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.

From Goal Focused Meditation to Natural Awareness

Diana Winston, in her most recent book, The Little Book of Being, differentiates between two main forms of meditation.  One meditation approach Diana identifies as the classical method – requiring considerable effort and focused on an object (e.g. breath or sound) and a goal (e.g. calmness, self-management, stress reduction); the other is focused on what she terms “natural awareness”.  She makes the point early in the book that in her early meditation practice she exhausted herself and became depressed and self-loathing by falling into the trap of becoming overly goal and object focused.  Her personal release came with the realisation of the power of natural awareness.  Her teaching is built on many years of personal meditation practice and deep insight into what enables people to live life fully and to be their authentic self.

When Diana became Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC (UCLA) she was determined to introduce other people to the practice of natural awareness.  Her book shows the evolution in her thinking and practice and her conclusion that people should practise both classical meditation and natural awareness as they are mutually reinforcing and complementary.   Classical meditation builds the power of focus and concentration together with present-centred awareness required to develop the habit of natural awareness. 

The nature of natural awareness

The approach to meditation that Diana promotes is called natural awareness because it entails practising what we experience naturally.  People can recall their own experiences of being in the moment, just being somewhere, or being in the zone in a sports or work arena.  Awareness is a natural capacity that has been diminished over time and lost in the fog of our own self-stories and beliefs, the incessant distractions drawing us away from the present moment and the time urgency that drives our goal-directed behaviour.  We become time-poor, driven (e.g. as reflected in impatient driver behaviour) and focused on the past or the future – leading to a form of depression or anxiety.  Natural awareness offers instead a sense of letting go – resulting in restfulness and equanimity.  Loch Kelly, In an interview with Tami Simon, describes natural awareness as effortless mindfulness.

According to Diana, natural awareness is a way of knowing and a state of being wherein our focus is on awareness itself rather than on things we are aware of (p.12). She offers a series of “markers” you can use to test whether you have experienced natural awareness (p.13).

Recollection: a starting point for natural awareness

Diana offers a recollection exercise as an introduction to natural awareness – using memories to recapture past, personal experience of natural awareness. The basic approach is to recall a time (in a relaxed way, not forced) when you had a sense of just being – experiencing heightened attention, a strong sense of connection, openness to what was happening or a profound sense of peace. The occasion could be viewing a sunrise/sunset, experiencing awe in the presence of pounding waves, a burst of creativity, a joyful conversation with a friend or being in natural surrounds where the beauty is breathtaking.

Now try to capture the time and experience in all its detail – where you were, what you were doing, feeling and sensing (touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing). The final step is to tap into what is happening for you with this recollection, e.g. tranquility, connection or ease. You can then rest in this awareness.

As we grow in mindfulness, through classical meditation and specific natural awareness practices, our capacity for inner and outer awareness expands and natural awareness becomes accessible to us on a daily/hourly basis.

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Image by Benjamin Balazs 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.

Replacing Shame with Kind Attention

Shauna Shapiro, co-author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness, maintains that mindfulness practice involves more than paying attention.  In 2005, Shauna published an article with her colleagues titled Mechanisms of Mindfulness.  In that article, Shauna and her colleagues shared a model of mindfulness that shows that the effectiveness of mindful meditation depends on more than attention alone – it requires a positive interaction of intention, attention and attitude.

In one of her TEDx Talks, Shauna particularly focused on “attitude” because the attitude you bring to mindfulness practice actually grows stronger.  She maintained that her 20 years of mindfulness research confirmed categorically that mindfulness generates clear benefits for our mind and wellness.  However, these benefits are mediated by the attitude we bring to our mindfulness practice.

Shauna’s research and her own lived experience bore out the fact that everyone has a tendency to feel shame for some of the things that they have done in life and that during mindfulness practice, shame can take over and shut down our capacity to learn and develop.

What Shauna discovered was that the attitude required for effective mindfulness practice was one of “kind attention“.  In her view, it takes a lot of courage to face the parts of our self that we are ashamed of.  However, instead of dwelling on negative self-evaluation, which only grows stronger with attention, we need to be kind to ourselves and express self-love and self-compassion.  She found that the simple act of saying, “Good morning Shauna” each morning with her hand on her heart (as an expression of self-love), can begin the movement towards self-love and the ability to say, “Good morning Shauna, I love you”.

Shauna explained that at first this process feels awkward and trite, but she found from her own experience and mindfulness practice that it gradually replaces self-loathing with self-care.  She explained that what we pay attention to grows stronger.  So if we spend our day consumed by shame, frustration or anger, we are only strengthening these attitudes.  Whereas, if we focus on kind attention and genuine self-compassion, we strengthen those attitudes and thicken the part of the brain that enables learning, growth and transformation – a process called “cortical thickening“.

What is interesting is that not only does our neo-cortex thicken but also its connection to the “fear centre” (the amygdala) of our brain is weakened.  So that through continuously practising kind attention, we are better able to view the world and ourselves positively and act effectively in our environment, whether at work or at home.

Shauna told the story of a veteran who was consumed by shame for what he had done in the war zone but when he shared his story with other veterans, their compassion towards him helped to dissolve his entrenched sense of shame (contributing to his PTSD) and enabled him to experience self-compassion.  So, our compassionate attitude to others can also help them move beyond the disabling effects of shame.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practice imbued with kind attention and self-compassion, we strengthen our ability to concentrate, remain calm and make decisions that enable us to function effectively in our challenging world.

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

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay.

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Self-Forgiveness

We have all hurt ourselves and other people during our lives – it’s part of being human.  Unfortunately, we can carry around the associated guilt, negative self-evaluation, and sense of unworthiness that act as a dead weight holding us back and weighing us down.

Self-forgiveness and self-compassion are essential for our mental health and wellbeing and for the development of wisdom.  Sometimes, the accumulated guilt for the hurts we have caused seems too great for us to tackle it.  The sense of guilt and shame becomes buried deeply in our psyche as we avoid confronting the hurt we have created by our words, actions or omissions.  Self-forgiveness is the way forward and the means to release ourselves from the tyranny of guilt.

However, we can often be held back by the misconceptions and unfounded beliefs we hold about forgiveness meditation Jack Kornfield identifies three myths that get in the road of our practising self-forgiveness:

  • Myth 1: Forgiveness is a sign of weakness – in reality, forgiveness requires considerable courage to “confront our demons” and deal with the pain of self-discovery.  The demand for courage is especially pertinent when addiction is involved.
  • Myth 2: Forgiveness means we are condoning the hurtful action – in fact, we often resolve never to do that hurtful action again or to avoid the situation where we are tempted to react inappropriately.  If we fail to address the guilt and shame, we are held captive and are more likely to take that hurtful action again
  • Myth 3: Forgiveness is a quick fix – it can be far from this.  Jack Kornfield recalled a mindfulness teacher that requested that he do a 5-minute forgiveness exercise 300 times over a number of months.  If we undertake forgiveness meditation, we can procrastinate or fall into the trap of the opposite of forgiveness (blame, self-loathing).  Sometimes self-forgiveness will involve a lot of pain, regression, diversion and ongoing effort to avoid falling back into a lack of loving kindness.

Self-forgiveness is something we have to keep working at as we go deeper into our feelings of shame and guilt and their hidden sources.  Jack Kornfield suggests that self-forgiveness releases us from the burden of the past and allows us to open to our heartfelt sense of our own goodness.

As we grow in mindfulness through self-forgiveness meditation, we can gain a sense of freedom to be ourselves, a newfound self-respect and energy for kindness and compassion towards others.  We will become less self-absorbed and weighed down and feel free to open up to others.

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

Image source: courtesy of BenteBoe on Pixabay

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Self-Compassion Can Transform You

Over the last couple of posts I discussed how self-compassion can free us from the bonds of self-judging and explored some of the challenges involved in self-compassion meditation, including breaking through our defences and denial.

In this post, I want to share two stories told by Tara Brach of how self-compassion can transform our lives.

From prison bully to freedom

Tara Brach has worked extensively in prisons teaching mindfulness to prisoners.  In the course on the Power of Awareness,  she tells the story of a woman in prison who was a tough bully and very mean but who came to one of her 6 weeks courses.  During the course she heard the words of the poem, Please Call Me by My True Names by Thich Nhat Hanh.

These were the words of the poem that broke through the defences of the woman prisoner:

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

In the preamble to the poem, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that had he been born in the same place as the pirate and lived in the same demeaning conditions, he would have been the pirate.  He goes on to explain that this realisation releases our compassion towards ourselves and others.

The woman prisoner realised that she too was suffering through the circumstances of her life and this realisation enabled her to be kind and compassionate to herself, to stop viewing herself as “bad” and to refrain from acting out her hurt and suffering through meanness to other prisoners.

Tara Brach explained that often we block self-compassion by telling ourselves that others have had it worse, so we should not be acting out our own suffering and pain.

From self-loathing to self-compassion

Tara Brach tells the story of a woman who knew that her ex-husband abused her daughter.  She could not face the pain of this knowledge, so she turned to alcohol to hide her shame, anger and self-loathing.

Her transformation came when, in desperation, she sought the advice of a priest who showed her (by drawing as small circle on her hand), that she was living in a small destructive circle of anger and self-aversion.  She had cut herself off from truly living and experiencing the world around her because she could not face the pain within.  The priest placed his large hand over hers to symbolise that there was a larger field of kindness and forgiveness that she could access to free herself from the tyranny and blindness of self-loathing.

As she meditated thinking of the hand of mercy covering her narrow circle of life, she came to realise that kindness and self-compassion lay within – it is inborn and accessible if only we are open to it.

Through meditation we can grow in mindfulness and come to the realisation of our own pain and suffering that blocks our self-compassion.  If we persist with meditation practice, we can open our hearts to innate kindness towards ourselves and be more present to the beauty of the world around us.

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

Image source: courtesy of Curriculum_Photografia on Pixabay

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Forgiveness Meditation

Forgiveness meditation embraces three aspects of forgiveness – forgiving ourselves, forgiving someone else who hurt us and asking for forgiveness from someone we have hurt.  These can be combined in one meditation or undertaken as separate meditations because of the level of emotion potentially involved.

A combined forgiveness meditation is offered by Diana Winston who provides this half-hour meditation through the weekly meditation podcast series produced by the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).  Diana is Director of Mindfulness Education at the Center.  The combined approach to forgiveness meditation could be appropriate where you have been involved in a divorce or relationship breakup – where both parties have hurt each other over time, culminating in the ending of the relationship.

Diana’s meditation, as with other forgiveness meditations, flows through a series of phases – mindful breathing, body scan, silent meditation – before focusing on each of the aspects of forgiveness.  These initial phases are designed to lower the level of physical and emotional agitation experienced when people are practicing forgiveness meditation.

Whether we are forgiving ourselves or others who have hurt us or asking for forgiveness from someone else, our physical and emotional responses are heightened.

Forgiving yourself

This is often the hardest forgiveness meditation to do, however, it is the foundation of giving forgiveness to, and seeking forgiveness from, others.  We carry so much baggage in terms of “beating up on ourselves” for past actions, thoughts or omissions.  This self-blame and self-loathing can undermine our sense of calm and equanimity.  The starting point is to acknowledge that being human means that we will act or think in ways that will hurt somebody, whether consciously or unconsciously.  It is not possible to go through life without acting or thinking in ways that we later regret because of their adverse impact on someone else.

We can remain stuck in the mire of self-loathing or acknowledge that we are human and will make mistakes. The “forgiving self” meditation enables us to express the simple statement, “I forgive myself”.   This may take time, and frequent meditations, to be experienced as real, but persistence pays and we will gradually be able to tone down our negative thoughts and feelings.

Forgiving others who hurt you

The focus on this aspect of forgiveness meditation is on clearing the resentment, or even hatred, towards another person who has hurt us by their words, actions or omissions.  We can carry this hurt like a virus that infects our daily life and manifests itself in unpredictable and undesirable ways.  Resentment can eat away at us and erode our self-esteem, our self-confidence and effectiveness in whatever role(s) we have in life.

Sometimes resentment towards others for past words or actions can be projected onto another person who acts as a trigger to set us off a train of negative thoughts and feelings.  One example of this is where we have been subjected to constant criticism by a significant person in our life, which makes us super-sensitive to criticism by others, whether real or only perceived.

When we fail to forgive others for past hurts, it is as if we are carrying the past forward to today and contaminating the present.  We keep the hurt alive, and even intensify it, by not letting go.  In an article on forgiveness, Elisha Goldstein quotes the famous statement by Lily  Tomlin, Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.  In the forgiveness article, Elisha also offers a brief forgiveness meditation practice designed to help people to let go of hurt and resentment.

Seeking forgiveness from those you have hurt

Invariably, we have hurt others by our words, actions and inaction.  We can carry around the burden of guilt or do something to release this burden.  Forgiveness meditation gives us the opportunity to address this guilt and awareness of the hurt to another person.  By focusing on our feelings and being empathetic towards the person who has been hurt by us, we can release ourselves from the chains of guilt, while acknowledging the hurt we have caused.  Otherwise, we will be burdened by the guilt and our life will be weighed down so that we are disabled in terms of experiencing the freedom of the moment.

A “seeking-for-forgiveness” meditation entails focusing on the person you have hurt and the pain you have caused them, while saying the words, “I have hurt you by my words and actions, I now seek your forgiveness”.  While engaging in this meditation, it is important to treat yourself with kindness (no matter how much you have hurt the other person, consciously of unconsciously).  You do not have to say the words to the other person who you have hurt – the readiness to do this may occur a lot later or the opportunity may never occur.

For each of the forgiveness meditations, you can get in touch with what is going on inside you – your thoughts, feelings and bodily reactions.  As you grow in mindfulness, and persist with the forgiveness meditation practice, you will have an increased sense of calm, happiness, freedom and peace. You will also experience greater empathy towards others and be kinder to yourself.

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

Image source: courtesy of kalhh on Pixabay

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.