Past Trauma – V – Mindfulness

The stuff in this post is still very fresh in my head… my mind is hardly made up… work in progress, you might say.  Please, you have my permission to disagree, or even agree.

I’m agreeable with most of the material on Mindfulness by Author’s such as Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra (many others) and a considerable amount of what Buddhism teaches us about being mindful. If I spend time dredging up past trauma for therapy, does that means I’m no longer living in ‘the moment’?

I think about the people who, being similar to me, have been subjected to trauma in their past. I cannot see how any amount of mindfulness practice – by systematically diverting our attention from past to back to the present – would eventually cure or dissipate the powerful emotions connected with this kind of past experience.

If we use mindfulness to ward off a painful past, surely it would only serve to suppress the emotions that probably need to be worked on in the present moment. I’m certain that Buddhist teachings suggest any attempts to avoid pain only increase the suffering.

In my experience, past memories can be triggered when we least expect them. They arise spontaneously as we interact with life. Without realising, something in our surroundings can trigger something bad from the past.

So there we are, happily skipping along all ‘Mindfully together’ and then one day, BANG… something triggers a traumatic memory from the past. In that moment, does our divergence from the ‘here and now’ catapult our sorry ass from our serenity chair?

The memories and pain come from within and, therefore, surely these could be considered as being here, right with us, in the present moment. Maybe they’re not a divergence after all.

There’s a big difference between berating ourselves for something we did in the past and allowing time to constructively process past painful experiences in the present moment.

Past memories are often the fundamental root to much of our mental health difficulties today. If we continue to suppress them, even with something as positive as mindfulness practice, they have the potential to go on interrupting inner peace, it will infect our happiness and, ultimately, even jeopardise our opportunity to fully understand and practice Mindfulness itself.

Like everything else

Processing past trauma – v – Mindfulness

Is all about balance.

As we learn to practice Mindfulness, there’s little point in trying to ward off intrusive thoughts and painful emotions. That’s likely to create an additional internal battle. Learning to sit with past pain in the ‘here and now’ is the beginning of healing.

Once “healing” is up and running, perhaps Mindfulness practices would help many people to move forward in that process. It’s not for everyone, but can be a powerful tool for finally letting go and moving forward.

In many ways therapy is a process of being mindful. We are encouraged to be aware of ourselves and the others in the room in that moment. If something in the present is affected by pain from the past, then we don’t take the group into the past, but we bring the past into the present to be analysed.

Finding balance between remembering past traumatic memories and Practicing Mindfulness might at first seem impossible, but as long as the past memories are always brought into the present moment context, it is achievable, in my opinion.

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30 thoughts on “Past Trauma – V – Mindfulness

  1. Gel

    Hi Cat,
    I’ve been reading along this and the last couple of your posts….so many important questions here.
    For me mindfulness AND dealing with the pain from the past do not exclude each other. I think the pain left over from past trauma- if it’s still deep inside me – can come out in a healing way. And if it’s still held inside me then it is part of the present. I also don’t think of mindfulness as a way to avoid traumatic emotions. I’ve heard that both theraputic releasing of emotions AND mindfulness can work together….maybe in alternating waves. At this point it is hard for me to practice mindfulness (sitting still) when I’ve got erupting emotions. And sometimes when I practice a sitting meditation with silence, the feelings will come up to the surface. Instead of seeing that as me not being capable of meditation, I see it as meditation as being a powerful tool for letting stuff to the surface that needs to come out.
    Everything your wrote here seems much the same as how I’ve been seeing the topic. Thanks for writing about it.

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    1. Cat Post author

      Hi Gel… we are thinking along very similar lines here. Thinking about past pain or Mindfulness are opposite sides of the same coin; both are very different, but each holds equal value

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  2. Priceless Joy

    Traumas that happen to us when we are very young are strongly embedded. People in my family tell me, “It’s all in your mind.” In other words, control my mind better …. I’m sure you know what I’m saying.

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    1. Cat Post author

      They are strongly embedded, Joy. Unless someone has experienced similar, it must be incredibly difficult to understand.

      Thanks for commenting, my friend!

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  3. rootstoblossom

    I do think mindfulness includes examination of current emotions that we re-experience from a trigger, or from a happy memory. I have learned not to squash strong emotions but to put them on hold for later examination if I’m not in the right place to dig deeper. Like a dinner party, or parent teacher conference, I may feel some past pain from a trigger but it wouldn’t be right to explore and experience fully at that moment. I will do mindfulness to bring myself back to the present and assure myself I am in no danger and try to get back to the task at hand. Balance is also what I seek, and seems so elusive and confusing. But we keep going and keep trying.

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    1. Cat Post author

      It’s been so interesting to read other people’s views. It confirms for me that Mindfulness does have a place in exploring past trauma in the here and now. It can also help us deal with those unexpected triggers and, ultimately, support us leaving past pain behind and moving forward.

      Thank you for taking the time to share

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  4. N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ

    Cat, this was such a wise post. You’re right — we shouldn’t suppress our emotions, and finding balance is key. What I think can happen is that we may reinforce those neural pathways by dwelling once we have a trigger. After my partner died tragically, and i was there, any time I heard a loud noise, like a balloon popping, or fireworks, I would have a trigger, a physical reaction like jumping, my heart started pounding, my blood pressure would go up, cortisol and adrenaline coursed through my veins and it was as though I was experiencing this trauma for the first time.

    A type of mindfulness and other neural training helped me to bypass my limbic system (amygdala (emotions, fear) and hippocampus (memories) and assess the situation from my frontal lobes first. This allowed me to be able to work on suppressed emotions and make my brain aware that these triggers were not an actual threat. When experiencing a perceived threat, signals reach the emotional regions of our brain (limibic system) twice as fast as our reasoning and analyzing regions (frontal lobes). The brain has to be trained to know the difference between a real threat and a memory.

    But I will admit, I suppressed my trauma for years before i found the tools that were the most beneficial. Fantastic post, my friend.

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    1. Cat Post author

      I’m by far an expert, but my understanding is that one of the things we can do is strengthen those neural pathways by wallowing around aimlessly in those nasty triggers. We’ve all done it at some point and maybe that process is even necessary for a time. The benefits from exploring past pain Mindfully in a therapeutic setting is that we think and talk about past trauma constructively and allow the opportunity for those neural pathways to change into a more balanced perspective.

      I can see how Mindfulness helps us not to become overwhelmed by the traumatic flashbacks or even sinking too low into depression. It can also help us slow down the rumination following one of those more intense sessions.

      The type of Mindfulness you describe is similar to this idea of using mindfulness to bring trauma into the present moment and explore what it means for us today. Eventually, there’s a real potential of realising thoughts are just thoughts and the past is where it belongs. It can be life changing to start to realise all that stuff from the past can no longer harm us in the present moment.

      Thank you, Victoria… great thought provoking comment!

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  5. mandy

    A very thoughtful post, Cat. When I felt desperate to face my past abuse, I researched all the ways to make that happen. Practicing Mindfulness was one. I know it is a practice that seems to resonate with many as as beneficial. I’m a quirky type–maybe it’s the lack of control I was allowed as a kid and later as an adult, but I seem to have to float my own boat. Sitting it meditation doesn’t do anything, but if I have a pen (computer keyboard)in hand, the memories flow and I am able to work through them. I think the only way to healing from the past is to gather the experience in the safest way for each individual, face them head on, and in my case, write the power out of them. I’m careful to look at therapeutic practices, recognize that one size doesn’t fit all, and then make a decision if it feels right for me.

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    1. Cat Post author

      I’m not one for meditation either, Mandy. I did do a 12 week Mindfulness course recently, which surprisingly, isn’t all about meditation. There are so many other practices that help to ground us in the present moment. Interesting you should mention writing. Sometimes writing is about the only tool I have for working through the past and it can also help me feel grounded in the present moment.

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      1. mandy

        I’ve heard so many positive things about Mindfulness courses, Cat. I really should take one where there is a facilitator. Left to my own devices, my mind wanders. I can see it being a useful tool. I’m such a physical person, I usually need a pen or trowel in hand to work through stuff. A cat or dog doesn’t hurt either 🙂

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  6. kat

    you bring up a lot of interesting points and issues on how mindfulness can be interpreted and used. but to my mind, mindfulness is a tool best used to help ground us in the present when we are triggered, or stressed, or having a difficult time functioning. whereas therapy is not the place to be mindful, it is the place to ponder and bring to the front of the mind the past, the triggers, the trauma, in a safe place. mindfulness helps keep us going when we need to be functional in the now, when we need to be ‘present’ at that very moment and we are being threatened to be engulfed in the past. i guess, it helps to give us control over when and where and how we access those traumas, those memories, those triggers and stressors.

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    1. Cat Post author

      I agree, Kat, Mindfulness can help to rescue us from those triggering moments when we’re in danger of freaking out. However, in therapy, if we bring the past trauma into the present, then maybe that is also being mindful

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  7. ziggy40

    Thanks for this post. I also struggle with the balance in the mindfulness vs painful theory which seem difficult to understand . I think working through some things has reduced my triggers of some things. There are some things I think , for me are to deep Sending white fluffy clouds..lol
    Love Ziggy

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    1. Cat Post author

      Hi Ziggy… thank you for your supportive comment. Our triggers can be greatly reduced by facing up to the things that cause them. Peace!

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  8. myspokenheart

    Cat,
    I think this post is very wise. You cannot fully live in the now if there is something from the past eating away at you. Ignoring issues only causes them to fester. You cannot just fake it all better. I know that in some circles of thinking the “fake it till you make it” way of thinking is quite popular, but I personally feel it is self destructive. Past issues need to be dealt with in order for us to be truly freed from their hold. And even once dealt with, they still happened and are still a part of our history, part of our lives. They can still bring about pain, but that pain is somehow different once its been dealt with, it is no longer debilitating.
    ((HUGS))

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    1. Cat Post author

      Yes, and I’m just beginning to realise just how much the past has been allowed to fester. Somehow that pain feels potent but encouraging at the same time because finally it’s being allowed to come out into the open.
      Thank you, Andrea

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        1. Cat Post author

          Hard question since I don’t usually read back. I would say the most recent HUGE realisation is around bullying and shame. Three post ago “Bullying.. shame and humiliation” is the start of that process and I’m just drafting a follow up now or tomor. I look forward to reading your own blog

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  9. jinx0923

    Something I discovered working in the mental health field is called the Trauma Resiliency Model. It’s still fairly new, but I’ve seen it work in helping people that have a lot of PTSD and trauma related symptoms. What I love about it is that you don’t focus on the past or even the story. You focus on the body because that is where all our memories are stored. When we react to anything, it’s our bodies that react then the brain processes it and gives it meaning. I don’t work for them so please don’t think this is self promotion. They are nonprofit and I’ve been trained in the model. If you are interested please feel free to message me and if you think it’s garbage that’s totally find to. Just throwing it out there 🙂 http://traumaresourceinstitute.com/

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    1. Cat Post author

      I don’t think it’s garbage, but the 18 mth programme I’m currently doing is Mentalization Based Therapy. We’re not allowed to undertake any other therapy and I’m kinda hoping I don’t need anymore by the end of these sessions!
      Many thanks for taking the time to comment

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