intrinsic memory, that part of the memory that associates present situations to past experiences, relies on old beliefs and reaction patterns

The crux of healing traumatic memories is rewiring your brain to think differently. A thought shift happens when we entice our minds to focus on other things.  We all know that distraction is the best way to stop a truant child. Same with our minds. What better way than complex, creative activities like knitting, gardening, cake decorating, pottery or carpentry that require our focus, concentration, and dexterity. 

Research has shown that creating or tending things by hand enhances mental health and makes us happy.

Director of the Creativity for Resilience Program at Dell Medical School in Austin, Carrie Barron, M.D. in her book The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness with Your Own Two Hands demonstrates how creative action is integral to long-term happiness and well-being.

When you’re deeply absorbed in something that is truly interesting to you; there’s almost a loss of self and you lose track of time, that's when your thoughts shift from your past traumatic time frame to being absorbed in the NOW.

It happens gradually and gently without undue effort.  The process of complex hand-eye coordination activities acts like a natural Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy. Instead of focussing your eyes on the therapist's hands, you focus your eyes on your own hands.

The repetitive and complex actions activate our brain's neurons to focus on the present task at hand.  Plus the act of creating something fills one with that euphoric feeling.  Just 10-20 seconds shift in our thought process has been scientifically proven to create new neural pathways.

Personally, for me, gardening and stitching have been therapeutic.  The whole process of planting, watching a plant growing and then picking the produce is very satisfying. I always grow some herbs like mint, aloe vera on my window-sill.

Recently,  I volunteered at an NGO coordinating a tailoring class for women. After years of not stitching, unknowingly, I was back to doing something I used to love doing. Moreover, the camaraderie of the other woman felt soothing and uplifting. The laughter and the sharing of our stories felt like good therapy. After class, I felt relaxed, happy, not overwhelmed by intrusive memories. Without being aware my chaotic thoughts shifted to a zone of relaxed creativity. My focus was on different dress designs and how to create a beautiful dress.

Our brain is designed for action, the hand-eye coordination movement activates our own effort-driven reward circuitry, it squirts a cocktail of feel-good neurotransmitters, including dopamine (the "reward" chemical), endorphins (released with exercise), and serotonin (secreted during repetitive movement).

Healing from trauma is tough, we will struggle and falter. Sometimes we feel like just giving up. It is painful. However, instead of just focussing on the regular healing modalities, we need to start doing things that give us joy.

Pick an activity that really interests you, it doesn't matter what. It could be painting, candle-making, quilting, cake-decorating, carpentry, knitting, gardening, learning a musical instrument. Find a group or community that shares your passion. There is nothing more satisfying than connecting with like-minded souls. 

You need to push yourself into the flow of life, leave behind the past. As one develops mastery in one aspect of life, one feels confident to tackle the difficult parts.

Rather than holding on and remaining focused and alert, we need to get on with living. Keeping our body and minds active helps us move forward. Staying immobile isn’t going to guide us into our healing place. Meditation, while a useful beginning step for some people is not always the answer.

Being in the flow of life is the solution to overcoming our painful past.

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Yes! I always mention meditation as one means of healing when we do our trauma trainings, but also add that it makes me want to hit someone! Thank goodness I'm not alone. My concern is that as an 'evidence-based practice' meditation is being rolled out in classrooms where children don't have the same agency to get up and walk out if it has the same disturbing effect on them. And as Cissy always points out, who is listening to the trauma survivors who could have told the well-meaning funders and service providers that there is no one size fits all and that their efforts may actually backfire badly. 


An important and often misunderstood area. Thanks for this.  Those of us with traumatic stress vary as do approaches that support us (or not).

There are many of us who find meditation symptom-aggravating rather than symptom soothing. I'm one despite many times of trying, testing and exploring on my own and with a meditation coach. Most recently, a meditation coach who knows about traumatic stress from developmental trauma. For me, it makes anxiety increase. However, guided imagery, yoga nidra, expressive writing or gardening are all great alternatives. Some I can do alone and some in community.

For those of us with intrusive thoughts or a fear-based brain (and default mode network), being at one with terror is not beneficial or healing. Mindfulness practices, slowing down, and all things that support safety and coping are good but also quite individual. Walking, drumming, and other mindful activity can be more helpful for those of us that are or can get easily activated. All things that support good heart-rate-variability are my go-to's. I opt out of silent meditation because I'm informed by my own trauma symptoms which indicate, that for me, silent meditation is not trauma-informed. But there's no denying that there's a lot of research about how beneficial meditation can be for many, how it can improve health and healing. I say we just keep listening to ourselves and trying a grab bag of all things that work. And also, listening to ourselves about what doesn't. 


Thank you for sharing this.  Regarding the reference to Dr. Britton's study, I suggest that anyone who has interest in the findings review the publication ("he varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists"; if you search for the author's name and part of this title, the article is available through PLOS/ONE for free on-line).  As a scientist, I always recommending going to the source to look at the type of study (interviews and a follow-up survey) and the study population (60 Buddhist practitioners) and key details (41% were practicing for 10 or more hours a day when challenging experiences arose)  to assess the relevance of the findings to your area of interest/work.


Cheryl Miranda posted:

Good point Louise.

Personally, I think pushing meditation on traumatized kids is really bad therapy. Kids need to jump, play, run, dance, sing, tumble, swim, more so traumatized kids. They need to disperse the stored emotional energy. And any kind of motion will get the feel-good chemicals into their systems, plus they will have fun memories.  Their brains need to be rewired with lively thoughts. We need to give kids action, compassion and fun to get over their hurt and pain.

Here, here! Dancing, climbing, skipping in agreement.

The Power to Heal: Sister Mary Agnes Dombroski 

Sister Mary Agnes Dombroski entered the convent in 1987 and spent twelve years parenting the troubled girls at St. Charles Children's Home. During that time, she implemented a unique hiking program for the children exploring trails in New Hampshire and Maine.


Good point Louise.

Personally, I think pushing meditation on traumatized kids is really bad therapy. Kids need to jump, play, run, dance, sing, tumble, swim, more so traumatized kids. They need to disperse the stored emotional energy. And any kind of motion will get the feel-good chemicals into their systems, plus they will have fun memories.  Their brains need to be rewired with lively thoughts. We need to give kids action, compassion and fun to get over their hurt and pain.

I have an insight from Neurofeedback.  The brainwave state that is ""good Theta," extreme relaxation, is 7 hertz...  This is   Just "below' that state is "bad Theta," 3.5 to 5 hertz - a place of cognitive and emotional reactivity, w/ visual images, trauma memories, etc.  So my guess is that meditation might bring some people there.

Laura Haynes Collector posted:

Movement in synchrony with others is very regulating.  Bessell Van Der Kolk made this point:  dance, theatre, etc -- any endeavor where you have your part, but you also have to synchronize with others.  Anything rhythmic, repetitive and playful is also good, like pingpong, tennis etc.  

And skipping, hopscotch, tree-climbing, swinging, just thinking of doing these things reduces my stress. Reducing ACEs in kids should be fun activities, that quickly shift their thought process and release endorphins in their system.

Thanks, Laura for enlightening me about theta waves. Though I don't know if they could be characterized as good or bad. It is just that in the theta state we go deep into our subconscious and the trauma that is repressed comes to the surface. 

However, I have really benefitted from guided meditation particularly, Kelly Howell's theta healing and Steven Halpern's  healing music which use theta brain waves to heal. My experience with this has been - the memories surface but it happens when one is done with listening to the piece. Like watching a movie but being detached from it. 

It's as if the potency of the memories have been diluted. You no longer feel them painful.

The human brain, it's complex and fascinating. 

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