We live in an era of online spaces that espouse positivity, self-love, and self-care, often promoting a unified trifecta of mind, body, and soul that often only vaguely alludes to some ideal of health and wellbeing. As such, we wanted to hear from survivors themselves what it specifically means to them to commit to mindfulness and wellbeing in their journeys to recovery from trauma.
While mainstream approaches tend to focus on a sometimes frilly positivity – a stereotypical image might be having prosecco in the bath, combined with statements of reassurance that it’s okay to have some ‘me time’ – survivors must cope with intensities that mean mainstream approaches do not always accommodate their emotions or experiences. Our own survivor survey found that all seven respondents reported that their approaches to wellbeing and mindfulness differ at least somewhat from mainstream approaches. While physical relaxation is obviously important (especially controlled breathing to manage the symptoms of anxiety), survivors tend to focus more on internal growth, identity, and struggle. Wellbeing means ‘that I am feeling good within myself, with who I am. Integrity’, writes one survivor. Another writes: wellbeing means ‘finding strength in knowledge and the things I am good at as opposed to the message that I am weak/stupid/etc.’
Survivors must reckon with it actually means to have ‘me time’ while establishing a new life, new relationships, and a new identity in the turbulent aftermath of a traumatic event. Mindfulness therefore encompasses a kind of reforging; in line with post-traumatic growth, wellbeing for survivors stresses the ‘being’ as much as the ‘well.’ It is already enough to be here, to have survived, to ‘be’, and to figure out how to be their best possible self going forward. Wellbeing and mindfulness mean realigning one’s self-worth not in the words or treatment of an abuser or an unsympathetic onlooker, but by finding inner strength in existence itself.
Keeping positive for survivors is consequently less of a pink-laced self-care aesthetic and more rooted in a positive kind of internal conflict that ultimately leads to growth, resilience, and healthy habits. Our survey respondents noted the positive effects of art, walks, candles, incense, crystals, and breathing paired with either self-reflection or time with friends and family in keeping their minds calm, preventing burnout, and emphasising positivity in their daily routines. ‘They [wellbeing and mindfulness] mean a lot: if well-being is good and I'm being mindful my day seems relatable, easy, calm and taking in small things in life has been eye-opening, it means a lot ‘cause [it’s] great to have a quiet head and mind.’ ‘My approach is to look after the little things such as showering, brushing teeth, shaving legs doing nails etc. which in turn develops confidence in my ability to self-care, this then leads to Confidence in approaches such as positive thinking about myself, others and the world around me’, writes another survivor. Achieving this confidence and quiet relatability to life’s little things in the wake of intense trauma is worth being mindful of precisely because it took the survivor’s growth and strength to achieve.
Similarly, the survivors acknowledged that negative thoughts often crop up, but felt it was part of their mindfulness routine to accept them: mindfulness means ‘keeping a growth mindset, learning to accept the thoughts as they come without adopting the emotions attached’, one respondent wrote. In the all-too-glossy sheen of popularised self-care, often tangled in the commodification of health and beauty products, acknowledging negative thoughts and emotions is not discussed. But the reality for survivors is that they will have to deal with negativity and conflict, as well as overcoming shame and fear. Accepting these emotions as normal and working through them is more important than the objects of self-care themselves (e.g., candles, bath products, etc.). Though of course the latter can help provide a calming environment for the former, products themselves – and the hyper-positivity surrounding their commercialisation – are insufficient.
This does not mean that survivors find self-care more difficult, however. In fact, as often is the case with those who experience post-traumatic growth, survivors begin to put their energy into wellbeing, self-care, and mindfulness more effectively than they had before they experienced trauma. ‘I see mindfulness as a tool to achieve wellbeing and both founded by self-care which is new in the sense that I never even thought of it before recovery and so it can feel odd because it is new’, writes a survivor. They continue to outline how this new focus has helped them build healthy relationships with others, and their community: ‘It also helps socialising, doing things that make me feel happy, setting and sticking with boundaries, exercise, basically building a community of trusted people around me and being involved in my community. Mindful of my needs, taking time out for me in ways that are beneficial to my wellbeing, setting intentions, being mindful of my community. All with the goal of leading a balanced physical and psychological life.’ Trauma and its stressors can help define physical and psychological wellbeing in contrast, and can help survivors recognise how important mindfulness is in everyday life: a well-documented aspect of post-traumatic growth.
Significantly, in contrast to the ‘me time’ focus of mainstream self-care, survivors are far more likely to emphasise maintaining positive relationships with others as part of their own mindfulness routine. As one survivor eloquently put: ‘Be honest with self and others and as long as I do this without consciously hurting anyone, I know I have done my best. I think survivors are mindful and look after well-being in a deeper sense as they better understand the consequences of not doing so.’ Of course, some ‘me time’ is still important to survivors, as it is for everyone: for one survivor, they felt most mindful when ‘Listening to music, cleaning the house, spending quality time with my man & kids, take some me time even if it’s just a few minutes each day.’ But equally for them, quality family time is just as important and fulfilling. A balance of self-fulfilment and healthy relationships was a recurring theme in survivors’ responses, which is a testament to the extent post-traumatic growth can positively affect not only a survivor’s inner sense of self, but their external relationships too.
Of course, the methods of self-care discussed here overlap somewhat with mainstream approaches, including calming environments and objects. But ultimately, survivor approaches are far more likely to emphasise balance, be it physical and psychological, internal (self) and external (relationships/world), as well as negativity and positivity. They acknowledge the realities of trauma and define positivity, health, self-care, mindfulness, and wellbeing in opposition to what they have experienced, as well as forging new identities and outlooks in the wake of trauma. The result is a renewed and effective focus on wellbeing that does not gloss over the past, but acknowledges it head on.
Thank you very much to our respondents for opening up and being a part of this blog, your answers were incredibly insightful.