Healing Trauma Through the Body

Mark Walsh, Founder of the Embodiment Conference, facilitated a panel discussion at the Conference with five eminent presenters – Peter Levine, Gabor Maté, Richard Schwartz, Dan Siegel and Alanis Morissette.  The focus of the panel discussion was trauma – its nature, bodily manifestations and healing capacity.  While each of the panel members approached the interviewer’s questions from their own lived experience, perspectives and frameworks, there was remarkable agreement and cross fertilisation in their discussions. 

Initially, the panel led by Mark Walsh explored the nature of trauma.  While the participants used different words and analogies to explain trauma there was agreement that trauma is not the initiating event (such as death of a parent, sexual abuse or abandonment in childhood) that leads to a traumatic response but rather the impact on the mind and body and the residual effects of the traumatic event such as heightened sensitivity to triggers, that can have a lifelong effect on quality of life and overall wellbeing. 

Gabor, who experienced the traumatic events of the Holocaust as a child, mentioned a comment made to him by Edith Eger, who herself survived the Holocaust.  Edith, author of The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, told Gabor that he would never get over the Holocaust experiences but reinforced the view that what changes with “inner work” is how you relate to the trauma – as Gabor said, “you can’t undo what has been done”.  On one occasion, Bessel van der Kolk, who integrates science with trauma healing, told Gabor, “You will have to keep Auschwitz with you wherever you go” – reinforcing the lifelong impacts and ever-present trigger sensitivity of trauma.

The embodiment of trauma

Each of the panel members in their own words reinforced the view that the impact of trauma is not isolated to the mind alone but is also embedded in the body – in the process, highlighting the theme of the conference. Peter Levine emphasised the influence of temperament on the impact of trauma and its embodiment.  He maintained that trauma leads to fragmentation or suppression of our life energy, of “our living, vital body” – resulting in the incapacity to “be with the here-and-now”.  Richard Schwartz argues that trauma “screws up” the body’s “message board” – the sensory information from the intelligent gut and heart is distorted and amplified in the brain stem, resulting in an overriding of rational thought and natural instinct.

Dan Siegel maintained that the embodiment of trauma would be reflected in adverse impacts on the five “molecular mechanisms” of a healthy body and manifest as:

  • Elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone
  • Impairment of the body’s ability to fight infection
  • Adverse impacts on the cardio-vascular system
  • Increase in inflammation
  • Shortening of telomeres, resulting in acceleration of the aging process. 

Gabor in his book, In the Realm of Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, has highlighted the role that trauma plays in the development of addiction and diseases of all kinds.  His colleague, Bessel van der Kolk, documents the multi-dimensional impacts of trauma, including its embodiment, in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma.

Healing trauma through the body

Given the life-long impacts of trauma and its pervasive, adverse impacts on body, brain and mind, the question arises , “How do we heal trauma?”  While the panel members responses differed in terms of specific processes, there was considerable agreement that healing required fully facing the trauma, its origins and its emotional/behavioural/physical manifestations. It also involves avoiding addiction – which is an ineffectual approach to pain alleviation.   There was also agreement that the process of healing is aided immeasurably by the assistance of a supportive, compassionate person, whether that be a trained therapist or someone who is trauma-informed and caring.  Gabor mentioned that one of his teachers maintained that people will only be open to the truth “when compassion is present”.

Alanis stated that she had a “juicy tool kit” to help her deal with her inner landscape and associated dialogue.  She talked about having a “safe, non-judgmental listener”; a therapist (who kept her alive); movement such as performing on stage; writing songs (which proved to be cathartic when she expressed her real feelings); exposure to sun and water; and her mindfulness practices.  She suggested that her “trauma recovery journey” requires her to employ the courage she uses in her writings to “break open the armour” that interferes with her relationships.   Alanis identified active pursuit of relationships and management of the attendant vulnerability, instead of avoidance, as her way forward. 

Richard Schwartz, founder of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) and author of No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness, maintains that our brains involve many “parts” necessary for day-to-day functioning and this is normal.  However, with trauma, these parts become fragmented and frozen in an unhealthy, disconnected state.  The process of healing involves re-integration of the parts by being curious and open to the hurtful parts that have been locked away.  His approach involves engaging an “open-hearted therapist” in the process of revisiting the traumatic event – going into the scene and dealing with the traumatic event, for example, taking the child away from an abuser to a “safe and comfortable place”.  Richard’s transformative psychotherapy approach promotes inner harmony and enhances self-compassion so that the “inner critic” does not take hold and dominate a person’s perspective and outlook on life.

I have previously discussed Gabor’s approach to healing trauma and addiction which he describes as “compassionate inquiry”.   Gabor reinforced the view that compassion (for ourselves, others and the world at large) is the “healing ingredient”.   He argued that we have to adopt  a curiosity about everything and everybody so that we enrich our understanding and build healthy relationships.  He suggested that our compassion should extend even to people we dislike or detest because underlying their words and actions is “some hurt”.  He reminds us that given trauma is about what happens inside us, not the precipitating external events, we are always able to access our hurt and achieve healing – we can change our relationship to the trauma and restore our connectedness.   

Peter Levine, creator of Somatic Experiencing and author of Healing Trauma, describes his pioneering program as a move away from “talk” therapies to a focus on restoring the wisdom of the body.  In the panel discussion, he described an example of a somatic intervention in terms of helping someone to recognise the source of their trauma by having them explore their back pain – the level of tension, the location of the pain (left or right) and the movement the spine wanted to do.  In the process the pain dissolved when the person involved recognised the source of the bodily trauma as a time as an Army doctor when he fell off a truck onto his back when everyone else in the truck was killed by the enemy.  Peter explained that the body remembers but we may not be able to recall the event and its adverse impacts.  However, through Peter’s processes of somatic experiencing, including relaxation techniques, a person can eventually remember what happened to them and for them and bring this to conscious awareness.  Peter indicated that this realisation may be accompanied by trembling and other physical manifestations of release that he describes as the “resetting of the central nervous system”.

Dan Siegel sees trauma healing as moving from “impairment to integration”.  He reinforced the view that through the “internal work”, described by other panel members, you actually “shift the process” and that enables bringing together the many differentiated and fragmented elements of mind and body.   So in his view trauma healing is “integrative”.  He suggested that the pandemic is an opportunity and a stimulus to a different way of living socially and culturally so that we focus on our connectedness, not our separateness.

Reflection

Dan referred to Alanis’ latest album, Such Pretty Forks in the Road, as a means of healing in that it enables the listener “to hold in awareness things that almost seem paradoxical” – the words and rhythms moving in different directions.   He sees these songs, along with the processes employed by Peter, Gabor, and Richard as “incredibly healing”.   Alanis also contributes to trauma healing, recovery and wholeness through her podcast where she interviews leading developmental experts to bring increasing insight into the nature of trauma, addiction and healing.

Each of the panel members are proponents of the practice of mindfulness in its many forms.  They recognise that as we grow in mindfulness, we increase our self-awareness, develop emotional regulation and heighten our compassion (for ourselves and others).  Somatic meditation, for example, has been used extensively in trauma healing.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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

A Compassionate Approach to Addiction

Gabor Maté argues for a compassionate approach to addiction in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.   He points out that Portugal has successfully decriminalised the personal use of drugs that were previously illicit with the result that they have seen “a reduction in drug habits, less criminality, and more people in treatment”.

However, he maintains that a key success factor in this decriminalised approach is the development of effective rehabilitation processes and comprehensive resources to support them.   Such rehabilitation approaches need to be viewed as ongoing and long-term as well as “patiently pursued and compassionately conducted”.  Gabor claims too that Portugal’s success in decriminalisation of personal drug use is influencing the development  of a more compassionate approach in Norway and Canada.

Gabor contends that addictions. no matter what their form or manifestation, in very many cases have their origins in the pain resulting from adverse childhood experiences.   For example, in his book he explains that the self-harm (lacerations) employed by “Arlene” creates pain that obliterates, however briefly, “the pain of a larger hurt deep in the psyche” – a deep pain resulting from sexual exploitation when she was young.

Parents reaction to addiction suffered by their adult child or children often involves hurt or anger, instead of understanding and compassion.  This censorious stance is underpinned by self-blame and a lack of self-awareness.

Gabor maintains that parents should not be blamed for their children’s addictive behaviour – they have most likely experienced intergenerational trauma and “unwittingly bequeathed” to their children their “own unresolved or unconscious trauma”.  They have tried to cope with their own pain by what Johann Hari describes as “disconnection from childhood trauma” in his book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression.  

Adopting a holistic approach

Gabor also argues that a holistic approach to addiction in all its forms requires teaching people ways of self-care including meditation and other mindfulness practices as well as what he describes as “body-work” which covers practices such as yoga and Tai Chi and other forms of martial arts.  Included in self-care approaches would be training in nutrition and overall stress management approaches such as reconnection to nature.

While Gabor acknowledges the benefits of 12-step approaches like that adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and GROW, he asserts that these approaches are not for everyone and other methods may be more appropriate for some people.  He argues for an approach that he calls “compassionate inquiry” which is based on trauma-informed understanding and a depth of inquiry that pursues causal factors rather than just seeks alleviation of symptoms. 

The aim of compassionate inquiry is to help the person suffering addiction to identify the trauma/traumas that they have experienced early in life, to isolate the resultant negative self-messaging and to ultimately confront and name the underlying pain they are seeking to alleviate through their ineffectual addictive behaviour.

Reflection

Underpinning Gabor’s compassionate approach is his unshakeable belief, informed by research and decades of field work, that addiction “arises from thwarted love” and that it is “one of the commonest and most human manifestations of torment”.  He maintains that the addicted person is constantly seeking external solutions for their internal “insatiable yearning for relief and fulfillment” – a state he describes as the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and body-work practices such as Tai Chi we can enhance our self-awareness, reduce self-blame and increase our understanding and compassion towards ourselves and others who are addicted.

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

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

Developing a Sense of Belonging through Mindfulness

In this era of widespread depression, loneliness and disconnection, it becomes critically important to rediscover and enhance our sense of connection.  Allyson Pimentel, in one of the UCLA guided meditation podcasts, reminds us that mindfulness can ignite our sense of belonging to ourselves, other people and the earth.  Mindfulness is a pathway to reaffirming our connectedness to everything.   In the podcast, Allyson draws on the book by Sebene Selassie, You Belong: A Call to Connection.  Selene makes a profound case for our connectedness, despite differences, when she writes, “although not one, not separate” and “although not separate, not the same”.  She affirms that much of life is paradoxical, but to deny this is to turn a blind eye to the reality of our human existence on earth. 

Allyson argues that the “delusion of separateness” contributes to depression and loneliness.  She states that we all belong “in every moment and to everything” despite our traumas, injustice and racism in the world, differences in language – culture – philosophy, the presence of hate and division, and the pervasive sense of disconnection and meaninglessness.  Building a sense of connection and belonging heals wounds and divisions, contributes to positive mental health and enriches our lived experience through joy, wonder, relatedness and consciously “being with”.  Mindfulness, with its focus on what is happening now and doing so with openness, curiosity and acceptance, intensifies our sense of belonging.  Paradoxically, being still and silent leads us to compassionate action towards others through recognition of our connectedness.

At any point in time, we can sense our connection to the community of people throughout the world who are meditating, doing Tai Chi or engaging in some other mindfulness practice; or experiencing chronic pain; or dealing with the impacts of adverse childhood experiences or other trauma; or trying to manage grief; or attempting to overcome an addiction or craving; or are experiencing anxiety and depression; or any other manifestation of the human condition.  We can also become more conscious of our connection to every other living being as well as our connection with nature.

Guided meditation on belonging

At the beginning of her guided meditation, Allyson encourages us to take a number of deep breaths so that we can feel the connection with the air and our surrounds as well as begin to become more grounded and connected to ourselves. At this point, I was reminded of Lulu & Mischka’s mantra meditation, Rainbow Light and the words:

When I breathe into my heart

I breathe into the heart of all beings

After this initial grounding, Allyson encourages us to connect with our breath, sounds in the room and beyond or our bodily sensations. In connecting to the sounds surrounding us, we can become conscious of what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as the soundscape in his book, Coming to Our Senses.  Allyson reminds us to just absorb the sounds, not try to identify or interpret them or create a story about them – just be with sounds, another form of connection and belonging.  We can extend our awareness to our other senses or what Jon describes as the “lightscape”, “touchscape”, “smellscape, “tastescape” and, ultimately, our “mindscape” – “the vast empty spaciousness that is awareness itself”.

Allyson suggests that another way to feel connected and belonging is to focus on our bodily sensations related to being supported by our chair, cushion, bed or floor – whatever is connecting  our bodies to something solid and unmoving.  Being with these sensations reinforces our supported connectedness and sense of belonging.

Reflection

In the final analysis, we can choose to focus on our differences and what separates us or, alternatively, to increase our consciousness about our connection and belongingness.  As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation, mantras, and daily mindfulness practices, we can gain an increased sense of connection and belonging and draw support and positive emotions from this growing awareness.

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

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

How Trauma Impacts Our Behaviour

Dr. Gabor Maté, world authority on trauma and addiction, has produced a film titled The Wisdom of Trauma.  In the film, he draws on his research, his own experience of trauma as a child of the Holocaust and the addiction and trauma stories of others.  Through this wealth of evidence, he challenges several prevailing myths about the nature of trauma and addiction.  For instance, he maintains that addiction is not just an inherited illness nor is it a basis for blaming an individual.  He takes a more compassionate approach and suggests that we need to understand the true nature of trauma and addiction.

In essence, Gabor maintains that trauma is not external catalytic events such as adverse childhood experiences or adult traumatic events.  In his view, trauma is what happens internally, not externally.  Fundamentally, trauma is the “resultant dissociation from self” that occurs for the individual.  Gabor describes this as a “loss of authenticity” in that the traumatised individual can no longer access their intuition or gut feeling and as a consequence tend to engage in self-destructive behaviours such as addictions in different forms including alcoholism, drug addiction, workaholic behaviour, or addiction to sex or shopping.  These injurious behaviours are a form of escape designed to avoid personal feelings that are too painful to face.

The traumatised person loses the capacity to deal with their emotions and seeks diversions that they hope will bring freedom, a renewed self-esteem, a sense of completion or aliveness – which are all legitimate pursuits of healthy humans.  So the addiction is a way of solving their fundamental problem – a basic disconnection from their real feelings.  The addictions do not bring freedom or wholeness but serve as an imprisonment and deepen the feelings of hollowness and meaninglessness.

Gabor contends that for the traumatised person, their healthy orientation has never been expressed in life through meaningful relationships.  He argues that we have to see addiction as a response to trauma and look beyond its external manifestations and “see the wound that is right inside that person”.   Gabor encourages us to look beyond “what is wrong with a person” to what has happened to them in their life, including their early childhood.  His compassionate approach is spellbindingly expressed in his book, In the Realm of Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

Recovery from trauma and addiction

Gabor illustrates through his film and books, amazing stories of recovery from addiction. He shows that the wisdom that lies in trauma is awareness of how our response to everyday interactions throws light on our fundamental traumatised thinking such as “I am not worthy of respect” or “I am not lovable”.  Gabor asserts that recovery from trauma and addiction requires “compassionate inquiry” that enables a person to face their fear, let the truth inside themselves out into the light of day, and gain insight into the drivers of their behaviour, including their distorted worldview.

He illustrates how addiction and healing were manifested in his own life.  His trauma experience as a child during the Holocaust, hiding with his mother and being passed over to others for safe keeping, led to his belief that “the world doesn’t want me”.  He realised with the help of the compassionate assistance of his wife, that his workaholic behaviour as a specialist medical doctor was designed to “to make himself needed”.  The continuous affirmation of his contribution to peoples’ health and wellness served as personal validation and cemented his addictive behaviour.

Reflection

Gabor demonstrates that if we do not address the fundamental problem of dissociation from our feelings, we will not be able to achieve recovery from our trauma and associated addiction.  Trauma has a way of surfacing in distorted perceptions and inappropriate, sometimes high risk-taking, behaviours.

Gabor suggests that each of us examine situations where our response to some stimulus leads to an over=reaction on our part,  e.g. when a waitress tells us we cannot change a menu item or a tradesperson does not turn up when they promised.  He encourages us to look beyond our reaction to the personal belief that is being played out, e.g. “I am not good enough for people to pay attention to my needs”.  He would encourage us then to explore what traumatic event(s) led to this fundamental self-belief.  In the film, he illustrates this process by sharing part of his podcast interview with Tim Ferriss where he explores Tim’s self-belief (“I am not worthy of respect”) deriving from adverse childhood experiences.

 As we reflect on our life and our responses to everyday events, we can grow in mindfulness and develop increased self-awareness, insight and self-compassion.  We can also enhance our empathy for others who are addicted and develop the courage to take compassionate action, inspired by the work of people like Gabor, who with Vicky Dulai, founded the Compassion for Addiction group.

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Image by Jubair Bin Hasan 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.

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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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.