Friday, 30 March 2012

The Transformative Power of Powerlessness

When she suggested that she suspected I would not be able to relate to what she was saying, that my life was presumably sorted and serene, I felt as though I had failed.  It didn't strike me as a compliment but rather that what I had been exploring with her had been perceived as an intellectualisation or an imagining of her situation, rather heartfelt empathy from a place of shared experience. 

To admit powerlessness and unmanageability is to take an enormous step towards change.  Acceptance can only follow awareness and without it action is likely impossible.  Awareness alone is painful.  Awareness with acceptance is uncomfortable as, without action it's a useless combination.  There is a significant relationship between powerlessness and unmanageability but one that has to be experienced to be fully understood.  To acknowledge one's powerlessness over people, places and things is to become almost instantaneously more manageable.  Without any change in external circumstances, the attitude one adopts in relation to one's position can provide a radical adjustment from which it is possible to step out of the rut one has perhaps felt stuck in, and start to do something different.

For me, powerlessness is a daily reality.  Whilst I seek to support individuals to change, I have no power over this process.  I cannot insist upon it, and literally lack any power to initiate it.  This is a comfortable reminder of everyone's autonomy, including my own.  We are the only agents of our own change.  We can reach out, and access additional strength and resource, but fundamentally when it comes to changing ourselves, our thoughts, words and deeds, it's down to us.  We have to be ready to change.  When we're sick of being sick, and tired of feeling tired, the time may come that the theoretically comfortable familiar is in fact less comfortable than the prospect of the daunting unknown.  No one changes for the sake of it.  We have to have motivation, or incentive.  The more personal this drive is, the better.  The greatest catalysts are those we can fully own.  Changes that are sought to please or placate others are at best hard to sustain and at worst likely breeding ground for resentment.

"As long as you live, keep learning how to live."

"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."
Soren Kierkegaard

Momentary lapses in awareness and acceptance are another reality and that's OK.  I am forgetful and seemingly hardwired towards pain.  I do however have clear reminders that I can look out for, as things start to slide and the cracks begin to show.  Freewheeling is fun to begin with, until you realise there aren't any brakes.  I know that my life is becoming unmanageable when I start to lose things - I mislay bits and pieces, or leave things behind.  Routines start to slip, I stay up later than I need to, doing very little and depriving myself of rest.  The best remedy I have come across is the embodiment of 'one day at a time', giving myself a chance and regarding it as a daily practice.  I return to this point over and over again, and yet I am a different person with each encounter.  As such, life seems to me to be more of a spiral than a circle.  I am growing, I am learning, and it is a work in progress.        

Thursday, 29 March 2012

How do you eat yours?

It's that time of year.  Less than nine months til Christmas and Easter is upon us.  And with it the great chocolate binge.  Or so it seems.  The supermarkets have been rearranged, Valentines were swiftly replaced with Mothering Sunday cards and it's all change once again as the aisles are currently crammed full of cocoa solids and, more often than not, cocoa substitutes shaped into eggs, bunnies and everything else besides.  The colour scheme is pinks and pastels, and the buy two for... appear to have very little to do with the Holy Week, or the conclusion of Lent on Resurrection Sunday than with unrelenting commercialism and massive sugar highs.

Not that I mind.  Per se.  Chocolate has its place in proceedings.  Particularly the good, dark variety.  I prefer mine a minimum of 70%.  Particular favourites include Willie's Delectable Cacao varieties, anything by Artisan du Chocolat and William Curley's truffles.  All in moderation.  Of course.

Moderation isn't something that everyone can relate to and this is where it gets tricky.  At any one time, approximately a quarter of my working week is spent with individuals for whom eating has become problematic.  Diagnostic labels are not always useful, but when it comes to disordered eating, it provides a useful framework for the work to have a thorough understanding as to the mechanics of what a client's relationship with food, and their body shape, and weight all look like. 

There are those for whom just the idea of eating a Cadbury's creme egg is a repulsive one.  They could tell me immediately how many calories and grams of fat each gooey mess wrapped in multi-coloured foil represented and how many laps of the park and sit ups mid-run it would take to justify such a disgusting indulgence which they might see as an indication of a pathetic surrender to appetite.  They are constantly hungry, but avoid nourishment at all costs.

Then there are those for whom chocolate has become a means to an end.  They gorge themselves on it.  They live and breathe the thought of chocolate and similar foodstuffs with a degree of obsession.  Their lives have become dictated by a vicious cycle of eating excessive quantities of food that they then seek to purge from their bodies and often do so with a high degree of ritual.  For them, the relationship with food is love-hate, but very often the relationship they have with themselves lacks any of the former component.  

And there are far more who have far less of a straightforward relationship with food.  Diets are commonplace, particularly as we begin to see a little more sunshine.  Legs, bums and tums are the enemy and solutions are sought.  The real issues however lie far deeper, and are apt to get neglected by LighterLife or WeightWatchers where yo-yo dieting feels good in the short term, but destroys any remnants of self efficacy, and serves only to keep the companies who sell the products in credit.  

Living here in the Western world, in an age where food is plentiful and always accessible, many of us are soothing ourselves with food on a daily basis.  Our culture provides us with more food than we know what to do with and we have found out how to use it to comfort ourselves.  Unfortunately that ‘comfort’ turns out not to be so comforting after all, if we use it too much.  We can put on too much weight, with all the problems that creates, both physical and in terms of self-esteem. 

How do you eat yours...?

Do you eat when you're not hungry?
Do you go on eating binges for no apparent reason?
Do you have feelings of guilt and remorse after overeating?
Do you give too much time and thought to food?
Do you look forward with pleasure and anticipation to the time when you can eat alone?
Do you plan these secret binges ahead of time?
Do you eat sensibly before others and make up for it alone?
Is your weight affecting the way you live your life?
Have you tried to diet for a week (or longer), only to fall short of your goal?
Do you resent others telling you to "use a little willpower" to stop overeating?
Despite evidence to the contrary, have you continued to assert that you can diet "on your own" whenever you wish?
Do you crave to eat at a definite time, day or night, other than mealtime?
Do you eat to escape from worries or trouble?
Have you ever been treated for obesity or a food-related condition?
Does your eating behavior make you or others unhappy?

If you answer yes to three or more of the questions above, then you may want to explore the program of Overeaters Anonymous. 



Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Fighting a good fight with great grace

Ok, so I'm just a tinsey winsey little bit in awe of this woman.  But, before you leap to any conclusions, allow me to illuminate you as to her recent triumphs.  As though surviving three rounds of chemo weren't enough, this lady is on her bike, and racing through the cycles.  Inspiration personified.  That's Charlotte.

She certainly is fighting a good fight, and my own little battle which takes place in the gym most days continues alongside her awesome efforts.  As I approach my yoga practice, I offer my poses up in her name.  As I swim lengths, I think of her.  As I lift my weights, I add an extra 1.25kg on each end, in her honour.  As I clip onto pedals, I do so with pride.  In Combat classes, I punch harder than my shoulders are inclined to and kick higher than my hips hope to.  I am so full of loving admiration for the person who inspired me to exercise as an undergraduate where such pastimes were frowned upon by a great many of our fellow students.   

My respect for her is boundless, and so too is my determination to support her in any way I can.  Since learning of her diagnosis, it's as though the adverts on the radio for Macmillan and Cancer Research are several decibels louder than anything else on air.  They stop me in my tracks and bring back to the foreground of my mind my dear friend's daily challenge to live alongside and beat the hated alien.

26 miles in 26 days

If you haven't already, please don't think twice to sponsor Charlotte's (not so) little sister run 26 miles and 385 yards for The Prostate Cancer Charity and Breast Cancer Care - the Joint Official Charity of the 2012 Virgin London Marathon. 
Do your bit to send cancer on its way.   

Monday, 26 March 2012

What will happen next?

Learning about a colleague's practice in which she works with children and young people diagnosed with psychopathology integrating mindfulness in all her work and involving the parents in her interventions gave me tremendous hope about the future of mindfulness and the extent to which MBCT and MBSR are already being used in a wide variety of clinical settings. 

As Prof. Mark Williams, one of the three fathers of MBCT was saying, the recent trends and excited curiosity (ok, hype) about mindfulness is only the beginning of a two or three hundred year project the conclusion and outcomes of which none of us will be around the witness.  What remains to be seen is what will happen once the froth settles, and we can see the wood for the trees.  What will be left on the beach? 

I feel privileged to have been supervised by Mark, and to have had the opportunity to deepen my knowledge and expand my understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of the brilliant approach the application of which has already been shown to have a positive correlation across a number of different clinical presentations.

Having grown up with programmes such as Tomorrow's World and the promise of quick fixes, it perhaps might appear to be a retrograde step to now be interested in slowing down, yet I see no alternative.  As a practitioner and teacher of mindfulness, I am eager to know where it will stand in 20 or 30 years, but also recognise my responsibility for preserving the integrity of the intervention and in the embodiment of the philosophy informing the practical application - that of detachment, and focus on the present, trusting the process.  Mindfulness has been around for 25 centuries.  It doesn't need me to worry about it's longevity. 

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness,
which unites your body to your thoughts.”  Thich Nhat Hanh

“You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”  Jon Kabat-Zinn

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Mindfulness underwater: Swimming to be. Being to swim.

I go to the Pool not to think, but to be.  To be with the water, and without language.  Yet, after a swim I am often conscious of the benefits I derive from the experience, and the clarity I gain from this important component of my self care.  For some people, swimming up and down for anything more than a few lengths, must seem arduous and tedious.  Not for me.  I am so thrilled to have swum twice this week in the open air, I feel positively exuberant and have finally delayed no longer in sourcing myself a new pair of goggles my current favourites no longer truly being waterproof (and therefore hardly capable of their purpose).  Whilst 'doing' swimming, I find it far easier than most other situations to truly 'be', and herein lies the magic.  There's nothing mystical about it and yet it feels precious and valuable. 

Having spent the day tasting and digesting a lot of material, focusing on the conceptual and intellectual, I was ready for a swim.  2k later, and I felt good.  I have replenished and encountered a modal switch - from doing, to being.  I was there, in the pool, in the moment, and it felt great.  For me, swimming is refreshing at more than one level.  Whilst exerting myself in the pool, I do so with what ancient philosophy might refer to as 'right effort' directed towards an end greater than any particular swum distance.  Ends and means interest me equally.  I swim because I am, I am because I swim.  

20 minutes into my swim I had a real treat as those I had been happily sharing the pool with finished their swims, leaving me alone, in the middle lane.  Nirvana.  Well, not quite.  Nirvana, I have come to understand, being a practice rather than a destination.  In those moments that I was able to acknowledge with gratitude the joy I connected with, I aimed to be only present, putting aside wonderings of how long this state might last, suspending my attachment to the unforeseen luxury and my related aversion to the idea (and reality) that I would at some point, be joined by another.  It was, after all, only about 5.15pm with some swimming time left before dusk.  Just as I try not to count my lengths, in the spirit of listening to my body, and attuning to its sense of time in the swimming pool, I try too not to get too attached to any judgement of my circumstances, be the arising evaluation positive or negative.  In this way, I find I am better able to swim.  The Buddha is attributed with saying 'in seeing only see, in hearing only hear'; when swimming, I seek only to swim letting thoughts, and thoughts about thoughts float to the surface, leaving me alone with my sensory experience of the present moment.  

It seems I'm in good company (though we've found different pools!)


Friday, 23 March 2012

It's good to talk

I received some feedback from a client with whom I recently concluded therapy which confirmed something I know but rarely acknowledge - the value of the space.  The dedicated space each week to come into afresh or to reflect on something we discussed previously.  The space into which anything and everything could be allowed to emerge, and if nothing seemed present, to share in the silence, itself a voluminous communication.  The consistency afforded by the routine, of the time at which we met and the space in which we met.  How these created stability, and containment from within which it was possible for us to identify the contrasting aspects of life in flux, and courageously explore their impact.  Sometimes it really is good to talk.  How rarely we find ourselves with an hour, or fifty minutes without agenda or obligation.  My former client intimated that this might indeed be the height of self care, reflecting on the extensive benefits that were to be derived from something which initially felt to be an enormous sacrifice. 

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The hamster wheel of life

Observing the pupils of a local prep school running around the playing field brought back memories of cross country, an inescapable part of the school curriculum and something I have confined to the archives of my mind and rarely revisited, as it did not comprise an aspect of my school career I enjoyed much. 

There they were, following the seemingly endless track around the perimeter of the games fields stretching as far as my eye could see (probably partly due to the fact that I was observing from out of a window with an incomplete vista of the landscape).  Each boy clad in identical uniform games kit, legs propelling them around the course.  There, in front of me, was a teacher holding a clipboard, accompanied by a couple of other members of staff half-heartedly applauding the students as they ran past, and continued running.  I imagined the clipboard was to count down the number of circuits as individuals completed circuits.  A-round and a-round and a-round they went.  Some small, others tall.  None looking particularly athletic, participating I thought for the same reasons I did - compliance rather than choice. 

"Everything is something you decide to do, and there is nothing you have to do."
Denis Waitley

The scene prompted me to think of the many things we are expected to do, and of those things that even as an adult I feel I have little, if any, power to change.  There are, from time to time, things I am obliged to do that do not interest me.  This is part of life in the real world.  There are realities I would rather not acknowledge, things I would escape or avoid if I could.  But do them I must.  Or face the consequences.  Thankfully they are few and far between, but they are still worthy of acknowledgement.  Unless and until I win the lottery (you have to be in it to win it, and I don't purchase tickets, so my chances remain pretty slim regardless of the odds), there are a few practical matters that remain non negotiable. 

Just like those schoolboys simply doing what they do on a certain weekday afternoon, there are aspects to my life over which I have little say - this is how it is.  How I respond to my reality remains a matter of choice.  The attitude with which I approach each moment informs and influences the next moment.  And so it goes on.  This is perhaps the key.  I didn't find it on the running field, but am glad to have discovered this now. 

"Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference." 
Winston Churchill

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

What the Bleep do I know? (Far less than what I have come to believe)

I believe that our thoughts have tremendous power over our emotions.  This echoes but goes further than the traditional cognitive therapy premise that by changing attitudes we can change our experiences - the way in which we incline our minds can change our lives.  I believe in the power of positive thought and have been giving this some consideration recently. 

There are times when we need to believe in something.  When feeling as though we tread this earth alone without a bigger picture is perhaps a rather off putting notion.  At times like these, anything will do.  The saying goes that there weren't any atheists aboard the Titanic when it sank though plenty of agnostics may have set sail in it. 

I have come to believe that there is something directing this game called Life.  It helps me make sense of the challenges I've encountered myself and the struggles that beset each of us.  Whilst I couldn't paint what it looks like, and am unlikely to ever come face to face with it, I hold on to a sense that there is something greater than any of us, who knows the rules and spins the dial determining what happens next.  That's not to say that my actions and omissions don't count.  They do, I have my part to play but I am a tiny fragment in a picture whose dimensions exceed the limits of my imagination, and whose content I will never fully comprehend.  

This is just my version of it.  I don't seek to promote it and I couldn't justify it if I tried.  As such, I acknowledge its convenience.  Faith, or spirituality is a highly individual matter and one that may change over time.  I respect the ideas and beliefs of others, and also their right to hold these silently and privately.  What I have observed in my work and my life more generally is that the possession of some beliefs can address and alleviate our many existential dilemmas and help those that hold them live more contentedly with the big questions:  who am I?  why am I here?  is this it?  what is the point?

One of my all time favourite films is 'What the Bleep do we know?'  I vividly remember going to see it on the big screen.  I know no more than I did then, and yet I've learnt so much.  Life is perhaps nothing more than a very steep learning curve, but I like to think I put some of the knowledge I stumble across into practice...

As I sleep better believing that there is a rhyme or reason behind the puzzling and troubling circumstances in which I find myself and those I care about, I choose to hold on to the sense that whilst it may not turn out the way I'd like to plan it, all will be well.


Springtime Swimming

An empty lane awaited me.  Bliss.  Just what I needed after a day during which little felt to have gone smoothly, or easily, or straightforward-ly.  I could have just returned home, with a bitter taste in my mouth, complaints and resentments aplenty and licked my wounds.  I could have easily found a sympathetic ear to bend awhile, to harp on about the disappointments and frustrations and set about putting the world to rights. 

Instead, I head to a pool I've not visited before.  In fact, I had two to choose between - one indoor, one outdoor.  Having admired the clouds this morning, I decided to pursue the cooler option and am so very glad I did.  Refreshment indeed.  I had only a brief swim (by my standards) but delighted in it.  50 lengths at a moderate pace reintroduced what had been lacking in to my day - spaciousness and perspective.  I was faced with a choice: whether to focus on the bottom of the pool where I could see the odd leaf, and a couple of chipped tiles, or broaden my awareness to encompass the wider experience. 

As I got into a rhythm, I reconnected with my sensory experience, and (through necessity as I tend to swim with my head submerged) with my breath.  Immediately, and paradoxically, I felt grounded.  Moving through the water, I allowed my day to drift out of me, and away from me and embraced the bigger picture and the many things I have in my life today for which I can feel grateful, if I only remember to call them to mind. 

Monday, 19 March 2012

Taking it seriously

Serious About StreetDance provided a fantastic conclusion to my working week.  The acts were polished and I sat aghast at the talent before me, most of the performers being in their mid to late teens.  If ever there were an alternative version of the stereotype that gets attached to adolescents who choose to wear baggy clothes, trainers and hooded sweatshirts, this was it. 

It was a spectacular evening.  Everything we saw was a spectacle.  No two acts were the same, yet the performers within each were beautifully choreographed and perfectly synchronised.  As someone who appreciates but claims no expertise in the genre, I was simultaneously amazed and impressed by the versatility - streetdance itself comprising a broad spectrum of very different dance styles.  

There was plenty about the evening that was serious - serious talent, serious creativity, serious dedication but it was full too of 'wow' factor (in fact, I cringe to think how many times that was the only response I could muster - apart from enthusiastically whooping and wooing, cheering and clapping from the Balcony of the Indig02!) 

Now in it’s 4th year, the Serious About StreetDance event was created by Nike Athlete Kymberlee Jay who hosted the evening with confidence and charisma from the almighty height of her flaming orange heels.  Her extraordinary evening has come to be recognised as the leading street dance extravaganza in the UK.  This year is brought together over 200 performers, making StreetDance accessible to a lay audience. 

Whilst every performance caused a stir, for me the acts whose progress I will be sure to follow were Soldiers of the New School, the young all female Streetdance crew from Manchester, the Shockarellas; and the brilliantly innovative Project Patchwork. 

"The body says what words cannot"
Martha Graham

The energy was contagious (which was helpful, it being a Friday night) and I found the evening exhilarating - the precision with which the dancers performed their pieces, the timing and coordination were absolutely flawless speaking volumes about the relationships forged by those on stage at the same time.  Given the skill and athleticism involved I wonder whether Streetdance may one day be conferred status as an Olympic sport.  From a spectator's perspective, it certainly beats synchronised swimming or ice skating.  For the meantime, I'm thrilled that there are events like this raising the profile of this perhaps often maligned and misunderstood activity that forms an important part of so many young people's lives. 

"Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul"

Kymberlee Jay is herself an established choreographer, dance teacher, performance coach and Nike Athlete based in London.  She began her career in the commercial dance industry appearing in music videos for artists including Madonna and televised/online advertising campaigns for global sporting giant Nike in the EMEA region.  Interestingly, Kymberlee is well known in the UK for being the first plus sized professional hip hop dancer and is currently a patron of Youth Dance England (alongside Arlene Philips and Carlos Acosta) representing the Street Dance contingent. 

Sunday, 18 March 2012

A cause for celebration and experimentation: Mother's Day 2012

It was a pleasure and a privilege to celebrate Mothering Sunday with my own mother today.  Our Piscean pedicure made for a pleasantly unconventional way in which to honour our relationship, and was something of a novel experience for both of us.  The sensation on first exposing our feet to the Garra Rufa or ‘doctor’ fish is hard to describe, but has been compared to mild electric shocks, or pins and needles.  It was extraordinary, extremely tickly and caused me to squirm and laugh simultaneously, which was amusement in itself.  After the first five minutes I had acclimatised, and the fish had got to work.  As we sat beside one another - mother and daughter trying out something new and nurturing, admiring and appreciating the concept, I began to reflect on our relationship and the journey so far. 

Mother's Day is celebrated on different days in different places, but March, April and May are the most common month in which the day is marked.  Celebrations of mothers and motherhood occur throughout the world and many of these can be traced back to ancient festivals, like the Greek cult to Cybele, the Roman festival of Hilaria.

Of course, in the States, they do things somewhat differently where one of the early calls to celebrate a Mother's Day was the Mother's Day Proclamation, written in 1870 as a pacifist reaction to the carnage of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War.  The Proclamation was tied to the feminist sentiment that women had a responsibility to shape their societies at the political level.  In the years after the Mother's Day Proclamation, Ann Jarvis founded five Mothers' Day Work Clubs to improve sanitary and health conditions.  In 1907, two years after Ann Jarvis' death, her daughter Anna, held a memorial for her mother and began a campaign to make "Mother's Day" a recognised holiday in the US. Although she was successful in 1914, she was already disappointed with its commercialisation by the 1920s.  She would, I fear, be turning in her grave, were she aware of what it has become today (including my own visit to the aquarium!)

It was Anna Jarvis who specified the the location of the apostrophe; to be a singular possessive, for each family to honour their mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world.  This was also the spelling used by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in the law making official the holiday in the U.S., by Congress on bills, and by other Presidents on their declarations.  Common usage in English also dictates that the ostensibly singular possessive 'Mother's Day' is the preferred spelling, although 'Mothers' Day' (plural possessive) or 'Mothers Day' (plural non-possessive) are sometimes used.  I forget whether the card I chose had an apostrophe.  I do hope it did, and that it was in the correct location.     

Here at home in the UK, the special day falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent and it is suggested that the festival originates from the 16th century Christian practice of visiting one's mother church annually on Laetere Sunday, which meant that most mothers would be reunited with their children on this day when young apprentices and young women in service were released by their masters that weekend.  As a result of commercialisation and secularisation, it was then principally used to show appreciation to one's mother, although it is still recognised in the historical sense by some churches, with attention paid to Mary the mother of Jesus as well as the traditional concept of the 'Mother Church'. 

By 1935 Mothering Sunday had become less prominent in European calendars.  There were efforts to revive the festival in the early 20th century, but it was not revived until US World War II soldiers reintroduced the Mother's Day celebrations to the UK, when it was merged with the Mothering Sunday traditions still observed within the Church of England.  By the 1950s it had become popular in the whole of the UK, thanks to the efforts of UK merchants, who saw in the festival a great commercial opportunity. 

Thus, people from Ireland and UK started celebrating Mother's Day on the fourth Sunday of Lent, the same day on which Mothering Sunday had been celebrated for centuries.  The traditions of the two celebrations have now been mixed up, and many people think that they are the same thing. 

"The moment a child is born, the mother is also born.
She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never.
A mother is something absolutely new." 

"Mother is a verb, not a noun."

For me, today was an opportunity to deliberately mark a special relationship.  An important relationship and one that is likely to have the most enduring influence on me.  I am who I am partly because of my mother.  I have inherited things from her, I have learnt from her.  I am who I am also in spite of my mother.  Today I chose to honour our bond, and to evidence my gratitude for the unique relationship we have together, over time and with patience and persistence, developed and grown.  Sitting with my feet in the water, I wondered whether perhaps my appreciation is all too often unspoken.  Our relationship is, I realise, precious.  I am fortunate to know my mother.  I am privileged that we have already had three decades to get to know one another. 

As an adult, I am today able to recognise all that she's done for me, the unique contribution she's made and continues to make in my life.  That isn't to say that it's always been easy, that it's been a straightforward road that we've trodden.  Our relationship, like that between most mothers and daughters, is complex.  For all our similarities, and our many differences, today the hallmarks of my maternal relationship are understanding, compassion and respect. 

Time feels precious.  Mummy has a chronic and deadly illness, the result of nicotine addiction.  There are many activities and outings that we can enjoy together no longer.  I realise that there is still so much more I would like to learn from and about my mother.  Surely there's nothing wrong with a commercialised celebration if it raises into consciousness something this important. 

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.
No man does. That's his."
Oscar Wilde


Saturday, 17 March 2012

Getting past " could have been me" when it wasn't

Shock can affect us in all sorts of strange and unexpected ways.  It's highly individual and we're unlikely to have a sense of what we might experience until we actually do.  Not only will it differ from person to person, we are likely to respond differently depending in the situation, and a whole variety of other circumstances.  It cannot be planned ahead of time but an awareness of the process can be helpful and reassuring when we find ourselves confronted by the all too often overwhelming reality that challenges even the most resilient of us.  Recovering from a traumatic incident takes time and tremendous attention to self care.  Healing is required, and this cannot be hurried. 

A trauma, by definition, is an incident that is so painful, emotionally or physically, that one tends to flinch away from it, not to let oneself be aware of it, to repress it.  It is the flinch and not the 'objective' description of the incident that makes it a trauma.  Hence, an event that is challenging and exciting for one individual may be traumatic for another.  The one for whom it is a mere challenge is able to 'stay with it' and master it; the one who experiences it as a trauma is not.

When something happens that is physically or emotionally painful, one has the option of either confronting it fully and feeling the pain, or trying in some way to block one's awareness of it.  In the first case, the action of experiencing (perceiving and understanding) what has occurred is allowed to go to completion and the incident becomes a past incident.  However, in the second case, the action of experiencing that incident is blocked.  That is, one represses the incident, and the incident (together with the intention not to experience it and any other intentions and activities present in the incident), continues to exist as ongoing unfinished business.  Such traumatic incidents may continue to exert negative effects.  This blocking activity is a self-protective impulse.  As such, it 'works' to a certain extent, but it can cause us to have attention and awareness tied up in incidents from the past.  This has a dulling effect on our ability to perceive, to respond intelligently in the present, and to enjoy our current environment.  Unexamined, unresolved past events tie up our energy and intention.

The reaction "It could have been me" is a healthy response to witnessing or learning about something that shocks us.  As humans, we are vulnerable to what we experience either directly, or indirectly.  A traumatic incident often serves as an uncomfortable reminder of our own fragility and ultimately, our mortality.  By hearing of the fate of fellow beings we are faced with the inescapable truth that our very existence is precarious and that nothing is certain.  Finding a way to process what has happened is an essential step in recovering sufficiently to be able to make some meaning out of what we have experienced, allowing ourselves to move forward. 

If you've witnessed or experienced a traumatic incident, you might have experienced many different feelings at the time and for some time afterward.  You may, at different times, have experienced or currently be aware of any or all of the following:
  • Shock
  • Trouble believing it really happened
  • Anger
  • Nervousness or worry
  • Fear or uneasiness
  • Guilt
In addition, you might keep going over events in your mind.  You might feel like you can't stop thinking about it.

For most people who have a traumatic experience overwhelming feelings about the event go away over time.  However, sometimes, those feelings don't go away or they become stronger, changing the way you think and act.  Strong feelings that stay with a person for a long time and start to get in the way of everyday life are signs of a condition called post-traumatic stress. 

If you have post-traumatic stress, you may experience any or all of the following:
  • An ongoing, general feeling of uneasiness
  • Problems driving or riding in vehicles
  • Not wanting to have medical tests or procedures done
  • Irritability, or excessive worry or anger
  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping
  • A feeling that you're not connected to other events or people
  • Ongoing memories of the accident that you can't stop or control

What might help?
  • Talk to friends, relatives or a counsellor about the details of what happened and how you thought, felt and acted at the time and since then.
  • Stay active.  Exercise and take part in activities. 
  • Try to get back to your daily activities and routines.  It's important to try to get back to your usual activities, even if you're uncomfortable or scared at first.

Additional Resources

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Keep smiling. Keep shining. Keep fighting. That's what friends are for.

I am very pleased to have achieved a level of proficiency in my new hobby, BodyCombat.  My hard work and commitment has paid off and I am no longer standing there sweating, clueless and breathless (I'm just sweating and breathless, for much of the 55 minute class).  I've been going three times most weeks, and I'm finding my feet.  I've found muscles I didn't know I had, but the reminders are briefer.  I think I'm improving.  My coordination perhaps more slowly than my stamina. 

I have a powerful incentive, which drives me into the studio and carries me through every class I attend.  I have a purpose.  I have engaged in an intense psychic battle with an uninvited and unwelcome alien invasion, and am giving it the very best shot I know how, to kick it out of my best friend's body.  I have pledged allegiance to the cause and nothing will deter me.  Little can stand in my way.  The classes assume a priority that my membership has never before been given.  My diary is arranged accordingly.  If I miss a class, I try to make it up.  Every punch, every kick, every jab, every cut is important.  I'm determined to make it count. 

That's What Friends Are For
by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager (1982)

And I never thought I'd feel this way
And as far as I'm concerned
I'm glad I got the chance to say
That I do believe I love you
And if I should ever go away
Well, then close your eyes and try to feel
The way we do today
And then if you can remember
Keep smilin', keep shinin'
Knowin' you can always count on me, for sure
That's what friends are for
For good times and bad times
I'll be on your side forever more
That's what friends are for
Well, you came and opened me
And now there's so much more I see
And so by the way I thank you
Whoa, and then for the times when we're apart
Well, then close your eyes and know
These words are comin' from my heart
And then if you can remember, oh
Keep smiling, keep shining
Knowing you can always count on me, for sure
That's what friends are for
In good times, in bad times
I'll be on your side forever more
Oh, that's what friends are for
Whoa... oh... oh... keep smilin', keep shinin'
Knowin' you can always count on me, for sure
That's what friends are for
For good times and bad times
I'll be on your side forever more
That's what friends are for
Keep smilin', keep shinin'
Knowin' you can always count on me, oh, for sure
'Cause I tell you that's what friends are for
For good times and for bad times
I'll be on your side forever more
That's what friends are for (That's what friends are for)
On me, for sure
That's what friends are for
Keep smilin', keep shinin'

Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, and Luther Vandross perform
'That's What Friends Are For'

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Temper temper!

A while ago I undertook a training in anger management.  As a therapist I take my continuing professional development very seriously and as someone with a particular interest in working with individuals for whom addiction is an issue, I work with individuals for whom anger is very often (if not always) an underlying and yet rarely acknowledged issue.

There are imploders and exploders.  Know which category you fall into?  Some people can be both - depending on the situation which is often determined by a power dynamic.  Jung referred to our shadows, as sides of ourselves that can either be split off, neglected and unknown, buried deep and prone to being inflamed and unleashed or as those parts of ourselves we courageously acknowledge, and befriend, in order that we come to know ourselves as best we can, as unified whole beings rather than pressure cookers likely to boil over, if the flame gets hot enough.  Anger, if left unrecognised, can get messy.  We all have a responsibility to own our anger, and we then have the potential to channel it and convert it into something more constructive.  Anger can be transformed into creativity, but there are certain steps that precede this conversion. 

"Sloth, apathy and despair are the enemy, anger is not.  Anger is our friend.  Not a nice friend, not a gentle friend but a very loyal friend.  It will always tell you when you have been betrayed.  It will always tell you when we have betrayed ourselves.  It will always tell us that it is time to act in our own best interests.  Anger is not the action itself, it is action's invitation." 
Elspeth Weymann

For many of us, identifying what gets our blood boiling is the first step...  Thinking about a situation in which you perhaps began to get a little hot under the collar, cast your mind back to the specifics and ask yourself:  what were my judgements of the situation?  It is all too easy to have two sets of rules, and be guilty of double standards:  one for ourselves, and another for others.  We may be too quick to judge. 

Jung insisted that 85% of our shadow is pure gold.  If we remain too afraid to look at ourselves, hiding, denying or suppressing parts of ourselves we not only risk missing out, but we are far more vulnerable when we stumble across situations in which we feel angry. 

Whilst anger might be the feeling we identify as emanating from the circumstances we find ourselves in, most of the time there are underlying feelings - perhaps we're feeling hurt, or fearful, or powerless, helpless or obsolete.  Shame attacks its victims and has an uncanny habit of bubbling up and coming out as anger.  Unless we become aware of the process, we remain psychologically impotent.  And that's not an attractive place to find ourselves. 

Shame may be differentiated from guilt.  Guilt is what we feel when we recognise we've made a mistake.  Shame is what we feel when we believe we are the mistake.  It has a toxic quality about it which silences the soul.  Feelings that remain unexpressed are turned inward where they crystallise into shame.  Shame has been defined as frozen rage, and hatred as frozen anger.

To release our shame, we need firstly to melt the frozen rage.  This is where therapy can prove beneficial providing the opportunity to identify where it was that the shame arose, and who it was that caused us to feel it before doing some work specifically around this, to unlock it, and expose it to the light. 

Healthy shame is that which we experience when we feel remorseful.  This reminds us of our limitations, and gives us permission to make mistakes.  Toxic shame by contrast has a brutally self destructive aspect to it.

Anger serves an important purpose, acting as a psychological saviour in the face of unbearable feeling of obsoleteness.  We use anger to assert ourselves and to eradicate this awful feeling but in doing so, short change ourselves as by short circuiting, we never get to know what it is that has triggered our reflex like reaction, fuelling the feeling that we are out of control, and further driving the sense that we are powerless, or helpless.  This is where it gets really sticky. 

Most of the time, underneath a sense of overwhelming powerlessness is a primal fear that we may not get our needs met.  We all have needs.  When we detect that our primary needs may not get met, we can experience a surge of anger but have no clue as to where this emotion has come from.  As members of the human race we share the same primary needs for love, nurturing, compassion, safety, validation, understanding, security, being appreciated, heard and cared for.  In addition to these, we have practical needs that Maslow quantified as a hierarchy, in his 1943 paper 'A Theory of Human Motivation'.  If we lack awareness of our needs, our anger is apt to be triggered easily. 

At exactly the moment that we take responsibility for getting our own needs met our self esteem and confidence increase.  We return to being in our adult state, capable and truly independent - free from expectations.  It is only from this place can we expect to be assertive in situations where our buttons are visible, and likely to be pressed.   

Anyone can benefit from introspection.  Some of us find this process easier than others.  Therapy can be very useful to those for whom anger has become a problem, breaking the shame and allowing them a chance to come out of hiding and into a place of safety from where it is possible to emerge and become familiar with their shadows. 

Anger is itself a feeling.  Whilst it may not be appropriate or legitimate, as a feeling it demands respect.  Only when we acknowledge all of our emotions can we move to the more sophisticated work of deciding how to express or articulate them. 

Mike Fisher's book 'Beating Anger: The Eight Point Plan for Coping with Rage' has appeared on my bookshelf for some time.  Together with the training workshop I attended, it has proved an invaluable resource that regularly accompanies me into the therapy room, and has been lent to countless clients.  The book may be used as a reference point and a personal development tool and throughout its pages, Fisher highlights the following anger management strategies:
  • Stop, think, take a look at the bigger picture
  • It's OK to have a different opinion.  It's alright to disagree
  • Listen actively and attentively - if someone else is angry, the challenge is not to regress with them but to instead hear their anger and indentify their needs in the situation
  • Get and then use a support network 
  • Keep a journal in which you write down thoughts, feelings and situations in which you've struggled - preferably in the moment, or shortly afterward
  • Don't take things personally - as invariably they're not - remember, everyone is acting from their shadow
  • Let go of expectations and the 'shoulds' we impose on ourselves and others
  • 'Anger by appointment only' - Have anger visit when you're ready, when you've had a chance to cool down, and regain your composure, as an adult able to respond rather than obliged to react


Monday, 12 March 2012

Living and Loving on and off my yoga mat

Were someone to ask me why I practice yoga, I'm not sure I'd be able to provide a succinct explanation.  The relationship I have with yoga is pretty subtle and yet at the same time somehow deeply profound.  As such, it's complicated.  What relationship isn't? 

I am a relative newbie to all things yogic.  I began in 2009, specifically to participate in a sponsored 'Yogathon' in aid of Action on Addiction for which I was sponsored to do an arduous number of sun salutations at the gorgeous Alchemy yoga centre in Camden.  Yoga, of course, isn't about aesthetics, and traditionalists would take issue with the fact that I tend to practice in a multi purpose studio surrounded by mirrors, let alone my affinity for beautiful practice spaces of which the Alchemy certainly is one.

So, I started from scratch and worked hard to ensure I'd survive the Yogathon (which I did, albeit suffering something akin to tennis elbow for the following 3 days from all the press up chaturanga or 'crocodile' transitions).  I originally learnt with an Iyengar teacher, to whom I am indebted for his patience and persistence.  My hamstrings and shoulders are tightly defiant, but the rest of me was (and remains) willing (most days, at least).

"Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful,
we must carry it with us or we find it not."
Ralph Waldo Emerson


"Keep your heart open for as long as you can, as wide as you can,
for others and especially for yourself."
Morrie Schwartz

Yoga for me is about living and loving.  I know that, after my three times weekly practice, I feel more open to the world, and to my experience of it.  Yoga derives from the verb to yolk and I interpret this to mean the bringing together of mind and body.  My head, whilst resting upon my body and rarely unaccompanied by it, is generally in a world of it's own.  By bringing my attention to rest within my physical being, and my sensory experience, focusing upon my breath as an anchor throughout my practice, I stand a chance of bringing some quietening stillness to my mind, and my thoughts. 

The poses are for me the means, rather than the end of my practice and whilst I crave the flexibility of some of my fellow practitioners, I try to avert my gaze and bring my awareness inward, letting go of striving and attachment.  I seek to move through the poses, or asanas, gracefully never compromising my breath, and remembering always that I dedicate my practice to those I love, those I've lost, those who suffer and those I may have hurt.  As I practice, I do so in a spirit of being rather than doing, and I seek to achieve little except the union of mind and body, to realign and restore my energies so that they might be directed more skillfully and perhaps constructively. 

My practice is therefore, about living more fully, more openly and more serenely and about loving in the true sense of the word.  I seek to love better through acceptance myself, and every aspect of my experience, and then those around me.  Self acceptance seems to allow life to flow more freely and gently than the battle of wishing that things were other than they are.  From my mat, I believe great things can be accomplished, though very few of them will be explicitly envisaged or aspired towards. 

"It is not the eyes of others that I am wary of, but my own." 
Noel Coward


Sunday, 11 March 2012

Celebrating the Life of Revd. Dr. Alan Megahey (1944-2011)

I have attended rather more funerals than I would have liked to have done.  Attending a Memorial Service this weekend was a very different experience.  I learnt of the untimely demise of my school chaplain last year, when he lost a battle to pancreatic cancer.  When I later became aware that a memorial service was to be organised by former colleagues from both my own rural alma mater, and other establishments his career had taken him to, I made a decision to try and attend. 

St. Marylebone Parish Church made for a superb venue and accommodated the many family, friends, former colleagues, and students who attended the extremely moving celebration of a remarkable man's life and work.  Standing amongst the congregation I realised I was amongst fellow beings whose lives had been touched by the same man to whom I wholly attribute my first spiritual awakening.  As such, whilst surrounded by strangers, I knew I was among friends.  

Members of the present school choir encouraged us to raise our voices, and sing with glad hearts, giving thanks that we had known a man of abundant compassion, seemingly infinite wisdom, great humour, impressive scholarship, and yet such humility.  He could easily have become a don at Selwyn College, Cambridge or a Bishop, but luckily for all present, Revd. Dr. Alan Megahey found his calling within education and there was a theme throughout the Tributes of his imparting so much to so many generations.  A life well lived but cut sadly short. 

"It is not length of life, but depth of life."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Yesterday is a memory, tomorrow is
a mystery and today is a gift,
which is why it is called the present.
What the caterpillar perceives is the end;
to the butterfly is just the beginning.
Everything that has a beginning has an ending.
Make your peace with that and all will be well."
Buddhist Saying

"As we grow up, we learn that even the one person that wasn't supposed to ever let us down, probably will.  You'll have your heart broken and you'll break others' hearts.  You'll fight with your best friend or maybe even fall in love with them, and you'll cry because time is flying by.  So take too many pictures, laugh too much, forgive freely, and love like you've never been hurt.  Life comes with no guarantees, no time outs, no second chances. you just have to live life to the fullest, tell someone what they mean to you and tell someone off, speak out, dance in the pouring rain, hold someone's hand, comfort a friend, fall asleep watching the sun come up, stay up late, be a flirt, and smile until your face hurts.  Don't be afraid to take chances or fall in love and most of all, live in the moment because every second you spend angry or upset is a second of happiness you can never get back."