How to Maintain Mental and Emotional Balance When Physically Isolated

Previously I have spoken about mindfulness practices as a way to handle the mental and emotional challenges inherent in the current Coronavirus and the imposition of social isolation and social distancing.   What I have covered there is a list of discrete practices that can help us to manage the overwhelm associated with these times of uncertainty and anxiety.  Arjuna Ardagh, author of Radical Brilliance: How and Why People Have Original Life Changing Ideas, offers a more holistic approach that recognises the mind-body connection.  His tips on maintaining emotional and mental wellness are mutually reinforcing and place the body as central to emotional and mental stability in our current environment.

A holistic approach to mental and emotional wellbeing

Arjuna highlighted some of the unproductive and potentially aggravating practices that people are engaging in to release tension and stress at this time, e.g. spending many hours on social media and indulging in the blame game and conspiracy thinking or turning to alcohol or drugs to numb the mind and distract from the fear and anxiety that people are feeling.  He suggests that this current pandemic challenge provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to develop self-intimacy and learn to change our mental and emotional state through holistic practices.

In his short tips video (17 minutes), Arjuna proposes four integrated approaches or types of practices that are designed to strengthen the mind-body connection while releasing negative energy and building positivity:

  1. Removing physical blockages – this entails elements such as stretching and moving emotion though your body.  Arjuna suggests that you identify and practice a physical expression of the emotion that you are feeling, e.g. fear may be experienced bodily as a curled-up posture and then released through stretching to one’s full height.  Frustration, on the other hand, might be expressed by an angry, explosive gesture and a prolonged cry of anguish such as “Aargh”.  This bodily approach releases inhibiting emotions locked away in your body and opens the way for developing a “positive disposition”.
  2. Relax into awareness – this can take many forms such as somatic meditation, the use of singing bowls as described in a MARC podcast, exploring natural awareness (opening to the infinite reality that is accessible through our senses),  or deep listening to classical music, singing of mantra meditations or “sacred acoustics”.  Arjuna maintains that all that is really required here is to be “naturally curious” about the sensations that you are experiencing in the present moment (including awareness of the fact that YOU are doing the experiencing).
  3. Enter the flow – this approach involves engaging the flow of energy through your body.  There are a range of Eastern practices that can help you achieve this but one of the best and well-researched practices is Tai Chi.  Arjuna asserts that if you can engage in the process of flow (even through dancing to music), you not only release energy throughout your body but also emotion – you can experience the joy and ease of wellbeing.
  4. Use thought creatively – Arjuna suggests that after you have removed blockages, experienced deep awareness and engaged your energy flow, you are well placed to engage your uncluttered mind.  So, instead of marinating in negative thoughts that generate complex and harmful emotions, you can begin to write creatively in a journal or blog or create a video podcast that reflects your positive, energetic flow.

Arjuna maintains that if you practice each of these approaches each day, however briefly and in whatever form you choose, you can release the hold of your complex emotions and develop emotional and mental wellness.

Reflection

Arjuna’s approach involves a progressive release of creative energy, moving from clearing blockages to engaging the senses in awareness and tapping into the energy flow of the body.  The outcome is creative expression and resolution of perceived, impenetrable challenges.  His approach is deeply embedded in the mind-body connection and employs integrated approaches that open up a wealth of possibilities.  As we grow in mindfulness through adopting these holistic practices, we can more readily access our creativity, build resilience, manage our confounding thoughts and emotions and experience the peace and ease of wellness.

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Image by Friedrich Frühling from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness Meditation to Reduce Anxiety in Times of Uncertainty

In these times of increasing uncertainty, compounded by the global spread of the Coronavirus, the level of anxiety in individuals and the community at large can intensify (you only have to notice panic buying to witness anxiety contagion).  Anxiety impacts every facet of our lives – our relationships, problem solving, decision making and communication.  We can become abrupt with our significant others, quick to anger, argumentative, determined to prove we are right or hyper-critical of their words and action – all traits likely to damage close relationships which are built on mutual respect and appreciation.

Research also shows, for example, that 7% of people in Europe are frequently lonely.  The loneliness epidemic experienced in Australia, US and UK (where they have a cross-Government strategy to tackle the challenges involved) is exacerbated by the need to engage in social distancing, social isolation and, in increasing numbers, to work from home.  For people who are used to social contact and interaction at work, working from home can compound the loneliness problem. 

Added to the isolation from social work contacts is the banning of the normal places of social gatherings outside work such as restaurants, sporting events, concerts, university classes and professional conferences.  So, it is extremely difficult for people experiencing new levels and increased frequency of loneliness to find social support, other than electronically.  This puts pressure on people, young and old, to learn new ways of communicating (abbreviated social media messaging will not fill the void). Fortunately, new technologies for online communication such as Zoom have really helped to address the growing problem of physical isolation and its attendant problem of loneliness.

With more people out of work each day as businesses close under Government direction or because they are no longer viable in a social distancing environment, increasing numbers of people are experiencing economic anxiety and depression – they cannot see a way out of their current, seemingly intractable, financial problems. 

Before the Coronavirus, depression was already a major health issue in communities around the world.  Isolation and loss of employment – two very significant factors in precipitating or aggravating depression – are likely to accelerate the already exponential growth in depression in the community unless new ways are instituted by Governments, communities and entrepreneurs to redeploy people to arenas of employment experiencing growth in demand (such as healthcare support, farming and Coronavirus contact tracing) and individuals are able to find ways to address their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Mindfulness meditation – a way to address anxiety, loneliness and depression

Neuroscience research, such as that conducted by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), demonstrates the power of mindfulness and related meditation practices to eliminate anxiety, overcome loneliness and reduce depression.  A search on “meditation” in the search block of this blog will highlight many meditation practices for individuals to address these mental health challenges.  Some examples are:

MARC provides weekly meditation podcasts on a very wide range of topics.  These can be accessed either through their website or via the UCLA App providing “meditations for well-being”.   These meditations can be supplemented and reinforced by other mindfulness practices.

Reflection

The advent of the Coronavirus has compounded the problem of mental illness in communities around the world leading to growing anxiety, loneliness and depression.  People who previously did not experience these adverse mental health conditions are now succumbing to their widespread community encroachment.  Research has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation is an antidote to these mental health challenges and is a source of overall wellbeing. 

The personal challenge is to overcome our initial reservations and disbelief and to take advantage of the numerous sources of mindfulness meditation available to us.  At first, we are inclined to believe that the challenge to our mental health and welfare is too great and that meditation is too simple a solution.  However, beginning with some small meditation practice and maintaining it daily, can make a very significant positive impact on our mental and emotional state.

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Image by Shahariar Lenin 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 Mindful Check-In: Opening to Awareness

A mindful check-in is a way of becoming aware of your internal state at any point in your day.  You can check-in to your breath, your body sensations or your feelings.  You don’t have to adopt a particular posture or location – it is just a matter of tuning in to whatever is happening for you with curiosity and openness and without judgment.  Regular mindful check-ins help to build your awareness and to realise the benefits of mindfulness.

Benefits of mindfulness

Dr. Chris Walsh maintains that mindfulness achieves positive outcomes in three core areas of our lives:

  1. Richer pleasant experiences – so much of our life is lived in anticipation of the future or regret about the past.  We are often lost in our thoughts and become disconnected from the present moment.  The simple act of eating can be a totally unconscious activity, being unaware of our accompanying bodily sensations that potentially bring joy, e.g. a pleasant taste or aroma.  We walk at a fast pace rather than enjoy the experience of walking; we give a sidelong glance at a sunrise, rather than soaking up the brightness and energy of the experience.  We can be self-absorbed in conversations, rather than actively listening and building our relationships.  Mindfulness helps to enrich what is pleasurable in our lives – to notice and pay attention to the experience of joy and happiness in whatever form it takes.
  2. Improved capacity to manage difficult experiences – so often we are just reactive when an unpleasant experience or conflict triggers our habituated thoughts and emotions.  Through mindfulness, we can grow in the self-awareness necessary to observe, understand and manage our reactivity.  Mindfulness, then, gives us the ability to create space between the trigger and our response and to develop more productive and appropriate responses.  The Mindful Nation UK Report produced by the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) gives evidence-based examples of these outcomes being achieved through mindfulness training.
  3. Effectively managing transitions – so much of our life is spent in transitioning from one situation to another.  We go from home to work, from one meeting to another, from one encounter to another, from work to home.  On a more macro level, we may transition from unmarried to married, from childless to children as part of the family, from marriage to separation and divorce.  Each of these transitions place new demands on our capacity to cope, on our even-mindedness and our resilience.  Mindfulness helps us to manage the inevitable emotional challenges inherent in change and to bring positive intentions and motivation to each form of transition and to achieve calmness and equanimity despite the personal turbulence engendered by the transition.

The check-in proposed by Chris is a way of bringing mindfulness to each of these core areas of our life and to tap into our inner resources so that we can live our lives more fully, less reactively and more flexibly.

The Mindful Check-in

Chris provides a podcast as well as a descriptive article on the check-in process.  His guided three-minute meditation in the podcast leads you through various stages of awareness – beginning with your breath and its characteristics, followed by noticing any points of bodily tension and observing the pattern of your thoughts (e.g. unfocused, confused, clear or erratic).  This awareness raising and acceptance-of-what-is leads to paying attention to any dominant thought that may be preoccupying you and then letting it go (stop entertaining it).  Finally, you can bring your awareness to your overall emotional state and name your feeling (without judgement). 

Chris, who developed mindfulness.org.au in 2004, provides a wide range of resources and a recently developed course, From Relaxation to Resilience.  This course has three different levels of participation depending on level of experience with mindfulness.  It is possible to obtain a reduced price through a Medicare rebate if a referral from a GP is obtained.  Chris offers blog articles on various aspects of mindfulness and emphasises employing evidence-based approaches.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and mindful check-ins, we can realise the benefits of mindfulness in the core areas of our lives – pleasant experiences, difficult situations and personal transitions.  Mindfulness equips us to live life more fully (appreciating its richness), manage challenging situations more effectively and make personal transitions more adaptively.

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Image by Sasin Tipchai 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.

Disconnection from Childhood Trauma: A Potential Determinant of Depression and Ill-Health

Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, identified seven social causes of depression including the loss of connection to other people.  One of the surprising findings in his discussions with researchers and his colleagues, was the link between obesity, childhood trauma and depression.  In the final analysis, collectively they established that in many instances unresolved childhood trauma was a determinant of obesity and depression. 

Obesity and depression

Johann drew on the ground-breaking research of Dr. Vincent Felitti, Founding Chairman of the Department of Preventative Medicine of Kaiser Permanente – a fully integrated medical provider offering not only health care plans but also services such as specialist medical practitioners, a dynamic medical school, mental health services and education and an affordable housing initiative.  Kaiser Permanente views a healthy life for all as a cause to pursue, and is a pioneer in offering seamless health services along with leading edge research into preventative methods and treatment approaches.

Kaiser Permanente commissioned Vincent to undertake research into obesity because it was becoming the major factor in the growth of its operational costs.  Vincent started out by using a specialised diet plan supported by vitamin supplements that was designed to help obese people lose weight.  This approach appeared highly successful on early indications, but Vincent noticed that the people most successful at losing weight were dropping out of the program and returning to their eating habits and becoming overweight again.  Additionally, they often experienced depression, suicidal thoughts, rage or panic. 

Research by way of interview of 286 participants dropping out of the obesity program established that most had been sexually abused or experienced some other form of childhood trauma.   Obesity was their way to deal with the aftereffects of childhood trauma, including fear of sexual assault and the desire to hide their shame.

Childhood trauma and depression

Vincent was surprised by the findings of the initial study and realised that research of childhood history as a determinant of adult ill health had been avoided previously because of shame, secrecy and the taboo nature of the topic.  Yet his early findings established that childhood trauma played out powerfully decades later in terms of emotional state, biomedical disease and life expectancy.  He found, for example, that 55% of participants in the obesity study had suffered childhood sexual abuse.

The link between obesity, depression and childhood trauma was not well received by the established medical profession.  The video, A Tribute to Dr. Vincent Felitti, highlights the scorn he experienced when first announcing his findings at a medical conference and demonstrates the resilience of a man who had the courage to back his research and the bravery to pursue his creativity.

Vincent was convinced that he had to undertake research with a larger and broader sample of people to establish the credibility of his findings.  Through Kaiser Permanente’s processes of capturing the medical history of patients he was able, in collaboration with Dr. Robert Anda of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), to add additional questions relating to life history.  The questions picked up on the 10 types of childhood trauma identified by participants in the earlier study. The 17,500 participants involved in the second study were representative of the broader population of California where the study was done.  They were middle class with an average age of 57 and were employed.

The research titled the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE) highlighted even more surprising results.  Two thirds of the participants in the research program had experienced one or more traumatic events.  One in nine had experienced 5 or more adverse childhood events.  They also established that the higher the number of different adverse childhood events experienced by an individual (their ACE Score), the greater the likelihood of that person committing suicide.

Typical strategies adopted by individuals to cope with the impacts of childhood trauma only exacerbate the problem of ill health, e.g. smoking or over-eating.  Vincent maintained that the experience of chronic, unrelieved stress affects the nervous system and the brain and can produce “the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals in a person’s body”, leading to suppression of the immune system.

What can be done about childhood trauma?

I have previously discussed principles and guidelines for trauma-informed mindfulness practice.  Johann Hari, in the section of his book on reconnection strategies offered several strategies that could have a positive effect on the negative impacts of childhood trauma, such as obesity and depression.  His recommended reconnection strategies include social prescribing and reconnection with nature, meaningful work and meaningful values.

Vincent Felitti, too, was concerned that people who had experienced childhood trauma need some form of hope about their ability to redress its negative effects.  He decided to do further research involving medical practitioners who were treating patients through Kaiser Permanente.  He provided them with a few simple questions to ask patients that related to life history and covered childhood experiences, and asked them to express genuine empathy and respect for the patient. 

Vincent found that the participants showed “a significant reduction in illness” once a patient shared their story of childhood trauma with a doctor.  He thought that the explanation for this was twofold – (1) the person was sharing their story with another person for the first time and (2) the recipient of the disclosure was a trusted authority figure who treated them with kindness and respect.  He postulated that the intermediate effects related to the fact that the experience removed the shame and self-loathing associated with the adverse childhood event.  The association of the childhood trauma with the experience of humiliation was broken. Vincent acknowledged that this was an area for further research.

Vincent argued that the ultimate solution to childhood trauma lay in “primary prevention” and advocated for the integration of their research findings into primary care medical practice.  He also supported the development of a life experience questionnaire reporting on childhood trauma as a part of a patient’s medical record that could subsequently be viewed by the treating doctor.  A healing conversation could take place if the patient was willing and able to share their story.

David Treleaven warns, however, that when dealing with someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is imperative not to tackle the trauma experience head-on.  He advocates a trauma-sensitive mindfulness approach.  Sam Himelstein also cautions against the use of direct questioning and talking where a person is outside their window of tolerance

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through research, meditation and reflection, we can begin to recognise the impact of our own experience of childhood trauma and address the negative impacts it has on our own life and relationships. We can also become sensitised to the experience of others who have experienced adverse childhood events and take this into account when dealing with individuals and groups who are seeking to use a mindfulness approach to improve their quality of life.

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Image by Pete Linforth 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.