Empowered Self-Care: How Mindfulness and Self-Kindness Reduce Trauma, by Marti MacGibbon, CADC-II, ACRPS
When you join the movement to combat human trafficking, you’re likely to encounter trauma or traumatic material. This is true whether you’re a human trafficking survivor, an advocate, or both. Even if you’re a concerned citizen learning for the first time about the violence committed by traffickers, you can be exposed to and affected by trauma. No matter what the level of your engagement in the anti-trafficking movement may be, self-care skills will prove extremely useful and beneficial to you, especially when you practice those skills daily.
As a survivor/advocate living in recovery from trauma and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I’ve found that using mindfulness and self-kindness in the moment can be a lifesaver. When I travel as a speaker on human trafficking and overcoming adversity, other survivors and advocates I meet often tell me that mindfulness practices are key to their self-care, and that it enables them to accomplish things they never thought possible. Holly Austin Gibbs, Survivor Leader and Director of the Human Trafficking Response Program at Dignity Health Foundation, recommends mindfulness as a tool for healing from trauma in her academic book, Walking Prey: How America’s Youth are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery.
Sometimes in the anti-trafficking movement we work so hard for others and for the cause that we become overcommitted, overstressed and exhausted. Exposure to trauma can cause us to turn the pain inward, resulting in extreme self-criticism and self-judgment. When that happens it’s easy for us to be too harsh with ourselves, even while we’re showing compassion, kindness and generosity toward others. We may stumble along in pain, ignoring our own needs, at risk of burnout and loss of life satisfaction. Our relationships may suffer. The solution to these problems is daily, consistent self-care. Mindfulness practices are a powerful way to refresh your spirit, relax your mind and body, and stay in touch with your emotions. And it only takes a few minutes a day.
What is Mindfulness? Here’s the definition according to The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley:
Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.
Practice Focusing on the Present Moment, Instead of Obsessing on the Past or the Future. When you step back from judging your thoughts, feelings and experiences as right or wrong, good or bad, and simply observe yourself in the present moment, you can build the ability to change your interpretation of ourselves, other people, and the world. You can’t change the past, and the only way you can affect the future is in this moment, right now. Make a conscious decision to access the power of the present moment, knowing that positive emotions like love, happiness, trust and peace are unconditional and unlimited. Know that even when you notice yourself slipping into negative emotions like frustration, envy or shame, you can stop and mindfully connect with the positive ones like love, happiness, etc.
Self-Kindness, Visualization and Self-Empowerment. Kindness and compassion are strong traits you can grow and build — you don’t have to be born with them. When you practice mindfully, you self-empower — you “reteach” yourself your value, wisdom, beauty and worthiness. After trauma, people often feel unloved and unloving. Practice respecting, loving and appreciating yourself. In this way, you are empowered to build your future, focusing on one day at a time. Tools like positive visualization can help your subconscious mind, or “wise mind,” to accept the idea that even in the difficult, trying times, good things are on the way. Visualization is the conscious act of “seeing” the things you want to manifest in your life, and then consciously feeling a strong positive emotion (i.e. gratitude, love, enthusiasm, kindness) while you’re visualizing. Also, when you visualize, “see” it as though you already have it and allow yourself to savor the resulting comforting emotion.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation to Improve Your Consciousness in the Present Moment. As you begin to appreciate the power of the present moment, concentrate on developing your “now awareness.” Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool that can help you reduce and manage stress, elevate your mood, relieve anxiety, and increase your confidence and self-esteem. Mindfulness meditation can be practiced in a number of ways and need not be complicated.
One way to do it is to sit in a comfortable chair with both feet planted firmly on the floor. Relax, breathe slowly, and simply observe your body, the level of tension or relaxation in different muscle groups, for instance. Observe thoughts as they pass through, like clouds across the sky. Observe any emotions that may be present, either in response to a thought or for no apparent reason at all. The purpose is to simply observe without judging or reacting, in the moment.
Another way to practice mindfulness is to take a walk outside in nature, consciously experiencing the world through all the senses. Or watch a sunset or sunrise and focus all your consciousness in the present moment as the sun sinks or climbs over the horizon and the landscape is illuminated or drenched in shadow. As long as you fully inhabit the “now.” At first you may only do a minute at a time, but the idea is to increase the duration to ten minutes, sometimes more.
Social Support Reduces Trauma: Participate, Connect, and Interact. Trauma can leave you feeling isolated and alone — and traumatic experiences often involve isolation. Isolation fuels the distress from trauma-related feelings. Participating in groups, clubs, classes and other activities enhances your sense of connection with other people, and helps you build trust and discover your strengths. Recovery allows you to rediscover the fun and beauty of life, and involves “getting yourself out there,” connecting with individuals and communities.
In her 2017 book, Mindfulness Skills for Trauma and PTSD, Rachel Goldsmith Turow writes, “Our interactions with other people present a great potential for feelings of support, connection, and joy. Our mindfulness skills can help us “sync up” with other people as we become more attuned to our own thoughts and feelings, as well as the ways that we relate to others.” She adds, “We can also practice providing ourselves with awareness and care for the times when encounters with other people are frustrating.”
A variety of group activities have been shown to reduce PTSD and depression, including drumming groups, gardening groups, and walking or hiking groups. The type of activity might be less important than the process of engaging with other people. In fact, research shows that diversity of engagement enhances trauma resolution. So, if you’re active in the anti-trafficking movement, working with others toward a common goal, you might want to sign up for an art class, dance class, or even an improv class. Or you might want to check out meditation groups and support groups. Social activities give you the opportunity to both help and be helped, to give and receive information and appreciation, or to simply have some fun.
Final Thoughts: You can practice mindfulness and self-kindness anytime and anywhere, in the moment. And while you’re being mindful, remember to have fun. Fun is one thing we can all use a little more of in our daily lives, especially when the work we do is serious. And if you’re with Truckers Against Trafficking, I know you’re dedicated. Laugh, play games or sports, share funny stories. Make sure you allow yourself plenty of time for celebrating each and every one of your accomplishments, as well as those of your friends. Practice the art of not taking yourself too seriously. Even when you’re working or doing something serious, cultivate a sense of fun and enjoy the moment. Appreciate other people and give them credit for saying something funny or contributing to a fun vibe or experience. Mindfulness helps you relax, be aware, and enjoy life while working toward your goals and dreams.
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” — Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness Teacher and Author of, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life
About the Author: Marti MacGibbon, CADC II, ACRPS, is a certified mental health professional, humorist, inspirational motivational speaker, and author of two nationally award- winning memoirs, Never Give in to Fear: Laughing All the Way Up from Rock Bottom and Fierce, Funny, and Female.