Healing from Trauma

Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Perry address the issue of healing from trauma in their book, What Happened to You?  In a chapter on Coping and Healing, they explore the impact of relational deficit in the early years of a child’s life; what neglect and parental conflict does to a child’s development, their worldview and their stress response; and the importance of an understanding, nurturing and patient carer/parent/therapist for healing to occur.   In the process, they discuss, in depth, the nature of neglect, differences in the way individuals are impacted by trauma, behavioural manifestations of adverse childhood experiences, and the road to healing, including creating a new worldview.

This chapter of their book is very rich with stories, insights, principles and personal disclosure by Oprah – disclosures that are enriched by observations by Bruce on her life experiences.  Oprah, herself, and the vast work that she does in the area of trauma healing, is an exemplar for coping with, and healing from, trauma.  What she has learned through her own life experience and ongoing discussions with Bruce over many years, has led to her establishing the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) in South Africa. 

The emotional environment in early childhood

Bruce maintains that the quality of the emotional climate in early childhood impacts our worldview and our stress response.  If there is stability, nurturing and predictability, our brains and our behaviour can develop.  If the opposite exists, this has an adverse impact on our childhood development and our capacity as an adult to deal with challenges and stress.  We can develop the mindset that we are not lovable or not worthy of people’s attention.    Dr. Gabor Maté utilises a process he calls “compassionate inquiry” to unearth these negative self-stories – vestiges of an early life lived in an environment of neglect.

Bruce highlights the fact that different, deficit emotional environments can result in very different traumatic effects.  He illustrates this point by an in-depth comparison of two boys who manifested their traumatic upbring in contrasting ways.  His explanation shows clearly why one boy became fearful and aggressive while the other “had no feeling at all” and engaged in threats and thefts.  His description of their respective adverse childhood experiences and their differentiated impacts brings into sharp focus the key role that quality relationships play in early childhood.

This discussion of the differences in personal development of the two boys led Bruce to assert that an important consideration is not only “what happened to you?” but also “what didn’t happen for you?” – in terms of the behaviour of a parent/carer who provides undivided attention (in lieu of distracted attention), gentle touch (rather than physical abuse), consistent nurturing (instead of an on/off approach) and regular reassurance (instead of a belittling attitude).  Not only does the quality of relationships in early childhood impact brain development but also the development of social and motor skills.   Bruce contends that “relationships are the key to healing from trauma”  because trauma often results from deficient relationships.

An environment of conflict

Bruce notes that if you are a young child and you are in an environment of parental conflict, you have limited options.  You are too young to flee and unable to fight as you are easily overpowered and may draw physical attacks from either or both parents.  Often in this situation, a child will dissociate – retreat to their inner world. Dissociation becomes a problem when it is prolonged or becomes a habituated response to everyday challenges – this can lead to what is termed a dissociative disorder.  I can relate to dissociation as a stress response  as my parents had frequent verbal and physical conflicts over my father’s alcoholism and gambling – my mother would berate him over his misuse of our family income.  This would sometimes escalate into a physical attack on my mother, on a number of occasions this put her in hospital. 

When I was young, my natural response would be to dissociate from the  traumatic experience, as flight or fight was not an option – fight was out of the questions as my father was a very successful professional boxer.  However, as I reached the age of 12, I used to get on my pushbike and ride into the night as fast as I could (flight response), hoping that when I returned the conflict would be over.  The physical exertion of bike riding at speed served to release some of my pent-up tension and fear from the conflict.

Both Bruce and Oprah make the point that there is a positive side to dissociation in that it could be a life-saving response in some situations but is also part and parcel of what each of us do every day – e.g., day dream.  Bruce contends that the “capacity to control dissociation behaviour is very powerful” – it underpins our capacity for reflection and focus and to achieve a “flow state”.   I experienced  a number of personal traumas in my early childhood and adulthood, including a serious care accident in the family car when our car was hit on the side by another car, rolled a number of times, went over a 10 foot embankment, and came to rest on its hood.  I have learned to control my dissociative behaviour and, as a result,  developed high levels of reflective cognition and focused behaviour – reflected in my PhD, Professorship and this blog (this is my 700th  published blog post for my Grow Mindfulness blog).

Reflection

“What Happened to You” by Bruce and Oprah stimulated a lot of reflection for me and in some instances, “flashbacks” as well.  I began to appreciate more how my five years spent as a contemplative monk (from ages 18 to 22) served to provide me with a highly structured, stable, reflective and meditative environment with high quality relationships that together enabled me to self-regulate after a traumatic upbringing in a conflicted parental environment.  In my upbringing, my mother’s unconditional love and support offset to some degree my father’s (PTSD-induced) behaviour.

I am sure my period of development in an environment of daily silence, meditation, prayer and study helped me to achieve a degree of peace and tranquility (sometimes punctuated by moments of panic over my deteriorating home situation). As I grew in mindfulness, I was able to develop resilience, a positive mindset and the ability to find refuge in meditation.

________________________________

Image by Luisella Planeta LOVE PEACE 💛💙 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.

Overcoming Procrastination by Building the Awareness Muscle

We can handle procrastination by adopting the direct approach of focusing on a task that we are putting off and exploring through meditation what is the self-story behind the procrastination. This involves bringing the story “above the line” – bringing the messages we are telling our self to the level of conscious awareness. However, procrastination may be a habit related to a range of activities and the habit will often be accompanied by inertia – a lack of energy to move forward. In this case, it could be useful to attack the problem of procrastination indirectly by building what I call, your “awareness muscle”.

Building your awareness muscle

Tony Stubblebine offers a meditation exercise that can progressively develop your awareness muscle (or what he describes as your “mental muscle”). His exercise is a variation on mindful breathing that takes distractions or mental diversions as a source of awareness strengthening. His argument is that every time that your focus wanders represents an opportunity to increase your awareness of what is going on for you and hence building your awareness muscle – both the mental element and the energetic element in terms of readiness/energy to deal with the feelings/emotions behind the wandering.

Tony sees the exercise involving restoring your focus to your breath, after naming your source of distraction, as a form of “reps” like you would undertake in a gym or a series of exercises with a personal trainer. The “reps” serve to build the capability to undertake a given activity when the demand arises e.g. running a race, lifting heavy weights, undertaking housework, handling a stressful job (or in our case here, dealing with a specific procrastination). The repeated action of bringing your attention back to your focus, after raising your awareness, is embedding a “focus-awareness-focus” mental cycle that can be applied anywhere to any activity. Tony describes this cycle as the “Awareness-Focus Loop”.

Utilising the “Awareness-Focus Loop”

Tony describes an “I Am Aware” meditation that can take five to ten minutes of your time. The basic four-step approach is as follows:

  1. make yourself comfortable and close your eyes
  2. Focus on your breathing by counting 1 to 50 (or more if you want to extend the meditation for mental endurance training)
  3. Whenever your mind wanders away from the focus on your breath, pay attention to what is happening and frame it as a “I am aware that…” statement. This needs to be a complete sentence to elevate the unconscious source of wandering to the conscious level e.g. “I am aware that I am thinking of a major meeting coming up later today”; “I am aware that I am getting anxious about what I forgot to do this morning”; or “I am aware that I am wondering whether I got the job I applied for a week ago”.
  4. When you have noticed and named your distraction, you resume your focus on counting your breaths from where you left off counting. I found that I lost track of where I was up to in my counting once a distraction set in. If this happens, you can restart your counting somewhere, without cheating to get to the end in a hurry.

Using your awareness muscle to deal with a specific procrastination

Having developed your awareness muscle, you can now apply this mental capacity, and associated energetic impetus, to dealing with a procrastination over a specific task. Once you notice yourself procrastinating you can use your highly developed awareness muscle to become aware of the anxiety underlying the procrastination, name the anxiety and related feelings (e.g. fear) and deal with the anxiety without seeking a diversion or some form of flight.

The mindfulness exercise serves as a form of mental training that can develop the self-regulation necessary to overcome your natural tendency to avoid what is perceived as painful or personally challenging. The awareness muscle has stored the history of your personal distraction tendencies and these can be more readily noticed and dealt with.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation exercises designed to build our awareness muscle, we can develop the consciousness, willingness and strength to deal with procrastination as it occurs in our daily lives. The “I am aware that…” meditation is designed for this specific purpose.

____________________________________________

Image by A. Debus 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.

Shame: A Concealed Emotion

In the previous post, I offered a meditation on shame and in the process, mentioned an article by Dr. Mary C. Lamia with the title, Shame: A Concealed, Contagious and Dangerous Emotion. In the current post, I would like to explore Mary’s ideas about shame as a “concealed emotion” and relate them to my own experience and my earlier blog posts.

Shame: A concealed emotion

Mary explains in her article that shame, unlike guilt, does not differentiate between yourself and your actions. With a sense of guilt, you are more able to separate the wrongful behaviour from you as a person. With shame, however, the tendency is to view your whole self as “bad”, thus leading to a very strong desire to hide yourself through withdrawal or to mask your uncomfortable feelings of unworthiness through addiction to something that you experience as pleasurable.

The shame response can be triggered by many different self-perceptions, e.g. viewing yourself as not “measuring up” in a work or team environment, judging yourself as lacking the intelligence or creativity of your peers or colleagues, considering yourself to have deviated markedly from your “ideal self” or being very conscious that you are overweight and might be judged negatively (when “everyone else” around you is slim and/0r athletic). Your sense of shame can increase as you accumulate adverse experiences and related negative self-evaluations – thus leading to a collection of shameful memories.

Shame can trigger a fight or flight response because you perceive that your sense of self is threatened. You can bury this uncomfortable emotion which may, in turn, becomes manifest in your body in the form of tension or pain (flight). Alternatively, you can hide your own depleted sense of self by projecting your shame onto others (fight). For example, you could manipulate a partner to diminish their self-esteem so that you do not have to face up to your own unwanted sense of unworthiness.

Mary explains, for example, that a narcissist could attack others through blaming and shaming them to conceal their own sense of shame deriving from their “devalued sense of self”. Related to this behaviour, is the narcissist’s tendency to project an inflated view of themselves that they use as a “measuring stick” to devalue the skills, knowledge, feelings and contribution of others.

So, concealment of shame is not only about burying the sense of shame deep within ourselves, but may also involve painstaking attempts to conceal our shame from others through projection.

As we grow in mindfulness through various forms of meditation such as a meditation on shame or a body scan meditation, we can develop self-awareness and identify the things that we feel ashamed about and learn to reduce the negative impact of this concealed emotion on our life and our interactions with others.

____________________________________________

Image source: courtesy of Skitterphoto on 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.