Caring for Trauma with Compassion

Dr.Susan Pollak
February 16, 2024
A person with a blown up rose in front of their face

For the past several months, nearly everyone I’ve seen in my clinical psychology practice has been talking about trauma. I’ve been studying and treating trauma since 1990, but this is unprecedented. 

What are we talking about when we say trauma? Simply put, it is an emotional response that results from living through distressing events. Trauma can impact our sense of safety, our sense of self, our ability to navigate interpersonal relationships, and our ability to regulate our emotions.

In a recent study of over 3,000 people, the American Psychological Association reported that we are now seeing a nation impacted by collective trauma, which can follow dramatic events or long-term circumstances—such as the millions of deaths from the pandemic, climate-related disasters, global conflicts, and racism. In one way or another, trauma touches us all. 

If you find you’re beating yourself up about the difficult emotions in your life, I find the words of meditation teacher Joanna Macy to be helpful: “Like living cells in a larger body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of our world. So don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel, or the anger or fear, because these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your interconnectedness with all beings.” When you care for your own difficult emotions, then, you are also caring for everyone else. 

Fortunately, there has been a sea change in our understanding and treatment of trauma. When I was in graduate school in the 1980’s, there was a one-size-fits-all approach. Talk therapy was the predominant mode of treatment, and we believed that in order to heal, people needed to recount all the painful details of the difficult events—which often actually made things worse and increased symptoms. But with new research, and the emergence of more mindfulness and compassion tools and research in the field, we have found gentler and more effective ways to heal. 

Below are three suggestions for practice, all trauma-sensitive and informed by current research. You may find them helpful if you’re experiencing the impact of collective trauma. Of course, please consider seeking additional support if your symptoms are getting worse—for example, if you’re increasingly overwhelmed, and you feel like you just can’t function. You’re not alone if you’re experiencing the effects of trauma; more importantly, you don’t have to suffer alone. 

  1. Walking with Loving Kindness

Walking meditation can be a soothing response to intrusive or ruminative thoughts, and it can be done inside your home or outdoors—whichever you prefer. Many people judge or blame themselves around trauma, so adding some loving-kindness to your walk is an especially useful antidote. 

For this active practice, you’ll keep your eyes open.  Begin by standing comfortably and bringing attention to the feet, if you can. Noticing where your body is in contact with the ground or floor is an anchor to the present moment, which is helpful if you are feeling distress or discomfort. 

Let the earth hold and support you as you walk, resting your attention on one step at a time. As you move in a way that feels comfortable and natural, experiment with offering supportive phrases to yourself: “May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I have ease.” Feel free to use any phrases that speak to you. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we quietly say “peace” with each step we take. You can also try “compassion” or “love.” 

Invite what you need, and see if you can let that quality radiate through your body. You can stop whenever you like.

  1. Self-Compassion Lifesaver

This is one of the most useful practices in our repertoire, which is why some of my patients named it a “lifesaver.” Self-compassion brings together mindfulness, a sense of our common humanity, and compassion. It can be done standing, sitting down, walking, or even in a conversation with someone.

For example, if you are feeling upset or triggered, first bring awareness to it by naming it:  “Ah, I’m having some distress.” Or, “I’m feeling agitated.” If specific words are hard to pinpoint, self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristin Neff suggests simply noticing, “Ouch, this hurts.”

Once you’ve identified what you’re feeling, try to bring the understanding that you aren’t alone in this experience. “Many people in these times feel trauma, discomfort, or distress. It is hard, but I’m not alone. We all struggle in similar ways.” If you like, you could place one or both of your hands on your heart. This gesture of loving touch can be very soothing.

Finally, see if you can offer yourself some kindness. You might say, “Let me be kind to myself in this moment of distress.” For many, it is hard to bring kindness to ourselves, because we might feel that we don’t deserve it. If this is the case for you, try saying, “May I learn to be kinder to myself, even if it’s difficult. We all deserve kindness.”

  1. Self-Compassion Note from a Friend

Trauma researcher Dr. Judith Herman says that for healing to occur, we need to be seen, and there needs to be repair and acknowledgment. In this practice, you can offer this compassion to yourself as though you were your own friend. 

What is it that you need to hear to heal more fully? What would a compassionate friend say to you? Some common examples: You were not at fault. You are good. You are doing your best. You are loved and cared about, even with your challenges. Give yourself time and space to listen closely, and jot down whatever arises.  Let the words come from the heart.

The meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg offers words that I find profoundly healing. She writes that someone who has experienced trauma has gifts to offer all of us—in their depth, their knowledge of our universal vulnerability, and their experience of the power of compassion.

And remember, healing is a journey that will take a shape and timeline unique to you. Take care out there 

Dr. Susan Pollak is the author of Self-Compassion for Parents and the co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School.

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