Surrender: A Pathway to Gratitude

In the May Creative Meetup, sponsored by the Health Story Collaborative, we focused on the theme of “surrender”.   The discussion proved to be both inspiring and insightful with participants freely sharing their wisdom born of their lived experience of dealing with chronic illness or disability.  One area we looked at was the act of “letting go” of what is holding us back – our old beliefs, self-doubts, negative self-stories, fears, and expectations of ourselves and others.  Associated with surrender, too, is the possibility of shedding an identity that no longer works for us.

Another sub-theme was that of “giving up” as Lily Tomlin comments, “to give up all hope of a better past”.  It also means accepting ourselves “as we are” with all our foibles, mistakes, deficiencies, hurts, disappointments, losses and limitations.  It involves accepting that we are not perfect and, in the process, opening ourselves to life’s challenges and vicissitudes.   It is about achieving equanimity through acknowledging the fragility of the human condition.  Our facilitator for the Meetup, Jennifer Harris, shared a passage from Jeff Brown in which he encourages us “to celebrate how far we have come”, noting that the “river doesn’t ask itself why it is not an ocean”.

Negative self-talk – an impediment to creativity

In their book, What Happened to You?, Dr. Bruce Perry and Winfrey Oprah point out that personal trauma can lead to a distorted worldview, sensitivity to cues (triggers) and negative self-messages.   In reflecting as part of the Creative Meetup process, I realised that my adverse childhood experiences contributed to my sense that I was “not good enough” and, at times, that I was actually an “impostor”.  

Seth Godin, best-selling author of 21 books, maintains that this kind of negative self-talk is an impediment to creativity and the realisation of our potential.  There were times in my life when I was full of self-doubt and beset with “fear of failure’ or inability to achieve my desired outcomes.  I also felt discouraged by resistance to organisational changes or innovations I was trying to create.

Seth Godin contends that uncertainty about outcomes is integral to the concept of creativity – we “go out on a limb” or “leap into the unknown” when we attempt to develop something new or introduce a change to the way things are done.  For Seth, the chance of failure is always present when you are being creative.  He argues that focusing on process rather than outcomes can free us from fear and enable us to explore new opportunities unimpeded by uncertainty.  

Seth reinterprets the concept of “impostor” to acknowledge that whenever we are being creative the outcomes are uncertain.  In that sense, we will feel that we are “fake” or not the “real thing” because we cannot guarantee the outcome – a natural sensation in the face of uncertainty.   The ”impostor syndrome” can occur whether we are engaged in writing, facilitating, managing people or undertaking some other creative activity.

Gratitude for social support

Social support can take many forms and may involve groups or individuals.   Sometimes it is being  supported by a group, such as the Creative Meetups, where you share your stories, challenges and insights.  At other times it may involve emotional and intellectual support from someone who helps you overcome fear of failure.  When I reflected on the theme of surrender, I became acutely aware of the many people who have helped me during my life to achieve significant outcomes despite my ingrained self-doubts – to help me “let go” of the fear and embrace the creative challenge.  This reflection, in turn, engendered a strong sense of gratitude towards all of these individuals who have had a positive influence in my life by believing in me and my capabilities. Some outstanding examples include:

  • My Mother, a devout Catholic, who supported my education at a private school and believed that I was destined to be a priest and was capable of successfully undertaking the relevant study and training.  To that end, I joined a Contemplative Order and completed five of the six years required for ordination as a priest.  However, I left before my final year owing to illness and external factors.  During my training, I excelled in my studies, was exposed to the emerging fields of Existentialism and Phenomenology, enjoyed the practice of silence and learnt to meditate and sing Gregorian Chant.  It was a life of incredible richness and balance – with strong group social support, challenging learning, daily prayer and meditation, sport and recreation and work on the farm owned by the Order.
  • Charlie Venning, my boss and mentor in the Brisbane Taxation Office, who believed in me to the point of promoting me to be Chief Internal Auditor, Manager of 90 staff engaged in collecting AUD700 Million of taxpayer revenue and, eventually, an Executive Director.
  • Peter Sullivan, a visionary Executive who worked in the Canberra Head Office of the Australian Taxation Office.  Peter had such a strong belief in my capabilities that he engaged me over a number of years to work on three significant national projects involving the organisation-wide development of the Taxation Office.  Peter always believed that I was capable of achieving more than I ever dreamed was possible.
  • Emeritus Professor Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt, author/co-author of 50 books, who first engaged me in 1989 to be the Government representative on the First International Symposium on Action Research in Higher Education, Government and Industry held in Brisbane.  In 1991, Ortrun and I were founding executive members of the Action Learning and Action Research Association which continues today and has had a significant role in promoting action learning and action research on a global basis through World Congresses, international conferences, publications and speaking engagements.  I was President of the Association for five years from 1992. Ortrun proved to be my mentor, PhD supervisor and friend of more than 30 years.  When I doubted my capacity to do a PhD, she encouraged me strongly and provided me with ongoing support.  I have become one of her international “critical friends” for her book writing and provided concept editing for some of her books as well as book reviews. I have also contributed chapters to four of her books and a chapter, The Practical Visionary, to the book produced to honour her lifelong contribution to action learning and action research.   Ortrun is a visionary who has enviable tenacity, resilience and resourcefulness – part of her German inheritance.
  • Reg Revans, Father of Action Learning, I met Reg Revans in 1990 when he was a Keynote Speaker at the First World Congress on Action Learning and Action Research.  Ortrun was Convenor of the Congress and had invited Reg.  I picked up Reg from the airport when he arrived in Brisbane from the UK and took him to his motel opposite Griffith University.  Reg asked if I could show him the QE11 Stadium, the site for the 1982 Commonwealth Games which was adjacent to the University.  In 1930, Reg had represented Britain at the Commonwealth Games and won a silver medal in the triple jump and long jump. After taking him on a car tour of the site, I joined Reg for dinner at his motel and his charisma was evident to all in the restaurant – he was a great storyteller.  Reg inspired everyone at the Congress and his work continues to inspire me today.  I completed my action learning PhD in 1996 drawing heavily on Reg’s work and his book, The Origins and Growth of Action Learning.  My colleague, Julie Cork, and I have conducted over 70 longitudinal, action learning programs for managers over the last 16 years (involving more than 2,000 managers). We are currently co-authoring an action learning book for managers based on our experience in our manager development programs.  Julie, too, has been a very positive influence on me through her belief in my facilitations skills, my understanding of action learning, and my knowledge of manager and organisation development, as well as her willingness to explore the unknown and to collaborate on creating innovative programs.
  • Dr. Bob Dick taught me about organisation development and facilitation skills at the University of Queensland in the 1980’s when I undertook my MBA majoring in training and development.  Bob had an acknowledged, unique, participative style of teaching.  I have modelled my facilitation/co-facilitation of more than 1,000 workshops on his style.   Bob also provided mentorship for me when I was engaged in organisation development activities in the Taxation Office over a number of years.  We have also worked together to promote action learning and action research and to co-author a book on this topic.  I highly value our 40 years of friendship and collaboration.
  • Selva and Param Abraham who had an unshakeable belief in my action learning expertise and sound knowledge of the Tertiary Education Sector.  They are founding owners and now co-owners of the Australian Institute of Business (AIB) – accredited to doctoral level and the largest provider of MBA’s in Australia.  During my 32 years working in an adjunct capacity at AIB (1985-2017), I designed postgraduate courses, was a member of the Academic Board and eventually, Chair of the Research Committee. I also contributed substantially to the organisation’s ongoing accreditation within the Australian Higher Education System.   In my final year when I retired as a Professor of Management, I was honoured with the award of Emeritus Professor.
  • My State Director in the Federal Government Department of Social Security who appointed me as HRM Director as an external applicant (against the trend of internal promotions) and, subsequently, Director, Corporate Services, with responsibility for training and development, human resource management, staffing levels and pay for 3,000 staff in 30 locations across Queensland.  He eventually recommended me for secondment to Griffith University where I spent 11 years as an academic.
  • Emeritus Professor Fals Borda of the Bogota University who believed in my capacity to co-convene a World Congress on Action Learning and Action Research, held in Cartagena, Colombia (South America) in 1997.  The Congress was attended by 1,800 people from 61 countries.  I arranged seeding money for the Invitations to Present; participated as a member of the International Planning Committee as well as an Expert Panel Member; acted as Coordinator of the Organisational Development Stream; and officially opened the Congress with Orlando.  The occasion led me to conduct an impromptu workshop on action learning and organisational change with a group of postgraduate students who were Spanish-speaking.  One of their number acted as interpreter as I progressively explained a major action learning, organisational development project that was the subject of my PhD.
  • Seth Godin, among other things, was the creator of the social media platform, Squidoo (2005).  The platform enabled people to create Squidoo Lenes (effectively individual, modular websites) on any topic – a very strong encouragement to write and share knowledge and understanding.  Revenue from the site, generated through affiliate links/modules, was shared with authors and charities.  Squidoo was also an active community of writers from across the world and became the source of two of my long-standing friendships with my German counterparts, Anne Corcino and Achim Thiemermann, who were resident in America.  Together we collaborated in 2011 with two resident German programmers, Hans Braxmeier and Simon Steinberger, to build the Wizzley social media site – an online community of writers still operating today.   Seth and Squidoo proved to be a great inspiration for my writing and I became a “leader’ in the platform with more than 100 Squidoo lens.  I then went on to create a 6-month social media training program and developed a blog and e-book on Squidoo Marketing Strategies.  Seth provided personal encouragement when he featured my biographical Squidoo lens in his monograph, For the Love of Squidoo, commenting positively on my interesting career and humourous article, An Ethnographical Study of Cartagena Taxi Drivers.   Unfortunately, Squidoo became one of the dead websites after a very successful run and was sold to HubPages – which proved to be a sad day for Squidoo advocates.  Seth, a globally acknowledged marketing guru, has a blog on which he writes daily posts.  Seth’s blog has been a long-standing inspiration for my own blog on mindfulness.  I started writing posts daily too but this became too much when I had to conduct workshops in multiple locations across the State.   However, since 2016, I have created in excess of 750 posts on this Grow Mindfulness blog.

I am conscious that, owing to time and space, I have not done justice to the level of influence that these people have had on my career and life.  I am also conscious that I have omitted other people who strongly influenced me in a positive way such as Emeritus Professors David Limerick and Richard Bawden

Reflection

It is clear to me that social support is critical for personal development and the realisation of a person’s potential.  It also has a significant healing power.  The social support, both individual and group support, that I have enjoyed over many years has enabled me to overcome some of the residual effects of adverse childhood experiences.   Social support enables us to surrender – to let go of negative self-stories, to build self-efficacy, open new horizons and go beyond where we have travelled before.  I can relate strongly to the metaphor, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – an allusion to achieving intellectual and emotional progress by building on the ground-breaking understanding of those who have gone before.  

In reflecting on the social support provided by the individuals who helped me to let go of my self-doubts and fear, I am filled with gratitude for their positive contributions to my career and life.  Surrendering by “letting go” thus provides a pathway to gratitude.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection on our life journey and appreciation of all who have helped us on our way, we can gain renewed strength to move forward and contribute to a better society.  The Creative Meetups sponsored by the Health Story Collaborative have a key role in this endeavour by enabling writing, reflection and storytelling for health and personal development.

___________________________________________

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

The Healing Power of Social Support

Social support can take the form of having friends, family or other people who can be a source of support in difficult times, such as chronic illness, death of a loved one or ongoing disability.  They can provide emotional, companionship or resource support and enhance our self-image while offering different perspectives on what we are encountering.

Social support can be provided through a formal social network where people with common interests come together to achieve specific outcomes such as fitness, charitable work or a hobby (as with the Australian Men’s Shed).  Alternatively, they can be informal where a number of people come together on a regular basis to share a coffee and have a chat.

The benefits of social support

Julia Baird, author of Bright Shining: How Grace Changes Everything, highlights the mental health benefits of social support and points to the research that shows the “poor mental health” that results from isolation and loneliness.  She refers to a homeless support group organised by St. Vincent de Paul Society that she joined and noted that there was “no pretence”, people “just being who they are”.  The healing power of this transparency and normality was evident in the homeless participants developing a positive self-image and contributing from their perspective and reality.

Social support is one of the three components for sustainable recovery from trauma, along with appreciating the complex nature of trauma and its impacts and adopting a holistic approach.  Research and clinical practice have demonstrated that social support builds resilience in trauma sufferers – they realise they are not alone, are encouraged to pursue their healing process, are reinforced in their healing efforts and learn vicariously from others who are experiencing difficult emotions and challenging situations.   The resultant sense of connectedness contributes to positive mental health.

The GROW organisation over many years has demonstrated that mutual social support has contributed to recovery from many forms of mental illness for hundreds of people (as documented in testimonial stories by participants).  The peer-to-peer support process facilitated by a nominated leader within the “lived experience” group, promotes personal development and ongoing recovery – a process that may take a number of years.

Reflection

Social support helps participants to develop a sense of being cared for as well as feeling that they can seek assistance from others in understanding and managing their challenging situation.  People gain a strong sense of belonging and connectedness through sharing their personal challenges, their success strategies and their progress towards healing.  They grow in mindfulness as they share their stories and write about their insights, gaining increased self-awareness and heightened self-esteem.

Creative Meetups, provided by the Health Story Collaborative, is a powerful social support system in that it combines the healing power of social support with the healing power of storytelling.  Participants feel fully supported by others engaged in compassionate listening or sharing their stories of challenging situations resulting from chronic illness, disability or their carer role.  The following poem expresses the sense of social support that can be gained through the Creative Meetups:

Social Support

When we share our stories of personal challenges, we realise that we are not alone.
We draw strength from others experiencing and managing more difficult circumstances.
We sense that we belong and feel connected to something outside of ourselves and our pain.
We can be ourselves, free of pretence, unencumbered by the need to be “better than”.
We build trust, savour our relationships and look forward to the next encounter.
There is something magical and disarming about the process that leads to changing perspectives and healing.

____________________________________________

Image by John Hain 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 and the resources to support the blog.

The Pervasive Impact of Negative Beliefs About Aging

Dr. Becca Levy, Yale professor and world leader in the psychology of aging successfully, has written a groundbreaking book that is brilliant in its conception and exhaustive in its research foundation.  The book is titled Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Will Determine How Long and Well You Live.   Becca draws on global research, undertaken by herself and colleagues in the field, to demonstrate that our age beliefs impact positively or negatively not only our physiology but also our mental health.  Negative age belief, perpetuated through the media and our social environment, can lead to mental and physical ill-health and a diminished quality of life.  In contrast, positive age beliefs can enable us to transcend the limitations of aging in terms of mental acuity, physical strength, flexibility and longevity.  Becca draws on numerous stories of people from all walks of life – artists, musicians, actors, athletes, carers, and health professionals – to illustrate the very real impact of beliefs about aging.

How our negative aging beliefs are formed

Becca demonstrates the impact of nursery rhymes and cartoons on the early formation of our age beliefs.  These typically negative portrayals of aging are further reinforced by social media, films, newspapers and everyday social conversations.  The pervasive marketing of a desirable body image and associated cosmetic propaganda (a Trillion-Dollar industry), have served to embed a negative image of aging in our psyche.   We now have “age-defying” skin treatments that remove wrinkles and make our skin glow, along with a pervasive negative stereotyping of menopause (loss of youthfulness, sexual drive, physical prowess and energy).

The impacts of negative age beliefs on institutions and individuals

The resultant negative age beliefs underpin the growth of ageism – “discrimination against older people because of negative and inaccurate stereotypes”.  This discrimination is reflected in institutional bias, in interpersonal communications and relationships, and self-talk/limiting behaviours.  Becca gives examples of institutional discrimination in employment, the acting and legal professions and hospital protocols.  She explains that her research confirms that many health professionals have negative age beliefs and act on them.  Our language in conversations can betray an ageist mindset, for example, when we talk about “having a senior moment” (Becca devotes a chapter to this phenomenon and highlights the amazing memory of deaf people and the role of memory in the oral transmission of indigenous knowledge).

The last mentioned arena of negative age beliefs, the intrapersonal, is difficult for an individual to realise and acknowledge.  Becca surprised herself by her ageist mindset when she suffered an injury while running in a charity event.  Despite her professional knowledge of aging, she immediately attributed the injury to her middle-aged body “succumbing – all too early – to the ravages of age”.  She assumed that her running days had come to a “premature end”.  It was only when her husband, a doctor, explained that she only had a “badly pulled muscle” that she was able to recognise and acknowledge the personal impact of her negative mindset about aging.  Like many people, Becca was shocked that ageism was influencing her own thinking.

I can relate to Becca’s personal injury story.  I was diagnosed with multilevel spinal degeneration, in part, as a result of playing tennis for more than 60 years, including many years at a competitive level.  My doctor told me that I would have to give up tennis because the injury was the result of “wear and tear”.  Initially, I put the degeneration down to aging (I was 76 years old at the time) and decided that my body was no longer able to cope with the rigours of tennis.  For some reason, unknown to me, I decided to seek a second opinion.  The second medical practitioner gave me a referral to an exercise physiologist who provided me with a series of progressively more challenging exercises over a period of six weeks.  By the end of this period, I was able to return to playing tennis and have been doing so for six months (I play social tennis weekly at night).  This brought home to me that a negative mindset about aging can actually prevent us from exploring and undertaking remedies for health issues. We can adopt a helpless frame of mind that impedes our chances of improving our health, physically and/or mentally. 

Reflection

Becca reveals through her research and storytelling that our negative age beliefs can influence our behaviours, our ability to recover from illness and injury, our quality of life, and life span.  It behoves us to become aware of the influence of ageism on us, to become conscious of our negative thought patterns and to be aware of our resultant limiting behaviours (including our willingness to seek ways of healing).

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and mindfulness practices such as meditation, we can become more aware of our thought processes and their impact and develop increased self-awareness, including knowledge of our habituated behaviours.   Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield teach us about The Power of Awareness developed through mindfulness meditation.

______________________________________

Image by John Hain 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 and the resources to support the blog.

Mast Cell Activation Syndrome and Covid-19: The Invisible Link

There has been a lot written lately about Long Covid and its differential impacts on individual’s health.  More recently research has highlighted a connection between Covid-19 and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome.  It is important at the outset to reinforce the need to consult a medical practitioner for treatment of individual health symptoms.  We can too easily make assumptions about what is occurring for us if we go it alone.   For example, I assumed that my numb feet were the result of peripheral neuropathy caused by Long Covid.  When I consulted my medical practitioner, I  discovered, through the X-Ray that he requested, that my assumption was wrong – the actual problem was multi-level spinal degeneration.   However, it is important to consult practitioners who are open to multiple explanations of chronic symptoms, such as those induced by allergies and food sensitivities.  Often, this may involve a medical practitioner who has a holistic perspective and/or is  qualified in functional medicine.

I recently participated in a Creative Meetup conducted by Health Story Collaborative.  During the meeting, Diane Kane responded to a discussion by a number of participants who were experiencing Long Covid symptoms such as loss of sense of smell, brain fog, and allergies.  When I mentioned my ongoing battle with food sensitivities and allergies, Diane shared some information about Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS).  She explained that her website is a research hub for MCAS.  On the website, Diane shares her own extended patient story as well as research resources including a video presentation on MCAS by Dr. Larence B. Alfin, author of Never Bet Against Occam: Mast Cell Activation Disease and the Modern Epidemics of Chronic Illness and Medical Complexity.

What is Mast Cell Activation Syndrome?

Dr. Kelly McCann in a video podcast interview explains that mast cells are a key part of our normal immune system.  Their role is to watch for invaders that would cause injury to our bodies.  They reside everywhere in our bodies from our head to our feet, and typically live in areas of our body that are at our interface with the environment, e.g. our skin, our blood vessels and our nerves.

Mast cells are responsible for delivering chemical messengers, called “mediators”, such as cytokine and histamine, that produce an inflammatory response to the perceived invader, e.g. a virus, environmental chemicals, mold, or the flu.  Kelly points out that research has shown that mast cells play a major role in the “cytokine storm” that causes an inflammatory response to Covid-19.  If the “foreign invader” is overcome (e.g. we recover from Covid or the flu), “everything quiets back down again” and ‘inflammation goes away”.

However, for some people mast cells become over-active, “hyper-vigilant” and hyper-responsive” – a condition identified as Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS).  What happens then is that our body “misperceives things”, some of which are actually good for us, e.g. healthy foods.  Hence, we can end up with food sensitivities and allergies (to things like smells, chemicals and some foods).  Kelly makes the point that because of the pervasiveness of mast cells in our body, “anything in our body could present as a mass cell activation symptom”, e.g. brain fog.

Kelly explains that Mast Cell Activation Syndrome is “a spectrum” – ranging from mild to extreme.  A key feature of MACS is that over time, without intervention, there will be an “escalation in the inflammatory or allergic symptoms” of an individual.  The inflammatory response can be exacerbated by what Kelly calls “hits”, e.g. a virus, sustained exposure to mould, or a tick bite (leading to Lyme Disease).  For example, the progression of mast cell activation syndrome could be signalled by the worsening of food sensitivities for an individual.    

Diane’s personal health story

Diane created her website as a means of education and advocacy about the independent science research being conducted on mast cell activation syndrome.  Her own story is really about the extreme end of the spectrum of MCAS and is one of resilience, persistence and hope – a great source of inspiration for anyone experiencing MCAS symptoms.  Diane’s multi-dimensional health problems persisted over 46 years.  Despite visiting 80 consulting doctors and undergoing “extensive evaluations” at 15 major hospitals and suffering multiple anaphylaxis attacks over 20 years, she was not diagnosed with MCAS until 2017 when she visited Dr. Ali Rezale of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

Dr. Rezale and Dr. Alfin are working with Diane to improve her health overall.  In the meantime, Diane is working on writing a book titled, The MCAS and Covid-19 Theory: A Multidimensional Epigenetic Phenomenon.   As an experienced medical researcher and author who suffered long-term symptoms of MCAS, she is well-qualified to document her story and the growing body of relevant scientific research.  Diane provides draft copies of early chapters of her book on her advocacy website. 

My health story

I have experienced multiple “hits” as described by Dr. Kelly McCann.  Having had asthma as a child, I am prone to respiratory problems and allergic reactions.  While I overcame the asthma by the time I was 12 years old, since then I have contracted pneumonia three times, RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) three times and Covid-19 in 2021.   In 2017, I experienced major eczema covering my whole body, following 8-weeks of intensive antibiotics to heal an infected leg (resulting from an operation to remove a melanoma).   Since then I have experienced continuous food sensitivities and allergy which are increasing in breadth and depth to the point that there are very limited things I can eat or drink without negative side effects. 

Dr. Kelly McCann explains that there are two things going on with MCAS – a trigger(s) and reaction(s).  Both need to be addressed.  In terms of food triggers, I can relate to Dr. Kelly McCann’s comment that she was gluten-free, dairy-free and unable to eat a long list of foods.  As Kelly suggests in her presentation, I have been undertaking an elimination process trying to identify specific foods (especially those high in histamine or salicylates) that cause aggravation of my symptoms so that I can remove them from my diet. 

In regard to reactions, Kelly argues that there is a need to dampen the hyperactivity of the immune response.  My naturopath, Dr. Mark Shoring, agrees with a tentative diagnosis of MCAS in my case, and recommended initially a course in Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), a herb identified by Mt Sinai Health System in New York as being “used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat allergies, infections, inflammation, cancer, and headaches”.  This treatment, along with Turmeric, is designed to dampen down my hyperactive immune response. So, my somatic strategies, at the moment, include identifying and eliminating aggravating foods and drinks while simultaneously calming the inflammatory response of my immune system.

Mind-body connection and healing practices

Kelly maintains that she experiences the influence of the mind-body connection everyday in her clinic when working with patients.   She points out that the impact of mind-body connections is developed through our early family and developmental experiences.  Unfortunately, we are often prone to misperceive these experiences or develop false beliefs that lead to emotional problems such as low self-esteem and emotional dysregulation.  She argues that we have to envisage the health challenge confronting people with MCAS in terms of a three-legged stool – Mast Cell Activation, Limbic System Activation (our emotional centre) and Vagus Nerve Dysfunction (the main nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system).

Kelly mentions a number of practices that can help retrain the limbic system to get our “mental/emotional loops” and habituated behaviour under control, e.g. Dynamic Neural Retraining System, the Gupta Program and Cathleen King’s Primal Trust Program.

Vagus Nerve Dysfunction can lead to people with MCAS becoming stuck in fight/flight/freeze behaviour which can impede healing.  Kelly maintains that the approach required here is stimulation of the vagus nerve to help people to get “back into parasympathetic rest and digest”.  She suggests approaches to achieve restoration of balance, e.g. breathing exercises, meditation and devices such as EmWave, HeartMath and Rezzimax.  Kelly mentioned that she uses mind-body techniques in her clinical practice when the person she is treating is receptive to these approaches.

Reflection

I think it is important to remember that MCAS impacts each individual differently.  The impacts are influenced by our biology and the number and severity of what Kelly calls “hits”.   There are so many confounding variables involved that self-diagnosis is likely to mislead us.  However, this should not stop us from being proactive, e.g. identifying and reducing or eliminating our triggers.  Actively seeking to grow in mindfulness can help us to stimulate the vagus nerve, activate our relaxation response and overcome negative thoughts.

Reading about Diane’s experience prompted me to revisit my naturopath and discuss his diagnosis of my food sensitivity and allergy experience.  He explained that his recommended treatment approach was based on the assumption that I was experiencing MCAS.

During one of my Creative Meetups, also attended by Diane, we listened to a reading of William Stafford’s poem, The Way It Is.  Listening to this poem and the subsequent discussion in the Meetup group prompted me to write a poem about my food sensitivities and allergy:

The Inflammatory Thread in My Life

There are many things I can’t eat
fruit, gluten, dairy and red meat.
I feel left out that I can’t share
even with delicious family fare.
I crave something sweet
but the cost is too steep.
Hives and rashes make me really itchy
legs and feet are shamefully icky.
Wine is off the table, not that I am unable
it’s the swollen ankle, that renders me unstable.
The endless cycle of elimination
to discover the source of inflammation.
It’s harder to share a meal with my wife
what I’ve done for forty years of my life.
Covid-19 has a long arm
it’s still doing me harm.
Almond croissants are my passion
a loss of consciousness my reaction.
Butter was a food sensitivity
It’s now a dangerous allergy.
Food and drink are tainted rewards
a mindset change to move forward.
It’s a long journey with a clear destination
It takes patience, perseverance and dedication.

______________________________________

This post is provided for information purposes only and is not intended to replace personal medical advice provided by a trained medical practitioner.  Please seek advice from a qualified professional before deciding on treatments for yourself or other members of your family.

______________________________________

Image by Ingo Jakubke 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 and the resources to support the blog.

Recovering from the Shock of a Relationship Breakup

Dr. Michael Acton, psychologist and relationship expert, spoke about the shock of a relationship breakup at the 2023 Mental Health Super Summit.  He suggested that a relationship breakup is like a car wreck – there is not only shock but also confusion. 

The natural and common reaction is to leap into another relationship for comfort and support.  Loss of a relationship can be very disorientating and incredibly disturbing.  People lose a sense of who they are while others in their relationship circle no longer know how to relate to them (particularly when they only knew the individual as part of a couple).    Some people in the circle choose avoidance, a few offer emotional support.

Michael likens the impact of a relationship breakup to being “lost in a dark tunnel”.  He suggests that disorientating shock occurs even for a person initiating a breakup.  The initiator can be frozen by indecision, alternating between “staying’ and “leaving”.  Indecision can then permeate every aspect of their life and especially their work environment and work tasks.

Michael provides specific advice for people in a toxic and narcissistic relationship in his book, Learning How to Leave: A Practical Guide.  The book is designed to empower sufferers of abuse from toxic relationships whether they are in an intimate relationship, a business relationship or in a family where domestic violence or coercive control exists.

Michael also maintains that grief models such as that of Elisabeth Kubler Ross are not adequate to describe the shock of a relationship breakup.  Unlike the loss of a loved one through death, a relationship breakup means that the other party still retains “agency” and can continue or initiate abuse physically, emotionally and/or financially. 

Physical violence can be threatened by well-meaning relatives of the separated partner.  The separated partner can also control mutual funds, or “take them (their former partner) to the cleaners”. One of the more emotionally exacting and potentially damaging action the separated partner can take is to withhold access to their jointly conceived children.

Michael is currently working on a book with a new model to address relationship breakups, Fork in the Road (available in 2024). 

Jelena Dokic’s relationship breakup

In a previous post, I discussed the physical abuse Jelena suffered at the hands of her father and the coercive control he exercised over her and her mother.  What was the greatest shock for Jelena was the sudden breakup of her relationship with her partner of 19 years, Tin Bilic.   In 2021, Tin, who was with his father in Croatia at the time, announced by a FaceTime call just before Christmas Day that, “We are done”.  Jelena describes the shock, pain and hurt she suffered as a result in her second memoir, Fearless: Finding the Power to Thrive

The shock of the breakup with Tin left Jelena in disbelief – she could not comprehend why the breakup occurred (no explanation was given).  There were no precursor major fights.  The shock of the relationship breakup was intensified because Tin had been “her rock” since 2002 – he stood by her at her lowest point in 2005 when she was “overweight, depressed, bankrupt and on the verge of ending her life”.

Jelena described Tin as the kindest person she had ever known (taking after his mother who had been a real support for Jelena with her kindness, respect, belief and model behaviour).  The permanent separation occurred after five months of temporary separation occasioned by Tin having to support his father who was in grief following the death of his wife Slavia in 2019.  The  uncertainty and trauma being experienced by Jelena at the time were compounded by the extended COVID lockdown in Melbourne..

Recovery from trauma: Jelena Dokic

Jelena acknowledges that she is still a “work-in-progress” following the multiple traumatic events she experienced in her life.  However, she has been able to overcome the disabling effects of trauma and has established herself in a new career as an international Tennis Commentator, author and public speaker. 

Jelena has been proactive in dealing with her trauma.  Following her relationship breakup with Tin, she sought therapy from a psychologist and he has proven to be a “lifesaver”.  Additionally, she identified a range of factors that helped her on her healing journey:

  • Supportive people – In Jelena’s early years as a junior tennis player, Lesley Bowrey was a tremendous support showing her kindness, belief and respect (while sharing a strong “work ethic”).  Tin himself and his mother, Slavia, were kindness personified and helped Jelena restore her self-belief.  Tom Woodbridge provided tireless support for her transition to author and Commentator and provided emotional support following her breakup with Tin.  Jelena frequently acknowledges the positive influence on her healing of the supportive people in her life.
  • Daily morning routine –  Jelena described the “mindful pause” that she takes for 45 minutes each morning. This routine involves stopping, savouring a cup of coffee, and admiring nature, especially the sunrises.  She learnt from Slavia to savour the “simple things in life”. 
  • Expressing gratitude – Jelena is very conscious of the research that demonstrates the healing effects of gratitude.  She writes in her gratitude journal on a weekly basis about the things in her life that she is grateful for (and re-reads the journal daily to remind herself of these blessings).  She also writes on a post-it note each week identifying three things that she is grateful for (and displays the note on her fridge as a reminder).  Jelena maintains that “practising gratitude brings calmness and joy to my mind and my life”.
  • Writing and public speaking – Jelena reiterates the healing power of storytelling and credits her storytelling in her memoirs as a major factor in her trauma recovery.  She notes in her memoirs that her storytelling in her public talks and presentations is not only healing for her but also for others who are experiencing trauma. This vicarious benefit is reinforced every time she meets people in public who have read her memoirs or listened to her talks.
  • Practising kindness – Jelena has a whole section in her Fearless memoir on “happiness, healing and kindness”.  She emphasises the power of kindness to “change lives and the world”.  Jelena acknowledges that she has had to teach herself how to be kind to others and to herself (given the family violence she experienced and the devastating impact on her self-esteem and self-love).
  • Empathy – Jelena in her generosity has used her resources and contacts to advocate for sufferers-survivors who have experienced what she has gone through – child abuse, body-shaming, family violence, social media trolling, eating disorders, and mental health issues.
  • Meditation and mindfulness – Jelena indicated that she practices meditation to achieve calmness and overcome anxiety.  Her other practices such as her “morning pause”, walking in nature, connecting to animals in a sanctuary, all contribute to her capacity to grow in mindfulness.  In many ways, Jelena puts into practice the principles for happiness and resilience promulgated by Hugh Van Cuylenburg in The Resilience Project: Finding Happiness Through Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness (G.E.M.).

Reflection

Jelena provides a source of inspiration for many people through her storytelling and her courage to work on her healing from trauma.  She demonstrates that as we grow in mindfulness we can shed our negative self-image, develop compassion and overcome life’s challenges.   We can learn to overcome our maladaptive responses and restore our self-image. 

The Health Story Collaborative provides the resources, encouragement and support to help you to write and share your health story.  I have found the free, monthly Creative Meetups (Writing for Expression and Healing) to be a very supportive and inspiring group who are proactive in oral and written storytelling to improve their health and overall wellbeing.  The group is non-hierarchical involving people with different levels of writing ability and a variety of health issues (including trauma-related illnesses and Long-COVID induced disabilities).

________________________________

Image by Avi Chomotovski 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 and the resources to support the blog.

The Demeaning Power of Coercive Control

During the recent 2023 Mental Health Super Summit Dr. Richard Hill explained the concept of “coercive control”, how it manifests and its devastating effects on children and adults.  This is a form of insidious, creeping control over another by a perpetrator (usually a parent or partner) that Richard describes as “a slow whittle”.  He drew on the definition of Dr. Emma Katz, a world authority in the area, to explain that coercive control involves the progressive “controlling of somebody else’s whole life”.   It takes away their normal autonomy and sense of freedom.  The control that is exercised is “wide-ranging and persistent”.  If the controlled person resists or refuses to conform they are punished.  The net result is that the controlled person lives a constrained way of life to avoid punishment.  

In her book, Coercive Control in Children’s and Mother’s Lives, Emma explains that children and adult survivors even after they are able to break free from the perpetrator must engage in a “sustained battle for safety and recovery”.  Through her research with many victims-survivors, she has become convinced that support and “professional Interventions” are needed to facilitate healing and recovery.

Richard explained that the perpetrator of coercive control keeps the controlled person “off balance”, continuously confuses them and progressively isolates them from others (in part, so that they can’t tell others what is happening to them).  He argues that the controlled person can begin to question their own sanity (because of “gaslighting”) and loses both self-esteem and self-determination.  Even when they are able to flee, they may fear for their safety because of stalking by the perpetrator who may continue to engage in “post-separation abuse”.

Even seeking assistance from the law is fraught with risk and difficulty for victims-survivors of perpetrators of coercive control.  In her book, Women, Intimate Partner Violence and the Law, Heather Douglas (drawing on case studies) explains that perpetrators often use the law against their victims, and that victims-survivors require very high levels of “endurance, tenacity and patience” to obtain help and protection through the law.  She highlights “the failure of the legal system to provide safety for women and children” on many occasions.

Jess Hill, Richard’s daughter, in her well-researched book, See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Violence, supports the view that “abuse is often reinforced by the justice system they trust to protect them” as victims-of domestic violence.  She suggests that instead of questioning why a woman didn’t leave her abusive partner, we should be asking, “Why did he do it?”. She offers ways forward to reduce the abuse and fear resulting from domestic violence that is so prevalent in Australian homes.

Jelena Dokic’s experience – a classic example of coercive control by a parent

In a previous post, I spoke of the physical abuse suffered by Jelena Dokic at the hands of her father, Damir Dokic.  Jelena, in her second memoir, Fearless: Finding the Power to Survive, also details what amounts to coercive control by her father – “wide-ranging and persistent control”.  Her father used physical punishment to control her behaviour (e.g. punishing her for not winning).  He restricted her access to people and attempted to isolate her.  He continuously called her demeaning names such as “cow” and “whore” and took control of her money, demanding she sign over her winnings and savings.  Her father also took all her trophies and sold them.  On one occasion, he publicly smashed a crystal runners-up trophy because Jelena did not win the tennis competition.

Jelena escaped from her family in 2002 (aged 19 years).  Despite this break away, she suffered post-separation abuse of her freedom. She was effectively stalked by her father and mother.  They would turn up unannounced at WTA events she was competing in and try to coax her to “return home”.  WTA security protected Jelena and refused entry to her father.  However, during the US Open in 2003, her mother turned up at her hotel and insisted that she sign over the family home in Florida to her father. 

In the previous post, I also described how Jelena was coached and supported by Australian tennis great Lesley Bowrey in her younger years, achieving outstanding success as a junior on the global stage.  Lesley believed in Jelena and what she could achieve and showed her respect and kindness – a stark contrast to the behaviour of her father.  However, eventually, her father insisted that she sack Lesley as her coach which shattered Jelena’s “happy world” and left her devastated. 

The continuous belittling, dismissing her achievements and pervasive control took its toll on Jelena’s mental health and she suffered from a loss of self-esteem and a feeling of “not being good enough”.  She felt trapped by her father despite being physically separated from him.  She experienced “thoughts of suicide” because she could see no way out of her traumatic situation (her “entrapment”).

Coercive Control of Jelena’s mother

Jelena and her mother, Ljiljana Dokic, were estranged because her daughter felt that her mother had failed to help and protect her against her father’s physical abuse and coercive control and the trauma she experienced.  However, in her Fearless memoir, Jelena explained that they had restored their relationship after she found it in herself to forgive her mother for her lack of protection.  She came to understand that her mother too suffered at the hands of her father.  She was also beaten into submission and suffered coercive control. 

Jelena’s father made all the key decisions impacting her mother.  He determined where they lived, controlled all the money (mainly Jelena’s winnings) and forced her to undertake unpleasant tasks against her will.  Jelena’s mother was forced to work to provide herself with some independent income. 

Reflection

In her memoir, Jelena acknowledged that she had not forgiven her father for his physical abuse and coercive control.  She had come to realise that her mother too was controlled by him and Jelena was able to find a level of forgiveness towards her mother following this realisation.

In an earlier post, I provided a reflection process for dealing with resentment and anger. It facilitates looking at what was happening for the other person in a conflict/abuse situation.  Among other things, it asks you to think about what was happening for the other person in terms of self-esteem and identity.  It also requires you to think about the pressures and stresses experienced by the other person, including their life experiences and familial influences.  As Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey suggest, an important question is, “What Happened to You?”.

By adopting the other person’s perspective, you are better able to be empathetic and find forgiveness.  Jelena was able to do this in relation to her mother, but not her father. Understanding and forgiveness may come with an appreciation of the influences that shaped her father’s life, including poverty and living in war-torn Croatia as a parent and partner, becoming a refugee in Australia and being beaten by his parents as a child.  Jelena’s hurt and pain at the hands (and mind) of her father are deep and will take a lifetime to heal.

As we grow in mindfulness, through reflection on our own life and significant formative events, we can appreciate the positive people and events in our life that helped to shape who we are and what we have achieved.  Jelena’s story, recorded in her memoirs, is a great source of inspiration for overcoming life’s challenges and appreciating what we do have.

________________________________

Image by Myléne 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 and the resources to support the blog.

Fearlessly Sharing Your Story: Jelena Dokic’s Exhortation

Jelena Dokic shared her story of paternal abuse in the second of her memoirs, Fearless: Finding the Power to Thrive.  Her no holds barred account is disarmingly honest but replete with positivity and gratitude. 

Jelena indicated that she first gave a glimpse of her family situation in an interview with journalist Jessica Halloran, who subsequently co-authored her two memoirs.  The first memoir, Unbreakable, told of her challenges as a refugee from Yugoslavia, her life of poverty and the brutality of her father, Damir Dokic.

The first physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her father was when she was six years old.  He slapped her hard in the face three times because she had laughed and joked with her tennis coach.  In Damir’s view, tennis was not for enjoyment but sheer hard work that had to be taken seriously.  Beyond that first abuse, she suffered continuous beatings as a teenager, especially when she lost a game.  Jelena often played with bruises all over her body.  On one occasion he beat her unconscious with a shoe.

Jelena highlighted in her memoirs the fear and physical suffering she experienced at the hands of her father.  She explained in detail how his behaviour diminished her self-esteem and intensified her sense of shame. Despite her trauma from this physical abuse, Jelena became one of the greatest Australian female tennis players, reaching the rank of number 4 in the world in singles.  She was noted for her nerve and fearlessness on court and her ability to fight back when behind in a match – a resilience born of combating her trauma.

The power of storytelling

Jelena discussed her personal battle with shame when trying to share her story.  From the interview with Jessica to her Fearless memoir, she had progressively revealed more about her life and personal challenges. In the process she has become a very strong advocate for the healing power of storytelling.  Jelena indicated that not only was she able to heal from her trauma through storytelling but she found that other people drew inspiration and healing from her personal battles and her capacity to rise above them.

Jelena used her memoirs to tell her story with increasing levels of disclosure.  She found too that her book tours and public presentations enabled her to share more about her life and how she dealt with her trauma, which often left her feeling helpless, anxious, depressed and exhausted.

Jelena has continued to do public presentations to share her story and the positive value of her storytelling  has been reinforced by the number of people who have expressed gratitude for her talks.  She strongly advocates for people to share their stories of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

In Fearless, Jelena has a section on the “the power of story” and reinforces the positive changes that can accrue from narrative therapy (offered by her psychologist).  She states that through storytelling she moved from a victim mindset to “survivor”.  Her story suggests that she became a “victor”.  Jelena continuously encourages people experiencing trauma to speak up:

I have said it many times in this book speaking up creates change, saves lives.

The healing effects of social support

In a section on “having the right people around you”, Jelena highlighted the importance of supportive people (social support) for the process of healing from trauma.  Her earliest positive experience was being coached by Australian tennis great, Lesley Bowrey, who she described as a “no-nonsense, fair, tough coach with the warmest heart”.  Jelena appreciated Lesley’s strong work ethic, a shared trait that was a source of mutual admiration. 

Lesley showed kindness and an unshakeable belief in Jelena which became a profound source of happiness for her.  While Lesley was her coach, she won the Junior US Open, reached World Number 1 Junior and won the Hoffman Cup with Mark Philippoussis

Jelena waxes lyrical about the unconditional support provided by Tod Woodbridge in her transition from tennis retirement to commentator.  He had encouraged her to write the Unbreakable memoir and mentored her “tirelessly” about the process of commentating tennis matches.

Jelena also mentioned the very positive influence of her psychologist who helped her explore the impact of her trauma on her thoughts and behaviour and to challenge false beliefs about herself.  Her psychologist supported her to progressively make changes in her life to initiate and sustain the healing process.

Reflection

The physical abuse Jelena experienced was demoralising and exhausting.  Jelena showed tremendous courage to share her story, seek social support, work with a therapist and eventually overcome her fears and loss of self-esteem.  She is now very much a role model for dealing with trauma and an encouragement to many people worldwide.

As we grow in mindfulness through our own efforts to increase our awareness of the impact of significant events in our life, we can develop deeper personal insight and the courage to take the actions necessary to achieve personal healing.

________________________________

Image by brian teh 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 and the resources to support the blog.

Healing Collective Trauma

Thomas Hübl. intergenerational trauma expert, recently convened the Collective Trauma Summit 2023, designed to share ideas and healing processes “to inspire action to heal individual, ancestral and collective trauma”.  The Summit was conducted online from 26 September to October 4 and was attended by 100,00 people which reinforces how pervasive trauma is within the global community.  One of the goals of the Summit was to “create a global healing movement”.  Thomas is the author of Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds.

Thomas and his colleagues have been conducting these trauma conferences for the past five years to raise awareness of intergenerational trauma and its impacts on individuals and communities.  Intergenerational trauma is a form of genetic inheritance of trauma experienced by descendants (typically children and grandchildren) of people who have survived catastrophic traumatic events.  The inherited trauma can be reflected in hypervigilance and a wide range of physical and psychological responses to triggers associated with the original trauma experienced by ancestors. While the person experiencing intergenerational trauma does not experience “flashbacks”, as they were not present during the initiating traumatic event, they can experience maladaptive behaviour as a result of the transmission of trauma and trauma responses by their ancestors.

When we speak of intergenerational trauma we often think of survivors of the Holocaust or the devastation of Hiroshima.  However, there are many sources of intergenerational trauma such as genocide of Native Americans and Aboriginals, institutional or familial child abuse and or neglect, domestic violence, war, colonisation, civil wars creating refugees, chronic illnesses/diseases (such as zoonotic diseases) and natural disasters (e.g., floods, wildfires, earthquakes, droughts and cyclones/hurricanes).

Developing awareness of collective trauma

Part of the focus of the Summit was to raise awareness of the “collective trauma” that resides in the global community as a result of the multiplicity of traumatic events in our world.   It means that individuals and communities are not only coping with the challenges of day-to-day living in our fast-paced world but having to deal with the residual effects of inherited trauma – the “scar tissue of collective trauma”.  One of the days of the Summit was thus devoted to “global social witnessing of world-wide uncertainty”.

Robin Alfred, in his usual articulate manner, maintained that awareness of the genetic transfer of trauma can help to reverse the ill-effects of collective trauma.  He suggested that developing resonance by listening can enable people to heal through expressing themselves – getting the inside outside and achieving congruence in their lives.  Robin contended that trauma clouds our minds so that we see ourself as a micro ecosystem, rather than as part of a global, social ecosystem.  The way forward for him is for individuals and communities to plug into the massive, self-healing biosphere.  He saw “relational resonance” creating a global healing environment as people around the world became aware of “systemic/intergenerational trauma” and explored their interconnectedness for healing.  One of his own awareness practices involves exploring the lives and world of people he does not know, e.g., speaking to undercover police about their psychological distress, isolation and identity crisis.  He epitomises the “not-knowing” mindset in pursuing understanding of people who hitherto he “has put far away” from himself.

Healing from the effects of collective trauma

Trauma can have multiple effects on a person’s life and relationships.  During the Summit people told stories of their isolation and sense of aloneness, their fear and terror, their anxiety and depression and their disempowerment.  One person described her experience of trauma as ”falling into a sinkhole”.   People participating in the Summit were courageous and vulnerable in sharing their trauma and how it was playing out for them in their individual lives.   Thomas reiterated the healing power of storytelling, especially with the support of a community of people “feeling with you and suffering also”.

Throughout the Summit, presenters and participants shared multiple healing modalities that they have employed to overcome the effects of trauma and intergenerational trauma.  These modalities included:

  • Ceremony
  • Ritual
  • Calling in spirits
  • Dance
  • Joyful movement
  • Somatic Experiencing
  • Experiences of connection

Special attention was given to the arts such as music, poetry, literature, and paintings. Laura Calderon de la Barca, psychotherapist specialising in collective trauma, reinforced the power of art (e.g., poetry) to enable people to share experiences that are extremely stressful.  In her view, art creates “an unfolding of space that needs to happen” to enable “ex-pression” (moving the inside to outside).   The sharing, in whatever form it takes, creates movement towards healing.  Laura noted that writing enabled her to bring order into her own life.  She maintained that when people get engaged with the issue of collective trauma, compassionate action is created.  She encouraged us to connect much more deeply with nature and embrace our own vulnerability through movement and dance. 

Throughout the Summit, Kim Rosen read aloud poetry that spoke to the healing process, including The Song of the Man Who has Come Through by D.H. Lawrence.  She also read a number of poems for Summit participants with the music of Jamie Sieber, electronic and acoustic cellist, playing in the background.  Kim is the author of the book, Saved by A Poem: The Transformative Power of Words. 

The way forward for healing collective trauma

Thomas stressed the desire for “global social witnessing”, and the Summit was one form of this solution.  He emphasised the need for a global movement, a form of collective endeavour, that can work towards “healing the trauma between us”.  He stressed the importance of melting the permafrost of trauma by enabling traumatised people to release their feelings, building connection through data sharing and facilitating interconnectedness through growing awareness of the community of people experiencing intergenerational and cultural trauma.

Thomas spoke of our horizontal as well as our vertical responsibility.  Horizontally, our responsibility involves moving beyond our “hyper-individualised world” to respond to the pain and experience of others.  Vertically, it entails developing awareness of our ancestors and indigenous populations and their collective trauma, as well as consciousness of younger generations and their collective anxiety.  He particularly focused on the “fragmentation” of identities and communities caused by trauma and encouraged us “to refine and deepen our capacity to relate” because it is in alive relationships that we find the energy to create, new enabling structures “that are much better for the present point of evolution”.

He encouraged us to find “different ways to experience nature and each other” so that we can develop a more integrated “healing infrastructure” for collective trauma.  He suggested that we can better tap into the “self-healing” mechanism of the body through connecting with each other and sharing our stories, power and resources.   Storytelling is not only healing for the storyteller but also the listener.

Ruby Mendenhall shared her insights from the Summit and highlighted the motivation and inspiration that the experience provided.  She especially noted how sharing in community can heal trauma and loneliness.  Ruby argued that we have to become more aware of the cost and impact of unprocessed grief, especially that flowing from adverse childhood experiences.  She maintained that a lot of people feel threatened around “gender norms or race” and that we need to take up the solutions that are already present to us but somewhat underdeveloped, such as somatic healing.  Ruby stressed the urgency of educating children about adverse childhood experiences, the impact on the body and relationships and the ways to develop resilience with the aid of community.   Ruby’s vision for black women who have experienced violence in their community is enunciated in her TEDx Talk, DREAMING and Designing Spaces of Hope in a “Hidden America”, where the mnemonic, DREAM, stands for Developing Responses to Poverty through Education And Meaning. 

Reflection

I was particularly impressed with the emphasis on storytelling as a healing modality and the power of writing to facilitate healing.  I am currently researching my own memoir that I plan to write as one way to process some of the traumatic events I have experienced in my lifetime – death of a baby brother, 18 months in an orphanage, my father as a prisoner-of-war in Changi prison for three years and  absent for the first six years of my life, a serious car accident in the family car at age 12, my father suffering PTSD and becoming an aggressive alcoholic, and my divorce at age 37.

 In the past, I have been able to process much of my trauma through living in a supportive community and growing in mindfulness through meditation, prayer and the practice of silence.  I found too, that sport and especially playing tennis helped me to deal with tension and anxiety and to focus more on the present moment.

I realised through the Summit that I have had the tendency to individualise the trauma that I have experienced as a result of the traumatic events in my life.  The Summit has made me more aware of the collective nature of trauma, especially intergenerational trauma.  I am becoming more aware that I am part of the community of adult children of alcoholic parents; the community of children whose father went to war and was imprisoned and experienced physical and psychological injury; the community of children who experienced institutional neglect; the community of people who lost a sibling while growing up; and the community of people who experienced a missing parent in their early childhood.  This realisation of different trauma-related communities that I am a part of reinforces for me the concept of “collective trauma”.

I have found it useful to connect with a community of people who share my current issue of chronic injury and who are able to openly share their experience of pain and recovery mechanisms.  This community, the Health Story Collaborative, provides story sharing opportunities and mutual support for people experiencing chronic pain, disability or illness.  It reinforces the Summit’s encouragement for mutual sharing in a supportive environment – becoming a microcosm of the global healing movement addressing collective trauma.  The fundamental message is that we are not alone when experiencing trauma and its negative impacts on our quality of life and relationships.  Together, we can muster the energy and creativity to access individual and global healing.

________________________________

Image by Big_Heart 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 and the resources to support the blog.

Healing Through Creative Storytelling

I have previously written about the Health Story Collaborative created by Dr. Annie Brewster M.D.  The Collaborative provides an online platform for individuals to share their story (through any medium) about their health challenges and their road to recovery.  The stories provide healing for the storyteller and ongoing inspiration for others to overcome the challenge of ill-health in whatever form it takes.  Annie Brewster is the author of The Healing Power of Storytelling: Using Personal Narrative to Navigate Illness, Trauma and Loss.

Creative Meetups

One of the programs offered by the Health Story Collaborative is Creative Meetups that are designed to cultivate “writing for expression and connection”.  They are based on the firm belief that artistic expression of a person’s story can help them “find hope and healing”.  These free workshops are offered every second Wednesday via the Zoom platform – they only require prior registration through the website.

The Creative Meetups are currently facilitated by Annie Robinson, who has completed a Masters in Narrative Medicine and is a qualified meditation, mindfulness and yoga teacher. In her private practice, Annie helps health professionals, including nurses and doctors, by training them in wellbeing, reflection and resilience.  She also assists individuals in various life transitions and is co-curator of the podcast for health professionals, Thriving in Scrubs

My experience of a Creative Meetup

I recently participated in my first Creative Meetup – initially with some uncertainty, not knowing what would be involved and how vulnerable I would feel.  The Meetup facilitated by Annie had about 12 participants, both male and female.  The process usually involves Annie providing some form of stimulus for reflection followed by a period for individual creative writing that can take any form a participant desires, e.g., a poem, picture, narrative or dot points.

Annie explained at the outset that she was departing from her usual practice of having two participants read out a piece of writing, e.g. a poem, that can act as a stimulus to reflection.  On this occasion, she shared an abstract painting that featured a number of colours with a pattern that suggested “reflection” to me.

Our Meetup process involved an initial two minute writing task where we reflected on what the painting meant for us as individuals, there being “no right answer”.  This was followed by a brief sharing by some people who wished to share with the larger group.  We were then assigned the task of taking a sentence from our earlier reflection and expanding on this over a period of 20 minutes of individual creative writing (with no restrictions on form or length).

When we had completed our creative writing, Annie placed us into Zoom “rooms” of three or four people to share at another level.  Participants were encouraged to share only what they felt comfortable sharing with no pressure for full disclosure.  The small group environment enabled rapid rapport building and a degree of openness that was disarmingly honest (destroying any erroneous first impressions that may have been formed). 

As one participant commented in the larger group, there was a common bond amongst participants in that we were all dealing with a health challenge (however varied in nature and complexity) and were seeking healing through writing and sharing.  Reg Revans, the Father of Action Learning, would describe us as “Comrades in Adversity” (or as others put it, “Comrades in Opportunity”).

The environment created through the Creative Writeup process was one of trust that facilitated openness and vulnerability by participants.   There was a shared sense of journeying towards healing with the aid of the understanding, empathy and mutual support offered by fellow participants.  Annie’s low-key facilitation style and active listening modelled appropriate behaviour for participants.

I was blown away in the small group by the creative writing that was shared.  In one case, this involved a poem that expressed the meaning for the participant of each of the colours in the painting – an insightful and revealing piece of writing that we asked the storyteller to read a second time because it was so rich.  Another involved an allegorical story that was emotive and self-disclosing and left us all feeling loving kindness towards the person who shared so vulnerably. 

One of the features of the small group was the way that one person’s shared reflection stimulated reflection by another person and achieved a deeper level of self-disclosure.  Participants could relate to some aspect of a shared situation, response or recovery approach.  We were each able to learn from the storytelling.

Reflection

During the small group sharing, I was able to share with others how expressing gratitude for what I am able to have and do was a recovery mechanism for me following my diagnosis of multi-level spinal degeneration.  It also empowered me to seek alternative medical assistance in the form of an exercise physiologist who helped me return to tennis when my doctors told me that I would never play again.

The painting that Annie shared reminded me of the art of reflection – having spent most of my working life in studying, teaching and practicing action learning.  Reflection underpinned the way I played tennis, conducted workshops, managed people and interacted with others.

More recently, through reflection,  I came to understand that one of my personal barriers to active listening was my need to come from an “I know” perspective rather than what Frank Ostaseski  recommends as a “don’t know mind”.  The “don’t know” approach is foundational to action learning, so my listening behaviour was not congruent with what I espoused about action learning.  Reg Revans reminds us that, ”If you think you fully understand something, you are not only going to get yourself in trouble but others as well.”  Reg encourages us to “ask fresh questions” and to develop “questioning insight”.   He frequently quoted Isaac Newton’s comment about studying some interesting shells and pebbles in his lifetime “whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me”.

At the time, I attributed this personal barrier to active listening to my many years as an academic.  I realised, too, that the “I know” perspective accounts in part why I had so much resistance when trying to introduce action learning into my university.  It also explains why in the first year of an action learning program that I was facilitating in another university, the hierarchy insisted on removing “become a learning organisation” from the vision statement for the program (they re-inserted it after their experience of the first year of the program and its outcomes).   

As I grow in mindfulness through reflection and activities such as the Creative Meetups, I am better able to develop resilience to deal with life’s challenges, gain increased self-awareness and cultivate deep listening to enrich my relationships.

________________________________

Image by Peter H 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 and the resources to support the blog.

Changing How We Deal with Emotions

Hilary Jacobs Kendel, psychotherapist, author and activist, contends that we learn many things in school that we never use but do not learn about emotions that affect every aspect of our daily lives.  She strongly advocates for education about emotions though her videos, blog posts, presentations, interviews, newspaper articles and clinical practice.  Hilary is the author of  It’s Not Always About Depression:  Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions and Rediscover Your Authentic Self.

The Change Triangle®

Hilary educates people about emotions and how to change the way we deal with them through what she calls the Change Triangle®.  This is a visual representation in the form of an inverted triangle of the different types of emotions we all experience.  At the base are what Hilary calls the core emotions that are calls to action designed to help us negotiate our environment.  To the right at the top are inhibiting emotions which impede us experiencing core emotions in their true form.  These, in turn, often lead us to adopt defenses which we employ to avoid being aware of, or experiencing, our feelings.  

Hilary acknowledges that her own understanding of emotions was developed through attending a presentation by Dr. Diana Fosha, Director and Founder of Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP)™ which is a treatment model adopted by Hilary that was developed to help adults experiencing difficulties as a result of childhood attachment trauma and abuse.  This transformational model focuses on healing and flourishing despite the experience of emotional suffering and draws heavily on neuroscience, brain plasticity and research on mother-infant development.  Diana advocates strongly for a healing approach (transformation) instead of the traditional psychotherapy approach of a focus on pathology.  In this respect, she addresses the question What Happened to You?, not What’s Wrong With You? – a healing approach also adopted in the book by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry.  Diana wrote the Forward for Hilary’s book.

Core Emotions

Core emotions have been identified as early as Charles Darwin and their impact on the brain is now able to be identified through brain imaging.  Hilary identifies the core emotions as fear, joy, anger, excitement, sadness, sexual excitement and disgust. These emotions are beyond conscious control as they are triggered by our everyday experience and serve as a survival mechanism, activating our flight or fight response, our approach or avoidance stance.  Where real danger exists, this can be life-saving.  Fear, for example, can make us aware of a real, impending danger, e.g., a house fire.  However, through trauma and adverse childhood experiences, the core emotions can be triggered by seemingly harmless activities or events, such as conscious breathing, a smell or a sound.  The core emotions “ready our body for action” as they appear with a lot of biological energy – ready for activation. 

Inhibiting Emotions

Hilary identifies three emotions that she describes as “inhibiting emotions” – anxiety, shame and guilt.  These emotions often arise from the “shoulds” “and “should-not” messaging that we are all exposed to, especially in our childhood.  Deborah Feldman illustrates this very well in her book, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic RootsShe talks of the shame she felt in reading books written in English rather than Yiddish (because of the constant paternal messaging) and the guilt she experienced eating cakes when she felt hungry from the very restrictive traditional diet.  Hilary explains that “shame” is designed to inhibit out impulses and ensure conformity to the norms of our reference group – e.g., family, community or religion.  She differentiates healthy shame from toxic shame – the former brings us safety through inclusion, protection and support.  The latter generates a toxic environment in that it is built on negative self-talk that reinforces negative beliefs about oneself generated by bullying (online or offline), abuse, neglect or alcoholic parents.  Hilary explains that the road to healing is employing the Change Triangle® to unearth the core emotions that lie underneath the shame.   She provides a roadmap through her blog post, 5 Ways to Work the Change Triangle as a Beginner, and offers multiple examples of this transformation process in operation within her book, It’s Not Always About Depression.

Defenses

Hilary explains that defenses are a form of emotional protection in that they are multiple ways “we all avoid painful, uncomfortable or conflicting emotions”.  She identifies the more common ways to avoid emotions in one of her blog posts, including sarcasm, superior conceit, constant apologizing, procrastination, eating disorders and addiction.  She describes some of the more surface level defenses as moving away, rolling your eyes or judging others.  Defenses can be healthy and serve our needs in particular situations such as in a professional environment.  However, unhealthy defenses prevent us from experiencing either inhibiting or core emotions and effectively lead to disconnection from our authentic self.  We hide away from the pain of our deepest feelings by finding a way to deflect them.

In a New York Times Article, It’s Not Always Depression, Sometimes its Shame, Hilary describes her AEDP therapeutic work with a client named Brain.  He had presented with what appeared to be chronic depression and had failed to respond to multiple forms of therapy and medication.  He appeared to be in a comatose state – unable to connect, express his feelings or communicate effectively.  His defenses, in the form of withdrawal enabled him to protect himself form the pain of “emotional aloneness” and toxic shame – induced by a lack of emotional bonding from his parents. His father was preoccupied with earning a living and his mother drank to excess – resulting in “emotional neglect” for Brian.

Hilary employed a range of techniques over the four years of her therapeutic intervention, including throwing cushions to Brian just to engage him in some way.  In his second year of treatment,  he learned to name his emotions, validate them and “safely connect to the emotion he felt in his body”.  On the conclusion of his therapy Brian “felt alive again”,  developed more friends, undertook meaningful work and learned to assert his needs.  In the process, he dissipated the toxic shame he had been experiencing.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness we gain increased self-awareness and are better able to identify our triggers, our habituated defenses, the inhibiting emotions and our underlying core emotions (often, there is more than one at play).  We can also learn to access our emotions through our bodily sensations – a major focus of Hilary’s approach.

In her video presentation of the Change Triangle® to a group, Hilary begins with a meditation – participants are asked to close their eyes, become grounded, get in touch with their breath, and undertake a body scan.  The first part of the scan focuses in on a place in the body where we can feel calm and warmth.  The second part of the scan involves identifying a place of tension or pain in the body.  This is followed by a process of breathing into that place and imagining that we are able to move it aside even for a little bit to locate the emotion that is under there, “pushing up for experiencing and validation”.

As Bessel van der Kolk maintains, The Body Keeps the Score.  In this book, he explains the role of the brain and body in the transformation of trauma.  As Hilary points out, through her Change Triangle®, healing and transformation ultimately lead us to our Authentic Self which enables us to achieve clarity, calm, courage, creativity, compassion and connectedness.

________________________________

Image by Ronald Plett 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 and the resources to support the blog.