Accessing the Genius of Anxiety for Improved Mental Health

Karla McLaren discussed embracing anxiety in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True when having a conversation about Making Friends with Anxiety … And All Your Other Emotions.   Karla was able to draw on her own life experience and her recent book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.   She has spent a lifetime researching and writing about emotions.

In a previous post, I explored Karla’s concept of emotions as storing energy and providing a message and wisdom.  I also discussed effective ways to draw on the energy and wisdom of emotions.  Karla emphasised the importance of not attributing the characteristics of “good” or “bad” to emotions, including difficult emotions.  In her view there are real lessons and ways to move forward hidden in each emotion, even anxiety.

Trauma and anxiety

Karla herself experienced childhood trauma and many of her insights are drawn from her experience in overcoming the associated anxiety and depression.  Like other people who have been traumatised, Karla has had to deal with anxiety and depression throughout her life.  She found that she was ignorant about these emotions and tended to repress or suppress them.   However, through reading and research she has been able to develop practical approaches to addressing anxiety and depression.  She has learned to befriend these emotions and now views depression as enforced slowing down and redirection and has developed the ability to draw on the “genius of anxiety”.

The genius of anxiety

In her interview with Elizabeth Markle on embracing anxiety, Karla emphasised that anxiety is “an essential source of foresight, intuition, and energy for completing your tasks and projects”.  As with any emotion we have a choice – we can suppress, repress or “over-express” anxiety or, alternatively, listen to the message and wisdom that lies within this emotion.  We need to understand that emotion is a process – trigger, experience, response – we have a choice in how we respond to what triggers us and the feelings we experience as a result.

Karla suggests that the appropriate response to situational anxiety is to channel the energy of the emotion towards completing a task or project – much as a canal channels water.  Repression or suppression of anxiety blocks the energy flow, while over-expressing anxiety through panicked or frantic activity can dissipate the energy rather than direct it.  A starting point for channelling the energy of anxiety is “conscious questioning” – e.g. “What brought on this feeling?” and “What truly needs to get done?”   This approach enables you to work with, rather than against, the energy of anxiety and to simultaneously care for yourself by downregulating the impact of the emotion on your thoughts and feelings. 

Karla continued her discussion of “conscious questioning” for anxiety by referring to a sample of other questions featured in her book, Embracing Anxiety (p.85):

  • what are your strengths and resources?
  • are there any upcoming deadlines?
  • have you achieved or completed something similar in the past?
  • can you delegate any tasks or ask for help?
  • what is one small task you can complete tonight or today?

Karla argues that this approach involves “leaning into anxiety”, not artificially calming yourself.  She also alludes to the research that demonstrates that accurate naming of our emotions and identifying the level of intensity of them is another effective form of downregulating emotions.  To this end she encourages us to develop our emotion vocabulary and offers her blog as a starting point for emotion identification.  In her book she offers ways of describing different levels of emotional intensity, for example, low anxiety is described as apprehensive, mild anxiety as edgy or nervous and intense anxiety as overwrought or super-energised.

Karla suggests too that yoga and mindfulness are effective ways of downregulating that can assist the process of conscious questioning.  She offered very brief meditation to illustrate this calming effect.  The meditation basically involved focusing on the quietest sound in the room.  Karla provides a range of practices for each emotion in her book,

Different anxiety orientations: planner vs procrastinator

Karla drew on the work of Mary Lamia, author of What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success, to differentiate between two main manifestations of anxiety – planning anxiety and procrastination anxiety.  The planner maintains a low level of anxiety continuously and has a task “to-do” list(s) to manage their anxiety about getting things done.  The procrastinator, on the other hand, does not make lists but works to deadlines and has an immense burst of anxiety and energy the night before a deadline is due (and often achieves the task in the early or late hours of the morning).  The procrastinator can “chill out” while waiting for the deadline, the task person has difficulty “chilling”.

Mary points out that what is different in the two approaches to task achievement has to do with “when their emotions are activated and what activates them”.  The procrastinator, for example, is motivated by the imminent deadline and experiences “deadline energy”; the planner is motivated by the need to keep task commitments under control.   Understanding the difference between these two sources of motivating anxiety and your personal preference in how to get things done, can reduce conflict in a relationship and support success where partners have a different orientation.   Maria discusses the potential clash in orientation between procrastinators and non-procrastinators in her Psychology Today blog.

Reflection

Mindfulness practices along with conscious questioning and reflection can help us to focus the emotional energy of anxiety.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can better identify our emotions, understand what motivates others and increase our response ability

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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.

Understanding the Message and Wisdom of Difficult Emotions

In a recent interview podcast, Tami Simon of Sounds True recorded a conversation with Karla McLaren, author of The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You.   The interview covered a range of emotions and the message and wisdom that lie beneath each one.  Karla’s primary focus was on emphasizing that emotions are not good or bad but serve to help us in various ways to change our situation and/or our behaviour.  In her view, emotions are a hidden source of wisdom that we should listen to rather than seek to control or dismiss.  Karla noted that people often deflect their attention from difficult emotions and try to displace them with “happier” experiences – thus missing the message of emotions.

Emotions hold a huge amount of energy

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla highlights the huge amount of energy that is stored in emotions, especially those that we label as “bad”.   The unproductive ways to deal with these emotions (and the energy stored within them) is either to suppress or repress them.  Suppression involves consciously distracting ourselves from the discomfort of these emotions and trying to meet the unrealistic ideal of an “always happy” person.  It can be okay as a short-term solution, but if the emotion (e.g. anger) remains unaddressed then it can lead to dysfunctional and harmful behaviour as we express our emotions in an unhelpful way.  

Repression, on the other hand, involves unconscious avoidance of emotions (a response partly conditioned by our upbringing and our perceptions of other people’s views).   The energy stored in repressed emotions can manifest itself in a depleted immune system and physical symptoms such as muscle pain and fatigue as well as the associated increased risk of serious illness such as cardiovascular disease.  You can see the negative impact of repressed emotions such as anger  operating in the workplace when someone at work blasts you for something that was a very minor mistake – you cop an “emotional dump” that is a response completely disproportionate to the nature of your error (but that manifests the accumulated energy of a repressed emotion).

Emotions are not good or bad

By naming difficult emotions as “bad”, we perpetuate our reluctance to face them and understand their message and wisdom.  Instead we increase our motivation to suppress or repress them because we fear what others might think, even if we express them in an entirely appropriate way.  Karla suggests too that when we label some emotions as “good” we are potentially setting ourselves up for disappointment or negative self-evaluation – because we perceive that we don’t feel as positive as others expect or express our good emotions in a way expected by others.

According to Karla, what lies behind calling emotions “bad” or “good” is an “attribution error” – we erroneously blame our emotions for the precipitating situation or trigger.   Our difficult emotions do not create our problems (like the health and economic impacts of the Coronavirus) – they exist to help us deal with our problems and difficult situations, if only we would listen to the message they convey.

Understanding the message and wisdom of difficult emotions

The first task is to name your feelings in a fine-grained way or what Susan David calls developing a granular description of your feelings.  This involves avoiding generalisations such as “I feel upset” and being more precise about the feelings involved such as anger, fear or anxiety.  Until you can name and compassionately accept your difficult emotions, you will be unable to understand what they are telling you.

According to Karla, each emotion has its own message.  For example, depression arising from a specific situation reduces your energy and slows you down so that you can see when something is not right, and you need to change the situation.  Karla maintains that depression “removes energy when we are going in the wrong way to do the wrong things for the wrong reason”.   On the other hand, anger helps you to establish boundaries (e.g. constant interruptions or intrusions into your personal space) and fear helps you to get really focused on the present moment and to draw on your insight and intuition to address the trigger for your fear.

Karla maintains that the current challenging times of the Coronavirus is resulting in people experiencing dyads or triads of emotions – she sees, for example, evidence of people simultaneously experiencing sadness, depression and grief.  In her view, sadness in this context is a message to let go of something that no longer works or applies (e.g. working in a workplace during pandemic restrictions) and grief is a natural emotion when you have lost someone or something – it is about taking the time to grieve and allowing for the fact that grief is experienced and expressed differently by different people and its expression changes over time.

Effective ways to draw on the message and wisdom of emotions

Karla emphasised the importance of being grounded when you attempt to deal with difficult emotions.  In her interview podcast with Tami Simon, she described a process based on deep breathing and sighing and complete focus on the present moment and your bodily sensations.  She suggested, for instance, that you feel the sensation of your bottom on the seat and your feet on the floor and listen to the sounds that surround you.

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla provides many experiential exercises to draw out the wisdom hidden in a wide range of emotions including anger, fear, jealousy and shame.  Through these exercises you can gain emotional fluency in dealing with your own and others’ emotions.  Karla stresses the importance of understanding a particular emotion and being able to differentiate it from other emotions, e.g. differentiating between sadness and grief.  This clarity about the nature of a particular emotion enables you to identify practices to understand and act on the message and wisdom inherent in the emotion.  She provides an alphabetical list of emotions and links to relevant blog posts on her website as well as videos on different emotions on her YouTube© playlist.

Another strategy that Karla mentioned is that of “conscious questioning” which she describes in detail in her latest book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.  In the interview podcast, Karla provided an example of this process that can be used in relation to panic.  For example, you can ask yourself, “What is the basis of my fear and the likelihood that what I fear will happen?” or “Can I avoid the situation that has the potential to harm me and is making me fearful?”  In the latter case, you might put off a visit to a food store at a busy time for fear of contamination from the Coronavirus.  Panic can help us to realise a potentially dangerous situation and enable us to take action to avoid the situation.   If your panic is chronic and not situational, other approaches such as managing your morning panic attack might help.

Reflection

Karla draws on her own life experience of dealing with her difficult emotions as well as a lifetime of research into emotions, their manifestation and effective ways of dealing with them.  As we grow in mindfulness and understanding through experiential exercises, reflection, conscious questioning and meditation we can access the messages and wisdom hidden in our emotions and develop emotional fluency.  Through these mindfulness practices we can safely negotiate difficult emotions and restore our equilibrium in any situation.

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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.

Developing Mindfulness in Schools

Increasingly mindfulness is being introduced into schools for the benefit of teachers and students.   I previously discussed the work of Goldie Hawn and the MindUP program introduced extensively in schools across America.  Goldie explained the motivation for her work with schools and the reasons why children need mindfulness in an interview with Tami Simon.  The Australia and New Zealand Mental Health Association highlights the need to raise mental health awareness in schools because of the increasing level of mental illness amongst school age children and the adverse effects of social media together with study pressures and performance expectations (of others and themselves).  Research strongly supports the benefit of mindfulness for mental health.

Benefits of mindfulness in schools

Research into mindfulness practice in schools demonstrates that both students and teachers benefit.  Students develop greater capacity for attention and focus, increased self-awareness and better emotional self-regulation.  These outcomes in turn build their self-esteem and reduce stress and the incidence of anxiety and depression.  Teachers too experience similar outcomes and develop resilience to deal with setbacks and disappointments.  Patricia Jennings, author of Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom, identifies seven ways mindfulness can help teachers along with practices to support these outcomes.  These benefits include the capacity to slow down, build better relationships with students and handle difficult students more effectively.

Guidelines for the implementation of mindfulness in schools

The Smiling Mind organisation has developed guidelines based on research into successful implementation of their mindfulness programs in schools.  These evidence-based guidelines provide recommendations for the training of teachers and students in mindfulness as well as suggestions re the ideal duration and timing of daily mindfulness practices.  They strongly encourage the involvement of teachers in mindfulness practices so that they can act as models and a resource for students.  The guidelines recommend a whole-of-school approach to the development of mindfulness in schools, including the active involvement of school leaders and parents (where possible).  This wider level of involvement serves as positive reinforcement for the practice of mindfulness by students. 

Resources for mindfulness in schools

There is a growing mindfulness resource base for teachers, students and parents.  Here is a small sample of what is available:

  • Free mindfulness app: Smiling Mind offers a free mindfulness app that incorporates meditations and other mindfulness practices for use by teachers, students and parents.
  • Mindfulness videos and books: Grow Mindfully provides videos and a reading list for teachers and parents. 
  • Mindfulness training programs for teachers and students: Grow Mindfully and Smiling Mind offer these program.
  • Weekly meditation podcast: The weekly meditation podcast provided by the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) covers a wide range of possible meditation topics that can be incorporated in school-based meditations.

Reflection

Developing mindfulness in schools can help both students and teachers deal with the stresses of modern life and help them to enrich their relationships at school, work and home.  Modelling by teachers (and ideally by parents) will help to reinforce positive changes in self-awareness and self-regulation achieved by students through mindfulness practices.  As students and teachers grow in mindfulness through regular practice, they can experience life more fully and with a greater level of contentment.

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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.

Improving Your Tennis Performance through Tai Chi

Dr. Peter Wayne, Tai Chi researcher and long-time practitioner, contends that the principles of Tai Chi have a strong synergy with the physical and mental demands of many sports.  In his book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, he supports this contention with examples and scientific research.  In the book, he strongly suggests that sportspeople adopt Tai Chi as a form of cross-training, especially people engaged in the sports of tennis, golf or skiing where the positive impact on performance is more direct.  Throughout the book, he provides specific Tai Chi related exercises for each of these three sports.  

How Tai Chi practice improves tennis performance

Peter’s research led him to identify the eight active ingredients of Tai Chi which are the primary focus of his abovementioned book.  He was able to explain the power of Tai Chi to strengthen the mind-body connection – a key ingredient for effective performance in any sport.  Peter highlighted this connection in relation to tennis by drawing on Timothy Gallwey’s work in relation to the inner game of tennis which I discussed previously.  In particular, Peter focused on Timothy’s emphasis on self-observation, mental and bodily awareness and the need to be non-judgmental when making mistakes in tennis.

Peter also focused on the specific active ingredients of Tai Chi that had a profound positive impact on tennis performance:

  • Awareness (including focused-attention and mindfulness) – Tai Chi builds bodily awareness (positioning and movement), strengthens the capacity to focus (on the ball and the opposition), and develops the ability to be fully in the present moment.
  • Intention (includes expectation and belief) – associated with this is the power of visualization, an important ingredient in improving and sustaining sports performance.  Tai Chi training draws strongly on metaphor and imagery in relation to movement, drawing on images from nature such as the movement of clouds and the wings of a bird.  In his book, Peter draws heavily on the research into “motor imagery” and its positive effects on performance.  The focused attention and groundedness involved in Tai Chi help to reinforce self-belief and shut out the negative self-stories that can impact expectations e.g. “I’m going to lose this tennis set” or “I’m going to do a double fault” or “I can’t possibly handle his serve”. 
  • Grounded Movement – Peter explains that the principles of Tai Chi state that “all movement is started in the feet, steered by the waist, and administered by the hands” and this is reflected in the practice of Tai Chi.  This process of movement is built into tennis strokes such as the forehand and backhand and incorporated in basic tennis training [Early in my tennis playing experience, I would coach very young children in tennis basic steps and the coaching followed this pattern].  Peter provides a basic training exercise in his book that he calls Tai Chi Tennis which mirrors this grounded movement.
  • Balance (both physical and emotional) – Tai Chi involves considerable weight transfer from one leg to the other, from forward to backward.  Weight transfer and the related capacity to maintain balance are essential components of tennis shots, especially volleys and tennis smashes.  Emotional balance is linked to the inner game of tennis mentioned above, including the capacity to manage mistakes and deal with setbacks.

Reflection

Peter’s research and practice reinforces the power of Tai Chi to improve tennis performance. His committed, professional approach to Tai Chi over many years is highly inspirational as is his book that draws all this together in terms of “active ingredients”.  As we grow in mindfulness through the practice of Tai Chi and meditation, we can increase our bodily awareness, emotional and physical balance and draw heavily on the power of mindfulness to strengthen focused attention and intention.  The real benefits will come with regular practice. 

This writing and reflection strengthen my motivation to increase my practice of Tai Chi and other mindfulness practices that will, in turn, improve my tennis performance and increase my capacity to be-in-the-moment and experience all the positivity that this entails.

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Image by marijana1 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.

Deepening the Mind-Body Connection through Tai Chi

In the very early stages of this blog I discussed Tai Chi as a pathway to mindfulness.  I also highlighted the challenges I experienced in maintaining daily practice of Tai Chi along with meditation and writing this blog, when I still had a range of professional and personal  commitments to fulfill on a regular basis.   I concluded then that keeping the benefits of Tai Chi at the forefront of my mind, aligning my Tai Chi practice with the timing of my highest energy levels (I’m a morning person) and continuously reading and writing about Tai Chi would build my motivation for daily practice.

In 2018, I explored the benefits of Tai Chi for the mind-body connection based mainly on research that had been conducted at various centres of research at UCLA such as those focused on psychoneuroimmunology and East-West Medicine. This current post highlights the work of Dr. Peter Wayne who is associated with the Harvard Medical School.

Peter Wayne, who has spent decades practising, studying and researching Tai Chi, stresses the power of Tai Chi to deepen the mind-body connection.  Peter is the Research Director for the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and the founder of The Tree of Life Tai Chi Center

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi

In 2013, Peter published a book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, summarizing the research around Tai Chi and highlighting what he calls the “eight active ingredients of Tai Chi” which he had developed through his own research and the teaching of Tai Chi Masters.   These ingredients focus on the “biological mechanisms” that contribute to the wide-ranging benefits of Tai Chi including those related to cognition, breathing and neuromuscular control.  Peter points out that this focus on active ingredients helps him in multiple ways – in shaping a curriculum for teaching Tai Chi, in communicating with members of the medical profession and in establishing clinical trials.

In an interview with Dan Kleiman about his research and teaching, Peter explained that his early study of evolutionary biology and ecological modelling helped him to develop a systems perspective that is holistic in orientation and strongly akin to Chinese Medicine.  His orientation to integrative medicine and his mind-body perspective on Tai Chi flow from this early academic training and related research experience.  In a technical presentation Neuroscience in the Body: Perspectives at the Periphery, Peter highlights the downside of having multiple medical specialisations that contribute to “reductionist thinking” and blind us to the whole-body benefits of interventions such as Tai Chi.

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi identified in his book highlight his integrative, systems perspective:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Intention
  3. Structural integration
  4. Relaxation (of the mind and body)
  5. Strengthening and building flexibility
  6. Freer breathing
  7. Social interaction and community (if done in a group)
  8. Embodied philosophy and ritual.

Deepening the mind-body connection through Tai Chi

Peter explained in his interview with Dan Kleiman that the integrative nature of Tai Chi and its capacity to deepen the mind-body connection is demonstrated in the focus on mindful breathing (which is common to all martial arts).  He pointed out that mindful breathing requires improved posture; positively impacts your nervous system, cardiovascular system and mood; and stills what Seth Godin calls the “Lizard Brain” through enhancing the power of focus.  In Peter’s view, an ecological perspective on health recognises that all these processes of body and mind are intertwined and mutually interdependent.

In his neuroscience presentation mentioned above, Peter described Tai Chi as a “multi-component mind-body exercise”.  He stressed the interaction of mind-body through Tai Chi by stating that it “integrates slow intentional movement with breathing and multiple cognitive skills”. The cognitive skills he refers to include body awareness, focus and visioning using imagery.

He illustrated the benefits of the mind-body connection involved in Tai Chi by mentioning several research studies that show two key outcomes (1) the primary risk factor in falls of people over 65 is “fear of falling” and (2) Tai Chi has been shown to reduce the fear of falling by 35%.  Tai Chi achieves this result not only by strengthening muscles and improving coordination and sensation (especially in the feet), but also by reducing falling anxiety, increasing exercise self-efficacy and improving the “executive function” of the brain.  Peter suggests that Tai Chi is a “gateway exercise” – increasing people’s confidence to try other things that lead to overall wellbeing.

Reflection

Research into the impacts of Tai Chi reinforce its power to improve our mind and body and the mind-body connection that is so critical for daily functioning, quality of life and longevity.  I have already identified the personal benefits that motivate me to practise Tai Chi.  However, Peter’s research and presentation has increased my desire to improve the frequency of my Tai Chi practice. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, research and reflection, we gain a better understanding of the mind-body connection, the impacts of our thinking and self-stories on our intentions and the blockages that impede putting our resolutions into effect, particularly at this time of the year (with the start of 2020).  I can look forward to improved Tai Chi practice and the multiple personal benefits that can accrue (not the least of these being to improve my tennis game!).

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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.

Healing the Impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences and Childhood Trauma

The classic study on Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) conducted by CDC-Kaiser Permanente with more than 17,000 members of a health organisation found that two thirds had suffered at least one ACE and more than 20% reported suffering three or more adverse experiences in childhood.  Adverse childhood experiences cover the whole gamut of experiences resulting in immediate and long-term effects on a child – the experiences cover aspects such as physical, psychological or sexual abuse, violence in the home, mental illness of carers, separation from parents at an early age, divorce or suicide within the family.  ACEs occur irrespective of gender, culture, context or economic status – although, children in poverty situations are more likely to experience ACEs.  The range of adverse childhood experiences is extensive, their incidence is extremely high, and their impacts are long-lasting.

The impacts of adverse childhood experiences

This is an area that has been extensively researched and documented.  CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) summarises the long-terms effects of ACEs in terms of their physiological, mental, relationship and behavioural impacts.  The impacts are far-reaching and long-lasting.  Nadine Burke Harris found in her research that toxic stress arising from adverse childhood experiences changes a person’s biological and neurological make-up and can result in an over-active stress response.  

Nadine was inspired by the ACE study mentioned above and undertook extensive reading of research results and conducted her own research.  In a TED talk, she shared her conclusions that early childhood experiences and related trauma impacted every area of a developing mind and body:

High doses of adversity [in childhood] not only affect our brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.

Preventing and healing the impacts of adverse childhood experiences

Nadine has dedicated her life and work to redressing the impacts of adverse childhood experiences and related childhood trauma. In 2007, she founded, as medical director, the Bayview Child Health Center (BCHC) which is not only focused on individual child health and wellness but also activism, education and community development.

Also, as a founding member and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, Nadine has contributed substantially on a global basis to the development and implementation of strategies to prevent and heal the impacts of adverse childhood experiences in individuals, communities and society generally.  Some of the strategies developed by the Center and other activists in the area include:

  • Parental education in childhood development, sources of stress, the impacts of adverse childhood experiences and positive parenting
  • Multidisciplinary health care teams for children and youth
  • Screening for adverse childhood experiences by primary medical health practitioners and paediatricians
  • Community development to create social support systems and collaborative caring environments
  • Interventions in schools and political systems to raise awareness, support policies and action plans
  • Dissemination of the latest research into the nature and impacts of adverse childhood experiences.
  • Carer support centres
  • Early detection, intervention and home visitations for identified at-risk situations for children
  • Enabling reconnection with others through social prescribing and encouraging reconnection with nature
  • Adopting the guidelines and principles of trauma-informed mindfulness.

Nadine has documented her research and work in the area through her recent book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity.  Together with other concerned professionals, parents and community members from the Center for Youth Wellness, Nadine has contributed to the development of the Stress Health website designed to help carers and parents to develop the basic components of a child’s life that will protect them, or help to heal them, from toxic stress.  The website provides an ACE quiz based on the original ACE study to help you identify for yourself or your child the level of toxic stress experienced in childhood.  On completing the quiz, you are given access to several suggested strategies for stress reduction, including mindfulness.

Reflection

Many of us have experienced one or more adverse childhood events.  The care and concern of a loving friend or relative may have been instrumental in helping us to overcome or, at least, reduce the impacts of these experiences in our life, work and relationships.  Other formative experiences such as personal study, community engagement or personal development may have helped also.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a deepened self-awareness and understanding of the impacts of adverse childhood experiences in our own lives, and increase our capacity for self-regulation to reduce those impacts.

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Image by Gerd Altmann 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.

Mindfulness and Personal Transitions During Organisational Change

Change in our personal lives and in an organisational setting can generate anxiety, fear, insecurity and anger.  This discomfort can be expressed as resistance to change and lead to a wide range of unproductive behaviours that can be harmful to us as individuals as well as for the organisations we work in.  William and Susan Bridges identified three broad stages of personal transition in the context of organisational change.  In their 2017 book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, they explained that each of us go through these stages at different rates for different changes depending on the our perception of the impact of the changes.  The three stages they identified are (1) endings – where the focus is on loss, (2) neutral zone – involves a “wait and see” orientation and (3) new beginnings – putting commitment and energy behind the change.  Their book provides a range of managerial strategies that can be employed by organisations to help people transition from endings to new beginnings. They emphasize that without these strategies individuals and organisations can become stuck in either the endings stage or the neutral zone, resulting in illness and organisational decline.

Mindfulness and personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy Quan, a certified organisational change agent and creator of The Calm Monkey (Mindfulness Meditation in the Workplace), had a personal experience that gave her a deep insight into how people deal with a confronting and challenging change.  She was diagnosed with cancer after many years in multiple organisational change roles. This personal challenge led her to seek out mindfulness practices, and meditation in particular, to help her deal with this devastating illness.  Through her meditation practice she came to accept her illness and all that it entailed, and realised that she had a choice – she could view herself as a victim or take a proactive approach that would enable her to lead the best life possible, given her health setback.

This led to a further insight in that she realised that she could employ her understanding of organisational change and mindfulness to help others in an organisational setting.  She was able to draw on the research of William and Susan Bridges and developed a refined model of personal transitions.  She focused on the psychological change processes involved and identified five transition points in an individual’s psychological journey during organisational change:

  • Awareness: becoming aware of your thoughts, emotions, reactions and behaviour when facing the change
  • Understanding: gaining insight into the “why” of your holistic response – body and mind (recognising that this is a normal reaction to a confronting and challenging change)
  • Acceptance: accepting “what is”, not denying your current reality (e.g. a changed role, loss of a job or status)
  • Commitment: moving beyond acceptance to committing to adopt a positive, proactive response to improve your personal experience of the change, “taking things into your own hands” – self-management instead of reactivity
  • Advocacy: promoting the change and its positive elements if your energy level and role enable this.

Research into mindfulness and personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy was able to apply her insights in her work situation to help her colleagues through difficult change processes.  She moved beyond working with a small group to establishing a weekly mindfulness meditation “drop-in” where participants could share their experiences of change, both personal and organisational, and identify what they were trying to cope with and how they were going about it.  After a few years, she had 185 people on this drop-in program (highlighting the psychological challenge of organisational change) and this enabled her to undertake formal research of the impact of her approach of combining mindfulness with change management insights.

Her research was published in a study titled Dealing with Change Meditation Study which can be downloaded here.   Wendy indicated that her approach revolved around two key points of intervention, (1) raising awareness of the personal, holistic impact of a change process and (2) focusing on the future to develop a more constructive response so that the individual undergoing organisational change can have a better experience of the change and make decisions about their future.  Participants in the study were asked to focus on a challenging change and listen three times over a two-week period to a 15-minute, guided meditation focused on positively dealing with the change.

Resources for personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy, building on her own experience of combining mindfulness and organisational change insights, has developed several resources that people can use to assist their personal change processes or to facilitate the transition for others undergoing organisational change:

Wendy also provides a series of free and paid meditation podcasts on her website.

Reflection

I have been engaged in organisational change consultancy for over 40 years, and more recently undertaken extensive research and writing about mindfulness, as well as developing my own mindfulness practices, including meditation.  However, identifying a practical approach to combining the two related skill sets has alluded me to date.  Wendy, through her experience of a personal health crisis, has been able to introduce a very effective, evidence-based approach to using mindfulness to help people transition through organisational change processes.  She has been able to demonstrate that as we grow in mindfulness we can become more aware of our personal response to an organisational change, develop an increased understanding of the nature of that response, increase our acceptance of our changing reality and gradually build a commitment to shaping our future in a positive and constructive way.  Her work resonates with the insights and approach of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as well as that of Susan David who focuses on using mindfulness to develop “emotional agility”.

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Image by Geralt 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.

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.

Understanding Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

David Treleaven, through his doctoral dissertation and subsequent book, has raised awareness globally about the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  His book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, identifies three myths about mindfulness and trauma, discusses research-based case studies and offers clear options for the way forward.  His work is so critical to the teaching of mindfulness that Brown University has sought to integrate his work and findings into their Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute is exploring integration of David’s approach into their Mindful Leadership program.

Trauma and mindfulness

Trauma is described as “the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event”.  Many organisations and trainers/consultants/psychologists offer services, strategies and programs for trauma sufferers. Beyond Blue, for example, offers coping strategies and ways that friends and relatives can help someone close to them who is suffering from a traumatic event.

Mindfulness has become acknowledged as an effective way to deal with trauma.  For example, Boyd, Lanius and McKinnon (2018) concluded from a review of the relevant literature that mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches are effective in reducing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   They suggested that reduction in shame and self-blame could be key explanations of the efficacy of mindfulness-based approaches to PTSD.

David, however, warns that there are potential difficulties in using a mindfulness approach if practitioners are not sensitive to the interplay between mindfulness practices, beliefs about the universal efficacy of mindfulness and related messaging.  He points out that most people will experience at least one traumatic event in their life. So, in any one room of meditation participants, there is likely to be one or more people who are experiencing trauma in their lives.

David dedicates his life to making people aware of the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness through his book, videos, podcasts and workshops. He articulates his concerns about a lack of sensitivity to this issue amongst meditation teachers by identifying three “myths” about mindfulness and trauma that can potentially create harm for trauma sufferers.

Three myths about mindfulness and trauma

David’s research with trauma sufferers and practitioners in the field working with people who have experienced trauma, has led him to identify three “myths” (widely held false beliefs) that impede effective and safe use of mindfulness approaches. The myths are powerful determinants of the behaviour of mindfulness teachers:

  • Universality – David describes this myth as “one size fits all”.  However, David’s experience is that for some people who have experienced trauma, meditation can activate trauma stimuli so that the person re-experiences trauma.  As Peter Devine comments, “The nervous system can’t tell the difference between that [reliving the trauma] and the original trauma”.
  • Certainty – this myth relates to the assumption by meditation teachers that they will know when a person has experienced (or is currently experiencing) trauma.  David cites a case of a very experienced meditation teacher who failed to pick up the cues that some of his trainees were trauma sufferers.  He maintains that there are some very subtle non-verbal cues that can signal the existence of trauma, but it requires sensitised awareness to detect them.  He suggests that two major impediments that get in the road of someone openly disclosing their experience of trauma are (1) feelings of shame and (2) compliance (felt need to conform to an authority figure).
  • Neutrality – the myth that breath is always neutral, with no emotive content.  David recounts the experience of one person who was traumatised by a violent parent when a child.  Focusing on his breath “reconnected with the need to hide”, caused him to re-live his trauma and led to increased anxiety.  So, instead of being a calming anchor, mindful breathing acted as a trauma stimulus.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: some strategies

David provides considerable detail, explanation and case illustrations of these myths in his book on Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and in a video presentation on The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma, which was a promotional webinar for his course for practitioners on recognising trauma, responding to trauma and preventing the re-living of trauma during mindfulness practice.

In the video mentioned above, David suggests a range of strategies that address the limitations and potential damaging effects of the three myths:

  • Develop awareness about possible difficulties for people during mindfulness practices
  • Increase knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the signs of trauma
  • Provide space for people to experience different aspects of mindfulness practice and be ready to make modifications after asking, “What would work for you?”
  • Acknowledge at the outset that some people may have a very different experience to the calming effects of mindfulness meditation
  • Offer the opportunity for participants to approach you privately to have a conversation about their experience
  • Don’t reinforce the “shoulds” of mindfulness experience, e.g. avoid saying, “you should experience calm and peace”
  • Avoid “close and sustained attention to breath” as this may be a stimulus for re-experiencing trauma
  • Offer a range of options for people to practice mindfulness so that they can choose their own anchor for paying attention, e.g. breath, sounds, the sensation of the feet on the floor, feeling of the body on the chair or fingers touching each other.  According to David, Paula Ramirez, a Director of Breathe International, maintains that this choice of options gives participants a sense of agency (the opposite of a loss of control).

As we grow in mindfulness through our own meditation, research and reflection, we can become more sensitive to the needs of people who have suffered (or are suffering) trauma; be better able to respond to their needs; and also learn to adopt strategies that avoid re-traumatising participants in mindfulness training groups.

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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.

Sustaining the Momentum of Writing Your Blog

When I set out to write my blog on mindfulness, I intended to publish daily. I was able to maintain this for 3 months.  However, the cost in terms of the impact on my other work and family life was increasingly high.  When I explained to my friend and mentor, Bob Dick, that daily publishing was becoming onerous, he suggested that I aim to publish only three or four times a week.  He indicated that this would not affect my Google search results – and this has proven correct.

Publishing three or four times a week has freed me up to do other things, including my workshops, and enabled me to develop a pattern of research and writing that seems to work for me.  So, on the alternate days when I am not publishing, I identify a topic to write about and do the requisite research.  I am often able to create a first draft from this research so that when the publishing day arrives, I have a topic and some ideas recorded as an early draft.  I have also established the practice of doing my research and writing at a set time, usually early in the morning before I become embroiled in other commitments.

This process has enabled me to sustain my blog writing, freed up time for other things, and facilitated my own meditation practice.  For example, I am often able to undertake a meditation practice before I write it up or explain its nature and effectiveness.  The downside of my current schedule is that the regularity of the blog writing has impacted my practice of Tai Chi which I used to do daily.  The solution may be to undertake the Tai Chi on alternate days also.

What I find that really helps me to sustain my motivation and effort in writing the blog, is to spell out what the benefits of my writing are for my readers and myself.

Being clear about the benefits of writing your blog

My intention in writing the blog is to provide the following benefits to readers of my blog and acknowledged mindfulness practitioners:

  • Raise awareness of the resources on mindfulness (free and paid) that are available
  • Provide inspiration and hope through the stories of those who have successfully overcome life challenges and difficulties
  • Offer mindfulness practices that can help to ease the pain and suffering of depression, anxiety, chronic pain and other challenging life situations
  • Provide resources to help people deal with difficult emotions such as resentment and anger
  • Help more people to become aware of the benefits of mindfulness
  • Assist in the promotion and development of mindful leadership
  • Promote the writing, work and practice of genuine mindfulness practitioners
  • Share the relevant findings from the latest neuroscience research.

The benefits for me in writing this blog on mindfulness are:

  • Enables me to access and practice different meditations and mindfulness techniques
  • Keeps mindfulness at the forefront of my mind and thus facilitates my ability to integrate mindfulness into my daily life and work
  • Provides me with the desire and energy to do the research to identify resources, key people and the latest neuroscience developments
  • Keeps my mind active now that I no longer undertake my academic work and associated activities such as examining doctoral theses
  • Provides some structure to my life in a period of semi-retirement when I have lost the structure of daily work
  • Realises the advice of Jeri Sedlar and Rick Miners, “Don’t Retire, Rewire” – which is designed to maintain mental health and facilitate longevity
  • Provides content and mindfulness practices for my manager development workshops which now include a session on mindfulness
  • Provides the knowledge and motivation to develop other activities associated with helping people to develop mindfulness, such as podcasts and online conferences
  • Provides me with the opportunity to engage in meaningful work (rather than consuming all my time in front of the television)
  • Develops “deep focus” – the capacity to stay on task for lengthy periods without being diverted by enticements such as social media, email or desktop clutter
  • Enables me to tap into the benefits of mindfulness practice itself – e.g. clarity, calm, managing difficult emotions, self-awareness, self-regulation and creativity.

When you are clear about the benefits of your blog writing for yourself and others, the writing task becomes more enjoyable, achievable and rewarding.  In many ways, the more you write, the easier it becomes (although writer’s block can still occur on your off days).

We can grow in mindfulness if we bring clarity of intention and purpose to our writing through articulating the benefits of our writing for others and ourselves.  Establishing a sustainable schedule builds self-awareness (re procrastination and  avoidance behaviours) and develops the self-regulation that comes from a disciplined approach.  If we can employ mindfulness practices to support our writing, we can gain focus, clarity, insight and creativity.

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Image by meminsito 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.