Children and Young People Need Compassionate Action in these Difficult Times

According to a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission and Kids Helpline, one of the major fallouts from the pandemic is the pervasive negative impacts on children and young people.  Their report makes the point that “the health, social, educational, economic, and recreational impacts” will extend well beyond the pandemic and impact their futures.  Children and youth are themselves the future of their communities so it is incumbent on people in communities to extend compassionate action to this group who are in crisis through a global event over which they have no control.

The co-authored report identifies five key issues raised by children and young people:

  • Deteriorating mental health
  • Isolation from others
  • Disrupted education
  • Family stresses
  • Unanticipated changes to plans, activities, and recreation

These issues are not discrete and, in fact, are compounding – each individually exacerbating other impacts. 

Deteriorating mental health

A report by Headspace focused on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on young people who accessed their services.   Many young people indicated the negative impacts on their sleep, mood, and overall well-being.  Young people have experienced anxiety over an uncertain future,  contagious stress (from financial and health concerns of others) and disconnection from foundational supports such as family and friends. However, what is encouraging are the activities that young people undertake in terms of self-care, including accessing Headspace and its dedicated resources for youth mental health.  Also, some young people saw the difficult times as a chance to re-calibrate, re-think priorities and focus on what is important in life.  The problem now is that the negative impacts of the pandemic are so pervasive that organisations like Headspace are becoming overwhelmed by the demand for their services.

Isolation from others

Lockdowns and restricted movement, and the alternating on and off directives, have contributed to a sense of social isolation.  Disconnection from others can lead to loneliness and depression and impact young people’s confidence and sense of self-worth.  The more extroverted children and youth can experience long periods of boredom and begin to question their purpose and usefulness.  Connection, on the other hand, engenders mental stimulus, energy, joy, and shared experiences – all conducive to positive mental health.

Disrupted education

With the initial limitations on face-to-face education with schools and university lockdowns, children and young people found that their education was disrupted.  The impacts were experienced as a result of the variable capacity of parents to undertake home-schooling, the lack of preparation and training of teachers for online learning and delivery and the lack of technological and infrastructure support.  The disruption was compounded by the inability of some children and young people to learn adequately in an online environment, influenced, in part, by the inadequacy of home computers and/or space.

Family stresses

In many instances, adults in a family were having difficulty coping with the pandemic for similar reasons to young people – isolation, mental health issues and disrupted activities.  Many were forced to work at home, which suited lots of people but undermined the confidence of others.  Families, too, were in crisis because of job losses, financial difficulties, challenges accessing food and essential services and overall concerns about the health and welfare of family members (including members of the extended family who were isolated locally or overseas).  Adding to these stresses is the impact of grief through the loss of a friend, colleague, or family member.

Unanticipated changes to plans, activities, and recreation

For young people, recreation is an important outlet for their energy, the stresses experienced because of their age and physical development and frustration with life’s challenges (including conflict of values with their parents).  Limitations on recreational activities compounded the stress felt by young people and impacted their relationships with their family.  What is positive, is the number of families who took the opportunity to go for walks or bike rides together in their adjacent area.

Youth homelessness as a consequence of issues experienced by young people

One of the major impacts of the pandemic and associated stressors is the rise in youth homelessness. Mission Australia reported in July 2020 that one in six young people who completed their survey indicated that they had been homeless.  The report highlights the long-term effects of homelessness on young people for whom the experience is “isolating, destabilising and often traumatic”, creating “insurmountable barriers as they move into adult life”.   Homeless youth can experience a pervasive sense of sadness and hopelessness.  Children and young people experience homelessness because of family conflicts, domestic violence and abuse, bullying, household financial crises and lack of affordable housing.  Kids Under Cover (KUC) highlights the main causes of homelessness for children and young people and advances a very strong economic argument for preventing youth homelessness.

Addressing children and youth homelessness

Mission Australia has called on the Federal and State Governments to increase the stock of affordable, social housing as one approach to economic recovery and social accountability and to redress the growing crisis of children and youth homelessness.  The report jointly authored by  Headspace and the Australian Human Rights Commission suggests a range of educational, mental health, economic and informational strategies that Governments can employ to redress the situation.  They particularly encourage Governments to give young people a voice in pandemic recovery planning.  One recommendation  of the report that is particularly critical is “prioritising   services for vulnerable children and young people”.

Organisations already exist to provide the requisite services for young people and families who are struggling.  BABI, for instance, located in Wynnum (Brisbane, Queensland) has provided a comprehensive range of youth and family services since 1983 to residents of the Bayside areas of Brisbane (Wynnum, Manly & Redlands).  This includes supported accommodation for youth who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, specialised family support for parents who are young or have teenagers, personal development (including tenancy training and Get Set for Work training) and youth connection and engagement through their LINX Youth Space and their Youth Voice Committee (YVC).

Organisation such as BABI, Headspace and KUC are finding that the growing demand for their services are fast outstripping their existing resources.  Those who provide supported accommodation, for example, are working in an environment where so many influences are making it extremely difficult to provide the requisite housing solutions.   The influences that are compounding include:

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Rising house prices and rentals costs
  • Limited vacancies overall

This accommodation crisis is accompanied by the removal of economic supports instituted during the pandemic such as the Eviction Moratorium, JobKeeper payments and the Coronavirus Supplement.   The removal of the JobKeeper Payment alone is expected to result in the loss of at least 100,000 jobs.

While Governments could show compassion and do many things to address homelessness amongst children and youth, there is an obvious reluctance to address the associated issues.  It is clear that it is time for people in the community to take compassionate action in the form of advocating with Governments and politicians, supporting organisations such as BABI through their businesses and their personal donations and volunteering whatever assistance they can provide to enable these dedicated organisations to meet what is currently an overwhelming demand.

Reflection

Empathy developed through mindfulness can help us to feel for the plight of others, especially those experiencing homelessness.  As we grow in mindfulness through loving kindness meditation, we can gain insight into how we could personally contribute and become motivated to take compassionate action for the homeless children and young people in our community – the young people who are the future of our communities.

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

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

Finding Silence Amid the Noise and Busyness at Work

Christine Jackman, in her book Turning Down the Noise, highlights the noise and busyness at work as barriers to achieving silence and mindfulness.  These barriers are compounded by an emerging cultural norm that she calls “performative busyness” – “where contributions that are quick, disruptive and loud” are valued more highly than the reflective, considered responses to organisational issues and problems.   This norm values busyness above reflection.  The cost to organisations and individuals is tremendous in terms of lost productivity, stifling of creativity and increased stress levels resulting in lost motivation, depression, and burnout.

The “performative busyness” norm

In many organisations, being busy, or at least appearing to be busy, has become the norm.  This elevation of “busyness” was highlighted by an engaging study by Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of The Time Bind, who demonstrated (among other things) the negative impact of the busyness norm on the implementation of family-friendly policies.  If you did not work long hours and appeared to be busy all the time, you were viewed as unmotivated, lacking in commitment.  The net result was that those (mainly women) who sought to access the family-friendly policy to take time off for pressing family needs were often refused or treated poorly for their “obvious lack of work motivation”.  Arlie documents the ever-increasing cost to the family and the workplace of this debilitating dilemma confronting caregivers.

I once worked as a consultant to an organisation where performative busyness was the norm and treated as a corporate value by managers.  Busyness became equated with importance.  If a manager was “too busy” to attend meetings, or if there was an extended lead-time before you could have a meeting with a manager, they were considered V.I.P.’s (Very Important Persons).  This emphasis on “performative busyness” was in direct contrast to the client-facing areas where the highest value was placed on client service, rather than self-importance.   The client service areas were often frustrated by the need for the central service areas to reinforce their busyness and importance by creating unnecessary work for the client service areas.  This centric-focused busyness negatively impacted staff morale and effectiveness in the client service areas as well as client relations.

The  “open office” bind

Open office designs were introduced for efficiency reasons and to achieve higher productivity and collaboration.  Cost efficiencies have been achieved in many places because of the reduced cost of office outfitting but human efficiency has declined.   Two Professors at Harvard University, Ethan Bernstein and Stephan Turban, reported in 2018 that their research demonstrated that open offices actually led to a decline in both productivity and collaboration, owing to the heightened noise levels and the lack of privacy.   Research too has highlighted the negative impact that open offices can have on employee’s mental health because of factors like noise, overcrowding, isolation, and distractions. 

It is interesting that during a recent virtual training course I was conducting, a number of managers reported that they were better able to build a relationship with staff who were introverts while working from home in a virtual environment.  They explained that their relationships improved and they put this down to the fact that they were no longer impeded by the noise level and lack of privacy of the open office.

Meetings and more meetings

Christine refers to what she calls the “ritual meeting” – the meeting that occurs at a set time each day or week and has been in existence for a considerable period (so that it has now become a ritual but participants may have lost sight of its original purpose or the original need may have actually ceased to exist).  She maintains that often too many people attend these meetings for no appreciable achievement with no one counting the cost or seeking to improve the outcomes. Christine points out that these ritual meetings feed performative busyness behaviour because they enable managers to book out their days by attending endless meetings and thus appearing extremely busy.

In another organisational consultancy, I was working with a group of eight organisational leaders, whose salaries averaged AUD$400,000.  They were wanting to improve their effectiveness but expressed concern that the real problem lay with the “managers down there who were not accountable”.  It turned out, however, that the leaders met ritually every Friday afternoon for four hours and typically had no appreciable outcome from these meetings (and hence nothing to report to their next level managers). Despite the fact that they were aware of the cost of the meetings and their ineffectiveness, none of the leaders chose to do anything about them.  They were blind to the fact that they themselves were not accountable for the way they used their time and the organisation’s finances and resources. They were oblivious of the lack of congruence of their behaviour with their stated value of “accountability”.

Reflection

There are many barriers to silence in our lives including digital noise, overload, the discomfort of others, and busyness at work.  Silence can be found in natural sounds and music which enable us to cultivate deep listening and an inner silence.  However, seeking silence does not mean that we have to hide away from the world or not take action against injustices or inequity.

Christine points out in her penultimate chapter, that there is a real trade-off between silence and activity.  In a very well-researched and insightful chapter, she points out that it is not an either-or situation.  The challenge is to find silence within our roles whether they be at work, at home as a parent or partner, or in a broader community setting.  She provides a “Silence: How-to Guide” at the end of her book to assist us in this task.  I have incorporated some of these ideas as well as my own mindfulness practices in a previous post about accessing the power of silence.

As we grow in mindfulness, through our pursuit of stillness and inner silence amid our daily life and work, we can find a deep inner peace, calmness, and creativity, as well as a harbour or refuge in challenging times and periods of difficult emotions.  In a personal Epilogue of her book, Christine tells the story of how, as her father lay dying, she was able to move past emotional turbulence and turmoil to sit in silence with him as he died – it was then that she truly found silence.

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Image by Robert C 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.

Thanksgiving: A Time to Revitalise our Gratitude Practices

The US celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday 26 November this year.  It was also formally celebrated in other places around the world while in Australia informal celebrations occurred as American organisations shared their Thanksgiving Day exhortations and practices.  This was followed by intensive sales campaigns under the banners of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  It is easy to lose sight of the message of Thanksgiving in the flurry and frenzy of the constant encouragement to buy and acquire.   Acquisition is suddenly valued more than appreciation.

The value of gratitude

Gratitude is important for our relationships and our mental health.  Expressing appreciation to another person in a relationship is a way of valuing them and what they say and do.  It builds trust and affection and overcomes the tendency to “take someone for granted” which is, certainly, an intimacy dampener.

Neuroscience has demonstrated the benefits that gratitude has for our mental health and overall well-being.  It can alleviate depression, replace toxic emotions such as anger, envy, and resentment and develop a positive attitude to life which is, in itself, conducive to mental health.  Karen Newell, for example, explains from her research how gratitude builds positive energy.  She encourages us to be grateful not only for things that are present in our life today but also for the experiences and people from our past, especially our parents and mentors.

Sustaining gratitude practices

There are numerous ways to express gratitude and appreciation.  The challenge, like all good habits, is to build gratitude practices into our daily life, however brief or informal.  Some people adopt a gratitude journal as a way to express appreciation and progressively build a deep and abiding sense of gratitude.  Others link expressions of appreciation to other activities undertaken during the day.  For example, when boiling the jug, you could express appreciation for access to fresh water (something that many people in the world do not have) or the food that you are about to eat.  While waiting during the day, you could choose to reflect on what you are grateful for rather than dive for your phone.

Gratitude meditation is a sound way to progressively build awareness and appreciation for everything that enriches our life on a day to day basis.  We can learn to savour our relationships, achievements, the development of our children, the skills and capacities that we have developed over time and life itself.  Developing a gratitude mindset can help us to experience joy in our life, not only for what we have received, but also for the achievement of others through empathetic joy.  Being grateful is a great motivator for taking compassionate action, which not only benefits others but also ourselves.

Reflection

The benefits of gratitude and appreciation are numerous and can positively impact many aspects of our life if only we can slow down for gratitude.   We have to learn to create space in our busy lives for stillness and silence so that we can grow in awareness of what we have to appreciate and continue to express our gratitude whether internally or through external communication.   Gratitude can improve the quality of our life and, at the same time, positively impact those around us.  As we grow in mindfulness through our gratitude practices, reflection and meditation, we can experience greater joy in our lives, enrich our relationships and make a real difference in our world – a world torn by envy, hatred, resentment, bias and discrimination and the great divide between the “have’s” and “have-not’s”.

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

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

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Resources for Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

The core resource that I have used to understand and practise trauma-sensitive mindfulness is the work of David Treleaven.  David experienced trauma as a child and was a committed to mindfulness meditation practice which he found to be essential for healing trauma, but of itself insufficient.  His own clinical practice as a psychotherapist working with trauma sufferers confirmed this view of the essential nature of mindfulness meditation but its insufficiency in healing trauma sufferers.  David has dedicated his life’s work to researching and educating others about the relationship between mindfulness meditation and trauma.  This has culminated in his book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing and a website with additional resources. 

The potential for harm to trauma sufferers during mindfulness meditation

In his book and a free webinar on The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma, David explains that a lack of understanding by mindfulness trainers of the relationship between trauma and mindfulness meditation can result in overwhelm for a current or former trauma sufferer.  This overwhelm can be manifested in heightened anxiety, dissociation, or emotional dysregulation – the inability to control emotions elicited by a trauma stimulus.  Harm to the trauma sufferer by a meditation teacher can be exacerbated by a lack of understanding of trauma and perpetuation of the myths surrounding mindfulness meditation.  Typical responses that show this lack of understanding and sensitivity are statements like, “Stick with it” (by implication, “if you persist, your trauma response will go away”) or “Most people find this meditation relaxing and calming” (by implication, “there must be something wrong with you”).

The difficulty is compounded by the incidence of trauma and related adverse childhood experiences (ACE).   One study of 17,000 members of an integrated health fund found that two thirds had experienced an adverse childhood experience and 20% had experienced more than three such events.  There is now an ACE instrument whereby people can identify the number and type of ACE’s they have experienced in a lifetime.  David mentions other research that indicates that everyone will have at least one traumatic experience in their lifetime.  He goes on to say that the implication of this is that in any room of people practising mindfulness meditation, there will more likely be at least one person suffering trauma.  Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections, identifies disconnection from childhood trauma as one of the seven social causes of the pervasiveness of depression in society today.

The three myths about mindfulness meditation and trauma

In the 60-minute webinar on his website, David identifies three myths about mindfulness meditation that have been perpetuated in the popular press and in mindfulness training.  The three myths are as follows

  1. The Panacea Myth – the belief that mindfulness meditation will heal all kinds of stress, even stress generated by trauma.  David’s own experience and his clinical experience working with trauma sufferers reinforces the fact that mindfulness meditation alone will not heal trauma – mindfulness meditation processes need to be modified and, in some cases, supplemented by other methodologies such as professional psychological support.
  2. The Breath Myth – the belief that breathing is emotionally neutral.  David explains that because the respiratory system is biologically proximate to the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for excitation of our “flight/ flight/freeze” response) “close and sustained focus on the breath” can re-traumatise an individual for whom “breath” is a trauma stimulus. He states categorically and importantly that “people have different relationships to breath at different moments”.  He encourages the listener to experiment with this throughout the day to confirm that our breathing can be relaxed, tense or emotionally neutral at any point in a day.
  3. The Sufficiency myth – the belief that mindfulness meditation alone is sufficient to heal trauma.  David draws on case examples to illustrate the need for modifications to mindfulness meditation practice and the introduction of additional “self-regulation” tools to enable a person to heal from trauma.

Overall strategies to develop trauma-sensitive mindfulness training practices

David and other authors, practitioners, and researchers provide a range of strategies to “do no harm” when educating others in mindfulness meditation.  Here are some key strategies:

  • Understand trauma – First and foremost, understand trauma and its components on a biological, psychological, and social level.  Without this understanding, it is difficult to develop the sensitivity and flexibility required to do no harm when facilitating a mindfulness meditation session.  Associated with this, is the need to understand trauma-sensitive mindfulness and different strategies that can be adopted by mindfulness trainers and educators.
  • Provide choice re participation – this can be as basic as the freedom not to participate in any or all mindfulness practices on a particular occasion.  It can be the freedom to choose to close your eyes or leave them open (downcast or in wide-ranging exploration) and/or the option to sit, stand, walk  or lie down during meditation practice.  David points out that choice reinforces a sense of agency and is an important and healing aspect of mental health.  He also warns about the potential of offering too much choice in one session which can result in stress for participants, particularly those who already experiencing anxiety (David learned this by making this mistake himself in his zeal to provide agency).
  • Provide choice of anchors – this is a key area of choice that not only recognises that some anchors can be trauma stimuli for some individuals but also that anchors in meditation are an area of personal preference (what works for one person does not work for another).  Anchors enable meditators to restore their focus when they have been diverted by a distracting thought and/or emotion.
  • Adopt modifications to mindfulness meditation practices when needed – In the webinar mentioned about, David provides examples of how he has been able to offer modifications to mindfulness meditation practices for particular individuals when working one-to-one, including  allowing brief breaks to walk around, suggesting a shift in posture and encouraging the use of deep breathing at different intervals or at appropriate moments.  Sam Himelstein, who works with traumatised teenagers, has found, for example, that where a teenager cannot talk about, or focus on their feelings about, their traumatic experience, listening to appropriate music together can be relationship building and enable progress to be made in healing teenage trauma.
  • Develop awareness of principles, guidelines and practices for trauma-sensitive mindfulness – David provides a comprehensive, two-part, online program for training mindfulness practitioners in trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  He also provides a free Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast featuring  people such as Liz Stanley on Widening the Window of Tolerance and Sharon Salzberg on Loving-Kindness Meditation.   Sam Himelstein, author of Trauma-Informed Mindfulness With Teens, offers both guidelines and principles to enable mindfulness trainers and educators to develop the awareness and sensitivity to work with people who have experienced trauma.

Reflection

Reading about the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma-sensitive mindfulness made me realise that I had suffered multiple traumas as a child and that my five-years’ experience in daily mindfulness meditation and Gregorian chant as a contemplative monk in the late 1960’s had helped me to heal from these traumas. 

Recently, I had two participants out of a group of 20 in a management training program who openly stated at the beginning of the program that they suffered from chronic anxiety – one of whom experienced trauma as a result of their manager shouting at them and abusing them in public.  This facilitation experience confirmed the need to modify the training program and also led me to further explore anxiety through Scott Stossel’s book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope and Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind.  This book helped me to become more aware of the pervasiveness of trauma-induced anxiety across the world, intensified by the global pandemic, and how such anxiety can pervade every aspect of an individual’s life.

I have also witnessed two situations of emotional dysregulation during training courses when individuals have experienced a trauma stimulus – one during a singing course when a person experienced acoustic trauma and another where someone experienced re-traumatisation during observation of a success posture exercise being undertaken by another individual with the guidance of a workshop facilitator.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and research, we can become more self-aware, develop insight and sensitivity to work with people who are experiencing trauma and anxiety and build the flexibility and confidence to adopt mindfulness practices and approaches that are more trauma-sensitive.

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Image by Maria Karysheva from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness Strategies for Well-Being

Dr. Trisha Macnair, in her book Live Well, offers 100 ways to develop well-being.  Trisha has been a medical doctor for over thirty years and developed a speciality in “active ageing”.  Her book is focused on developing a healthy and long life and her many simple ways of achieving this include suggestions re nutrition, exercise and lifestyle.  Here I will focus on Trisha’s suggestions that relate to mindfulness.

Mindfulness for a healthy and long life

Trisha recommends several well-being strategies that are directly related to mindfulness:

  • Meditation – the psychological and physical benefits of meditation are well researched and documented.  Besides being a calming influence and source of tranquillity, meditation improves clarity and creativity and can contribute to mental health by helping to reduce negative thoughts, improve mood, develop wisdom and manage challenging emotions.   
  • Find your happy – underlying Trisha’s suggestions in relation to enjoying the physical and mental health benefits of being happy, is a focus on mindfulness.  This involves awareness of what contributes to happiness and unhappiness in our lives, tuning into experiences of well-being, and making time for ourselves to enable self-care.
  • Keep moving – several of Trisha’s recommendations relate to movement and she extols the physical benefits of walking, yoga and Tai Ch.  The mental health benefits of these practices can be enhanced by adopting mindful walking, treating Tai Chi as meditation-in -motion with conscious breathing and bodily awareness, and focusing on the meditative elements of yoga. 
  • Spending time in nature – the benefits of time spent in nature are increasingly being linked to improved physical and mental health and longevity.  The mental health benefits of nature can be enriched by meditating on the elements of nature, being conscious of the healing power of nature and developing our capacity for sensory awareness while in nature.
  • Doing acts of kindness – the happiness benefits of doing good deeds are well researched.  Mindfulness itself can have really positive outcomes for others as well as ourselves by improving many aspects of our interactions – our mood, ability and willingness to listen for understanding, capacity to regulate our emotions and express “sympathetic joy” and our sense of gratitude (not allowing envy to grow).  Loving-kindness meditation can also enable us to draw energy and vitality from our sense of connectedness to others and facilitate compassionate action.  Through mindfulness we can discover our unique way(s) to contribute to the well-being of others through specific acts of kindness.

Reflection

Trisha reminds us that there are many simple and readily accessible ways that we can use to develop our well-being and a healthy and long life.  The benefits of many of the practices she suggests can be enhanced as we grow in mindfulness.  Meditation itself brings substantial physical and mental health benefits.  The cumulative effects of the suggested practices can be life-changing because they are mutually self-reinforcing. 

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Image by Alessandro Squassoni 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.

Tai Chi for Physical Health, Energy and Psychological Well-Being

Tai Chi is an integrative, whole-body routine that builds the mind-body connection.  There are many attempts to categorise the numerous benefits of Tai Chi and the categories vary with the orientation of the writer/researcher. For instance, Dr. Peter Wayne of the Harvard Medical School who has spent many years researching and teaching the efficacy of Tai Chi identified eight active ingredients of this internal martial art in his book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi.

World-renowned martial arts practitioner, Bruce Frantzis, maintains that the integrative power of Tai Chi flows from the combination of stillness of the mind with intentional movement of the body.  The stillness refers to being present in the moment, not lost in thoughts associated with the past or the future.  However, as Peter Wayne points out, the mind-body connection is enhanced immeasurably by integrating breathing, movement and “cognitive skills” associated with focused attention, body awareness and the use of imagery.

In this current blog post, I will explore the benefits and efficacy of Tai Chi under three categories (which are not mutually exclusive but are mutually reinforcing) – physical health, energy and psychological well-being.

Tai Chi for physical health

The health benefits of Tai Chi are numerous and wide-ranging, positively impacting multiple bodily systems such as the circulatory, immune, respiratory and nervous systems.  Along with these systemic benefits are improvements in the functioning of different parts of the body such as the heart, nerves, muscles and bones.  In turn, the integrative nature of this internal martial art builds balance and coordination and improves flexibility and reflexes.  

Tai Chi can also relieve or remove chronic health problems.  Caroline Frantzis, in commenting on Bruce’s video presentation and illustration of Taoist energy arts, observed that Tai Chi is prescribed quite regularly by Chinese doctors as a form of therapeutic treatment for “blood pressure, heart problems, poor circulation, asthma, impotence, and nervous diseases” as well as for arthritis and back, neck and joint problems.  Researchers too have shown that practising Tai Chi regularly increases brain volume, improves thinking skills and memory and may, in fact, prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s or reduce the rate of development of dementia-related illnesses.

Tai Chi for energy

Bruce Frantzis has spent the better part of his adult life studying and exploring Qi, the energetic lifeforce that enables the body and mind to function.  He maintains that when we can really tune into our bodies through Tai Chi, we can actually feel the energy flow as it moves through “the fluids, nerves, fascia and other tissues” of the body.  In this way, according to Bruce, we can “become more fully alive and vibrant” because we have released any blockages and enabled the natural energy flow of the body.  In support of these observations, Caroline Frantzis (nee Martin) stated that during Tai Chi a practitioner “exercises every single muscle, ligament, tendon and joint of the body” and the associated movements effectively massage internal organs and every lymph node thus energising “all the body’s internal pumps”.

Tai Chi for psychological well-being

Peter Wayne devotes a complete chapter to the positive impact of Tai Chi on psychological well-being in his book, The Harvard Medical Guide to Tai Chi.  He incorporates personal reports and scientific research to illustrate how Tai Chi can reduce both depression and anxiety symptoms, improve mood, develop positive attitudes, reduce stress and tame the “monkey mind” (“mind wandering” is the cause of much personal distress).  He argues that Tai Chi’s positive impacts on psychological health can be attributed to not only its emphasis on “form and posture” together with its exercise component but also its capacity to develop “mindfulness and focused attention”.  He draws on recent research to demonstrate that these latter attributes and the associated state of being-in-the-moment, actively contribute to improved psychological welfare, happiness and overall quality of life. 

Peter explains how he accentuates this positive contribution of Tai Chi by having his trainees focus on bodily sensations during practice (e.g. the feel of your feet on the floor or ground, the movement of your breath or your hands/head, or the warm sensation in your fingers).  He maintains that the psychological benefits of Tai Chi can be increased by not thinking “but simply notice things as they are, without trying to fix or change them”.   Peter Wayne also draws on the comments of Peter Deadman that “cultivating this deeper awareness allows us to feel and explore the truer currents of our emotional life”.   He also alludes to the power of imagery and visualisation during Tai Chi as a means to develop positive thoughts and groundedness (e.g. imagining yourself as a tree with deep roots into the ground through which passes all tension and tautness).

Reflection

I have found in the past that frequently reviewing the benefits of Tai Chi identified by researches and practitioners builds my own motivation to incorporate this internal martial art form in my mindfulness practice.  Peter Wayne, in his Guide to Tai Chi mentioned above, provides a photo-illustrated, simple program along with ways to incorporate Tai Chi into the activities of each day.

I have previously completed two introductory Tai Chi courses conducted by the Taoist Tai Chi Society.   However I found the 108 movements based on the practice of Master Moy Lin Shin too difficult to learn and practise because of my work commitments.  I have found since, that I can regularly practise the first 17 moves of Master Moy’s Tai Chi set by following the free “Practise with me” video training guide.

Darius Boyd, Australian Rugby League legend, describes in his recently-released book, Battling the Blues, how he went through a number of really “dark periods” of depression and how he came out of these feeling stronger and more resilient through the assistance of professional therapy and the social support of his wife, mentors and friends.  He maintains that we each have dark periods and that “mental health is something that you consistently need to work at”.  Tai Chi offers an easy and accessible way to keep the dark periods at bay or, at the very least, to lessen their impact.

As we grow in mindfulness and focused attention through meditation and Tai Chi, we can reap the benefits of regular practice in terms of improved physical health and psychological well-being, enhanced energy levels and enjoyment of the ease of wellness.

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Image by Elias Sch. 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.

Don’t Wait to Forgive

In his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski discusses in depth his first lesson, Don’t Wait, learned from many years of working with the process of dying and death.  He witnessed so many people dying while consumed by hatred, resentment, rage and anger.  He also gives examples of others who were able to offer profound forgiveness on their deathbed.  He urges us not to wait until we are dying to embrace forgiveness for ourselves and others.  He contends that all forgiveness is ultimately self-forgiveness and is hugely beneficial for us – mentally, physically and emotionally.

Resistance to forgiveness

Frank talks about our natural resistance to forgiveness – a form of self-protection, protecting our sense of right and wrong and our elevated sense of who we are.  To forgive is to acknowledge difficult emotions such as anger, regret and resentment.  We tend to run away from these feelings because they cause us pain.  However, the cost and pain of carrying resentment all our lives are far greater than the pain of facing up to those parts of ourselves we are embarrassed by or unwilling to acknowledge. 

We each have an area of darkness that we don’t like to shine a light on.  Recalling events also brings to mind and body, the recollection and re-experiencing of hurt – hurt from other’s words and actions, and also hurt and regret we feel for things that we have said and done that were hurtful towards other.   Facing up to the depth of our difficult emotions is critical for forgiveness and mental health.

Anger and resentment can consume us, constrict our capacity to express kindness and love towards others, even those in close relationships with us.  We can find ourselves constantly playing over events in our head as well as in our conversations, our hurt and resentment growing with each retelling.  Ultimately, forgiveness involves letting go – releasing ourselves from the sustained constriction of negative emotions and giving up others as objects of our resentment.  If we do not forgive others and our self, our difficult emotions find expression in self-defeating ways, including manifesting our anger in such a way that another innocent party is hurt by our outburst or abusive behaviour.

Frank points out that forgiveness does not mean to totally forget an event that was hurtful or condone the actions of another person that were unjust, hateful or revengeful   It does not require reconciliation – sharing your forgiveness with the other person.  It is an internal act encompassing mind, body and heart.  When we overcome the resistance to forgiveness, we open ourselves to kindness and love.

The long journey of forgiveness

As they say, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – forgiveness is a life-time pursuit, not something to begin at the end of life.  Frank recalls his own anger, rage and resentment towards a Colonel in a country at war, when the Colonel refused to assist a five-year old boy who eventually died a very painful death without the medical support the Colonel could have provided.  Frank points out that these complex emotions consumed him and sometimes found expression in his rage.  However, he instituted a daily ritual which, after many years, enabled him to let go of these emotions and find the freedom to forgive and love again.

Frank encourages us to start along the path of forgiveness by first taking on relatively small issues/events in our life, not the big all-consuming hatred or resentment.  He suggests even practicing with small annoyances such as being cut off by someone in traffic or having someone leave a wet towel lying on the bed.  You can progressively build up to dealing with the big issues/areas of resentment and anger.  The process of incorporating forgiveness meditation into your mindfulness practices can be a way to begin and to progress the long journey of forgiveness.

Forgiveness requires absolute  honesty (not projecting an image of ourselves as “perfect”), acknowledgement of our own part in a hurtful interaction, understanding of what is influencing the other person’s behaviour, recognition of our connectedness to everyone and a willingness to face up to, and fully experience, what we don’t like in our selves.   Frank’s strong exhortation is, “Don’t Wait!” until it is too late – until our deathbed when we could be consumed with anger, guilt, regret or rage.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through forgiveness meditation, mindfulness practices and honest reflection, we can more readily recognise when we need to forgive and the hurtfulness that we cause by our words and actions.  We can progressively face up to our “dark side” and our difficult emotions that are harmful to ourselves and others.  We can also bear the pain of naming these feelings and really experiencing their depth, distortion of reality and self-destructive nature.   Forgiveness builds our freedom to express kindness and appreciation and to love openly.

Frank maintains that the foundation for true forgiveness is learning to forgive ourselves with “compassion and mercy” – this is, in itself, a difficult journey and, ideally, a life-time pursuit.

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Image by Лечение наркомании 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.

Moving from Separation to Connection

Allyson Pimentel, a teacher at the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), provided a guided meditation podcast on the theme, From Separation to Connection, Silence to Speaking Truth, Stillness to Action. Allyson’s emphasis was on the power of meditation to increase our sense of connection, build our capacity to speak truthfully with courage and to take compassionate action.  Her meditation focus was on developing groundedness and stability through breath and formed part of the weekly, mindfulness awareness podcasts provided by MARC, UCLA.

Allyson explained that we are all connected in so many ways.  This sense of connection is heightened by the global pandemic and global social activity to redress injustice and inequality, epitomised by the Black Lives Matter movement.  This movement against violence towards black people has reverberated around the world with protest marches in many countries to show solidarity with those fighting against injustice. 

Sports teams are conducting public rituals to show solidarity and those who continue to promote hate and racism are being excluded from media forums that would otherwise give voice to their divisive comments.   Allyson noted that division and violence on racial grounds derives from a distorted sense of “separateness”, not recognizing our underlying connection to all other humans.  A  focus on separateness can breed “superior conceit”, a need to demonstrate that someone is “better than” another person.

Allyson’s professional work is focused on bringing mindfulness to bear on mental health issues and treatment.   She discussed mindfulness as paying attention to the present moment with kindness, curiosity and a sense of connection.  She stressed that breath meditation can help us to develop a strong sense of stability, self-compassion and compassion towards others.  She encouraged people participating in her presentation on Zoom to focus on one other individual participating in the global mindfulness awareness meditation and notice their face, their name, and their “place” and wish them protection, safety from harm, wellness and ease.  This process can deepen our sense of connection.

A breath meditation

During her Zoom drop-in session, Allyson offered a 20 minute breath meditation.  Her process involved a strong focus on our in-breath and out-breath and the space in between.  Allyson began the meditation by having all participants take a deep in-breath and let out an elongated out-breath while picturing their connection with others in the session doing the same thing – to create a sense of connection by breathing “as one”.   She suggested that people view the in-breath as self-compassion and the out-breath as compassion towards others, alternating between receiving and giving.

After this initial exercise during the guided meditation, Allyson encouraged participants to focus on their bodily sensations to become grounded fully in the moment – sensing their feet on the floor or ground and feeling the pressure of their body against their chair.   She suggested that if mental or emotional distractions intervened, returning to our bodily sensations is a way to refocus back on the breath.  A way to regain focus is to feel the breath moving the body (e.g. the in and out sensation of the diaphragm) and to feel the breath moving through the body – while recognising that many people around the world are experiencing constricted breathing through illness and/or inequity.

Allyson maintains that breath meditation and entering into silence fortifies us, provides stability and groundedness and enables us “to act for the good of others and to speak truth from our power”.  She suggests that meditation practice builds the personal resources to “speak wisely, truly and compassionately” in the face of unconscionable inequity.

Reflection

During the meditation session, Allyson quoted the One Breath poem written by Mark Arthur – a very moving reflection on connectedness and “collective social suffering”.  Mark exhorts us not to turn away but to turn towards the “deep, deep wound” as a way to express self-compassion. Then with loving kindness, “speak and act from the heart” with awareness that there is no separation between them and us, only connection through birth, breathing, living and death.

The space that lies between our in-breath and out-breath can be a place of rest and tranquillity and a source of spaciousness.  As we grow in mindfulness through breath meditation and exploring our connectedness to all human beings, we can access this spaciousness and learn to extend our thoughts and actions compassionately towards others.

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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.

Accessing the Genius of Anxiety for Improved Mental Health

Karla McLaren discussed embracing anxiety in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True when having a conversation about Making Friends with Anxiety … And All Your Other Emotions.   Karla was able to draw on her own life experience and her recent book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.   She has spent a lifetime researching and writing about emotions.

In a previous post, I explored Karla’s concept of emotions as storing energy and providing a message and wisdom.  I also discussed effective ways to draw on the energy and wisdom of emotions.  Karla emphasised the importance of not attributing the characteristics of “good” or “bad” to emotions, including difficult emotions.  In her view there are real lessons and ways to move forward hidden in each emotion, even anxiety.

Trauma and anxiety

Karla herself experienced childhood trauma and many of her insights are drawn from her experience in overcoming the associated anxiety and depression.  Like other people who have been traumatised, Karla has had to deal with anxiety and depression throughout her life.  She found that she was ignorant about these emotions and tended to repress or suppress them.   However, through reading and research she has been able to develop practical approaches to addressing anxiety and depression.  She has learned to befriend these emotions and now views depression as enforced slowing down and redirection and has developed the ability to draw on the “genius of anxiety”.

The genius of anxiety

In her interview with Elizabeth Markle on embracing anxiety, Karla emphasised that anxiety is “an essential source of foresight, intuition, and energy for completing your tasks and projects”.  As with any emotion we have a choice – we can suppress, repress or “over-express” anxiety or, alternatively, listen to the message and wisdom that lies within this emotion.  We need to understand that emotion is a process – trigger, experience, response – we have a choice in how we respond to what triggers us and the feelings we experience as a result.

Karla suggests that the appropriate response to situational anxiety is to channel the energy of the emotion towards completing a task or project – much as a canal channels water.  Repression or suppression of anxiety blocks the energy flow, while over-expressing anxiety through panicked or frantic activity can dissipate the energy rather than direct it.  A starting point for channelling the energy of anxiety is “conscious questioning” – e.g. “What brought on this feeling?” and “What truly needs to get done?”   This approach enables you to work with, rather than against, the energy of anxiety and to simultaneously care for yourself by downregulating the impact of the emotion on your thoughts and feelings. 

Karla continued her discussion of “conscious questioning” for anxiety by referring to a sample of other questions featured in her book, Embracing Anxiety (p.85):

  • what are your strengths and resources?
  • are there any upcoming deadlines?
  • have you achieved or completed something similar in the past?
  • can you delegate any tasks or ask for help?
  • what is one small task you can complete tonight or today?

Karla argues that this approach involves “leaning into anxiety”, not artificially calming yourself.  She also alludes to the research that demonstrates that accurate naming of our emotions and identifying the level of intensity of them is another effective form of downregulating emotions.  To this end she encourages us to develop our emotion vocabulary and offers her blog as a starting point for emotion identification.  In her book she offers ways of describing different levels of emotional intensity, for example, low anxiety is described as apprehensive, mild anxiety as edgy or nervous and intense anxiety as overwrought or super-energised.

Karla suggests too that yoga and mindfulness are effective ways of downregulating that can assist the process of conscious questioning.  She offered very brief meditation to illustrate this calming effect.  The meditation basically involved focusing on the quietest sound in the room.  Karla provides a range of practices for each emotion in her book,

Different anxiety orientations: planner vs procrastinator

Karla drew on the work of Mary Lamia, author of What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success, to differentiate between two main manifestations of anxiety – planning anxiety and procrastination anxiety.  The planner maintains a low level of anxiety continuously and has a task “to-do” list(s) to manage their anxiety about getting things done.  The procrastinator, on the other hand, does not make lists but works to deadlines and has an immense burst of anxiety and energy the night before a deadline is due (and often achieves the task in the early or late hours of the morning).  The procrastinator can “chill out” while waiting for the deadline, the task person has difficulty “chilling”.

Mary points out that what is different in the two approaches to task achievement has to do with “when their emotions are activated and what activates them”.  The procrastinator, for example, is motivated by the imminent deadline and experiences “deadline energy”; the planner is motivated by the need to keep task commitments under control.   Understanding the difference between these two sources of motivating anxiety and your personal preference in how to get things done, can reduce conflict in a relationship and support success where partners have a different orientation.   Maria discusses the potential clash in orientation between procrastinators and non-procrastinators in her Psychology Today blog.

Reflection

Mindfulness practices along with conscious questioning and reflection can help us to focus the emotional energy of anxiety.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can better identify our emotions, understand what motivates others and increase our response ability

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Image by Lars Eriksson from Pixabay

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

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

Self-Care for Healthcare Professionals

Dr. Reena Kotecha presented at the 2020 Mindfulness & Compassion Global Summit on the topic of self-care for healthcare professionals.  Reena highlighted the irony of healthcare professionals caring for everyone but themselves and, in the process, suffering pain, disillusionment and burnout.  She shared her own story of depression, mental illness and suicidal thoughts resulting from working as a young doctor in an emergency department in a hospital.  She was drowning in self-doubt, suffering anxiety about the future and trying to cope with her present level of stress symptoms such as palpitations and sleeplessness.  Reena found her way out of the dark hole of depression through meditation.

She highlighted the stresses that healthcare professionals are experiencing in these challenging times of the Coronavirus.  Reena spoke of frontline healthcare workers who had to move out of home to protect their family and/or elderly parents, of the sadness and grief they experienced with the death of patients, of the frustration of having inadequate resources (such as personal protective equipment) and of their fear for their own safety in terms of the impact of their work on their mental and physical health.  Frontline professionals experience the intensity and immediacy of Coronavirus-related stress and emotional inflammation as a result of the risks to the life of their patients and their own life.

Barriers to healthcare professionals seeking help

Reena emphasised that healthcare professionals not only tended to overlook caring for themselves but also failed to seek help for their mental welfare when they really needed it.  She spoke of the barriers that stop healthcare workers from seeking professional support (some of which she experienced herself):

  • Training focus – all the focus of their training is on how to care for others, very little of the training is focused on caring for themselves or how to seek professional help for themselves
  • Priority focus – healthcare professionals are singularly focused on caring for others and they fail to give priority to their own mental and emotional health that would actually enable them to care for others more effectively and in a more sustainable way.  As Reena points out, healthcare professionals are much more comfortable and more proficient in the role of caregiver than that of “care-taker”.
  • Career focus – healthcare professionals become concerned about what others, including management, would think of them if they admitted to not coping and experiencing some form of mental illness (which still carries its own stigma).  They can be concerned about how others will judge them and what impact this would have on their career.
  • Expectations focus – the community has highlighted the heroic efforts of the frontline healthcare workers but this brings with it an unrealistic set of expectations that they are all strong and courageous, free from normal human emotions of fear, anxiety and self-doubts and the resultant experience of depression with its concomitant impacts of inertia, exhaustion, reticence and lack of energy.  In the light of this community expectation set, they are reluctant to admit to “weakness and fragility”.

Young healthcare professionals may begin their career with an unerring focus on their patients, giving priority to their caregiver role and ignoring their own needs.  They may feel really uncomfortable about being seen as “needy” or becoming a “care-taker”.  Professionalism is interpreted by them as being strong and efficient, able to cope with any situation.  Gradually, however, the singular focus on patients begins to take its toll and is compounded by the fact that no matter how hard or fast they work, demand continues to outpace resources and capacity.  They begin to experience stress, fatigue and sleeplessness.  Despite these signs of not coping they push on – driven by their own expectations and the perceived expectations of others, including the “worshipping” community.  Burnout results when the gap between what they are putting in and their intrinsic satisfaction with their work widens to the point where they lose belief in the value of what they are doing – burnout occurs on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels.

Mindfulness as self-care for healthcare professionals

Self-care for healthcare professionals is a lifetime passion for Reena, partly generated by her own early professional experience but also reinforced by the healthcare workers who seek her help and support during these highly stressful times.  She is the founder of Mindful Medics – an 8 week course for healthcare professionals incorporating mindfulness, emotional intelligence, neuroscience and positive psychology. Participants in the course have experienced significant benefits for their mental and physical health as well as in their overall personal and professional lives.

Reena is also a highly recognised public speaker on the topic of her lived experience.  For example she presented at the Happiness and Its Causes Conference in 2018 on the topic, Personal Story: Healthcare Starts with Self-Care.   In her Summit presentation, Reena provided a gratitude meditation designed to focus on appreciation for what we have in the present to displace a focus on a disturbing past or anticipatory anxiety about the future.  There is so much that we can be grateful for and savour in our life – nature and our environment, the development of our children, our achievements and rewards and the space of being alone

Reena in an article, titled I am grateful…, recommends strongly that we develop a constant practice of expressing gratitude for the simple things that we have in our lives and highlights the neuroscience research that supports the benefits of gratitude for mental health and wellbeing.

Reflection

It is important to express compassion for others, especially healthcare professionals and those directly impacted by the Coronavirus.  However, we have to recognise the enormous stress healthcare workers are experiencing in these challenging times and be more aware of not adding to that burden by perpetuating the expectation that they, individually and collectively, can cope with any challenge at no cost to themselves.  We can also offer our support for people like Reena who are helping healthcare professionals to develop mindfulness as a means of self-care.  The Mindful Healthcare Speaker Series is one ongoing event that we can support.

As we grow in mindfulness by focusing on self-care through mindfulness practices and gratitude meditation, we can become more conscious of what we are thinking and feeling and be better able to appreciate the present moment and all it has to offer in terms of overall wellness and happiness.  Mindfulness enables us to identify our barriers and expectations, acknowledge when we need help, develop strategies to cope more effectively and progressively build our resilience.

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Image by Petya Georgieva 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.