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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Image by Anemone123 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.

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.

Curiosity and Compassion Towards a Family Member

Mitra Manesh, meditation teacher and founder of the mindfulness app Innermap, offers a guided meditation titled Curiosity and Compassion in the Family.  The focus of this meditation is as much about self-compassion as it is about compassion towards family members.  Like other guided meditations offered through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), Mitra’s meditation has a brief input but the 30-minute meditation podcast is primarily a meditation practice.  It progresses from a grounding exercise, through to an input on the challenge presented by family members, followed by two compassion exercises – one towards yourself, the other towards a family member.

Mitra defines mindfulness as “kind acceptance and awareness of our present moment experience”.  Underlying this approach is compassion (self-compassion and compassion towards others) and curiosity (the catalyst for awareness).

Becoming grounded – arriving at the meditation

Mitra encourages you to first find a position and posture that is comfortable and that will enable you to become grounded.  By bringing your attention to your intention for the meditation, you can physically and mentally arrive at the meditation.   You can start with some deep breaths followed by resting in your breathing.  Mitra suggests that you then scan your body to locate points where you experience comfort – allowing yourself to pay attention to the warmth, tingling or other pleasant sensation.  Invariably your mind will notice points of pain or discomfort – again bring your attention to each of these points and release the tension at that point, allowing yourself a sense of ease and relaxation.

At this stage, focusing on an anchor will help to maintain your groundedness as distracting thoughts will invariably intrude into your process of releasing and relaxing – bringing new tensions such as a sense of time urgency or the need to plan for tasks to be done.  Mitra suggests that you tell yourself that you don’t have to be anywhere else or to do anything else during the 30 minutes of this guided meditation.  The anchor can be a sound – internal such as the air conditioning or external such as the sound of birds.  It can be your breathing – returning to rest in the interval between your in-breath and your out-breath.  Whatever you do, don’t beat up on yourself for these distractions.

Family – a challenging environment

Mitra reminds us that meditation practice is designed to assist us to lead our day-to-day lives mindfully.  One of the most challenging arenas for mindful practice is the family – individual family members can be particularly challenging because of their personality, mental illness, life stresses or a multitude of other factors.  Even very experienced meditators find some family members to be particularly challenging.

One of the problems is that family members become too familiar – we have seen them often and we think we know them, understand them and can predict their behaviour.  However, the presumption of knowledge can result in a lack of curiosity and desire to understand – it can lead to hasty judgments and a lack of compassion. 

Curiosity, on the other hand, will lead us to understand the nature of the mental illness suffered by a family member.  We might presume we know about depression and how it plays out in their lives and yet we can judge them as lazy when they spend most of their day sleeping and continuously leave their room and surrounds in an absolute mess.  If we explore the nature of their illness we might discover, for example, that they are suffering from the complexity of schizoaffective disorder which may involve the symptoms of schizophrenia along with manic depression – a complex mix of disabling conditions that can lead to compulsive shopping, impulsive action, constant depression and the inability to communicate about their depression or hallucinatory episodes.  So, not only are they disabled by depression, but they are also incapacitated by the inability to seek social support.  We might think we know and understand about the mental illness of a family member but the complexity of the arena of mental health would suggest that we have little insight.  If you have never experienced the black dog of depression, you are unlikely to have a real sense of the depth and breadth of its disabling character. 

Mitra encourages us to become “unfamiliar” with our family members and to become instead curious about them – “but compassionately so”.  This includes “showing them who you are” while encouraging them to show themselves.

A self-compassion meditation

Mitra provides a self-compassion meditation (at the 11th minute mark) following the discussion of the family as the “most charged” arena of our lives.  Accordingly, she suggests beginning with a deep breath to release any tensions that may have accumulated during the discussion of family challenges.

She asks you to consider how your posture and breathing would be different if you were adopting a “compassionate curiosity” towards yourself. This compassionate curiosity, a sense of wonder, can be extended to curiosity about your bodily tensions and your feelings.  Are you feeling anxiety about a family member’s depression? Is your body tense, or your mind agitated or are you carrying feelings of resentment along with the bodily manifestations of this abiding anger?

What happens to your mind’s chatter and your body’s sensations when you extend forgiveness and compassion towards yourself for your self-absorption, hasty judgements, lack of understanding and self-satisfaction with “knowing” the other person.  Can you let go of all your self-stories and beliefs that block this self-compassion?  Compassionate curiosity enables you, ultimately, to rest in self-acceptance

You can ask yourself what you are needing and feeling at this point in the meditation and ask for the fulfillment of your needs as you touch your heart and feel the warmth therein. Mitra identifies some needs that you may have, including the need to forgive yourself for all the mistakes that you have made in your interactions with family members.

Compassion towards a family member

At the 28-minute mark of the guided meditation, Mitra suggests you focus on a family member, following your self-compassion meditation.  You could bring your attention to a family member with whom you have had a disturbing interaction.  Its important to bring that chosen person fully into focus.

You can request that you change your relationship to them, for, example, “May I be curious about you to understand you and to prevent myself from forming hasty judgments about you?”; “May I be genuinely compassionate towards you?”

Mitra suggests that you frame your request in terms of a single word that you can revisit from time to time, e.g. “understanding”.  The request could be framed as, “May I understand you and you understand me”.  Your compassionate curiosity will enable you to show yourself and your genuineness.

As we grow in mindfulness, through self-compassion meditation and extending compassion towards a family member, we can develop our compassionate curiosity towards ourselves and them and deepen our understanding and acceptance of them and ourselves.

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Image by MorningbirdPhoto 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.

Ways To Discover the Benefits of Nature

In earlier posts I discussed the healing benefits of nature and the ways that trees can reduce stress. Jill Suttie in her article Why is Nature So Good for Your Mental Health, points to recent research that demonstrates that awe experienced in nature is a source of well-being and decreased symptoms of stress. How then can we discover these benefits of nature in our everyday life?

Ways to discover the benefits of nature

Heather Hurlock, Mindful Digital Editor, discusses three ways that we can access these benefits:

  1. Savour your neighbourhood nature – so much of our observation is superficial as we race from one task to another. You can look out the window and admire the tree on the footpath or notice the species of trees in your tree-lined street. You can closely observe the clouds that provide fascinating shapes, patterns and colours. If you live near water, a river or the bay, you can take a mindful walk along its shores taking in the sunrise/sunset, the ebb and flow of the water and the patterns that are formed through the movement of the water. Alternatively, you can absorb the stillness of the water on a calm, cool day. You might be privileged to share the awe of a visitor to your area who sees your natural surrounds with a fresh set of eyes – not through sight dulled by routine.
  2. Soak up the healing power of a forest – trees reduce agitation and stress and are good for the health of your heart. Forest Bathing – a mindful, slow walk through the trees in a forest – is a great source of mental health and wellness. The stillness and resilience of a forest can be a source of awe and well-being. A forest can intensify your awareness of your senses – through the sounds of birds, the sights of colour/shape/patterns, the smell of the flora, the roughness and contour of the bark as you touch it and the taste of native fruit. Individual trees can be a source of meditation.
  3. Finding a moment to experience awe in nature – it can be humbling and also increase your sense of connectedness that can lead to increased cooperativeness and compassion. You can learn to breathe with the earth and experience gratitude for all that nature offers as well as for what you have in your life. The sense of awe can be experienced within you own backyard or in a mindful garden walk through a botanical garden. Heather recommends the guided awe walk as another way to access the benefits of nature.

As we grow in mindfulness through being in, and closely observing nature, we can enhance our outer awareness and achieve calm, well-being and awe. The healing powers of nature generally, and trees in particular, are well-researched and documented. We can discover these benefits by exploring different ways to access nature, whether in our neighbourhood or in a forest or a botanical garden.

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Image: Manly Foreshore, Moreton Bay, Queensland, taken on 2 July 2019

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 View Stress to Improve Health and Happiness

Kelly McGonigal presented a talk on How to Make Stress Your Friend that challenged the way we think about stress and the bodily response to stress. Her talk could have been subtitled, How to think about stress to improve your longevity. Kelly draws on research that demonstrates how we think about stress can impact negatively or positively on our physical and mental health during the experience of stress and beyond.

How we can view our bodily responses to stress

When we experience stress our bodies respond in predictable ways. Our heart may be racing or pounding, we tend to breathe faster, and we can break out into a sweat. How we view these bodily responses to stress determines the short-term and long-term effects of stress on our wellness, heart condition and longevity.

If we view these bodily responses as a positive response to stress, we are better able to cope with the current stress and future stressors. Kelly argues that our perception of these responses makes all the difference. We can view them as an indication that our body is preparing us and energising us for the perceived challenge that precipitated our stress. World-famous aerialist Nik Wallenda maintains that this positive perception of the bodily stress response enabled him to walk on a tightrope across a 400 metre gap in the Grand Canyon.

Kelly argues that we should view the pounding heart as readying us for constructive action; the heightened breathing rate is providing more oxygen to the brain to enable it to function better. The net result of viewing these bodily responses as positive is that we can experience less anxiety in the face of stress and feel more confident in meeting the inherent challenges.

Kelly points out that what is particularly amazing is that instead of the blood vessels in your heart constricting (as they do when you view stress negatively), the blood vessels actually remain relaxed when the bodily stress response is viewed positively. She notes that the relaxation of the blood vessels in the heart is similar to what happens when we experience positive emotions of joy and courage.

Stress makes you more social

One of the key effects of stress is that the pituitary gland in your body increases your level of oxytocin (known as the “cuddle hormone“) which tends to move you to strengthen close social relationships. This facet of the stress response prompts you to seek and give social support. Kelly maintains that your stress response “wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you”. It also stimulates you to reach out and help others in need – which, in turn, can increase your oxytocin levels. Thus stress can help us to accept compassion make us more compassionate.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation, research and reflection, we can learn to view our bodily response to stress in a positive light, reduce the negative physical and mental impacts of stress on ourselves and strengthen our commitment to compassionate action.

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Image: Sunrise in Manly, Queensland, taken on 1 July 2019

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.

Practical Mindfulness for Profound Effects

In the recent online Mindful Healthcare Summit, Jon Kabat-Zinn spoke about the profound effects of practical mindfulness. While the context he spoke about was the healthcare arena – doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and related roles – his comments have universal application because they relate to us as human beings and are built on the latest neuroscience findings.

Getting out of our heads

Jon describes us as “perpetually self-distracting” – we continuously distract ourselves from the task at hand through our thoughts which are incessantly active. Disruptive advertising in social media aid and abet this self-distraction to the point where mobile devices are now described as “weapons of mass distraction“.

Jon encourages us to be awake to the world around us – to the people and nature that surround us. He suggests we need to move out of the “thought realm” into the “awake realm”. He comments that when we are in the shower in the morning, we are more likely to be mentally at a meeting rather than aware of the sensation of the water on our skin. When we arrive at work, we are likely to be thinking about, and talking about, the traffic we encountered on the way.

He suggests that a very simple practical exercise when we wake up is to be consciously aware of our body – to “really wake up” and feel the sensation in our legs, our feet, our arms. He urges us not to start the day by getting lost in thought but to start by inhabiting our own body. When we do so, we open ourselves to the profound effects of being present in the moment, of being open to our capacity for focus and inner creativity.

Listening to others

Jon maintains that “listening is a huge part of mindfulness practice”. To truly listen, you need to be present to the other person – not lost in your own thoughts. When you attend to the other person through active listening, they “feel met, seen and encountered”. Jon draws on the work of Dr. Ron Epstein to support this assertion. Ron, the author of Attending: Medicine, Mindfulness and Humanity, established through his research and medical practice that “attending” achieved improved health outcomes for both the patient and the doctor.

Being fully present

Jon maintains that while meditation and other mindfulness practices build your awareness, the essence of mindfulness is to be fully present whatever you are doing. He argues that “the kindest thing you can do to yourself is to be present in the moment”. Jon reminds us that “tomorrow is uncertain, yesterday is over” so to live in the past or the future is self-defeating, disabling and potentially harmful to our health and well-being. He encourages us to meet each day (which is all that we have) with a clear intention – a commitment to make a positive and caring contribution to whatever is our life/work endeavour. This will have the profound effect of enhancing our own mental health and resilience, while creating an environment that is mentally healthy for others.

Tapping into our inner resources

Sometimes we can be so focused on the needs (or expectations) of others that we overlook the need for self-caring in the face of the stresses of life and work. He challenges us to befriend our self by tapping into our deep inner resources and “boundaryless awareness“. He contends from his own research and practice in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) that our bodies are “intrinsically and genetically self-healing” and that we are our own “deepest resource for health and well-being”. We need to access these healing inner resources through the practice of mindfulness in our daily life and work.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindful action in our life and work and mindfulness practices, we can tap our limitless inner resources, become increasingly self-healing, develop mentally healthy environments for others and achieve a higher level of fulfillment and happiness.

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Image by jamesoladujoye 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.

Trees Can Help to Limit Your Stress

I have been fascinated by trees for a long time – amazed by their growth, their energy and their role in human ecology. At a metaphorical level, trees reflect the enigmas of human existence. Jill Suttie in her article, How Trees Help You to Stress Less, highlights the research that demonstrates the way trees can benefit us in terms of stress reduction.

The stress-reduction benefits of trees

  • Trees can reduce anxiety and depression and build positive traits such as enhanced energy levels. A research study, conducted in different areas of Japan and reported in 2018, showed that walking through a forest had greater positive effects than walking through city streets – the former environment serving to lower stress levels, elevate mood and generate more energy. The researchers concluded that forest environments would be an essential contributor to maintaining mental health in the future.
  • Dr. Qing Li promotes the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” as a way to reduce stress and blood pressure while strengthening the immune system. His promotion of immersion in the forest environment is designed as an antidote to what Richard Louv describes as “nature-deficit disorder” with its attendant negative effects of poor concentration, mental and physical illness and under-developed sensory perception. Richard argues that the intensification of city living and addiction to social media and mobile technologies, means that we are spending increasing amounts of our day alienated from nature and from the benefits of savouring trees in their natural environment.
  • A study conducted with Polish youths spending 15 minutes in “forest bathing” during a winter period showed, too, that the tree environment had significant positive “emotional, restorative and vitalizing effects” for those who participated in the study.

As we grow in mindfulness through exposure to trees and nature, we can experience reduction in stress, elevation of mood and improved energy levels. Meditating on trees can enhance the benefits of exposure to these natural sources of energy and life-giving oxygen. Reflecting on their shape, size and stature can increase our awareness of the enigmas of human existence.

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Image by Sven Lachmann 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.