Children and Young People Need Compassionate Action in these Difficult Times

According to a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission and Kids Helpline, one of the major fallouts from the pandemic is the pervasive negative impacts on children and young people.  Their report makes the point that “the health, social, educational, economic, and recreational impacts” will extend well beyond the pandemic and impact their futures.  Children and youth are themselves the future of their communities so it is incumbent on people in communities to extend compassionate action to this group who are in crisis through a global event over which they have no control.

The co-authored report identifies five key issues raised by children and young people:

  • Deteriorating mental health
  • Isolation from others
  • Disrupted education
  • Family stresses
  • Unanticipated changes to plans, activities, and recreation

These issues are not discrete and, in fact, are compounding – each individually exacerbating other impacts. 

Deteriorating mental health

A report by Headspace focused on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on young people who accessed their services.   Many young people indicated the negative impacts on their sleep, mood, and overall well-being.  Young people have experienced anxiety over an uncertain future,  contagious stress (from financial and health concerns of others) and disconnection from foundational supports such as family and friends. However, what is encouraging are the activities that young people undertake in terms of self-care, including accessing Headspace and its dedicated resources for youth mental health.  Also, some young people saw the difficult times as a chance to re-calibrate, re-think priorities and focus on what is important in life.  The problem now is that the negative impacts of the pandemic are so pervasive that organisations like Headspace are becoming overwhelmed by the demand for their services.

Isolation from others

Lockdowns and restricted movement, and the alternating on and off directives, have contributed to a sense of social isolation.  Disconnection from others can lead to loneliness and depression and impact young people’s confidence and sense of self-worth.  The more extroverted children and youth can experience long periods of boredom and begin to question their purpose and usefulness.  Connection, on the other hand, engenders mental stimulus, energy, joy, and shared experiences – all conducive to positive mental health.

Disrupted education

With the initial limitations on face-to-face education with schools and university lockdowns, children and young people found that their education was disrupted.  The impacts were experienced as a result of the variable capacity of parents to undertake home-schooling, the lack of preparation and training of teachers for online learning and delivery and the lack of technological and infrastructure support.  The disruption was compounded by the inability of some children and young people to learn adequately in an online environment, influenced, in part, by the inadequacy of home computers and/or space.

Family stresses

In many instances, adults in a family were having difficulty coping with the pandemic for similar reasons to young people – isolation, mental health issues and disrupted activities.  Many were forced to work at home, which suited lots of people but undermined the confidence of others.  Families, too, were in crisis because of job losses, financial difficulties, challenges accessing food and essential services and overall concerns about the health and welfare of family members (including members of the extended family who were isolated locally or overseas).  Adding to these stresses is the impact of grief through the loss of a friend, colleague, or family member.

Unanticipated changes to plans, activities, and recreation

For young people, recreation is an important outlet for their energy, the stresses experienced because of their age and physical development and frustration with life’s challenges (including conflict of values with their parents).  Limitations on recreational activities compounded the stress felt by young people and impacted their relationships with their family.  What is positive, is the number of families who took the opportunity to go for walks or bike rides together in their adjacent area.

Youth homelessness as a consequence of issues experienced by young people

One of the major impacts of the pandemic and associated stressors is the rise in youth homelessness. Mission Australia reported in July 2020 that one in six young people who completed their survey indicated that they had been homeless.  The report highlights the long-term effects of homelessness on young people for whom the experience is “isolating, destabilising and often traumatic”, creating “insurmountable barriers as they move into adult life”.   Homeless youth can experience a pervasive sense of sadness and hopelessness.  Children and young people experience homelessness because of family conflicts, domestic violence and abuse, bullying, household financial crises and lack of affordable housing.  Kids Under Cover (KUC) highlights the main causes of homelessness for children and young people and advances a very strong economic argument for preventing youth homelessness.

Addressing children and youth homelessness

Mission Australia has called on the Federal and State Governments to increase the stock of affordable, social housing as one approach to economic recovery and social accountability and to redress the growing crisis of children and youth homelessness.  The report jointly authored by  Headspace and the Australian Human Rights Commission suggests a range of educational, mental health, economic and informational strategies that Governments can employ to redress the situation.  They particularly encourage Governments to give young people a voice in pandemic recovery planning.  One recommendation  of the report that is particularly critical is “prioritising   services for vulnerable children and young people”.

Organisations already exist to provide the requisite services for young people and families who are struggling.  BABI, for instance, located in Wynnum (Brisbane, Queensland) has provided a comprehensive range of youth and family services since 1983 to residents of the Bayside areas of Brisbane (Wynnum, Manly & Redlands).  This includes supported accommodation for youth who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, specialised family support for parents who are young or have teenagers, personal development (including tenancy training and Get Set for Work training) and youth connection and engagement through their LINX Youth Space and their Youth Voice Committee (YVC).

Organisation such as BABI, Headspace and KUC are finding that the growing demand for their services are fast outstripping their existing resources.  Those who provide supported accommodation, for example, are working in an environment where so many influences are making it extremely difficult to provide the requisite housing solutions.   The influences that are compounding include:

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Rising house prices and rentals costs
  • Limited vacancies overall

This accommodation crisis is accompanied by the removal of economic supports instituted during the pandemic such as the Eviction Moratorium, JobKeeper payments and the Coronavirus Supplement.   The removal of the JobKeeper Payment alone is expected to result in the loss of at least 100,000 jobs.

While Governments could show compassion and do many things to address homelessness amongst children and youth, there is an obvious reluctance to address the associated issues.  It is clear that it is time for people in the community to take compassionate action in the form of advocating with Governments and politicians, supporting organisations such as BABI through their businesses and their personal donations and volunteering whatever assistance they can provide to enable these dedicated organisations to meet what is currently an overwhelming demand.

Reflection

Empathy developed through mindfulness can help us to feel for the plight of others, especially those experiencing homelessness.  As we grow in mindfulness through loving kindness meditation, we can gain insight into how we could personally contribute and become motivated to take compassionate action for the homeless children and young people in our community – the young people who are the future of our communities.

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Image by Wokandapix 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.

Change Your Perspective and Change Your Life

Foundational to Hugh Van Cuylenburg’ Resilience Project is a change in perspective and in his book on the topic he provides evidence of people who have turned their lives around through a change in their perspective.  He urges us strongly to focus on what we have, not what we lack.  He maintains that this change develops the positive emotions of appreciation and gratitude that replace the negative emotions of envy and resentment.  He points out too that it replaces depression about the past and/or anxiety about the future with the capacity to live the present moment more fully.

Underpinning the gratitude perspective is a change in our point of reference – from comparing ourselves to those who have more, to making the comparison with others who have considerably less.  His story of the Indian boy, Stanzin, highlights the impact of this different way of looking at things.   Stanzin was one of the most destitute children he met in India but the happiest person he had ever met – he appreciated everything in his life (no matter how old, broken, or impoverished). 

Hugh worked with elite sportspeople including NRL and ARL football players.  He mentions that at least five elite athletes changed their lives dramatically by implementing a daily gratitude journal – going from suicidal thoughts to appreciating the richness of their lives.

From loss and failure to learning and understanding

Hugh suggests that loss and failure can be seen in a very different light if we change our perspective.  If we view them as opportunities and lessons to be learned and realise that they are often the result of our own unmet expectations, we can move away from depression and anxiety to understanding and valuing the experience.  In each of life’s experiences, there is something to learn.  If we always experience “success” we can harbour false assumptions about what “made” our success, not realising our underlying deficiencies (often propped up by others).

Associated with this change in perspective is moving from self-absorption and self-congratulation to acknowledging the very rich contribution of the many people who have had a positive influence on our life (including our parents who provided our “gene pool”).  This latter thought came to me this morning when I was making an entry in my gratitude journal.  I was able to write, “I appreciate my genetic legacy from my father – athleticism, resilience and stamina, and from my mother – kindness, compassion, understanding and patience.”

It also means moving away from the perspective of “better than” to realistically appreciating our strengths and limitations – a change in perspective from “superior conceit” to a “healthy confidence”.  This change can result in improved behaviour together with happiness and contentment.

From “clients” to “friends”

Hugh mentions that at some stage in introducing students, elite sportspeople, and businesspeople to his GEM pathway, he started to view them as “friends”, instead of “clients” who paid for his services.  He viewed his role as helping people and building relationships, not engaging in a money-making venture.  This made the experience richer for himself and others he interacted with.  He gained many friends and was better able to help them as a result.  It also meant that sometimes he offered his services for free to people or organisations that had limited resources.

From “outcomes” to “process”

Both Louie Schwartzberg and Lindsey Stirling, award-winning creative producers of film and music, stress the importance of focusing on the process, not the final outcomes.  This involves enjoying the moment and fully experiencing making film or making music or engaging in any other creative endeavour.  In our organisational consulting work, my colleague and I have moved from a focus on outcomes to designing a process that enables people to “have the conversations that they need to have”.  This reduces the stress of process design because there are so many factors that influence the outcomes over which you have no control – what you can control is how well you design the intervention process.  This shift in perspective from outcomes to process provides the freedom to explore innovative and creative ways to work with people, music, or photography.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the perspectives and expectations that create our self-sabotaging behaviours and limit our options.  Changing our perspectives can significantly change our lives for the better, increase our happiness and strengthen our resilience in the face of setbacks and failures. Perspective change can open the way for the exploration of creative options in all our endeavours – family, work, and sport.

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Image by Renan Brun 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.

A Pathway to Resilience and Happiness

Hugh Van Cuylenburg has written a life-changing book which Missy Higgins describes as “hilarious, inspiring and heartbreakingly vulnerable”.   Hugh is a great storyteller and his stories, provided both verbally and in writing, have changed the lives of thousands of people, from school children to elite sportspeople.  His book, The Resilience Project: Finding Happiness through Gratitude, Empathy & Mindfulness, provides a very clear pathway to resilience and happiness.  It is admirably digestible and eminently practical – which partly explains its amazing influence on so many lives.

Hugh summarises his pathway in the mnemonic, GEM, and the three powerful words that these letters represent – Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness.  He developed his approach while in India working as a volunteer teacher in an incredibly poor village – where children often could not go to school, had no shoes, little food and no electricity or sanitation.  He could not work out why the children at the school were so unbelievably happy despite their destitute conditions.  He found the answer by observing the children and their practices closely and discovered that their resilience and happiness had its foundation in gratitude (appreciating what they do have), empathy (showing care and concern for others) and mindfulness (being mindful and developing this through meditation).

His message has been taken up not only by schools throughout Australia but also by elite sporting clubs such as the NRL team, Melbourne Storm and the AFL team, Collingwood.  He tells the story, for example, of a Collingwood player who wrote a three-letter word on his wrist to remind himself during a game of the things that he is grateful for so that he could push aside negative thoughts and anxiety that arise when engaged in a highly competitive match.   

Hugh’s pathway to happiness and resilience applies to each of us in our everyday life.  The three elements of his approach are not new – we have covered many aspects of these in this blog as the result of the work of many other people.  What Hugh presents in simple, digestible language and illustrative stories, is a very clear pathway integrating the three GEM elements that can be practised daily and that are mutually reinforcing – just like exercising, appropriate nutrition and yoga/ Tai Chi are mutually reinforcing, with each of these elements building on, and assisting us to achieve, the others.

The GEM pathway to happiness and resilience

Hugh refined his approach when he completed a Master of Education by focusing all his study and assignments on the mental health and wellness of adolescents.  He was also able to learn about the neuroscience that underpinned his approach (he provides references to the scientific papers in his “Notes” at the end of the book).

What was a catalyst for Hugh’s passionate pursuit of the issue of resilience was his own traumatic experience as a teenager trying to cope with his younger sister’s anorexia nervosa.  At the time, he did not understand what was happening to her and why she behaved the way she did, and did not show empathy for her plight.  He failed to realise that she was mentally ill, not just suffering a physical malady, malnutrition, that could be overcome just by eating more.  He became acutely aware as an adult of the “concentric circles of suffering” (for siblings, parents, friends, and teachers) that mental illness can create.  

I will discuss each of the elements of GEM below:

Gratitude – Hugh suggests that this means appreciating what we have rather than focusing on what we lack.  He tells the story of Stanzin, one of his students in India, who despite his impoverished circumstances was grateful for everything in his life – his gratitude was pervasive and continuous.  Stanzin often pointed out to Hugh things that he was grateful for – his friends, being able to go to school, having shoes to wear and even receiving a plain bowl of rice for lunch. He was incredibly grateful for his rusted, broken-down play equipment (such as a swing) – something that in our Western society would initiate a complaint.  Stanzin focused on what he had, not what he did not possess – avoiding negative emotions of discontent, resentment, or anger, and developing a positive mindset. 

Hugh recommends a daily gratitude journal as a way to build resilience and happiness.  This is a recommendation and practice of many people.  In the previous post, I spoke of the twice-daily practice of gratitude journalling of Lindsey Stirling, the hugely successful songwriter, violinist, and dancer.  Gwen Cherne, the first Commissioner for Veteran Family Advocacy, who agitates for veterans and their families battling mental stress, stated that she writes a gratitude journal every night (her story is featured in the Weekend Australian Magazine, March 6-7, 2021, pp.13-16).   Hugh, Lindsey, and Gwen have each experienced considerable trauma in their lives and each has shown the resilience to be able to “bounce back” and experience happiness in pursuing their life purpose in contributing to the welfare and joy of others.

Empathy – being able to feel for others by consciously thinking about what they might be experiencing intellectually and emotionally.  Hugh points to the neuroscience that reinforces the fact that practising empathy develops kindness and motivates compassionate actionSimon Sinek suggests that in a work situation an empathetic leader is “more concerned about the human being not their output”.  The young boy Stanzin, who made a lasting impression on Hugh, was continuously empathetic – going out of his way to help others in need, e.g., sitting with children who were alone during the lunch hour.  Hugh recalled that in contrast, he himself was not empathetic to his young sister as a teenager and was not able understand her suffering and feel with and for her.  A key component of empathy is deep listening – openness to other’s stories and their perspectives.

Mindfulness – being present in the moment while adopting an open, curious, accepting, and non-judgmental attitude.  Hugh learned through his experience in India that practising mindfulness through meditation was a way of “taking greater control of your mind and, therefore, of your life”.  The children in the village school where he taught began each day with a 30-minute meditation,  At first, he was sceptical about the practice but soon found that he could focus so much more on the present moment, and not become absorbed by anxiety about the future or depression about the past.  He found that Stanzin was a living example of the benefits of mindfulness meditation.  The young boy would be constantly mindful of what where the positive things in his village life.  Mindfulness develops both gratitude and empathy.  

Developing the GEM pathway to happiness and resilience

In his book, The Resilience Project, Hugh provides a section at the back where he offers some exercises that can help us to develop gratitude, empathy, and mindfulness – some of which he has used in schools throughout Australia.  The Coles Group have implemented a range of practices drawn from The Resilience Project. 

Simon Sinek suggests that a simple way to practise empathy in everyday life is to let the person into traffic ahead of you if they are stuck in a side street or are attempting to cut in front of you.  He argues that you never know why they are trying to enter the traffic or are in a hurry to get somewhere.  They could, for example, be dealing with an emergency – a sick parent/child, an accident at home, someone dying in hospital, or anxiety about a child stranded at night at a lonely, dark railway station. 

Reflection

Taken together the elements of the GEM pathway can lead to happiness and resilience.  The stories Hugh tells, and the research he draws on, reinforce the benefits of his approach.  The widespread adoption of the principles of The Resilience Project attests to its effectiveness. 

Hugh also stresses the importance of connection and has exercises that can help us renew our connections given that they have been eroded through social media and the distancing created by the pandemic.  He stresses that practising GEM is even more urgent in these challenging times.  He maintains too that we must go beyond connection itself and take wise and compassionate action to redress the suffering and pain of others, e.g., asking “R U OK?”

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and practising gratitude and empathy, we can develop self-awareness, self-regulation and compassionate action and gain increasing insight into our life purpose. As Hugh observes, every challenge is an opportunity to realise our potential and our capacity to contribute positively to the lives of others.

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Image by billy cedeno 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.

Self-Care for Mental Health Professionals

In his book, Trauma Informed-Mindfulness With Teens, Sam Himelstein stresses the need for self-care for mental health professionals dealing with traumatised teens.   His final chapter is devoted to self-care and professional practice.  Dr. Cirecie West-Olatunji, counsellor educator,  also stresses the need for self-care for professionals working with people experiencing traumatic stress.  Her video presentation is available as part of the courses provided by the Mental Health Academy.   Both experts in the area of counselling for trauma highlight the impact of vicarious trauma, especially the risk of mental health professionals experiencing compassion fatigue.

Mindfulness for self-care

Sam himself experienced trauma in his early 20s when he lost his sister through suicide. He makes the point that most health professionals will have experienced trauma of some kind and that this experience leaves them open to triggering their own traumatic response through exposure to the trauma stories of other people.  Cirecie highlights the fact that the trauma stimulus can be exacerbated where the professional has previously experienced combined or cumulative trauma. 

Sam emphasises the role of mindfulness in helping the professional to deal with their own re-traumatisation as a result of interaction with others and their emotionally draining stories.  He stresses the role of a personal mindfulness practice in helping him deal with the trauma of his sister’s suicide.

Sam  suggests that a personal approach to mindfulness as a protective mechanism could involve the following:

  • Silent retreat(s): Sam found these exceedingly helpful because they enable you to fully experience your emotions, gain a deep insight into your inner landscape and develop strategies to maintain or regain your equilibrium.
  • Formal practice: this entails inculcating a regular mindfulness practice (either sitting, standing, or walking) where you engage in some form of formal meditation.  This helps to build your concentration to enable deep listening, empathetic response, and the ability to promote wise action.  It also assists you to deal with your own difficult emotions (such as anger, resentment, or frustration), challenge self-defeating narratives and develop resilience in the face of challenging interactions.
  • Beyond meditation: Sam suggests that bringing mindfulness into your everyday life (in daily activities such as walking, washing clothes, eating, shopping), is effectively “mindfulness-in-action”.  It is particularly relevant to your relationships and interactions with others, especially in times of conflict.  One way to develop the necessary calmness and equanimity in the face of emotional challenges is to practice reflection-on-action to eventually cultivate the capacity to reflect-in-action, in the course of something adverse happening to you (whether that adversity is real or imagined).  Sam stresses the importance of daily mindfulness practices in controlling the “ego” which can get out of hand when  it perceives a threat (physical, emotional, or intellectual).

Professional development

Both Sam and Cirecie stress the importance of professional development to build competence and confidence to enable you to operate effectively within your chosen arena of professional practice.  For Sam this is the arena of traumatised youth, especially those who have been incarcerated.  He offers specialised training for health professionals through his Center for Adolescent Studies.  Cirecie’s professional arena includes trauma stress service delivery and training professionals who provide counselling in different countries following disasters such as earthquakes and pandemics.  She conducts research and training through her Xula Center for Traumatic Stress Research.

Cirecie stresses the need to gain control over your workload and, where necessary, seek to negotiate a lighter load (for your psychological welfare and that of your clients).  She maintains that every mental health professional, irrespective of their level of experience and training, has their window of tolerance beyond which they are unable to function effectively.  She gave an example of how a racist client triggered her and how  her experience in working in South Africa with a community where people were consistently dying from AIDS took her outside her window of tolerance and led to a severe illness.  In both cases, she sought professional counselling and recommends this form of professional development for other mental health professionals.

Cirecie highlights the importance of self-knowledge and self-awareness as critical factors in professional counselling, particularly understanding your own negative triggers.  She encourages too the development of your own professional support network that you can draw on for knowledge, experience, resources, and emotional support.  

In Cirecie’s view, personal and professional development extends to conscious awareness of the physical and psychological health risks inherent in the role of a mental health professional.  She urges appropriate preparation for the role through education which will provide motivation for health self-care (e.g., exercise, stretching (to release physical tension), diet, and drinking water).

Reflection

There are many reasons why mental health professionals do not undertake adequate self-care.  When working with clients who have suffered trauma or are currently experiencing trauma, it is critical that the health professional takes time for self-care to enable them to function at their best for the sake of their clients, as well as for their own welfare.  Mindfulness practice is recognised as a key component of this necessary self-care.  As mental health professionals grow in mindfulness, they are better able to identify personal triggers, develop resilience for their challenging work and build the capacity to engage in deep listening.  However, mindfulness practice needs to be supported by an appropriate lifestyle. 

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Image by Vanessa Kenah 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.

Alzheimer’s Disease – Self-Care for the Carer

If you have a family member or friend suffering from Alzheimer’s disease you may find yourself suddenly thrust into a carer’s role, often with little preparation and understanding of that role.  The tendency is to “soldier on” through all the difficulties and ignore the emotional toll on yourself.  However, there are many resources and people willing to help and mindfulness can play a role in your self-care.

You may be witnessing the cognitive and behavioural decline of someone you love who not so long ago was vital, well-read, highly competent, intelligent, and very aware of current events and global trends.  Now you are having to contend with the emotional, financial, and time-consuming toll of caring for someone who has Alzheimer’s (on top of your daily work and life with their own challenges).

Dealing with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

You may have to deal progressively with some or all of the following effects that Alzheimer’s has on your loved one:

  • Disorientation: losing track of where they are; thinking that they are in hospital or just out of hospital when neither is true; thinking they are in a location where they lived many years prior; assuming that their location is somewhere that happened to be mentioned in casual conversation.
  • Rapid memory loss: forgetting what they set out to do and constantly forgetting in the course of some action, e.g., finding their phone, having a shower, locating an object – the result is that everything takes so much longer and tests your patience (despite your good intentions).
  • Loss of practical skills; unable to do normal daily tasks such as cooking, keeping accounts, paying bills, driving the car or operate the TV remote.
  • Mood or personality changes: going from pleasantness to anger and aggression, happy to discontent, calm to agitated, confident to fearful, purposeful to suffering apathy and inertia; or any of the other possible mood/personality swings.
  • Indulging in unusual behaviours: constantly packing up the house expecting to be moved, indulging in unsafe behaviours (e.g., ladder climbing when they are unsteady), tendency to wander and lose their way (even in very familiar territory).
  • Confusion: forgetting who individuals are and their relationships, constantly losing things, thinking that a past event is happening in the present and preparing for it with some anxiety.
  • Difficulty with self-expression: unable to find the words to express what they want to say.

Each of these symptoms is taxing for the carer as well as the person suffering from Alzheimer’s.  As a carer, you may not know what to say, you can become confused about what is true and what is imagined, and you can become uncertain about the best way forward and the decisions that need to be made.

Self-care for the carer

There are many things that a carer for an Alzheimer’s sufferer can do to proactively care for their own welfare and psychological health:

  • Inform yourself about Alzheimer’s disease – understanding the disease helps you to make better decisions, reduce some of the uncertainty you are encountering and provides insights into how best to help the person experiencing Alzheimer’s.  One of the best resources around that is also very readable is Harvard Medical School’s report, Alzheimer’s Disease: A guide to diagnosis, treatment, and caregiving.  This publication details the symptoms of the disease, the impact on the brain and its structure, progression pathways, and, most importantly, incorporates a special section on Caregiving: Day-to-day challenges and beyond.  Understanding the decisions that need to be made, the options available and their impacts, makes it easier to make sound decisions amid the uncertainty and disruption surrounding the role of carer for an Alzheimer’s sufferer.
  • Gaining support from relatives and friends: typically, there is a tendency to “go it alone”, however, the role of carer for an Alzheimer’s sufferer is incredibly personally taxing.  Harvard Health describes caring for someone with Alzheimer’s as “one of the toughest jobs in the world “ and that your own life will be “dramatically altered” in this carer role.  It is vital that you “share the load” with relatives and friends where possible, e.g., with tasks such as visiting the person who is experiencing Alzheimer, talking through decisions, or sharing the financial burden.
  • Drawing on professionals and networks: It is important to draw on the collective knowledge of expert medical professionals such as the family doctor and appropriate specialist services such as a geriatrician or gerontologist. There are also support networks such as Alzheimer’s Association that provides support groups and professional information informed by research.  There are also carer support groups, such as Arafmi, for people caring for those suffering from a mental illness or “psychosocial disability”.
  • Exercise: physical exercise can reduce stress, enhance capacity to deal with stressors and provide the opportunity to “clear the head” and /or think more clearly about decisions to be made and options that can be explored.
  • Take time out: taking time for yourself such as a weekend or week away.  This is more manageable if you have already shared your situation with family and friends and drawn on their support.  It would also enable you to be more mindful about your own life and needs and options going forward. 
  • Developing mindfulness practices: mindfulness has a wide range of benefits that can assist in your role of carer.  For example, mindfulness can help you build resilience; manage uncertainty; develop calmness; deal constructively with difficult emotions such as anger, resentment, and frustration; and improve your psychological health overall.

Reflection

Alzheimer’s is an incredibly draining illness both for the sufferer and the carer. It takes its toll emotionally, physically, cognitively, and financially. It is vitally important for carers to be very conscious about the need for self-care and to be committed to being proactive about mindfulness practice.  As carers grow in mindfulness, they are better able to manage the multiple stressors involved and to achieve a level of equanimity even amid the disruption, uncertainty and turbulence involved in caring for someone with Alzheimer’s.  There are numerous resources available to assist carers and help them to make sound decisions and take wise action. 

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness, Attention and Learning

Research has consistently shown that mindfulness can build our attention and concentration.   Mindfulness, by definition, involves paying attention in a purposeful way “with openness and curiosity”.  Mindfulness helps us to reclaim our attention and strengthen our concentration.  Attention is one of the four pillars of learning, according to leading neuroscientist, Stanislas Dehaene.   In his book, How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain, he identifies the four pillars as follows:

  1. Attention – adds amplification to the information that we choose to focus on; it brings into clearer focus the detail and implications of what we are hearing and seeing.
  2. Active engagement – through curiosity, constantly testing our internal hypotheses and models of the external world; contrasted with passive learning where we only take in what others teach us.
  3. Error feedback – helps us to correct our hypotheses/models through comparison with reality; what happens when acting in the real world serves to provide feedback – confirmation or the need for correction/change.
  4. Consolidation – moves us to a state of “unconscious competence”; where we act automatically, but appropriately, in response to external stimuli.  Making explicit our own learning and restful sleep assist this process of consolidation.

Attention’s role in learning

Stanislas highlights the fact that today we encounter multiple sources of distraction, including that of digital noise, which negatively impacts our attention and capacity to learn.  Developing our attention, according to his research and that of other researchers, has three core benefits in terms of the learning process:

  1. Alerting – changes our level of vigilance by signalling when we need to pay attention.
  2. Orientating – indicates what we need to pay attention to and, in the process, highlights the detail of what we are interested in.
  3. Executive attention – the contribution here is on the how, the way in which to respond to the stimulus/task/challenge.

The growth of the executive function, tied to self-regulation, is itself a lifetime learning process.  This function involves engaging the pre-frontal cortex of the brain  – making decisions based on analysis and timely adaption rather than habituated and inappropriate responses.  Stanislas demonstrates through sharing the results of different experiments how the pre-frontal cortex and this executive function develops from the age of 12 months and reaches a mature level around 20 years of age.  These studies are fascinating in that they highlight how the brain attempts to process information that is seemingly contradictory and/or challenging to our habituated responses learned through prior experiences and information processing.  He contends that the development of our pre-frontal cortex as we mature in age spontaneously results in the “development of attention and executive control”.

Stanislas cautions that we can still make mistakes and take inappropriate action through our selective perception as adults.  Perception of threat (real or imagined), for example, can lead to the dominance of our amygdala and disengagement of our pre-frontal cortex, leading to a fight, flight or freeze response – resulting sometimes in an inappropriate action rather than “wise action” that can be developed through mindfulness.   

However, Stanislas also emphasises that even in adulthood our brains are capable of plasticity – changing physical shape (including reducing the size of the amygdala and increasing the size of the pre-frontal cortex) and, in the process, strengthening executive control.  Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, highlights the research that demonstrates how mindfulness increases this neuroplasticity.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can enhance our attention and concentration – key components of learning identified by Stanislas.  Concurrently, we can develop our self-awareness and self-regulation, learn to overcome habituated responses, and choose wise actions.  Mindfulness improves our information processing by helping us to reclaim our attention in the face of endless distractions, including digital noise and overload.  The openness and curiosity cultivated through mindfulness enriches our capacity to grow and learn. 

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

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

Creating a Meaningful Story for Your Life

Tami Simon, CEO of Sounds True, interviewed Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond as part of her Insights at the Edge podcast series.  Rebecca and Lily are the authors of the newly published (January 2021) book, What’s Your Story? : A Journal for Everyday Evolution. The book provides deeply personal insights into what constitutes a meaningful life as a well as interactive, reflective questions designed to help the reader to revisit and rewrite the story of their own life.  Both authors are accomplished writers and activists with quite diverse backgrounds. Their collaborative writing over the past ten years to produce the book is a profound endeavour in its own right.  They share a common and very strong belief that in writing our own story with honesty, fearlessness, and persistence, we can rewrite our past and reshape our future so that we live a more meaningful life.

An opening reflective question

During the podcast interview, Tami asked Rebecca and Lily about the first question in their book which is, What is your first memory?  This question is penetrating in that it requires the reader to identify a memory that they really experienced and own.  It means unravelling the self-stories from what has been communicated by parents, society at large, national culture, workplace culture or formal education.  It means getting to the heart of what we actually believe and practice.  For Lily, the catalyst for the question was the experience of her mother dying from cancer; for Rebecca, the catalytic event was the divorce of her parents.  In both cases they were faced with the fundamental question of What story have I been telling myself about my life?  Which leads to the question, How limiting or empowering is my self-story?

A closing reflective question

The interview discussing the book – What’s My Story? – gravitated to the final reflective question How do I define a life well lived?  This question is designed to be proactive – to stimulate not only reflection but future action.  The question is intended to have us look back from our future deathbed and review how we have spent our life and how we had wished to spend it.  It means, in Rebecca’s terms, what would enable me to die peacefully when reviewing my life’s contribution and legacy?  The question for both authors revolved around, What is a meaningful life? How can I now live my life in a way that is congruent with what gives my life meaning, satisfaction and a sense of positive contribution to my relationships, my community, and the world at large?

Lily and Rebecca talked about how these questions and their personal responses are influencing the way they live now – even at the micro-level.  Throughout their book they ask the reader to reflect on what was meaningful in their past, what is meaningful in their present life and what would give meaning to the rest of their life – a potential catalyst for rewriting our own stories.  What could be useful in this personal pursuit of “a life well-lived” are the lessons from death and dying provided by Frank Ostaseski.

The science of a meaningful life

Several authors for the Greater Good Magazine collaborated on an article titled, The Top 10 Insights from “The Science of a Meaningful Life” in 2020.  The magazine itself is a production of the Greater Good Science Center, The University of California, Berkeley.  The authors drew on the work of multiple researchers in their network and  viewed the identified elements as a source of hope in these challenging times when the pandemic has led to many people experiencing conflict, loneliness, illness, and grief.

The authors draw on the concept of a “psychologically rich life” as a framework for their suggestions for a meaningful life:

  • Collaborating in learning with others
  • Connecting with other people by phone rather than text or social media
  • Expressing kindness and gratitude to others (which are contagious)
  • Being more extroverted in engagement with others (especially beneficial for introverts)
  • Engaging with diverse cultures that can serve to challenge our stereotypes
  • Seeking out challenging and varied experiences
  • Working in organisations that consciously pursue social justice both within and without
  • Exploring ways to be more motivated to express empathy.

Reflection

It is a sobering exercise to ask ourselves these reflective questions that represent the lived experiences of the authors.  What is also relevant to this reflection are the lessons from death and dying advanced by Frank Ostaseski.  The challenge is to work out how we define a “life well lived”.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can gain greater clarity about what a meaningful life is for us and have the courage and resilience to pursue it in our chosen field of endeavour.

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Image by Marcel S. 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.

Thanksgiving: A Time to Revitalise our Gratitude Practices

The US celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday 26 November this year.  It was also formally celebrated in other places around the world while in Australia informal celebrations occurred as American organisations shared their Thanksgiving Day exhortations and practices.  This was followed by intensive sales campaigns under the banners of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  It is easy to lose sight of the message of Thanksgiving in the flurry and frenzy of the constant encouragement to buy and acquire.   Acquisition is suddenly valued more than appreciation.

The value of gratitude

Gratitude is important for our relationships and our mental health.  Expressing appreciation to another person in a relationship is a way of valuing them and what they say and do.  It builds trust and affection and overcomes the tendency to “take someone for granted” which is, certainly, an intimacy dampener.

Neuroscience has demonstrated the benefits that gratitude has for our mental health and overall well-being.  It can alleviate depression, replace toxic emotions such as anger, envy, and resentment and develop a positive attitude to life which is, in itself, conducive to mental health.  Karen Newell, for example, explains from her research how gratitude builds positive energy.  She encourages us to be grateful not only for things that are present in our life today but also for the experiences and people from our past, especially our parents and mentors.

Sustaining gratitude practices

There are numerous ways to express gratitude and appreciation.  The challenge, like all good habits, is to build gratitude practices into our daily life, however brief or informal.  Some people adopt a gratitude journal as a way to express appreciation and progressively build a deep and abiding sense of gratitude.  Others link expressions of appreciation to other activities undertaken during the day.  For example, when boiling the jug, you could express appreciation for access to fresh water (something that many people in the world do not have) or the food that you are about to eat.  While waiting during the day, you could choose to reflect on what you are grateful for rather than dive for your phone.

Gratitude meditation is a sound way to progressively build awareness and appreciation for everything that enriches our life on a day to day basis.  We can learn to savour our relationships, achievements, the development of our children, the skills and capacities that we have developed over time and life itself.  Developing a gratitude mindset can help us to experience joy in our life, not only for what we have received, but also for the achievement of others through empathetic joy.  Being grateful is a great motivator for taking compassionate action, which not only benefits others but also ourselves.

Reflection

The benefits of gratitude and appreciation are numerous and can positively impact many aspects of our life if only we can slow down for gratitude.   We have to learn to create space in our busy lives for stillness and silence so that we can grow in awareness of what we have to appreciate and continue to express our gratitude whether internally or through external communication.   Gratitude can improve the quality of our life and, at the same time, positively impact those around us.  As we grow in mindfulness through our gratitude practices, reflection and meditation, we can experience greater joy in our lives, enrich our relationships and make a real difference in our world – a world torn by envy, hatred, resentment, bias and discrimination and the great divide between the “have’s” and “have-not’s”.

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

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

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Silence and Connection: Finding Peace in a Turbulent World

Last night I had the privilege of accompanying my wife to a fund-raising event at Stepping Stone Clubhouse in Brisbane – an organisation dedicated to enabling people with mental illness to rebuild and enrich their lives.  The speaker for the night’s event was Trent Dalton, author of two recent books that were the focus of his discussion.  Trent has become a best-selling author as a result of the first of the two books, The Boy Who Swallowed the Universe which features two boys who experience the darkness of adverse childhood experiences.  The second book he spoke energetically about is his recently released novel, All Our Shimmering Skies – two girls experiencing trauma feature prominently in this book which is also an expression of hope, of wonder and life’s endless mysteries and miracles.

Life beyond trauma

Trent had many adverse childhood experiences and related trauma – including an alcoholic father, heroin-addicted mother, heroin dealer stepfather and a criminal baby sitter.  His two novels then are part autobiographical, part fiction and part fantasy (“gifts dropping from the sky”).   His two daughters had questioned him as to why he wrote the first of the two books with boys as the focal characters when he in fact had two daughters.  So, two girls featured in the Shimmering Skies novel.

Trent mentioned that even though the books begin with darkness in the characters’ lives, they end with hope and wonder.  He wanted to inspire his daughters to be strong and resilient despite what life brings in the way of obstacles and adversity.  He also wanted them to believe in hope and a life beyond trauma as reflected in his own life – now as a multiple award-winning author who is internationally recognised for his writing craft and storytelling.

Finding peace in silence and connection

Trent spoke of his close connection to place and nature.   His home suburb, Brisbane’s western suburb of Darra, features strongly in his writing as does Darwin which he visited a number of times, mainly on assignment as a journalist.  He described with a sense of awe the natural beauty experienced during a guided walk through Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia.  His closeness to nature is reflected in his wonder at even the smallest living creatures.

His connection to family and friends provided a very real grounding and enabled him to rest in the strength of these relationships.  Of particular note is his comment about how one of his daughters brought him very much “back to earth” after a whirlwind tour following his highly successful book, The Boy Who Swallowed the Universe.  At one stage when he was at home and dropping naturally into his effervescent storytelling mode, his 11 year daughter said something to the effect, “You don’t have to impress us now – you just have to be Dad to us.”

Trent’s Shimmering Skies novel captures something of the stillness and reflection he experienced observing the night sky through his window in Darwin or from his writer’s den in Brisbane.  His valuing of silence and stillness is reflected in his comment on Christine Jackman’s novel, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World:

…a deeply personal assignment: treading bravely, beautifully into the wonder of silence.

Christine reminds us that life is full of noise, distraction and setbacks and yet there exists the wonder of stillness and silence – the unnameable space in which one was free to think and breathe and simply be.   We just have to learn ways to access the silence in our lives – something I experienced at 5 am this morning when I walked along the Manly Esplanade in Brisbane as the sun rose and reflected on the shimmering water of the marina.

Reflection

Trent was able to inhabit the wounds of his trauma by revisiting his adverse childhood experiences through the key characters in his two books.  In discussing his books and his life, he was able to be completely transparent and honest about his background, his challenges, and his small triumphs.  This openness and curiosity about life are hallmarks of mindful living.  By growing in mindfulness through reflection, writing and wonder, he could appreciate his connection to everything and his close relationships which are so central to his life and work.

I find it humbling and a source of gratitude that I personally was able to live a life of silence and contemplation for five years after leaving home and traumatic circumstances.  I have lived through many adverse childhood experiences in my early childhood and traumatic events later in life.  I found solace and peace in stillness and silence.

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Image by Ron Passfield – Sunrise at Manly Esplanade

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.

Building Cognitive Resilience through Mindfulness

Research conducted by Jamie Bristow and Rosie Bell supports the view that mindfulness builds cognitive resilience – “the ability to overcome negative effects or stress on cognitive functioning” (as defined by Staal and colleagues).  In times of stress or serious setbacks, we can experience cognitive confusion and disorientation.  When the perceived threat to our wellbeing is considerable our “thinking brain” tends to shut down and our “survival brain” takes over – we can be controlled by our negative emotions and engage in fight, flight or freeze behaviour.  In these challenging times we can experience emotional inflammation as we are challenged on many fronts.

The impact of information overload

Information overload is a characteristic of our times with the ever-present and pervasive information highway.  With COVID19, we not only have to cope with the emotional strain of illness and death amongst our families , friends and colleagues but also the vast amounts of complex health advice and restrictions – information that is often conflicting and exacerbated by misinformation peddled by vested interests.  

The stress of information overload can be compounded by what Jamie and Rosie refer to as a our “digital and media diet” – a bias towards distressing information, rather than information that inspires, uplifts, or motivates.  An obsession with the news can be a daily diet of information that disturbs, distresses, distracts and debilitates us and severely limits our effective cognitive functioning.

Unfortunately, our natural tendency is to close down emotionally and avoid facing the pain of negative emotions.  We can block out difficult emotions such as fear, anxiety, and depression until such time as they take their toll on our physical health.  Liz Stanley, for example, explains how she lost her sight temporarily by “soldiering on” despite traumatic stress.

The role of mindfulness in developing cognitive resilience

Mindfulness practices can help us face raw and difficult emotions such as fear and build resilience through accepting our current reality, rather than denying its existence.   Rick Hanson, for example, provides a meditation practice designed to turn fear into resilience.   Bob Stahl, meditation teacher and author, offers a mindfulness practice to address fear and anxiety that are exacerbated by negative self-stories.

Mindfulness meditation can be a source of refuge in times of turbulence when we feel our minds and emotions whirling.  It enables us to restore our equilibrium and find peace and calm despite the waves of change and challenge crashing down on us.   We can build our resilience by taking time out to become grounded and to reconnect with ourselves. 

Jamie and Rosie point out the research that demonstrates that mindfulness can enhance both working memory and long-term memory.  Working memory constitutes our temporary storage facility that enables us to utilise information to effectively make decisions, act wisely and communicate appropriately.  It can become overwhelmed and degraded by stress and trauma and negatively impact our window of tolerance – narrowing it and thus reducing our capacity to cope with further stressors, however minor.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness we can increase our sense of agency in the face of stress and setbacks by facing up to our negative emotions and diffusing their impact, accessing our memory and cognitive faculties without the befuddlement of emotional overload, making sound choices about information that we expose ourselves to and developing groundedness despite the turbulent winds of change.  In this way, we can progressively build our cognitive resilience by reducing the negative impacts of stress on our cognitive functions and limiting emotional turmoil.  Hence, we will be better able to access our creative faculties and take wise actions such as scenario thinking to deal with ongoing stressors. 

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Image by Leni_und_Tom 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.