• The importance of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

    An estimated 90% of the world's population will be exposed to a traumatic event over the course of their lives (Frans, Rimmo, Aberg & Fredrikson, 2005) and up to 20% of us will develop post-traumatic stress. Mindfulness is not for everyone, and there are guidelines that we need to follow to minimize risks when teaching the general public.

    However, the latest research and figures show that anywhere mindfulness is being practiced, someone in the room is likely to be struggling with trauma. To address this, here at Mindful Academy International, Kathy Ward has updated and revised all core practices, session plans and resources so you can learn how to teach the general public in a trauma-sensitive way. This meets with our vision of 'do no harm' when teaching mindfulness, allowing us to minimize the potential dangers.

    From primary schools to psychotherapy offices, mindfulness is an increasingly mainstream practice. At the same time, trauma remains a fact of life: the majority of us will experience a traumatic event in our lifetime, in fact, studies show that an estimated 90% of the world's population will be exposed to a traumatic event over the  course of their lives (Frans, Rimmo, Aberg & Fredrikson, 2005) and up to 20% of us will develop post-traumatic stress.

    This means that anywhere mindfulness is being practiced, someone in the room is likely to be struggling with trauma, and as Mindfulness Teachers or those on the teacher training pathway, we need to learn how to teach trauma-sensitive mindfulness.

    Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines trauma:

    “a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time.”


    While not everyone who experiences trauma will be diagnosed with PTSD, many will exhibit some of the symptoms of traumatic stress, either acutely after the trauma or to a degree that may or may not meet the full criteria for a PTSD diagnosis.

    Many of the most common referral criteria or reasons why people want to learn mindfulness include traumatic components such as chronic pain, anxiety, depression, traumatic illness, traumatic grief, and traumatic stress-related symptoms. Mindfulness does not need to work for everyone, and that's OK. As teachers, we need to develop our skills so that we can help support people find out if a mindfulness course is right for them at this moment in their lives.

    Trauma survivors experience a number of challenges to developing mindfulness skills,  especially regarding those practices that are still (as opposed to moving) eyes-closed practices with long expanses of silence. This limitation stems from the primary effect of trauma on the brain, namely, chronic and easily triggered fight/ flight/freeze reactivity.

    For trauma survivors practicing mindfulness, this creates a dilemma. By following basic meditation instructions, survivors will eventually encounter traumatic stimuli - invasive thoughts or stomach wrenching sensations that never seem to go away, or get stronger. While learning to observe and tolerate these stimuli is a key part in recovery with a qualified teacher or medical practitioner, paying them too much attention can end up intensifying trauma symptoms, landing them outside their window of tolerance in a way that needs more than just mindful attention to heal.

  • This raises a crucial question for mindfulness teachers: How can we minimize the potential dangers of mindfulness for survivors while leveraging its powerful benefit?

  • As teachers we want participants to learn that they can shift their focus away from traumatic stimuli during mindfulness practice. In the past, this has not always been the instruction and participants have been encouraged to ‘just be mindful’ or ‘sit with it and see what happens’ which can seem dismissive of someone’s legitimate distress and pain. This shift in focus might involve coming to an internal or external anchor that feels stabilizing for them (this may not be the breath) such as opening their eyes and paying attention to the surrounding environment, feeling the feet on the floor or hands on the lap.

    We need to be explicit that it is always OK not to linger or turn towards something and give them ways they can work skillfully with the difficult or challenging, making informed choices about how they want to practice. We are supporting participants to be self-responsive about how they can shift their attention in ways that support their window of tolerance.

    If someone is being pulled to look at something difficult or challenging, we want them to know how to purposefully shift their view back into their window of tolerance.


    Given the prevalence of trauma, how can we know when someone is having a traumatic response to the guiding of a meditation or experiential exercise? There is no easy answer to this, each person and situation is unique. But as teachers, we need to be honest about our skills and provide relevant referrals when needed. We can self-educate and to learn how to recognize trauma and respond to it effectively.

  • Teaching Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

    At Mindful Academy International we already guided and taught in a very permissive way thanks to Kathy's training in MBCT for Cancer with Trish Bartley and Christina Shennan, Cognitive Behavioural Training, Yoga Therapy and NLP Training. Built-in are many of the suggestions below, but we can do more.  David A. Treleaven suggests in his book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness that we:

    • Build in a choice to the meditation or experiential activity
    • Learning permissive and inquiry style guiding so that we can tailor our instructions to invitations rather than demands,
    • Incorporating movement into practice,
    • Ensure we ground participants in the senses at the end of practice and don't skimp on the time spent with the final few minutes of guiding
    • Be cautious with body scans
    • Be flexible on posture, participants should be given options to sit for the body scan, lie on their stomachs, or sides rather than just the ‘normal’ lie down on your back
    • Respect physical boundaries, a touch however small may not be welcome
    • Create safe spaces (adequate lighting, clearly marked exits, protect privacy by not holding sessions where the general public can see into the room, offer a predictable class schedule)
    • As much as possible offer a scent-free environment

    Watching for signs of dissociation which could include:

    • Fogginess, appearing disconnected from the body
    • Participant reporting they are a long way away
    • Participant cant hear our voice and/or constantly asks others to repeat questions
    • Participant is staring off into space without blinking and not responding to any questions
    • Participant loses a sense of time and cannot remember what happened previously
    • If you suspect dissociation, have them focus on the senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and seeing what is here in the present moment
  • Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Teacher Training

    The Mindfulness Teacher Training courses are not meant to be a replacement for well-established trauma treatment best left to mental health professionals. Rather we explore trauma-sensitive approaches to every stage of teaching the general public. 

    Our work is to stay responsive to the unique and ongoing needs of the participants we work with. The goal of our work must be to "do no harm" and to “relieve, not intensify suffering” (Babette Rothschild) To help support this it includes but is not limited to, contact with participants from the information we place on our websites, including in any correspondence and during pre-course meetings.

    The Mindful Academy International manual, session plans, supporting resources, participants workbook and core practice transcripts have been updated and reviewed with the intention of helping you teach the general public from a trauma-sensitive perspective so that at a minimum we are not harming the participants under our care as they practice. The result is a practical approach to empower those looking to practice mindfulness in a safe, transformative way.