Written by: Maia McCoy, MSW, Victim Services Coordinator

What is guided meditation, and how can it help trauma survivors?

Meditation is the practice of paying attention to our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations from a place of non-judgment. Guided meditation is meditation in which the practitioner follows the lead of a teacher or audio guide. The core of any meditation is being mindful, or becoming aware. To put it simply, being mindful means paying attention to our inner selves and surroundings.

Mindfulness is a state of expanded consciousness, and there are many different ways to attain it. A meditation practice is only one way to achieve mindfulness and can help to translate this state of awareness to our everyday lives, which are addled with distractions and overwhelming experiences.

For trauma survivors, guided meditation can help to:

  • Reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improve our overall physiology,
  • Deepen our clarity of mind and purpose by improving cognitive functions and memory,
  • Manage triggering events, and
  • Ground us in the present moment.

Meditation helps to change our relationship to our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and our bodies. So often, it is easy to be hijacked by our emotional brain after a traumatic experience or to continually travel back to the past, but meditation can help us to notice our thoughts, feelings, and sensations without being overtaken by them. It helps to improve our brain’s balance with the executive functions. There is much research to support the effectiveness of meditation.

Researcher Susan Smalley at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center borrows from monk Ajahn Amaro in describing meditation as “Unentangled Participation” –being able to observe and remain curious without being swept up in the strong emotions of anger, upset, betrayal, guilt, shame, loss, hopelessness, essentially the whole gamut that impacts crime and trauma survivors. She describes the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as clouds passing by us in meditation. In a sense, we are creating space through meditation, a buffer from our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, which allows us the time and ability to act differently instead of continually reacting and being controlled by them. This is the first step in letting go of well-worn and possibly unhealthy patterns in our lives. 

Guided meditation, as compared to silent meditation or regular mindfulness meditation, is great for trauma survivors, because it requires less effort on our parts by giving us something to focus on, allowing us to relax even more deeply.

Photo Credit: Maia McCoy, 2016

How do we practice guided meditation?

There are many apps now for guided meditation. You simply need to download an app, choose a meditation, press play, and let the speaker guide you on a journey in your imagination. I am a firm believer that there is no right or wrong to meditation. You may practice sitting down, lying on the floor, sitting on a bus, on a plane _ _ _ as many iterations as Dr. Seuss could proliferate.

If this is your first time meditating, it might be helpful to:

  1. Close your eyes. Closing your eyes can help put you in touch with your other bodily senses. Even if the speaker doesn’t tell you to do it, this is your meditation, so do as you please!
  2. When thoughts come to you and you find yourself “checking out” of the guided meditation, notice the thoughts and label it: “thinking.” We are wired for thought, so please do not judge yourself for thinking. Simply label in a neutral way and tune back into the meditation.
  3. Take a few moments before and after the guided meditation to focus on your breath. This will help to calm you. Place one hand on your sternum near your heart and your other hand on your belly. Feel your hands rise and fall as you breathe air deep into your diaphragm. Notice how you are breathing; you don’t necessarily need to change anything, as your brain stem is thankfully doing all of the work to regulate the breath. If you do notice that your breath is shallow, simply breathe in and out more deeply, letting your diaphragm fully expand and expel oxygen. 

Where can I get a free app?

Headspace:  https://www.headspace.com/

Insight Timer: https://insighttimer.com/

Sattva: https://www.sattva.life/apps

Psychology Today has put together a Top 5 list of meditation apps, you may want to check out their suggestions here. All of these apps offer a variety of guided meditations — choose one that speaks to you. Some of my favorite guides include Sarah Blondin, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Thich Nhat Hanh.

 

Where can I explore and learn more?

Flaxman, G., & Flook, L. (2017). Brief summary of mindfulness research. Retrieved from http://marc.ucla.edu/workfiles/pdfs/MARC-mindfulness-research-summary.pdf

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Smalley, S. (2010). Fully present: The science, art, and practice of mindfulness. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press.

Tippet, K. (2017). On being with Krista Tippett [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://onbeing.org/

One last thing:

There is a lot of cultural talk right now about “being present” or “living in the now.” As survivors of crime, trauma, and/or homicide, we want to acknowledge the past, acknowledge our losses, honor those we have lost, and generally honor all of the past in our present. Practicing meditation does not mean denying the past or having to stay in the present. From the skills we gain in meditation however, when we do choose to remember past experiences or when we find ourselves triggered, we are better prepared to handle the strong emotions that come to us. We may find it easier to recognize on a bodily level that it was something that happened to us in the past without “reliving” the experience. Conversely, when we begin to map our future again, meditation can help us to achieve the clarity and concentration necessary to do so without traveling down our rabbit hole of “what-if’s.” Namaste.