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Trauma informed supportive practices

Using yoga and mindfulness to support children

What happens to our mind & body when we’ve experienced trauma?

  • Neuropsychologists have found that traumatic experiences can alter children’s brains.
  • In times of great stress, or trauma, the brain activates “fight, flight, or freeze” responses.
  • The areas of the brain where learning, especially around language, takes place becomes less activated.
  • When this happens repeatedly, especially in children under age 5, the brain is fundamentally changed. Basically, it adapts for survival under the worst conditions.
  • During stress, we live more in the sympathetic nervous system.  We need to learn to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us to feel calmer and physiologically more balanced.

Can we make a difference to the child?

The answer is YES!

“Indeed, long-term and enduring changes to neural networks can be created by an intense period of stimulation that lasts less than a minute. Synaptic splitting, which is one way these connections can change, can occur in meres seconds of intense stimulation – and if the intense experience is repeated four times within an hour, the change will be maintained long term.

Just as a traumatic experience can alter a life in an instant, so too can a therapeutic encounter.  

….The good news is that anyone can help with this part of ‘therapy’ – it merely requires being present in social settings and being, well, basically, kind. An attentive, attuned, and responsive person will help create opportunities for a traumatised child to control the dose and pattern of rewiring their trauma-related associations. … The more we can provide each other these moment of simple, human connection – even a brief nod or a moment of eye contact – the more we’ll be able to heal those who have suffered traumatic experience” – Bruce Perry , 2017 edition of The Boy who was Raised as a Dog, p 308-9

This is wonderful news in regards to knowing we can make a difference to any negative impacts a child has had in their life.  In mere seconds, repeated regularly, you can make a difference to the outcomes!

A therapeutic moment can happen incidentally throughout the day – a smile, a light touch, meaningful eye contact, a high five, all helps to assist the rewiring of the brain.

Providing trauma sensitive environments

Below are some concepts that you may be able to incorporate into your home or school environment, that could compliment any treatment the child may be undergoing.

  • Order and structure
  • Predictable routines
  • Tidy and uncluttered rooms
  • Calm colours
  • A comfortable place to feel safe such as a beanbag
  • Find something positive the child has done and comment on that
  • Listening
  • Providing down time
  • Sharing one positive thing and one negative thing of your day with each other

How can yoga and mindfulness help?

  • By developing a sense of self-awareness.  It helps you to learn to identify your inner state of being.  By reading yourself you can learn to notice the way you are feeling and what your emotions are doing.  It helps you to understand yourself mentally and physically.
  • Helps to develop self-care by providing you with tools to use.  The tools of yoga and mindfulness help to bring you to a state of how you really want to feel.

How does yoga and mindfulness do this?

By tuning into the mind body connection.  

When we practise yoga poses, we develop self awareness through movement.  This movement allows us to notice our body and how it is feeling.  When we are focusing on our body, we are usually not in our heads so much.  This movement is great for giving our brain a break from our stresses.

Movement can also release endorphins that make you feel good.  So the more we exercise, the better it is for our mental state.

Yoga is also very beneficial for building strength, balance and flexibility.

Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to learn to be present, so we are not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow.  Instead, we focus on the present moment, helping us to become more grounded.

Tips for safe yoga/ mindfulness practices

  • Turning ‘inwards’ can trigger trauma.  Focus is often better turned outwards.  Bringing attention to the outside world instead of their inside world.  Turning inwards will develop naturally without you making a point of drawing attention to it.  You can instead cue with comments, such as, ‘How are your legs feeling?’, ‘Does that feel nice on your back?’, ‘What sounds can you hear around you?’.
  • Practice mindfulness in everyday situations such as noticing the leaves on the trees, a bird flying passed, a dog running in the park, the amount of cars on the road…
  • Counting the breath may work, instead of feeling into the breath.  Sometimes focus on the breath can trigger trauma.
  • Closing eyes is not necessary – you can keep eyes open if the child feels safer.
  • Start with just 1 or 2 minutes then build up to 5 minutes, then 10 and so on.
  • Focusing on the five senses is a safe way to introduce mindfulness.

Yoga Ideas

Create fun names for the poses, if preferred, such as what I’ve suggested in the brackets.

Any poses where your head is lower than your heart is called an inversion.  Inversions are lovely way to calm down (the first and third point are inversions).

  • Forward fold (Waterfall) – inhale lift arms up, exhale bring hands down together (in prayer position) as you bend forward from the hips, bringing hands down towards the ground.  Arms & head can hang heavy. Alternatively, come into (Rag Doll) pose – as you bend forwards, bend arms and clasp opposite elbows, resting your thumbs in the elbow creases, sway gently from side to side while upside down.
  • Lay on your back and clasp hands around knees.  Rock back and forth gently (Rock n Roll, Rocking Horse).

Benefits – This is a wonderful self soothing activity as well as massaging and stretching the spine and spinal muscles, where tension can be stored.

  • Legs up the wall – lay on your bed, the floor, couch, anywhere you can lay flat.  Lift legs up from the hips so you are at a right angle. The legs can rest against a wall or be free floating in the air. If you like you can add a pillow under the hips to elevate them if you find it more comfortable. If you are using a wall, try to get your bottom as close to the wall as possible. People with limited flexibility may not get their legs straight – that’s ok.

Benefits – the name of this yoga pose is Viparita Karani.  This pose is great for relieving tired legs, slowing the body down, increasing circulation, relieves lower back tension, stretches the hamstrings, alleviates headaches.  This is one pose where less is more.

Breathing Ideas

All breathing exercises help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, inducing a more calmer sense of being.

  • Counting backwards – depending on age of child, you may start at 10 or 20 or for adults, start at 100.
    Count backwards. When you lose count go back to the starting number. It’s not a race.
    Sometimes, you don’t get past 10 numbers before you have to go back.
    The more you do this the easier it will become as you train your brain to focus.
    Practice every night when you get into bed.

Benefits – calms the mind.
Brings the mind to a focus.
Notice your thoughts – where do they keep going to?
What distracts you?
What happens if you try hard to keep focus – do you go further?
Play around with these ideas and just notice. Helps to calm the sympathetic nervous system down.

  • Square breath – Draw a square in the air with your finger as you breathe in.
    Keep each line drawn in time with each breath.
    Inhale to the count of 3 (draw a line), pause breath to the count of 3 (draw a line), exhale to the count of 3 (draw a line), pause to the count of 3 (draw a line), repeat.

Benefits – helps child to regulate their breath.  Helps to bring child to a point of focus.
Brings child to the present moment.

  • Lion’s breath – sit crossed legged and splay your hands wide showing your sharpened claws.
    Open mouth, open eyes wide and stick tongue out.
    Inhale through the nose then make a loud ‘hahhh’ sound as you exhale.

Benefits – relieves tension around the face & chest , helps prevent respiratory disease, improves circulation of blood in the face.

  • Teddy Bear breath – lie on floor, couch, bed etc and put your favourite soft toy on your belly.
    Watch and feel as your soft toy rises and falls as you breathe.
    See if you can stay with this focus (this is great for bed times).

Benefits – helps child to regulate their breath.  Helps to bring child to a point of focus.
Brings child to the present moment.
Using their favourite toy can help to make them feel safer (any toy could be used, even their favourite car, if they prefer).

  • Essential oils breath – place one or two drops of child friendly oil in their palm (such as lavender) and rub hands together to heat oil.
    Cup hands over nose and deeply inhale.
    Can take hands away to exhale then cup hands again and breathe in.
    Repeat as many times as you like.

Benefits – Diverts focus to something grounding.
Brings focus to the sense of smell. If using calming oils, can start to calm the nervous system. Use stimulating oils in the morning or mid afternoon.

Mindfulness Ideas

  • Colours – visualise a colour or colours.
    Inhale the favourite colour, exhale the colour black or grey or any colour they feel they want to get rid of.  For example, if they are angry, maybe exhale red. Calming colours are often linked with green, blue, white.
    Happy colours can be orange and yellow.  Colours of love may be red or pink.
    These are great colours to inhale.
    Encourage them to pick their own colour.
    They will intuitively know what they need.

Benefits – colours have often been associated with feelings.
This helps the child give a voice to their feelings in a different way that they may feel safer with.
They are basically inhaling positive and exhaling negative.

  • Sound – singing bowls, chimes, rain sticks – if you don’t have your own instruments, you can find these sounds online (Soundcloud, Spotify and other music platforms).

Benefits – helps to ground you.  Brings focus to your sense of hearing.  Helps to bring you into the present moment.  Assists with listening skills.

  • Hand massage – drop some oil into their hands and talk them through a nice hand massage.  Notice fingers, palms, fingertips, backs of their hands and so on.
    Talk about the sensations that they feel.
    Maybe you could give your child a massage and they could give you one.

Benefits – helps to ground you.
Brings focus to your sense of touch.  Helps to bring you into the present moment.

  • What’s 5 things you see?
    What’s 4 things you can hear?
    What’s 3 things you can smell?
    Play this while walking, sitting, waiting.

Benefits – helps to ground you.  Brings focus to your senses.
Helps to bring you into the present moment.

Final thoughts

The information provided in this document is generalised and may not suit all individuals.

Please be mindful that if you try something and behaviour escalates, refrain from repeating that particular practice.

Everybody’s situation can be multi layered. It is not my intention to use the ideas in this document as the only method of therapy.

Some research suggests yoga and mindfulness have shown to help relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression.
This also, may not be the case in some individuals.  Sometimes we can try yoga or mindfulness and it doesn’t work but don’t give up.
The time might not be right.
Maybe come back to it at a later time.

These ideas can be used with children, young people and adults. Please use your discretion when using these ideas.