Mental Health and the Burden of Expectations for Elite Athletes

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics brought the issue of the mental health of elite athletes into the spotlight with the open admission of mental health issues by Naomi Osaka (World No.2 tennis player) and Simone Biles (American gymnast considered one of the greatest gymnast ever).  Both elite athletes acknowledge that their performance and capacity to participate to the best of their ability was impacted by mental health issues.  One of the key stressors for both these athletes was the burden of expectations, their own and that of other people, including the press and social media.

Naomi Osaka and mental health

In winning the 2019 Australian Open singles title, Naomi Osaka was the epitome of mindfulness in action – displaying resilience in the face of setbacks and disappointments, overcoming negative thoughts and drawing on gratitude as a means to stay grounded in the present moment.  Yet by the middle of 2021, Naomi was experiencing severe mental health issues that led her to withdraw from the French Open after winning her first round match.

Naomi explained that she had experienced “long bouts of depression” since her win over Serena Williams at the US Open in 2018.  She found giving post-match interviews particularly difficult because she is an introvert and inherently shy and has trouble dealing with the public scrutiny and criticism of the way she plays a match.  Because of these difficulties, she publicly stated that she would not give post-match interviews during the 2021 French Open.  This attracted a vehement response from an unforgiving press and social media that had created her social persona and related performance expectations.  Added to the stress of the moment was a fine of $15,000 for refusing to be interviewed after her first round win, along with the threat of expulsion from the French Open (along with other Grand Slam events).

Some people rallied around Naomi and praised her for her willingness to publicly acknowledge her mental health issues, her judgment in taking a “mental health break” to concentrate on “self-care”, and her desire to avoid being a “distraction” from the main event.  Some ruthlessly and with no compassion judged her as weak and suggested she toughen up.  So the very criticism she had wanted to avoid was heaped on her after her decision to withdraw for mental health reasons. 

It is understandable then that Naomi (with the memory of the trauma of the French Open still raw and real), should play a “loose game” when losing her Olympic third round match to world No. 42 Marketa Vondrousova.  Naomi admitted that she found the pressure of expectation too difficult to handle.  She had been made the “face of the Olympics”, had her first round match delayed so that she could light the Olympic Torch at the Opening Ceremony and carried with her the hope of her entire country, Japan (the host of the Olympics).

Barney Ronay wrote a scathing piece during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics about the role of media in Big Sport creating a “24-hour rolling hell” amid what he described as an “endlessly hostile kind of unregulated social experiment”.  He points out that the athletes carry the weight of unrealistic expectations to be brilliant all the time, to assuage the sadness and despair of individual nations with rays of hope and achievement and fulfill political desires and sponsor demands.  He argues that the world has become “a place of unceasing noise, reverence, poison, expectation” where athletes who have had a disrupted preparation in the face of pandemic uncertainty are subjected to the amplification of their mistakes and the associated “unkind words” voiced by caustic observers. 

Naomi, in an insightful essay in Time Magazine after her French Open withdrawal, expressed her disappointment and regret that she was subjected to detailed, public scrutiny of her mental health condition by the press and French Open organisers.  She explained that this invasion of privacy aggravated her mental illness at the time (and subsequently, through the memory of these painful events).  She asked for “empathy” and “privacy” from the press.

There is now a special three-part Netflix documentary on Naomi Osaka which will help people to understand the influences in her life, the pressures she is under and the ways she seeks to manage overwhelming expectations.

Reflection

Privately, we each carry expectations of elite athletes and at times express criticism of their performance without knowing what is happening in their lives at a point in time or understanding the pressures they are under. It might be more helpful, caring and compassionate to refrain from our criticisms and focus on what the athlete has had to go through to achieve an elite performance level.

I have just finished reading Tania Chandler’s novel, All That I Remember About Dean Cole, which tracks the journey of a young woman from trauma to triumph.  This penetrating and “compelling portrait” of mental illness is insightful and engaging.  In an interview about her book, Tania explained that the book is “about memory, time, mental illness, perception, and perspective”.  She stated that she drew on her lived experience of mental illness in her book as well as thorough research into areas such as trauma, mental health, depression, schizophrenia, psychosis, caring for people with mental illness, burns care, terror attacks and synaesthesia

Tania’s book can help us become more aware that people we interact with daily are all subject to the influence of past events whether they experienced psychological control in a relationship, sexual abuse, physical abuse, trauma, social conditioning, parental neglect, an alcoholic parent, parental divorce or any of the multitude forms of adverse childhood experiences.  This should encourage us to be more empathetic and compassionate towards others. 

As we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, we can enhance our sensitivity and compassion, develop insight into mental illness and its behavioural manifestations and learn ways to develop self-care, gratitude and compassionate thoughts and action.  In the process, we can develop our resilience in dealing with challenging times, ill-health, disappointments and setbacks.  We can grow in awareness of the impact of our words and actions and learn to overcome habituated responses such as criticism.

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Image Source: Ron Passfield (Point Lookout, Stradbroke Island)

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-Healing through Energy Techniques

Tami Simon of Sounds True provides a podcast of her interview with Amy Scher, energy therapist and author of How to Heal Yourself from Depression When No one Else Can.   The interview is part of the podcast series titled, Insights at the Edge.

In the conversation with Amy, Tami explores the origins of her interest in “energy psychology”, experiences a number of energy techniques, and discuses the implications and efficacy of the energy processes.

Amy’s interest in energy psychology

Amy was motivated to explore the whole field of energy psychology when she found that nothing worked in terms of being able to treat her own severe illness, including chronic Lyme disease.  She experienced all kinds of debilitating and energy-draining symptoms, including difficulty with walking, being bedridden and suffering from headaches, nausea, and other severe symptoms.  Amy even tried the risky procedure of an “experimental stem cell transplant”, which required her to travel to India.   While this latter treatment worked for a while, her symptoms started to reappear, albeit with less severity.   This symptomatic recurrence and the fear that her condition would worsen again provided the motivation to explore self-healing as an alternative to doctor-controlled treatments.

The mind-body-energy-emotion connection

Energy psychology recognises that throughs, emotions, and beliefs impact the physical systems of the body, e.g., the digestive system and nervous system.  Our emotions and thoughts can create ill-health and physical dysfunction.   So, the associated process of “energy therapy” works with the body’s own self-healing processes by stimulating the internal energy system of the body – an approach that is consistent with that of other healing modalities such as  acupuncture, Reiki, acupressure, and Japanese Seitai Massage.  While the latter treatment modality focuses on the musculoskeletal system to remove physical blockages to energy flow, energy psychology involves “working with the emotional landscape” and its connection to the energy system of the body, thus helping to “heal body, mind and spirit”.

Energy techniques

Fundamental to a wide range of energy techniques provided by Amy in her book is a recognition that our thoughts, emotions and beliefs impact our body’s welfare, e.g., we might say, “I’m feeling really uptight just thinking about what might happen”.  Negative self-stories about self-worth, how others view us and what we are capable of, all add to the stress experienced by the body and manifest in different ways depending on the emotions involved.  The challenge is accepting that we play a significant part, consciously or unconsciously, in our physical health.   This is a difficult concept to swallow and even Amy talks about the strength of her own resistance to this idea of personal contribution to her own ill-health.  The techniques she discusses primarily involve listening to your own body.

Listening to your own body

Amy indicated that the real breakthrough for her occurred when she started to be still and quiet and to listen to her own body and what it was telling her.  She maintains that physical symptoms are the “body’s communication system” and that emotions convey a message.  We just need to listen with openness and curiosity to begin the process of self-healing.  In her book mentioned above, she identifies the “most common subconscious blocks” to energy flow in the body, exploring the body’s messages, symptom by symptom.

Practising energy techniques

One of Amy’s own foundational energy blocks was the belief that “If I express my true self, I’ll be unlovable” – a damaging belief that had its genesis in her Jewish origins and the generational trauma passed down through her grandfather and father who lived through the Holocaust.  Both Amy and her father experienced deep depression – hence, the motivation for her recent book.

Amy provided a sample of energy techniques during the podcast and enabled podcast listeners to experience three techniques:

  • The Sweep – a particular narrative that is spoken or read to “sweep” unconscious, harmful beliefs from the mind.  Amy maintains that this process can lead to a shift, however small, in perspective or belief. 
  • Tapping – this is an increasingly recognised healing technique that is part of the repertoire of energy therapists and is described by Amy as one of her “micro-movements” – a recognition that a shift happens in small steps, especially for someone experiencing depression.  Amy provides a specific tapping technique that involves focusing on the emotion that you are experiencing in the present moment while tapping on your chest.  She suggests that you can strengthen the freeing effect of tapping by saying over and over, “let go, let go, let go”. 
  • Accepting yourself – Amy suggests that an approach you can use when you are tending to “beat up on yourself” is to challenge the thought that generated the emotion by saying something like, “Was I really that bad or unforgivable?”  She maintains that a shift can happen if you focus instead on “the next less shitty thing that you can think about yourself”.  Again, this practice constitutes a micro-movement.

Amy explained that her book provides a wide range of energy techniques that readers can practice to help them achieve their own energy shifts and self-healing.

Reflection

Research confirms the negative impact of stress and trauma on our immune system and the tendency of the body to experience various forms of inflammation.  The current challenging environment is contributing to “emotional inflammation” as well.  Amy highlights the impact of these stressors as causing “energy suppression”.  Her energy techniques are designed to release the trapped energy and enable the body to heal itself.  The process of self-healing generates a sense of agency for the person engaged in the relevant energy practices.  Some people have found that the vibrations involved in singing too can be a form of self-healing along with the positive emotions expressed in sung mantra meditations.

As we grow in mindfulness through energy techniques, meditation, and other mindfulness practices we can develop openness and curiosity, deepen self-awareness, and learn to heal our self.  Movement towards healing is possible if we sustain our practices.

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Image by Antonio López 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 Pandemic and Narrowing of the Window of Tolerance

David Treleaven and Liz Stanley discussed the current pandemic In their interview podcast on Widening the Window of Tolerance.  They both asserted that COVID-19 had effectively narrowed the window of tolerance of many people.  There are many people who are becoming increasingly stressed and traumatised by unfolding events, whether because of the death of relatives and friends, loss of a job, dislocation from their normal place of work (and way of working) and/or stringent “lockdowns”.

Narrowing the window of tolerance

In these very challenging times, people are becoming controlled by their “survival brain” – resorting to a fight, flight or freeze response.  Their window of tolerance is becoming narrowed, both in terms of their inner tolerance of challenges and external tolerance of differences.  Everything has been “thrown up in the air” so that they have lost their grounding in accurate perception and balanced body sensations. 

Polarisation , racism, and hate thrive in this disrupted state as people seek refuge in their “own tribe” (flight) and attack others who are different from themselves (fight).  Liz suggested that many people are “uncomfortable in their own skin” so that lockdowns and movement restrictions , creating disconnection, exacerbate the tendency to dysregulation (inability to control emotions).   The sense of hopelessness and helplessness in facing continuous and growing uncertainty adds to the incidence of anxiety and depression.

A compounding factor is that social media becomes what Liz calls an “echo chamber” – it gives unregulated voice to “dysregulated communications” that increase the tendency towards polarisation.  People retreat to social media and television only to find that these media are increasingly disorientating and disturbing.    

Further compounding the issues for individuals is the fact that we tend to make a “bargain” with ourselves – e.g. we can put up with lockdown for three weeks by adding some new routines such as working different hours, taking more regular breaks and expanding project timelines.  However, when other people blatantly and inconsiderately breach lockdown regulations or social distancing requirements leading to further lockdowns, conforming people can feel betrayed – intensifying a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

Hope and widening the window of tolerance

In the previous post I discussed trauma-sensitive mindfulness and widening the window of tolerance.    Liz provides several strategies in her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.  In the interview podcast she shared some of her own strategies for becoming grounded during the current health and economic crisis – mindfulness meditation, gardening, walking and playing with the dog, and focusing on connectedness to others.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® provides detailed strategies and tools to navigate effectively through times of trauma and stress.  She makes the point that whenever we are controlled by our “survival brain”, we are disconnected from our “thinking brain” and shut off from the opportunity to access our creativity and ingenuity. In discussing “hope” in the current challenging times, David noted that the tendency to “hyperfocus on what is not working” (as he has done at times) tends to narrow the window of tolerance and our capacity to cope.  He suggests that accessing stories of successful transition can help to widen our window of tolerance, e.g. successful career changes by people who have lost their jobs. Another strategy that he suggests is to effectively reframe what is happening.  By way of example, he draws on the comments of Adrienne Maree Brown in her article on living through the unveiling:

Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered, we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

Liz reinforces this view when she suggests that it is really only in times of turbulence when everything seems to be “thrown up in the air”, that genuine and sustainable change can happen.

Reflection

As David suggests, we can choose to stay in the fog bank by continuing to absorb negative messages, both external and internal, or we can free ourselves from this befuddled state by growing in mindfulness and developing our own strategies to build resilience and stay grounded.

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Image by My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: 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.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and the Window of Tolerance

In the previous blog post I discussed several resources on the topic of trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  One of these was David Treleaven’s Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast which includes interviews with people who have expertise in the area or a related area.   In a recent podcast, David  had a conversation with Liz Stanley who not only experienced very considerable trauma, the impact of mindfulness meditation on her traumatic experience but also has developed her own resources and training for people, both civilians and military personnel, who have experienced trauma.  The conversation with Liz on the topic of Widening the Window of Tolerance draws on her personal experiences, study and training and incorporates ideas from her training program and her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.

The Window of Tolerance

The concept of the Window of Tolerance has been attributed to Dan Siegel, clinical psychologist and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), UCLA.  Dan is the author many books, including Aware: The science and practice of presence.  Many people, including David Treleaven and Liz Stanley, have applied the concept of the Window of Tolerance in their research and training in relation to trauma-sensitive mindfulness.

The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (nicabm) provides an infographic that illustrates the concept in a very clear and easy-to-understand way.  They explain that the window of tolerance is about our capacity to deal with the challenges and stresses of the moment and take wise action to deal with them.  When stress takes us outside our window of tolerance we can experience hyperarousal (related to the fight/flight response) which manifests in uncontrolled anger, emotional overwhelm, or extreme anxiety; or, alternatively, experience hypoarousal (related to the freeze response) which manifests in the body trying to shut down resulting in numbness, “zoning out” or “spacing out”.  

The Attachment and Trauma Treatment Centre for Healing (ATTCH), drawing on the work of Dan Siegel and colleagues, provides a more detailed explanation of the concept in an article titled, Understanding and Working with the Window of Tolerance.  Pooky Knightsmith, on the other hand, provides a simple explanation in her short video on the window of tolerance and how to apply it to managing our emotions in everyday life (for those who are not experiencing trauma or trauma stimuli).

Trauma and narrowing of the window of tolerance

In her podcast interview. Liz reinforced the view that trauma causes a narrowing of a person’s window of tolerance.  She explained that she is a living example of someone who has experienced multiple traumatic events and who tried to cope in the only way she knew how, conditioned as she was by familial and social determinants.  Liz suffered an incredible range of traumatic experiences – active military duty in Asia and Europe, PTSD,  a near-death experience (NDE), rape, and whistle-blower harassment as a result of formally complaining about sexual harassment by her senior officers.

Liz described her response in terms of the compulsivity that comes with hyperarousal (which can occur when a person is outside their window of tolerance).  Instead of dealing with her traumatic stress, she intensified her activities, completing two undergraduate degrees simultaneously.  She explained that like a lot of people, she “compartmentalised” the stress, suppressed it and just kept going harder than ever, managing on two hours sleep each night – she “soldiered on”, both literally and metaphorically.

Liz had to make changes when she temporarily lost her eyesight – something she described as “cosmic coping pain” when her body which had “borne the brunt” of her hyperactivity decided “enough was enough”.  It was then that she explored mindfulness and researched trauma and trauma healing.

Liz explained “trauma” as impacting “neuroception” – “how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or life threatening”.  In effect, trauma can distort our neuroception and effectively narrow our window of tolerance.  She explains the effect in terms of our “thinking brain” and our “survival brain”.

Our thinking brain enables us to analyse, make decisions, accurately perceive stimuli, and take wise action; our “survival brain” responds to perceived threats with the fight/flight/freeze response.  With trauma, the connection between the two is “compromised” so that, for example, seemingly harmless stimuli can be perceived as a threat and engender an inappropriate response negatively impacting a person’s health, relationships and capacity to undertake their work.   When we perceive a situation as hopeless or ourselves as powerless, our survival brain and nervous system can become flooded with heightened “emotional arousal”.

Liz explains, however, that when the thinking brain and survival brain are in harmony and working together, we have a wider window of tolerance – e.g. better tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty and the ability to identify and make effective choices, build sustainable connections, and perform optimally. 

Experience of mindfulness for dealing with trauma

Liz turned to mindfulness meditation to help her cope with her traumas which had deep-seated antecedents in the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by her father and grandfather (along with all the distorted coping mechanisms and fractured relationships that this entailed). Her initial experience with mindfulness was one of helping her to achieve some degree of self-awareness and associated self-regulation.  However, over time, she found that her “survival brain” took over as it began to “peel back deeper layers” – deep emotional scars hidden behind her hyperactivity (just as the happy-go-lucky “joker” or “larrikin” can hide the deep emotional pain of depression).

As some mindfulness practices acted as “trauma stimuli” she experienced panic and shallow breathing in-the-moment and flashbacks, nausea, claustrophobia, and inability to sleep for days afterwards.  Liz explained that a potential problem with mindfulness done in isolation and without appropriate modifications can lead to such heightened emotional awareness and arousal that the traumatised person can lose their ability to regulate their emotions and their unhealthy condition can be exacerbated rather than diminished, both mentally and physically.

Developing a trauma-sensitive approach to mindfulness training

Liz explained that she spoke to scientists and neuroscientists, explored multiple skills and techniques, and wrote a book about her experiences and her journey out of trauma disablement.  She found that the myths surrounding mindfulness could make matters worse unless the mindfulness trainer recognised the impact of traumatic experience on a person’s window of tolerance.

In her book on widening the window, she draws on her own experiences and stories from people she has trained in a areas such as healthcare facilities and the armed forces.  Liz maintains that you can build resilience even in stressful jobs or when healing from traumatic experience(s).  She provides strategies involving paying attention in certain ways to increase the capacity to access choice and creativity and to make courageous decisions while effectively connecting with others through curiosity, openness, and compassion.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® which was developed in 2008 and evaluated on four occasions by neuroscientists and stress experts is now available online through Sounds True.  The comprehensive course includes video training and live sessions on topics such as resilience, stress and trauma recovery, effective decision making and relationship building along with “new tools for successfully navigating the interpersonal aspects of stress, trauma, emotions, and conflict”.

Reflection

When you first hear about the potential harmful effects of mindfulness meditation training for trauma sufferers, you can understandably become concerned about conducting mindfulness training for any group.  Alternatively, you might initially dismiss the trauma-sensitive mindfulness movement as a movement to counter the growing global popularity of mindfulness.  However, the evidence to support the trauma-sensitive approach is growing and cannot be ignored.

On the other hand, both Liz and David strongly encourage practitioners not to be put off from training others in mindfulness by this new information nor to behave as if they are “walking on eggshells”.  They strongly encourage mindfulness trainers to persist, especially in these challenging times when mindfulness and resilience is needed by some many people.  They do, however, suggest to proceed with “some discernment”, develop increased awareness of trauma and its impacts, learn about new tools available for trauma-sensitive mindfulness training and intensify their own efforts to grow in mindfulness so that they can train with increasing awareness, insight and sensitivity.

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Image by skeeze 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.

Resources for Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

The core resource that I have used to understand and practise trauma-sensitive mindfulness is the work of David Treleaven.  David experienced trauma as a child and was a committed to mindfulness meditation practice which he found to be essential for healing trauma, but of itself insufficient.  His own clinical practice as a psychotherapist working with trauma sufferers confirmed this view of the essential nature of mindfulness meditation but its insufficiency in healing trauma sufferers.  David has dedicated his life’s work to researching and educating others about the relationship between mindfulness meditation and trauma.  This has culminated in his book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing and a website with additional resources. 

The potential for harm to trauma sufferers during mindfulness meditation

In his book and a free webinar on The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma, David explains that a lack of understanding by mindfulness trainers of the relationship between trauma and mindfulness meditation can result in overwhelm for a current or former trauma sufferer.  This overwhelm can be manifested in heightened anxiety, dissociation, or emotional dysregulation – the inability to control emotions elicited by a trauma stimulus.  Harm to the trauma sufferer by a meditation teacher can be exacerbated by a lack of understanding of trauma and perpetuation of the myths surrounding mindfulness meditation.  Typical responses that show this lack of understanding and sensitivity are statements like, “Stick with it” (by implication, “if you persist, your trauma response will go away”) or “Most people find this meditation relaxing and calming” (by implication, “there must be something wrong with you”).

The difficulty is compounded by the incidence of trauma and related adverse childhood experiences (ACE).   One study of 17,000 members of an integrated health fund found that two thirds had experienced an adverse childhood experience and 20% had experienced more than three such events.  There is now an ACE instrument whereby people can identify the number and type of ACE’s they have experienced in a lifetime.  David mentions other research that indicates that everyone will have at least one traumatic experience in their lifetime.  He goes on to say that the implication of this is that in any room of people practising mindfulness meditation, there will more likely be at least one person suffering trauma.  Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections, identifies disconnection from childhood trauma as one of the seven social causes of the pervasiveness of depression in society today.

The three myths about mindfulness meditation and trauma

In the 60-minute webinar on his website, David identifies three myths about mindfulness meditation that have been perpetuated in the popular press and in mindfulness training.  The three myths are as follows

  1. The Panacea Myth – the belief that mindfulness meditation will heal all kinds of stress, even stress generated by trauma.  David’s own experience and his clinical experience working with trauma sufferers reinforces the fact that mindfulness meditation alone will not heal trauma – mindfulness meditation processes need to be modified and, in some cases, supplemented by other methodologies such as professional psychological support.
  2. The Breath Myth – the belief that breathing is emotionally neutral.  David explains that because the respiratory system is biologically proximate to the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for excitation of our “flight/ flight/freeze” response) “close and sustained focus on the breath” can re-traumatise an individual for whom “breath” is a trauma stimulus. He states categorically and importantly that “people have different relationships to breath at different moments”.  He encourages the listener to experiment with this throughout the day to confirm that our breathing can be relaxed, tense or emotionally neutral at any point in a day.
  3. The Sufficiency myth – the belief that mindfulness meditation alone is sufficient to heal trauma.  David draws on case examples to illustrate the need for modifications to mindfulness meditation practice and the introduction of additional “self-regulation” tools to enable a person to heal from trauma.

Overall strategies to develop trauma-sensitive mindfulness training practices

David and other authors, practitioners, and researchers provide a range of strategies to “do no harm” when educating others in mindfulness meditation.  Here are some key strategies:

  • Understand trauma – First and foremost, understand trauma and its components on a biological, psychological, and social level.  Without this understanding, it is difficult to develop the sensitivity and flexibility required to do no harm when facilitating a mindfulness meditation session.  Associated with this, is the need to understand trauma-sensitive mindfulness and different strategies that can be adopted by mindfulness trainers and educators.
  • Provide choice re participation – this can be as basic as the freedom not to participate in any or all mindfulness practices on a particular occasion.  It can be the freedom to choose to close your eyes or leave them open (downcast or in wide-ranging exploration) and/or the option to sit, stand, walk  or lie down during meditation practice.  David points out that choice reinforces a sense of agency and is an important and healing aspect of mental health.  He also warns about the potential of offering too much choice in one session which can result in stress for participants, particularly those who already experiencing anxiety (David learned this by making this mistake himself in his zeal to provide agency).
  • Provide choice of anchors – this is a key area of choice that not only recognises that some anchors can be trauma stimuli for some individuals but also that anchors in meditation are an area of personal preference (what works for one person does not work for another).  Anchors enable meditators to restore their focus when they have been diverted by a distracting thought and/or emotion.
  • Adopt modifications to mindfulness meditation practices when needed – In the webinar mentioned about, David provides examples of how he has been able to offer modifications to mindfulness meditation practices for particular individuals when working one-to-one, including  allowing brief breaks to walk around, suggesting a shift in posture and encouraging the use of deep breathing at different intervals or at appropriate moments.  Sam Himelstein, who works with traumatised teenagers, has found, for example, that where a teenager cannot talk about, or focus on their feelings about, their traumatic experience, listening to appropriate music together can be relationship building and enable progress to be made in healing teenage trauma.
  • Develop awareness of principles, guidelines and practices for trauma-sensitive mindfulness – David provides a comprehensive, two-part, online program for training mindfulness practitioners in trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  He also provides a free Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast featuring  people such as Liz Stanley on Widening the Window of Tolerance and Sharon Salzberg on Loving-Kindness Meditation.   Sam Himelstein, author of Trauma-Informed Mindfulness With Teens, offers both guidelines and principles to enable mindfulness trainers and educators to develop the awareness and sensitivity to work with people who have experienced trauma.

Reflection

Reading about the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma-sensitive mindfulness made me realise that I had suffered multiple traumas as a child and that my five-years’ experience in daily mindfulness meditation and Gregorian chant as a contemplative monk in the late 1960’s had helped me to heal from these traumas. 

Recently, I had two participants out of a group of 20 in a management training program who openly stated at the beginning of the program that they suffered from chronic anxiety – one of whom experienced trauma as a result of their manager shouting at them and abusing them in public.  This facilitation experience confirmed the need to modify the training program and also led me to further explore anxiety through Scott Stossel’s book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope and Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind.  This book helped me to become more aware of the pervasiveness of trauma-induced anxiety across the world, intensified by the global pandemic, and how such anxiety can pervade every aspect of an individual’s life.

I have also witnessed two situations of emotional dysregulation during training courses when individuals have experienced a trauma stimulus – one during a singing course when a person experienced acoustic trauma and another where someone experienced re-traumatisation during observation of a success posture exercise being undertaken by another individual with the guidance of a workshop facilitator.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and research, we can become more self-aware, develop insight and sensitivity to work with people who are experiencing trauma and anxiety and build the flexibility and confidence to adopt mindfulness practices and approaches that are more trauma-sensitive.

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Image by Maria Karysheva 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.

Tai Chi for Physical Health, Energy and Psychological Well-Being

Tai Chi is an integrative, whole-body routine that builds the mind-body connection.  There are many attempts to categorise the numerous benefits of Tai Chi and the categories vary with the orientation of the writer/researcher. For instance, Dr. Peter Wayne of the Harvard Medical School who has spent many years researching and teaching the efficacy of Tai Chi identified eight active ingredients of this internal martial art in his book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi.

World-renowned martial arts practitioner, Bruce Frantzis, maintains that the integrative power of Tai Chi flows from the combination of stillness of the mind with intentional movement of the body.  The stillness refers to being present in the moment, not lost in thoughts associated with the past or the future.  However, as Peter Wayne points out, the mind-body connection is enhanced immeasurably by integrating breathing, movement and “cognitive skills” associated with focused attention, body awareness and the use of imagery.

In this current blog post, I will explore the benefits and efficacy of Tai Chi under three categories (which are not mutually exclusive but are mutually reinforcing) – physical health, energy and psychological well-being.

Tai Chi for physical health

The health benefits of Tai Chi are numerous and wide-ranging, positively impacting multiple bodily systems such as the circulatory, immune, respiratory and nervous systems.  Along with these systemic benefits are improvements in the functioning of different parts of the body such as the heart, nerves, muscles and bones.  In turn, the integrative nature of this internal martial art builds balance and coordination and improves flexibility and reflexes.  

Tai Chi can also relieve or remove chronic health problems.  Caroline Frantzis, in commenting on Bruce’s video presentation and illustration of Taoist energy arts, observed that Tai Chi is prescribed quite regularly by Chinese doctors as a form of therapeutic treatment for “blood pressure, heart problems, poor circulation, asthma, impotence, and nervous diseases” as well as for arthritis and back, neck and joint problems.  Researchers too have shown that practising Tai Chi regularly increases brain volume, improves thinking skills and memory and may, in fact, prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s or reduce the rate of development of dementia-related illnesses.

Tai Chi for energy

Bruce Frantzis has spent the better part of his adult life studying and exploring Qi, the energetic lifeforce that enables the body and mind to function.  He maintains that when we can really tune into our bodies through Tai Chi, we can actually feel the energy flow as it moves through “the fluids, nerves, fascia and other tissues” of the body.  In this way, according to Bruce, we can “become more fully alive and vibrant” because we have released any blockages and enabled the natural energy flow of the body.  In support of these observations, Caroline Frantzis (nee Martin) stated that during Tai Chi a practitioner “exercises every single muscle, ligament, tendon and joint of the body” and the associated movements effectively massage internal organs and every lymph node thus energising “all the body’s internal pumps”.

Tai Chi for psychological well-being

Peter Wayne devotes a complete chapter to the positive impact of Tai Chi on psychological well-being in his book, The Harvard Medical Guide to Tai Chi.  He incorporates personal reports and scientific research to illustrate how Tai Chi can reduce both depression and anxiety symptoms, improve mood, develop positive attitudes, reduce stress and tame the “monkey mind” (“mind wandering” is the cause of much personal distress).  He argues that Tai Chi’s positive impacts on psychological health can be attributed to not only its emphasis on “form and posture” together with its exercise component but also its capacity to develop “mindfulness and focused attention”.  He draws on recent research to demonstrate that these latter attributes and the associated state of being-in-the-moment, actively contribute to improved psychological welfare, happiness and overall quality of life. 

Peter explains how he accentuates this positive contribution of Tai Chi by having his trainees focus on bodily sensations during practice (e.g. the feel of your feet on the floor or ground, the movement of your breath or your hands/head, or the warm sensation in your fingers).  He maintains that the psychological benefits of Tai Chi can be increased by not thinking “but simply notice things as they are, without trying to fix or change them”.   Peter Wayne also draws on the comments of Peter Deadman that “cultivating this deeper awareness allows us to feel and explore the truer currents of our emotional life”.   He also alludes to the power of imagery and visualisation during Tai Chi as a means to develop positive thoughts and groundedness (e.g. imagining yourself as a tree with deep roots into the ground through which passes all tension and tautness).

Reflection

I have found in the past that frequently reviewing the benefits of Tai Chi identified by researches and practitioners builds my own motivation to incorporate this internal martial art form in my mindfulness practice.  Peter Wayne, in his Guide to Tai Chi mentioned above, provides a photo-illustrated, simple program along with ways to incorporate Tai Chi into the activities of each day.

I have previously completed two introductory Tai Chi courses conducted by the Taoist Tai Chi Society.   However I found the 108 movements based on the practice of Master Moy Lin Shin too difficult to learn and practise because of my work commitments.  I have found since, that I can regularly practise the first 17 moves of Master Moy’s Tai Chi set by following the free “Practise with me” video training guide.

Darius Boyd, Australian Rugby League legend, describes in his recently-released book, Battling the Blues, how he went through a number of really “dark periods” of depression and how he came out of these feeling stronger and more resilient through the assistance of professional therapy and the social support of his wife, mentors and friends.  He maintains that we each have dark periods and that “mental health is something that you consistently need to work at”.  Tai Chi offers an easy and accessible way to keep the dark periods at bay or, at the very least, to lessen their impact.

As we grow in mindfulness and focused attention through meditation and Tai Chi, we can reap the benefits of regular practice in terms of improved physical health and psychological well-being, enhanced energy levels and enjoyment of the ease of wellness.

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Image by Elias Sch. 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.

Accessing the Genius of Anxiety for Improved Mental Health

Karla McLaren discussed embracing anxiety in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True when having a conversation about Making Friends with Anxiety … And All Your Other Emotions.   Karla was able to draw on her own life experience and her recent book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.   She has spent a lifetime researching and writing about emotions.

In a previous post, I explored Karla’s concept of emotions as storing energy and providing a message and wisdom.  I also discussed effective ways to draw on the energy and wisdom of emotions.  Karla emphasised the importance of not attributing the characteristics of “good” or “bad” to emotions, including difficult emotions.  In her view there are real lessons and ways to move forward hidden in each emotion, even anxiety.

Trauma and anxiety

Karla herself experienced childhood trauma and many of her insights are drawn from her experience in overcoming the associated anxiety and depression.  Like other people who have been traumatised, Karla has had to deal with anxiety and depression throughout her life.  She found that she was ignorant about these emotions and tended to repress or suppress them.   However, through reading and research she has been able to develop practical approaches to addressing anxiety and depression.  She has learned to befriend these emotions and now views depression as enforced slowing down and redirection and has developed the ability to draw on the “genius of anxiety”.

The genius of anxiety

In her interview with Elizabeth Markle on embracing anxiety, Karla emphasised that anxiety is “an essential source of foresight, intuition, and energy for completing your tasks and projects”.  As with any emotion we have a choice – we can suppress, repress or “over-express” anxiety or, alternatively, listen to the message and wisdom that lies within this emotion.  We need to understand that emotion is a process – trigger, experience, response – we have a choice in how we respond to what triggers us and the feelings we experience as a result.

Karla suggests that the appropriate response to situational anxiety is to channel the energy of the emotion towards completing a task or project – much as a canal channels water.  Repression or suppression of anxiety blocks the energy flow, while over-expressing anxiety through panicked or frantic activity can dissipate the energy rather than direct it.  A starting point for channelling the energy of anxiety is “conscious questioning” – e.g. “What brought on this feeling?” and “What truly needs to get done?”   This approach enables you to work with, rather than against, the energy of anxiety and to simultaneously care for yourself by downregulating the impact of the emotion on your thoughts and feelings. 

Karla continued her discussion of “conscious questioning” for anxiety by referring to a sample of other questions featured in her book, Embracing Anxiety (p.85):

  • what are your strengths and resources?
  • are there any upcoming deadlines?
  • have you achieved or completed something similar in the past?
  • can you delegate any tasks or ask for help?
  • what is one small task you can complete tonight or today?

Karla argues that this approach involves “leaning into anxiety”, not artificially calming yourself.  She also alludes to the research that demonstrates that accurate naming of our emotions and identifying the level of intensity of them is another effective form of downregulating emotions.  To this end she encourages us to develop our emotion vocabulary and offers her blog as a starting point for emotion identification.  In her book she offers ways of describing different levels of emotional intensity, for example, low anxiety is described as apprehensive, mild anxiety as edgy or nervous and intense anxiety as overwrought or super-energised.

Karla suggests too that yoga and mindfulness are effective ways of downregulating that can assist the process of conscious questioning.  She offered very brief meditation to illustrate this calming effect.  The meditation basically involved focusing on the quietest sound in the room.  Karla provides a range of practices for each emotion in her book,

Different anxiety orientations: planner vs procrastinator

Karla drew on the work of Mary Lamia, author of What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success, to differentiate between two main manifestations of anxiety – planning anxiety and procrastination anxiety.  The planner maintains a low level of anxiety continuously and has a task “to-do” list(s) to manage their anxiety about getting things done.  The procrastinator, on the other hand, does not make lists but works to deadlines and has an immense burst of anxiety and energy the night before a deadline is due (and often achieves the task in the early or late hours of the morning).  The procrastinator can “chill out” while waiting for the deadline, the task person has difficulty “chilling”.

Mary points out that what is different in the two approaches to task achievement has to do with “when their emotions are activated and what activates them”.  The procrastinator, for example, is motivated by the imminent deadline and experiences “deadline energy”; the planner is motivated by the need to keep task commitments under control.   Understanding the difference between these two sources of motivating anxiety and your personal preference in how to get things done, can reduce conflict in a relationship and support success where partners have a different orientation.   Maria discusses the potential clash in orientation between procrastinators and non-procrastinators in her Psychology Today blog.

Reflection

Mindfulness practices along with conscious questioning and reflection can help us to focus the emotional energy of anxiety.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can better identify our emotions, understand what motivates others and increase our response ability

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Image by Lars Eriksson from Pixabay

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

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

Understanding the Message and Wisdom of Difficult Emotions

In a recent interview podcast, Tami Simon of Sounds True recorded a conversation with Karla McLaren, author of The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You.   The interview covered a range of emotions and the message and wisdom that lie beneath each one.  Karla’s primary focus was on emphasizing that emotions are not good or bad but serve to help us in various ways to change our situation and/or our behaviour.  In her view, emotions are a hidden source of wisdom that we should listen to rather than seek to control or dismiss.  Karla noted that people often deflect their attention from difficult emotions and try to displace them with “happier” experiences – thus missing the message of emotions.

Emotions hold a huge amount of energy

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla highlights the huge amount of energy that is stored in emotions, especially those that we label as “bad”.   The unproductive ways to deal with these emotions (and the energy stored within them) is either to suppress or repress them.  Suppression involves consciously distracting ourselves from the discomfort of these emotions and trying to meet the unrealistic ideal of an “always happy” person.  It can be okay as a short-term solution, but if the emotion (e.g. anger) remains unaddressed then it can lead to dysfunctional and harmful behaviour as we express our emotions in an unhelpful way.  

Repression, on the other hand, involves unconscious avoidance of emotions (a response partly conditioned by our upbringing and our perceptions of other people’s views).   The energy stored in repressed emotions can manifest itself in a depleted immune system and physical symptoms such as muscle pain and fatigue as well as the associated increased risk of serious illness such as cardiovascular disease.  You can see the negative impact of repressed emotions such as anger  operating in the workplace when someone at work blasts you for something that was a very minor mistake – you cop an “emotional dump” that is a response completely disproportionate to the nature of your error (but that manifests the accumulated energy of a repressed emotion).

Emotions are not good or bad

By naming difficult emotions as “bad”, we perpetuate our reluctance to face them and understand their message and wisdom.  Instead we increase our motivation to suppress or repress them because we fear what others might think, even if we express them in an entirely appropriate way.  Karla suggests too that when we label some emotions as “good” we are potentially setting ourselves up for disappointment or negative self-evaluation – because we perceive that we don’t feel as positive as others expect or express our good emotions in a way expected by others.

According to Karla, what lies behind calling emotions “bad” or “good” is an “attribution error” – we erroneously blame our emotions for the precipitating situation or trigger.   Our difficult emotions do not create our problems (like the health and economic impacts of the Coronavirus) – they exist to help us deal with our problems and difficult situations, if only we would listen to the message they convey.

Understanding the message and wisdom of difficult emotions

The first task is to name your feelings in a fine-grained way or what Susan David calls developing a granular description of your feelings.  This involves avoiding generalisations such as “I feel upset” and being more precise about the feelings involved such as anger, fear or anxiety.  Until you can name and compassionately accept your difficult emotions, you will be unable to understand what they are telling you.

According to Karla, each emotion has its own message.  For example, depression arising from a specific situation reduces your energy and slows you down so that you can see when something is not right, and you need to change the situation.  Karla maintains that depression “removes energy when we are going in the wrong way to do the wrong things for the wrong reason”.   On the other hand, anger helps you to establish boundaries (e.g. constant interruptions or intrusions into your personal space) and fear helps you to get really focused on the present moment and to draw on your insight and intuition to address the trigger for your fear.

Karla maintains that the current challenging times of the Coronavirus is resulting in people experiencing dyads or triads of emotions – she sees, for example, evidence of people simultaneously experiencing sadness, depression and grief.  In her view, sadness in this context is a message to let go of something that no longer works or applies (e.g. working in a workplace during pandemic restrictions) and grief is a natural emotion when you have lost someone or something – it is about taking the time to grieve and allowing for the fact that grief is experienced and expressed differently by different people and its expression changes over time.

Effective ways to draw on the message and wisdom of emotions

Karla emphasised the importance of being grounded when you attempt to deal with difficult emotions.  In her interview podcast with Tami Simon, she described a process based on deep breathing and sighing and complete focus on the present moment and your bodily sensations.  She suggested, for instance, that you feel the sensation of your bottom on the seat and your feet on the floor and listen to the sounds that surround you.

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla provides many experiential exercises to draw out the wisdom hidden in a wide range of emotions including anger, fear, jealousy and shame.  Through these exercises you can gain emotional fluency in dealing with your own and others’ emotions.  Karla stresses the importance of understanding a particular emotion and being able to differentiate it from other emotions, e.g. differentiating between sadness and grief.  This clarity about the nature of a particular emotion enables you to identify practices to understand and act on the message and wisdom inherent in the emotion.  She provides an alphabetical list of emotions and links to relevant blog posts on her website as well as videos on different emotions on her YouTube© playlist.

Another strategy that Karla mentioned is that of “conscious questioning” which she describes in detail in her latest book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.  In the interview podcast, Karla provided an example of this process that can be used in relation to panic.  For example, you can ask yourself, “What is the basis of my fear and the likelihood that what I fear will happen?” or “Can I avoid the situation that has the potential to harm me and is making me fearful?”  In the latter case, you might put off a visit to a food store at a busy time for fear of contamination from the Coronavirus.  Panic can help us to realise a potentially dangerous situation and enable us to take action to avoid the situation.   If your panic is chronic and not situational, other approaches such as managing your morning panic attack might help.

Reflection

Karla draws on her own life experience of dealing with her difficult emotions as well as a lifetime of research into emotions, their manifestation and effective ways of dealing with them.  As we grow in mindfulness and understanding through experiential exercises, reflection, conscious questioning and meditation we can access the messages and wisdom hidden in our emotions and develop emotional fluency.  Through these mindfulness practices we can safely negotiate difficult emotions and restore our equilibrium in any situation.

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Image by Anemone123 from Pixabay

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

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