Tips for meditating when you have PTSD

Sian Ferguson

Editor’s Note: If you have PTSD, please speak with your physician about treatment. In an effort to make meditation accessible to everyone, we feel it's important to publish stories like this. The experiences with meditation in this article are not typical for the general population.

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In my second year of university, I joined a yoga and meditation group. I was beginning to come to terms with past experiences of sexual assault and subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and I thought I’d try to use meditation to heal from my trauma.

Indeed, a number of studies have suggested that meditation can reduce the symptoms of PTSD, particularly in war veterans. These studies show that meditation reduces stress hormones by calming the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our ‘fight-or-flight’ responses to danger. But for some reason, when I first tried meditation, it brought a deluge of painful flashbacks. Slowing my mind down and focusing on my thoughts seemed to invite in images of my rape. They flashed before my eyes, turning my quiet meditation sessions into nightmares. Still, I was determined to meditate, so I told my meditation circle’s leader about my flashbacks. It turns out, I wasn’t alone. Trauma can make meditation difficult in the beginning, but there are steps you can take to experience the benefits of meditation, and even have it aid in your recovery from the trauma. If you’re struggling with meditation because of PTSD, consider a few of these suggestions.

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Find a therapist or guide who understands both trauma and meditation

When I shared my experience with my meditation circle leader, he immediately referred me to a colleague who had experience in counseling victims and survivors of sexual assault. With experience in both meditation and trauma counseling, that colleague was able to fully understand my struggle. With her help, I reduced the frequency and intensity of my flashbacks and panic attacks. Eventually, I found meditation to be a useful, calming practice central to my healing process. If you’re dealing with a guide who’s only experienced in either meditation or trauma counseling, you can find yourself getting frustrated with their lack of understanding. Seeking a counselor, therapist or even a friend who understands both can be incredibly beneficial.

Meditate only in places where you feel safe

When I first had flashbacks during meditation, it was with my meditation group on my university's campus. Guess what else was on campus? My rapist. In hindsight, it seems obvious, but a part of the reason I experienced flashbacks during meditation was because I didn’t feel safe there. While I didn’t feel like I was in immediate danger, my subconscious felt unsettled and uncomfortable. In the comfort of my own home, however, I felt different. I was free of all obvious triggers, and that helped keep the intrusive thoughts at bay.

Practice mindfulness in other ways

Meditation isn’t the only way to be mindful. It’s possible to reap the benefits of mindfulness while avoiding the difficulties that can come with meditation and trauma. I’ve found distraction to be essential in healing from trauma. When something triggers my PTSD or anxiety, I often knit to keep my mind and body distracted. While watching the yarn weave around my knitting needles, I often find myself slowly entering a state of mindfulness. Knitting isn’t for everyone, but mindfulness can be applied when peeling potatoes, washing dishes, vacuuming, running, etc. If flashbacks happen during these kinds of activities, you’ll find it easier to shift your thoughts to the activity at hand. Part of the reason why this works is because you’re not simply trying to meditate, but to perform a chore. You also avoid the pressure to meditate which you might feel in an ashram or meditation circle.

Witness your flashbacks

It took me years of therapy and mindfulness practice to reach the point of witnessing my flashbacks rather than feeling them. Just as we are taught to witness and acknowledge our thoughts during meditation, I learned to observe my flashbacks without interacting with them. This is quite difficult as the memory of my assault can be so strong it feels like I’m reliving it. But by gently reminding myself that my thoughts were a natural response to my trauma, I was able to think of my rape without becoming dysfunctional. I can say to myself, “I’m thinking about my rape—but that doesn’t mean it’s happening again.” Meditation has taught me to find a sense of calm even when images of my rape were flashing before my eyes. This has strengthened the control I have over my emotions, which has also helped me prevent panic attacks. Nowadays, I can think about and discuss my rape while managing my emotions and avoiding extreme emotional dips. While certain things can still trigger flashbacks, I’m able to avoid them to a large extent. While I’m far from healed, meditation has helped me realize I am not my thoughts, nor am I my trauma.

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