Mindfulness – The Science Bit

As a Psychologist, my non-psychologist friends and family have got to be one of my greatest resources in helping me become a more effective practitioner.  For example, I was chatting with a friend about the Mindfulness for Mums group at the clinic, to which she politely said she’s really not into that “airy-fairy stuff”.  “Nor am I” I said, “that’s why I like mindfulness”.  It dawned on me, as I sat with her in the midst of a children’s Science Party, that the science of mindfulness has been lost amidst the pretty colouring books adorning every magazine shelf purporting to promote mindfulness and a zen state of mind.  Don’t get me wrong, I love those colouring books, however, they are a prime example of how a therapeutic term has been over applied to give credibility to popular culture.  It has now become synonymous with relaxation and chilling out.  Ironically, as anyone who has experience of proper mindfulness knows, it can be far from relaxing at times.   

The original concept and practice of mindfulness are rooted in eastern philosophies and religion such as Buddhism.  It has been used as a way of connecting with the world around us for centuries.  John Kabat-Zinn, one of the main instigators of mindful practices in mainstream therapies, defined Mindfulness in 2003 as “Paying attention to something in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”.  A friend of mine, Adam Thorogood of ANJ Counselling and Coaching, shared his analogy of mindfulness with me – “Your thoughts are like a train.  Mindfulness helps you to stand back from the platform, see the train and choose if you want to get on or not, instead of just dashing on in haste or out of panic and ending up God only knows where”.  Being mindful is purely about choosing to direct our attention to something in the present, without making any decision or criticising it.  By taking time to be mindful of where we are, what we are experiencing, how we are experiencing it, we can slow down our immediate impulses, focus, and not allow ourselves to be hijacked by our emotions in times of stress.

But why would we want to spend precious time becoming more aware of ourselves and the world around us?  And, for me as a Psychologist, why would I want that to be an essential part of someone’s therapy? 

As all good psychologists should do, I look to the scientific evidence to find the answers.  Research into the effectiveness of mindfulness based therapies has shown that regular practice is associated with a decrease in distress and an increase in a general sense of wellbeing.  It has been shown to be effective in treating certain mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, recurrent depression, emotionally unstable personality disorder and binge eating disorders.  There is also evidence that it is effective with improvements in ADHD symptoms, depression and anxiety in ADHD sufferers.  John Kabat-Zinn and others have produced research that consistently shows mindfulness based training reduces the symptoms of stress and physical illness associated with stress such as psoriasis, chronic pain, fibromyalgia and even Type 2 diabetes. 

Not satisfied with knowing that it IS effective, I want to know WHY it is effective.  Thankfully clever people like Richard Davidson and Dan Siegal have developed tests in which they can show how the brain reacts to mindfulness.  For example, in 2003 Richard Davidson and his team showed changes in the electrical activity of the front part of the brain (which is responsible for things like thinking, problem solving, language and creativity), consistent with the experience of pleasurable emotions such as joy and contentment.  Another study showed that after 8 weeks of mindfulness training there was an increase in brain activity in the areas associated with self-awareness i.e. the part of the brain that tells us about our subjective experience.

So, by stopping and focusing our attention on one thing in the here and now, the alarm centre in our brain that sends us into panic switches off and the rational bit of the brain takes over.  This stops us from becoming overwhelmed and resorting to the old fight/ flight/ freeze responses and helps us to feel calmer and more in control. Pretty amazing huh?  For anyone who has had that awful experience of feeling trapped by stress, anxiety, depression or chronic pain, the prospect of being able to regain control over the way we think and feel is wonderful. 

As a mum of 2 very energetic and strong-willed boys, knowing that I have a “Mental First Aid Kit” at my disposal that helps me regain focus and composure, is a massive relief.

If you would like to know more about how developing a mindful approach can help you, or if you are a Mum, or know of a Mum, who would benefit from learning more about how mindfulness can help with the daily pressures of being a mum, please contact me at louise@oakingtons.com or book an appointment at http://www.oakingtons.com.

 

Tea and Sympathy – Coping with the aftermath of tragedy

Every morning most of us wake up with an unacknowledged belief in a Just World.  If we didn’t, it would be very difficult for us to emerge from the comfort of our duvets to face the rigors of the world around us.  We are brought up to believe that if we do as we’re told and are good people then we will avoid punishment.  Only bad things happen to bad people.  It is an aspect of the human condition that we expect our world to be relatively predictable and consistent.  We turn a tap and expect water to come out, we put the kettle on and expect it to boil water.  It is irritating when these things don’t happen, but we know generally that everything else in our lives is pretty much stable.  With that expectation, we are able to get on with our day and return to bed safely at night.

Then tragedy strikes.

Out of nowhere that belief is shattered.  Something terrible has happened and it makes no sense.  Our World shifts on its axis and we have no control over it.

As I watched the footage emerging of the incident in Westminster yesterday I remembered walking around there as a commuter, recalled the buzz of tourists busy taking photos of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the bored camera crews waiting to interview the latest MP to hit the news, the gradual shift from Beat Bobbies to armed police on patrol.  My stomach lurched, the ground shifted beneath my feet, and I felt frozen but fizzy all at the same time.  Only last week I had been in Westminster and I was planning a London trip with my eldest for the Easter holidays.  I could see the faces of people I know who work in the area, and felt the panic rising as the reality of the situation unfolded.  I marvelled at the strength of people rushing in to help, to rescue, to save.  I saw the terror on peoples’ faces shift to confusion and blank bewilderment.  We move from “What is happening?” to “How has this happened?”. 

After the initial shock, there was fury and rage at the perpetrators and what people assumed they represented.  Others were saddened by the loss of life and the suffering of innocents.  Others were fearful and vigilant, waiting to see if there were going to be further attacks.  Others were filled with compassion and a longing to do something to help.

All of these reactions are normal in the face of something that has rocked our world. 

When faced with terror or threat we flip from “getting on with life as normal”, to a range of reactions known as “Fight, Flight, Freeze, Flop or Friendship”.  All of these reactions are designed to help us to survive.  They are programmed into the very basic part of our Brain that forms in the womb.  When our Brain sense we are under threat it sends an alarm signal to that bit of our Brain responsible for survival and shuts down the other bits responsible for things such as creativity, problem solving and language development.  In an emergency, we don’t need to know how to compose a song or recite poetry, we need to survive.  Which reaction our Brain triggers is dependent on the situation we are in and what we have learnt from previous experiences.  For example, if I have learnt that I am more likely to survive by running away then that is the most likely reaction my brain will choose the next time I am in a threatening situation. 

For some people their brains flip back out of survival mode quickly and into problem-solving mode, as demonstrated by MP Tobias Ellwood, and the wonderful men and women of the emergency services and armed forces, who jumped into action in the immediate aftermath.  For others, it can take their brains longer to adjust.  We have all seen images of people wandering around after an incident, dazed and confused, maybe sitting with their head in the hands or holding on to someone else looking equally as dazed.  Again, these are all normal reactions to very abnormal situations.

At some stage though, we all have to return to life as normal.  But, after experiencing something as shocking and terrifying as that, normal life will not be the same as it was when we woke up that morning.

Us Brits mock ourselves for responding to the impact of tragedy by putting the kettle on and having a lovely cup of tea.  Well, do you know what?  We have got something right with that.

No, I’m not about to say that the caffeine and tannins in tea are some super trauma cure, I’m not a biochemist so I wouldn’t have a clue. 

Having a cup of tea is normal, it’s comforting, it gives us something to do, it helps us to stop and take a breath.  Neurologically it is brilliant.  In order to make a cup of tea we must switch our Brain out of survival mode and into thinking and doing mode.  We have to make decisions, how much water do I need to boil?  How many cups do I need?  What type of tea do I need?  Do I need sugar and milk?  Where are the sugar and milk?  Will I have a biscuit with this?  Will I stand or sit to drink this?  Etc.  It becomes a Mindful experience, how does this tea taste, smell, look?

The Thinking and Doing part of our Brain is the bit that helps us to process what we have just been through.  To help us to make sense of it, to help us to move the sensations, thoughts, feelings and movements associated with that incident from immediate memory to long term memory.  If we can achieve that, then we have successfully filed the incident away as Solved!

It is when we aren’t able to move those things into long term memory that we have problems.  They get stuck in the immediate term part of our memory, so whenever our Brain receives information that is similar to the incident it reacts as though we are back in that situation again.  We are immediately thrown into survival mode and the Thinking and Doing part of the Brain switches off again.  We react to the information with our survival tactics rather than with our “getting on with life as normal” tactics.  For example, someone involved in a car accident may panic every time they hear the sound of tyres screeching, they may freeze or run in the opposite direction, even though there is no evidence of a threat to them in that instance.  They are reacting as though they are back in the past trauma, not in the present day.

Thankfully, clever people like Pat Ogden and Dan Siegel from the SensoriMotor Psychotherapy Institute, have studied this and worked with many hundreds of people to help them recover from unresolved traumas.  There are a now a range of psychological therapies that are shown to be effective in helping people to recover and integrate the impact of the trauma so that they can get on with life as normal again.  For more information please visit www.sensorimotorpsychotherapy.org or to access help contact louise@oakingtons.com

In the meantime, never underestimate the value of a lovely cup of tea.

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#me shhh

lips-2801702_1920In the second of three blogs inspired by the recent #metoo campaign, I want to focus on the reasons why people respond in the ways they do during and after incidents of sexual harassment and abuse.

Often when people come forward to report abuse after years of silence, questions are asked:

why did they let it happen?

why did they put up with it for so long?

why only come forward after it has become public knowledge?

I noticed the #metoo campaign and the subsequent accusations against various prominent public figures in the UK and USA, elicited similar questions, suggesting doubt in the veracity of the claims and anger at the people remaining silent rather than speak out or stand up to the abuser in the past.  Our society applauds women for standing up and fighting back against abusers, it wants to know that women aren’t going to allow themselves to be victimised anymore.  But this takes no account of the processes involved in surviving assaults and harassment.  As someone who has suffered harassment and sexual abuse at various points of my life, I found myself questioning my responses to those situations, and wondered if this would shed light on why others act during and after abuse?

Our principle driver in life is survival.  We breathe, eat, sleep because these are essential things to keep us alive.  Our personalities are structured in such a way as to help us survive.  We are who we are because, from a very young age, we learn how to keep ourselves safe by how we behave.  Biologically we are programmed to respond to perceived threats in one of 6 ways: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Faint, Submit, or Cry for Help.  We learn which of these responses is effective through our experiences, so someone may have a greater tendency to respond to threat by running away if that has proved effective before.  If a child is punished for being assertive, or there is an absence of help when they cry, then they are more likely to resort to other strategies such as freezing or submitting in order to stay safe in the moment.

Like many of my clients, as a child, I learnt that speaking up for myself could lead to trouble, it was far safer to keep quiet and comply.  When faced with situations where someone treated me badly, I found myself freezing with fear, detaching from my feelings, and going along with things in order to keep myself safe.

In my first job after leaving school, one of the managers took a shine to me.  I thought he was being kind by taking me to lunch and helping me with my exams.  It was only when he started to touch me and try to kiss me that a cold fear struck me and I found myself frozen and cut off from myself.  I hated him and what he had done, but was terrified of saying anything as I was just a trainee and he was a manager.  It was also the 80s, when it was still a male dominated world where women were regarded as underlings and inferior.  Part of me thought that I had no right to speak up, this was just what happens to women and I had to put up and shut up.  Another part of me thought that even if I did speak up, no one would listen or support me.  I would simply be exposing myself to more shame and humiliation.  So I kept quiet, and when the opportunity to change branches came along I took it.

Years later, I was undergoing an Induction as a new member of a senior management team.  One member of the senior team kept evading my scheduled meetings, to the point where I eventually agreed to stay late one evening in order to catch up with him.  During that meeting he was charming and funny, offering support and encouraging of my position in the team.  As the meeting wore on he began to behave in increasingly sexually inappropriate ways to the point where I found myself feeling scared and embarrassed.  I noticed the familiar freeze coming on but this time I managed to get away (flight).  For several weeks after this I had unnerving and distressing experiences with him turning up at my office, waiting for me by my car, even attempting to follow me home from work one night (thanks to my counter-terrorism training I was able to evade him in Tesco, seriously!).  Older and a little bit wiser, I decided I needed to do something this time.  I was still scared that I would not be taken seriously, or that anyone would think there was anything wrong with that man’s behaviour, but I went to my boss and asked his advice about how I could deal with it.  He decided that we should raise a complaint with the man’s boss.  I had to sit in a room with both the male bosses, and describe what I had found distressing and abusive about the man’s behaviour.  I had to justify why this was not acceptable and why something should be done about it.  I had to decided for myself how they should handle it.  It was humiliating and terrifying.  The man’s boss repeatedly made a point that the man was a respected professional and the behaviour I had experienced wasn’t really serious, after all he hadn’t raped me.  Eventually the men decided to speak to him and tell him to leave me alone.  The man told them he was just having fun and I was obviously over sensitive.  Imagine sitting in senior team meetings knowing that you are being thought of as oversensitive and some kind of play thing!  A few months later he was suspended following allegations of sexual assault against another female member of staff.  She was so frightened it had taken her months to come forward, she too thought know one would listen to her.

No doubt other people will have responded differently in those circumstances because of the ways in which they had learnt as children to deal with scary things.

To stop someone from doing something to you requires you to believe that by taking that action you will be making yourself safer than taking another course of action. To fight means you believe you can overcome your opponent. To run means you believe that you can escape. To cry for help means you believe someone will listen and rescue. When you don’t believe those options will be safer, you freeze, faint, submit.  BUT, this does not mean you are in any way agreeing with or enjoying what is being done to you. My husband told my sons recently, “the absence of a “Yes” means “No””.  Some perpetrators deliberately and intricately set up situations in which it would be impossible for the victim to feel able to escape or fight. They deliberately manipulate their victims into complying, into believing that it is better to go along with them, that it is even their idea. They play games to leave the victim questioning their own feelings and actions, ie “you do know I’m only teasing, right?”, “I wonder what other people are thinking about us right now?  Do you think we’re having an affair? How stupid is that, right?”.  I will say more in my 3rd blog about the psychology of the perpetrator.

When we are threatened, the thinking part of our brain shuts down and we are unable to think rationally and plan ahead. All our brain is concerned with is surviving those next few moments. It is only when the threat is over that the rational part of the brain kicks in again. Sadly, that can be our trap, as our core beliefs about ourselves then kick in as well. If you believe you are worthless, a failure, shameful, deserving of abuse, isolated and unlovable, then reaching out for help after abuse is virtually impossible. Jeffrey Young’s work on Schemas demonstrates how time and again, people find themselves in the same situations because of how their beliefs and feelings about themselves (developed in childhood) prevent them from responding differently. If you believe others can’t be trusted then you aren’t likely to form close enough bonds to be able to ask for help. If you believe you are in some way defective then you will believe you somehow were to blame for what happened to you, and therefore too ashamed to speak out.  This is heightened when the perpetrator is a “respected professional”, a celebrity, a member of parliament or royalty.  Look at what the press did to people who spoke out about Michael Jackson, how the BBC handled complaints about jimmy Saville and others, how political leaders and police handled complaints about leading politicians.

To be angry, dismissive or shaming about someone who felt unable to escape or fight, is to lack compassion for the person trapped in a horrifying situation, and fail to understand the processes they have undergone to lead them to that point.  Instead of blaming the victim all over again, for the way in which they dealt with the situation, let’s celebrate them for finally achieving their liberty from the secrecy of their trauma, and offer them the compassion and safety they so desperately needed in the midst of their terror.

If you wish to know more check out:
http://www.contemporarypsychotherapy.org/vol-2-no-2/schema-therapy
http://www.schematherapy.com
http://www.sensorimotorpsychotherapy.org

 

Anxiety – Inside and Out

monument-2242819_1920I have the great privilege of sharing something written by a good friend and ex-colleague of mine, about her experiences of struggling with anxiety.  When she talks about how others see her, compared with how she feels inside, I think there are many of us that can associate with that.  However, what she shies away from mentioning is that through all of her struggles, she has remained immensely strong and courageous, loyal and generous of herself for others, and refusing to give in to the fear that can so easily overwhelm.

It’s hard to define the moment in my life when the anxiety took over. Looking back, I have probably always been the person that worries over nothing, who lets negative thoughts take centre stage in my mind, but there has been a couple of defining events that I can say were massive triggers.

Firstly, the passing of my Dad over 26 years ago changed my whole perspective on life. Up until then I had no overriding fear of death or illness, but the second I found out he was going to die I became terrified of every cough, ache and pain. Now every time anyone says they don’t feel well or if I don’t feel too good it has to be something terminal, it rules my life and is a constant fear that eats away at every part of my being.

Secondly my son is a prison officer and last August he was viciously attacked by a prisoner. I also worked in the same prison and so knew the kind of attacks that happen. To know my son was being rushed to hospital was the worst experience of my life. Thankfully he recovered but I never went back to work and now every time I hear sirens, see flashing lights or hear shouting, I have flashbacks to that terrible day.

My anxiety manifests itself in a constant 24/7 feeling of nervousness. My stomach continually churns from the second I wake up its there, and when I do sleep my dreams are dark and intense. I’m frightened of meeting new people or being in crowds and am continually watching what people are doing around me.

One thing having anxiety has taught me is that the person people see from the outside is not a true reflection of what I am really feeling. I laugh and joke I can be very vocal and will stand up for people who haven’t a voice. I can come across as confident but inside every second of the day is an inward struggle. I have learnt that people are too quick to judge. If I’m having a bad day I may be tearful, quiet or argumentative, I may want to be alone or crave company. True friends and family who know my problems read the signs and act accordingly but many people, even though they know I have anxiety can be hurtful and unthinking. They tell me to pull myself together, to stop being stupid, do they honestly think I want to live like this???

If I could change I would but it’s a long hard road to recovery. Slowly step by step with support I now have more good day days than bad but it only takes a tiny thing to knock me back to the beginning. My demon is fear and I need to work hard to rid myself of it so I can start to live again.”

Jayne Whytock November 2017

As Jayne highlights, support and compassion from others is essential when someone is suffering from emotional and mental health difficulties.  Knowing that you are loved, cared for, and accepted despite the how you feel about yourself, gives hope and strength.

If you would like to know more please check out:

http://www.mind.org.uk

http://www.sane.org.uk

#men too

man-1209947_1920In the first of three blogs inspired by the recent coverage of historical sexual abuse and harassment I want to spend some time reflecting on the phenomenon of men as victims of such behaviour.

Why have I chosen to focus on men first?  Well, partly because I was already going to write about men as victims at some point anyway, but also because it is an issue that provoked a great deal of emotive responses when the #metoo campaign went viral.  Once again, men found themselves in the spotlight as predators and perverts, driven purely by base instinct, unable to resist their sexual urges, abusing their position of power over women, and forcing their will on others.

In a recent Psychology Today article Romeo Vitelli identified three types of harassment:

1 Sexual coercion involving job-related threats or bribes to force unwilling workers to enter into a sexual relationship with the harasser.  One example of this is when an employer threatens to fire an employee if he/she doesn’t agree to sex.   While often the most damaging, most harassment tends not to be this blatant.
2 Unwanted sexual attention involving unwelcome sexual advances towards someone else in the workplace that that are regarded as unwelcome or offensive.  This can include sexual touching, and pressuring for a date. Since it can involve threats or bribes, there can be considerable overlap between this category and the first one.
3 Gender harassment involving hostile behaviour aimed at undermining workers simply due to their gender.   This can include denigrating comments, off-colour jokes that are intended to be offensive, mocking, and even violent threats.  Women expressing strong feminist ideals are often targeted this way.   While this is the most common form of sexual harassment in the workplace, it is also the least likely to be seen as harassment.

#metoo

As the #metoo campaign highlighted, like many women, I have experienced sexual abuse, harassment and bullying perpetrated by men, yet I do not hold with the belief that all men are perpetrators and all women are victims.   An ex-colleague of mine (a gentle and kind man) commented on Facebook at the time of the #metoo campaign, apologising and feeling shame for being a man.  Logic dictates that simply sharing the same gender as someone else does not mean you share in that person’s culpability.  However, the groundswell of emotions during that campaign was such that it left many men questioning their gender and sexual identity, feeling shame, and also anger that, yet again, it was not possible for them to be considered a victim in the same way as women.

When I hear stories from men about times when they have been left feeling humiliated or scared by the way in which someone else has treated them, I am reminded of what it was like as a young female working in a male dominated world where “nudie mags” “pin ups” and sexual banter were part of every day life.  To complain about how offensive these things were, was to incur more ridicule and humiliation, even run the risk of being ostracised.  After many years of people raising awareness and campaigning, thankfully things are shifting for women, but sadly not so for men.

#mentoo

Only recently I was told of a young professional man who was completing work on a project involving people from overseas.  Over a period of a week, the man was subjected to lewd comments, inappropriate banter and eventually a proposition by one of the overseas guests.  The man was embarrassed, it was his job to maintain a rapport with the guests and given the seniority of the guest in the organisation, he felt unable to make a formal complaint.  Instead he stuck close to his colleagues and looked forward to the end of the week when the guest would leave.  The man felt embarrassed and scared.  He felt humiliated in front of his colleagues, it left him questioning his self image and behaviour, wondering how his sexuality and sexual interest was being interpreted by others.  He found himself feeling inhibited at work and in social settings for some time after the event.  Initially his colleagues thought it was funny, but as things progressed, they felt awkward and concerned for their colleague.

Another man told me of how he attended a training course with fellow professionals.  At one point he found himself the subject of banter and comments being made about his body.  When he challenged this, he found the Trainers unsupportive and unable to understand why he was humiliated and frightened by this.  He was left questioning himself, doubting his sense of boundaries with others, and the rights and wrongs of sexualised banter.  When he told me what had happened I was horrified that fellow professionals would treat him that way, and that others could not see what was wrong with the behaviour.  Just as it had been for me in the 80s and 90s, so it was for him that he was seen as over-sensitive and making a fuss about nothing.

A couple of years ago I witnessed a male colleague being humiliated by a female visitor at work.  He was the only male in the group and comments were made regarding him taking his top off when no such suggestion was made to the rest of us.  I was left feeling really uncomfortable about the interaction, and spoke with my colleague who stated he felt really humiliated but did not know how to deal with it at the time.  We decided to take a stand and raise the issue, for which he received an apology, but nothing was done to shift the culture in which it is still implicitly acceptable for men to be the subject of sexual harassment.

So often people behave in a way towards men that if that had been done by a man to women he would have been seen as sexist and abusive.  For example, the adverts for a well known fizzy drink in which a group of women are seen to cause a man to take off his top for their gratification, are regarded as acceptable, but what if it was a group of men causing a woman to take off her top for their gratification?

Touchy Feely

The focus of my examples so far has been on verbal harassment, but let’s touch on touching for a moment.  Many of my male colleagues over the years have used touch as a way of connecting with their team mares, on whom they rely for their safety.  Sometimes, this touch is unwanted and used in a way to control or humiliate someone.  Grabbing bottoms, crotches and chests as part of a banter about physique seems to have been seen as acceptable with no consideration given to how the person being grabbed is left feeling.

One colleague told me how much he hated it when the group of men he worked with started to make jokes and tease him about his body simply because they knew it embarrassed him.  It was seen as sport to tease him and get him embarrassed, particularly in front of women.  During the banter, one or two of the men would grab at parts of his body in order to heighten his embarrassment whilst roaring with laughter.  Privately I know that those men liked and admired my colleague, but publicly they saw nothing wrong with humiliating him.  If it had been a woman on the receiving end of such behaviour we’d have stepped in and supported her to make a complaint.  But I was horrified to hear the behaviour being defended as “just banter” in the same way it was for women years ago.

Although most of us would not like to admit it, women are just as capable of being lecherous and lewd as men, just watch Jennifer Anniston’s character in Horrible Bosses for a very stark example of a woman using her position to sexually harass a member of her staff.  Some women may use sexualised behaviours as a way of humiliating or intimidating men, as it may be the only power they believe they have over men.  But, more often than not, women do not see their behaviour as being perceived as inappropriate or harassing.  It’s not acceptable to have nude calendars of women in the workplace, but how many women decorate their workspace with images of scantily dressed men?  It’s not acceptable for a group of men to make comments about a woman’s body in her presence, but how many groups of women make comments about the man in their presence, or even go so far as grab at him and compete over who can touch him?  Believe me, it happens!

Indecent proposal

Our society struggles to conceive of men as victims of sexual assault, what man wouldn’t want to be the focus of sexual advances and flirtation?  It is still so difficult for men to be able to report being raped or sexually assaulted.  People’s bodies are programmed to respond to sexual contact, whether they want that contact or not, leading to confusion about consent and desire.  Stroking, poking, tickling, fiddling with items of clothing, brushing up against them and play fighting are all very common ways in which women engage in sexually inappropriate or harassing behaviours with men.  The intention may not be to leave someone feeling bad, but after listening to their stories, men tell me of how such behaviours impact on them.  It is awful to know how humiliating, intimidating and objectified someone can be left feeling after what someone else may think as playful banter.  Many of the men talk of feeling powerless, afraid to act against the behaviours causing them distress, fearful of being seen as weak or vulnerable, or conversely accused of being the abuser.

Women’s harassment of men often gets minimised as flirtation and harmless.  The man’s friends make a joke out of it, teasing him about having a “girlfriend” or referring to the woman as a “bunny boiler”, whilst the man feels scared and embarrassed about being the focus of their attention.

5 Top Tips for Change

1) Pause for thought – If you’re not sure if the way you are treating someone could be experienced as harassment or abuse, ask yourself “If a man did this to a woman, would this be seen as inappropriate?”

2) Listen – Have a conversation with the man on the receiving end of the behaviour to check they are ok

3) Respect – Choose the images in your workspace carefully by asking “if this image were of a woman, would it be offensive?”, and check you are doing and saying things that show you have respect for yourself and those around you

4) Tune in – Check your motivation, what’s going on for you by having contact with the man, and ask yourself if you are sure the man wants you to behave that way with him, if you’re not sure then don’t do it

5) Empathise – if someone tells you they are uncomfortable with a situation then take them seriously, encourage them to talk about it, and support them if they want to make a complaint about it.

I want to say a huge thank you to those who have had the courage to share their stories with me, and I hope that by bringing this to people’s attention more people will find the courage to speak out.

If you need help or support with the issues raised in this blog please check out the following links:

http://www.thesurvivorstrust.org

http://www.survivorsuk.org

http://www.psychologytoday.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

!El Pueblo Decide! – The People Decide

For most people, yesterday was a fairly average Sunday in July.  Many invenezuela-653088_1920.png the UK were watching the Wimbledon Men’s Tennis Final, others were going to the gym, meeting friends, doing housework or preparing for the upcoming school holidays.  Yet, for Venezuelans across the UK, indeed the world, yesterday was a momentous occasion – the first opportunity for them to have a voice about their nation’s democratic process in 10 years.

A few days ago I received an email inviting me to act as an independent observer for a polling station being set up by a group of Venezuelans based in Cambridge.  This was not as random as it may appear, one of my closest friends is from Venezuela and was volunteering at the polling station.  I was delighted to be asked, I have seen the news reports and heard of the atrocious conditions being imposed on ordinary, hard working Venezuelans by a government becoming increasingly controlling and dictatorial.

In the UK we are currently concerned about the lack of funding available for health and social care services, but in Venezuela people are unable to get access to vital medication, can no longer afford to maintain health insurance to pay for much needed health care, and, thanks to the restrictions on import, family members outside of Venezuela are struggling to send the medication from other countries where it is readily available.

My friend has told me of government imposed restrictions on access to simple goods that we take for granted, such as toilet paper and bottled water.  People have taken to the streets in their thousands to protest against the regime, and so far 90 people have been killed by pro-government police or troops.

Currently the Venezuelan government is attempting to pass into the constitution a range of political and legal measures that would essentially see the end of democracy and give the party in power the right to remain in power without need for further election.  Venezuelans in the UK report that their friends and family back home are being told by the government-run media that the government holds the mandate of the people, the majority of the population are in favour of their regime and the opposition parties are attempting to undermine their power.

The opposition parties decided to mobilise the populace, using the democratic process, by holding a referendum in order to demonstrate that the government’s claims are untrue.

If you thought the recent UK elections were a bit of a rush job, hats off to the Venezuelans who managed to organise their referendum, not just at home, but across the world, in the space of 3 weeks.  Groups were formed, social media was buzzing with notices, emails were being sent out, texts sent, and rooms booked.  Suddenly, polling stations equipped with ballot papers and ballot boxes, posters and refreshments were popping up all over the place.  In the UK alone there were 17 such polling stations, all linking together on the day over the internet to share stories and numbers of voters.

By the time I arrived for my “shift” at midday, the place was buzzing with an air of excitement and anticipation.  People had travelled, some with small children, for over 2 hours in order to be able to vote.  Others who were on holiday or studying in Cambridge came to vote, and even volunteer to help once they arrived.  A student film crew from one of the Universities had given up their Sunday to interview voters and volunteers in order to produce video evidence of this momentous occasion.

The Polling Station itself was a well organised machine with a heart pumping with vibrant Venezuelan passion and warmth.  In order to ensure each voter knew what to do to exercise their democratic right, there was written information along with a set of verbal instructions from two of the volunteers explaining the process of voting in a completely impartial and straightforward way.

I was impressed by their patience, professionalism, and compassion for all those who had made the effort to turn up.  Some voters arrived without the required identification, so permission was sought from the organising body for them to use alternative means of ID in order to participate.  Others were moved to tears of gratitude, grief, even homesickness.  Volunteers sat and provided comfort and sustenance, showing solidarity and the true meaning of community so far from home.

Once people had voted they stayed around, talking to others, the passionate sound of Spanish resounding in the air.  Arrepas and other Venezuelan delicacies appeared and were generously offered around, some provided by the volunteers organising the event, but many more being donated by those coming to vote.  This was not a party atmosphere, there was no music, no singing or dancing, and the only decorations were the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag.

People arrived wearing their country’s colours in whatever way they could.  The national football team’s shirt, baseball caps, flags draped over shoulders, jewellery and even finger nails painted for the occasion.  The national pride was evident, yet great care was being taken to not show any influence over the outcome of the vote.

What mattered most yesterday was democracy in action.

News went around at one point that so many Venezuelans had gathered in Vatican Square calling for support from the Pope that he appeared and addressed the crowd.  Photographs posted online were being shown to people of the huge queues outside polling stations in Venezuela, and people posed in the polling station to show the ink mark on their thumb to prove they had voted.  Others grouped together outside and held up their flags in celebration of the opportunity to have their say.

It did not matter that the government refuse to recognise this as a valid referendum.  It was a symbol of a people determined to protect something they hold sacred – democracy.  An act of defiance against dictatorship and a bullish regime.  Sure, the outcome of the referendum is important, but more important to the people working tirelessly for it to take place, was upholding the principles of democracy.  Ensuring that everyone, regardless of their opinions or persuasions, had the same rights as everyone else.

As an observer to ensure the proper process was followed, I was privileged to witness some of the 200+ people who came to vote at the Cambridge polling station.  A peaceful and safe place.

Sadly, this was not the case everywhere.  I read the news this morning of the tragic murder of a woman, a nurse in her 60s, who had been queuing up to vote in Venezuela, when a gang on motorbikes attacked her and left her for dead.  The implication was to intimidate and deter others from voting.  The suggestion being that it was sanctioned by pro-government supporters, in the name of a government that maintained it was not threatened by the referendum.

The woman’s death, along with the groundswell of support across the globe yesterday served to show that democracy is not dead and, with patience and determination, the people will decide!

 

If you wish to know more about the current situation in Venezuela please visit http://todayvenezuela.com

If you would like to support to the relief operation in Venezuela please visit http://www.charity-charities.org/HungerPoverty/Venezuela.html or http://www.chamos.org.uk

 

 

 

 

 

Caring for the carer

Watching the moving drama “Broken” on BBC recently, I was reminded of how tough it is for people looking after someone they love with estatues-2291148_1920motional or mental health problems.  How difficult it is to watch someone suffering, their personality changing or disappearing, no longer being the person they recognise.  Not knowing what to say, how to help or what to do.

I felt an affinity with the priest, portrayed by Sean Bean, as he struggled to overcome his own demons in order to reach those in need of his help, whose parishioners taught him more about how to care in the darkest times than his profession could.

When someone we know is suffering or is experiencing a tragedy, we fear saying the wrong thing, saying or doing something that will make things worse, whilst also worrying that not doing or saying anything means we don’t care.  We are left in a bind that is hard to break out of without having to take a leap of faith and hoping that what we do will be received as intended.  In most cases, being honest and acknowledging that bind along with the intention to show care is all that’s needed for the other person to feel cared about.  I think Sean Bean’s character felt bound, at times, by his need to maintain his position in the Church, then was humbled by others who found a way to cut through the detritus of professional responsibility to reach the hearts of others.

But what about when the person we love does not acknowledge anything is wrong, or that it is as significant as we think it is?  There’s more at stake than worrying about saying the wrong thing then.  We question “is it me?”, “am I the one with the problem?”, “am I going mad here?”.  We also want to convince ourselves that it is just a temporary blip, that they will get over it soon, after a nice holiday, a night out with the girls/boys, once that big project at work is finished or the exams are over.  We spend hours thinking about what might be wrong, and working out how we can fix it for them, make things better, shoulder more of the load.  Only to find that it makes little or no difference, and we can end up in the firing line of their anger and frustration.

No one wants to think that they are not well or are suffering in some way.  So, to have a partner, parent, friend or colleague suggest that’s the case can be very painful and humiliating.  You’d think I’d be a bit of an expert at breaking the news to people I love given how many poorly people I have worked with over the years, but it’s really no easier knowing what I’d say as a professional, after all, my loved ones don’t want a relationship with the Psychologist, they want me, with all my quirks and failings.

In the past I have tried to be subtle, so subtle they have ended up none the wiser.  Or I have danced around the subject and ended up with a lovely intellectual discussion that I can only hope might have sown a seed or two.  Other times I have used myself as a case in point, and come away thinking I really ought to book myself an appointment to see someone!!!  Then again, I have blurted it out in the middle of an argument when no one is going to hear a loving, compassionate message in “you really need to get yourself some help!!!” Hm.  Not my finest moments.  There is something about telling someone we love that they aren’t themselves at the moment and would benefit from some help that creates a lonely place in ourselves.  It’s the fear that we will humiliate them and make them feel worse, and how they will respond as a result that holds us back.

We may have fantasies that they will kill themselves, we may have had experience of them lashing out and taking their shame out on us or others, we may worry that they will leave us, denigrate us or blame us in some way, then the shame will be ours and not theirs.

But all the time we are living with the impact of their difficulties and feeling more and more cut off from the person they once were.

It’s horrible to be treading on eggshells, hyper-vigilant to any change of mood, unsure of whether to try to carry on as normal or do something different.  This tension can then create emotional difficulties in the carer as well, such as feelings of helplessness, anxiety, suppressed anger and guilt, which in turn can come out as physical health problems like IBS, hypertension, back pain, headaches etc.

It is hard to remember during such times that no one is intentionally making this happen, no one is setting out to hurt the other, but so often this is how people can be left feeling.  A lot has been said in the media recently about the very common tendency for people with emotional problems to be told to pull themselves together, which is usually said out of frustration that nothing is changing or getting better.  Having exhausted all of our strategies and resources, we can become exasperated and start to believe that the person we love does not want to do anything about the problem and is therefore somehow deliberately inflicted their misery on others.  Neither person wants this to be happening but the nature of mental health problems means it is difficult to find the energy, motivation and courage to face the problem head on and do something about it.

So, what can be done to make sure we stay ok as the other person is suffering?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Make sure we have a few other people that we feel we can trust to talk to about this.  This support network can include friends and family, but sometimes it is better to have people who are outside of the situation entirely such as a GP, colleague, counsellor, religious leader, teacher, etc.
  2. Maintain a hobby that enables us to find some time and space to ourselves in order to relax.
  3. Look after our physical health by eating regularly (even if the other person is not eating), getting a fair amount of sleep (sometimes this has to be snatched in bursts if sleep difficulties are an issue), take a shower or bath and spend that time just focusing on the temperature of the water, the way the light catches on the water, and the different smells and sounds that come with the experience.
  4. Keep a diary or find a way of being able to express our feelings without them coming out in an argument, for example some people find writing poetry or finding a private place to have a good old rant very helpful.  I have been known to mutter things into the washing machine as I load it up.
  5. If it is possible to have a discussion about what is going on, then focus on how we will help each other to manage the situation, give each other permission to have a bit of space without guilt or fear of anything bad happening, and acknowledge that we’re both going through a tough time.
  6. Avoid unhealthy or unhelpful things like alcohol, however tempting it is to get some short term relief from the distress and tension we are carrying around inside us.
  7. If there is the opportunity to go to a relaxation class, like yoga, pilates, mindfulness, art, craft or music, then take it.

These are some general suggestions, that I hope will help to spark some more specific ideas that are personal to you.  Above all, please remember that to care for someone else we must first have taken care of ourselves, which we can do with the help of others.

Here are some links to organisations that might be of help:

http://www.mind.org.uk

http://www.nhs.uk/carersdirect

http://www.carerssupport.org.uk

http://www.rethink.org

 

 

 

 

The Legacy of Shame

Have you ever wondered what drives some people to act in heinous, inhuman jesus-cross-245719_1920even evil ways, only to then show no remorse or empathy for those who suffer as a result?  Have you found yourself feeling enraged and disgusted when hearing about a terrible crime that seems beyond comprehension?  Found yourself asking “how could anyone possibly do such a thing?”.

These are questions I often get asked, usually at a party or in the pub when I’m least in the mood to draw my attention to the dark side of life.  But, it shows how baffled people are by the behaviours of others, especially when they seem so contrary to human nature.  Just scanning down the TV guide of an evening gives an indication of how curious we are about “true crime” and “the mind of a murderer”, and there are lots of experts out there who have dedicated their lives to helping us to make sense of criminal behaviour.  But should we try to understand?

Depending on my mood when I’m asked, I might attempt to enlighten, but most of the time I point out that once you know what has gone on with someone to drive them to act in such ways, there is no going back.  To understand is in some way to become connected to, and contaminated by, that understanding.  Whatever the motivation for wanting to know more, be it morbid curiosity, fear, excitement, intellectual enlightenment, or a desire to prevent future crimes, once we dive down the rabbit hole into “wonderland” we will never be the same again.

Over the years my patients have taught me just how significant our early life experiences are in how we progress through life.  How we treat others is massively influenced by how we are treated when we are learning to distinguish ourselves from others.  As children our brains are still forming, the messages we get about ourselves and others during that time in our lives becomes part of the hard-wiring of our brain into adulthood.  Keep telling a child they are a “little shit” and they will grow up embodying the belief that they are a “little shit”, worthless and nothing but trouble.  At the extreme end of things, when a child is left to fend for themselves from as young as 4 or 5 years old, they lack the love, attention, physical and emotional nurturance and security necessary for their healthy development.  They soon become attached to others who offer this to them, and sadly this is when they can fall prey to predatory older children and adults, who seize the opportunity to pretend to meet the child’s needs in return for the opportunity to offend against them.

What sort of messages does this child develop about themselves and others as they grow up subject to such a life?   They are worthless, they are disgusting, they are less than others around them who have seemingly comfy loving homes and families that look after them.  They learn that all they are good for is as sexual objects, the only way to get their needs met is to be exploited, and then to exploit others.  They never feel good enough to fit in with everyone else, they always feel different and defective somehow.  After all, wasn’t it their fault that their family didn’t love them enough to look after them?  Wasn’t it their fault that they allowed their bodies to be abused in order to be fed, dressed, taken on trips, made to feel special?

To the outside world, of course it’s not their fault, but they have been so contaminated by the legacy of others’ shame that they cannot truly believe they were not to blame.

There is an old biblical saying that often comes to mind when thinking about the people I work with “the sins of the father will be visited upon their sons”.  The damage inflicted upon children by their parents/carers, that is often as a result of the parents/carers’ own childhood experiences, creates shame, which in turn blocks compassion and empathy.  That child grows up into an adult who cannot care about the needs of others because they have never experienced genuine care themselves, or worse, they have been subjected to such abuse that they cannot see beyond their own pain.  Offending (amongst other harmful behaviours) then serves as a way of hitting out,  keeping others at bay, getting revenge, numbing that pain, attempting to relieve that intolerable shame just for a few minutes or hours.  Some of my patients have talked about wanting others to know what it feels like to be them, even for just a minute, in the hope that they can finally feel understood and maybe get some relief.

Of course, it never works!  Inflicting pain or humiliation on others is never the road to recovery.  But sadly, so many people live with this every day of their lives, never knowing that the shame is not theirs to carry, not theirs to pass on to others.  If they are insightful enough to realise the impact of their actions on others, then the shame deepens and becomes reinforced by their actions.

For example, whatever had gone on in Ian Brady’s childhood to have caused his personality to become so damaged and fragmented that he was capable of killing children and incapable of acting with remorse or compassion, we will never know.  It may be his crimes were driven by a desire to re-enact his own abuse, to “save” those children from what he suffered, to get some relief from his own traumas, I don’t know.  But what I do know is the continual vilification of him in the popular press, calling him a monster and evil, will simply have served to reinforce the messages he learnt about himself as a child, forcing him to maintain the strategies he had developed to protect himself from the pain of abuse and the shame of being himself.

No one is born evil, there is no mechanism in the brain for that to be the case.  My years of working with really damaged and damaging people has taught me that it is the legacy of shame inflicted on our children that creates their potential to harm others.

So if you are curious and want to know why someone could possibly commit such heinous offences, look through the eyes of a compassionate and benevolent parent at the life once lived, rather than with the gauze of fear and hatred, and let me know what you see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unlock your life – how to know when to reach for the key

Everyone has ups and downs, it’s a normal part of evKeyseryday life.  Be it a tendency to worry about little things, to feel fed up about something that’s not how you want it to be, to get grumpy and snappy when you feel tired or stressed, we’ve all been there.  But, how do you know when it’s more than just a bad day or a passing mood?  And, beyond that, how do you know when it’s time to get some help?

When we are suffering from physical pain, we each have our own personal pain threshold, a point at which we are no longer able to tolerate the pain and realise that we need to do something about it.  For some, the first twinge of pain is the point at which they choose to get help for others they choose to put up with it for as long as possible before doing something about it.

When I was in labour with my first child I was determined to follow the practice of hypnobirthing, I wanted to follow the example of my ancestors and have as natural a birth experience as possible.  After 4 days of labour, I could stand the pain no longer, I was exhausted, delirious from the pain and sleep deprivation, and begged for an epidural.  My husband remarked that they should take me seriously as I have a high pain threshold.  On reflection I was trying to be brave and “tough it out” but if I had numbed the pain earlier we wouldn’t have picked up that the baby had turned and needed to be born via a different route.  A year later I had surgery to have a tumour removed, the Oncologist plied me with pain killers and anti-emetics to help me feel better, stating “If you don’t have to feel pain then you shouldn’t, you will heal better if you are relaxed”.

It’s the same with emotional pain.

To feel some discomfort, anxiety, anger, guilt, sadness, is to alert us to something that may not be quite right for us.  But to be suffering with that pain to the extent that we are exhausted, unable to enjoy life or carry out our daily tasks, panicking or losing our temper with the people we love, that’s not so good.    With all forms of psychological or mental health difficulties, the warning signs that it’s time to get help are pretty much the same:

Disrupted sleep patterns – for some this might be struggling to get to sleep until late into the night or waking up several times, thoughts racing and an inability to shut off from the issues of the day, for others it might be sleeping more and struggling to stay awake, sleeping a lot but never feeling rested.

Change in appetite – appetite covers all sorts of things not just food.  For some it can be a loss of interest or appetite for food, drink, sex, work, exercise.  For others it may involve craving something and seeking out opportunities to satisfy that craving even if it is not healthy.

Change in motivation to do things – from little or no interest in activities such as socialising or working, or seeking new and exciting experiences which serve as a distraction

Preoccupied with something in particular – real or imagined (often it can be hard to tell the difference the more preoccupied one becomes) thoughts become more focused on one or two specific issues and it becomes difficult to refocus on a wider perspective

Feeling remote or cut off from others – either seeking reconnection with others, or isolating oneself because it is too much effort to reconnect, the feelings are too distracting or one is afraid that others will see how bad one is feeling

Knowing that something does not feel right about yourself, but dismissing it as it will soon pass, or believing that one is beyond help

Engaging in behaviours that may be out of character, excessive or harmful  – drinking too much alcohol, smoking tobacco or other substances, cutting oneself, binge eating, gambling, casual or risky sex including watching pornography, over-exercising.  These behaviours are aimed at distracting from or numbing the emotional pain, as well as trying to prove that nothing is wrong and seeking to gain some control over oneself.

A few years ago Prochaska and DiClemente, when trying to understand how some people succeed in drug treatment programmes whilst others do not, developed the Stages of Change model.  Over the years, I have realised how applicable this model is to most aspects of human life when we are attempting to change something about ourselves.

Stage 1 – Precontemplation, this involves not realising that there is anything wrong, thinking that others are at fault or responsible for what they are experiencing.  Often it is others around them that can see something is not right, and either what they say falls on deaf ears or they do not feel able to say anything.

Stage 2 – Contemplation, this is when someone realises that all is not well and that they could do with some help, but do not want to do something about it yet.  Some people really struggle at this point because it can be painful to realise the extent of their need to change, as well as being frightened of what will happen if they try to change.  Sometimes this pushes people back into precontemplation  for a while, as it is too overwhelming to think about anything else at that time.  For others, the discomfort of realising there is a problem that needs to be changed, drives them to want to make a change.

Stage 3 – Decision, this is when someone realises that they want to get help and no longer want to be stuck with the problem

Stage 4 – Planning, this is when someone works out what help they need, how they will get help and when it will happen

Stage 5 – Action, this is when someone puts their plan for change into action and tests out whether it works or not

Stage 6 – Maintenance, this is when someone’s change becomes their normal way of being.

Everyone goes through the stages at different times, and they may go through some of the stages several times before being able to maintain a change.

So, the time to reach for the key to unlock your life, is when you realise that you no longer want to feel the emotional pain that keeps you trapped.  The warning signs identified above may only just be coming in to view, or they may have been around so long that it is hard to remember a time without them.  Either way, there is no need to continue to suffer, to be brave, to “tough it out”, if you don’t need to feel pain then don’t because you will heal better if you are able to relax.

If you wish to know more or want help to reach for your own key, please contact Louise via the Contact page, or book a session via the Oakingtons.com link.

 

 

 

 

Having it all in the 21st Century?

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Another children’s party another interesting discussion. What does it mean to be a woman, and particularly a mum in the 21st century? And how do we make it all work so that we can live up to the expectation that we can have it all?
As the children passed the parcel on Saturday a group of mums sat passing a parcel of their own around each other, slowly delayering the dilemmas of priorities and conflicts that make up our everyday lives. Despite us coming from different cultural or geographical backgrounds we shared common ground – how do we achieve balance between meeting the needs of our family, maintain a career, have a social life and feel worthwhile as individual women? There were no clear answers, I hasten to add, but it drew my mind back to the background to a group programme I have been developing.
Traditionally, women operated their daily lives within a wider community of other women, eg. Supporting child rearing, sharing household chores, working together for the benefit of the wider community. From early childhood women are accustomed to resolving their emotional and practical issues by talking about them with others. Women tend to find comfort and safety in the ability to discuss their problems, thoughts and feelings with other likeminded people, and through this process, find resolution. However, in today’s demanding society women are increasingly finding themselves isolated from the traditional community networks. The requirement to work whilst supporting a family leaves little time, energy or space for women to develop and maintain the invaluable social network. Many women have moved away from family and friends in order to pursue career or family goals, thus leaving them adrift from natural supportive ties. There is also a need to recognise the impact on women of having suffered abusive relationships in childhood or adulthood, that have left them isolated either physically or emotionally from others.
Is this shift relevant to psychological/physical wellbeing? Is wellbeing impacted by the absence of a social network or impacting on the ability to develop and maintain a supportive social network? Both, I suspect. Either way, expectations of women in society are being stretched to breaking point, with personal wellbeing the first thing to be sacrificed in the pursuit of financial security, career success or the developmental success of offspring. The feminist agenda of the last 40 years of women being able to have it all, has left women with a set of unrealistic beliefs that they “should be able to do it all”, and are in some way “failing” if they can’t or don’t. There is an expectation that in all their roles – wife, mother, friend, daughter, manager, leader, employee, employer, community volunteer, etc – they will be 100% effective and successful. If not, they are in some way inadequate, faulty, unworthy, less of a woman, and no match for a man. In addition to this, there is also a growing agenda for women to find the time for “me”. It is true enough that without the space to stop fulfilling others’ needs and demands, reflect and be present for themselves, peoples’ emotional and physical wellbeing suffers. But how effective is it to find that space, only to feel guilty or resentful of it? It is widely recognised that there is tremendous pressure on women to conform to an idealised physical version of a woman, requiring further effort to be spent on achieving that image to the cost of their sense of self-worth.
The fine balance between fulfilling roles and having one’s own needs met is a difficult one to achieve, and yet women are expected to fulfil yet another agenda – balance. It is often only when the impact of this imbalance becomes too great for the individual, employer or family system to endure, that people see a need for help. This can be particularly the case for professional women who are seen by others as highly competent and capable, therefore seemingly living up to the stereotype of strong, independent women, whilst internally struggling with overwhelming feelings of fragility and vulnerability. No wonder women feel overwhelmed, exhausted and ineffective. This often manifests itself in ongoing physical health issues, from niggling coughs and colds to cancers and endocrinal issues. Emotionally this manifests through anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, amongst many others. Quick and easy solutions are sought to simply get through the moment, reaching for a bottle of wine, stuffing snack food, rushing around the gym, ordering the weekly shop online whilst cooking dinner, checking the children’s homework and planning a bake sale for the local hospice. All of these activities could be life enhancing if conducted in a mindful and in-the-moment way, but they are all done to get through that moment to the next with as little difficulty as possible. So instead of striving to have it all in the 21st century, I suggest we shift our attention to noticing what it is like to be what we are in the 21st century.
Being mindful is often mistaken for being relaxed and at peace. It is something that has been in most cultures throughout the centuries but is more associated with the eastern philosophies such as Buddhism. Many associate mindfulness as an actual activity in itself eg mindfulness groups, mindfulness colouring etc, which sometimes it can be, but it is much more than that. Being mindful is not complicated but without practice it is difficult to initially achieve in our busy world. Being mindful is about simply being present in the moment, noticing with all of our senses what is being experienced in that moment without judgement or exploration. It is also not about “losing oneself in the moment” or becoming detached from what is happening, rather it is about becoming more aware of and attuned to the impact of that on ourselves. With relational mindfulness, this also involves drawing one’s attention to the impact of the moment being shared with others and the noticing the inter-reaction between ourselves and others.
At the risk of overgeneralising, most women benefit from activities that involve others, they benefit from being able to reflect and explore in the context of relationships rather than simply in isolation. That is not to say that women only benefit from group-based activities. However, as previously pointed out, with the push of a lifestyle of juggling work and home commitments, often the opportunity to function within a group of likeminded and supportive people is missed, and women proceed through life in isolation. Whilst making no life changes, we can choose to focus our attention on whatever it is we are doing and simply notice the experience for what it is. This involves stopping the habit of completing one task whilst thinking about future tasks, taking each event or action in turn without getting distracted by the flood of thoughts and feelings of other events.
The gift of our pass the parcel was the realisation of how much we valued time together, to talk, to share refreshments, to swap skills, but primarily to feel connected again. By tuning in to our internal experience of the impact of our conversation on ourselves we achieved a level of emotional intimacy amongst women that resonated with that of our ancestors. Simply being with each other for those few minutes, sharing an experience together, helped us to find a focus for the next moments of our lives.

Living the shattered life

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Over the last 20+ years I have been privileged to gain the trust of people who have suffered horrific experiences in order to help them work on the impact of those experiences.  I never cease to be amazed by how people, who have been so badly abused by others, can find a way to take the risk to trust someone again in order to move on.

Each person I have worked with has taught me something more about living with the impact of trauma and abuse, how it is possible to function almost normally on a day to day basis whilst keeping the damage and scars at bay.  Some people have been able to develop incredibly successful lives in which the trauma hardly features, whilst others have gone on to traumatise others in the wake of their own struggle to survive.  Most hover somewhere in between, going about their daily lives, avoiding and adapting to anything that may trigger the terrifying memories of what they suffered.

The irony is that people who have survived trauma and abuse do not experience themselves as amazing and brave.  Most people see themselves as damaged goods, weak, defective and worthless.  I have yet to meet anyone who really was any of those things. 

One of the world’s leading experts in working with trauma sufferers (from whom I am so pleased to have received incredible training and guidance), Janina Fisher, recently published a new book “Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors: Overcoming internal self-alienation”.  I had barely opened the book before I was struck by something she had to say about her own experience of working with her patients.  Janina had found the words to express how I feel about the people I work with, and the reason I choose to specialise in working with some of the most difficult issues humans have to deal with. 

She writes:

“They helped me to understand the experience of living with the enduring threat of annihilation, of hating themselves when they could not risk hating those who harmed them.  They helped me to see that the deepest pain of all is connected to the failure of those they loved to cherish them, and for that reason, provide them with safety and care.  No arms reached out to break their fall, dry their tears, or comfort the ache of loneliness.  There was no balm for their shame.”

Janina goes on to talk about how, in order to survive a traumatic experience, a person separates off the memory of the trauma from the part of them responsible for getting on with daily life.  Their life is shattered into fragments in order to get by.  However, when something happens to trigger the memories of the trauma they are instantly thrown back into relying on the parts of themselves that helped them to survive the trauma – fight, flee, freeze, flop or seek help. 

This is why, when someone has survived something like a car accident, the sound of brakes squealing or the smell of burning metal can instantly send them back into the terror of that situation, their brain tells them they are under threat and they immediately respond as though they are reliving the trauma.  Some people may curl up in a ball, others phase out like a blackout, others get angry and lash out and others may cry out in terror or pain.  These responses are all normal in the context of the car accident, but when sitting on the sofa, walking to the shops, travelling on a train, these behaviours are out of context and seen as weird. 

These reactions leave people feeling humiliated, frightened and believing they have no control over what happens to them.  It can result in people using drugs or alcohol, gambling, exercise, food or sex as a way of soothing or numbing the pain.  Some seek conflict with others as a way of giving vent to the fight part, others withdraw into themselves and see the world as an overwhelmingly scary place.  Others work themselves into the ground, becoming distracted by achievements, whilst others go to great lengths to avoid being alone.  This is often why people who have suffered traumatic experiences struggle to maintain healthy relationships, hold down jobs, enjoy a social life, or keep themselves physically healthy.  It is not their fault, they are not to blame for having to find ways of coping with the impact of surviving something terrible.

That is why I never forget that by entering therapy, a person shows immense bravery.  They are acknowledging that what they experience is not good, they have overcome their shame and fear in order to risk trusting someone with the things that make them feel most fragile and alone, and are daring to hope that there is more to them than living the shattered life.

 

#copingwithtrauma #therapy #recovery