Building Resilience One Step at a Time

We all experience adversity and setbacks – it is how we deal with them that shapes who we are and what we are capable of.  Sometimes the setback is so great that it throws us completely off balance – at other times, it involves a minor and temporary dislocation.  Shelly Tygielski, in her course The Power of Showing Up, talks about how she was completely derailed by a painful divorce that left her as a single mother trying to raise her young son.   She found that she was unable to meditate or focus on anything because of her mental and emotional disorientation.

Eventually, Shelly through persistence with meditation (however dissatisfying because of her incessant distractions) was able to restore her balance and rebuild her resilience one step at a time.  She achieved this, in part, by “chunking” tasks to manage the challenges she faced with her endless “to-do lists”.   The determinant of the priority of her tasks was the degree to which they served her life purpose.

In her course, Shelly helps us to identify our thought patterns, emotional responses and habituated behaviours.  She provides ways to “deconstruct” ourselves and, in turn, “reconstruct” our sense of who we are.  The processes, including journalling, help us to break free of the ties that bind us and better align with our life purpose.  Releasing the hold of perfectionism, fear and expectations enables us to achieve personal integration and access our innate creative and fearless nature.

Shelly demonstrates through her own life history, experiencing traumas and multiple setbacks, that we can emerge with renewed strength, a laser-focus on our life purpose and the resilience to overcome whatever life’s turbulence throws our way.  Tina Turner, too, demonstrated a similar resilience through drawing on the power of meditation and chanting.

The road ahead involves taking one step at a time, confident in the hope that the journey provides its own rewards in terms of self-awareness, emotional regulation and achievement in line with our life purpose.  We can get ahead of ourselves too easily, expecting too much too soon – negative thoughts, such as “I should be further down the track” or “this process is taking too long”, will only hold us back.  We have to maintain our focus on the end goal – through mindfulness practices such as meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, chanting or journalling.

Chelsea Handler, in the Foreword to Shelly’s book, Sit Down to Rise Up, recounts the story of meeting Shelly backstage at a Wisdom 2.0 Conference.  Chelsea was immediately drawn to Shelly’s “vibrance” and to the fact that she was witnessing “someone who lives their life in purpose”.  Shelly subsequently invited Chelsea to join her at a meditation retreat for survivors of gun violence and family members who lost someone through such violence.  Chelsea immediately experienced negative thoughts about her own adequacy to participate in such an emotionally charged event.   Shelly assured her that she is “good enough” and has “personal agency” – messages she reiterates strongly in her book and her online course.   Chelsea participated in the retreat and learned a valuable lesson about dealing with people who were experiencing trauma and grief – “sitting and listening to people’s stories is sometimes all that is needed”.

Reflection

I was very recently thrown off balance by the fact that my three-year old car broke down. It lost power and displayed multiple malfunction messages relating to the engine, the transmission and the high level safety features.  This was particularly disconcerting and that meant that all the things that I had planned for the day were not possible, e.g. collecting a book from the library, dropping off clothes for dry cleaning, buying fresh seafood for dinner and purchasing other foods from a supermarket.  While this was a minor setback (that proved costly), I was blindsided by the fact that it left me so unbalanced.  However, I resorted to Tai Chi and persisted, despite feeling very unfocused and distracted by lots of thoughts and anxiety.  This proved to be the one step I needed to restore my balance and help me to refocus on my tasks and my writing. 

As we grow in mindfulness through practices such as Tai Chi and journalling, we can realign with our life purpose, restore our balance and build our resilience one step at a time (through one setback at a time).  It may take a short time or years (as in one of Shelly’s many setbacks) to restore our balance and alignment, but we need to persist in this process of metamorphosis.

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Image by Ralf Kunze 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.

Showing Up for Community Care

Shelly Tygielski is an advocate for translating mindfulness practices and related self-care approaches into community action.  Shelly herself epitomizes this translation, being a trauma counsellor for surviving victims of mass shootings in the US and for refugees from Ukraine in Poland.  She advocates strongly for both self-care and community care and argues that you cannot do the latter without the support of the former, otherwise you will suffer “compassion fatigue” and burnout.

Shelly sees meditation and other mindfulness practices as central to self-care.  She is a meditation teacher and herself practices meditation and what she calls “micro-practices”.   These are brief mindfulness practices that can be employed by anybody throughout the day, particularly at times when you are time-poor and feeling stressed, distressed or anxious.  

Shelly indicates that these micro-practices can be linked to some action you already undertake during the day, e.g. she employs the yogic technique of 4-7-8 breathing  when washing her hands.  This involves breathing in through the nose for four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds and breathing out through the mouth for eight seconds (there are various combinations of these breathing processes, but basically the outbreath is longer than the in-breath or holding your breath).  This breathing practice can be used when waiting for traffic lights or waiting for the jug to boil or food to cook on the stove.  Richard Wolf in his book, In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness, offers alternative breathing practices that are linked to the different times in music, e.g. ¾ time.  He also offers deep listening approaches that can be employed as micro-practices.

How to show up for community care

Shelly provides the answer to this question in her new 10-day online course, The Power of Showing Up.  I recently purchased this course and I am very impressed with the way she has structured the course to literally “take you by the hand” and lead you to self-empowerment and the capacity to undertake community care.  She is not only a very inspirational speaker but totally transparent, sharing her own struggles and ways she overcame them.  It is not as if she immediately fell into the practice of community care.  She herself had to overcome the scars of being kidnapped at the age of two and inheriting “intergenerational trauma”.  

Shelly provides support for developing our inner landscape and overcoming negative thoughts such as “I am not good enough” or “I don’t know enough” or “I feel like an impostor” (“impostor syndrome”).  She strongly encourages us to overcome these obstacles (that she herself has experienced and overcome) and offers knowledge and pathways to develop a community of care – epitomized by her own creation, Pandemic of Love, which has matched the needs of 2 million people with other people who can provide concrete help and support.

Shelly’s course offers ways to help others in need so that they feel valued and appreciated.  In the process, she helps us to understand our own inner world and what is holding us back.  She offers a way to live a more meaningful life, aligned to our values and utilising our core knowledge and skills for community care. 

Reflection

I was very inspired by Shelly’s presentation at the Self-Care Summit and since then have joined a community of care, ExtendaTouch (Caregivers Supporting Caregivers).  I joined this community after receiving an invitation following publication of my blog post, Conscious Aging: Reframing for Health and Happiness.  

As I participate in Shelly’s course, I am working on developing an online Community of Care that will involve people sharing their mindfulness practices, approaches to self-care and strategies for overcoming daily challenges.  I hope to progress this community to a stage where we share our “self-care plan” and hold each other accountable for its implementation and ongoing refinement.  As we grow in mindfulness together, we will be able to develop the necessary self-awareness, courage and creativity to overcome our life challenges and help others (in our online community and elsewhere) to do so.

Shelly also provides added inspiration and insight in her book,  Sit Down to Rise Up: How Radical Self-Care Can Change the World.

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Image by fernando zhiminaicela 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 Community Care

Shelly Tygielski – activist, author and mindfulness teacher – was recently interviewed by Fleet Maull as co-host of the Self-Care Summit.  Shelly’s lifetime focus is on self-care with an emphasis on transforming self-care into care for the community.  She is a living example of her beliefs and has worked with trauma sufferers including refugees from Ukraine and provided trauma-informed counselling and healing to victims of the Buffalo supermarket shootings

Shelly is accredited as a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) facilitator.  The creator of this intervention process, Jon Kabat-Zinn, describes her as “the real deal” – she genuinely and uniquely practices what she preaches.  Her commitment to community action is also reflected in her creation of the Pandemic of Love – a global, mutual aid community that connects people in need with people who can provide help and resources.  It has grown from one person, Shelly, posting a simple matching process online to more than 3,000 volunteers.  Shelly was inspired by the fear and traumatising needs arising from the pandemic, such as the fear of one’s young family running out of food.

Shelly provides a range of resources to assist people with self-care, including a weekly guided meditation that is conducted with thousands of people.  Her podcasts and webinars also provide insight into her philosophy and approach and the inspiration to engage in self-care for community care.  Shelly’s experiences, insights and practices are also capture in her online course, The Power of Showing Up: Learn how to best support yourself and others.  

Shelly acknowledges that she herself suffers from intergenerational trauma which involved, in part, the way women were treated in her own family line.  She readily shares that she herself has had to deal with a lot of issues but has found that this makes her more empathetic to others and helps to build rapport and authenticity with the people she is attempting to help in whatever context she is working in.

Principles and practices

Underpinning Shelly’s approach and dedicated community service is a set of principles and practices that she shares generously with others in her writings, workshops and speaking engagements.  In the limited space provided in this post, I can only hope to scratch the surface of what she provides elsewhere as a source of inspiration for others:

  • Self-care is self-preservation: self-care is not self-indulgent.  We all need to care for ourselves so that we can manage the ups and downs of the waves of life, including the “dumpers” that leave us floundering.  Without self-care, we can “go under” – drowned in the misfortunes, setbacks and failures we experience in everyday life.  Carers and people in the helping professions tend to ignore self-care at the expense of their own physical and mental health – they identify with their role of care giver, not care taker.  They see self-care as self-indulgence and in their view can ill afford the time to attend to their own needs. 
  • Self-care is community dependent: we cannot survive without the support of others. One of the main causes of depression and addiction is disconnection from others – being isolated from the “helping hand”, the thoughtful word and the kind action.  GROW, a peer-led mental health program, reminds us that “You alone can do it, but you can’t do it alone”.  We need the support of others – we may be “down” and de-motivated when they are “up” and providing energy and inspiration by their example, enthusiasm, commitment or encouragement.  Shelly recommends having a personal self-care plan that we share with a “community of care” that can keep us accountable for our planned actions.  She suggests that this is the way to achieve “sustainable self-care”.
  • Self-care is for community care: we are all interconnected and interdependent.   The pandemic has highlighted our dependence on doctors and nurses, transport workers, farmers and farm workers, shop assistants and anyone who provides products and services.  It deepened our sense of the pain and grief of others who experienced illness and/or loss of friends and family.  Shelly’s Pandemic of Love provides a constructive way to help those in pandemic-driven need. She leads by example and asserts that self-care in isolation does not recognise our connection to others in all walks of life.  Shelly argues that self-care for the community is what is ultimately important.  She maintains that if we are depleted, cynical or depressed we cannot show up for others in need.  Self-care re-energises and re-builds us to provide the help and support that members of our community need.  This lesson was particularly brought home to Shelly after leaving behind the devastation of the lives of refugees from Ukraine whom she had been helping – besides experiencing emotional and physical exhaustion, she felt shame and guilt on returning home to peace, access to the healing power of nature and support of family and friends.  She found that her self-care, micro-practices helped her to restore her perspective and energy.

Reflection

Kelly’s message is not only to engage in self-care but to transform this into community care through caring for others within our capacity and in accord with our knowledge and skills – the theme of her course, The Power of Showing Up.  She acknowledges that many of us are “time-poor” and often feel guilty for taking time for ourselves, particularly if we are in a carer role.  With this in mind, she highly recommends micro-practices which she utilizes extensively herself.  Shelly shares her insights and practices in her podcasts and her recent book, Sit Down to Rise Up: How Radical Self-Care Can Change the World.

Shelly contends that we have a moral obligation to show up for others in need.  We can create “ripples of influence” by joining with others to create social movements.  The recent example of the success of TEAL candidates during the Australian Federal election shows how community activism around a shared set of values can cross the divide of location, socio-economic status and prior conditioning.  TEAL is a loose connection of independent political candidates (not bound to any political party) who share a commitment to the common values of climate change, political accountability and gender equity.  This solidarity led to unseating previously-elected members of the ruling political party who failed to demonstrate true commitment to these values, and, in some instances, had actively worked against them.

My takeaway from listening to Shelly and observing her vast array of actions and activism is my need to join or develop a community of care.  To this end, I have purchased her course, The Power of Showing Up, so that I can engage more actively in community care. I also need to maintain my self-care activities in the form of Tai Chi, mindfulness activities, micro-practices and the reflective writing of this blog.  As we grow in mindfulness through these kinds of activities, we can gain the necessary self-awareness, emotional regulation, self-care and courage to show up in the world and use our gifts to support others in their daily lives.  

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Image by Angela Huang 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.

Developing Resilience through Trauma Recovery

Dr. Arielle Schwartz as the first presenter of the Rise Summit: Transforming Trauma demonstrated her wealth of experience as a clinical psychologist and deep insight into trauma recovery.  She openly shared her own early experience of traumatic events that left her dissociated and disconnected.  At the same time, Arielle provided hope for recovery as she addressed her chosen topic, Trauma and Resilience.  She drew on her clinical and consulting experiences through the Center for Resilience Informed Therapy where she provides an “integrated mind-body approach to trauma recovery”, informed by research on resilience.  Arielle’s presentation was so rich that you felt the need to listen to it again to glean more of the insights she offers from her personal and professional experience. 

Developing resilience: an integrated approach to trauma recovery

In an interview for New Snow Enterprises, Arielle explains that resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of trauma” or any adverse life events.  She also highlighted the fact that her strengths-based approach to therapy draws on, and reinforces, the research on post-traumatic growth which demonstrates that people who recover from trauma can become more of themselves, growing in confidence and capability – the opposite of the immediate effects of experiencing trauma. 

In her eclectic approach, Arielle draws on neuropsychotherapy which combines the concepts and practices of psychotherapy with the insights from neuroscience.  Not only does it acknowledge the mind-body connection but the relationship of this connection to environment, well-being and social interaction.  In a very real sense, it adopts a holistic approach to therapy.

This holistic approach is encapsulated in Arielle’s multi-faceted process of facilitating trauma recovery which includes:

  • Exploring family history: this involves identifying adverse childhood experiences, the passing on of intergenerational trauma and the resources and strengths gained through family interactions.  Arielle contends that identifying these elements of the “family legacy” underpins resilience.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – Arielle is a qualified practitioner in the use of this therapy and provides a case study on her website to illustrate successful use of this approach in the case of a person traumatised by date rape. The approach involves lateral eye movement that engages both sides of the brain in reprocessing a traumatic event and identifying the links to present-day reactions to triggering events.  The process requires skilful manipulation of re-exposure to traumatic events in short bursts that enable the traumatised person to manage their emotions. It also builds associations with positive adaptive techniques that the individual uses to manage stressors in daily life.  The net result is to reduce the impact of triggers, widen the window of tolerance, and build emotional resilience.
  • Somatic psychology – exploring the mind, body and behaviour through body awareness (in contrast to thinking-focused “talk therapies”).  Arielle provides a detailed description of somatic therapy that she employs in helping her clients recover from trauma.  She explains among other things how somatic therapy enables grounding, builds awareness of bodily sensations, helps to establish boundaries and to engage the innate calming and healing capacities of the body, especially through breath control.  She explains that the process of oscillating between feeling distress in the body and feeling calmness and safety is in line with somatic experiencing developed by Peter Levine.
  • Mind-body therapies – these include mindfulness practices and therapeutic yoga.  Arielle details a process she describes as Mind-Body Therapies for Vagal Nerves Disorders and explains how the vagal nerve impacts our sleep, digestion and level of calmness in our body.  She contends that these mind-body therapies can reduce inflammation and other physical illnesses and help with a range of disorders including depression and anxiety.  Arielle explains too that these therapies can involve a range of mindfulness practices incorporating movement (such as yoga and Tai Chi) as well as those involving stillness (such as relaxation and seated meditation).  In her website explanation of mind-body therapies, she offers a 4-part mindfulness practice designed to “recover from vagus nerve disorders”.  Arielle also provides a free e-book, Embodiment Strategies for Trauma Recovery, Emotional Health, and Physical Vitality, to anyone who subscribes to her email newsletters. This yogic approach to enhancing wellness is also available as a bonus gift for people participating in the Rise Summit: Transforming Traumathrough the upgrade option.

The six Rs of neuropsychotherapy

During her presentation, Arielle described the 6 Rs of neuropsychotherapy embodied in her integrated approach to trauma recovery:

  • Relationship – drawing on the concept of our being “wired for connection”, she reinforces the power of relationships in healing, including different forms of social support such as a therapist.
  • Resourcing – revisiting positive states (such as calmness and sense of safety) and savouring moments of positivity, satisfaction and happiness.
  • Repatterning – this involves establishing new patterns of movement so that established patterns (such as freezing in the face of perceived threat, e.g. someone touching you) are replaced by constructive responses, rather than triggered debilitating responses.
  • Reprocessing – especially through the EMDR process described above. Arielle reinforces the power of this gentle, managed reprocessing of trauma as a way to train memory and build resilience in the face of triggers.
  • Reflection – enables meaning making in relation to past events and habituated reactions to sights, sounds, smells, touch, taste or catalysing events. Mindfulness practices often involve reflection designed to facilitate this meaning making and emotional regulation.
  • Resilience – developing a sense of freedom, understanding personal stimuli and behavioural response patterns, becoming more integrated and coherent and broadening adaptive capacities.

The six pillars of resilience

On her website, Arielle lists the six pillars of resilience that she has drawn from research:

  • Growth Mindset
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Community Connections
  • Self-Expression
  • Embodiment
  • Choice and Control

 She suggests that we can develop these by undertaking practices that “support you physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually.” In the discussion with the Rise Summit creator and host, Nunaisi Ma, they identified practices to achieve this goal of self-support such as Tai Chi, yoga, singing (a favourite activity of Arielle), walking, meditation, mantra meditation, tapping, breathing exercises, body scan, touching (including self-touch), massage, dance and sighing.  Nunaisi elaborates on embodied healing practices in her book, Rise: Transform Trauma into Sovereign Power, Soulful Purpose, and Sacred Purpose.

Reflection

Arielle contends that one of the main barriers to post-trauma growth is fear of the discomfort of dealing with the reality of the pain and suffering resulting from the experience of trauma. Often people attempt to numb the pain through emotional eating or addiction to drugs or alcohol.  Forced solutions do not work because they take away agency (sense of control) from the individual involved.  Arielle’s approach is consistent with the core tenet expressed by the GROW podcast series that “You alone can do it, but you can’t do it alone”.

Her multi-model approach also aligns with the approach adopted by trauma recovery expert, Bessel van der Kolk, who is the author of The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma.   Bessel too encourages the use of controlled breathing, movement modalities, mindfulness practices, singing and chanting.

Arielle offers numerous resources through her blog and through her book, The Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook : Practical Mind-Body Tools to Heal Trauma, Foster Resilience and Awaken Your Potential.  

As we grow in mindfulness through somatic meditation, mantra meditations, Tai Chi or Yoga, we can gain the courage and energy to seek the necessary support for post-trauma recovery.  Sometimes, this may only involve building social relationships with people who provide “unconditional positive regard”; at other times, therapy may be needed to supplement these relationships.   

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Image by Stephanie Ghesquier 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.

Healing Trauma – Dealing with the Visceral Imprint

In a previous post I discussed the complexity of trauma and the need to adopt treatment practices that recognise and respect this complexity.  Bessel van der Kolk in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma, expresses serious concern with the overreliance on medication to treat trauma, especially for returning veterans suffering from PTSD.  He contends that “drugs cannot cure trauma” but only serve to “dampen down” manifestations of a “disturbed physiology” such as violence, overwhelm and uncontrolled anger.  He argues that the side effects of reliance on drug therapy include addiction, lessening the capacity for self-regulation and blocking the senses that otherwise would be the source of pleasure and motivation, emotion and pain. In his view, the treatment aim is not to “blunt emotional sensitivity” but to achieve integration of the traumatic experience into a person’s “arc of life”.

Bessel argues that a traumatised person’s basic challenge in recovery is to re-establish ownership of themselves – the whole person, mind, body and soul.  He contends that this plays out as a fourfold challenge – (1) developing ways to become focused and calm, (2) sustaining calmness when confronted with stimuli such as noise, images and smells that otherwise would trigger a traumatised response,  (3) becoming fully engaged with life and relationships and (4) being open to one’s real self without hiding behind “secrets” that are designed as self-protection (e.g. against shame and self-loathing).  Bessel suggests that the effectiveness of each of the four approaches can vary with the individual and the stage of the healing process.  He illustrates through case studies that the healing journey can be a life-long process with occasional or frequent relapses.

Bessel maintains that, in the long run, confronting the traumatic event(s) in all their horror  is necessary for healing.  However, he cautions about rushing this process without first building a person’s capacity to cope with the fullness of the “visceral imprint” and its related sensitivities (e.g. to specific sounds, smells, thoughts).  Confronting the harsh reality of the precipitating event(s) too soon, when the person is ill-equipped, can lead to an individual being re-traumatised.

Bessel contends that the focus of recovery has to switch from the “rational brain” to the “emotional brain” which manifests trauma in the form of physical sensations impacting the heart, breathing, voice, gut and movement of the body (e.g. resulting in bodily movements “that signify collapse, rigidity, rage or defensiveness”.)  The overall aim is to restore the “the balance between the rational brain and the emotional brain”, because in a traumatised person the rational brain is often overwhelmed by the emotional brain that can “see” danger where it does not exist and inappropriately activates a fight, flight or freeze response

Healing modalities for trauma that recognise the mind-body-emotion connection

Throughout his book, Bessel discusses a range of trauma healing modalities that he has researched and practiced with his clients. His approach is quite eclectic, drawing on both Western and Eastern healing traditions.  He demonstrates through case histories that one modality more than another, or a particular mix of modalities, may prove effective in individual cases.   He appears to adopt a trail-and-error approach to achieve the best fit for a traumatised individual, informed in part by their life skills and the precipitating trauma event.  Some of the healing modalities he adopts are identified below:

  • Controlled breathing – here he encourages slow, deep breathing that that tap into the parasympathetic nervous system and its capacity to reduce arousal and induce calm.  Breathing also serves to enhance oxygen flow to energise the body.
  • Movement modalities – these can include Tai Chi, yoga, martial arts and the rhythmic movement associated with African drumming.  Bessel notes that each of these modalities simultaneously involve not only movement but also breathing and meditation.
  • Mindfulness practices – Bessel points out that traumatised people often avoid their challenging feelings and related bodily sensations.  Mindfulness which generates self-awareness enables the traumatised person to notice their feelings and sensations and the precipitating triggers.  This can lead to emotional regulation, rather than emotional overwhelm which can occur when people try to ignore or hide their real feelings and sensations.  Peter Levine’s “somatic experiencing” approach is an example of a related mindfulness practice that can contribute to healing trauma.
  • Singing – can engage the whole person (body, mind, soul and emotions).  Effective singing requires appropriate posture and breath control, opening up the airways and, at the same time, releasing emotions.  In group sessions with singing teacher, Chris James, I have often observed the spontaneous flow of emotions as people, both men and women, become more engaged and absorbed in the process, learn to let themselves go and find their “natural voice”.  Chris maintains that singing enhances “vibrational awareness”, engenders “self-discovery” and builds “conscious presence”.
  • Chanting and mantra meditationschanting can reduce depression, increase positivity and heighten relaxation.  It has been proven to be effective in helping veterans suffering from PTSD.  Tina Turner found Buddhist chanting to be very effective in overcoming her trauma and re-building her singing career.  Likewise, mantra meditations (that typically incorporate chants) can lead to calm, peace and energy and enable reintegration of body, mind, emotion and spirit.

Reflection

Bessel encourages the use of multiple healing modalities when working with traumatised individuals.  He suggests too that the modalities described above can help anyone deal with life’s challenges, restore balance and build energy.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and related mindfulness practices, we can gain self-awareness, develop self-management and heal from trauma and the scars of adverse experiences, whether in childhood or adulthood.

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Image by Đạt Lê 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.

Trauma Treatment: Understanding the Complexity of Trauma

The complexity of trauma is explained both scientifically and by case histories by Bessel Van Der Kolk in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, psychologists agree that trauma is not the “life-threatening”, precipitating event but the ongoing impact on a person’s mind, brain and body.  In his book, Bessel discusses the evolution of trauma treatment methodologies (and his roles in this evolution), the complex impact of trauma on individuals, the differential behavioural responses to trauma by individuals and the common responses that lead to addiction.

Evolution of trauma treatments

Bessel explains that in his early training and working days, he experienced different treatment modes for trauma such as “talk therapy” and the pharmacological approach.  He explained that talk therapy involved having an individual recount the trauma event in detail so that they had to confront the reality of the event.  Unfortunately, this often lead to the person experiencing a traumatic episode as a result of the stimulus of recall.  In the pharmacological approach, reliance was placed on drugs to treat the trauma patient.  Unfortunately, these were often administered in isolation without the support of therapy and contributed to ongoing psychological problems such as prescription drug addiction and depression.

The most heartless approach that Bessel describes is electrical shock treatment designed to desensitise individuals to precipitating stimuli.  Sometimes the treatment itself created a trauma response because of the effect of the stimulus (e.g. touch) and the inhuman nature of the treatment, e.g. for someone who had been sexually abused.  Bessel highlighted the lack of understanding of trauma and the absence of an adequate framework for treatment modalities illustrated in these early methodologies. The pursuit of a more holistic and scientific approach to trauma treatment underpinned his life’s work in helping trauma sufferers, especially those suffering from P.T.S.D. (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Result of visceral overload of precipitating event

Bessel was at pains to explain the complexity of trauma and its impact on individuals.  In his book, he explains the different regions of the brain, how they interact normally and the dysfunctionality caused by trauma.  He stated, for example, that a traumatic event can leave a “visceral imprint” on the lower region of the brain, the amygdala (the source of our fight/flight/freeze response). Thus a particular sensation (a smell, sound, sight, touch or taste) can create a “flashback” and trigger a trauma response in an individual.  This traumatic experience of discrete sensations illustrates the ever-present challenge for a traumatised person of “misreading signals” and seeing danger where it does not exist.  This inability to control the stress response is in part due to what Bessel describes as the ”visceral overload” at the time of the trauma-precipitating event.  He also makes the point that therapists are often misguided by their own belief systems, including the belief that the interaction of the mind and body is top-down only.  However, his own experience of trauma patients and recent neuroscience research shows clearly that the body/brain influence is bidirectional.

Same event – different behavioural responses

Different people respond differently to the sensory overload precipitated by a traumatic event.  Bessel tells the story of Stan and Ute who were involved in a major pile-up on a Canadian motorway in 1999 involving 87 cars.  They were travelling in the same car and met a wall of fog and were part of the continuous crashing of cars and trucks.  They feared for their lives and witnessed people being killed by the intensity of the crash and associated fires.  Stan’s reaction to subsequent stimuli was one of aggression and anger (fight response) whereas Ute was numb, a condition involving “massive dissociation” (the freeze response).  Bessel suggested that Ute’s freeze response was a learned behaviour precipitated by her upbringing by a mother who continuously “yelled” at her.  Through Bessel’s caring therapy, they were able to progressively restore their lives, regaining emotional control.  Ute benefited from the bottom-up approach of the Trauma Center where the focus was on physiological monitoring to enable the patient on change their “relationship to bodily sensations”.  Bessel subsequently established the Trauma Research Foundation after he had been unfairly dismissed from the Center, experiencing trauma in his own professional life.

Common responses to trauma

Trauma and its incessant re-activation through discrete sensory stimulation along with flashbacks and nightmares, create a life situation of continuous pain.  Many people attempt to numb the pain by resorting to drugs or excessive alcohol to block out the painful memories. This can eventually lead to addiction, associated mental illnesses and censorious misunderstanding by family and friends.

Reflection

Trauma is a very complex phenomenon precipitated by a great variety of events, experienced in differential ways by individuals and leading to individualised responses.  Added to these diverse events, impacts and responses are the variety of initiating stimuli that can trigger a seemingly unrelated trauma response in everyday life.

Bessel argues that one of the problems for traumatised individuals is that they spend so much time and energy in the past.  They become unaware of, and insensitive to, the present.  He maintains that mindfulness practices can help to restore top-down, emotional regulation and that bottom-up approaches such as “breath, movement, touch” can help to restore physical equilibrium and calmness.  The widespread use of somatic meditation for trauma management  is consistent with his view.

As we grow in mindfulness, we gain increased insight into our “inner landscape”, our behavioural responses and the options we have to behave differently.  We come to understand better the impact of past events on our present-day triggers and responses.  This can help us to achieve clarity, calmness and compassion towards others experiencing their own physical and emotional challenges.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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

Expressing Emotions or Being Imprisoned by Avoidance

Edith Eger In her book, The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, discusses the “the imprisonment of avoidance” – the refusal to express challenging emotions.  She maintains that avoiding feelings through suppression leads to depression – the opposite involves release through expression.  We can supress our feelings for many reasons, e.g. to avoid the pain and hurt of recollection or to protect others from seeing us as vulnerable and suffering. 

If we are suffering from past hurts or trauma we can try to shield loved ones from the discomfort that comes with the expression of strong feelings.  In the process, we are not being honest and we are also depriving them of the opportunity to express empathy and love.  We can also unconsciously train our children to avoid the expression of feelings when they are hurt or upset.   We can try to diminish their feelings out of our own discomfort or sense of sadness.  We might say, “Don’t cry, there will be other opportunities to go to parties”, “You’ll forget about this tomorrow”, “Look how many friends you do have who let you play”, or “Let’s get some ice cream and make the pain go away!” (we can try to substitute something  pleasurable to avoid the expression of pain and hurt, thus setting in place habituated avoidance behaviour).

Edith suggests that sometimes we suppress our feelings by trying to convince ourselves that we are happy and joyful when this is patently not true.  We might even resort to affirmations to hide our true feelings.  This form of subterfuge only acerbates our feelings because it denies our reality – the depth and breadth of our true feelings.  Edith encourages us “to feel so you can heal” because “you can’t heal what you don’t feel”.   Sometimes our underlying feelings can be mired in resentment and can be unearthed through a guided reflection.

There is a real cost to ourselves in avoidance.  Despite our very best efforts, emotions are embodied – they manifest in our bodies as physical tension/pain and/or result in emotional or physical illness.  By not living our truth or accepting the reality of how we are feeling, we undermine our own integrity and personal integration.   Edith provides a detailed and graphic example of the impact of unexpressed feelings on a women who experienced incomprehensible violence by a family member.  Her life was lived in fear and loneliness because she never owned up to her feelings of rage, anger and deep fear of the perpetrator.

There may be times in conversation with a friend that we withhold a true expression of our feelings about some matter relevant to our relationship with them.  Edith suggests that we can revisit the conversation mentally, work out what we should have said and then approach the relevant person at a suitable time and in a neutral place to express our real feelings.  We could even start by practising with restaurant waitresses and expressing our honest feelings about a meal (rather than hiding our true feelings because we do not want to hurt or embarrass them). 

Facing up to our feelings and naming them provides a real release.  Edith suggests that we can practise this by stopping ourselves at any time during the day and naming our emotion, whether positive or challenging,  in the present moment.  This is not only a form of mindfulness practice but is also a way to increase self-awareness and develop honesty about our feelings both to ourselves and others.

Edith explains that sometimes this challenge to express rather than supress feelings appears overwhelming.  She writes about her inability to face the Auschwitz Museum for fear of the pain of recollection of her parent’s murder and her own torture and starvation as a prisoner in the concentration camp.  It took her a lot of courage after 10 years to visit the Museum and she describes in detail what she felt when confronted with images of emaciated people, the cattle trains and arrival platform.  She found herself cringing and curled herself up into a tight ball in a dark corner of the Museum – overwhelmed by grief, pain, anguish and anger.  However, revisiting the trauma and owning the depth of her feelings provided a new level of release to enable her to be even more productive and helpful in her ongoing work as a trauma consultant – she had finally gained release from the imprisonment of avoidance.

Reflection

Edith’s own life experience, which she shares so freely in her books, bears out how difficult it is to free ourselves from the imprisonment of avoidance.  It may take many years of progressive inner work, and trying out various ways of overcoming our entrapment, to achieve some degree of freedom and realise ease and joy.  However, suppression leads to ongoing suffering and depression.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become increasingly self-aware of the different ways we avoid expressing our true emotions, develop the courage to own up to these emotions and achieve the resilience required to break free of the imprisonment of avoidance. _________________________________

Image source: 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.

Changing Our Inner Landscape to Achieve Freedom

In her book The Choice: A True Story of Hope, Dr. Edith Eger tracks her journey from imprisonment in Auschwitz, to her physical liberation and, finally, her personal freedom from the imprisonment of her “inner landscape”.   She had been transported to Auschwitz by cattle train with her parents and sister and had experienced unbelievable maltreatment through torture and starvation following the murder of her parents in the gas chamber the day after they arrived at the concentration camp.

Edith contends, in concert with her mentor and friend Viktor Frankl,  that “our worst experiences can be our best teachers”.   In her later book, The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, she has detailed practical steps to overcome the mental imprisonment that can occur through grief, anger, guilt, shame and other difficult emotions and experiences.  Edith does not sugar-coat the reality of daily life.  She maintains that traumatic events, setbacks, disappointments, illness and the resultant suffering are part and parcel of the human condition with its uncertainty, ambiguity and challenges.  In alignment with Gabor Maté, she argues that it is not what happens to us in life that determines our mental health, but how we relate to these experiences and their impacts  – and this is a matter of conscious choice.

Choosing freedom over victimhood

One of the 12 lessons Edith writes about in her book The Gift is freedom from “the prison of victimhood”.   She asserts that playing the victim rewards us by enabling us to blame others for our situation and avoid responsibility for our own response to our adverse experience.  This is in line with Judson Brewer’s concept of the habit loop (trigger-reward-behaviour) that provides reinforcement for habituated behaviour such as addiction and cravings.  In the victimhood context, the trigger can be any recollection or trauma stimulus event; the reward is avoidance of responsibility (not having to do anything different); and the behaviour can find expression in depression, anxiety addiction, or any number of self-destructive behaviours.   

Edith maintains that a sign of victimhood is continuously asking, “Why me?”.  In contrast, the road to personal freedom requires the question, “What now?” – given what has happened what do I need to do to survive and what do I want to achieve in the future.  This goal-directed response builds hope and energy to move forward.  The alternative is to wallow in the continuous self-story of “poor me!”.   Edith who has extensive experience as a clinical psychologist and trauma counsellor provides many accounts in her book of people, including herself, who have been able to make the choice to exchange victimhood for energetic hope and achievement. 

Edith reinforces the view that the pursuit of inner freedom is a lifetime task and she commented that even as she wrote her book, The Gift, she still experienced “flashbacks and nightmares”.  She told Gabor that his Holocaust experience would always be with him because of the embodiment of trauma.  They both agree from their own personal experience, their work as clinical psychologists and trauma counsellors and their underpinning research, that what is required to find freedom is inner work.

Edith also contends that the pursuit of inner freedom is a never-ending process of finding your “true self”.  It is a journey of self-discovery – of unearthing our inner resources, enlisting our creativity and clarifying our purpose in life.  It ultimately involves identifying the ways we can make a contribution to the welfare and wellness of others.  Edith found her path in her writing, her counselling work helping others who have experienced adverse childhood experiences and trauma and public speaking such as her TED talk, The Journey of Grieving, Feeling and Healing.   In her book, she also describes the journey to freedom from victimhood of her eldest daughter who experienced brain injury as a result of a serious fall.  Edith points out that her daughter, at one stage, actually challenged her for treating her daughter as a victim.  As Edith comments, we can assign a victim role to other people as well as ourselves, thus locking in a negative and disabling self-belief.

Reflection

I am confident that we can each identify a period in our lives, even the present day, when we felt like, and talked like, a victim.  Very few people have lived their lives free of adverse childhood experiences or other traumas – whether they involve a  relationship breakup, hurtful divorce, death of a loved one, serious injury and disablement or diagnosed life-threatening chronic illness. 

As we grow in mindfulness, we can explore our inner landscape, grow in self-awareness, identify our negative self-talk, and develop the insight and courage to pursue our personal freedom and our life purpose.

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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.

Healing Trauma Through the Body

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

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

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

The embodiment of trauma

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

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

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

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

Healing trauma through the body

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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

A Compassionate Approach to Addiction

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

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

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

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

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

Adopting a holistic approach

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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Image by Gisela Merkuur 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.