My mother read somewhere that mindfulness could be damaging because it can trigger uncontrollable emotional trauma. She’s worried that I may be doing a practice that could harm my mental health. What can I tell her to reassure her?
Your mother obviously loves you very much and doesn’t want you to suffer, but I think she may be a little overprotective in this case. There is some very interesting research out of Brown University done by Willoughby Britton and colleagues, which has sought to understand the range of experiences of meditators, including looking more closely at difficult, challenging, and sometimes disruptive experiences that meditators have had. This is a complex topic, but suffice it to say that the vast majority of these unfortunate experiences have occurred in people meditating over long periods, in multiday silent meditation retreats, and we still know very little about what led to these incidents. Adverse events like this are exceedingly rare in the more common mindfulness-based programs widely available.
There is nothing to be gained from forcing yourself to meditate or “pushing through” difficult feelings. Think of it as a “melting” process rather than a “mining” one.
That said, I don’t mean to totally dismiss the potential pitfalls of mindfulness practice. Sometimes, when people have difficult or extensive histories of trauma or abuse, meditation practice may put them in touch with those memories and emotions, and they can sometimes feel overwhelming, particularly at first. For this reason, if you have a history like this it’s wise to be working with a therapist while exploring the practice of mindfulness. The key here is moderation, patience, and a willingness to be kind to yourself. If you feel that a particularly challenging feeling or memory is growing too big or intense to bear, the most mindful thing you can do is to choose intentionally to disengage, focus on your breath, let go of the formal practice, and focus on sensations in the body or something outside yourself, like the view outside the window or across the room. These actions can give you an opportunity to emotionally and physically settle. There is nothing to be gained from forcing yourself to meditate or “pushing through” difficult feelings. Think of it as a “melting” process rather than a “mining” one.