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Mindfulness Meditation and Recognizing Trauma

“Grace” was nine-years old, a victim of a sexual assault by her mother’s live in boyfriend. I was conducting a forensic interview with her at our Multi-Disciplinary Center. The interview progressed to the most difficult part, in which we began talking about the actual abuse. I was treading carefully, doing the tricky balancing act of obtaining facts, clarifying information, avoiding leading questions, and most importantly keeping the well-being of Grace as the priority. As Grace was disclosing a particular detail of the abuse, I noticed a shift in her posture, she became fidgety. As I asked the next “tell me more” question, I noticed that she seemed pre-occupied and “checked out.” 

“Grace, would you like to take a little break?” She nodded her head. I looked over at the victim advocate who graciously and seamlessly moved into her comfort role. We took a break and were able to get through the rest of the interview, obtaining a significant disclosure, while taking care to protect Grace’s mental well-being and providing her support.

As a forensic interviewer or clinician, this scenario is likely very familiar to you. You have probably experienced it many times, picking up on sometimes subtle, other times more overt indicators of trauma. And of course, if we are honest with ourselves, we know there are times when we have not picked up on those cues, and perhaps ended up causing extra stress on our victim or client that could have been avoided.

What is the difference? It’s having both the awareness and the presence of mind to pick up on those cues. This is accomplished by paying attention to the right things at the right moment and then making the right decision for the given situation. This is a skill set we can improve through training and that training is the practice of mindfulness meditation.

What is mindfulness meditation? It is simply training for your brain’s attentional system, a training that over the past 20 years, modern science has helped show that it has real physical and mental health benefits, as well as positive affects on our attentional system and our cognitive performance.

Think for a moment about how much information we are presented with in a given moment via the five senses. For example, according to a study at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, the human retina is capable of transmitting visual input to the brain at a rate of about 10 million bits per second, and that is just visual information. And of course, you are also taking in information via hearing, smell, taste, and touch. 

The brain has an attentional system to manage all of this incoming data. If it didn’t, you would become confused, even overwhelmed by all the incoming information. This attention system is critical to your functioning in the world, your cognitive ability, from basic survival to interacting with others to conducting a forensic interview or speaking with a client.

Meditation is simply training to help make this system more effective and efficient. It works by training your ability to focus and concentrate, your awareness of both the external and internal environment, and how you respond or react to experience. 

“Mindfulness” is looking at an experience in a non-judgmental way, deferring your preferences, not conceptualizing or telling yourself a story about the experience. Just letting it be, seeing it in an un-entangled objective, almost 3rd person manner.  Mindfulness meditation involves training the attentional system and using “mindfulness” or mindful awareness to regulate how you respond to experiences that arise during meditation.      

So how does this training work and how can it help us when it comes to recognizing and responding to trauma skillfully with our clients?  There’s more to it, but essentially it works by training our focus and concentration and our awareness. 

With a basic focus practice, we establish an “anchor” to focus our attention on. It is usually a neutral present moment experience like the sensation of breathing.  We place our attention on this anchor, and when the mind wanders away from it, we gently bring the attention back to the anchor. The mind wanders again, we bring it back, and begin again. Each time we bring the attention back to the anchor, the thing we are deciding to pay attention to on-purpose, we are strengthening our focus and concentration, our ability to stay focused on something despite other things (thoughts, feelings, emotions, sounds, impulses) that are competing for our attention.  What’s important here, is that we don’t discard or push away those things, we acknowledge them, and see them clearly or mindfully, and then let them go for the moment, and return to our anchor or focus. 

This simple practice of returning to the anchor can do a number of things that can helps us in recognizing trauma. When you are speaking with a client or interviewing a victim, that person becomes your “anchor.”  You maintain your attention on them and when something else pulls your attention away, you are more apt to notice it and bring the focus back to your client.  The increased focus on your client increases the chances you will notice changes to their baseline behavior, just like in my example with “Grace.” 

How To Meditate

Let’s start with this simple breathing-focused practice. Start with just five minutes.

  1. Set a timer, so you don’t have to keep looking at your watch.
  2. Sit in a chair in a relaxed, but alert position, with your spine as upright and straight as possible.
  3. Place your hands on your knees or fold them in your lap.
  4. You can keep your eyes open or close them. If you keep the eyes open, soften the gaze, without focusing on anything in particular and taking in the whole visual plane.
  5. Focus the attention on the physical sensation of breathing, not changing or controlling the breath, just feeling it. The breath is our focus or the “anchor”, the thing we decide to pay attention to on purpose. When the mind wanders away, with a thought, feeling, or emotion, gently let it go, and gently direct the attention back to the breath and begin again. Over and over.
  6. The attention will wander over and over. It’s not a problem, just re-direct the attention back to the breath.

Try this practice every day for a couple of weeks, and see how you feel. If you can, try to get your time up to at least 12 minutes per session. The most recent science says that a minimum of 12 minutes per day is just enough training to start seeing significant positive changes in the brain. The more time the better. It is also helpful to meditate at the same time and in the same place every day. Having a regular “meditation spot” is helpful in cueing your mind that it’s time to meditate and help you get settled in and focused more easily. Meditation practice really helped me in both my professional and personal life. It not only has made me better at my job but also made me less of a jerk around the people that matter most to me. I can say without exaggeration that it changed my life for the better. But don’t take my word for it, just try it yourself and see if it works for you.