How to prevent Re-Traumatization on Meditation Retreats

Meditation tends to bring to the surface unpleasant suppressed material like extremely unpleasant emotions, thoughts, or memories. When this happens while you’re alone on a silent meditation retreat and don’t know how to deal with it, there’s a certain risk of re-traumatization. My intuition is that if you know what you are doing the risk for this is minimal and you don’t have to worry much about this. But you should know what you are doing—hence this post.

What re-traumatization is and is not

It’s NOT the process of said suppressed material suddenly coming to the forefront of your mind during the quiet of meditation and now spooking around in consciousness, potentially making you feel emotionally worse for some time. This is completely normal, and in a way it’s actually exactly what you want to happen! Bringing unpleasant suppressed material to the surface is just what needs to happen for emotional healing. Still, this is the reason some people find themselves surprised they are actually not that happy during or shortly after a silent meditation retreat.

Re-traumatization—I’m using the term in a very broad sense—happens when a past overwhelming experience comes up from your unconsciousness, and you are again overwhelmed by it and still cannot deal with it.

The key to prevention: mindfulness & metacognitive awareness

You prevent re-traumatization by maintaining metacognitive awareness, which basically just means “stay mindful of your internal experience”. That is, you don’t get sucked in in those extreme feelings, don’t fully blend with them, don’t “get lost in thought in” them, don’t let them be the only thing filling your consciousness.

Instead, it’s crucial that you maintain some context: “Okay, I am here at this retreat where there is some chance for extremely negative feelings to come up. And indeed, this is exactly what I feel is happening right now. I can feel the strong negative feeling is happening am in contact with some past trauma. This is a perfectly normal, and actually even helpful process”—you don’t actually have to think these sentences, but implicitly you should remain aware of their truth.

In IFS language, you need to remain in “Self”. Whatever extreme thought or emotion arises, you need to see it as what it is: Just a thought or emotion, just a mental object in awareness. Nothing to be afraid of. Nothing to necessarily take seriously or identify with. Nothing to necessarily be true.

When a negative extreme belief surfaces, stay with it mindfully, being aware that even if the belief feels extremely convincing, that’s just that: A convincing feeling of something being true. It does not imply in any way that it’s actually true. You don’t have to identify with it. No need to act on it. It’s the difference between “I’m convinced that I’m in terrible danger” and “I have this [not neccesarily accurate] thought/​feeling of being convinced that I’m in terrible danger”.

This is why I think meditation is actually extremely important as your core practice when doing emotional work. You want to build up that strong mindfulness in order to hold pretty much anything in consciousness without “freaking out”, i.e. remain perfectly calm and equanimous even while internally experiencing e.g. a strong panic attack. In my experience, you get that kind of strong mindfulness after about 2 to 4 days of 4+ hours of meditation a day. And as long as you have that and remember to evoke it whenever needed, there is nothing you need to worry with regard to re-traumatization.

Other things to keep in mind

What about the first few days on a retreat when your mindfulness isn’t that strong yet? Here are some thoughts on that:

  • It’s probably a good idea to put some special emphasis on self-compassion practices at the beginning of a retreat such that you have some positive feelings about yourself available when dealing with trauma later.

  • Alternatively, you can start your retreat with something like “imagine being at a safe and secure place” visualizations, and anchor that safe place in your consciousness such that you can access it later whenever necessary.

  • The Internal Family Systems protocol emphasis that you should always ask for permission from your protectors first and unblend from any concerned parts before getting in contact with exiles. Concerned parts are any parts that don’t feel anything but love, compassion and understanding towards your exiles.

  • The book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness emphasis “staying in the window of tolerance”, i.e. not pushing yourself to hard and rushing towards those negative feelings. Instead ballance between those and feeling safe and secure.

  • Broadly speaking, Somatic Experiencing encourages you to mostly stay with safe and pleasant feelings in your body and only sort of peek at any unpleasant sensations/​trauma-related tensions in the body. That way you slowly let of the pressure of those tensions. Don’t go into those trauma-related tensions to hard and overwhelm yourself.

Alternatively/​additionally to staying mindful in the face of overwhelming emotions, you can also really engage with all your senses, especially your bodily senses, e.g.:

  • Focus really hard on one part of your body that’s easy to notice, for example your hands or feet. You can rub your hands together in order to make the sensations even easier to focus on. As long as the intense emotion is not the only thing filling out your consciousness, you are safe from re-traumatization!

  • Start an engaging breathing exercise, e.g. breath in counting to 3, and breathe out counting to 5.

  • Get up, get moving, engage all your senses. Do some jumps. Pinch yourself. Start to dance. Start to juggle. Tap your body. Quickly alternate between listening, seeing, and sensing your body. Do anything that keeps you engaged in the present moment.

To give you some more intuition, here is what I observed therapists do with patients experiencing a panic attack or seemingly being at risk of getting retraumatized: They required the patient to give them their full attention, often quite vigorously. They waived their finger in front of them and sternly told them to follow it with their eyes. They tapped them on the shoulders or pinched them. They required them to get up and move around. They did not allow them to withdraw within themselves. They talked to them vehemently: “Stay here! Stay here! Look at my finger! Look at me! Do you see me? Don’t let yourself sink in! It’s all good. You’re here with me! You’re safe!”.

Re-traumatization via rumination

I think technically speaking this paragraph isn’t about re-traumatization, but it’s still relevant.

You can also harm yourself on retreats by bringing unpleasant negative beliefs (“I suck!”) from the unconscious to the surface of your mind and then get trapped in down-spiraling thought loops around those beliefs, ruminating about them unchecked without mindfulness or cognitive awareness, without any external distraction ever putting you out of it because you are on a silent meditation retreat where nothing happens.

When you do this, you may strengthen those negative beliefs. Rumination really is bad, and mindfulness is needed to detect it as soon as possible and stop it, especially on retreats. And as far as I know you really may have to actually stop ruminating around these negative beliefs—especially if they go on for longer. It may not be enough to just observe those beliefs mindfully and “let them come, let them be, let them go” and “let everything be exactly as it is”—as some Buddhist teachings encourage you to do.

At least try to mindfully stay with the bodily manifestations and feelings or the “raw energy/​vibrations” of those negative beliefs rather than with the content of those beliefs.

What if you did actually get re-traumatized?

This paragraph is very speculative. Low epistemic status! Please comment if you think this is bullshit.

My suspicion is that if everything fails and you feel like you really did get re-traumatized, you can just skip a night or two of sleep! Really! I’ve heard that there are studies that show that people are way less likely to get PTSD after a traumatic event if they experience strong sleep deprivation afterwards. I’ve also read that it definitely works in rats that are subjected to sleep deprivation after being put under traumatic stress.

The idea is that you need sleep in order to consolidate your memories. If you deprive yourself of that after a traumatic event or re-traumatization, the newly formed bad memories don’t consolidate. (I wonder if this would also be a good idea after a bad trip on psychedelics?!)

Now, I know that this sleep deprivation thing is really weird and not easy. I also have no superstrong opinions here, and I don’t know how strong science is. I also think it will probably hardly ever be necessary to actually do this. But I personally find it very nice that this option exists as a fallback plan B. For me, it takes away the “fear of fear”. When I now experience strong fear during meditation, I at least don’t have the additional fear of “fuck, I have to be really careful not to fuck myself up and get re-traumatized.”

Related: Would the same work for bad trips from psychedelics?