Trauma Resilience

David Treleaven presented on the topic, Resilience to Trauma, at the recent Embodiment Festival 2023.   He made the point that while meditation and mindfulness practices can help some people recover from trauma, meditation may not work in individual cases.  He argued that suggesting “more” meditation is not the answer – we have to recognise the complexity of trauma and how it plays out in different people’s lives.  Individual’s hypervigilance as a result of trauma may impede their capacity to be still and reflect and they may find themselves continuously oscillating between a trauma response and temporary wellness – impeding their capacity to develop resilience.

David commented that trauma can create a level of rigidity in our response to stressors.  He noted that in some cultures such as Australia, Ireland, and South Africa, humour plays an important role in helping people to develop resilience.  Mark Walsh, Festival organiser and interviewer, commented that after undertaking trauma recovery work in Ukraine, he realised that humour is an integral part of the resilience of the Ukrainian people.  It was noted, too, that the current President, Zelenskyy, was previously a comedian and actor.

When Mark asked David what advice he would give to young people in these present challenging times, David suggested that it is important to undertake a regular practice that builds personal resilience.  He maintained that this is very much a personal choice but whatever practice you choose, to do so purposefully and “don’t be afraid to make a mistake”.   This wide-ranging discussion increased my interest in the relationship between trauma and resilience.  I decided to explore David’s podcast series, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, where he interviews trauma experts to explore the intersection of mindfulness, meditation and traumatic stress.

Trauma and Resilience

I was immediately attracted to David’s podcast interview with Anjuli Sherin on the topic, Resilience, Mindfulness and Trauma RecoveryAnjuli is a Pakistani American who specialises in trauma recovery with families, especially members of immigrant families.  She is a highly qualified and experienced therapist who offers individual therapy sessions, healing groups, guided meditations, training and her Joy Blog.  Anjuli is the author of Joyous Resilience – A Path to Individual Healing and Collective Thriving in an Inequitable WorldThe interview is very rich in its discussion of resilience and Anjuli’s book, because she shares insights from her own life experience and the resilience journey of her therapy clients.  David, himself an expert in trauma and trauma recovery, acknowledged that he learnt some new things as a result of the interview.

Anjuli begins with recounting her own trauma recovery journey, highlighting the trauma she experienced as an 18 year old, female immigrant to America.  Not only did she feel totally disconnected from her new cultural environment, she was also carrying the scars of intergenerational trauma resulting from living with her family in the “systems of oppression” present in Pakistan as she was growing up.  She found herself alone in America with no “compass”, family or community, while still in her early 20’s.  

Anjuli experienced what Bruce Perry describes as a “sensitised stress response” which led to overreactivity and maladaptive behaviour.  She describes her trauma as translating into “anger, fear and violence”.  She found that she did not cope with the stressors in intimate relationships, partly because she could not access, and express, her feelings and needs.  She was experiencing “emotional dysregulation” where she lacked control over her emotional responses. Her reactivity in her relationships led to more stress and feelings of shame.  Anjuli describes this trauma experience as the ”cycle of trauma” – the “vulnerable self” experiences stressors that lead to reactivity which, in turn, increases a sense of vulnerability, fear and helplessness that, again, heightens reactivity and maladaptation.  The trauma cycle results in negative self-evaluation, avoidance, and  questioning “what’s wrong with me?” – creating a further “cycle of suffering”.  An alternative mindset explores “what happened to you?” and seeks to understand trauma, its complexity and impacts.

The ”circle of resilience”

Anjuli describes the trauma recovery journey experienced by herself and her clients as a journey towards, and into, the “circle of resilience”.  This is a process, not a set state, that involves developing or accessing “four aspects of self” that enable the development of resilience and facilitate trauma recovery.   These aspects of self replace self-criticism, self-neglect and denial of feelings.  Anjuli maintains that people who have experienced trauma are often not able to use the “tools of resilience” (such as mindfulness, yoga, Tai Chi or exercise) in a sustainable way because of their “vulnerable self’ and being stuck in their reactivity and sense of helplessness.

Anjuli noted that in her early stages of arrival in America she ignored advice to seek a therapist to help her with her trauma recovery.  It was only after the stressors she was experiencing increased (e.g. graduation and relationship stress) that she heeded advice to seek therapeutic assistance.  She had been mired in her negative self-evaluation and her maladaptive behaviour up until that time. 

The “four aspects of self” for the resilience journey

Through her own therapy and consulting with her clients, Anjuli identified what she calls the “four aspects of self” that enable anyone who has experienced trauma to undertake the resilience journey.  She found that her own therapy “changed everything” and helped her to develop resilience by providing “foundational teaching” to shift from emotional dysregulation to emotional regulation, to move from stress and shame to self-care, and to develop “healthy control and agency over actions, emotions and relationships”.  Her reactivity diminished and she was able to understand her own needs and ask for what she needed.

During therapy she developed the “four aspects of self” that enabled her to enter the path, and move along the journey, to healing and resilience, thus enabling her to utilise the tools of resilience, such as mindfulness and exercise, in a sustainable way.  The four aspects described in depth by Anjuli in her book are:

  1. Nurturing – self-talk that recognises feelings (naming her feelings) and “turns to those feelings with attunement and loving kindness”, leading to acceptance
  2. Protection – establishing healthy boundaries and limits
  3. Play and creativity – accessing the things that bring pleasure
  4. Awe and Gratitude – through the experience of beauty and “interdependence  with the larger world”.

Anjuli explained that these four aspects of self, enabled her to let go of her “vulnerable self” and to acknowledge that she is able to deal with challenging emotions such as grief and fear.  She stated that these four states “are not built outside of relationship”.  She reinforced the critical role of supportive relationships in the journey to recovery and resilience.  Brooke Blurton in her memoir, Big Love: Reclaiming myself, my people, my country, highlighted the relationship orientation of her Aboriginal culture and its role in helping her through multiple sources of trauma to heal and develop resilience.  She experienced intergenerational trauma, poverty, homelessness, sexual abuse and racism, yet throughout she was sustained by the “constant love” of her addicted mother and the love of her family (especially her Nan and siblings), the extended family of “Aunties” and “Uncles” and what she calls “the mob”.  Anjuli reinforced supportive relationships as a “source of resilience” in that they provide protection, nurturing and a readiness to listen and positively affirm a person’s experience and emotions and offer reassurance that they “are not alone”.

Reflection

Supportive relationships appear consistently as a key element for trauma recovery and the development of resilience.  When I reflect on my own experience of recovery from personal trauma, I am able to acknowledge the central role played by nurturing, protective relationships.  Anjuli’s book promotes personal and collective healing and recovery, and offers supportive practices and insightful case studies that facilitate the development of resilience and encourage joyful thriving.

Resources that can help us achieve trauma resilience, and the ability to cope with life’s challenges, include the Healing Trauma Program offered by Sounds True which involves 13 key trauma recovery experts such as David Treleaven.  Sounds True also offer a shorter course, Trauma and the Embodied Brain, facilitated by Bonnie Badenoch, PhD.  Bonnie is the author of the book, The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships.

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Image by Alex Hu 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.

Relational Resilience through Bodily Awareness

Christina Dohr presented on the topic of “Relational Resilience” during the recent Embodiment Festival.  Christina is a qualified somatic educator and embodiment coach, who aims to help people through bodily awareness (of breath, sensations, posture and movement) to achieve self-awareness and authentic connection and relationships.  She is a strong advocate of movement as a way to tap into the mind-body connection and emotions – her background includes dance, improvisation and a black belt in Aikido.

Relational resilience is a concept typically employed in research literature especially in relation to the development of girls and women and often refers to the capacity to bounce back in the face of trauma, difficulties and health issues.  The concept is also employed in the context of parenting and dependent child development.  In her presentation, Christina used the idea of relational resilience to refer to any relationship, intimate or friendship relationship.  She focused on sustainability of relationships in the face of life challenges and the role of deepening connection to facilitate mutual growth.  Christina also reinforced the research-based evidence that demonstrates the key role that supportive relationships play in healing from trauma and coping with personal difficulties.

Bodily Awareness

Christina, being an embodiment coach, offered bodily awareness as a way into relational resilience.  She highlighted the fact that the way we visualise and use our bodies impacts our relationships.  Throughout her presentation she introduced a range of embodiment practices designed to build bodily awareness and the messages we communicate in our interactions.  We can concur with Bessel van der Kolk’s concept that The Body Keeps the Score – not only in relation to traumatic experiences but also everyday interactions.

Christina focused on a number of areas that either sustain or dimmish relationships such as listening.  She suggests that we explore how we listen and whether or not we bring openness, curiosity and genuine interest to our intimate relationships.  Christina offered an embodiment practice to look at the relative give and take in a relationship – a key determinant of sustainability and resilience.  She suggested that participants in the Zoom workshop joined their hands together and visualise the balance occurring in their relationship by moving their joined hands towards themselves or away from themselves. At the same time, participants were encouraged to tap into their bodily sensations as they experienced this movement to or away from themselves.

Another key area that Christina covered is “ownership” in a relationship – the degree to which we own our words and action and their outcomes, intended and unintended.  She stressed the need “to take responsibility” and not deflect or deny when we make a mistake or “stuff up” in a relationship.  This could mean simply acknowledging that we didn’t listen properly or that we were not paying attention.  This genuineness and honesty contribute to trustworthiness which, in turn, develops relational resilience.  We can notice our bodily reactions/sensations when confronted with the challenge to “own responsibility” for our words, actions, inactions or omissions in a relationship.

Christina indicated that there are times when we tend to own responsibility when its is not appropriate – we might overcompensate, overdo giving (trying to anticipate a partner’s every need) or try to read another person’s mind.  She offered a simple embodiment exercise to illustrate this point.  If your shape your hands “to hug a tree”, the inner circle (or the imaginary tree) represents your area of responsibility – outside the circle is someone else’s responsibility.  She suggests that you can also embody this concept of responsibility boundaries (and experience it through accompanying bodily sensations) by facing one palm in towards yourself (your responsibility) and the other palm facing away from you (the other person’s responsibility).  Being conscious of how you feel as you do this can increase your bodily and emotional awareness.

Reflection

Christina encourages us to use our body as a mirror to our “inner landscape”.  There is so much we can overlook or ignore, but our bodies are registering everything – the way others look at us, avoid us or attend to what we say.  Our bodies are continuously sensing and reacting, often at an unconscious level.  One of Christina’s goals is to assist us to “uncover unconscious embodiment patterns” and help us to change what no longer serves our relationships and its resilience.  To this end she offers embodiment coaching and workshops to help people gain bodily awareness and develop mature and resilient relationships.

We can grow in mindfulness and self-awareness as we explore embodiment practices and pay attention to our bodily sensations and reactions in our daily interactions.  Christina’s presentation gives us some relationship areas to think about, focus on and experience bodily.  Other presentations at the Embodiment Festival can advance our personal insight by offering a variety of embodiment practices.

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Image by Holger Schué 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 Sustain the Practice of Meditation

Marvin Belzer, Assistant Director of MARC, UCLA, in a recent guided meditation podcast provides some insights into what is required to sustain the practice of meditation.  He suggests, for example, that “willingness” is the essence of sustainability in relation to meditation.  We have to be willing to give it a go, be patient to stay with the process and avoid any attempt or pressure  to achieve perfection.  Some of his insights for sustainability, after 30 years of his own mindfulness practice, include the following.

Choose an anchor that is natural and comfortable for you

It is really important to choose an anchor that is easy for you and assists you to sustain the effort needed for meditation.   An anchor helps you to focus your attention, sustain the focus and serves as a point of return when you experience distractions.  The more common anchors are sounds (within your room or external), bodily sensations and your breath.  With sounds, it is important to just tune into what is happening around you but not attempt to identify the sounds (or source) or evaluate them in terms of pleasant/unpleasant, soft/loud or any other evaluation criteria.  The essence of sound as an effective anchor is the process of “tuning in”.   A focus on bodily sensations can be achieved through a body scan or a simple focus on a particular area of your body.  With your breath as an anchor, it helps to focus on where you experience the process of breathing, e.g., abdomen, nose or chest.  You are not attempting to control your breath but just to pay attention to the “in-breath”, the “out-breath” and the space between.  I find that a focus on breathing is easier for me than sounds because I find the latter distracting if I am inside a room.  However, if I am outside, I find it easier to focus on the sounds of birds, both those that are nearby and those further away.  It is important to be aware of the need to choose a “trauma-sensitive” anchor if a particular anchor elicits a trauma response (a rare occurrence, but a reality for some people).

Keep it simple

Marvin emphasises the simplicity of meditation.  You do not have to “perform” or achieve “mastery” to gain the benefits of meditation practice.  It does not involve a process of ongoing measurement or evaluation against some yardstick.  There will be days when meditation will feel easy and natural and other days when it is difficult because of what is going on in your life at the time and your level of health/wellness.  The amount of time you have available for meditation can also impact your experience of it. 

Choose a meditation practice suited to you and your available time

You do not have to master all possible forms of meditation (which are numerous).  For sustainability, it is important that you try to focus on a particular form of meditation that suits you and your lifestyle.  Some people like to sit quietly in their home, others like to meditate externally in nature, while others like an active meditation process such as movement meditation.  Some people prefer to employ meditation within a yoga framework.  I find that Tai Chi is the form of meditation that I can practise more regularly because I have spent a lot of my life in activities such as playing tennis, bike riding, competitive athletics and walking.   Some people find that mantra meditations or chanting suits them best and their situation.  Tina Turner, for example, found that chanting a particular mantra enabled her to achieve balance in times of adversity, which were sometimes extreme such as being an abusive relationship.

Remind yourself of the benefits that accrue as you meditate

Recalling the benefits of meditation practice provides positive reinforcement for your practice and helps you to sustain the effort.  Invariably, you can experience calmness, equanimity and clarity if you persist.  However, there may be particular benefits that you experience that are personal to you, e.g., reduction in difficult emotions, better stress management or ease in daily life.  I find that Tai Chi helps me to play tennis better because it improves my reflexes, coordination, concentration and flexibility.  The flow-over benefits of Tai Chi for my tennis performance (and enjoyment of social tennis) are a source of reinforcement for my mindfulness practice. 

Reflection

Marvin reinforces the need to not be discouraged when you experience distractions such as planning thinking or strong emotions.  It is natural, no matter how experienced you are, to find distractions intruding into your meditation practice.  You can acknowledge the distracting thought or planning process and return to your focus.  I find that planning my day is a major source of distraction for me during meditation but recognising this, I have adopted the practice of just naming what is happening and returning to my anchor.  Marvin suggests that with emotions you experience during meditation, you can just notice what they are like and how you experience them in your body, e.g. anxiety might be experienced as tightness in your chest or stomach.  After tuning in to the emotion and its bodily manifestation, he encourages you to return to your anchor.  The very act of continually returning to your anchor after a distraction serves to build your awareness muscle and your capacity to sustain concentration.  As we grow in mindfulness through sustained meditation practice, we will experience an ever-widening range of benefits that will serve, in turn, to reinforce our practice.

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Image by Pawel Grzegorz from Pixabay

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

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

What Happened to You?

I have been listening to the CD-audio version of What Happened to You?  – Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing.  In the audio, the creators Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey, share their experiences and insights – Bruce from a neuroscience and clinical perspective and Oprah from the stories she has gleaned from thousands of interviews of traumatised people.  The audio represents the crystallisation of ideas resulting from an ongoing conversation between the two creators over more than thirty years.   It highlights the complexity of trauma and the multi-faceted nature of effective healing from trauma.

In listening to the audio, you automatically explore, “what happened to you?” in your own early childhood.  The prevalence of trauma and its impacts suggests that most of us in some way experienced one of more adverse childhood experiences (ACE).  Every day you hear of traumatic events globally as well as locally  – such as the Sea World helicopter collision on the Gold Coast.  Survivors and witnesses, as well as grieving relatives and friends, would have been traumatised by the accident.  Some of the survivors have to experience the trauma of multiple surgeries as well.

We are frequently exposed to the traumatic experiences of others, including prominent people who describe their upbringing and provide insights into trauma and its impacts by way of their memoirs.   For example, Bertie Blackman, singer and artist, writes in her memoir, Bohemian Negligence, that she was sexually abused at a young age by a “friend of the family”.  Tove Ditlevsen, famous Danish poet and author, explained in her memoir, Childhood, Youth and Dependency, that she had a violent mother who beat her indiscriminately and was unpredictable, inflexible and critical.   Tove’s dream of becoming a poet was a source of belittlement by others, and disbelief and denigration from her parents and beloved brother.  She was also ostracized at school because she was seen to be “different”.

What happened to you or did not happen for you?

Bruce and Oprah explain that the more we understand the nature of trauma and its many forms and manifestations, we are better able to be compassionate towards others and ourselves when we observe aberrant behaviour on their part or our own.  This can lead to forgiveness of others and ourselves, as well as healing from the impacts of trauma which are pervasive and influence our relationships and communication.    

Oprah and Bruce explain that trauma shapes “our brains, our biases, our systems” – it influences our worldview and the way we perceive ourselves.  A teenager, for example, who experiences roughness and brutality by a policeman when innocent or engaged in some trivial misdemeanour, will view police as “fearful”, not trustworthy and cruel. This traumatic experience builds an implicit bias on the teenager’s part in respect of all police.  Our experience (or lack of direct experience) of people of a different race or nationality to our own can shape our biases.  These biases can be confirmed by observing non-conformist behaviour or seeing images of adverse events involving people of that race or nationality.

Our own trauma is unique in that traumatic experiences and their impact vary from individual to individual in terms of their nature, intensity, diversity and duration.  We each bring to the table of life imprinting from our early life experiences that shape who we are and how we respond under stress.  People with unresolved trauma have “sensitised stress responses” which can be manifested in overreaction, aggression, physical withdrawal, anxiety or dissociation.

Bruce and Oprah make the point that our modern day living conflicts with what is necessary to achieve healing from trauma.  They highlight the emphasis today on superficial relations and communications (e.g. selfies, likes, texts) at the expense of reciprocal relationships involving conversation, sharing, storytelling and empathy.  They discuss the “sensory cacophony of the modern world” – creating discordant sounds, confronting images and information overload.  Oprah and Bruce maintain too, like Johann Hari, that the disconnection and isolation of modern living contribute substantially to the growth of depression, anxiety and suicide.

In contrast, Bruce recounts his experience of Māori culture through an intensive immersion over two days – experiencing firsthand their holistic healing approach and the centrality of relationships characterised by “rich relational density [versus superficiality] and developmental density [involving ages ranging from babies to the aged]”.  Given the nature of trauma, Bruce argues for the development of “stable, supportive, patient and consistent” relationships to offset the impact of developmental relationships that were unpredictable, inconsistent, hurtful, demeaning or neglectful

Reflection

If we reflect on our actions and reactions to daily events and interactions with other people, we can begin to see patterns in our behaviour, e.g., avoidance of conflict, the need to please, or implicit bias in relation to particular groups of people.  Gaining an understanding of trauma, its impacts and conditioned behavioural responses, will enable us to establish causal links between what has happened to us (or “not happened for us”) and how we behave in specific situations, e.g., when criticised, threatened or praised.  Memoirs can be instructive in this regard.

If we consciously grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can gain the self-awareness necessary to understand ourselves and to develop loving kindness towards ourselves and others.  If we also consciously try to build and sustain supportive, enduring relationships we can move along the path to self-regulation and healing from trauma.  These healing relationships can extend beyond our immediate family to colleagues, friends, our extended family and interest groups (such as hobby, book, faith or aged-based groups).

Bruce and Oprah reinforce the importance of the mind/body connection and highlight the value of movement such as dance, Tai Chi, movement meditation, exercise and reconnection with nature for healing from trauma.  They also advocate bodily-oriented approaches such as massage, somatic meditation, and resting in your body/breath. There are many resources available to help us heal from trauma and develop resilience to face life’s challenges.  Sounds True, for example, offers a Healing Trauma Program involving some of the world’s top trauma recovery experts.  They also provide a Trauma and the Embodied Brain course led by Bonnie Badenoch, author of The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships.

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Image by Ben Kerckx 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.