Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mental Health Check-In and Respite ...

Hi everyone! Just a quick post before I leave for the States for my annual mental health check-in and a few days of relaxation in warmer climes.

When we work in environments that are continuously stressful (at work or at home) and we are frequent witnesses to others' stories of trauma and loss, it is essential to take the time to check in with a skilled observer and supporter who can give us objective feedback regarding our current state of emotional wellness.

Are we carrying a load of accumulated grief or primary or secondary traumatic stress? Are we burned out? Are our stressors affecting important areas of our lives - physical, mental, emotional, spiritual? Are they affecting the quality of our work with the people we're trying to help or with our relationships within our support systems? Are we using the most helpful coping mechanisms? It's a good thing to schedule a regular check-in to be sure.

While I'm away, I'll schedule a couple of mornings with my therapist and then ease into respite activities like reading, resting, walking, perusing the wonderful farmers markets and bookstores, and wandering along the beach. I'll also eat amazing organic fruit and vegies, add a couple of hours to my usual night's sleep, and generally s-l-o-w down. Last year, I wasn't able to make the trip and a couple of Skype visits had to suffice. I'm r-e-a-l-l-y looking forward to stepping off the plane tonight, breathing in some of  the warm, floral air, and feeling my body relax...

Now, some of you are probably thinking, "I could never find the time to do that." And you would be right - you'll never find the time. It's really necessary, in our crazy busy world, to carve it out - to sacrifice where you can for the financial element, to beg favours from family and friends to cover your responsibilities, and, sometimes, to wait longer than you'd like to have the check-in and respite for which your body and soul are yearning.

Why not let yourself consider making a check-in appointment and scheduling some sustained respite today - even if you're working two years in advance as I was. If nothing else, it gives you something to look forward to!

Friday, April 20, 2012

My New Favourite ...

So, I have a new "favourite book". It's called Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice At A Time and it's author is Rick Hanson, PhD, neuropsychologist, affiliate of the Greater Good Science Centre at UC-Berkeley, and cofounder of the Wellspring Institute of Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom.

This little book seems to have legs of it's own. It follows me from my bedside table (where I read a bit before I go to sleep), to my stationary bike (where it's actually beaten the latest Charles Todd mystery for pride of place), to the car (just in case I get caught up and have to wait at the railroad crossing), to my spirituality and practice group (where others have agreed with my positive assessment),  to the phone in the living room (where I've quoted it a couple of times to ground and comfort anxious friends).

The text is a compilation of 52 simple practices (mostly internal) divided into five segments:

  • Be Good to Yourself
  • Enjoy Life As It Is
  • Build On Your Strengths
  • Engage the World At Work and At Home
  • Be At Peace With Your Emotions     

The theory behind each practice is explained in a succinct page or two (or three) and then the "How" section clearly describes "how" to go about the practice.  Included are:

  • Taking in the good
  • Protecting your brain
  • Feeling safer
  • Relaxing anxiety about imperfection
  • Enjoying your hands
  • Taking refuge
  • Filling the hole in your heart   

As Rick explains in the introduction, the practices are deceptively simple but the truth is, when practiced regularly over time, they can actually change your brain through a process called
experience-dependent neuroplasticity. 

He goes on to say:
You can do these practices in several ways. First, you could find one particular practice that by itself makes a big difference for you. Second, you can focus on the practices within a section of the book that addresses specific needs, such as part 1 on being good to yourself if you're self-critical, or part 5 on being at peace if you're anxious or irritable. Third, you could move around from practice to practice depending on what strikes your fancy or feels like it would help you the most right now. Fourth, you could take a week for each one of the fifty-two practices here, giving yourself a transformational "year of practice".

However you go about it, I think your life could truly be changed by engaging in some of these practices. I hope you enjoy this wise little book as much as I am!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Self-Compassion - A Step Toward Healing Compassion Fatigue ... ...

For 12 days last month, the city of Vancouver was abuzz with talk of compassion. Why? Because Karen Armstrong was in town.

Invited by Simon Fraser University's, Centre for Dialogue, Karen Armstrong,  2008 TED Prize winner and one of the most provocative current thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world, led 12 days of conversation on compassion and living a compassionate life throughout the city.

Karen's visit marked the launch of the Greater Vancouver Compassion Network, part of an international movement to build compassionate communities, inspired, in part, by her Charter for Compassion, a document supported and endorsed by both Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama.

While not everyone will agree with her "freelance monotheistic" lens, I believe Karen has much to say to those of us who yearn to treat ourselves and others with greater compassion.

In her best selling book, 12 Steps To A Compassionate Life, Karen has written a full chapter on the importance of self-compassion, a quality that I see as an essential part of compassion fatigue healing and resilience. In her words, -

The Golden Rule requires self knowledge; it asks that we use our own feelings as a guide to our behaviour with others. If we treat ourselves harshly, this is the way we are likely to treat other people. So we need to acquire a healthier and more balanced knowledge of our strengths as well as our weaknesses. ... (to) make a list of our good qualities, talents, and achievements. We recognize flaws in our closest friends, but this does not diminish our affection for them. Nor should it affect the way we value ourselves. Before we can make friends with others, we have to make a friend of our own self. Without denying your faults, remember all the people you have helped, the kind things you have done that nobody noticed, and your successes at home and at work. A sense of humour is also important: we should be able to smile wryly but gently at our failings, in the same way as we tease a friend.

Another self-compassion writer and researcher, Kristin Neff, of the University of Texas (Austin), defines self compassion as, "... acting the same way toward yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don't like about yourself, as you would toward a friend". She describes this experience of self-compassion in a threefold manner -

  • first, you notice that you are suffering, 
  • second, you feel moved by that suffering in a way that leads to warmth, caring, and the desire to help yourself through understanding and kindness rather than judging yourself harshly, 
  • and, third, you recognize that your suffering, failure and imperfection is a part of the shared human experience.

She goes on to say:

Instead of just ignoring your pain with a "stiff upper lip" mentality, you stop to tell yourself, "This is really difficult right now. How can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?"
Instead of judging and criticizing yourself mercilessly for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings - after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect? You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. 
Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honour and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of fighting against it constantly, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.

On Kristin's website there is a Self-Compassion Inventory that you might like to try. Again, remember to be kind to yourself regardless your findings. Low self-compassion is not a personal flaw but the result of many factors including your genetic background, your parenting, your education, your religious teaching, your culture, and your multigenerational history of trauma and loss.

Once you recognize a low level of self-compassion, (and, thus, an increased risk for compassion fatigue), there is much you can do to increase your kindness toward yourself. Karen Armstrong puts it this way:

But before you are ready to "embrace the whole world", you must focus on yourself. Begin by drawing on the warmth of friendship (maitri) that you know exists potentially in your mind and direct it to yourself. Notice how much peace, happiness, and benevolence you possess already. Make yourself aware of how much you need and long for loving friendship. Next, become conscious of your anger, fear, and anxiety. Look deeply into the seeds of rage within yourself. Bring to mind some of your past suffering. You long to be free of this pain, so try gently to put aside your current irritations, frustrations, and worries and feel compassion (karuna) for your conflicted, struggling self. Then bring your capacity for joy (midita) to the surface and take conscious pleasure in things we all tend to take for granted: good health, family, friends, work, and life's tiny pleasures. Finally, look at yourself with upeksha ("evenmindedness", nonattachment). You are not unique. You have failings, but so does everybody else. You also have talents, and, like every other being on the planet, you deserve compassion, joy, and friendship.

The process Karen describes here could take some time and is probably best done slowly with the companioning of a trusted therapist, coach, spiritual director or clergyperson.  If you would like some exercises to guide your exploration, you will find some on Kristin's website.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Easter Weekend ...

Hi everyone - I'm leaving tomorrow for a few days holiday on Vancouver Island with dear friends. I hope that each of you will have the opportunity for some respite and relaxation as well. (And a heartfelt "thank you" to those who will continue to work in order to keep us all safe and healthy over the long weekend.)

There's something quite special about the spring holidays - a lightness and brightness that's qualitatively different from Thanksgiving or any of the winter celebrations. So, whether you observe Easter, Passover, Spring Equinox, Hali, or Vesak at this time of year, may you find some of that lightness and brightness in your surroundings and in your own hearts. May the fresh beauty of nature feed your souls and may the love of family and friends, even if far away, buoy and nourish you and bring you back to life.

I'll leave you with one of my favourite spring poems, written by children's author, Karla Kuskin, in 1958. I hope it will make you smile as you recognize the exuberance and joy of a child's dance with Spring.


I'm shouting
I'm singing
I'm swinging through the trees
I'm winging skyhigh
With the buzzing black bees.
I'm the sun
I'm the moon
I'm the dew on the rose.
I'm a rabbit
Whose habit
Is twitching his nose.
I'm lively
I'm lovely
I'm kicking my heels.
I'm crying "Come Dance"
To the fresh water eels.
I'm racing through meadows
Without any coat
I'm a gamboling lamb
I'm a light leaping goat
I'm a bud
I'm a bloom
I'm a dove on the wing.
I'm running on rooftops
And welcoming spring!

Happy Easter!

Photo by Janet Ritchey

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Traumatized By The Stories ...

I'm feeling just a little raw this morning. Last night, the word I used was battered. 

A friend invited me to a Lenten gathering at Christ Church Cathedral, a beautiful downtown Vancouver landmark built in the late 1880's. The evening was entitled, Sacrifice and Redemption: A Meeting With Canada's Modern Day Veterans, and included a viewing of Judy Jackson's powerful documentary, War in the Mind, which some of you may have seen on TV last summer.

A couple of hundred of us listened as Dean Peter Elliott welcomed the group and told of the connection between the Cathedral and the film we were about to see. ( Fourteen years ago, the Cathedral had offered space to hold the first, Veterans Transition Program, upon which much of the film was based. Today, they continue to support the program in various ways.) We then sang the national anthem, acapella, and settled down to watch the film, which was described this way in the evening's program:

War in the Mind, a documentary by Judy Jackson, follows Canadian soldiers returning from Afghanistan to civilian life. Along the way, it examines the issue of posttraumatic stress disorder and suicide in the armed forces and the stifling bureaucracy returning soldiers encounter when trying to find help.
The documentary features the Veterans Transition Program (VTP), a program developed at the University of British Columbia run by two psychologists, Marvin Westwood and David Kuhl, that attempts to help veterans rebuild their lives through a mix of group reenactments and skill development.
The program has been running for 14 years, and is now being expanded across Canada and in Australia. The BC program is funded by the Royal Canadian Legion's poppy fund, at UBC.

To say that the film was powerful is an understatement. It left me with a cascade of emotions that has continued through this morning. My heart was deeply touched by both the youth and vulnerability and the strength and courage of the young men returning home with "operational stress injuries". My anger and frustration rose in equal measure as I listened to the level of denial in the comments of the Canadian military official. My grief broke open at the pain, despair, isolation and hopelessness felt by these brave young men.  (I must also admit to some passing angst as, triggered by their stories, I remembered once again how vulnerable we are to being retraumatized after years of professional secondary traumatic stress.)

After the film, we sat in the dim quiet listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Pie Jesu and wiping away a few tears before breaking into discussion groups led by members of the VTP program. At least most of us broke into groups. My friend and I, and a few others, left at that point. I don't know what was happening for the others but my friend and I, both former trauma therapists who had lived with compassion fatigue, chose to limit our exposure to further trauma stories and to debrief quietly over a cup of camomile-citrus tea at the local White Spot restaurant.

So, why am I telling you all this? For two or three reasons, I suppose. First, as a reminder to us all to pace and limit our trauma exposure and to make space for debriefing, regardless the situation. Secondly, to offer you the opportunity to see this truly amazing documentary, if you haven't done so already (- keeping the aforementioned in mind!).  And, thirdly, to offer you these compassionate and hopeful words of blessing from Jan Richardson, one of my favourite writers-of-blessings. I see the words as a gift to all who, for whatever reason - combat PTSD; family caregivers' secondary traumatic stress; work-related compassion fatigue; the multiple losses of chronic sorrow, accumulated grief or bereavement - are feeling shattered during this season of wholeness, joy, and new life:

Blessing for a Broken Vessel
Do not despair.
You hold the memory
of what it was
to be whole.

It lives deep
in your bones.
It abides
in your heart
that has been torn
and mended
a hundred times.
It persists
in your lungs
that know the mystery
of what it means
to be full,
to be empty,
to be full again.

I am not asking you
to give up your grip
on the shards you clasp
so close to you.

But to wonder
what it would be like
for those jagged edges
to meet each other
in some new pattern
that you have never
that you have never dared
to dream.

Jan Richardson