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Why Mindfulness Helps with Trauma Symptoms

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 3.44.29 PMI have written previously about how mindfulness is helpful for trauma survivors. In particular, trauma symptoms of reliving the past, and remaining hypervigilant about potential threats disconnect us from our present and we need help getting refocused. Developing skills for noticing your body, your surroundings, your current safety is a wonderful counterpoint to many trauma symptoms.

A Natural Deficit

Actually, we don’t live in a very mindful culture.

As I write on my laptop, I can see the internet browser window beckoning me to check email or social media or something, someone is watching music videos in the same room, my phone just dinged with some reminder or message. Our attention is pulled this way and that, smartphones entertain us so that we don’t have to sit with our thoughts for a single moment and the “muscles” we use to control what we pay attention don’t get much use. This is fertile ground for anxiety. Why? Because when there’s something to worry about, we have no defense for turning our mind off the subject. We are at the mercy for whatever demands our attention, even if it’s unpleasant.

How DBT teaches mindfulness

While mindfulness in DBT is the same as mindfulness in the traditional sense, it is taught in the context of helping people regulate emotionally, mentally and socially, so the skills are presented with disregulated people in mind. First, it teaches us that we have several ways of understanding our world:

  • Intellectual mind
    This is rational, logical analysis of our surroundings
  • Emotional mind
    This is the instinctive, emotional response to our surroundings
  • Wise mind
    I’ll quote Marsha Linehan here: Wise mind “adds intuitive knowing to emotional experiencing and logical analysis.”
    Why don’t we want to aim for logical analysis? It seems like a sound way to make decisions. Because we also exist in an emotional world, and the fact is that the most logical choice isn’t actually always the best choice. For example, social work isn’t actually the most logical choice for me—there are fields with better pay, less stress and more societal accolades and intellectually it makes a lot more sense to choose one of those. But I’m a social worker. I’m driven to help people. And I won’t give in to impatience to mindlessly try to be helpful. Wise mind dictates that I equip myself with education and experience in order to best help people using evidence-based practice. It’s a combination of doing something with reason (using best practice) and emotional (doing what makes me happy).

In DBT, participants are taught to

  • Observe
    This is simply the art of noticing what is happening, noticing what we are feeling and doing
  • Describe
    This is where we practice describing separating our thoughts and feelings from events—so we can observe “My boss was abrupt when we spoke earlier,” and also “I have butterflies in my stomach and I’m having thoughts that I might have done something wrong.” These are all descriptions of reality and helps the person also observe that an assumption that “My boss is angry” is a thought based on these facts, and not necessarily a fact itself.
  • Participate in their surroundings
    This is the skill where we can participate in reality, while observing our feelings, assumptions, thoughts. It’s okay that this takes some time to develop and frankly, most of us don’t use this skill 100% of the time

At the end of the day, practice, practice, practice is the key to mastery of mindfulness.  If you want to learn more mindfulness in general, I recommend The MBSR Workbook for a thorough walkthrough of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, an evidence based practice for anxiety and depression.

This post is part of a series on how DBT is helpful for complex trauma.  Dialectical Behavior Therapy address issues of mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation and distress tolerance.  Follow the links to learn more!
Why Mindfulness Helps with Trauma Symptoms

Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

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APA Reference
Staggs, S. (2015). Why Mindfulness Helps with Trauma Symptoms. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Jan 2015
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