Did you know that focusing on the breath is a common trauma trigger?
What does this actually look like? It can be very subtle. For me, whenever I tried to focus on my breath, I would tense up, and start to breathe less deeply.
For 6 years I contributed to the production of hundreds of meditation programs in my role as managing editor for a major publisher. One thing those programs have in common? They tell you to focus on your breath.
It seems that focusing on the breath, for those who don’t hold trauma, is a wonderful path to turning one’s attention inward – but for me, it’s never been that way. And it took me years to realize that I was actually fighting my own body by trying to force myself to focus on my breath, and force myself to turn inward.
If you stop to think about it, it makes a lot of sense that these 2 things that are key in meditation – focusing on the breath, and turning attention inward – are not going to be easy for trauma survivors. Why? Our very intelligent survival system can get stuck in outward-focused mode – scanning our environment for further threat. Just one example of how real this is: in many trauma survivors, there’s a muscle in the middle ear that changes so that it focuses attention on the surrounding environment, rather than the conversation right in front of you.
I tried and failed many times to establish a meditation practice. Instead of experiencing the research-proven benefits of meditation, such as stress reduction, I actually felt ashamed, as though there must be something wrong with me. Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. So… I tried even harder to force myself to meditate - basically trying to clamp down with brute force and MAKE it happen.
This strategy was the total opposite of the ease and comfort meditation was ‘supposed to’ introduce into my life!
Then I started to notice that the way my body felt when I was experiencing a trauma trigger matched the way my body felt when I started to meditate. My real “aha” moment came when I heard Elaine Miller-Karas, founder of the Trauma Resource Institute, speaking at the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Elaine’s organization assists people worldwide who have experienced the trauma of natural disasters such as earthquakes. Elaine was the first person I ever heard acknowledge that focusing on the breath can be a trigger for trauma survivors.
Of course! It made total sense. Every meditation program I had encountered includes the directive to focus on the breath, and it is this very thing that makes it so difficult for me. Just hearing her say that was an incredibly validating experience and I felt years of frustration begin to wash away.
But if we don’t start meditating by focusing on our breath, where do we start?
Over several years, I developed and used a handful of approaches that helped me honor my survival instinct, not override it, so that I would be able to meditate.
I’m finally able to share these exercises! Check them out here: http://www.amazon.com/Trauma-Informed-Meditation-Exercises-Kristina-Cizmar/dp/B01997I02E/