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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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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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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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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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.

Reasons Why Meaningless Values Lead to Depression

In the previous post I explored Johann Hari’s discussion of the research demonstrating that disconnection from meaningful values – expressed as obsession with materialism – leads to depression and anxiety. In this post I will explore the reasons why this occurs. 

Four reasons why meaningless values lead to depression

In identifying why materialism leads to depression, Johann draws on the research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser and his colleague, Professor Richard Ryan, one of the acknowledged world leaders in understanding human motivation.  Based on their work and his own research, Johann identifies four main reasons for the consuming sadness experienced by people who relentlessly pursue materialistic values that focus on extrinsic rewards (Lost Connections, pp. 97-99).

1. Damages relations with other people

The research shows that people who primarily pursue materialistic values experience “shorter relationships” that are of lesser quality than their peers who focus more on intrinsic values.  Materialistic-oriented people are more concerned about superficial things such as another person’s looks, their ability to impress others and their material possessions, than they are about the innate qualities of the person.  Their focus on external qualities makes it more likely to end a relationship because they invariably find someone who possesses these external qualities to a greater degree.  Their self-absorption also means that their partner in a relationship is also more likely to separate from them.  People who are out to impress others as their major motivator are very poor at reflective listening as they are more likely to interrupt and divert a conversation so that the focus is on them and their accomplishments.  Listening is the lifeblood of a sustainable relationship and has profound effects on the its quality.

2. Deprives them of the joy of being in the present moment

Because a materialistic person is always seeking more or pursuing an elusive goal over which they have no control, they are more likely to be frequently frustrated and disappointed.  They tend to be driven and impatient in the pursuit of their external goals and they experience time-pressures continuously. It is difficult for them to be fully engaged in the present moment and to experience the joy that derives from present awareness.  The researchers point out, too, that the pursuit of materialistic values results in the inability to experience “flow states” – being in the zone where you are hyper-focused and highly creative and productive. 

3. Become dependent on how other people think of them

Other’s opinions become the driver for the materialistic person’s words and actions.  They seek to gain positive assessment by others of their looks, their possessions (e.g. clothes and cars) and their income and social standing.  They tend to pursue relationships for what they can get out of them in terms of extrinsic rewards.  They can never be satisfied and often engage in attempts to outdo others.  The researchers point out that materialistic-oriented people are also more sensitive to feeling slighted, even when no slight is intended – because of their sensitivity to others’ opinions, they can more easily feel criticised and be hurt by seemingly harmless comments.  This can result in their being “on edge” all the time when with other people.  Their sense of self-worth becomes “contingent on the opinion of others” which, in turn, can lead to negative self-evaluation and self-deprecation.

4. Frustrates innate human needs

Tim Kasser observed that a core reason why materialism leads to depression is that it ultimately frustrates a person’s innate needs – needs such as the desire for meaningful connection with others; realising a sense of competence in their endeavours; a sense of autonomy and being in-control; and wanting to do, and achieve, something meaningful in their lives.  Depression and anxiety will grow over time when these real, innate human needs are not met.

We can choose how we spend our time and energy

Johann observes that time is limited and that our day is like a pie with defined parameters.  The way we carve up our day – how we allocate our time to aspects of our life – will significantly affect whether we realise joy and happiness or depression and anxiety.  If we can align the way we spend our time to the pursuit of meaningful values, we can experience mentally healthy states of positivity, joy, happiness and gratitude. The more time we spend on materialistic goals, the lower will be our “personal well-being”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we are better able to notice the impact that the pursuit of materialistic values has on our quality of life – our relationships, our joy, our sense of self-worth.  We will have a clearer idea of how well we meet our innate needs and how we can improve on their fulfillment.  Importantly, we will better understand the sources of our frustration and anger and be able to improve our self-regulation.  By developing mindfulness, we will more often experience the joy of being in the zone – of experiencing “flow states”.

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Image by KarinKarin 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.

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.

How to Be With Stress Rather Than Avoid It

Dr. Nate Klemp and Eric Langshur provide an interesting perspective on stress management in their article, Being With Stressful Moments Rather Than Avoiding Them. They contend that if we use mindfulness to do away with or avoid stress, we are not being mindful – we are not being with what is. They contend that our beliefs about stress frequently impede our capacity to deal with stress in our lives – our beliefs serve as a disabler rather than an enabler. Nate and Eric suggest a process that enables us to be with the stress rather than avoid it.

Stressors take many forms

There are many stressors that can occur in life through adverse situations, damaging relationships or one-off conversations. What is a stressor for one person may not be for another, partly because of the self-stories that we perpetuate. Our experience of stress varies over time – in one period of our lives, we can be relatively stress-free, while in another we can experience a range of stressors that build up and make us lose our patience and equilibrium.

Stress can arise at home through the suffering of a daughter or son, through conflict in intimate relationships or financial problems impacting our quality of life. Stress can arise at work through job overload, role conflict or ambiguity, conflict with colleagues or dealing with an unskilled manager. Stress is cumulative over time with each form of stress adding to another.

Our limiting beliefs about stress

Nate and Eric identify two primary beliefs that impede our capacity to deal with stress and lead us to try to avoid stress – which is an ever-present reality in our daily lives:

  1. The belief that we should get rid of stress from our lives – that we should always be in a state of ease and wellness. This belief can lead us to use mindfulness meditation to avoid stress rather than engage it as it is happening. The authors suggest that denying or trying to remove stress is not being mindful because mindfulness involves being “with whatever is arising, pleasurable, painful, comfortable, or uncomfortable” – not denying what is happening in our thoughts, feelings and bodily experience.
  2. The belief that stress is bad – that is should be avoided at all costs. Research shows that our “stress mindset” can change our experience of stress and that stress, provided it is not chronic, can be good for us because it promotes personal growth, both mentally and physically. Kelly McGonigal suggests ways to make stress our friend.

The combination of these beliefs can aggravate our experience of stress because it can lead us to feel resentful or angry that our sense of ease has been disturbed or destroyed.

Being with stress

Nate and Eric, who are the authors of the book Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Well-Being, offer a process to enable us to be with stress rather than avoid it. They describe this process as Notice-Shift-Rewire:

  • Notice – in common with other meditation practices, their process involves noticing what is. This requires us to be with our full experience – our feelings, our bodily sensations and our thoughts. They particularly focus on the thoughts/mindset relating to “stress aversion” – the desire to be free of all stress.
  • Shift – this requires shifting from judging the experience of stress as “bad” and acknowledging, non-judgmentally, the way we are experiencing the stress.
  • Rewire – staying with what we are experiencing in all its manifestations while letting go of attempts to avoid the stress.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices that help us to be with what is, we can develop our capacity to deal with stress, rather than avoid or deny it. The Notice-Shift-Rewire process can help us to be really present to what we are experiencing, more effectively “navigate stress” and build our resilience.

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Image by DanaTentis 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 the Science of Compassion

In her presentation on The Science of Compassion during the Mindful Healthcare Summit, Kelly McGonigal highlighted the body-mind impact of compassion and compassion training. Over the past 10 years she has worked with the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in the capacities of researcher and educator. Kelly was a co-author of the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training [CCT] and has undertaken research into its impacts on mind and body.

The mind-body effects of compassion training

The research undertaken by Kelly and her colleagues highlights the effects of compassion training on the mind and body. Kelly summarised these effects as follows:

  1. The process of compassion starts in the primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, which registers a form of “sympathetic stress”, experienced by the observing individual as sadness or suffering. At this stage a person can become overwhelmed, particularly where they become too identified with the person who they perceive as suffering in some way, e.g. through grief, chronic physical illness, relationship breakdown or mental illness. The person who is experiencing overwhelm may adopt flight behaviour by distancing themselves (mentally and/or physically).
  2. The next stage involves the pre-frontal cortex and other parts of the “midline structure of the brain”. Here the sympathetic sufferer, through a process of “social cognition”, can separate themselves from the perceived sufferer. They recognise the suffering of the “other” and understand that they have a relationship to that person (as part of humanity) but are quite distinct from that other person – they don’t take the suffering on-board or “own the suffering” of the other person. This ability to achieve separation mentally is critical for the balance and welfare of the observer and is foundational to their willingness and ability to act to relieve the suffering of others. Without this balance, the observer may experience what Richard Davidson described as “empathy fatigue”.
  3. When we actually take compassionate action to relieve the suffering of another, we experience the “reward system” – our brain releases dopamine which make us feel good, hopeful and courageous. It thus serves to strengthen our motivation to redress the suffering of others. It activates “the approach motivation system of the brain” – motivating us to act on environments that we experience as unjust or toxic.

As we grow in mindfulness through compassion meditation and compassion training, and take action to redress the suffering of others, we can experience an increasing capacity for compassionate action and strengthening motivation to act on unjust or toxic environments.

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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.

Becoming Healed by Nature

In the previous post, I discussed the stress-reduction effects of trees.  Florence Williams takes this discussion and research focus further when she explores the healing power of nature. Florence, a journalist and writer, is the author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative. She draws on the latest science, proven practices from around the world and individual case studies to promote the healing power of nature.

Experiencing “nature-deficit disorder”

In a TED Talk given in 2016, Florence described the effects of her own nature-deficit disorder resulting from moving home from the openness of the wilderness environment of Boulder, Colorado to the dense, built environment of Washington D.C. She explained that her sense of wellbeing declined rapidly – she experienced depression, anxiety, irritability and a “sluggish brain”. She was hyper-sensitive to the sounds of planes and noise pollution that surrounded her. However, her saving experience was to be assigned to write for Outside Magazine about the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” (Shinrin-yoku) – absorbing nature through your senses
(sights, sounds, smell, touch, taste). This, in turn, stimulated her interest in the power of nature to make us happier, healthier and more creative.

Global trend to use the power of nature to heal

Following on from the research and writing project in Japan, Florence undertook a global project on behalf of National Geographic. In researching practices involving the use of nature for healing, she discovered different practices in a range of countries. Besides Japan’s “forest therapy trails”, Korea has established “healing forests” along with “forest healing rangers” to take children on programs designed to overcome everything from digital addiction to bullying. Based on their experience and scientific research, Finland has recommended that people spend at least 5 hours a month in nature – a minimum that reflects how nature-deprived we are in the cities of the world. where so much time is spent indoors and on digital devices.

Florence describes the research and practices she uncovered in her global project in a video presentation titled, Your Brain on Nature. This video summarises her book on the power of nature to heal. She gives examples from across the world where nature has been used to help troubled teenagers, people suffering from depression, adults who have experienced trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and people working in jobs that create a lot of stress such as the role of firefighters.

In her introductory chapter, Florence points to Wordsworth and Beethoven as creative people who drew their inspiration from nature, thus serving as forerunners to modern day neuroscience research which is exploring the impact of nature on our brains – and on our health, happiness and creativity. She points out that the research from the Mappiness app (daily mood monitoring by thousands of people over an extended period) concluded that people are much happier outdoors in nature than they are in urban environments devoid of natural features. She notes the research by Elisabeth Nisbit and John Zelenski that suggests that because of our habitual “disconnection from nature” we tend to “underestimate the psychological benefits of nature”. Their research highlighted that even green spaces in urban environments can elevate mood and generate happiness.

Science shows us how we can be healed by nature

In a landmark article on the impact of time in nature on our wellbeing, Kevin Loria advances 12 science-based reasons we should spend more time outside:

  1. improves short-term memory
  2. helps us to de-stress
  3. can reduce inflammation
  4. reduces fatigue by restoring energy
  5. helps overcome depression and anxiety
  6. my have a protective impact on vision (e.g. reduced rate of myopia)
  7. improves capacity to focus
  8. enhances creativity
  9. improves the immune system
  10. lowers blood pressure
  11. promotes the production of anti-cancer proteins
  12. lowers the risk of an early death.

The science in support of the benefits of nature on health, happiness and creativity is building rapidly as scientists and medical professionals become increasingly aware of the negative impacts of “nature-deficit disorder”.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindful immersion in nature and growing awareness of nature’s healing powers, we can begin to enjoy the benefits of improved health, happiness and creativity. In turn, we can deepen our awe of nature – its energy, beauty and majesty.

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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.