Mindfulness is a meditative practice that helps ground you in the present moment. It’s an ancient practice that has been around for thousands of years. It has its roots in Hinduism in ancient India. Today, its principles are used in daily meditation and several therapeutic modalities, including some evidence-based therapeutic approaches.
Trauma is a common factor in mental health disorders and addiction. Past traumas may be rooted in anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and mental health disorders. In addition to PTSD, several mental health disorders are rooted in depression.
How can mindfulness-based therapies treat trauma and mental health disorders caused by trauma? Can mindfulness help with substance use disorders? Learn more about mindfulness and how it can work to treat trauma.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of increasing your awareness of the present moment, including things happening inside you and in the world directly around you. Present awareness can happen naturally in situations in which you are extremely satisfied or even when you are startled.
The human brain is powerful and can process a lot at once. But processing multiple things at a time may mean half-paying attention to the world around you or moving on autopilot. You may notice this if you drive while listening to podcasts or audiobooks. You may be fully paying attention to what is being said over your car radio one moment, but then a car pulls out in front of you, and you have to slam on the brakes. Your brain and body become fully focused on driving to avoid a collision, but you stop taking in what your audiobook was saying, and you have to rewind.
Mindfulness is about intentionally quieting distractions and focusing on your present circumstances. Techniques often involve taking note of yourself and your present environment. You may notice the feel of the soles of your feet touching your socks. You may pay attention to the sounds of birds chirping.
Another way that mindfulness is sometimes described is to be awake to the present moment. Rather than moving through the world around you on autopilot while you spend time
Common distraction issues that mindfulness can help:
- Sleep issues. Sleep issues are common and often occur alongside mental health issues like anxiety. When your brain is distracted for all hours of the day, it can be difficult to quiet it down at night.
- Needing distractions. You may always play music or scroll through your phone whenever you have a spare moment.
- Anxiety when sitting still. You may feel uncomfortable in silence or when sitting still.
A core component of mindfulness is accepting your present moment and staying grounded on the here-and-now. Acceptance in mindfulness is intended to encourage contentment and happiness that is not fleeting or contingent on your current diversion.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is a medical term used to describe something that significantly damages the body or is deeply psychologically distressing. Just like a severe injury can potentially leave lasting consequences, psychological trauma can come with a risk of lasting mental health consequences.
Several events could cause trauma that leads to mental health disorders. Trauma occurs most often for military service members and first-responders. However, civilians can experience trauma in car accidents, assaults, sexual assaults, disasters, child abuse, and other circumstances.
You can experience trauma firsthand, but you may also be traumatized when you witness or hear about a harrowing event.
Trauma is commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, but it can lead to other mental health problems. In some cases, you may be unaware that your mental health problems are:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health disorder directly tied to a past trauma. You may have anxiety, nightmares, and dissociative episodes called flashbacks that remind you of past trauma.
- Acute stress disorder (ASD). Acute stress disorder is another mental health problem that starts after a traumatic event. It involves PTSD-like symptoms within the first month after a traumatic event but then subsides. If they continue, it’s PTSD.
- Adjustment disorders. An adjustment disorder is a mental health problem that involves emotional distress in response to changes in a person’s life. Adjustment disorders are often rooted in past traumas.
- Reactive attachment disorder (RAD). This is a disorder in children that don’t form healthy bonds with parents or other caretakers. It may involve fear, withdrawal, sadness, and listlessness.
- Disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED). This is another disorder in children that experience trauma. Children with DSED may be friendly with strangers but have trouble forming close emotional bonds.
Various factors may cause common mental health issues like anxiety and depression, but they may also be rooted in past traumas. In some cases, PTSD and other trauma disorders can cause co-occurring anxiety or depression. Trauma can also increase your risk of developing a substance use disorder.
How Is Mindfulness Used to Treat Trauma?
Mindfulness techniques often involve meditation sessions where you stop, slow down and pay attention to your surroundings. A therapist may guide you to focus on specific things like specific bodily sensations or sights, sounds, or smells you can perceive in the world around you. You will also increase your awareness of the present impartially, with no judgment or negative thoughts about what you are perceiving. The goal is to remove distractions, thoughts about the past or future, and negative self-talk. Ideally, mindfulness exercises will ground you in the present and help you to experience acceptance and contentment in your current situation.
Mindfulness can help you increase your ability to deal with painful emotions that are caused by past traumas, anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. Therapies involving mindfulness training can help you become more focused on the present moment and may give you the tools to deal with challenging emotional triggers as they arise.
Mindfulness may help you take notice of your thoughts and feelings rather than letting them happen suddenly and out of your control. While you can take notice of your feelings, you may be more able to manage them.
Practicing mindfulness also increases your compassion toward yourself. Negative self-talk and poor self-esteem are common in people with past traumas, and they worsen mental health. Mindfulness emphasizes objective observation of your thoughts and feelings. You may gain more insight into how you think and feel about yourself and more control over your self-esteem.
It’s important to note that mindfulness is a practice, and practice makes perfect. In other words, you may not see immediate results, which may be frustrating for some. There are no one-size-fits-all treatment options, and finding the right approach for you may take trial and error. But as you practice mindfulness with the guidance of a therapist, you may be able to see improvements with enough time.
How Can Mindfulness Help With Addiction?
Just as mindfulness can help you deal with negative emotions as they are involved in trauma-based mental health issues, it can also help with addiction. Mindfulness practices increase your awareness and control over negative emotions. This can help with trauma, but it can also help you cope with emotions that lead to drug or alcohol cravings.
Relapse is often rooted in negative emotions that lead to poor coping responses and eventually to alcohol or drug use as a form of self-medication. Mindfulness can help you deal with painful emotions and develop more effective coping mechanisms.
Mindfulness principles are present in dialectical behavior therapy, a form of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). CBT and DBT are proven to be effective in the treatment of substance use disorder.
Are There Risks to Mindfulness-Based Therapy?
Mindfulness techniques are associated with positive results for people with trauma, but they can sometimes trigger negative symptoms in some cases. Some people who have traumatic experiences at the root of their mental health issues may worsen symptoms when they go through mindfulness exercises or meditations. Trauma is often rooted in sensory experiences, and sights, sounds, and even smells can trigger painful memories or flashbacks. Mindfulness often involves slowing down and paying attention to sensory experiences around you. Focusing on these issues through mindfulness can sometimes bring the traumatic experience flooding back to your mind.
However, psychologists have noticed this trend, and trauma-sensitive mindfulness therapies are often used in people with a history of trauma.