Mindfulness Practices to Develop Mental Health and Wellbeing

In these times of uncertainty and anxiety, mindfulness meditation can be an effective way to restore balance to our mental and emotional state.  These structured approaches can be readily reinforced by mindfulness practices that are more flexible and adaptable to our personal circumstances and preferences. 

Through mindfulness practices embedded in our daily life and routine, we can progressively achieve the situation where mindfulness is not just something we do, but the way we are in the world.  This enables us to show up in a mindful and compassionate way and have a positive influence on the people we interact with in our daily life.

Mindfulness practices that you can use to develop mental health and wellbeing

There are a wide range of mindfulness practices described in this blog and in other mindfulness resources.  Some of these could prove useful for you in this time of stress and uncertainty:

  • Mindful walking – consciously walking slowly and being aware of the pressure of your toes and soles on the ground.  There are a range of videos on mindful walking on YouTube©.
  • Mindful eating – eating slowly while being conscious of presentation (how it looks), taste, texture, aroma and touch.
  • Engaging with nature – Nature is a proven source of emotional healing and mental health.  There are a number of ways to experience the benefits of nature.
  • Exercising – There are endless books and articles on the benefits of exercise, and it is considered one of the antidotes for depression.  Some people prefer yoga as their form of exercise and Jill Satterfield has her own YouTube© Channel dedicated to ways to combine yoga with somatic awareness. 
  • Tai Chi – often called “mindfulness-in-action”.  Harvard Medical School recently published the results of extensive research into the benefits of Tai Chi and provided an explanation and exercises for each benefit in its publication, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi.  The benefits of Tai Chi include less stress, a healthier heart, positive mood and a clearer mind as well as better balance and coordination and reduced physical pain.
  • Taking compassionate action – going beyond self-absorption to helping others in need.  An interesting new development is the Adopt a Grandparent Campaign (given the increased isolation of the elderly because of the Coronavirus).  Taking compassionate action can have numerous forms and is limited only by your awareness and creativity.  Compassionate action includes being aware of, and communicating with, a friend or family member who may be experiencing loneliness.
  • Use waiting time to develop awareness – our typical default when we have to wait for something is to grab for our phone.  We could use waiting time instead to develop our natural awareness.
  • Expressing gratitude – neuroscience has shown the benefits of gratitude for mental health and wellbeing, not only for the recipient of the expression of appreciation but also the giver.  However, you don’t even have to express appreciation to others to gain a health benefit from being grateful.  There are many ways to develop gratitude and reap its benefits.
  • Tuning into sounds – you can adopt a natural awareness approach by tuning into sounds around you (both your immediate surrounds and your external environment).  Alternatively, you can be more goal-focused in your awareness, e.g. focusing on the “room tone”.
  • Establishing a mindfulness reminder – we can use something that occurs frequently throughout our day to be reminded of the need to be mindful.   People have used a wide range of things as reminders, e.g. when the phone rings or when they boil the jug/make a cup of coffee, they take a few mindful breaths or steps.  All it takes, according to Chade-Meng Tan, author of Search Inside Yourself, is “one mindful breath a day”.

Create small habits to build sustainability

Clearly you can’t do it all and if you attempt to do too much, your new habit will not be sustainable.  Start small – Dr. V.J. Fogg suggests that you create tiny habits, breaking larger habits down to their “smallest accessible practice”.   Do something that fits with you personally – you don’t have to achieve what others are doing.  Be prepared to adopt a trial-and-error approach and change your habit(s) where appropriate – there is no one approach that suits everybody.

Building and maintaining a positive mindset

You can enhance your positive mindset by listening to presentations that are uplifting.  These can take the form of podcasts, videos or other sources of positively oriented communications.  TED Talks©, for example, offer “ideas worth sharing” and include inspirational stories, innovations and creative problem solving. 

There are numerous presenters who work in the mindfulness space and offer encouraging and supportive communications via videos and audio
podcasts.  One particular example that comes to mind is Dr. Jud Brewer who has commenced producing short 5-minute videos on his YouTube
Channel
© covering timely topics such as:

  • 5 simple habits for good mental hygiene
  • Using kindness to create connection during a crisis
  • Working with uncertainty
  • How to spread connection instead of contagion
  • How fear and uncertainty lead to anxiety.

One of Jud’s videos focuses on “how to stop compulsively checking the news”.  Even in the best of times, the news can be disturbing, disorienting and confusing, yet we are tempted to feast on the news.  Cilla Murphy, a teacher who has just experienced 7 weeks in lockdown in China offers a number of very important learnings from her experience and her advice about the news is:

Try not to listen to/read/watch too much media. It WILL drive you crazy. There is [such] a thing as too much!

Reflection

There are so many options in terms of mindfulness practices that can help us in times of uncertainty and anxiety.  We can become overwhelmed by the variety and endless choices.  The secret to habit change is to start small and maintain the new habit for a reasonable time (to test it and embed it in our daily life). 

One sustainable habit can lead to another…and another.  We should not be discouraged by the magnitude of the changes we need to make – we can chip away at them progressively with the aid of meditation and mindfulness practice.  It takes time to overcome our self-protective mechanisms if we are to achieve significant changes in our behaviour.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become increasingly self-aware, develop our focused intention and build resilience to overcome setbacks on the road to sustainable change.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non
Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness Meditation to Reduce Anxiety in Times of Uncertainty

In these times of increasing uncertainty, compounded by the global spread of the Coronavirus, the level of anxiety in individuals and the community at large can intensify (you only have to notice panic buying to witness anxiety contagion).  Anxiety impacts every facet of our lives – our relationships, problem solving, decision making and communication.  We can become abrupt with our significant others, quick to anger, argumentative, determined to prove we are right or hyper-critical of their words and action – all traits likely to damage close relationships which are built on mutual respect and appreciation.

Research also shows, for example, that 7% of people in Europe are frequently lonely.  The loneliness epidemic experienced in Australia, US and UK (where they have a cross-Government strategy to tackle the challenges involved) is exacerbated by the need to engage in social distancing, social isolation and, in increasing numbers, to work from home.  For people who are used to social contact and interaction at work, working from home can compound the loneliness problem. 

Added to the isolation from social work contacts is the banning of the normal places of social gatherings outside work such as restaurants, sporting events, concerts, university classes and professional conferences.  So, it is extremely difficult for people experiencing new levels and increased frequency of loneliness to find social support, other than electronically.  This puts pressure on people, young and old, to learn new ways of communicating (abbreviated social media messaging will not fill the void). Fortunately, new technologies for online communication such as Zoom have really helped to address the growing problem of physical isolation and its attendant problem of loneliness.

With more people out of work each day as businesses close under Government direction or because they are no longer viable in a social distancing environment, increasing numbers of people are experiencing economic anxiety and depression – they cannot see a way out of their current, seemingly intractable, financial problems. 

Before the Coronavirus, depression was already a major health issue in communities around the world.  Isolation and loss of employment – two very significant factors in precipitating or aggravating depression – are likely to accelerate the already exponential growth in depression in the community unless new ways are instituted by Governments, communities and entrepreneurs to redeploy people to arenas of employment experiencing growth in demand (such as healthcare support, farming and Coronavirus contact tracing) and individuals are able to find ways to address their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Mindfulness meditation – a way to address anxiety, loneliness and depression

Neuroscience research, such as that conducted by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), demonstrates the power of mindfulness and related meditation practices to eliminate anxiety, overcome loneliness and reduce depression.  A search on “meditation” in the search block of this blog will highlight many meditation practices for individuals to address these mental health challenges.  Some examples are:

MARC provides weekly meditation podcasts on a very wide range of topics.  These can be accessed either through their website or via the UCLA App providing “meditations for well-being”.   These meditations can be supplemented and reinforced by other mindfulness practices.

Reflection

The advent of the Coronavirus has compounded the problem of mental illness in communities around the world leading to growing anxiety, loneliness and depression.  People who previously did not experience these adverse mental health conditions are now succumbing to their widespread community encroachment.  Research has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation is an antidote to these mental health challenges and is a source of overall wellbeing. 

The personal challenge is to overcome our initial reservations and disbelief and to take advantage of the numerous sources of mindfulness meditation available to us.  At first, we are inclined to believe that the challenge to our mental health and welfare is too great and that meditation is too simple a solution.  However, beginning with some small meditation practice and maintaining it daily, can make a very significant positive impact on our mental and emotional state.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Overcome Self-Protection to Create Personal Behavioural Change

Tami Simon, in a recent interview podcast, spoke to Dr. Lisa Lahey about her co-authored book, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.  Lisa is also a member of the faculty for the Inner MBA, jointly conducted by Sounds True in partnership with New York University, Wisdom 2.0 and LinkedIn.  In the interview, Lisa and Tami explore our self-protection mechanisms, the need for courage to overcome them and the importance of supportive challenge to sustain significant personal change.

Our self-protection mechanisms create an immunity to change

Our self-protection mechanisms are designed to protect our sense of self-worth and overall psychic health – they stop us from doing things that would be harmful to our psychic welfare.  Research and experience demonstrate, however, that that many people in organisations find it difficult to make positive behavioural changes that would make them a better staff member or manager.  For example, staff may not change inappropriate behaviour despite regular corrective feedback and a manager may not be able to delegate effectively despite their belief in the need for delegation.

Lisa maintains that the real barrier to these desirable behavioural changes is not a lack of procedural or technical knowledge but the need to change our “inner landscape” – made up of our beliefs, inner rules, feelings, self-stories and assumptions about our self, others, and our world.  Many behavioural changes in an organisational setting require these “adaptive changes” – becoming aware of the specific, inner landscape barriers to a focal behavioural change and working consciously to remove them.  This perspective advanced by Lisa lines up with our earlier discussion of “absolutes” and their impact on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Lisa likens our inner landscape to our immune system which is a self-protection mechanism designed to protect us against infection.  Our immune system, however, can also work against our physical welfare.  This can happen when it becomes hypersensitive to foods that would otherwise be good for us and creates inflammation in the form of rashes, hives, and other manifestations of food intolerance and allergies.  Another example is when the immune system rejects a liver or heart after a transplant.   Our inner landscape, just like the self-protective mechanism of our immune system, can work against making and sustaining desirable, personal behavioural change (whether within an organisational setting or in daily life with our family).

Making adaptive change through the “immunity change process”

In her Book, Immunity to Change, Lisa provides a detailed four-step process for making adaptive change which she calls “the immunity change process”.  In the podcast interview, she offered a brief description of each step and these are illustrated below:

  1. Have a clear goal in mind – Clarity around your behavioural change goal is critical because it enables a focused exploration of your “inner landscape”.  Lisa gave the example of her gaol to overcome the fear of public speaking.  Here I will focus on the goal of improving delegation as a manager, drawing on my experience working with managers over many years.
  2. Honest exploration of your self-sabotaging behaviours: As a manager, you might work against the achievement of your delegation goal by constant interference/ checking in with the person to whom you have delegated work (the delegatee), expressing a lack of trust in the delegatee’s ability to complete the work successfully, showing increasing signs of nervousness, and/or being unclear in your instructions/requirements when establishing the delegated task.  These behaviours can feed your anxiety cycle and thwart effective delegation to the delegatee and, at the same time, undermine their confidence so that they do not do the delegated job very well (an outcome that reinforces your belief system about the threats to your self-worth involved in delegating).
  3. Honest exploration of your inner self-protective goals:  These inner goals lie beneath your self-sabotaging behaviour and provide the unconscious rationale for behaving in a way that works against the achievement of your goal.  These self-protective goals could include trying to avoid the embarrassment of staff making mistakes, ensuring the security of your own job, maintaining a sense of superior knowledge and skills (“better than”) or avoiding being seen as lazy. 
  4. Identifying and challenging the underlying assumptions that give rise to the self-protective goals: These could include the assumption that if the delegatee becomes really good at their work your job will be at risk, they will see any poor work that you have done in relation to the delegated task,  they might do it the wrong way if you don’t constantly check on them, you will be seen as incompetent if they do the delegated task poorly or you will lose control of the task and the delegatee and reduce your influence.  These assumptions are interrelated and self-reinforcing, reducing your capacity to see possibilities and explore creative options.  Once these underlying assumptions have been surfaced, you can challenge them by exploring alternative assumptions.  Lisa suggests, for example, in relation to delegation, that the process could be seen as adding real value to the organisation and the delegatee by enabling them to be the best they can be.  This not only contributes more fully to the achievement of organisational goals but also builds staff motivation and mental health through providing a sense of agency.  Also, as neuroscientist Tali Sharot explains, you grow your influence by letting go.

Reflection

Our inner landscape acts as both a self-protective mechanism building our self-esteem and a self-sabotaging system that comes into play when we perceive that our self-worth is under threat.  As we grow in mindfulness through reflective processes such as the “immunity change process”, we can become more aware of our self-sabotaging behaviour, our unconscious self-protective goals and the underlying assumptions that hold them in place.  As we challenge our assumptions and associated expectations, we can break free of their hold over us and be open to creative options that we can pursue with courage and persistence.

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Image by Peter Perhac from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Developing Compassionate Action through Mindfulness and Listening to Personal Stories

Tara Brach recently spoke to Jon Kabat-Zinn on the theme of How Mindfulness Can Heal the World.  This discussion took place as part of the online Radical Compassion Challenge held over ten days in January 2020.  Jon’s central theme was that that it is not enough “to sit on the cushion” and meditate at a time when the world is experiencing such suffering, injustice, racial divisions and hatred; the challenge is to take compassionate action, activated by our growing awareness of our own reality and that of the world around us developed through mindfulness.

Many doors to one room

Jon argued that there are “many doors to the one room” – not only in terms of how we deal with the “agitation” we experience in today’s world but also in terms of how we individually respond by taking action.  Mindfulness can help us deal with our fear and anxiety either through experiencing that fear at a fully emotional and bodily level or by examining the fear conceptually to see its origins and its manifestation in our behaviour e.g. by blaming or judging.  The compassionate action we take will depend on our circumstances, our abilities and our self-awareness.  Jon, for example, stated that the Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program he developed was a political and compassionate action designed to relieve suffering at a time when professors at his institution, MIT, were developing weapons of mass destruction for the Vietnam War.  Tara, too, has taken compassionate action in many ways, including the establishment of Sounds True, a multimedia publishing company with a mission “To Wake Up the World”.

The role of personal stories and mindful listening

Both Jon and Tara highlighted the need to hear the stories of people who are less privileged than ourselves (e.g. in terms of their race, education, background, mental health, intellectual and physical abilities, careers, opportunities and overall wellness).  While they acknowledge that mindfulness is necessary to develop awareness of ourselves and the world around us, it is insufficient by itself to stimulate compassionate action.  Personal stories of suffering in its many forms can help us identify how we can take action and provide the emotional stimulus to act.  Stories in the mental health arena, such as What It’s Like to Survive Depression … Again and Again, can stimulate compassionate action.

Mindfulness can help us to develop our life purpose, build resilience and develop creativity but the real challenge is to channel these into compassionate action.  We are sure to encounter blockages such as our unrealistic expectations, biased assumptions, fear of failure and mistakes, but our growing awareness can help to overcome these.  The challenge is to find the momentum to begin and to revisit our motivation to sustain our effort and have a real impact on some aspect of the suffering of others.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we become more aware of the suffering and pain of people in the world around us.  This awareness can translate into compassionate action if we listen mindfully to the stories of people who are less privileged than ourselves.  Self-awareness can heighten our acknowledgement of how much we are privileged in so many ways and help us to identify both an arena for personal action and a point of intervention.  This will demand overcoming procrastination and the fears that hold our inaction in place.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Sound Meditation and the Power of Music

In previous posts I have discussed the role of music as a pathway to mindfulness focussing on the features that music and meditation have in common such as inner harmony, patience and deep listening.  Alexandre Tannous has researched the role of music in therapy, in different cultures and philosophical perspectives.  In a recent presentation for The Being & Doing Summit, he emphasised the power of music to heal, express emotion and deepen our awareness.  He provides a range of sound meditations through his album, Sound Submersion – Volume 1, which incorporates musical instruments, such as the Tibetan Singing Bowl, that produce overtones.

Sound therapy

Sound therapy uses sonar frequencies to reignite and re-balance the energy frequency in the body.  It can lead to healing and deep calm by enabling people to use the body’s natural healing powers to promote health and inner harmony.  The applications of sound therapy are numerous, including its use with dementia and Alzheimer patients to stimulate memory recall.  A social worker, Dan Cohen, discovered the power of music, aligned to personal preference, to help Alzheimer patients to access memories that have been locked away and normally inaccessible to them.  The story of this amazing research was captured in the film, Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory.  Sound therapy has also been used very effectively with seriously wounded veterans who can recapture or learn the skill of playing a musical instrument and discover a way to express their thoughts and feelings through music.

As an ethnomusicologist, Alexandre has travelled to over 40 countries to study music in different cultural and social settings.  While he acknowledges that sound therapy has had a major resurgence in recent times, he maintains that it is an ancient practice, especially in Eastern philosophies.  Alexandre explains that sound therapy often involves overtones, sound freqencies over and above a fundamental frequency, that we rarely hear because we are unaware of them and because the fundamental frequency is so strong that it dominates our hearing.  Alexandre’s music compositions focus on “overtone-emitting” musical instruments such as the Thai Gong employed in Thai and Burmese temples.

Sound and mindfulness

Alexandra’s audio recordings provide the basis for sound meditations using different instruments. He identifies multiple benefits of sound meditation based on his extensive research over many years.  Among the benefits are the development of inner harmony and equanimity, “ability to access and release trauma“, capacity to break habituated behaviour patterns that are unproductive, enhancement of self-awareness, development of higher levels of consciousness and stimulation of empathy and compassionate action.  In the final analysis, sound therapy builds our awareness muscle through enhancing our concentration, listening and focusing skills.

As with other forms of meditation, there will always be intrusive thoughts. Alexandre suggests that we just let them pass, not entertain them and return to our focus on the music.  Sound is truly transformative and if we adopt a deep listening posture during our sound meditation, it can improve our mental health and overall well-being.

Reflection

We often overlook the power of sound to deepen our consciousness and heal our mind and body.  As we grow in mindfulness through sound meditation, we can enrich our lives in multiple ways, not the least of these is enhancing our self-awareness and awareness of others.  Through sound meditation, we can build the capacity to deal with the waves of life – the ups and downs of everyday existence.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Disconnection from Childhood Trauma: A Potential Determinant of Depression and Ill-Health

Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, identified seven social causes of depression including the loss of connection to other people.  One of the surprising findings in his discussions with researchers and his colleagues, was the link between obesity, childhood trauma and depression.  In the final analysis, collectively they established that in many instances unresolved childhood trauma was a determinant of obesity and depression. 

Obesity and depression

Johann drew on the ground-breaking research of Dr. Vincent Felitti, Founding Chairman of the Department of Preventative Medicine of Kaiser Permanente – a fully integrated medical provider offering not only health care plans but also services such as specialist medical practitioners, a dynamic medical school, mental health services and education and an affordable housing initiative.  Kaiser Permanente views a healthy life for all as a cause to pursue, and is a pioneer in offering seamless health services along with leading edge research into preventative methods and treatment approaches.

Kaiser Permanente commissioned Vincent to undertake research into obesity because it was becoming the major factor in the growth of its operational costs.  Vincent started out by using a specialised diet plan supported by vitamin supplements that was designed to help obese people lose weight.  This approach appeared highly successful on early indications, but Vincent noticed that the people most successful at losing weight were dropping out of the program and returning to their eating habits and becoming overweight again.  Additionally, they often experienced depression, suicidal thoughts, rage or panic. 

Research by way of interview of 286 participants dropping out of the obesity program established that most had been sexually abused or experienced some other form of childhood trauma.   Obesity was their way to deal with the aftereffects of childhood trauma, including fear of sexual assault and the desire to hide their shame.

Childhood trauma and depression

Vincent was surprised by the findings of the initial study and realised that research of childhood history as a determinant of adult ill health had been avoided previously because of shame, secrecy and the taboo nature of the topic.  Yet his early findings established that childhood trauma played out powerfully decades later in terms of emotional state, biomedical disease and life expectancy.  He found, for example, that 55% of participants in the obesity study had suffered childhood sexual abuse.

The link between obesity, depression and childhood trauma was not well received by the established medical profession.  The video, A Tribute to Dr. Vincent Felitti, highlights the scorn he experienced when first announcing his findings at a medical conference and demonstrates the resilience of a man who had the courage to back his research and the bravery to pursue his creativity.

Vincent was convinced that he had to undertake research with a larger and broader sample of people to establish the credibility of his findings.  Through Kaiser Permanente’s processes of capturing the medical history of patients he was able, in collaboration with Dr. Robert Anda of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), to add additional questions relating to life history.  The questions picked up on the 10 types of childhood trauma identified by participants in the earlier study. The 17,500 participants involved in the second study were representative of the broader population of California where the study was done.  They were middle class with an average age of 57 and were employed.

The research titled the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE) highlighted even more surprising results.  Two thirds of the participants in the research program had experienced one or more traumatic events.  One in nine had experienced 5 or more adverse childhood events.  They also established that the higher the number of different adverse childhood events experienced by an individual (their ACE Score), the greater the likelihood of that person committing suicide.

Typical strategies adopted by individuals to cope with the impacts of childhood trauma only exacerbate the problem of ill health, e.g. smoking or over-eating.  Vincent maintained that the experience of chronic, unrelieved stress affects the nervous system and the brain and can produce “the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals in a person’s body”, leading to suppression of the immune system.

What can be done about childhood trauma?

I have previously discussed principles and guidelines for trauma-informed mindfulness practice.  Johann Hari, in the section of his book on reconnection strategies offered several strategies that could have a positive effect on the negative impacts of childhood trauma, such as obesity and depression.  His recommended reconnection strategies include social prescribing and reconnection with nature, meaningful work and meaningful values.

Vincent Felitti, too, was concerned that people who had experienced childhood trauma need some form of hope about their ability to redress its negative effects.  He decided to do further research involving medical practitioners who were treating patients through Kaiser Permanente.  He provided them with a few simple questions to ask patients that related to life history and covered childhood experiences, and asked them to express genuine empathy and respect for the patient. 

Vincent found that the participants showed “a significant reduction in illness” once a patient shared their story of childhood trauma with a doctor.  He thought that the explanation for this was twofold – (1) the person was sharing their story with another person for the first time and (2) the recipient of the disclosure was a trusted authority figure who treated them with kindness and respect.  He postulated that the intermediate effects related to the fact that the experience removed the shame and self-loathing associated with the adverse childhood event.  The association of the childhood trauma with the experience of humiliation was broken. Vincent acknowledged that this was an area for further research.

Vincent argued that the ultimate solution to childhood trauma lay in “primary prevention” and advocated for the integration of their research findings into primary care medical practice.  He also supported the development of a life experience questionnaire reporting on childhood trauma as a part of a patient’s medical record that could subsequently be viewed by the treating doctor.  A healing conversation could take place if the patient was willing and able to share their story.

David Treleaven warns, however, that when dealing with someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is imperative not to tackle the trauma experience head-on.  He advocates a trauma-sensitive mindfulness approach.  Sam Himelstein also cautions against the use of direct questioning and talking where a person is outside their window of tolerance

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through research, meditation and reflection, we can begin to recognise the impact of our own experience of childhood trauma and address the negative impacts it has on our own life and relationships. We can also become sensitised to the experience of others who have experienced adverse childhood events and take this into account when dealing with individuals and groups who are seeking to use a mindfulness approach to improve their quality of life.

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Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Doing That Meaningful Work You Have Been Avoiding

Leo Babauta, creator of the blog Zen Habits, reminds us that we each invariably have one meaningful task, endeavour or initiative that we keep putting off.  We find excuses, maintain our busyness, visit the fridge, go out for coffee or adopt any number of tactics to avoid facing up to the challenge of doing the one meaningful thing that we know we ought to do.  Leo describes this process of procrastination as our “habituated avoidance.”

What meaningful work are you avoiding?

Your avoidance may relate to developing a solution to a seemingly intractable problem; doing that significant blog post about a controversial topic; engaging with a particular ethnic group; volunteering your services to a charity; offering a special service to a group in need; joining a Men’s Shed; or undertaking any other meaningful work. 

Factors that could contribute to your habituated avoidance of the meaningful work can be many and varied, e.g. the work takes you out of your comfort zone; there is a chance you could be embarrassed; you may “fail” in what you are setting out to do; it could require significant courage to undertake the work; you could be perceived to be an “upstart”; or you might be challenged because you lack specific professional qualifications.

One of the things that I have been putting off that would fall into this category of meaningful work is the development and conduct of guided meditations via an online conference platform.  The reality is that through this blog (with over 350 posts) and its numerous hyperlinks to resources, I have what I need to create these guided meditations.  I also have experience conducting online conferences and have access to an online conference platform.  But what is stopping me from developing these valuable events?  I know that part of the reason is my uncertainty about the reliability of the online conference platform (or is this just an excuse?).  I find that even in the downtime between meetings with clients, planning training activities, facilitating workshops and writing this blog, I do not embrace the challenge of creating these online guided meditations – even when I have surplus time in my life.  To me, an important first step is to revisit the reason why the avoided “work” is significant or meaningful.

Revisiting your intention

Why is the work/task/endeavour meaningful?  What group or individual (family member, friend or work colleague) will benefit from your undertaking this work?  What are their needs that you can meet or partially address? In what way would your activity make a difference or improve the quality of their life? 

For example, The process of online guided meditations would enable me to help people who are experiencing anxiety or depression, mental health conditions that have reached epidemic proportions.  It would provide a way for them to connect with other people, use mindfulness to address some aspect of their adverse mental health condition, become aware of resources and support that are available to them and learn techniques and mindfulness practices that they can use outside the guided meditation experience.

Revisiting your intention in doing the meaningful work is important to tap into the motivation and energy needed to take the necessary steps to make that meaningful endeavour happen.  Spending time meditating on this intention can help to energise you to take action – and overcome the internal objections, self-doubts and excuses for inaction.  Leo offers three easy ways to translate this intention into action.

A simple Three-Step Method for getting your meaningful work done

Leo offers a 3-step method that is simple, time efficient and workable (he uses it himself with great effect! – you don’t create a blog with 2 million readers without successfully pushing through the inertia or the procrastination barrier).

  1. Create a space (a brief period that you can free up) – Leo suggests that this can even be 15 minutes, but it  is important to start now (or very soon so you don’t put it off).
  2. Meditate on meaning and feelings – tap back into your intention and what gives the planned work meaning or significance.  Having captured this meaning in your mind, do a body scan to tap into any fear, resistance, tension, anxiety or worry that you may be experiencing as the meaningful work comes clearer into focus – in the process release the tightness, pain or soreness.  Then really focus your attention on the people you will be helping – tap into your feelings, sense of loving-kindness, towards them (and experience your own positive emotions that accompany compassionate action).
  3. Do the smallest next step – do something that will progress your meaningful work, no matter how small it seems to you.  Translating intention into action, however small, sets your momentum in the right direction.  Small actions build to larger steps which, in turn, increase energy; provide reinforcement; develop motivation; and offer personal reward.

As you adopt these techniques for advancing your meaningful work, you will grow in mindfulness (internal and external awareness) and build your capacity to pursue creative endeavours to make a real difference for individuals or a group.  The insights gained will help you overcome inertia in relation to other things that you need to get done and the experience of overcoming procrastination in relation to your meaningful work, will flow into other arenas of your life.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

What Do You Do if Mindfulness Does Not Reduce Your Symptoms of Anxiety or Depression?

I was approached recently by a young man who was experiencing severe anxiety.  He was able to cope well with his work but had all kinds of difficulties coping at home, including endless self-doubts, negative self-stories and an inability to relax or concentrate.  He indicated that he had “tried everything’ – meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection. 

He found, for example, that “reflection” only resulted in his entertaining negative thoughts about himself and re-visiting his destructive self-stories.  So, reflection for him resulted in a downward spiral rather than a release from self-deprecation.

What does “tried everything” mean?

The first consideration is how did he approach these attempts to develop mindfulness and reduce his symptoms?  Given the young man’s level of agitation, it was likely that his efforts were somewhat frantic and unfocussed.  One could question whether he engaged in a sustained meditation practice in a focused way, e.g. working on his self-stories with the aid of a meditation teacher or meditation group.

One of the issues is that there are so many different forms of meditation that it is tempting to “try them all” and flit from one form to another, without addressing your specific needs or the causal factors of your depression or anxiety.  This is where a professional psychologist or dedicated professional group could help.  Organisations like Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute can help by providing knowledge, resources, group support, access to programs and advice in identifying a suitable medical practitioner, psychologist or psychiatrist.  Other specialist carer support groups can assist people who are experiencing anxiety or depression as a result of caring for someone who has a long-term need for care and support.

The Mental Health Care Plan

You may need medication and/or the aid of an allied health professional to overcome depression and/or anxiety. In Australia, there is a specialist form of help that can be accessed through your local medical practitioner, the Mental Health Care Plan.   You explain your symptoms and needs to a doctor who develops a mental health treatment plan with you.  This may include medication, referral to an allied health professional such as a psychologist and/or other forms of activity designed to address your specific mental health condition.  Medicare will provide rebates for visits to an authorised health care professional where the visits have been the subject of referral by a medical practitioner as part of a Mental Health Care Plan.  The number of visits covered by Medicare rebate is 10 (subject to a confirming review by the doctor after the first six visits).

Advancing our understanding of the causes of depression and anxiety

Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections, highlights recent research undertaken worldwide that shows that anti-depression medication can be effective in the short term to reduce symptoms but that, in the medium to long term, it typically has to be increased and can reduce in effectiveness over time.  In his book, Johann focuses on the social factors contributing to the global rise in depression and anxiety and proposes solutions that support rather than replace medication treatments, although some people are able to give up their medication after a period of successful use of one or more of these alternative approaches.

Johann identifies seven social factors that contribute to the rise in depression and anxiety, all relating to a loss of connection.  He describes them as “disconnection from”:

Johann acknowledges the research that shows that in some instances a person experiences depression and/or anxiety because of their genes or a brain change brought on by some life experience (pp. 143-155).

Reconnection: alternative anti-depressant treatments

Johann describes several ways to reconnect to overcome depression and anxiety.  These include reconnecting with others, with meaningful work, with nature and/or meaningful values. He also includes chapters on finding “sympathetic joy” while overcoming self-obsession (Chapter 20), and a compelling chapter on acknowledging and overcoming childhood trauma (Chapter 21).

What I found particularly intriguing, as well as very practical, was a chapter on “social prescribing” (Chapter 17).  In this chapter, Johann highlights the work of the Bromley-by-Bow Center which combines a medication approach (where deemed necessary) with hundreds of social programs.  This medical centre is very different to most doctor’s clinics that you would normally visit, both in terms of the orientation of the medical practitioner and the physical environment.  The emphasis is on listening, not medication prescription, and treatment is strongly oriented to “reconnection” strategies such as a walking group, employment skills group, start-up support to establish your own business and a casual group focused on “Create Your Future”.

What further intrigued me was the effectiveness of one project described by Johann through the experience of Lisa, who was experiencing severe depression.  The project was the brainchild of Dr. Sam Everington who was concerned about the over-reliance on anti-depression medication.  Basically, he assigned some of his patients to a community project focused on beautifying a strip of bushland that had become overgrown and neglected but was a popular walk-through. 

The group of people experiencing depression, who had difficulty interacting with anyone and typically kept to themselves, eventually started having conversations, sharing their life histories and their personal mental health challenges as well as plans to beautify the bushland strip.  They had to learn about the seasons, plants and their nutrition needs and how to plant and cultivate different kinds of plants.  They took pride in their project and started to gain confidence and competence.  A moving story was that of a person who had initially presented as very angry and aggressive who went out of his way to help two people who experienced learning difficulties.  Eventually, the members of the group decided to do a Certificate in Horticulture.

Johann pointed out that this creative project addressed two major reconnection needs – reconnection with others and with nature.  It can also be seen that each of these reconnections reinforces the other.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can be open to new ways of dealing with depression and anxiety.  We can learn to reconnect with key elements in our life that induce mentally healthy living, including mindful connection to others, spending time in nature, being grateful for what we have (rather than suffer “status anxiety”) and being willing to show compassion towards others.

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Image by Henning Westerkamp from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Carers Need Self-Care

Much of the focus in the resources on mindfulness is on ways to help people who are suffering from conditions that are debilitating such as mental illness or chronic pain.  Very little of the resources focus on ways to help carers in their role – ways to manage the physical and psychological toll of caring for someone else on a constant and extended basis.  Carers are the overlooked group – forgotten by others and themselves.

Carers: people who care and support others

Carers come in all shapes and sizes  – adults looking after ageing parents who may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; siblings caring for a family member who has a mental health condition such as schizophrenia, anxiety or depression; or anyone caring for someone suffering from a physical condition such as paraplegia, chronic pain or cancer.  According to Carers Australia, carers are people who provide unpaid care and support to family members and friends who have a disability, mental illness, chronic condition, terminal illness, an alcohol or other drug issue or who are frail aged.

The toll of caring

The “burden of care” can be felt both physically and psychologically.  The physical toll for carers can be excessive – they can become exhausted and/or accident-prone, suffer from sleep disorders or experience bodily symptoms of stress such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue or related conditions like fibromyalgia. The physical toll of caring can be experienced as cumulative stress and lead to chronic conditions that adversely affect the carer’s long-term health.

The psychological toll of caring can also be cumulative in nature and extremely variable in its impact.  Carers can experience negative emotions such as resentment or anger, despite their compassion towards the person who is being cared for.  They can become extremely frustrated over the paucity of time available for themselves, the opportunity cost in terms of inability to travel or to be away for any length of time, the lack of freedom (feeling tied down), the lack of improvement in the condition of the person being cared for or the financial impost of caring (preventing desired savings/purchases or home improvements). 

Carers do not have inexhaustible personal resources – physical, psychological and financial.  They can suffer from compassion fatigue which can be hastened by emotional contagion resulting from close observation of, and identification with, the pain of a loved one.  Hence, carers can experience depression, anxiety or grief – reflecting the emotional state of their loved ones who are suffering.

The toll on carers has been the subject of extensive research.  For example, Emma Stein studied the psychological impact on older female carers engaged in informal aged care.  Sally Savage and Susan Bailey reviewed the literature on the mental health impact on the carer of their caregiving role and found that the impact was highly variable and moderated by factors such as the relationship between caregiver and receiver and the level of social support for the carer.

Being mindful of your needs as a carer

The fundamental problem is that carers become so other-focused that they overlook their own needs – their need for rest, time away, relaxation and enjoyment.  Normal needs can become intensified by the burden of care and the associated physical and psychological stressors.  Carers tend to neglect their own needs in the service of others.  However, in the process, they endanger their own mental and physical health and, potentially, inhibit their capacity to sustain quality care.

Carers can inform themselves of the inherent physical and psychological consequences of being a caregiver, particularly if this involves intensive, long-term caring of a close loved one (where feelings are heightened, and the personal costs intensified).  Mental Health Carers Australia highlights the fact that people who care for someone with a mental health illness are increasingly at risk of “developing a mental illness themselves”.

Self-care for the carer

One of the more effective ways that carers can look after themselves is to draw on support networks – whether they involve family, colleagues or friends; broad social networks; or specific networks designed for carers.  Arafmi, for example, provides carer support for caregivers of people with a mental illness and their services include a 24-hour carer helpline, carers forum, blog, educational resources, workshops and carer support groups. Carers Queensland provides broader-based carer resources and support groups.

Carers tend to go it alone, not wanting to burden others with “their” problem(s).  They are inclined to refuse help from others when it is offered because of embarrassment, fear of dependency, concern for the other person offering help, inability to “let go” or any other inhibiting emotion or thought pattern – in the process, they may stop themselves from sharing the load.

Carers could seek professional help from qualified professionals such as medical doctors or psychologists if they notice that they are experiencing physical or psychological symptoms resulting from carer stress.

Mindfulness for carers

Carers can use mindfulness practices, reflection and meditation to help them cope with the physical and emotional stresses of caregiving.  Specific meditations can address negative feelings, especially those of resentment and the associated guilt.  Mindfulness practices can introduce processes that enable the carer to wind down and relax – such as mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating or using awareness as the default when caught up with “waiting” (a constant companion of the carer role).

Carers can employ techniques such as body scan to relax their bodies and release physical tension.  Deep, conscious breathing can also help in times of intense stress such as when experiencing panic. For people who are religious, prayer can help to provide calm and hope.

Dr. Chris Walsh (mindfulness.org.au), offers a simple mindfulness exercise for self-care by carers in his website article, Caring for CarersThe exercise involves focusing, re-centering, imagining and noticing (thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations).

As carers grow in mindfulness, they can become more aware of the stress they are under and the physical and psychological toll involved. This growing awareness can lead to effective self-care through social and professional support and meditation and/or mindfulness practices. Mindfulness can help carers develop resilience and calmness in the face of their stressful caregiver role.

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Image by Sabine van Erp from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Our Past is in Our Present

Dr. Matthew Brensilver, a teacher at MARC UCLA, focuses on the relationship between mindfulness and mental health.  In his guided meditation on The Present is Made of Our Past, he explores the connection between the present and the past.  When we are present, we are not absorbed by the past or anxiously anticipating the future.  Matthew points out, however, that “in some sense, the present is composed of nothing but the past”.  This is a challenging idea for those of us who have been exposed to the unerring emphasis on being present.

Expressing the past in the present

In this present moment, you are giving expression to everything you experienced in the past – the habits you developed over time, the conditioning you experienced in different aspects of your life and the momentum (in career, life & relationships) that you have achieved.  So, the present is composed of these many elements.  In Matthew’s perspective, the present can be viewed as “making peace with the past” – combining gratitude with loving-kindness.

The past is present through your memories (not only of events or situations but also of the emotions involved at the time).  It is also present in what Matthew describes as “habit energies” – your habituated way of doing things, of relating and responding.  The past is present in your thoughts and feelings that arise from different stimuli – patterned as they are on previous experiences, responses and outcomes for yourself and others.

Your habits can be good for you or harmful.  Mindfulness enables you to appreciate your good habits and the benefits that accrue to you and others when you act out these habits.  Mindfulness also makes you aware of unhealthy habits that condition you to respond in ways that have a deleterious effect on you and others.  You become more aware of the existence of these habits, their origins, the strength of their hold on you and their harmful effects. Over time, your mindfulness practice can release you from the hold of these habits and assist you to transform yourself.  For example, you can develop the ability of reflective listening where before you constantly interrupted others and failed to actively listen to what they had to say.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can better integrate our past with our present, understand the influences shaping our responses, improve our self-regulation and bring an enlightened sense of gratitude to others and loving-kindness to ourselves and our everyday experience.

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Image – Noosa, Queensland, 18 May 2019 (7.45 am)

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.