Attachment theory predicts that children who had warm, close relationships with caregivers will grow into adults who are equipped to have open and trusting relationships of their own. On the flipside, research finds that mistreated children are more likely to have insecure adult relationships.

Our Mindful Mondays series provides ongoing coverage of the exploding field of mindfulness research. © Dan Archer

Can mindfulness act as an antidote to the deleterious effects of childhood abuse and neglect? In other words, can mindfulness help people who were maltreated as children to restore their security in relationships as an adult?

Those are the questions tackled by University of California, Davis, researchers in a new study published in the journal Mindfulness.

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During a three-day retreat, the researchers taught mindfulness and loving-kindness practices to women who had experienced childhood maltreatment. For instance, they were guided through a body scan (systematically bringing attention to each part of the body), mediations in which they regarded thoughts with non-judgment and acceptance, and a practice in which they paired with another participant to silently offer and receive compassion to each other.

The researchers administered questionnaires to participants before the retreat, and at two points in the month afterward—and compared their answers to women who were on a wait-list for the intervention, in an effort to understand how the retreat affected participants.

The results suggested that the retreat led to reduced emotional suppression and rumination, more emotional clarity, and better emotion regulation. The women also wrote a narrative about their childhood trauma before and after the retreat took place. When the researchers compared the language structures that the women used at different time points, they found that following the retreat, the women used significantly more mindfulness-based words. The researchers concluded that these women were now approaching thoughts and emotions about experiences in relationships with less judgment and more self-awareness.

Why might mindfulness help victims of childhood maltreatment?

The authors write that past research has shown that mindfulness and a secure attachment style are often related to each other. Mindfulness might act as an “antidote” for people who are insecure in their relationships as a result of childhood abuse because mindfulness allows them to become aware of thoughts and emotions, without judging or overreacting to them.

This non-judgmental, non-reactive approach can help people identify thoughts and emotions with more clarity and objectivity, rather than automatically suppressing or becoming caught up in them. In this way, mindfulness likely enables people to more deeply understand their own and others’ behavior, and respond more wisely to distressing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors related to relationships.

The finding that a mindfulness intervention can help repair attachment wounds also has significant clinical implications. “Without appropriate clinical interventions,” write the researchers, “individuals exposed to relational trauma in childhood are at greater risk for difficulties in adult relationships and parenting.” At present, there is not much in the way of treatment for individual adults who have experienced childhood maltreatment: this study shows that mindfulness could help change that.

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