Understanding Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress

In the previous post, I addressed the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  One of the observations of David Treleaven mentioned in the post, was the need for meditation teachers to develop an awareness of, and sensitivity to, the presence of people who are experiencing, or have experienced, trauma.  Failure to do this could lead to mindfulness activity that generates trauma stimuli leading to re-traumitisation.  Being trauma-sensitive means understanding the signs of post-traumatic stress as well as having the presence of mind to modify mindfulness practices to take account of people’s needs in this condition.

Recognising the signs of post-traumatic stress

Trauma results where a person experiences an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds their ability to cope and deal with the emotional fallout from that experience.  The effects vary with each individual and the nature of the traumatic event. Traumatic events can include the loss of a sibling or parent through death, separation from a parent at a young age, a life-threatening car accident or terrorist event, separation and divorce, a house fire, physical or sexual abuse or a natural disaster.

This variability in the nature and impact of traumatic events, and the individual’s reluctance to disclose through shame or the need to comply with an authority figure, means that it is often very difficult to ascertain whether a person has suffered from trauma and is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  According to several reports, up to 20% of people who experience a traumatic event together will experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

Trauma can impact a person’s thoughts, emotions, perceptions, level of arousal/reactivity and mood.  It can be reflected in behavioural change such as avoidance of a person or location, inability to sleep or sleeping too much, reliving the trauma through nightmares or flashbacks or withdrawal from social contacts or work colleagues.  The attendant emotions could be depression, anxiety and feeling unsafe.  Thoughts of suicide can also be one of the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The role of memory and embodiment

Peter Levine, in an interview with Serge Prengel, discussed the role of memory in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Peter is the author of the book, Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in Search of the Past – A Practical Guide for Working With Traumatic Memory.  His book is ground-breaking in that he highlighted the role of “implicit memory” and showed how to treat trauma sufferers by accessing the “complex interplay of past and present, mind and body”.  He termed his methodology, “somatic experiencing”.

In the interview, Peter stressed that we have several different forms of memory and the ones that are particularly relevant to trauma are episodic or autobiographical memories, emotional memories and procedural or body memories.  Episodic memory, also termed “defining moments” by Serge the interviewer, though low in emotive content are nonetheless impactful. For example, Peter describes a teacher who acted as a mentor to him and instead of blaming him for poor judgement encouraged him to learn and explore his curiosity.  Other mentors in his life as he progressed through his studies modelled similar behaviour.  This, in turn, led him to a career choice as a professional mentor – so the episodic memory acted as a “trajectory” for his progress in life. 

Emotional memories, on the other hand, “though further out of the realm of awareness” are “very powerful and compelling” and shape how we behave in our life.  Some interaction from the past is encoded with a very strong emotion such as sadness, anger or fear.   The emotional memory can interfere with a current relationship when something or somebody acts as a reminder of the past interaction so that we can be overwhelmed with either a very strong negative or positive emotion. 

While emotional memories operate at a deep level, body memories are deeper still.  At one level, they have to do with the acquisition of motor learning and skills, e.g. riding a bike.  At another level, they are determinants of our approach or avoidance behaviour.  Peter gives the illustration of coming across a former classmate more than 30 years after their schooling and finding that he had a strong desire to approach and reconnect with him.  The classmate had been his protector at school when other children tried to bully him – hence his approach behaviour.  An example of avoidance behaviour conditioned by body memory is when someone who has previously experienced sexual abuse actually freezes when touched by a loving partner.

David Treleaven reinforced the relationship between trauma and body memory when he stated in his video presentation that “the respiratory system is intimately connected to our sympathetic nervous system which is totally tied to traumatic stress”.  He pointed to two books by Babette Rothschild that highlighted the close connection between trauma and body memory, The Body Remembers and Revolutionizing Trauma Treatment.   David also explained further why meditation exercises such as mindful breathing can activate trauma stimuli.  He drew on the differentiation between exteroception (body’s perception of external stimuli received through the senses) and interoception (sensing conditions within the body such as deep breathing or tightness of the chest).  Normally exteroceptors and interoceptors integrate (e.g. the external sensation of viewing a sunrise is matched with the internal sensation of a warm feeling in your chest and a sense of looseness in your hands and legs); with trauma sufferers, “the relationship between interoceptors and exteroceptors can go awry”.

Peter Levine emphasised the need to recognise that we have a “fluid identity” – while our identity is shaped by the past, and the interplay of multiple events and interactions, it is possible to gently, but surely, release the embodied memories and progressively unearth the richness, power and sense of connection of an identity not locked into painful memories.  He has dedicated his lifework to training individuals and professionals in understanding the role of the different memories and in learning to use his trauma treatment methodology, somatic experiencing.  Other professionals, through an understanding of the mind-body connection, employ somatic meditation to assist trauma sufferers.

Reflection

We can grow in mindfulness as we develop an awareness of the role that memory plays in our own thoughts, emotions, moods and behaviour and learn to recognise the signs of post-traumatic stress in others.  As we develop this heightened awareness, we can make appropriate modifications to our meditation teaching and deepen our own meditation practice and reflection.

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Image – Sunrise over the water, Wynnum, Brisbane

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.

Yoga Nigra Meditation: A Pathway to Mindfulness

In her video on Yoga Nigra Meditation, Karen Brody explains that this form of “yogic sleep” Is designed to enable us to rest.  She maintains that each of us continually pushes ourselves to do more, often to the point of exhaustion.  Chiropractor, Alan Jansson, has observed that chronic fatigue, which used to be the province of elite athletes, is now experienced by more and more people with diverse lifestyles, including senior executives.   Karen, in her book Daring to Rest, focuses on exhaustion experienced by women and recounts her own experience of chronic fatigue and panic attacks – resulting, in part, from raising two young children while her husband was constantly travelling overseas for his work.  The book provides links to nigra meditations recorded by Karen.  The free online video also provides a brief nigra meditation (at the 39 minute mark), while a fuller version of her nigra meditation is available on her paid DVD or CD.

What is Yoga Nigra Meditation?

Karen Brody describes yoga nigra meditation as an “ancient yogic sleep-based guided meditation technique” that is very powerful in helping people to rest and overcome fatigue, anxiety, sleeplessness, chronic fatigue and other manifestations of emotional exhaustion and/or lack of energy. She explains that rest is the foundation of health and vitality while exhaustion can be experienced at different levels or layers – physical, mental/emotional and life purpose (also called “spiritual” or life meaning). 

Nigra yoga meditation is a form of “sleep with a trace of awareness” that addresses energy blockages in each of the five “bodies” or layers of our human existence – focusing on each in turn during the guided meditation.  Karen explains these five bodies briefly in the free video:

  1. Physical body – all our bones, muscles, tissues, skin and ligaments.  The physical body is typically accessed via a guided body scan as the first step of the nigra meditation.
  2. Energy body – sensing and releasing energy and enabling us to be in the flow when blockages are removed.  The energy body is accessed via mindful breathing as a second step of the nigra meditation.
  3. Thought/habit body – the mental body that encapsulates who we think we are and our habituated thinking patterns, reflected in our self-stories.  Nigra meditation helps us to dissolve these ingrained, mental “imprints” by assisting us to challenge our self-stories
  4. Wisdom body – understanding that bears witness to the fact that we experience fear and trust, hot and cold; the concept of “both/and” with the ability to integrate this dichotomy into an integrated perception of ourselves. This body or layer represents a visceral understanding (a deep-down understanding) accessed via guided visualisation.
  5. Bliss body – a deep sense that “everything is okay”, a deep sense of connection to the universe.

Yoga International provides a more technical explanation of the five bodies or “koshas” of yoga nigra meditation.  A Daring to Rest Podcast provides even deeper insight through sharing key takeaways from the First International Yoga Nigra Conference.

The benefits of yoga nigra meditation

Yoga nigra provides rest and regeneration without exertion.  Karen points out that yoga nigra does not involve stretching or adopting unusual positions.  It is often undertaken lying down, where the emphasis is on rest, not exertion.  In fact, nigra yoga is so restful that people can fall asleep during the meditation. 

Yoga International identifies five benefits of yoga nigra – (1) ease of use providing accessibility to anyone, (2) simple to integrate into daily life, (3) easy way to reduce stress, (4) does not encourage self-judgment because you cannot do it wrongly, and (5) leads to an intimate knowledge of self.

As we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation, such as the layered approach of yoga nigra meditation, we can gain a deep self-awareness, improve our self-regulation, develop a heightened capacity to access flow/ being-in-the-zone, reduce our stress and re-energise our minds and bodies.

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Image by Khusen Rustamov 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.

The Lifelong Journey into Inner and Outer Awareness

Diana Winston in her book , The Little Book of Being, suggests that if we let our meditation and mindfulness practices slip, our achievement of natural awareness will diminish and the change in this direction will become “dormant”.  She argues for “lifelong practice” to keep “our meditation vibrant and interesting” (p.206).

The lifelong journey into inner awareness

There are times when we gain insight into who we really are and how we respond to various stimuli.  We may surprise ourselves when we discover the level of resentment we still carry towards someone for an action that occurred many years ago; or we might gain insight into the ways we express anger covertly; or unconsciously seek the approval of others.  These insights gained throughout our journey into inner awareness through meditation and mindfulness practices can be translated progressively into behavioural change.

We might gain clarity about the factors influencing our responses – we come to an understanding of the influence of early parental criticism on our current behaviour; or time spent away from our parents when very young (e.g. under five); or loss of a sibling; or being a child of an alcoholic parent.  While our understanding grows of the impact of these influences, it takes a lifelong journey to break free of the hold of these influences and to translate these insights into new behaviours.

We might experience what Tara describes as a “waking up” and the associated deep shift inside ourselves which is difficult to explain but finds expression in increased tolerance of others, heightened sensitivity or a readily accessible stillness and calm in times of crisis. Despite these shifts, we might still be prone to anger when caught in traffic while rushing to get somewhere; still interrupt people’s conversation to divert the conversation to ourselves; still fail to express our real feelings; or still indulge in any other form of inadequate or inappropriate behaviour.  Despite the experience of a deep personal shift in inner awareness, we have not arrived at the end of the journey because meditation is not a “quick fix” – it’s a pathway to guide us on the journey into the unknown.

The lifelong journey into outer awareness

Through our meditation and mindfulness practices, we can increase our natural awareness – attain increasing awareness in the present moment of what and who is around us.  We can begin to appreciate the beauty of a sunrise as it occurs and bask in its unique configuration and colour; we can be increasingly cognisant of, and sensitive to, the pain of others; we can become aware of how grateful we are for the things that we have and/or can do in life – and yet, at other times, we may be oblivious of what is around us (the beauty of nature or the sounds of birds) and fail to notice, or act to relieve, someone’s suffering or pain because of self-preservation.

Outer awareness grows over time with regular practice but can become blurred by the intensity of our thoughts or feelings – the inner fog.  We need to continually pull back the screen of our self-preoccupation and self-projection to allow the light of natural awareness to shine on the world and people around us.  Outer awareness requires a lifelong journey into wonder through growing curiosity and openness (repressing the need to judge).

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and mindfulness practices, our natural awareness grows so that we can be more in-the -moment.  We can gain progressive insight into ourselves; the influences shaping our behaviour and responses; and attain ever increasing inner awareness to the point of experiencing a major shift or “waking up”.  We can broaden our outer awareness and our attunement to, and connection with, other people. All the time, though, we will develop a deepening insight into how long the journey is to attain inner and outer awareness – the realisation of the need for a lifelong journey.

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Image: Sunrise at Wynnum, Queensland 10 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.

Ways To Discover the Benefits of Nature

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

Ways to discover the benefits of nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To View Stress to Improve Health and Happiness

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

How we can view our bodily responses to stress

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

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

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

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

Stress makes you more social

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

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

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

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

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

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.

How to Build Mindfulness into Leadership Development

Wendy Saunders, Senior Member of Leadership Development at YMCA of USA, presented at the recent Mindfulness@Work Summit on the topic, Embedding Mindfulness and Compassion in Leadership Development.  She discussed the principles her organisation employed to build mindfulness into leadership development.  In the process, Wendy identified the challenges the leadership development group encountered along the way and the strategies they employed to overcome them.

YMCA of USA is a diverse, massive organisation comprising women, men and children amongst its 20,000 staff and hundreds of thousands of volunteers.  Besides the central resource centre responsible for activities such as leadership development, there are 2,700 YMCAs spread across the country.  The areas of focus of “the Y” are “youth development, healthy living and social responsibility”.

Wendy explained that YMCA of USA offers layered leadership development programs comprising the following:

  • Executive Development Institute
  • CEO Preparation Institute
  • Leadership Certification courses covering three levels – (1) team leader, (2) multi-team managers and (3) organisational leaders.

The fundamental challenge was how to build mindfulness into ongoing leadership development activities that were built on a “cause-driven leadership” model incorporating experiential learning.

Principles and strategies for building mindfulness into leadership development

During her presentation, Wendy identified some key principles and strategies that helped YMCA of USA integrate mindfulness into the existing suite of leadership development offerings:

  • have patience – a fundamental requirement for success. Wendy explained that the leadership development team had been working for 5 years to get to where they are now with mindfulness integration and they still had a long way to go to achieving the goal of embedding mindfulness into all leadership development programs of YMCA of USA
  • make small insertions – in line with the patience principle, a starting strategy is to make “small insertions” into existing leadership programs, adopting a gradual approach to building mindfulness integration
  • offer short meditations – while experienced meditators practise meditation for 30 minutes or an hour a day, meditations incorporated into leadership development programs should be brief so that they can be experienced as realistic and achievable
  • build on what already exists – e.g. mindfulness was built onto the emotional intelligence focus of the Executive Leadership Institute. This is in line with the approach of the two-day Mindful Leadership training provided by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute which incorporates the three pillars of mindfulness, emotional intelligence and neuroscience
  • make it experiential so that participants can experience the benefits of mindfulness through different meditations and mindfulness practices
  • offer an introduction to mindfulness workshop on an optional basis and when mindfulness integration is bedded down, make some elements compulsory (e.g. the online Introduction to Mindfulness Workshop is now mandatory for participants in the Executive Development Institute)
  • assist people to discover the “faith inclusive” nature of mindfulness – YMCA of USA set up a task force of people who practise different religions to help them explore the compatibility of mindfulness with their religions
  • offer ongoing related workshops – to enrich the conversations about mindfulness, assist mindfulness practice and encourage reflection
  • match the mindfulness content to the focus and level of the leadership program – e.g. for CEO development the YMCA of USA has focused on mindfulness for creativity to assist CEOs to build a culture of innovation; for the team leader development course they are planning to introduce basic level mindfulness approaches and concepts such as mindful breathing, how to reduce stress and increase productivity, how to build intention
  • complement development courses with extensive resources such as books, articles, podcasts, links to guided meditations, mindfulness blogs.

As leaders in organisation grow in mindfulness through the progressive and carefully planned integration of mindfulness into leadership development programs, the organisation can experience the benefits of improved productivity, increased levels of staff engagement, better organisational integration and improved outcomes for clients and customers.

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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.

Can Your Experience Compassion Fatigue?

Kelly McGonigal in her presentation for the Mindful Healthcare Summit challenged the widely held belief that you cannot experience compassion fatigue. Many people contend that compassion fatigue does not occur because the heart is capable of endless kindness and love for others. Kelly maintains that motivation and goodness of heart are not sufficient to prevent the depression and burnout that can result from compassion fatigue. She asserts that compassion has to be supported by adequate self-care if it is to be sustained.

Compassion and the stress response

Kelly argues that compassion is like the stress response when viewed physiologically. Compassion floods the body with hormones such as dopamine and marshals the body’s energy to relieve the suffering of others. However, while this can be very energising and exciting in the short term, compassion takes its toll in the longer term both bodily and mentally, as we do not have endless physical and mental reserves.

The possibility of compassion fatigue can be increased where a helping professional or carer experiences vicarious trauma or moral distress – the latter being defined as being required to do things that clash with a person’s values or moral perspective, a frequently occurring ethical dilemma within the medical profession.

Compassion fatigue

Kelly suggests that compassion fatigue occurs when a person lacks the energy and resources to pursue their motivation to care in such way that it achieves personal satisfaction (activates the reward system). Outcomes achieved fall short of personal expectations and/or the expectations of others, despite the strength of the caring intention. The compassionate person feels exhausted and feels that the more they give the less they experience satisfaction – the gap between input of energy/time and the expected satisfaction increases, leading to burnout. The depletion of energy and satisfaction could be the result of factors outside the helper’s/carer’s control – such as structural blockages, breakdown in information exchange, overwork or under-resourcing.

Compassion needs nourishment

One of the issues that exacerbates the problem of compassion fatigue is the belief in the endless capacity of an individual to be compassionate through the goodness of their heart or the purity of their intentions. As a result of this false belief, helpers/carers fail to take the necessary actions to nourish themselves (and their compassionate action) and/or are reluctant to accept compassion extended to them by others.

Personal nourishment can take many forms – getting adequate sleep, meditation (especially self-compassion meditation), listening to relaxing/inspiring music, prayer (whatever form it takes) or drawing strength and healing from nature. It also requires an openness to receiving compassion from others – challenging false beliefs such as “no one else can do this”, “I will be seen to be weak if I accept help from others”, “I really shouldn’t pander to my own needs by having that short break or having a reasonable period for lunch”, “I can’t afford to become dependent on others for assistance”. Additionally, positive social connection– to offset the tendency to withdraw under extreme stress– is a critical source of self-nourishment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation our awareness of others’ suffering and our motivation to help are heightened. The capacity for compassionate action is not limitless and needs nourishment. Central to this nourishment is self-compassion.

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Image by DarkWorkX 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.

Reduce Resentment through Reflection

In previous posts I provided meditations to deal with the thoughts and judgments associated with resentment and the feelings precipitated by the words and actions that you are resentful about. Sometimes resentment runs so deep and is aggravated by other intense emotions and/or related events, that it is difficult to sustain your focus during a meditation. Some relatively isolated event could even surface resentment that has lain dormant for many years. You might find that your emotions are so stirred up and your related thoughts so rapid or random, that meditation is extremely difficult.

One way to overcome these difficulties is to combine reflection with journalling – in other words, writing or keying responses to a series of reflective questions. The very act of writing down or keying up your responses to these questions enables you to get your thoughts “out of your head”, understand what you are thinking and why, name your feelings and begin to view the conflicted situation from the perspective of the other person. There is nothing like empathy, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, to dissipate resentment.

In the following sections I offer a series of reflective questions covering a range of topic areas related to unearthing and reducing resentment. If a question or series of questions do not resonate with you at this point in time, do not worry about it or try to force a response – just move on. Sometimes it takes only one question to break down the wall of resentment.

Reflections about events that resurface your resentment

  • What was the catalyst for the re-emergence of your resentment? Was it a specific event, news report, social media comment or interaction with, or sighting of, the other person involved?
  • What was your behaviour when the catalyst occurred? Did you spend your time talking to others, recalling the precipitating event from the past and intensifying your agitation by re-telling the story? If it was an interaction or sighting, did you express your anger, act curtly towards the other person or avoid them entirely for fear that either you or they would act inappropriately?
  • Are there other external events or interactions that reinforce or intensify your feelings? For example, the precipitating event in the past may have involved misrepresentation of facts and/or false accusations. Untruths or misrepresentations reported in the press or false accusations made about another person on social media, may intensify your feelings of resentment (even though the misrepresentation or false accusation reported may have limited direct impact on you).
  • Do you experience a desire for revenge – wishing some misfortune for the other person?

Reflections about the initial, precipitating event or interaction

  • What was the initial precipitating event or interaction? What actually happened? Sometimes just recalling the situation may diffuse your resentment because, in the light of hindsight, the issue may seem so trivial now. Alternatively, being accurate about what actually happened, not your interpretation of the event or interaction (nor your assumptions about the other person’s motivation), can help you become more clearly focused on your thoughts, judgments and residual feelings.
  • What was the impact of the initial event/interaction for you? What happened as a result? How did you feel at the time – embarrassed, angry, defensive, distracted, antagonistic? Did you have a strong sense of injustice, unfairness or dishonesty? Did insensitivity from the other person compound your feelings of hurt and resentment?
  • What identity issues were playing out for you? Was your integrity unfairly challenged? Was there a baseless claim that created a situation where you had to publicly defend yourself? What impact did the event/interaction have on your personal and/or professional reputation? How did it impact your sense of self and achievement of your purpose in life?

What sensitivity on your part was aroused by the precipitating event/interaction?

  • Is there anything in your early family experience that made you particularly sensitive about what happened during the precipitating event/interaction? Did you feel abandoned, criticised unjustly, neglected (your needs not being met), isolated, unsupported or abused? How did these feelings tap into any prior experience? Did the event/interaction uncover what was a “blind spot” for you?
  • Were your words and actions at the time disproportionate to what the other person said or did? Did your response highlight a particular personal sensitivity?
  • What judgments have you formed about the other person? Do you consider the other person thoughtless, lazy, dishonest, ungrateful, mean, disrespectful or revengeful? Do you believe that they would lie under any circumstance or that they believe “the end justifies the means”? Do you think they are a freeloader or that they trade on their family/business name? What do these thoughts/judgments say about your own values?
  • What assumptions have you made about their motivation? What is the basis for these assumptions? What do these assumptions say about you and your goals? Are you a competitive person?

Reflections from the perspective of the other person

There are several ways to explore the perspective of the other person. Here are three areas for reflection to gain a better understanding of what it all meant for them.

How they experienced the precipitating event/interaction – their concerns, feelings and identity issues

  • What happened for the other person in the initial interaction/event? Did they consider themselves exposed, threatened, embarrassed or under attack? Were their words and actions designed to achieve self-protection? What potential loss could they have faced in the situation? Were they trying to “save face”? [Tim Dalmau, when explaining the perspective of NLP, stated that the starting point for understanding others is to realise that “their behaviour, however self-defeating, is self-caring”]
  • How do you think the other person felt? They may have felt locked in, unable to think of another way out of their dilemma. They could have felt vulnerable, insecure or exposed. They may have felt that they had failed in some respect. They could have been experiencing non-specific anger and lashed out at the first person they interacted with. They could have been depressed, anxious and wary. What feelings do you think could have been at play for them?
  • What identity issues were involved for the other person? How were they trying to protect their sense of self-worth? What was at stake for them in terms of their sense of competency, their perception of their own goodness and self-assessment of their lovability?

Pressures and stresses experienced by the other person

  • What kind of stress was the other person experiencing? Did they have marital/relationship problems, financial difficulties, job insecurity, illness in the family or personal ill-health? Did they have a carer role?
  • Were there parental pressures, peer perceptions or social/work expectations at play for them? Were they just modelling the behaviour of their hierarchy? Was parental acceptance and financial support dependent on their achieving “success”? – a conditional parental love? What would happen to them if they were cut adrift by their parents and/or left without social support? How would they cope mentally if their external source of self-definition was removed? Did they grow up in a family where there was no moral compass or a morality dependent on what was needed to achieve a desired outcome?

Putting yourself in their place – empathy and forgiveness

  • In what way were their words and actions designed to be “self-caring”?
  • Have you ever engaged in the same behaviours that you ascribe to the other person? Empathy and compassion flow from honesty with yourself – if you maintain the “moral high ground”, despite evidence to the contrary, then you will have real difficulty in being empathetic towards another person.
  • Can you forgive yourself for your own behaviour during the precipitating event and, subsequently, when you have “maintained the rage” and indulged in resentment? Self-forgiveness may take a long time to achieve and repeated attempts at a forgiveness meditation.
  • Are you able to forgive the other person? Forgiveness is easier when you have built up your understanding of the other person and their actions.

Turning intention into action

You might intend to be less resentful, but how are you going to put this intention into action? There are four questions that can help you in this process of translating intention into action:

  • What are you going to do more of? – e.g. reflecting on what it meant for the other person and what are their driving forces/influences (trying to understand their perspective in all its elements – thoughts, feelings, consequences, identity issues).
  • What are you going to do less of? – e.g. this could be less re-visiting of the precipitating situation and/or less negative judging of the other person’s behaviour.
  • What are you going to stop doing? – e.g. telling other people your side of the story and/or “bad mouthing” the other person (elicits support and sympathy for your perspective and reinforces your resentment).
  • What are you going to start doing? – e.g. approach the other person with an open mind and heart.

I am not suggesting that overcoming resentment is easy – but reducing resentment is possible with persistent effort, e.g through the suggested meditations and reflections. Resentment is typically a very strong emotion that is deeply rooted in our psyche and held in place by our assumptions. Unless resentment is tackled, it can eat away at you and lead to physical and psychological health problems. It is important to chip away at resentment, to dig up its roots and to break down the walls that it creates. Persistent personal work will lead to lasting results.

As we grow in mindfulness (particularly inner awareness) through meditation and reflection we can gradually reduce our resentment and develop self-forgiveness and forgiveness for others. Compassion grows out of a deepening understanding of the other person.

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Image by FarfOuille 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.