Loving Kindness, Trauma, and Mental Health

Photo by Ash from Modern Afflatus on Unsplash

I have lived through roughly five breakdowns of varying severity, from complete wipe-out for six year to temporary halts for a few weeks. Sometimes it was medication that got me through, especially beta-blockers, sometimes illicit self medication like MDMA and cannabis, and sometimes just time and self care.

What each time showed me, even the most recent and biggest breakdown (14 yrs ago), was that mindfulness in its traditional formats, including loving kindness, can make it worse. I don’t mean a little bit worse, I mean a lot worse. Sometimes the emotional impact of abuse and trauma is just too big to hold if you let it out.

I know there is that old cliche that its better out than in, but when I was blown apart it nearly killed me and without a 20 yrs practice of mindfulness behind me, which anchored me in reality, in the truth about existence, and my incredibly loving husband, I would not be alive today and feeling excited to go into old age.

Sitting with trauma is almost certainly redoubling that trauma all over again. It is a deeply harmful instruction to go through. We have to make the person safe first, I don’t mean psychically safe but psychologically safe. That is the hardest thing. EMDR also didn’t work for me at all for the same reason, I could intellectually manage it in a way that pleased the therapist but kept me safe inside, but long term it harmed me greatly.

I was too deeply traumatised in early childhood and that was too deeply buried to deal with easily.

When I am well and in the present moment I find loving kindness one of the most beneficial mindfulness practices to repeat often. I am so in favour of this practice and have written about it often. I cannot emphasise how beneficial it is when one is feeling stable and can manage emotions. It is a joy to do.

BUT when I am in deep distress it is not appropriate to force me to face it directly. Instead I need to stay very calm, mostly isolated, and endlessly remind myself ‘this will pass’, ‘nothing is permanent’ and ‘this is not about me but just happening to me’. These three phrases got me through my big breakdown, repeated hundreds of times a day to myself inside my head. I combine this with rocking meditation, where I gently rock myself back and forth, seated or standing. It is the best one for me with PTSD and ADHD and I believe it is my invention. No one told me or taught me about it because no one I saw professionally had a clue.

Once I got past this stage of the trauma, I did return to walking meditation and loving kindness. And I still turn to it when not triggered back into trauma states.

I have found loving kindness very beneficial when I am in a stable state and I believe that over the longer term I have experienced it as a growing stabiliser to my vulnerability to trauma. I cannot emphasise how important this practice is at the right time and how, over the longer term, it has healing properties, but it must be at the right time and not be forced, and even more importantly the traumatised individual must not be made to feel worse about themself for not being able to do it in any given moment.

Like all healing practices, mindfulness can be a form of abuse when forced upon someone who is traumatised, by someone with good intentions who is incapable of understanding the incredibly powerful effects of trauma on an individual. But the healing comes from the teachings as much as anywhere and the practise is not always the right place to start, the universal truths of reality are though.