Updated: May 2, 2021
Trauma is so prevalent in today's world. We turn on the news and are filled with sympathy and compassion for the suffering of others. Many of my clients have experienced some form of trauma in their life. Trauma can look like a natural disaster, vehicle accident, man-made disaster (e.g., shooting, terror attacks), sexual assault/rape, childhood abuse, elderly abuse, neglect, etc. This list is not exhaustive and what matters more than the label of the experience, is how a person perceives the experience. Potential Traumatic Experiences (PTE) are close calls or events that caused someone a high emotional or psychological distress. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has become more widely accepted diagnosis even in the mental health field. This disorder requires the acute stress responses to last more than a month and consist of hypervigilence, avoidance, intrusive symptoms, negative cognitions or moods after direct or indirect exposure, witnessing a traumatic event, or learning that a relative or close friend was exposed to a trauma. Some common symptoms of PTSD include anxiety, hypervigilance, fatigue, sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts, difficulty concentrating, and problems controlling anger (Killian, 2008).
As a trauma counselor, I have worked with an array of traumas and I specialize in sexual traumas and childhood sexual abuse. Self-esteem and identity issues tend to arise fairly early in the counseling process. These traumatic issues tend to steal our sense of safety, peace, and control. Our entire worlds are turned upside down that we cannot seem to regain our footing. Some of my clients have described it as falling, living in a constant state of fear, and feeling threatened. So how do we regain a sense of control, safety, and peace? I have used mindfulness and self-compassion to help my clients slow down, increase awareness, recognize their triggers, and choose to respond with self-compassion. Oftentimes, shame or guilt has convinced them that they are defective in some way. If only I had stayed home, he wouldn't have felt the need to rape me. God must be mad at me because he didn't protect me. No one will love me after they know what I have done. These are just a few of the negative cognitions that my clients have shared with me over the years.
The concept of self-compassion has been deemed a new wave of mindfulness, based on Buddhist tradition that views suffering and pain in an accepting and non-judgmental way (Barnard & Curry, 2011). Kristin Neff defines self-compassion as, “being kind and understanding toward oneself rather than being self-critical, (b) seeing one’s fallibility as part of the larger human condition and experience rather than as isolating, and (c) holding one’s painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness rather than avoiding them or overidentifying with them” (2003a, p.2). Self-compassion has been associated with positive qualities including improved coping with adversity, life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, social connectedness, mastery of goals, personal initiative, curiosity, happiness, optimism, and positive affect (Jazaieri et al., 2013). Furthermore, self-kindness cultivates forgiveness, empathy, sensitivity, warmth, and patience for oneself, including one’s actions, feelings, thoughts, and impulses.
Self-Compassion techniques include loving kindness meditations, self-compassion breaks, hand-on-heart, and body scans that promote awareness and acceptance (Beaumont, Durkin, Hollins Martin, & Carson, 2016). I have broken down a couple of these helpful techniques below.
When you notice that you’re feeling stress or emotional discomfort, see if you can
find the discomfort in your body. Where do you feel it the most? Make contact
with the sensations as they arise in your body.
Now, say to yourself, slowly:
1. This is a moment of suffering. That’s mindfulness. Other options include:
This is tough.
2. Suffering is a part of living. That’s common humanity. Other options include:
Other people feel this way.
I’m not alone.
We all struggle in our lives.
Now, put your hands over your heart, or wherever it feels soothing, feeling the
warmth and gentle touch of your hands. Say to yourself:
3. May I be kind to myself. See if you can find words for what you need in times like this.
Other options may be: May I accept myself as I am
When you notice you’re under stress, take 2-3 deep, satisfying breaths.
Gently place your hand over your heart, feeling the gentle pressure and warmth of your hand. If you wish, place both hands on your chest, noticing the difference between one and two hands.
Feel the touch of you hand on your chest. If you wish, you could make small circles with your hand on your chest.
Feel the natural rising and falling of your chest as you breathe in and as you breathe out.
Linger with the feeling for as long as you like.
Please share these helpful techniques with anyone you in your life who may benefit from showing themselves more loving-kindness. If you want to learn more about Self-Compassion please reference Kristin Neff's book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.