Friday, February 21, 2014

We Rise Again ...

That as sure as the sunrise,
as sure as the sea,
as sure as the wind in the trees, 
we rise again in the faces of our children.
We rise again in the voices of our song.
We rise again in the waves out on the ocean
and then, we rise again ...

Hi everyone!

I walked by the lake this morning and my eyes were drawn, again and again, to the hillocks of winter-blanched grass lying low along the shore. I thought about resilience and how nature continually graces us with images of recovery from harsh conditions. The pale grasses by the water, now beaten down by weeks of wind, rain and frost, will soon rise to their full height again, taking on the greening of spring. This picture of nature's resilience is an echo of our own. We, too, can rise again following difficult times.

Our earliest strategies for resilience or "rising again" are learned by the time we are 12-18 months old. We begin to sense what is safe or unsafe even in utero. Through ongoing interactions with the world around us, our brains begin to learn and encode strategies that work to keep us safe and secure. When these strategies work well, we are able to come back from hard times reasonably quickly and efficiently.When they don't we have a hard time recuperating.

According to the stress-diathesis model of health and wellness, three factors determine our capacity for resilience - the intensity of the challenges we face, our personal vulnerabilities and our compensating strengths.

While life is full of happy, even breathtakingly beautiful moments, it also holds difficulties and challenges. These challenges can be the hiccoughs of traffic jams and lost car keys or the earthquakes of separation, illness, injury, betrayal, natural disaster and death. The intensity of these experiences creates a greater or lesser sense of threat and calls for a greater or lesser degree of adaptability.

When we encounter more than one challenge at a time, the demand upon our coping resources increases and our resilience may decrease. If we find ourselves working full time, caring for a chronically ill loved one during a health crisis and suddenly developing a painful abscess in a wisdom tooth, the demand on our capacity to cope is greater and the threat to our resilience, stronger. The more intense, numerous and prolonged our challenges, the more our resilience may be affected.

Our personal vulnerabilities also have an impact on our resilience. Human beings are naturally resilient but our genetic predispositions and early learning can reduce our capacity to bounce back. Each of us has chinks in our emotional armour, tender spots caused by the wounds of our earliest life experiences and by our later losses and traumas. Whether we experience the anxious or avoidant attachment of perinatal trauma, early separations, neglect or abuse, or the scars and reactivity of parental loss, accidents, immigration trauma, medical trauma, war or natural disaster, our developing nervous systems are affected by our experience and, without attention, these effects can reduce our natural resiliency.

Fortunately, our early learning not only leads to vulnerability, but also to strengths. When we interact with soothing, supportive others, we begin to develop inner resources and capabilities - trust, mindfulness, empathy, self-soothing, self understanding, self-compassion, security, confidence, interpersonal skills, comfort in our bodies, reservoirs of positive memories and emotions, courage, and flexibility, to name but a few. These strengths help to compensate for our vulnerabilities and enable us to deal with life more adaptively. If we didn't have the chance to develop them early in life, we can learn them today through the magic of neuroplasticity (the ability of our brains to rewire for maximum resilience.)

Why not take a few minutes with a hot drink and your journal and think back over the history of your own resilience. What are the hard times you've overcome? When did your vulnerabilities reduce your resilience and when did your strengths carry you through? What, exactly, are your personal vulnerabilities and strengths? Can you think of a time when you were particularly resilient, a time when your capacity to "rise again" was especially strong? What made it so?

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Valentine's Gift to Yourself ...

Spread love everywhere you go ...
Let no one ever come to you without
leaving better and happier.

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa's ideal of spreading love everywhere we go is a noble one and, often, it is a motivation behind our desire to support and care for others. We learn through our pores, via art and literature, our caring relationships with family and friends, our faith traditions, and our professional trainings that our care and compassion can be a rich source of support and healing. We respond to this knowledge by wanting to share our care and compassion with the patients, clients, family and friends who are in need of our support.

But what if, one day, we reach inside to share loving kindness with others and find that our wells are verging on empty? What if there is no longer a well of caring within but, rather, a pool of irritation, exhaustion, reactivity, sorrow, pain, helplessness and discouragement? And what if underlying these painful feelings is a profound embarassment that we can no longer find a caring self within, a sense of shame that makes us isolate rather than reaching out for help? This is the experience of compassion fatigue

(During the years I worked in my trauma psychotherapy practice during the day and cared for my husband at home at night, I remember wandering around inside my own head looking for the caring person who used to live there. Where had she gone? What had happened to her? Why couldn't I find her? Would she ever come back?)

If you find yourself resonating with this experience, it's likely that you, too, have become secondarily traumatized by the wounds of the people for whom you care. You have empathized deeply and, as a result, have given more than you had to give. There is little or nothing left. 

The good news is this is not an irreversible situation, though it takes time, intention and effort to turn it around. We have to re-jig our learning to incorporate the wisdom of the Sufi's who say, 

Never give from the depths of your well, only from the overflow.

Once we become aware of our state of physical, emotional and spiritual depletion, we can begin to focus our loving care and attention on ourselves. This will probably feel very uncomfortable at first. All the messages we've ever heard about selfishness and putting others first will come ringing through our ears. However, it is our ethical responsibility to ignore these voices. We must care for ourselves first, and then, when our well is overflowing, we can choose to care for others again.

So, in this Valentine's week, please take the time to step back and assess the level in your well. Then, make a commitment to treating yourself with at least as much love and compassion as you would your best friend. Allow this commitment to fuel the choices that will begin to refill your well and your life.

It's important to begin the refilling process by gifting yourself with things that are small and manageable. Give yourself the gift of a Valentine's massage, take a couple of hours alone to do whatever you please, make a counselling appointment, eat a healthy meal, say no to overtime this week, ask for some respite care, write a love letter to yourself.

When you've done enough small things to build your energy a bit, consider giving yourself one regular and ongoing gift. Decide to go for a walk everyday. Spend 10 minutes meditating each morning and night. Arrange a regular visit with a supportive friend or a trauma therapist. Do something every day to enrich your spiritual life. The possibilities are endless...

If you listen to your body, it will tell you which gift will be most helpful to you right now. The "gift" that makes your body constrict with stress and that adds one more "should" to your to-do list is not the gift to choose, even if you know it would be good for you. The gift that makes your body relax and expand with pleasure is much more likely to be the best one for you this Valentines Day.

So, here's to self-compassion and self-love on Valentines Day 2014. Enjoy!