Can meditation cause us to be triggered?

Let me start by saying I'm a huge proponent of mindfulness meditation and mind-body practices, but often for those dealing with trauma, deepened awareness of feelings, body sensations, and thought patterns can be frightening and even triggering. This is much more common than many may believe, and I don't think we're addressing this enough, hence my desire to write this article.
So let's go there...

Certain aspects of meditation that can trigger certain people in certain situations:

1) Breathwork (Breathing Practices):
The breath is one of the relatively few functions of the body that we have both autonomic & conscious control of. Both the focus on and the sensations of the breathing can be triggering for some. For others, focusing on the breath this may just feel uncomfortable.

Some may recognize that an inciting traumatic event (or set of events) overtly involved an experience of being unable to breathe.  Even if there was no inciting traumatic event that involved suffocation, the survival physiology that's at play during every stressful event is one that affects the rate & rhythm of breathing, so feeling any change in the resting breathing pattern may be an uncomfortable reminder of a time when we felt out of control of both our outer experience and of our bodies.  Aside from this felt-sense/somatic memory, breathing itself is a reminder of both our vitality and our mortality, and therefore for some, the very act of noticing the breath can be a psychological trigger that may evoke fearful memories or survivors' guilt.

Though some of us may experience this distress, easing into breathing practices can support us immensely through our trauma healing. Engaging in breathwork (bringing conscious awareness to the breath, and inviting the breath to deepen and slow) can bring us out of sympathetic overdrive, especially when practiced over time. The operative word here is "inviting". We can't force or rush breathing exercises just like we can't force or rush healing.

2) Somatic Awareness Practices (Such as Body "Scans"):
"Where do you feel that in your body? How does it feel? What color is it?" These are common questions we ask during "body scan"/somatic awareness meditations, as they allow for a deeper awareness of the body's sensations and emotions. While this awareness can be a catalyst for insight and foster a sense of safety in the body, there's a degree of emotional discomfort that can arise when our awareness "enters" particular areas of the body, and everyone experiences this differently. This experience can trigger trauma physiology in some cases.

Deepened somatic awareness can also involve a deepening of the five senses. Because of this heightened awareness, we may be more likely to detect a triggering smell, sound, sight, taste, or tactile sensation.

It's important to take body scan & somatic practices slowly and to be aware of what resources are available to us in cases where we do begin to feel overwhelmed (more on this in the next section). Ultimately, the purpose of body-based practices is to remind ourselves that the body is safe in this current time and space.

3) Deepened Awareness of Thoughts + Feelings (accompanying Mindfulness Meditation)
A key component of mindfulness meditation is non-judgment. Just "noticing" our thoughts and emotions, and not "following their storyline" as many of us are instructed to do is SO MUCH EASIER SAID THAN DONE. 🙃 Again, I'm a huge proponent of mindfulness, but we need to talk about how challenging this actually is, especially for someone who is near the beginning of their trauma healing path, or who is quite new to mindfulness. Certain new-age/self-help mindfulness teachings can feel a bit detached, spiritually bypassing the deep pain and grief that is felt and experienced by trauma survivors.

Personally, when I guide someone through a mindfulness meditation, I maintain focus on the self-compassion & non-judgment aspects of the practice. Some of us may feel we don't even know how to be kind to ourselves or stop judging ourselves, and this itself can be a characteristic of certain complex & long-term traumatic experiences. As an instructor or practitioner, guiding clients to that sense of safety and support can be enhanced by modeling non-judgment and compassion for them. This can be done through small reminders of encouragement throughout the meditation process such as "it's safe for you to feel what you feel", "it's ok that you're thinking that", feeling this way is totally understandable", "what you're feeling is absolutely valid", etc.

Pillars of trauma-informed meditation center around creating a safe & open environment for the person meditating:

1) Trust & comfort with the meditation instructor.
The instructor must be empathetic + compassionate, be aware of trauma physiology, and be perceptive, able to notice when a client is being triggered and pushed past capacity to cope during a meditation.

If we're the one meditating, it's important that we hold a degree of trust for the instructor, and that we feel comfortable asking them questions. If we're not working with a meditation instructor in-person (if we're using online guided meditations for example), it's important that we still choose an instructor that we feel resonant with, again, ideally with one that has awareness of trauma and its effects on the mind + body.

2) Autonomy.
Before we begin any meditation, it's important to recognize that we, as the ones who are meditating, have the option to stop and take a break, or to discontinue the meditation completely, whenever we wish to. This might mean pausing an audio meditation, asking the instructor to pause (in a private session), opening our eyes and taking a break (in a group session), or even leaving the room for a few minutes (in a group session).

We should never feel trapped or obligated to continue meditating in order to please the meditation instructor, or just because we think that pausing will mean we've "failed" or "given up". Noticing that your body is experiencing trauma physiology, and slowing yourself down or easing out of a meditation is an act of self-care. Forcing yourself to "tough it out" in this case is often not helpful.

3) Easing In, a.k.a. Titration. 
When we begin any new process, it often feels strange at first, and it's likely out of our comfort zone. Deep awareness of our own thought patterns, feelings, and body sensations is nothing to fear, but it is a new experience for many of us, and therefore, easing into it is a much better approach than diving in headfirst.

We may opt for a 10-minute beginner meditation if we're practicing alone with online resources, or, if we're practicing with an instructor in person, share with them that we're new to the practice, and communicate any fears about the practice itself. If we're meditating alone, it can help to take a moment prior to the meditation to write down on a journal or piece of paper in front of us what we may be nervous about, and remind ourselves that we are safe in this moment. I usually recommend to our AAMBH community that they write on a piece of paper in front of them prior to meditation, "I am safe," so that if they pause during the meditation, they can open their eyes and have a tactile anchor to that reminder.

So what can we do if we are triggered during meditation?

Firstly, try to remind yourself that you're not the only that has been triggered during meditation, that this is normal & natural, and that you didn't do anything "wrong" or "bad."

Know your resources. 
"Resources," in this sense, are grounding skills, self-soothing behaviors, tools, and forms of support that you know you'll have access to if/when you need them. Much of my work here at AAMBH focuses on sharing somatic resources (body-based self-soothing tools). Though a body-based tool like breathwork can sometimes trigger us, pivoting to a different body-based tool when we start to feel triggered can be really helpful.

Things like acupressure, meridian tapping, using familiar tactile sensations (touching a familiar object such as a piece of jewelry or a worry stone you carry in your pocket) self-massage, opening your eyes, naming 5 things you can see or touch around you in your immediate environment, or experiencing a potent taste such as taking a bite out of a lemon, can all be powerful, and you'll get to know which work best for you in different types of situations. We don't need to wait until we're triggered or stressed-out to practice them; practicing embodiment tools while we're feeling relatively at ease can make it that much easier to remember them and to receive benefit from them when we need them most.

(btw, yes, I know the lemon thing is different, but several people have shared with me that they do this to ease dissociation, panic attacks, & flashbacks - pretty cool, yea?) 

In today's digitally-driven world, it's so important that we don't undervalue the healing power of human connection. Although I'm all about self-awareness & empowered self-healing, reaching out for help & support with an open heart can strengthen you. You are never alone.

always with love,

Arianna Opper, D.O., American Academy of Mind-Body Healing® Founder 


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