This post is not a replacement for clinical therapy or your medical provider.
Post by Kelley Climie, LLMSW, RYT
“Why doesn’t this feel good?”
As I continue in my own practice, as a teacher, and as a trauma therapist, the more urgency I have around this topic.
Often, Mindfulness, Meditation and Yoga (referred to as MMY in the rest of the post) is marketed to us as something that will help us feel better, that will alleviate stress/anxiety/depression, that will help us to heal or that actually “will heal” trauma.
Like most marketing…these taglines over-promise, are often lacking critical context, and for a trauma therapist and teacher of MMY these statements are troubling and frustrating.
The frustration, and wonderful news, is that the claims of “this will help you feel better” can be true!
There are numerous stories (both qualitative narratives in research and lived experience accounts) that speak to the healing impact of these practices. There is also medical and mental health research that continues to study and “measure” the outcomes of the practices with specific populations. These are validating, helpful, hopeful, and exciting outcomes and testaments to the power of MMY practices to alleviate the harm and suffering of distress and trauma. Yay, right?
However, right alongside that “can be true” aspect of the “helpfulness” and “healing” of the practices is another truth…that the impact of MMY practices does not always “feel good” and that there are very real reasons why the practices can be inappropriate in “certain contexts” for “certain people” at “certain points” in time in their journey.
WOW, ok, pause. Let’s take that in a moment. Come back to yourself, wherever you are, and when you are ready let’s return…
It is true that the MMY practices can reduce distress. It is also true that MMY practices can be a space where one “re-experiences” distress in an unhelpful or harmful way.
No one really wants to promote that on their studio or therapy practice page, right?
“Welcome all! Engage in practices where you might have relief and/or where you might re-experience distress!”
It doesn’t have the same “hook” to draw people in, as the calm, curated invitation with candles, plants, and minimalist aesthetic from an inviting face that promotes “healing” your distress or trauma, right? But “hooked” people are by the “promise” of the relief of the practices and the research and the stories of others, and of course they are because after all these things “can be true”, right? Right, but when individuals don’t experience that relief, and they instead experience pain or “re-experience” distress or suffering, MMY becomes another example of something they didn’t “do” right, or something that is “not for” them or that they are “not good at”.
And here is where we lose the people who could potentially benefit from the practices or the most, or who we could better support in their inquiry of exploring options of what “might” work best for them. We lose an opportunity to truly support someone who is suffering.
Author Zadie Smith (yes, my cat is named after her) wrote an essay entitled, “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace”, and while that essay goes another direction related to art and literature and humanhood, it’s for another time, but the phrasing of “difficult gifts” suits the complex dynamic of MMY practice and our topic here.
Mindfulness, Meditation, Yoga practice are difficult gifts in that they can both bluntly “feel good” and “not feel good” for individuals. This “feels good” vs “this feels bad” dynamic can be clear. However, MMY practice can also be incredibly nuanced and complex meaning that “good” and “bad” is incredibly unclear or just does not capture unique experiences and the nuance of the sensations. Depending upon the circumstances, physiology, and supports in place for the individual, MMY can be a giant web of intricacy, a broad spectrum, a giant mess of a thing.
And most significantly it can feel like a giant risk, so why bother?
As a trauma therapist and teacher I feel an at times overwhelming sense of protection for my students and clients. I also know that there are aspects of healing in which we have to experience ourselves in order to “move” the sensations or stuck memory through on the path of reintegrating a dysregulated or disintegrated brain, nervous system, body and relationship to inner/outer (relationships, environment, world) safety.
WOW, what a weird statement. It’s wordy, and clunky, and even difficult to convey here, because it is a big, moving process, not a static page. The process is blunt and unique and nuanced all at the same time.
Again, pause. Look away from the screen for a moment, take a breath or recall a soothing smell, perhaps fresh laundry or lavender, roll your shoulders, and when you’re ready come back to the page (myself included).
Yes, yes. Nuanced and complex and unique work.
I simply can’t convey my personal practice, my varied experiences with clients in session, and in community groups, all here.
I am also not sure I can convey any answers here.
But what I can do is urge that in order for MMY practices to have a chance of being helpful or at least minimizing harm, people truly have to be able to consent to the practice.
We have to convey the “difficult gifts” beforehand so that people can make a more informed choice. This means changing our language, providing more context, more options, restating choice.
And we have to be able to offer more intentional support if adverse experiences happen. Whether that is validation, a referral to another source, being real about what our scope of practice is an is not, and being careful that we do not “over-promise” or misrepresent these practices in our effort “market” our work, or to encourage people to try what’s worked for us out of “good intention”.
What I can do, here, today, in this post, is validate and affirm that yes, Mindfulness, Meditation Yoga can be incredibly helpful to our minds and bodies. And validate and affirm that yes, Mindfulness, Meditation, Yoga can also be incredibly difficult, and even at times not appropriate to engage with, depending on the circumstance.
“Depending on the circumstance”…this is frustrating, and I have to smile at myself even writing it.
I have always been the one to ask in classes, training, supervision, “What does that mean? Let’s go there! Depending on ‘the circumstance’? What kind of an answer is that?”
And here I am, doing it, giving a ‘it depends’ response. This is what I mean by “difficult gift”.
There is something refreshingly simple about meditation in that finding opportunities to be quiet, to be with ourselves, to be without “tasks” or an “agenda” or a “product”, can be so welcomed to our physiology because of the constant chatter and demands in our lives.
And yet this “simplicity” that some might feel in their practice of MMY can be an uncomfortable or harmful place for others.
Part of the difficult gift is learning, identifying, and discerning what is “uncomfortable” for us versus what is “harmful”. Uncomfortable may be “workable” but “harmful” is not.
There is a “workable” amount of discomfort that is tolerable, and even helpful, for us to work with in our practices, but when we exceed discomfort and what’s workable, and we become highly activated or shut down as survival responses, that overwhelm and distress is no longer workable, it is unsafe physically and emotionally.
This what we mean by “out of our Window of Tolerance”. The Window of Tolerance was created by Dr. Dan Seigel (1999). It is a helpful concept and infographic to work with as we seek to understand our own unique relationship to what’s uncomfortable but safe in healing, versus what is harmful and unsafe and detracts from our healing.
Another pause. Ok, let’s come back.
Knowing that these complexities can happen, do happen, and becoming skillful or working with someone skillful at recognizing these nuances, and having an emotional safety plan with our practices, is so crucial. That is wisdom.
What do I mean by “emotional safety plan”?
In short, before I begin my practice. When will I know I have hit my limit?
If I start sweating, feeling scared, feeling woozy is that my body’s “tell” that I am out of that Window of Tolerance, I am out of that workable zone, and maybe it’s time open my eyes, or take a drink of water, or smell a comforting smell, or stand up, or write, draw, read an affirmation or a letter I wrote before the practice, to contact a trusted support, to text/call a crisis line, whatever it might be that will support me in my difficulty. Those are examples of attributes of an “emotional safety plan”.
We do this work beforehand so that we are not under the pressure in the moment of difficulty in the practice to try and be safe or search for solutions, that’s not the optimal decision making time for the brain or nervous system that is trying to do whatever it can to protect us. Practice creating your “emotional safety plan” while you are feeling “in your window” while you are feeling safe enough to “work with” yourself on creating this plan. If the task is daunting contacting a trusted teacher or guide or a therapist can be helpful. If creating an “emotional safety plan” is distressing…it’s likely another indication that more supports are needed. It’s not to say you can’t engage with MMY, but it might suggest that something significant is going on here, and you are deserving of engaging with more support in your practice and healing.
When I am asked why I provided classes and information for “free” I often state that it’s my way of honoring the “gift” of what the practices and teachers in my journey have meant to me. What I hope to provide for students, clients, and other people with the desire of engaging with MMY work in their own practice and in offering to others is that we be reminded, continuously reminded, of the difficult gifts of the practice.
That we pay attention to ourselves and the people engaging with these practices. That we pause before promising relief or healing, and that we pass along this dialogue to others, so that we become less of a marketing tool, and we become more authentically engaged with the nuance and complexity of the potential helpful and unhelpful impacts of the practices. That we become truly mindful of the range of experiences that people might have, and that we support ourselves and others better, without the harm of another promise that we’re not in a position to offer or keep.
We can do this work, and we don’t have to do it alone.
Difficult, but precious gifts, indeed.
For further reading I recommend David Treleaven’s “Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness” https://davidtreleaven.com/
David Emerson “Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga”
The Window of Tolerance – Infographic https://www.nicabm.com/trauma-how-to-help-your-clients-understand-their-window-of-tolerance/