What Qualifies as Trauma, and How Does It Affect our Brain Structure?

Meditation can help you heal from trauma and PTSD, but it’s not always the cure-all we want it to be. For some, meditation may appear to make trauma worse. Meditation brings conscious awareness to the activity in our mind, but we’re not always prepared to be present with what we see. Trauma informed meditation considers the potential for re-traumatization through mindfulness and takes measures to ensure meditation heals without hurting.

Trauma is qualified by the one who experiences it. There’s no particular event or set of external occurrences that defines trauma. The American Psychological Association describes trauma as an emotional response to any event deemed by the experiencer as profoundly terrible or impactful.

Research tells us trauma doesn’t only cause psychological injury, but changes the physiological structure of our brains. Neuroplasticity, often hailed as a benefit, can have both positive or negative consequences. The same malleability that alters our brains in response to trauma also makes recovery possible. Meditation helps us heal from trauma by offering us a new perspective on past and current events, and ultimately, by changing the structure of our brain.

How Meditation Heals Trauma

Meditation helps create more space between our thoughts and emotions, and our sense of self. Through meditation, we learn that we are not our thoughts and emotions, nor are all our thoughts true or worthy of reaction. With practice, we can apply these same principles to the manifestations of our trauma. By addressing expressions of trauma in the body and mind with curiosity and compassion, we free ourselves from compulsive reactivity and trauma-related suffering.

Research also supports the use of meditation for treating trauma and PTSD. Traumatic stress impairs the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, while increasing activity in the amygdala, the home of our fight-flight-freeze response. Meditation has the inverse effect on these same areas of the brain. It strengthens activity in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, while dampening hyperactivity in the amygdala.

While meditation has the potential to heal us from trauma, recovery doesn’t always follow an easy, straight path. Trauma survivors may have long avoided facing bodily sensations, thoughts, or emotions related to past discomfort. When trauma is present, closing the eyes to tune inward can instigate flashbacks and an overwhelming hyperarousal or retraumatization. It may seem like meditation makes your trauma worse.

Traumatic energy remains in the body until it is lovingly acknowledged and released. Meditation can contribute to this work, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. When meditation is agitating instead of calming it isn’t a personal failure nor is it a failure of the practice. There are many different styles and types of meditation, some of which are better suited to processing trauma.

4 Tips for Trauma-Informed Meditation

  1. Work with a trauma-informed meditation guide
    Not all trauma therapists understand how to teach meditation, and some meditation teachers may overlook the experience of students with trauma. To integrate meditation into your trauma recovery plan, it’s important to find a guide who understands both. A trauma-informed meditation teacher can offer techniques to use when meditation becomes overwhelming, so your practice feels safe and effective.
  2. Stay within your window of tolerance
    Each of us has our own window of tolerance, a zone of arousal in which we’re able to effectively function. Those who’ve experienced trauma may have a limited capacity for introspection or body awareness, for example, before unmanageable discomfort arises. Trauma informed mindfulness includes recognizing when you’re pushing the boundaries of your window of tolerance, and learning how to safely get grounded again.
  3. Meditate in safe places
    Sometimes even a simple cue such as ‘close your eyes’ can push a trauma survivor out of their comfort zone. Meditation is a safe place to work with strong or challenging thoughts and emotions, but meditating in a physical place that feels unsafe can quickly negate that benefit. Places that feel unsafe may include large groups, the outdoors, campuses, hospitals or any space related to the source of our trauma.
  4. Practice patience & self-compassion
    Meditation won’t heal trauma overnight, nor is it a linear process in which each session gets progressively easier. Trauma is deeply ingrained in our bodies and minds, and while we can recover, it takes time. Patience and self-compassion are qualities we might specifically practice in certain meditations, but are also qualities we should apply to every meditation and the process of healing itself.

Meditation is one part of a holistic solution

Meditation is a wonderful tool for connecting us with the calm, stable state of mind that’s always available, regardless of our past or present experience. However, with trauma in your past, meditation may work best when it’s part of a holistic, integrative approach to healing that’s supervised by a trauma informed professional.