Developing Confidence through Mindfulness and Reflection

Rick Hanson, in a podcast interview on the topic Confidence or Narcissism?, focused on the fact that many of us confuse confidence with narcissistic tendencies –  in summary, being self-absorbed and pursuing the need to be valued in the eyes of others.  He suggests that our behaviours often derive from adverse childhood experiences where we have been deprived of what he calls, “narcissistic supplies” – a deprivation of expressions of love and appreciation for who we are, not for what we might achieve or become.  Later in life, we try to fill the gap left by this deprivation by seeking to draw attention to ourselves or pursuing self-interest at the expense of everyone else.

Rick suggests that one way to fill the gap is to be mindful throughout the day whenever we experience something that is self-affirming, e.g., an expression of gratitude, and to savour this in the moment.  He also recommends loving kindness meditation towards others who are engaged in extreme narcissistic behaviour – recognising that their bullying, belittling, and blaming behaviours are often the result of a deficit (not receiving positive affirmation in their younger years). Mindfulness meditation can increase our awareness of our own narcissistic tendencies, build a genuine confidence born of appreciated positive affirmations and help us to understand what drives behaviour that is perceived as “over-confidence” or “superior conceit”.

The disabling effect of negative self-stories

Negative self-stories can undermine our confidence, lead to procrastination and act as a barrier to creativity in our life’s work..  These can have their origins in parental messages, schoolyard experiences, workplace exchanges or other environment influences.  They are below awareness and are often reinforced by our own self-criticism throughout our life experiences.  The self-stories get reflected in our emotional responses and habituated behaviour, such as procrastination. 

Tara Brach, meditation teacher and practitioner, suggests that it is important to bring these stories “above the line” in order to prevent them from undermining our confidence and self-belief.  She encourages us to practice meditation and reflection to enable us to  name the stories, embrace the underlying feelings, understand recurring patterns, and increase our awareness about their origins and our self-reinforcement of the persistent false beliefs.  Leo Babauta recommends adding a dose of self-kindness, as well as loving kindness towards others.

A reflective framework

In a recent online webinar on Awaken Your Confidence, Empowerment Coach Amy Schadt provided a reflective framework that identified four categories of self-doubt.  After the workshop, she generously provided a worksheet for one of the four categories that you identified during the workshop as being the most prominent self-doubt category in your life at the moment.  The worksheet provided a means of reflecting on the thoughts and behaviours that were creating a blockage for you and undermining your confidence.

Amy usually works with women and offers a range of services such as personal coaching, workshops, and her signature online program, Design Your Unstoppable You.  However, I participated in the webinar because I wanted to address a blockage to undertaking what Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, describes as “your meaningful work” – your life purpose which involves actualising your knowledge, skills and experience in the service of others. It often entails uncertainty and moving outside your comfort zone.   The meaningful work that I found difficult to initiate is the conduct of a series of online mindfulness webinars.  So, I could readily relate to the category of self-doubt identified by Amy as Hesitation.

Viewed on a purely logical level, this hesitation is not rational.  I am trained in group facilitation and have run hundreds of paid, face-to-face workshops and, more recently, many via the Zoom platform.  I am very comfortable with the technology, have a paid subscription to Zoom (so I can control the medium) and have a group of over 200 potentially interested people in my paid Meetup Group, Brisbane Courses and Workshops.  I have conducted a number of paid workshops on mindfulness in organisations.  I have also written more than 550 blog posts on the topic of mindfulness and engaged in a wide range of regular mindfulness practices, including Tai Chi. 

It is as if my life’s study, training, and experience has been preparing me to undertake this meaningful work in the form of online, mindfulness workshops.  I am very conscious that there is a huge need for mental health support in the community and I am firmly convinced through my research, writing, and practice that mindfulness has a role to play in providing that support. While my hesitancy about conducting these specific mindfulness workshops has no rational basis, it clearly has an emotional one.

Reflection

As Amy points out, underlying hesitancy is a fear that something could go wrong, I might make a wrong decision or the workshops will not work out as I expect them to.  In combining Amy’s Self-Doubt Hesitation Worksheet approach and Leo’s approach to dealing with rationalizations that prevent us from undertaking our “meaningful work”, I decided initially to explore my rationalisations for hesitancy and identify “contrary arguments based on evidence of my past experience”.  

My Rationalisations

After some sustained thought and reflection, I identified the following rationalisations as blockages to my undertaking the desired workshops:

  1. I am uncertain about the needs/interests of potential participants
  2. The workshops may not meet my expectations in being able to help people
  3. Workshop participants might have questions that I might not have the answer to
  4. Workshop participants may have mental health issues that I do not know how to handle
  5. I am concerned that I might accidently trigger a trauma response.
My counter arguments for these rationalisations

Leo suggests that you explore counter arguments for your rationalisations to weaken their hold and open up new, creative possibilities. Here’s my attempt to provide counter arguments for each of my rationalisations listed above:

  1. Uncertainty re needs – It is likely that members of my Meetup group (people who have expressed an interest in mindfulness and related topics) have needs and issues in areas that I have covered in my blog, including effective leadership and creating a mentally healthy workplace. The workshop would also enable them to be aware of, and have access to, the numerous resources mentioned in this blog.  There are many other people who are members of Meetup groups across the world who have similar interests and would be interested in participating once the workshops were advertised throughout Meetup.  This increases the likelihood of my not knowing what their pressing needs are or how to address them in the workshop.  However, I could conduct a survey via Survey Monkey© to elicit these.  I could also just ask participants what topics they want to cover in future workshops (which is something I do on a regular basis in my manager development programs).
  2. Not meeting expectations – I know from my many manager development workshops over many years that you cannot control outcomes in workshops, you can only design the process the best you can with the knowledge and information that you have at the time.  People come to workshops with different expectations, orientations, readiness to learn and motivations.  People have different learning styles and they also learn differently in various situations.  For one person, something another participant says might be the catalyst to deep insight; for another, it might be something they read away from the workshop.  I cannot control outcomes, nor should I try.  Hugh Van Cuylenburg, author of The Resilience Project, and other creative writers, artists and performers, emphasise the need to focus on process not outcomes and explain how this perspective generates freedom and creativity.
  3. Questions I can’t answer – I am not intending to present myself as a mindfulness expert or mindfulness trainer.  I want to share what I have learned about mindfulness – its processes, benefits, challenges and rewards.  I will encourage participants to share their experiences, knowledge, practices and insights.  I also have a mountain of resources at my disposal to share with anyone who has a question that I cannot answer or that someone in the participating group does not have the answer to.
  4. Mental health issues that are too complex – I will not be presenting myself as a mental health expert but as someone who has had to deal with mental health issues personally and as an ongoing carer.  I will provide a disclaimer – “I am not a Medical Doctor or Psychologist/Psychiatrist; I am a retired Emeritus Professor of Management who has worked with many people within organisations on a very wide range of issues affecting human behaviour.”  I know that for some people in some circumstances the very opportunity to share their challenges in a supportive environment can be a healing process.  I have some understanding about when to refer people to a professional in the area of mental health and I am aware of many resources in this area (having provided organisational consultancy services to a number of organisations in the mental health field). 
  5. Trigger a trauma response – I have become acutely aware that some mindfulness practices, as well as facilitation activity (e.g., storytelling), can be a trauma trigger for an individual.  I became very aware of this through the work of David Treleaven on trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  I have researched this area and written a number of blog posts on the topic.  The staring point is to have the awareness about this possibility.  There are strategies I can employ such as providing a choice of anchors when undertaking meditation practices that will reduce the risk.  However, the reality is that I have no control over what will be a trigger for an individual – many people have had adverse childhood experiences and trauma in their life and the potential triggers are too numerous to mention or even adequately conceive. I think I also have a particular sensitivity in this area because I have seen on a number of occasions where a relatively harmless intervention activity has resulted in a major physical and emotional traumatic response – and it is something that made myself and other people present very uncomfortable.

These reflections on rationalisations and counter arguments have helped me to strengthen my resolve to undertake this meaningful work and clarified for me what I need to do to ensure I develop a quality process for my proposed workshops.  As I grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, I can gain greater self-awareness, insight and wisdom, increased clarity about what I am trying to achieve and heightened creativity to achieve outcomes people value. 

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Image by Couleur 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 Pathway to Resilience and Happiness

Hugh Van Cuylenburg has written a life-changing book which Missy Higgins describes as “hilarious, inspiring and heartbreakingly vulnerable”.   Hugh is a great storyteller and his stories, provided both verbally and in writing, have changed the lives of thousands of people, from school children to elite sportspeople.  His book, The Resilience Project: Finding Happiness through Gratitude, Empathy & Mindfulness, provides a very clear pathway to resilience and happiness.  It is admirably digestible and eminently practical – which partly explains its amazing influence on so many lives.

Hugh summarises his pathway in the mnemonic, GEM, and the three powerful words that these letters represent – Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness.  He developed his approach while in India working as a volunteer teacher in an incredibly poor village – where children often could not go to school, had no shoes, little food and no electricity or sanitation.  He could not work out why the children at the school were so unbelievably happy despite their destitute conditions.  He found the answer by observing the children and their practices closely and discovered that their resilience and happiness had its foundation in gratitude (appreciating what they do have), empathy (showing care and concern for others) and mindfulness (being mindful and developing this through meditation).

His message has been taken up not only by schools throughout Australia but also by elite sporting clubs such as the NRL team, Melbourne Storm and the AFL team, Collingwood.  He tells the story, for example, of a Collingwood player who wrote a three-letter word on his wrist to remind himself during a game of the things that he is grateful for so that he could push aside negative thoughts and anxiety that arise when engaged in a highly competitive match.   

Hugh’s pathway to happiness and resilience applies to each of us in our everyday life.  The three elements of his approach are not new – we have covered many aspects of these in this blog as the result of the work of many other people.  What Hugh presents in simple, digestible language and illustrative stories, is a very clear pathway integrating the three GEM elements that can be practised daily and that are mutually reinforcing – just like exercising, appropriate nutrition and yoga/ Tai Chi are mutually reinforcing, with each of these elements building on, and assisting us to achieve, the others.

The GEM pathway to happiness and resilience

Hugh refined his approach when he completed a Master of Education by focusing all his study and assignments on the mental health and wellness of adolescents.  He was also able to learn about the neuroscience that underpinned his approach (he provides references to the scientific papers in his “Notes” at the end of the book).

What was a catalyst for Hugh’s passionate pursuit of the issue of resilience was his own traumatic experience as a teenager trying to cope with his younger sister’s anorexia nervosa.  At the time, he did not understand what was happening to her and why she behaved the way she did, and did not show empathy for her plight.  He failed to realise that she was mentally ill, not just suffering a physical malady, malnutrition, that could be overcome just by eating more.  He became acutely aware as an adult of the “concentric circles of suffering” (for siblings, parents, friends, and teachers) that mental illness can create.  

I will discuss each of the elements of GEM below:

Gratitude – Hugh suggests that this means appreciating what we have rather than focusing on what we lack.  He tells the story of Stanzin, one of his students in India, who despite his impoverished circumstances was grateful for everything in his life – his gratitude was pervasive and continuous.  Stanzin often pointed out to Hugh things that he was grateful for – his friends, being able to go to school, having shoes to wear and even receiving a plain bowl of rice for lunch. He was incredibly grateful for his rusted, broken-down play equipment (such as a swing) – something that in our Western society would initiate a complaint.  Stanzin focused on what he had, not what he did not possess – avoiding negative emotions of discontent, resentment, or anger, and developing a positive mindset. 

Hugh recommends a daily gratitude journal as a way to build resilience and happiness.  This is a recommendation and practice of many people.  In the previous post, I spoke of the twice-daily practice of gratitude journalling of Lindsey Stirling, the hugely successful songwriter, violinist, and dancer.  Gwen Cherne, the first Commissioner for Veteran Family Advocacy, who agitates for veterans and their families battling mental stress, stated that she writes a gratitude journal every night (her story is featured in the Weekend Australian Magazine, March 6-7, 2021, pp.13-16).   Hugh, Lindsey, and Gwen have each experienced considerable trauma in their lives and each has shown the resilience to be able to “bounce back” and experience happiness in pursuing their life purpose in contributing to the welfare and joy of others.

Empathy – being able to feel for others by consciously thinking about what they might be experiencing intellectually and emotionally.  Hugh points to the neuroscience that reinforces the fact that practising empathy develops kindness and motivates compassionate actionSimon Sinek suggests that in a work situation an empathetic leader is “more concerned about the human being not their output”.  The young boy Stanzin, who made a lasting impression on Hugh, was continuously empathetic – going out of his way to help others in need, e.g., sitting with children who were alone during the lunch hour.  Hugh recalled that in contrast, he himself was not empathetic to his young sister as a teenager and was not able understand her suffering and feel with and for her.  A key component of empathy is deep listening – openness to other’s stories and their perspectives.

Mindfulness – being present in the moment while adopting an open, curious, accepting, and non-judgmental attitude.  Hugh learned through his experience in India that practising mindfulness through meditation was a way of “taking greater control of your mind and, therefore, of your life”.  The children in the village school where he taught began each day with a 30-minute meditation,  At first, he was sceptical about the practice but soon found that he could focus so much more on the present moment, and not become absorbed by anxiety about the future or depression about the past.  He found that Stanzin was a living example of the benefits of mindfulness meditation.  The young boy would be constantly mindful of what where the positive things in his village life.  Mindfulness develops both gratitude and empathy.  

Developing the GEM pathway to happiness and resilience

In his book, The Resilience Project, Hugh provides a section at the back where he offers some exercises that can help us to develop gratitude, empathy, and mindfulness – some of which he has used in schools throughout Australia.  The Coles Group have implemented a range of practices drawn from The Resilience Project. 

Simon Sinek suggests that a simple way to practise empathy in everyday life is to let the person into traffic ahead of you if they are stuck in a side street or are attempting to cut in front of you.  He argues that you never know why they are trying to enter the traffic or are in a hurry to get somewhere.  They could, for example, be dealing with an emergency – a sick parent/child, an accident at home, someone dying in hospital, or anxiety about a child stranded at night at a lonely, dark railway station. 

Reflection

Taken together the elements of the GEM pathway can lead to happiness and resilience.  The stories Hugh tells, and the research he draws on, reinforce the benefits of his approach.  The widespread adoption of the principles of The Resilience Project attests to its effectiveness. 

Hugh also stresses the importance of connection and has exercises that can help us renew our connections given that they have been eroded through social media and the distancing created by the pandemic.  He stresses that practising GEM is even more urgent in these challenging times.  He maintains too that we must go beyond connection itself and take wise and compassionate action to redress the suffering and pain of others, e.g., asking “R U OK?”

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and practising gratitude and empathy, we can develop self-awareness, self-regulation and compassionate action and gain increasing insight into our life purpose. As Hugh observes, every challenge is an opportunity to realise our potential and our capacity to contribute positively to the lives of others.

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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.

Self-Healing through Energy Techniques

Tami Simon of Sounds True provides a podcast of her interview with Amy Scher, energy therapist and author of How to Heal Yourself from Depression When No one Else Can.   The interview is part of the podcast series titled, Insights at the Edge.

In the conversation with Amy, Tami explores the origins of her interest in “energy psychology”, experiences a number of energy techniques, and discuses the implications and efficacy of the energy processes.

Amy’s interest in energy psychology

Amy was motivated to explore the whole field of energy psychology when she found that nothing worked in terms of being able to treat her own severe illness, including chronic Lyme disease.  She experienced all kinds of debilitating and energy-draining symptoms, including difficulty with walking, being bedridden and suffering from headaches, nausea, and other severe symptoms.  Amy even tried the risky procedure of an “experimental stem cell transplant”, which required her to travel to India.   While this latter treatment worked for a while, her symptoms started to reappear, albeit with less severity.   This symptomatic recurrence and the fear that her condition would worsen again provided the motivation to explore self-healing as an alternative to doctor-controlled treatments.

The mind-body-energy-emotion connection

Energy psychology recognises that throughs, emotions, and beliefs impact the physical systems of the body, e.g., the digestive system and nervous system.  Our emotions and thoughts can create ill-health and physical dysfunction.   So, the associated process of “energy therapy” works with the body’s own self-healing processes by stimulating the internal energy system of the body – an approach that is consistent with that of other healing modalities such as  acupuncture, Reiki, acupressure, and Japanese Seitai Massage.  While the latter treatment modality focuses on the musculoskeletal system to remove physical blockages to energy flow, energy psychology involves “working with the emotional landscape” and its connection to the energy system of the body, thus helping to “heal body, mind and spirit”.

Energy techniques

Fundamental to a wide range of energy techniques provided by Amy in her book is a recognition that our thoughts, emotions and beliefs impact our body’s welfare, e.g., we might say, “I’m feeling really uptight just thinking about what might happen”.  Negative self-stories about self-worth, how others view us and what we are capable of, all add to the stress experienced by the body and manifest in different ways depending on the emotions involved.  The challenge is accepting that we play a significant part, consciously or unconsciously, in our physical health.   This is a difficult concept to swallow and even Amy talks about the strength of her own resistance to this idea of personal contribution to her own ill-health.  The techniques she discusses primarily involve listening to your own body.

Listening to your own body

Amy indicated that the real breakthrough for her occurred when she started to be still and quiet and to listen to her own body and what it was telling her.  She maintains that physical symptoms are the “body’s communication system” and that emotions convey a message.  We just need to listen with openness and curiosity to begin the process of self-healing.  In her book mentioned above, she identifies the “most common subconscious blocks” to energy flow in the body, exploring the body’s messages, symptom by symptom.

Practising energy techniques

One of Amy’s own foundational energy blocks was the belief that “If I express my true self, I’ll be unlovable” – a damaging belief that had its genesis in her Jewish origins and the generational trauma passed down through her grandfather and father who lived through the Holocaust.  Both Amy and her father experienced deep depression – hence, the motivation for her recent book.

Amy provided a sample of energy techniques during the podcast and enabled podcast listeners to experience three techniques:

  • The Sweep – a particular narrative that is spoken or read to “sweep” unconscious, harmful beliefs from the mind.  Amy maintains that this process can lead to a shift, however small, in perspective or belief. 
  • Tapping – this is an increasingly recognised healing technique that is part of the repertoire of energy therapists and is described by Amy as one of her “micro-movements” – a recognition that a shift happens in small steps, especially for someone experiencing depression.  Amy provides a specific tapping technique that involves focusing on the emotion that you are experiencing in the present moment while tapping on your chest.  She suggests that you can strengthen the freeing effect of tapping by saying over and over, “let go, let go, let go”. 
  • Accepting yourself – Amy suggests that an approach you can use when you are tending to “beat up on yourself” is to challenge the thought that generated the emotion by saying something like, “Was I really that bad or unforgivable?”  She maintains that a shift can happen if you focus instead on “the next less shitty thing that you can think about yourself”.  Again, this practice constitutes a micro-movement.

Amy explained that her book provides a wide range of energy techniques that readers can practice to help them achieve their own energy shifts and self-healing.

Reflection

Research confirms the negative impact of stress and trauma on our immune system and the tendency of the body to experience various forms of inflammation.  The current challenging environment is contributing to “emotional inflammation” as well.  Amy highlights the impact of these stressors as causing “energy suppression”.  Her energy techniques are designed to release the trapped energy and enable the body to heal itself.  The process of self-healing generates a sense of agency for the person engaged in the relevant energy practices.  Some people have found that the vibrations involved in singing too can be a form of self-healing along with the positive emotions expressed in sung mantra meditations.

As we grow in mindfulness through energy techniques, meditation, and other mindfulness practices we can develop openness and curiosity, deepen self-awareness, and learn to heal our self.  Movement towards healing is possible if we sustain our practices.

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Image by Antonio López 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 Mental Health Professionals

In his book, Trauma Informed-Mindfulness With Teens, Sam Himelstein stresses the need for self-care for mental health professionals dealing with traumatised teens.   His final chapter is devoted to self-care and professional practice.  Dr. Cirecie West-Olatunji, counsellor educator,  also stresses the need for self-care for professionals working with people experiencing traumatic stress.  Her video presentation is available as part of the courses provided by the Mental Health Academy.   Both experts in the area of counselling for trauma highlight the impact of vicarious trauma, especially the risk of mental health professionals experiencing compassion fatigue.

Mindfulness for self-care

Sam himself experienced trauma in his early 20s when he lost his sister through suicide. He makes the point that most health professionals will have experienced trauma of some kind and that this experience leaves them open to triggering their own traumatic response through exposure to the trauma stories of other people.  Cirecie highlights the fact that the trauma stimulus can be exacerbated where the professional has previously experienced combined or cumulative trauma. 

Sam emphasises the role of mindfulness in helping the professional to deal with their own re-traumatisation as a result of interaction with others and their emotionally draining stories.  He stresses the role of a personal mindfulness practice in helping him deal with the trauma of his sister’s suicide.

Sam  suggests that a personal approach to mindfulness as a protective mechanism could involve the following:

  • Silent retreat(s): Sam found these exceedingly helpful because they enable you to fully experience your emotions, gain a deep insight into your inner landscape and develop strategies to maintain or regain your equilibrium.
  • Formal practice: this entails inculcating a regular mindfulness practice (either sitting, standing, or walking) where you engage in some form of formal meditation.  This helps to build your concentration to enable deep listening, empathetic response, and the ability to promote wise action.  It also assists you to deal with your own difficult emotions (such as anger, resentment, or frustration), challenge self-defeating narratives and develop resilience in the face of challenging interactions.
  • Beyond meditation: Sam suggests that bringing mindfulness into your everyday life (in daily activities such as walking, washing clothes, eating, shopping), is effectively “mindfulness-in-action”.  It is particularly relevant to your relationships and interactions with others, especially in times of conflict.  One way to develop the necessary calmness and equanimity in the face of emotional challenges is to practice reflection-on-action to eventually cultivate the capacity to reflect-in-action, in the course of something adverse happening to you (whether that adversity is real or imagined).  Sam stresses the importance of daily mindfulness practices in controlling the “ego” which can get out of hand when  it perceives a threat (physical, emotional, or intellectual).

Professional development

Both Sam and Cirecie stress the importance of professional development to build competence and confidence to enable you to operate effectively within your chosen arena of professional practice.  For Sam this is the arena of traumatised youth, especially those who have been incarcerated.  He offers specialised training for health professionals through his Center for Adolescent Studies.  Cirecie’s professional arena includes trauma stress service delivery and training professionals who provide counselling in different countries following disasters such as earthquakes and pandemics.  She conducts research and training through her Xula Center for Traumatic Stress Research.

Cirecie stresses the need to gain control over your workload and, where necessary, seek to negotiate a lighter load (for your psychological welfare and that of your clients).  She maintains that every mental health professional, irrespective of their level of experience and training, has their window of tolerance beyond which they are unable to function effectively.  She gave an example of how a racist client triggered her and how  her experience in working in South Africa with a community where people were consistently dying from AIDS took her outside her window of tolerance and led to a severe illness.  In both cases, she sought professional counselling and recommends this form of professional development for other mental health professionals.

Cirecie highlights the importance of self-knowledge and self-awareness as critical factors in professional counselling, particularly understanding your own negative triggers.  She encourages too the development of your own professional support network that you can draw on for knowledge, experience, resources, and emotional support.  

In Cirecie’s view, personal and professional development extends to conscious awareness of the physical and psychological health risks inherent in the role of a mental health professional.  She urges appropriate preparation for the role through education which will provide motivation for health self-care (e.g., exercise, stretching (to release physical tension), diet, and drinking water).

Reflection

There are many reasons why mental health professionals do not undertake adequate self-care.  When working with clients who have suffered trauma or are currently experiencing trauma, it is critical that the health professional takes time for self-care to enable them to function at their best for the sake of their clients, as well as for their own welfare.  Mindfulness practice is recognised as a key component of this necessary self-care.  As mental health professionals grow in mindfulness, they are better able to identify personal triggers, develop resilience for their challenging work and build the capacity to engage in deep listening.  However, mindfulness practice needs to be supported by an appropriate lifestyle. 

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Image by Vanessa Kenah 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.

Domestic Violence: A Catalyst for Pursuing Life Purpose

The challenge we are confronted with during various stages of our life is to decide what is our purpose in life.  Finding that unique purpose can lead to a singular focus, total commitment and “unified action”, where your contribution to community – utilising your unique knowledge, skills, experiences, insights, and connections – becomes your unifying focus.  Trent Dalton, journalist and author of  All Our Shimmering Skies, tells the story of how domestic and family violence became the catalyst for Nicolle Edwards and husband Gareth to identify and pursue their life purpose in the form of RizeUp Australia, a registered charity providing concrete support to women and families fleeing domestic violence.

Trent’s story, Hands & Hearts in the Australian Weekend Magazine (12-13 December 2020), describes the practical help that RizeUp provides in terms of furnishing a house for domestic and family violence refugees.  With the help of a large social media following and a very large group of volunteers, Nicolle and Gareth provide home-making support for DV refugees when they move out of a Women’s Shelter to often-unfurnished, emergency  accommodation.  The list of furniture and accessories provided at no cost (or fuss), including bedding and basic appliances, is extensive and very impressive – all provided and set up for free through donations of goods and money and the donation of time and effort by volunteers in the RizeUp network.  Nicolle comments in the article that the “sigh of relief” of the recipient mother is motivation enough for her to dedicate herself to this life purpose.

Nicole realised that she could help domestic violence refugees and their children when she turned to social media to provide help to a DV refugee very early on (before RizeUp was created in 2015).  She was amazed at the response and with Gareth created the RizeUp network, which has now set up more than 980 homes for DV refugees and their families.  The RizeUp Facebook page provides many photos showing volunteers at work and the kind of practical home support provided by the network.   Nicole and Gareth demonstrate the strength and sensitivity required to pursue your life purpose.

My story – my experience of domestic and family violence

I experienced domestic and family violence as a child because my father, who was suffering from PTSD, had become an alcoholic. I heard the many shouting fights between my mother and father because he was spending so much of our income on alcohol.  I do recall our family at one stage living off food donations from the St. Vincent de Paul Society.  I also recall the times when my mother ended up in hospital after particularly violent arguments.   

I left home immediately after Grade 12 to study in Victoria and when I returned five years later the situation had not improved.  So, one day when my father was at work, I helped my mother pack her things and moved the both of us to a small house at the back of a shop.  The strangely happy part of the story is that after my parents divorced, my father remarried, gave up alcohol and walked every day for an hour for his physical and mental health.  He also used to drive my mother to church each Sunday after the separation.

It is only as I grew older that I realised how little support there was for my father whose nerves were shattered after serving in the Australian Army in Singapore in the Second World War.  He had been a prisoner-of-war in Changi prison for 18 months following the capture of Singapore by the Japanese.  Stephen Wynn describes life after The Surrender of Singapore as “three years of hell”.  Not long after my father’s release from Changi, he was deployed as part of the Allied Occupation Forces in Japan.

On reflecting on these early life experiences of domestic violence, I believe that they have unconsciously motivated me to work towards developing mentally healthy workplaces and communities both in my consulting and writing.  In my organisational consulting work, I have particularly worked with managers to build managerial mindfulness – consciousness about the impact that their words and actions have on the development of a productive and mentally healthy workplace.  In writing this blog, I have focused on mindfulness, mental health, trauma, and leadership as my contribution to providing individuals in the community and managers with resources, practices, and processes to create a mentally healthy life.

What is your story?

Recently, Tami Simon from Sounds True introduced a new publication written by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond who took ten years to develop and refine the reflective processes incorporated in their book.  The transformative and interactive journal, titled  What’s Your Story: A Journal for Everyday Evolution, provides a series of strategic questions to help you reflect on your life story (by theme and/or area of your life).  The deeply penetrating questions are designed to challenge self-limiting beliefs and throw light on a possible path forward.  The authors hope to enable you “to begin living your most authentic, creative, and meaningful life”.

Reflection

Sometimes the search for our life purpose is confounding and confusing – it seems to go around in circles before achieving some degree of clarity.  Our life purpose might prove illusive because it can be changing over time. As we gain greater personal insight and experience different catalytic events, we may find that what was truly purposeful and meaningful at one point in our life, is no longer adequate or energizing. As we grow in mindfulness through journalling, meditation and reflection, we can develop an expanded view of what we are capable of, build the courage to pursue our unique purpose, and positively impact others and ourselves. It is in achieving alignment with our life purpose that we find meaning and happiness.

Another useful resource is an eight-week course, Your True Calling, which is available online at Sounds True.  The author Stephen Cope, wrote the book, The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling.

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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.

Silence and Connection: Finding Peace in a Turbulent World

Last night I had the privilege of accompanying my wife to a fund-raising event at Stepping Stone Clubhouse in Brisbane – an organisation dedicated to enabling people with mental illness to rebuild and enrich their lives.  The speaker for the night’s event was Trent Dalton, author of two recent books that were the focus of his discussion.  Trent has become a best-selling author as a result of the first of the two books, The Boy Who Swallowed the Universe which features two boys who experience the darkness of adverse childhood experiences.  The second book he spoke energetically about is his recently released novel, All Our Shimmering Skies – two girls experiencing trauma feature prominently in this book which is also an expression of hope, of wonder and life’s endless mysteries and miracles.

Life beyond trauma

Trent had many adverse childhood experiences and related trauma – including an alcoholic father, heroin-addicted mother, heroin dealer stepfather and a criminal baby sitter.  His two novels then are part autobiographical, part fiction and part fantasy (“gifts dropping from the sky”).   His two daughters had questioned him as to why he wrote the first of the two books with boys as the focal characters when he in fact had two daughters.  So, two girls featured in the Shimmering Skies novel.

Trent mentioned that even though the books begin with darkness in the characters’ lives, they end with hope and wonder.  He wanted to inspire his daughters to be strong and resilient despite what life brings in the way of obstacles and adversity.  He also wanted them to believe in hope and a life beyond trauma as reflected in his own life – now as a multiple award-winning author who is internationally recognised for his writing craft and storytelling.

Finding peace in silence and connection

Trent spoke of his close connection to place and nature.   His home suburb, Brisbane’s western suburb of Darra, features strongly in his writing as does Darwin which he visited a number of times, mainly on assignment as a journalist.  He described with a sense of awe the natural beauty experienced during a guided walk through Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia.  His closeness to nature is reflected in his wonder at even the smallest living creatures.

His connection to family and friends provided a very real grounding and enabled him to rest in the strength of these relationships.  Of particular note is his comment about how one of his daughters brought him very much “back to earth” after a whirlwind tour following his highly successful book, The Boy Who Swallowed the Universe.  At one stage when he was at home and dropping naturally into his effervescent storytelling mode, his 11 year daughter said something to the effect, “You don’t have to impress us now – you just have to be Dad to us.”

Trent’s Shimmering Skies novel captures something of the stillness and reflection he experienced observing the night sky through his window in Darwin or from his writer’s den in Brisbane.  His valuing of silence and stillness is reflected in his comment on Christine Jackman’s novel, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World:

…a deeply personal assignment: treading bravely, beautifully into the wonder of silence.

Christine reminds us that life is full of noise, distraction and setbacks and yet there exists the wonder of stillness and silence – the unnameable space in which one was free to think and breathe and simply be.   We just have to learn ways to access the silence in our lives – something I experienced at 5 am this morning when I walked along the Manly Esplanade in Brisbane as the sun rose and reflected on the shimmering water of the marina.

Reflection

Trent was able to inhabit the wounds of his trauma by revisiting his adverse childhood experiences through the key characters in his two books.  In discussing his books and his life, he was able to be completely transparent and honest about his background, his challenges, and his small triumphs.  This openness and curiosity about life are hallmarks of mindful living.  By growing in mindfulness through reflection, writing and wonder, he could appreciate his connection to everything and his close relationships which are so central to his life and work.

I find it humbling and a source of gratitude that I personally was able to live a life of silence and contemplation for five years after leaving home and traumatic circumstances.  I have lived through many adverse childhood experiences in my early childhood and traumatic events later in life.  I found solace and peace in stillness and silence.

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Image by Ron Passfield – Sunrise at Manly Esplanade

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 from Trauma and Building Resilience to Manage Stress

Liz Stanley recently provided an introductory webinar for her course on Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)®.  The webinar explains the components of the course and how it helps people recover from trauma and enable anyone to build resilience and effectively manage stress.  She also discusses the traumas she has experienced, her personal search for healing and resilience and her in-depth training including her doctorate. 

The components of MMFT®

The online course covers 8 modules over 8 weeks (that you can undertake within your own time and availability).  The first four modules provide the framework to understand how stress and trauma affects us and provides an insight into the neurobiology involved.  As she explains in the webinar, stress and trauma reduce our window of tolerance (our tolerance of stress arousal).  In her view, each of us have our own window of tolerance which has been shaped from birth, and continuously widened or narrowed through our life experiences, encounter with trauma, our lifestyle choices and our stress response (creating implicit learning about what is threatening). 

If we are within our window of tolerance, we are better able to access our thinking brain (enabling accurate perception, clarity of thinking and wise decision making); when we are outside our window of tolerance we are captured by our survival brain and habituated stress responses in terms of bodily sensations, difficult emotions and harmful choices.

Liz explains that the second group of four modules of the MMFT® course deal with habits and related habituated responses, making effective decisions, managing difficult emotions and chronic pain, as well as ways to be more effective in our interpersonal interactions.  The course includes stress and trauma-sensitive mindfulness practices, ”somatic experiencing” and a unique sequence of exercises designed to achieve grounding and enable movement “from dysregulation to self-regulation”.

Liz’s course is offered through Sounds True and has been validated extensively through evidence-based research that has confirmed results in terms of improvements in cognitive performance, strengthened resilience and improved self-regulation, as well as positive developments in other areas of self-management.

Widening the Window of Tolerance

Liz explains that our repetitive experiences impact our implicit knowledge and shape our brains and neuroception (perception of threat/ safety).  We can choose experiences that are beneficial or others that are harmful – we have choice in how our brain is shaped and adapts (neuroplasticity).

In the MMFT introductory webinar and in her book, Widen the Window, Liz offers five lifestyle choices that can serve to widen our window of tolerance:

  1. Sleep
  2. Diet
  3. Exercise
  4. Awareness and reflection
  5. Social connection

She explains that the course details the beneficial effects of each of these elements and also the detrimental effects caused by their absence or deprivation.  She particularly notes the benefits of awareness and reflection.  Liz explains that awareness can be built through mindfulness practices, Tai Chi and yoga while reflective practices involve reflective thinking such as journalling, reading poems, reflecting on scriptural passages or work experiences and their implications, or maintaining some form of gratitude diary.  She highlights the benefits of mindfulness and reflective practices in terms of calmness, clarity, self-awareness, focus, resilience and intention building.

One of Liz’s key messages is that resilience is something that we can learn and develop through beneficial choices.  The result is that we will be better able to manage stress, heal from trauma and access our thinking brain which enables us to think clearly and creatively and choose wise actions – rather than be captive to stress-induced confusion and harmful habituated responses.

Reflection

Liz’s course focuses on how to heal from past, stressful experiences and how to deal effectively with future stressful situations, whether internal (e.g. chronic anxiety) or external (e.g. job loss or interpersonal conflict).  She emphasises the need for consistency not only in making beneficial lifestyle choices but also through engaging in regular mindfulness and reflective practices.   As we grow in mindfulness and the associated awareness of thoughts, emotions, and bodily responses, we can widen our window of tolerance and deal more effectively with the stressors in our life.

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Image by Candid_Shots from Pixabay

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

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

The Pandemic and Narrowing of the Window of Tolerance

David Treleaven and Liz Stanley discussed the current pandemic In their interview podcast on Widening the Window of Tolerance.  They both asserted that COVID-19 had effectively narrowed the window of tolerance of many people.  There are many people who are becoming increasingly stressed and traumatised by unfolding events, whether because of the death of relatives and friends, loss of a job, dislocation from their normal place of work (and way of working) and/or stringent “lockdowns”.

Narrowing the window of tolerance

In these very challenging times, people are becoming controlled by their “survival brain” – resorting to a fight, flight or freeze response.  Their window of tolerance is becoming narrowed, both in terms of their inner tolerance of challenges and external tolerance of differences.  Everything has been “thrown up in the air” so that they have lost their grounding in accurate perception and balanced body sensations. 

Polarisation , racism, and hate thrive in this disrupted state as people seek refuge in their “own tribe” (flight) and attack others who are different from themselves (fight).  Liz suggested that many people are “uncomfortable in their own skin” so that lockdowns and movement restrictions , creating disconnection, exacerbate the tendency to dysregulation (inability to control emotions).   The sense of hopelessness and helplessness in facing continuous and growing uncertainty adds to the incidence of anxiety and depression.

A compounding factor is that social media becomes what Liz calls an “echo chamber” – it gives unregulated voice to “dysregulated communications” that increase the tendency towards polarisation.  People retreat to social media and television only to find that these media are increasingly disorientating and disturbing.    

Further compounding the issues for individuals is the fact that we tend to make a “bargain” with ourselves – e.g. we can put up with lockdown for three weeks by adding some new routines such as working different hours, taking more regular breaks and expanding project timelines.  However, when other people blatantly and inconsiderately breach lockdown regulations or social distancing requirements leading to further lockdowns, conforming people can feel betrayed – intensifying a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

Hope and widening the window of tolerance

In the previous post I discussed trauma-sensitive mindfulness and widening the window of tolerance.    Liz provides several strategies in her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.  In the interview podcast she shared some of her own strategies for becoming grounded during the current health and economic crisis – mindfulness meditation, gardening, walking and playing with the dog, and focusing on connectedness to others.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® provides detailed strategies and tools to navigate effectively through times of trauma and stress.  She makes the point that whenever we are controlled by our “survival brain”, we are disconnected from our “thinking brain” and shut off from the opportunity to access our creativity and ingenuity. In discussing “hope” in the current challenging times, David noted that the tendency to “hyperfocus on what is not working” (as he has done at times) tends to narrow the window of tolerance and our capacity to cope.  He suggests that accessing stories of successful transition can help to widen our window of tolerance, e.g. successful career changes by people who have lost their jobs. Another strategy that he suggests is to effectively reframe what is happening.  By way of example, he draws on the comments of Adrienne Maree Brown in her article on living through the unveiling:

Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered, we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

Liz reinforces this view when she suggests that it is really only in times of turbulence when everything seems to be “thrown up in the air”, that genuine and sustainable change can happen.

Reflection

As David suggests, we can choose to stay in the fog bank by continuing to absorb negative messages, both external and internal, or we can free ourselves from this befuddled state by growing in mindfulness and developing our own strategies to build resilience and stay grounded.

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Image by My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: 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-Sensitive Mindfulness and the Window of Tolerance

In the previous blog post I discussed several resources on the topic of trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  One of these was David Treleaven’s Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast which includes interviews with people who have expertise in the area or a related area.   In a recent podcast, David  had a conversation with Liz Stanley who not only experienced very considerable trauma, the impact of mindfulness meditation on her traumatic experience but also has developed her own resources and training for people, both civilians and military personnel, who have experienced trauma.  The conversation with Liz on the topic of Widening the Window of Tolerance draws on her personal experiences, study and training and incorporates ideas from her training program and her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.

The Window of Tolerance

The concept of the Window of Tolerance has been attributed to Dan Siegel, clinical psychologist and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), UCLA.  Dan is the author many books, including Aware: The science and practice of presence.  Many people, including David Treleaven and Liz Stanley, have applied the concept of the Window of Tolerance in their research and training in relation to trauma-sensitive mindfulness.

The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (nicabm) provides an infographic that illustrates the concept in a very clear and easy-to-understand way.  They explain that the window of tolerance is about our capacity to deal with the challenges and stresses of the moment and take wise action to deal with them.  When stress takes us outside our window of tolerance we can experience hyperarousal (related to the fight/flight response) which manifests in uncontrolled anger, emotional overwhelm, or extreme anxiety; or, alternatively, experience hypoarousal (related to the freeze response) which manifests in the body trying to shut down resulting in numbness, “zoning out” or “spacing out”.  

The Attachment and Trauma Treatment Centre for Healing (ATTCH), drawing on the work of Dan Siegel and colleagues, provides a more detailed explanation of the concept in an article titled, Understanding and Working with the Window of Tolerance.  Pooky Knightsmith, on the other hand, provides a simple explanation in her short video on the window of tolerance and how to apply it to managing our emotions in everyday life (for those who are not experiencing trauma or trauma stimuli).

Trauma and narrowing of the window of tolerance

In her podcast interview. Liz reinforced the view that trauma causes a narrowing of a person’s window of tolerance.  She explained that she is a living example of someone who has experienced multiple traumatic events and who tried to cope in the only way she knew how, conditioned as she was by familial and social determinants.  Liz suffered an incredible range of traumatic experiences – active military duty in Asia and Europe, PTSD,  a near-death experience (NDE), rape, and whistle-blower harassment as a result of formally complaining about sexual harassment by her senior officers.

Liz described her response in terms of the compulsivity that comes with hyperarousal (which can occur when a person is outside their window of tolerance).  Instead of dealing with her traumatic stress, she intensified her activities, completing two undergraduate degrees simultaneously.  She explained that like a lot of people, she “compartmentalised” the stress, suppressed it and just kept going harder than ever, managing on two hours sleep each night – she “soldiered on”, both literally and metaphorically.

Liz had to make changes when she temporarily lost her eyesight – something she described as “cosmic coping pain” when her body which had “borne the brunt” of her hyperactivity decided “enough was enough”.  It was then that she explored mindfulness and researched trauma and trauma healing.

Liz explained “trauma” as impacting “neuroception” – “how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or life threatening”.  In effect, trauma can distort our neuroception and effectively narrow our window of tolerance.  She explains the effect in terms of our “thinking brain” and our “survival brain”.

Our thinking brain enables us to analyse, make decisions, accurately perceive stimuli, and take wise action; our “survival brain” responds to perceived threats with the fight/flight/freeze response.  With trauma, the connection between the two is “compromised” so that, for example, seemingly harmless stimuli can be perceived as a threat and engender an inappropriate response negatively impacting a person’s health, relationships and capacity to undertake their work.   When we perceive a situation as hopeless or ourselves as powerless, our survival brain and nervous system can become flooded with heightened “emotional arousal”.

Liz explains, however, that when the thinking brain and survival brain are in harmony and working together, we have a wider window of tolerance – e.g. better tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty and the ability to identify and make effective choices, build sustainable connections, and perform optimally. 

Experience of mindfulness for dealing with trauma

Liz turned to mindfulness meditation to help her cope with her traumas which had deep-seated antecedents in the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by her father and grandfather (along with all the distorted coping mechanisms and fractured relationships that this entailed). Her initial experience with mindfulness was one of helping her to achieve some degree of self-awareness and associated self-regulation.  However, over time, she found that her “survival brain” took over as it began to “peel back deeper layers” – deep emotional scars hidden behind her hyperactivity (just as the happy-go-lucky “joker” or “larrikin” can hide the deep emotional pain of depression).

As some mindfulness practices acted as “trauma stimuli” she experienced panic and shallow breathing in-the-moment and flashbacks, nausea, claustrophobia, and inability to sleep for days afterwards.  Liz explained that a potential problem with mindfulness done in isolation and without appropriate modifications can lead to such heightened emotional awareness and arousal that the traumatised person can lose their ability to regulate their emotions and their unhealthy condition can be exacerbated rather than diminished, both mentally and physically.

Developing a trauma-sensitive approach to mindfulness training

Liz explained that she spoke to scientists and neuroscientists, explored multiple skills and techniques, and wrote a book about her experiences and her journey out of trauma disablement.  She found that the myths surrounding mindfulness could make matters worse unless the mindfulness trainer recognised the impact of traumatic experience on a person’s window of tolerance.

In her book on widening the window, she draws on her own experiences and stories from people she has trained in a areas such as healthcare facilities and the armed forces.  Liz maintains that you can build resilience even in stressful jobs or when healing from traumatic experience(s).  She provides strategies involving paying attention in certain ways to increase the capacity to access choice and creativity and to make courageous decisions while effectively connecting with others through curiosity, openness, and compassion.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® which was developed in 2008 and evaluated on four occasions by neuroscientists and stress experts is now available online through Sounds True.  The comprehensive course includes video training and live sessions on topics such as resilience, stress and trauma recovery, effective decision making and relationship building along with “new tools for successfully navigating the interpersonal aspects of stress, trauma, emotions, and conflict”.

Reflection

When you first hear about the potential harmful effects of mindfulness meditation training for trauma sufferers, you can understandably become concerned about conducting mindfulness training for any group.  Alternatively, you might initially dismiss the trauma-sensitive mindfulness movement as a movement to counter the growing global popularity of mindfulness.  However, the evidence to support the trauma-sensitive approach is growing and cannot be ignored.

On the other hand, both Liz and David strongly encourage practitioners not to be put off from training others in mindfulness by this new information nor to behave as if they are “walking on eggshells”.  They strongly encourage mindfulness trainers to persist, especially in these challenging times when mindfulness and resilience is needed by some many people.  They do, however, suggest to proceed with “some discernment”, develop increased awareness of trauma and its impacts, learn about new tools available for trauma-sensitive mindfulness training and intensify their own efforts to grow in mindfulness so that they can train with increasing awareness, insight and sensitivity.

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Image by skeeze 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.

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.