Mindfulness and Its Role in Healing from Child Sexual Abuse
In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about the practice of Mindfulness and the positive impacts it is proven to have on emotional health, the ability to focus, relationship skills, and feelings of overall well-being.1 Because of its benefits, Mindfulness is being integrated in classrooms, workplaces, and community education programs, not to mention the many mental and physical health professionals who recommend Mindfulness as part of a holistic approach to improving health.
Because Mindfulness can be especially helpful in the work of recovering from trauma, it is a major component of what our clinicians teach at The Haven Retreat. Mindfulness can also be learned and practiced at home, and because it is such a powerful and foundational way of being, we feature Mindfulness as one of our three healing practices to support the healing and growth for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Many survivors of child sexual abuse deal with symptoms associated with the trauma of the past. This is because their brains and bodies are conditioned to respond to situations and environments as though they are still trying to protect themselves from the abuse. Part of healing from the trauma of child sexual abuse includes retraining the brain and body to do the following:
- Respond to the present moment.
- Pause and intentionally take in the surroundings.
- Notice what the body is feeling and the mind is thinking.
Healing is a day-by-day, step-by-step process, and Mindfulness is key to staying in the present moment, despite the highs and lows that will come with doing the work to heal.
Mindfulness is a healing practice that involves:
- Intention: Purposefully making a decision to attend to the present moment.
- Attention: Noticing our present emotions, thoughts, sensations, and what is happening around us.
- Attitude: Allowing our observations to be non-judgmental, non-striving, patient, kind, curious, and compassionate.
Intention: Purposefully Making a Decision to Attend to the Present Moment
Mindfulness prompts you to spend your time in the present moment, to intentionally choose to be in the here and now. While this sounds like a very straightforward practice, it’s amazing how often we go through the motions without really being thoughtful about what we are doing. Instead, we might fixate on what happened in the past and worry about what might happen in the future. When you notice that you are acting (or reacting) without much thought about what you are doing, thinking, or feeling, you can intentionally pause and make the decision to experience the present moment.
Learning to pause and intentionally focus on the present doesn’t need to be an overly complicated process. Teaching your mind to come back to the present moment may be accomplished by something as simple as asking yourself a few questions:
- Can I feel my lungs expand and contract with each breath I take?
- Can I identify some of the background noises in my current environment?
- Are there parts of my body that are cold? Hot?
- In my current environment, what do I see that’s blue? Or what do I see that I’ve never noticed before?
The questions, though simple, can serve as the purpose behind intentionally pausing to attend to the present moment. As your mind becomes more accustomed to pausing and observing your thoughts, feelings, experiences, etc., it will become easier for you to pause in moments when you really need it.
Attention: Noticing What Is Happening Internally and Externally
Have you ever observed an infant or toddler tasting something for the first time? Imagine the face they pull when they taste a lemon; think about the full-body shudder that may follow, or the watering eyes. In contrast, imagine that same little one trying ice cream. Think about how their little hands may reach for more of the sweet, melty goodness and how their eyes may widen as they fixate on the treat. Both of these are examples of Mindfulness in action. The baby is experiencing the flavors, textures, and temperatures of these foods with their whole little selves. They are aware of the person feeding them, and may even be interacting with their caretaker, but they allow their little tastebuds to experience the foods completely, right down to the sour shudder. They may even look around with curiosity as they wonder why their onlookers are smiling or laughing. The infant or toddler is simply experiencing, with no judgement or attempts to change their behavior.
Attitude: Approaching Our Experiences Without Judgement
There’s an old saying that reminds us to “stop and smell the roses.” Of course the main sentiment here is to pause and enjoy the beauty around you, to experience gratitude. But it’s also key to recognize that in order to stop and smell the roses, one must notice the roses to begin with. Mindfulness is about noticing the roses. They may be withered and dry, blooming in crimson, or gathered tastefully in a vase; Mindfulness reminds us that it doesn’t matter how bad or good, wrong or right a situation may appear to us; we can experience it without judgment.
Mindfulness could look something like this:
- Intention: “As I take my walk this morning, I want to try not to think too much about work. I need a break from that stress, so I’m going to choose something to focus on while I walk to keep me in the present moment. Because yellow is my favorite color, I’m going to look for anything that is a shade of yellow.”
- Attention: “It’s a bit cold outside this morning. I should have brought my gloves. Did I leave them in my car? Oh! Yellow! I want to practice Mindfulness. The bus down at the end of the road is yellow. The traffic light. The Millers have the most lovely tulips. I wonder how they get them to grow so big? Maybe I should plant some this next year when… Oh yeah! Yellow! The plastic bag caught in that tree is a yellowish color. Those park benches are yellow. Faded yellow. I actually really like that shade. The poster in that shop has a yellow background. There’s yellow. And more yellow. I need to remember to call the doctor’s office. Maybe after I get to work. That fire hydrant has yellow; the paint is peeling so the old red paint shows through.”
- Attitude: “My mind keeps wandering, and that’s okay. I’m going to keep noticing where my thoughts go, without judgment or criticism. I’m not going to feel frustrated or try and change what I am thinking. Instead, I’m going to kindly observe what things come to my mind as I notice the yellow in my neighborhood. I don’t mind that my thoughts wander because it demonstrates my mind’s curiosity. And, as I practice Mindfulness, it feels good to simply observe the connections I make and the memories I recall.”
You’ll notice that in the example above, it’s not bad for the mind to wander when we’re practicing Mindfulness. In fact, that is the very reason that Mindfulness is a practice; most of us will experience wandering thoughts and distractions, and we can observe those with curiosity as well. Then, gently, we can bring our thoughts back to the present (intention) and notice what we are experiencing (attention) without assigning an evaluation (good or bad) to those experiences (attitude).
Mindfulness Is Part of the Cycle of Healing
Many of us learned about the Water Cycle in our schooling. As the Water Cycle begins, water falls from the sky in the form of rain or snow. The rain or snow collects into bodies of water (ponds, streams, lakes, oceans, etc.). As the sun shines on the bodies of water and heats it, the water evaporates and its reduced weight allows it to float into the sky, where it accumulates into clouds. The clouds become increasingly dense and heavy, and when weather conditions are cool enough, the water in the clouds condenses and forms droplets that, again, fall to the earth as rain or snow. This cycle continues over and over again and is a major factor in sustaining life.
Healing is a lot like the Water Cycle: stages and steps repeated over and over. Sometimes certain stages of healing take extra time, and some stages are uncomfortable and you’ll wish the “weather” would change. But each part of the cycle is important, and the work you do in each stage will literally sustain your healing.
Let’s extend the weather analogy to Mindfulness; you can imagine what it feels like to have the sun shine on your skin, to feel the wind whip around you, or to feel the heavy humidity before the downpour of the rain. Some of these are pleasant feelings, and some you likely prefer not to feel for very long. But, allowing yourself to experience the weather, the cold and hot, the sun and rain, the wind and calm, are all a part of healing. As you practice being mindful, you allow your body, mind, and heart to witness the range of the human experience, and you allow yourself the grace to be human in the process.
You’ll notice with practice that Acknowledgement may lead you to Mindfulness, which may lead you back to Acknowledgement, and that somewhere in there you may find yourself moving toward Aspiration. This cycle of healing can teach you so much about yourself, your experiences, and the things that motivate you.
Healing Resources for Practicing Mindfulness
There are so many ways to practice Mindfulness. There are both formal ways (meditation, yoga, etc.) and informal ways (eating, walking, etc.) to be mindful, and some may feel more comfortable or doable than others. And sometimes Mindfulness can be downright fun! Below you’ll find three recommendations from our healing resources that provide opportunities to practice Mindfulness. Remind yourself as you go that intention, attention, and attitude are at the heart of being mindful.
During Mindfulness exercises, its common to focus on your breathing. It’s easy to count (aloud or in your mind), and you can practice breathing anywhere. Additionally, when your mind begins to wander, it’s easy to “return to the breath” as a non-judgmental way to bring yourself back to the present moment. This breathing video features our version of a lotus flower with its petals opening and closing, expanding and contracting, to the pace of a 4-second inhale, 2-second hold, and 6-second exhale. You may find that having a visual to focus on as you breathe will help you stay in the moment.
Yoga is a fantastic way to practice Mindfulness, and you can do that in a class or use our trauma-informed yoga video to practice from the comfort of your own home. But movement and Mindfulness don’t have to be a formal activity; consider taking a mindful walk and intentionally choose something to channel your thoughts toward. For example, you may choose to look for colors, patterns, or shapes. Or you may listen for specific sounds and try to identify what you hear. Whatever you try, allow yourself to experience your mindful walk in the way you want.
Slowing down and checking in with your emotions is a great way to practice Mindfulness. Use our Emotion Wheel to put words to your feelings. And because emotions help us identify our needs, you can give yourself permission to feel your emotions without judgement. You may even choose to check in with your emotions throughout the course of a day and curiously explore the human experience that is expressed by the range of emotions you feel. Don’t worry about trying to change your emotions to be something different; just allow yourself to feel what you feel in the present.