10 Ways to Boost Trauma Recovery: 5. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

with Janet Solyntjes of the Center for Courageous Living

Are you in therapy to recover from a bad experience, and wish you could see more progress faster? Well then, welcome to the fifth post of this blog series about different ways to boost the effectiveness of trauma therapy. I am interviewing professionals in the Boulder, CO area who provide services that experts recommend to help you optimize your recovery from trauma.

For this installment, I am pleased to introduce a practice called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). I interviewed Janet Solyntjes, who is a local MBSR instructor and a leader of various types of mindfulness and meditation retreats and workshops. Janet was kind enough to invite me to her home in Longmont, Colorado for tea and a delightful conversation.

Brief Description and History of MBSR

Peg: How about if we start with a definition of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)? How do you define it?

Janet: MBSR is often called an intervention, but it’s really an educational program. It began and was focused on medical settings, working with the stress of illness and pain, or the stress that led to the disease. In one way, MBSR is a wonderful 8-week program to work on stress. And then it’s also more than that. It is a vision for humanity.

MBSR was founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is the founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. His education is in molecular biology, and he started with what he knew. Which was that the suffering of the people coming to the medical school for help was of a very clear and measureable type: physical pain, illness, emotional distress. And he also recognized that mindfulness practices are present in almost all religious traditions. His innovation was to make them more accessible in a medical setting, by removing them from any religious context, which involved removing non-essential language or ideas about having to renounce life or have a teacher or anything like that. He stripped the practices down to the human essentials. Then he encouraged people to just try it and notice their own direct experience.

What people notice is usually very positive. Some people will say, “My whole life has changed.” Or they’ll say, “I feel closer to God.” Or, “My relationships are changing”, and also, “My stress doesn’t bother me as much.” They’ll say, “I’m still stressed, but . . .”

MBSR is based on the idea that you already have the inner resources that you need. It’s just a matter of finding a way to tap into them. The ground of it is mindfulness practices and tools. And then the human organism responds. It starts to come home to itself. And when you come home to yourself, all these native resources and qualities then start to flourish.

Jon got researchers started with MBSR right away. That was part of his brilliance. He really wanted to know whether it worked. He didn’t try to tweak what he was offering so that the measurements would turn out in his favor. He actually, was like, “I don’t know, let’s see!” I think it’s still that way for Jon. He still reads the studies in the neuroscience literature with great interest. And he also knew that if you can measure something and prove it works, then people will try it. And insurance may cover it.

Peg: Is there research that shows that it works?

Janet: Yes! There are many studies showing its effectiveness.

The Format and Content

Peg: It sounds like MBSR classes have a particular format.

Janet: Yes, it is an 8-week program, and the sessions are 2.5 hours, once per week. And between class 6 and 7 there is a daylong silent practice session. There is an arc to the teaching that is used to guide, but not to rule, what happens in the class. In other words the teacher is trying to respond to what is arising. There are pieces of information to get across, and themes, and practices to be introduced and explored. And there are homework assignments between classes. But because you’re depending so much on the wisdom of the group, and voices coming from as many people as possible besides the leader, that means you don’t really know how the class is going to go. And each group is very different.

The classes start with interpersonal mindfulness for 4 weeks or so, and then move into intrapersonal mindfulness. Of course, you need to start inside the individual. But then people often say that the hardest type of stress is “people stress”, so we need to address that explicitly.

Peg: I’m thinking about how this started in a medical setting. I imagine that a lot of the stress of cancer, etc. is about what happens in your relationships. So addressing that directly seems super helpful for people in that setting.

Janet: But of course we start with developing a friendly relationship with the whole of who we are. You could say that we barely even need to talk about the intrapersonal because it will naturally grow from there.

One of the big benefits of MBSR is that it addresses something that I think is sorely missing in our culture: coming together to have meaningful conversations. You may have a lot of diversity in the group, different age groups or careers, etc. But because the facilitator shapes and guides and prompts discussions, everyone knows that when they come together it will be meaningful. It’s not forced, but it’s in the environment. I have a lot of people tell me that the main thing is the group.

Peg: It’s true that we don’t do that often in the modern world. We often don’t live near our extended families, or have a religious community, etc.

Janet: Yes, a community is a holding environment. We know that healing happens in those kinds of holding environments. You can heal on your own, but it’s easier with a community.

Peg: I believe that. I see it in my groups for sex assault survivors. There is so much work that can be done in those groups that is harder to do individually, because it’s very powerful to her other people say, “Yes I’ve also felt that”, or describe a similar experience or reactions and feel that resonance.

How can MBSR help with trauma recovery?

Safely reconnecting mind and body

Janet: Even though I’d been practicing as a meditator for almost 20 years, still, when I started to do MBSR I thought, wow, why is this different?

Peg: Why is it different?

Janet: I think the beauty and challenge of MBSR is that it is so body-based. One of the first main practices is the body scan. At the time that I first encountered MBSR, in my Buddhist training, we didn’t do body-based work. We did sitting meditation and walking meditation. MBSR brought in that body scan and mindful yoga, and I thought, ooh, my body is really responding. My nervous system was benefiting.

Another thing that is different is the language of it . . . my meditation teachers had a more directive language. “Sit this way, and do these things.” And MBSR uses very invitational language. It’s always about “feeling your feet on the floor” and “noticing the breath”. It’s a guiding - instead of directing - into the present. I think people feel like the guide is with them, coaching and befriending them. There is not much sense of “I’m the teacher and you’re the student.”

Peg: It reminds me of the interview I did with Erin Ferguson, a Feldenkrais practitioner. Feldenkrais is also about noticing and allowing your own sensations, and allowing yourself to perceive that minutely. Which must all come from within you. The teacher is not able to give you that.

Janet: What they can do is help guide you to having that experience in yourself.

But often if someone has a lot of trauma, they don’t want to go to the body right away.

Peg: Right, I see that all the time. People often tend to distance themselves from physical experiences, even what seem like positive, safe ones, after experiencing a physical trauma. And I know, from my training and experience that one of the things that helps with recovery from a physical trauma is safely reconnecting mind and body. It requires a very attentive, gentle approach.

Janet: So, much of the art of teaching is making sure that you give choices to opt out of practices, sit in a chair instead of on a cushion, just feel your hands instead of the whole body . . . not do anything that doesn’t feel safe.

Peg: That part I love for trauma survivors, especially rape survivors. Because there tend to be people in survivor’s lives who care a lot about what the survivor does afterwards (for example, go to the police, or not tell anyone, or see a therapist, or act like nothing happened, etc.). And yet, the trauma of the assault is very tied to not having control over what is happening. I sometimes see people respond afterwards by doing things that don’t seem logical but are motivated by wanting to gain back control, and not follow someone else’s decision. So, I love what you’re saying about letting each person choose what to do.

Janet: Yes, we always have lots of options. And we also create a sense of safety in the classroom by coming up with shared agreements about things like not giving advice, and not talking outside the class about things people disclose in the class. The main thing is making sure people know how to take care of themselves. That it’s fine to opt out. It’s fine to lie on your back. It’s fine to step out the classroom. All of these things are OK.

Also we learn to interact with each other through mindful and respectful listening. Everyone has so many habits we don’t realize we have. For example, someone will tell you something and you’ll say, “Oh, yeah, I understand that . . . “ Which takes attention away from person who is trying to describe something, and now everyone is listening to you talk about your description of what you think they’re trying to describe. It gets tricky. So we work a lot on mindful speech and mindful listening. There are a lot of interactive skills covered.

Finding the self

Janet: So then we add to the body focus, a focus on the mind and the thinking process, and getting really familiar with the patterns of the mind. The challenging part of MBSR curriculum is when you let your thoughts be the object of your attention. It’s humbling work.

Usually the progression is body, then feelings (everything from primary feelings which are the sensations in the body to the secondary feelings, which are the emotions and clearly they are related to each other), and then you work on balance between the two so that when emotions arise you stay embodied. Then we go into thoughts, and working with mind states, then we go into the sensory world. Sounds, etc.

Peg: Which reminds me about what you said earlier about coming home to the self. This is something that trauma survivors are often challenged by, because their sense of self has been broken down, or in the case of childhood trauma it may have never developed fully. It’s so hard to do any work until we start to build that.

I know there are roots of this in Buddhist psychology. I’m not a deep student, but I have some exposure. One of the things I’ve heard about there is the idea of non-attachment to the self. So how does that work?

Janet: If we just go to direct experience there is a kind of a “self” that we solidify by believing every thought that goes through our head about our self and our world. And that’s not what we’re trying to build. But there is also a sense of healthy self. Unconditional health, or original worthiness is the basis of MBSR. We’re coming home to that.

It is something that each of us can only experience directly. I can’t experience it through you, or through some idea. But I can experience it relatively, with this body, this heart, these emotions. Then as soon as I go into my storylines and make them solid, then I’ll see suffering beginning to arise. That is not what we’re coming home to, but if there’s not a loving kindness, or friendly feeling toward all of that, then you have a set up for struggle. “I’m not supposed to be thinking. I’m supposed to let it go.” So instead of that, a lot of MBSR is just sitting and observing, and practice non-judging. Jon Kabat-Zinn will say “Put the welcome mat out to everything.”

Peg: That’s a huge struggle for a lot of people. Especially people who didn’t have an attuned caregiver when they were kids, and so never internalized that general approval and validation of themselves. So when they sit, I think they have a very hard time coming to that healthy sense of self.

Calming the nervous system

Janet: When I’ve worked with people who have a history of trauma, there’s seems to be a kind of attunement that is at least available, even if it’s not accessible at first to everybody. I’ve had people who were standing up and pacing around, because their trauma in the body was not allowing them to be in a settled place yet. But if you can create this welcoming, with no pressure or timeline, you can be in the room in any way you need to be. Sometimes people will pace and pace and then finally come back to the group for a moment. I think there’s some regulation of the nervous system happening in the space.

Peg: That makes sense to me, because in a one-on-one setting when I’m working with someone with an activated nervous system, I’m very focused on creating that kind of environment of acceptance and attunement so that we can co-regulate their nervous system, like a parent would with a baby. And that can ultimately contribute to them developing a sense of self. Which is I think that sense of self that you were talking about. The original worthiness.

Janet: It’s the healthiness that exists beneath and before the trauma. It’s not lost, but it happens to be deeply buried.

Peg: The great thing is that there are ways to work with it, and MBSR seems to be one. Sometimes people don’t realize that you don’t have to stay in that place. It might take a while, but people change and heal all the time.

Janet: If you think about the force of those memories, and the identities that are associated with that and the ongoing return of certain dramas in the mind, you can see that it’s work that involves a lot of courage and strength. So then you can think, well, lets work on courage in ways that are simple. That’s what we’re doing.

Janet’s History with MBSR

Peg: How did you get involved in MBSR?

Janet: There was a book “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn at Salvation Army and I got it because I liked the title. Then it was probably a full five years before I ever picked it up and read it. And when I started to read it, I went, “Oh! I like this.” I recognized it as a combination of things I love. I had been a professional dancer and taught dance, and then I was doing all of this meditation. After that book, I found my way into a live training with Jon Kabat-Zinn. I didn’t go thinking, “This will be my career.” That took a while. I just went to the training, and I liked Jon and I liked the approach. So then I started teaching it.

Peg: The title draws you in. It speaks to people.

Janet: Jon was very wise.

Peg: The people I’m working with often feel like, “My life is a complete catastrophe. I’m broken.” And we figure out how to move forward from there. How even a complete catastrophe turns out to be workable.

Janet: Jon said, “If you’re breathing, there is more right about you than wrong about you.” That’s the main wisdom of MBSR. You’re trying to bring out whatever is already right and whole and good. And you find out how to let the rest settle itself however it will.

What is your style of teaching

Peg: I would like to hear about your own personal style of teaching MBSR.

Janet: Because I’ve been doing these practices for over 30 years, but I’ve also been trained in the Shambhala tradition where the focus on basic goodness is very strong, I walk into a classroom really interested in every person, and wondering how their goodness is going to shine. And I don’t have any doubt that the goodness is there. Even if someone walks out during the first class, or says something negative or is critical of me, that sense is fairly unshakeable.

I was trained as a dancer, so I can improvise with a group to get a playful interactivity, and a sense of inquiry and ability to rest in an open question. I’m a bit of a performer, so it’s easy for me to capture the focus of a group and give them something useful, even in a quick one-hour presentation. But I really love the 8-week groups. They get so close, and I’m so interested in how that happens.

Are There Easy Ways to Try MBSR?

Peg: I’m curious what you think about getting people involved in this kind of thing. I work with a lot of people who I think it could benefit. But they tend to be anxious, and they’re often not in a great place for trying new things. I find that if there’s a way to dip your toe in and try it out, it is easier.

Janet: There are so many gateways to MBSR. Some people prefer to start with reading “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn as an introduction before going to a course. I have a daylong program that I offer in Denver several times a year. I call it “Living the Full Catastrophe” playing off of the book title. Some of the other MBSR teachers will offer free introductory 2-hour session. Also sometimes people meet with me individually. Sometimes people will watch videos. There is so much online these days.

Peg: I looked up some of the online resources that might help people get started:

  • The University of California at San Diego’s Center for Mindfulness provides online audio guided practices from MBSR.
  • Sounds True provides an online MBSR course that is relatively inexpensive, compared to in-person courses. While this experience would miss the valuable dynamic that arises from being in a group that we discussed, it is a great way to access MBSR if an in-person group doesn’t work for you.
  • The Mindful Word provides some MBSR exercises in text form.

Conclusion & Contact Info

Peg: Thank you Janet! It was great to talk with you about MBSR. I really am hoping to sign up for a course soon.

For anyone who would like more information about Janet’s courses and retreats, you can visit her website at http://www.thecenterforcourageousliving.com.

Was this interview helpful to you in your journey to heal or help others heal? Is there anyone else you would like me to interview, or additional information you’d like to see in these posts? Please add a comment below!