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.

Alzheimer’s Disease and Disconnection from the Present Location

One of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease that is not often spoken about is “disorientation” – an “altered mental state” where the sufferer loses track of their identity and location and/or the time and date.   Disorientation can have multiple causes but with Alzheimer’s sufferers it can be part of the confusion arising from “abnormalities in the brain structure or functioning”. 

Disorientation in layman’s language is about making associations amongst events, time and location that do not exist in reality, but only in the brain of the Alzheimer’s sufferer.  It is as if neural pathways that usually connect data, information and emotions become cross-wired or mixed up so that unassociated events become wrongly associated.  The Alzheimer’s sufferer, for example, may hear something mentioned in conversation (e.g., a past event, location, or time) and relate that to the present moment as if it was real now.  

Being exposed to this disorientation by an Alzheimer’s sufferer makes you appreciate the wonder of the brain when it is functioning properly – the ability to make order and sense of millions of stimuli and associations in the passage of everyday life.  We take so much of this for granted and exposure to Alzheimer’s disorientation reminds you that you really do need to “mind your brain”.

Impact of disorientation on the Alzheimer’s sufferer

There really is not enough space to traverse the full extent of the impact of disorientation on the Alzheimer’s sufferer.  Suffice it to say that the disorientation can be very disturbing for the individual involved.  They may be firmly convinced about what they are thinking and experiencing as reality and become upset when others contradict them.  They may start to lose confidence in their ability to understand what is going on.  This can lead to increasing anger, frustration, and hostility.  Poet, Mark Doty, in his poem, This Your Home Now,  reminds us how unsettling the “loss of the familiar” can be even when the loss relates to something as simple as the routine of visiting a familiar barbershop.  There can be a real sense of grief associated with disorientation.

People like Professor Deborah Reed-Danahay have made a lifetime study of what identity and “home” mean to an individual and their capacity to become grounded and at peace.  Her ethnographic study of the concept of “home” for Alzheimer’s sufferers reinforces the influence of context and continuity to enable a person to transfer the concept of “home” from their normal place of living to that of a nursing home.  She discusses an individual in a nursing home who is constantly asking for her car to go “home”.  The Alzheimer’s sufferer may confuse previous homes with their existing location and may constantly ask for someone to give them “a lift home” – sometimes, resulting in a well-meaning visitor to a nursing home inappropriately offering them a lift.

Confusion about time and place can be compounded by recent events and newspaper reports.  Stories can be mixed up in terms of time and place and people affected, e.g., stories about beach accidents can be wrongly associated with close relatives.   Even the presence of a dementia clock can be a source of confusion – an easy-to-read clock designed to overcome confusion about time and date can be misinterpreted as a medication schedule (possibly precipitating unintentional overdose of medications).

Impact on the carer

When a person is caring for an Alzheimer’s sufferer, they can experience the sufferer’s disorientation as deeply disturbing and a constant source of disruption and agitation.  The Alzheimer’s sufferer may constantly ring them with misinformation about their location or what is happening around them.  They may imagine that they are someplace else other than the aged-care facility, and seek a lift to return “home”.  They could ring up frantically seeking assistance with lost young children (a situation that is a total figment of their imagination).  However, negative emotions are contagious, no matter how much you tell yourself that the situation described by the Alzheimer’s sufferer does not exist.

What also makes it very difficult for the carer is the constant change in the condition of the Alzheimer’s sufferer.  They may be incredibly lucid at one moment and in touch with current events and, in the next moment or day, be totally confused about events, location and timing.  They may have a very clear recollection about some past event or location and yet be unable to remember what they said a few moments previously.  The impact of this constant change and confusion can itself be disorientating for the carer.

The carer needs to develop endless patience and tolerance while maintaining self-care practices so that they are able to continue to provide effective support and help to the Alzheimer’s sufferer.

Reflection

The experience of the disorientation of an Alzheimer’s sufferer really makes us appreciate what our brain actually does for us on a moment-by-moment basis as we take in millions of stimuli and sensations.  It makes us appreciate our brain and motivates us to want to properly care for it through mindfulness practice and avoiding obsession with the news and social media.  It also reinforces the need for a carer to consciously strive for effective self-care.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can progressively become more self-aware and be really grateful for the functioning of our brains whether at work or home or when participating in sports.  Mindfulness becomes a way of being really grounded in the present moment, of finding a refuge that provides calm and tranquility amongst the turbulence of daily life.

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Image by Muhamad Suhkry Abbas 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 Meditation for Situational Anxiety

The meditation described here is one of many podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  The presenter is Diana Watson, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC and author of The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness.  In the book, Diana explains the nature of natural awareness and how to develop it.

Diana is the main presenter of the MARC meditation podcasts that cover a wide range of topics designed to build self-awareness, increase self-regulation, and enhance overall well-being.  Diana describes the weekly meditation sessions as an oasis in the midst of our turbulent and challenging times.  In the meditation podcast described in this blog post Diana focuses on the topic, Are You Anxious?  The meditation is particularly powerful for people dealing with situational anxiety, e.g., awaiting a medical diagnosis or preparing for a job interview.  

The meditation may not work for some people who are experiencing a continuous state of non-specific anxiety.  The work of Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections, may be useful here.  Also , people who have experienced childhood trauma may find the trauma-sensitive mindfulness approaches more in keeping with their present experience.

The mind-body connection in anxiety

When we experience the emotion of anxiety, we become conscious of the close mind-body connection involved.  Anxiety can be felt in the body in many ways, e.g., “butterflies in the stomach”, aches and pains in arms and/or legs, tightness in the chest or constriction or soreness of the throat.  Simultaneously, we will be experiencing negative thoughts such as imagining the worst possible scenario, questioning our ability to cope, recalling previous “failures” or envisaging a poor outcome.  The combination of thoughts and uncomfortable bodily sensations creates a vicious cycle with one reinforcing the other.

What compounds the difficulty of dealing with anxiety is that it has a bad name – it is considered a bad emotion.  Karla McLaren, author of Embracing Anxiety, suggests that anxiety is a necessary emotion within which lies the wisdom to identify and support constructive action to deal with our challenges, tasks, and expectations. She offers ways to access the “genius of anxiety” to channel the inherent energy towards constructive action (instead of repression or suppression of the feeling).

A guided meditation for situational anxiety

Diana’s podcast begins with a grounding exercise covering breath, bodily sensations, and sounds.  Grounding is particularly relevant to dealing with anxiety because, as Johann points out, this emotion often arises from a sense of disconnection.   In the meditation, Diana strongly encourages us to feel the support of the chair, the earth, and our immediate environment – an approach designed to alleviate feeling unsupported in facing the challenges of life and to reinforce a sense of connectedness.

The next phase of the meditation focuses on our uncomfortable bodily sensations – getting in touch with, and reconnecting to, our bodies. It involves noticing how our body is responding to the emotion of anxiety and progressively releasing any tension, tightness, or constriction through a proactive body scan.

Moving beyond bodily sensations, Diana encourages us to address our negative thoughts by drawing on our inner wisdom to ask a series of challenging questions – what Karla calls “conscious questioning”.  This approach taps into previous achievements, challenges unfounded assumptions and catastrophe thinking and seeks to identify one or more constructive steps that can be taken to reduce anxiety and progress the task, project, or other challenging endeavour.

Diana rounds off her guided meditation on situational anxiety by encouraging us to engage in a loving kindness meditation – extending kindness to ourselves and others, particularly to those who are also experiencing anxiety.

Reflection

I recently used this guided meditation to help me deal with a challenging situation.  I found the body scan enlightening in the sense of unearthing and dealing with the uncomfortable bodily sensations associated with my anxiety.  The “conscious questioning” was also very constructive.  As we grow in mindfulness through guided meditations, whether face-to-face or via a podcast, we can increase our self-awareness (especially in relation to how our body and mind work in unison), develop our self-regulation by reducing reactivity and increase our sense of well-being and the associated ease.

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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.

Reclaiming Attention through Mindfulness

In a recent research paper published by the mindfulnessinitiative.org, Jamie Bristow and Rosie Bell identified how mindfulness strengthens agency in these challenging times.  Their paper focuses on three main outcomes of mindfulness that build agency.  The first of these was “perceiving, gathering and processing information”.  Drawing on extensive research, they showed how mindfulness builds our capacities in these areas by progressively developing our attention, receptivity and “cognitive resilience”.

Reclaiming attention

By definition, mindfulness involves “paying attention in the present moment” to develop awareness.  Mindfulness meditation builds our “awareness muscle” by helping us to overcome distractions while focusing on an anchor.  We can become distracted by our own incessant thoughts, our basic drives and the relentless marketing that stimulates our desire to have, hold and enjoy.  Through mindfulness, we can progressively regain control over our attention and direct it to more meaningful and healthful endeavours.

In discussing “reclaiming attention”, Jamie and Rosie make the point that what we attend to creates our reality.  They draw on the work by cognitive neuroscientist Professor Stanislas Dehaene featured in his 2020 book, How We Learn, when they maintain that what we choose to pay attention to, shapes our inner and outer world – “our brains and our whole reality”.  

The lack of paying attention in a meaningful and healthful way can lead to disconnection – a loss of connection to others, meaningful work, and  childhood traumas.  This disconnectedness, in turn, can result in alienation and loneliness along with depression and anxiety.  Mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, can help us to train our attention so that we can value our external connectedness, build our inner landscape, and manage difficult emotions.

Reflection

The paper by Jamie and Rosie reinforce the idea that we have choice – we can choose what we pay attention to and how we pay attention.  We can create our own reality – the quality of our life, our health, and our relationships.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can build our agency – our capacity to act on our inner and outer world.  So, mindfulness will not only help us to realise effective self-care in these challenging times, but also enable us to have the awareness and focus to act wisely in the world for the benefit of others.

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Image by yamabon 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.

Building Resilience through Compassion Towards Others

In a previous post, I discussed Pema Chödrön’s ideas of developing resilience through self-compassion by “compassionate abiding” in our own pain and suffering during these challenging times of the pandemic.  This entails abiding in, or dropping into, the full depth of our painful experience through our bodily sensations and conscious breathing.  As we undertake slow, conscious breathing we hold our suffering with self-kindness and warmth.  Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Warriors of Light, remind us to “breathe into our hearts” because breath is our chariot enabling us to face the unknown and stand on our own.

In her interview podcast with Tami Simon of Sounds True, Pema extended the concept of compassionate abiding by moving beyond self-compassion to compassion towards others.  She maintained that embracing the pain and suffering of others particularly in these times, when everyone is suffering in one form or another, contributes to our resilience – we realise we are not alone and we are able to move beyond self-absorption and “panic storylines” to extending kindness to others.

Pain and suffering: a doorway to compassion for others

In these challenging times of the Coronavirus, we can be very sure that there are millions of people around the world who are experiencing suffering like we are.  People are experiencing all forms of loss – of loved ones, their jobs, their business incomes, their health, their financial security or their homes.  They may have become physically disconnected from their workplaces, their family and their friends, even stranded in a foreign country because of international travel restrictions.  They could be healthcare professionals working on the frontline and/or living away from their families for a number of months to protect their loved ones from cross-infection.  We can be very confident that there are people around the world who are feeling pain and suffering like we are.

Pema argues that abiding with compassion in our own pain and suffering is the doorway opening us to compassion towards others.  In experiencing fully our own suffering, not denying its intensity or pervasiveness, we develop a deep sense of connection with others who are also suffering at this time.  Pema spoke of the principle of Tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “taking in and sending out” – taking in our own experience of pain and suffering and sending out desire for relief for others.  She suggests that once we become grounded in our own suffering (this may take 10-20 minutes), we can take in the suffering of others.  On our in-breath we can imagine others who are experiencing similar pain and suffering and on our out-breath, wish them relief and insight to enable them to move beyond their own discomfort, distress, grief or loneliness.  Connectedness and resilience lie in this mutual experiencing.

Pema maintains that we do not have to confine this compassion towards others to a time of extreme challenge, we can use our pain and suffering as the doorway to compassion and connectedness at other times.  We may be experiencing distress because a family member is suffering from Alzheimer’s or feeling panic and anxiety because someone we are carer for is experiencing the black dog of depression.  At these times, we can drop into conscious breathing, embracing our distress and anxiety with kindness, and gradually move beyond this abiding self-compassion to compassion towards others who are experiencing the intensity of our own emotions. 

Reflection

I think that Pema’s profound insight into compassionate abiding opens the way to develop self-compassion, compassion towards others and personal resilience.  As we grow in mindfulness through conscious breathing and extending relief to others, we can move beyond our self-destructive narratives, restore our inner equilibrium and peace, and develop the resilience to not only survive these challenging times but also be able to extend help and support to others. 

Compassion towards others can be expressed in many ways even in these times of social distancing – the virtual choir of women physicians singing “Rise Again” is but one example of many where people are moving beyond their own overwhelming challenges and distress to reach out to others.

Pema provides multiple resources including her many books, her free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön  and her online course, Freedom to Love, which expands on the principles and practice of compassionate abiding.

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Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay

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

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

Reduce Emotional Inflammation with Reconnection to Nature

Tami Simon recently interviewed psychiatrist Dr. Lise Van Susteren on Emotional Inflammation as part of the Insights at the Edge podcast series.  Lise drew on her newly published book co-authored with Stacey Colino, Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times.  While the book was written before the onset of the Coronavirus, it is made even more relevant in these times of the global dislocation caused by the pandemic.  Lise maintains that emotional inflammation existing before the outbreak of the Coronavirus has been aggravated by the virus and its flow-on effects such as anxiety and grief and the unnatural states of social isolation and social distancing.

Prior to the onset of the Coronavirus, people were experiencing emotional inflammation as a result of our global and local environments impacted by climate change, gun violence, racial and refugee discrimination, economic disparity and turbulent economic conditions.  Lise acknowledged that the pre-existent emotional inflammation has been exacerbated by the advent of the Coronavirus.

She described out current conditions as a “fraught inflamed time” and encouraged us to be kind to ourselves and others as we work our way through the many challenges confronting us on a daily basis.  Lise maintained that individuals will deal with the challenges in different ways, e.g. some will keep themselves busy and get engaged with community work such as The Care Army, while others will use the time to retreat, read and reflect and/or listen to encouraging and inspiring podcasts.

Loss of connection to nature

I have previously discussed the impact of  the “nature-deficit disorder” and the loss of connection to nature and its healing powers.  Lise, who is a renowned climate change activist, argues that much of our emotional inflammation is caused by a loss of harmony with nature and its natural energy flows.  We have not only devastated our ecosystems (and the “immune system of the environment”) but also lost our capacity to be attuned to nature and its tranquillity and timelessness.

We have become time-poor, impatient, intolerant and stressed by the pressures that surround us and, increasingly, by the technologically paced character of our lives.  We refer to “slow mail” and “running out of time” on a consistent basis as our communications have increased in speed, simultaneously with increased expectations about response times and constant exposure to information overload – we are drowning in information and unrealistic expectations.

Lise is a firm believer that our ecology impacts our biology and she bases her assertions on sound scientific evidence.  She is at pains to point out that climate change has a devastating effect on our physical and mental health, a perspective reinforced by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).  Our physical and mental health is intimately linked to our connectedness to others and to nature.  Connection is a deeply felt need and frustration of this connection leads to physical and mental illness, including depression, ill-health and anxiety.

Reflection

Emotional inflammation is strongly associated with disconnection from nature.  Reconnection with, and respect for, nature can bring many health benefits and reduce the enervating effects of this “fraught inflamed time”.   Mindfulness practices involving breathing can help us to become better attuned to nature and more at peace with ourselves and others.  Nature is a rich source of healing and time spent being mindful in nature can assist us to develop the equanimity and creativity we need to navigate the unprecedented challenges of our time.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on nature, mindfulness practices and reflection on our way of living, we can begin to realise the critical role that nature plays in our health and wellbeing.

Peter Doherty, Nobel Prize winner for his work on infectious diseases, suggests, like Lise, that there are opportunities to be taken, and real lessons to be learned, from the current challenges of the Coronavirus:

We need to take this opportunity to rethink how we live in the world, what’s of value to us and start to look at what is really important. (Interview quoted in the Australian Financial Review, 9-10 May 2020, p.37).

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Image by NickyPe 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.

Developing Resilience for Uncertain and Challenging Times

Danielle LaPorte – blogger, author, entrepreneur, podcaster and inspirational speaker – was recently interviewed by Tami Simon on the topic, Resilience in Challenging Times.   When asked how she is coping in the current Coronavirus crisis, she explained that in the main she is “feeling resilient” but sometimes drops out from her centre and experiences intense feelings of pain and sorrow.  For her, resilience is “coming home” to your true centre and your life as it is.  Danielle reinforced the need to fully face our fear and anxiety, rather than deny the reality of what is happening for us.  She reminds us that acceptance – accepting what is – is core to mindfulness, mental health and happiness.

Scenario thinking as a way to manage the uncertainties of life and business

Danielle drew on her role as a “social visionary” to recommend using scenario thinking as a way to manage through the uncertainties that confront us on every dimension of our lives today.  For example, with the staff of her entrepreneurial business she explored potential scenarios as they move forward, including the “worst possible” scenario.  Facing up to the worst possible scenario and exploring how you could cope gives you a sense of control over fear and anxiety – you have faced up to the thoughts that generate your fears and anxiety and diffused them by identifying ways to cope (rather than letting them whirl around in your head and disorientate you by pulling you away from your centre).  Danielle indicated that she applied scenario thinking to her personal life as well, even facing up to the possibility of her own death through Coronavirus infection.

In line with her scenario thinking and her role as a social futurist, Danielle suggested that the Coronavirus will bring out the best and worst in people.  We have seen this already, on the one hand, in panic buying and profiteering by hoarding and selling scare resources at exorbitant prices; on the other hand, the growing prevalence of kindness, thoughtfulness, generous sharing and compassionate action.   Danielle drew on Barbara Marx Hubbard’s analogy of the “crisis of birth” to talk about the pain of establishing a new world order where there is increasing integration of the scientific, social, economic and spiritual capacities of the human race through a process of “conscious evolution”.

The growth of heart-centred leadership

Danielle maintained that the current crisis creates a situation where heart-centred leadership becomes the new norm.  Leaders and managers of people working remotely as a result of enforced physical isolation are confronted with the need to be empathetic to the adverse situations experienced by many of their staff – some with ill parents, school-aged children at home, inadequate space, lack of necessary technical resources or inexperience in operating within a working from home environment.  Heart-centred leadership requires the development of compassion, a perception of leadership as resonance and the capacity to build leadership agility.

Danielle herself demonstrated heart-centred leadership when she spoke of “bothness” – the capacity to not only see and face your own suffering but also to recognise that others are suffering too, often experiencing much worse conditions and life circumstances than you are.  For example, she explained that the experience of a short supply of a particular grocery item bears no comparison to someone else’s situation where they have no food or any likelihood of obtaining anything that is nourishing.  Danielle suggests that her own pain and suffering is connecting her with “someone else with more pain”.  In the mutual experience of crisis, lies the energy of connectedness.

Reflection

The current Coronavirus crisis precipitates the development of self-intimacy rather than self-denial, the promotion of compassionate action over self-absorption, the growth of heart-centred leadership over narcissistic leadership and the emergence of a greater sense of connectedness, rather than disconnection.   As we grow in mindfulness – deep awareness of our self and others – through mindfulness practices, reflection and scenario thinking, we can maintain a positive mindset and contribute, however painfully, to the growth of a new, integrated world order.

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Image by Leslin_Liu from Pixabay

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

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

What Do You Do if Mindfulness Does Not Reduce Your Symptoms of Anxiety or Depression?

I was approached recently by a young man who was experiencing severe anxiety.  He was able to cope well with his work but had all kinds of difficulties coping at home, including endless self-doubts, negative self-stories and an inability to relax or concentrate.  He indicated that he had “tried everything’ – meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection. 

He found, for example, that “reflection” only resulted in his entertaining negative thoughts about himself and re-visiting his destructive self-stories.  So, reflection for him resulted in a downward spiral rather than a release from self-deprecation.

What does “tried everything” mean?

The first consideration is how did he approach these attempts to develop mindfulness and reduce his symptoms?  Given the young man’s level of agitation, it was likely that his efforts were somewhat frantic and unfocussed.  One could question whether he engaged in a sustained meditation practice in a focused way, e.g. working on his self-stories with the aid of a meditation teacher or meditation group.

One of the issues is that there are so many different forms of meditation that it is tempting to “try them all” and flit from one form to another, without addressing your specific needs or the causal factors of your depression or anxiety.  This is where a professional psychologist or dedicated professional group could help.  Organisations like Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute can help by providing knowledge, resources, group support, access to programs and advice in identifying a suitable medical practitioner, psychologist or psychiatrist.  Other specialist carer support groups can assist people who are experiencing anxiety or depression as a result of caring for someone who has a long-term need for care and support.

The Mental Health Care Plan

You may need medication and/or the aid of an allied health professional to overcome depression and/or anxiety. In Australia, there is a specialist form of help that can be accessed through your local medical practitioner, the Mental Health Care Plan.   You explain your symptoms and needs to a doctor who develops a mental health treatment plan with you.  This may include medication, referral to an allied health professional such as a psychologist and/or other forms of activity designed to address your specific mental health condition.  Medicare will provide rebates for visits to an authorised health care professional where the visits have been the subject of referral by a medical practitioner as part of a Mental Health Care Plan.  The number of visits covered by Medicare rebate is 10 (subject to a confirming review by the doctor after the first six visits).

Advancing our understanding of the causes of depression and anxiety

Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections, highlights recent research undertaken worldwide that shows that anti-depression medication can be effective in the short term to reduce symptoms but that, in the medium to long term, it typically has to be increased and can reduce in effectiveness over time.  In his book, Johann focuses on the social factors contributing to the global rise in depression and anxiety and proposes solutions that support rather than replace medication treatments, although some people are able to give up their medication after a period of successful use of one or more of these alternative approaches.

Johann identifies seven social factors that contribute to the rise in depression and anxiety, all relating to a loss of connection.  He describes them as “disconnection from”:

Johann acknowledges the research that shows that in some instances a person experiences depression and/or anxiety because of their genes or a brain change brought on by some life experience (pp. 143-155).

Reconnection: alternative anti-depressant treatments

Johann describes several ways to reconnect to overcome depression and anxiety.  These include reconnecting with others, with meaningful work, with nature and/or meaningful values. He also includes chapters on finding “sympathetic joy” while overcoming self-obsession (Chapter 20), and a compelling chapter on acknowledging and overcoming childhood trauma (Chapter 21).

What I found particularly intriguing, as well as very practical, was a chapter on “social prescribing” (Chapter 17).  In this chapter, Johann highlights the work of the Bromley-by-Bow Center which combines a medication approach (where deemed necessary) with hundreds of social programs.  This medical centre is very different to most doctor’s clinics that you would normally visit, both in terms of the orientation of the medical practitioner and the physical environment.  The emphasis is on listening, not medication prescription, and treatment is strongly oriented to “reconnection” strategies such as a walking group, employment skills group, start-up support to establish your own business and a casual group focused on “Create Your Future”.

What further intrigued me was the effectiveness of one project described by Johann through the experience of Lisa, who was experiencing severe depression.  The project was the brainchild of Dr. Sam Everington who was concerned about the over-reliance on anti-depression medication.  Basically, he assigned some of his patients to a community project focused on beautifying a strip of bushland that had become overgrown and neglected but was a popular walk-through. 

The group of people experiencing depression, who had difficulty interacting with anyone and typically kept to themselves, eventually started having conversations, sharing their life histories and their personal mental health challenges as well as plans to beautify the bushland strip.  They had to learn about the seasons, plants and their nutrition needs and how to plant and cultivate different kinds of plants.  They took pride in their project and started to gain confidence and competence.  A moving story was that of a person who had initially presented as very angry and aggressive who went out of his way to help two people who experienced learning difficulties.  Eventually, the members of the group decided to do a Certificate in Horticulture.

Johann pointed out that this creative project addressed two major reconnection needs – reconnection with others and with nature.  It can also be seen that each of these reconnections reinforces the other.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can be open to new ways of dealing with depression and anxiety.  We can learn to reconnect with key elements in our life that induce mentally healthy living, including mindful connection to others, spending time in nature, being grateful for what we have (rather than suffer “status anxiety”) and being willing to show compassion towards others.

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Image by Henning Westerkamp 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.

Reasons Why Meaningless Values Lead to Depression

In the previous post I explored Johann Hari’s discussion of the research demonstrating that disconnection from meaningful values – expressed as obsession with materialism – leads to depression and anxiety. In this post I will explore the reasons why this occurs. 

Four reasons why meaningless values lead to depression

In identifying why materialism leads to depression, Johann draws on the research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser and his colleague, Professor Richard Ryan, one of the acknowledged world leaders in understanding human motivation.  Based on their work and his own research, Johann identifies four main reasons for the consuming sadness experienced by people who relentlessly pursue materialistic values that focus on extrinsic rewards (Lost Connections, pp. 97-99).

1. Damages relations with other people

The research shows that people who primarily pursue materialistic values experience “shorter relationships” that are of lesser quality than their peers who focus more on intrinsic values.  Materialistic-oriented people are more concerned about superficial things such as another person’s looks, their ability to impress others and their material possessions, than they are about the innate qualities of the person.  Their focus on external qualities makes it more likely to end a relationship because they invariably find someone who possesses these external qualities to a greater degree.  Their self-absorption also means that their partner in a relationship is also more likely to separate from them.  People who are out to impress others as their major motivator are very poor at reflective listening as they are more likely to interrupt and divert a conversation so that the focus is on them and their accomplishments.  Listening is the lifeblood of a sustainable relationship and has profound effects on the its quality.

2. Deprives them of the joy of being in the present moment

Because a materialistic person is always seeking more or pursuing an elusive goal over which they have no control, they are more likely to be frequently frustrated and disappointed.  They tend to be driven and impatient in the pursuit of their external goals and they experience time-pressures continuously. It is difficult for them to be fully engaged in the present moment and to experience the joy that derives from present awareness.  The researchers point out, too, that the pursuit of materialistic values results in the inability to experience “flow states” – being in the zone where you are hyper-focused and highly creative and productive. 

3. Become dependent on how other people think of them

Other’s opinions become the driver for the materialistic person’s words and actions.  They seek to gain positive assessment by others of their looks, their possessions (e.g. clothes and cars) and their income and social standing.  They tend to pursue relationships for what they can get out of them in terms of extrinsic rewards.  They can never be satisfied and often engage in attempts to outdo others.  The researchers point out that materialistic-oriented people are also more sensitive to feeling slighted, even when no slight is intended – because of their sensitivity to others’ opinions, they can more easily feel criticised and be hurt by seemingly harmless comments.  This can result in their being “on edge” all the time when with other people.  Their sense of self-worth becomes “contingent on the opinion of others” which, in turn, can lead to negative self-evaluation and self-deprecation.

4. Frustrates innate human needs

Tim Kasser observed that a core reason why materialism leads to depression is that it ultimately frustrates a person’s innate needs – needs such as the desire for meaningful connection with others; realising a sense of competence in their endeavours; a sense of autonomy and being in-control; and wanting to do, and achieve, something meaningful in their lives.  Depression and anxiety will grow over time when these real, innate human needs are not met.

We can choose how we spend our time and energy

Johann observes that time is limited and that our day is like a pie with defined parameters.  The way we carve up our day – how we allocate our time to aspects of our life – will significantly affect whether we realise joy and happiness or depression and anxiety.  If we can align the way we spend our time to the pursuit of meaningful values, we can experience mentally healthy states of positivity, joy, happiness and gratitude. The more time we spend on materialistic goals, the lower will be our “personal well-being”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we are better able to notice the impact that the pursuit of materialistic values has on our quality of life – our relationships, our joy, our sense of self-worth.  We will have a clearer idea of how well we meet our innate needs and how we can improve on their fulfillment.  Importantly, we will better understand the sources of our frustration and anger and be able to improve our self-regulation.  By developing mindfulness, we will more often experience the joy of being in the zone – of experiencing “flow states”.

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Image by KarinKarin 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.