Monday, November 24, 2014

Five Ways to Recover from a Painful Past

Five Ways to Recover from a Painful Past
Trauma survivors share their wisdom about recovery and pathways to change.
Published on March 4, 2014 by Vinita Mehta, Ph.D., Ed.M. in Head Games

We often refer to people who have experienced trauma and/or abuse as survivors. But what factors contribute to surviving — and thriving? Though childhood trauma isn't infrequent, the process of recovery remains unclear. In order to better understand what helps people move forward and live more fulfilling lives, psychologist Signe Stige led a study in which 31 women were interviewed about coping with trauma. All of the survivors had experienced their first trauma before the age of five, including incest, sexual abuse, physical abuse, rape, partner abuse, and/or psychological abuse. Remarkably, many went on to lead functional lives, engaging in “normal” activities like studying, working, and starting families.

Ultimately, however, they would seek treatment as adults for their trauma-related symptoms. All of the women in this study participated in a stabilization group, and were later interviewed extensively about their experiences with recovery. These interviews were then analyzed with the goal of better understanding the recovery process, and pathways to positive change. Five themes emerged — and can serve as lessons for all us. Here is a digest of what the investigators found:

1. Finding new ways to understand one's emotions and actions

For the women in this study, a change in perspective was of key importance. In particular, many of the survivors experienced their symptoms as “fragmented” and “incomprehensible.” Consequently, acquiring knowledge about their trauma-related difficulties was demystifying, and allowed them to view themselves and their experiences in alternative ways. In turn, these insights changed their perceptions of the parts they played in the traumas they withstood. These women felt empowered by their change in perspective, because they could now see their own reactions and/or their part in the trauma with a clearer focus.

2. Moving from numbness toward contact

Becoming more connected was another important factor which led to positive change. For many, this translated into an increased awareness of and contact with their bodies. Many of the women reported that following the trauma, keeping their symptoms and histories at a “tolerable distance” served as an effective coping strategy. And although it helped them function better, it also increased their detachment from themselves, their feelings, and their significant others. Thus, relating to their symptoms instead of shunning them proved essential for recovery.

3. Advocating for one's own needs

Becoming aware of and honoring one’s own limits and needs also proved critical to the recovery process. This largely involved relinquishing an excessive focus on others. In an effort to cope with trauma-related difficulties, many of the women had shifted the focus away from themselves and towards others. Similarly, some of the women came to realize that they basically overlooked their own well-being. Moreover, many of the survivors found that softening high-expectations was helpful.

4. Feeling a stronger sense of agency and control

All of the women in this study reported making concrete changes in how they live their lives. And of prime importance, they learned that they could proactively change their situations for the better. These survivors no longer lived under the press of their symptoms — rather they developed a “take charge” attitude. Discovering that there were things that they could do to influence their symptoms and situations was a revelation that led to positive change.

5. Staying with difficult feelings and choices

According to the women in this study, recovery doesn't necessarily mean that life becomes easier. To the contrary, some who had felt disconnected from and numb to their own experiences reported that recovery involved an increase in symptoms. Recovery can also beget difficult choices, as it involves revising one's core identity, and having unfamiliar feelings and experiences. Yet at the same time, it also encourages strength, agency, and alternative perspectives, which can embolden survivors. Though difficult, perseverance offers both purpose and meaning.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Why We Laugh: How laughter can help build resilience

Why We Laugh:
How laughter can help build resilience
Published on January 23, 2011 by Alex Lickerman, M.D. in Happiness in this World

I remember horsing around once with my younger brothers in one of our bedrooms one Saturday morning when we were children. At one point, one of my brothers jumped off his bed, and as he flew up in the air, I flung a pillow at his feet.
"Ow!" he yelled when he landed, and gripped his foot. He started writhing on the floor in obvious pain. And, strangely, I started to laugh.

I remember thinking to myself that what had happened wasn't funny at all—I was, in fact, extremely concerned, both that he might be badly hurt and that I had been the cause—but I still couldn't stop laughing. Since then, my nervous laughter has recurred whenever someone has hurt themselves in front of me (falling on ice, down the stairs, off a ladder), my reaction as stereotypical as it's been puzzling and embarrassing, leading me recently to wonder why it happens at all.


Interestingly, this same nervous laughter has been noted to occur in many psychological experiments when subjects have found themselves placed under a high degree of emotional stress specifically involving perceived harm to others. Perhaps the most famous of these experiments were those conducted by Stanley Milgram, who set out to discover why some people will blindly follow authority (the impetus being a desire to understand the behavior of soldiers in Nazi Germany). He brought in test subjects and asked them to deliver a series of increasingly powerful electric shocks to an unseen person (the "learner") to see just how much voltage they would deliver before refusing to continue. An astounding 65% delivered the experiment's final jolt of 450 volts, fully believing they were actually shocking the "learners." (It turns out, they weren't. The "learners" were members of Milgram's team playing a role.) In the paper he published on his experiment, Milgram made mention of several subjects who began to laugh nervously once they heard screams of pain coming from the unseen "learners," and suggested this was a phenomenon that deserved further study.

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran theorizes in his excellent book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness that laughter evolved as a signal both to ourselves and others that what may appear dangerous or threatening actually isn't. As he writes, perhaps "...the rhythmic staccato sound of laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes: don't waste your precious resources on this situation; it's a false alarm." If true, this provides a plausible explanation for nervous laughter. We're signaling ourselves that whatever horrible thing we've just encountered isn't really as horrible as it appears, something we often desperately want to believe.

This may explain why some psychologists classify humor as one of the "mature" defense mechanisms we invoke to guard ourselves against overwhelming anxiety (as compared to the "psychotic," "immature," and "neurotic" defense mechanisms). Being able to laugh at traumatic events in our own lives doesn't cause us to ignore them, but instead seems to prepare us to endure them.

Being able to joke about a traumatic loss usually requires the healing distance of time, however. Losing a limb, for example, may make us suicidal when it first occurs, but with the passage of time we adapt to the loss and eventually may even find ourselves able to joke about it. What magic does the passage of time work on us that permits us to laugh at what once made us cry? Perhaps definitive proof that the alarm our loss raised when it first occurred was, in fact, "false." After all, we survived it and became happy again.

Being able to face an old trauma with humor may very well then be considered a reliable signal of psychological recovery. Perhaps also, by extension, being able to laugh at a trauma at the moment it occurs, or soon after, signals both to ourselves and others that we believe in our ability to endure it (which is perhaps what makes laughter such a universally pleasurable experience: it makes us feel that everything will be all right).


In light of the above, perhaps laughter could be most properly considered as a weapon against suffering and despair. If we can joke about a disappointing or traumatic event, we'll often find ourselves feeling that what's happened to us isn't so bad and that we'll be able to get through it. This expectation serves two vitally important functions:

It diminishes or even eliminates the moment-by-moment suffering we might otherwise experience as a result of a traumatic loss, which
Actually makes it more likely we will make it through a trauma unmarred and flourish once again
A key question about laughter remains, however: does it create the expectation that we'll be all right, or become possible only because we've found our way to a belief that things aren't as bad as they seem?

I'd suggest the answer is both, that laughing simultaneously creates and requires a high life-condition. We may manifest a high life-condition through other means besides laughter, but laughter also remains a means by which we can manifest a high life-condition.

When faced with adversity, some people exhibit a great ability for turning to laughter as a soothing balm, while others remain less able to do so. While this may be a result of differences in upbringing or genetics, I often wonder if it's equally as much a matter of intent. Perhaps many of us simply don't think to try to laugh, either because we're too overwhelmed by suffering or because we think laughter in the face of suffering is inappropriate.

I'm suggesting here that it's not. That in fact laughter is a powerful means by which we can encourage ourselves. That when confronted with setbacks, adversity, trauma, or terrible news, even if it may seem socially inappropriate, we should reach toward humor. We should try to find a way to make light of whatever circumstances make us afraid. Because if instead of focusing on the negative impact of an adverse event or experience we focus on simply laughing about it, actively and consciously pursuing a perspective that makes it funny, we just may be able to activate the most under recognized but powerful weapon we have against suffering.

Monday, November 10, 2014

7 Truths For Changing Your Life

Hope Is Risky But Worth It: 7 Truths For Changing Your Life
Name, define and look clearly at the change you need to make.
Published on November 12, 2013 by Gina Barreca, Ph.D. in Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

1. To change—authentically and not superficially—you must need to change; you must have sought change for a very long time. A whim, a stretch of bad luck, a passing desire, is not enough. You have to know precisely what you need to change. And you must also know what you’re willing to give—or give up—for it. There are costs and these need to be faced and factored in; name, define and look clearly at the change you need to make; ignoring possible consequences, both better or worse, will not affect the outcome.

2. Glimpses of consciousness come at exceptional moments and are rare—for much of life, we remember only bits of things, moments at best. When you were a small child, you had all kinds of experiences: you learned your first words, you took your first step, but you don’t remember those moments. Yet you can take for granted that they happened. These moments, as dramatic but unmeasurable, take place every day. It's up to you to decide which will lock you down or set you on a new path.

3. There’s enough going on in any one hour, let alone any one day, to occupy your senses and your imagination and keep you from asking the bigger questions. For some that’s enough; they stay where they are and that is a happy ending. Getting to the end of each hour and each day is a sufficient accomplishment for them. But for others it’s like living in one room of a ten room house with the curtains drawn: for some of us, such self-limitation is a small, slow death.

4. Some parts of our lives leave only a trace while some cut a swath through our essential selves; you must decide which this is and act as you need to act. Ask your later self: What do you think I should do? Listen carefully. Your later self will answer and will tell you the hard truth.

5. With good change comes triumph: maybe you’ve been living in the straw house and finally move into the brick one where the wolf can’t get at you—or maybe you're moving to beach and will buying a straw house, ignoring the wolves or howling with them. Either way, you're making a risk and you're betting on hope. And nothing—well, almost nothing—is more terrifying than hope.

6. Hope is the original risky investment: there's always a risk of losing it entirely. But it’s useless to hang on to it and pretend it isn’t there. If you believe in something that turns out not to be true, you think, will anything be as terrible as finding that out? Yes, there is something worse: not taking the risk out of fear, shame or exhaustion is a betrayal of yourself. You probably know you need to make changes, but it's conjuring up the courage that's tough. And yet, once you're on the other side of the change, you'll look back in wonder that it took you so long...

7. You know you have to make your life different from what it is; you know you must not stay where you are unless you are willing to risk misery to yourself and to others who love you; you know you have the courage to do it if only you can rid yourself of the weight of the judgment of others. Your integrity must outweigh their censure and your dignity and fierce love of life must triumph over their most well-intentioned needs to keep you fastened to an existence that is no longer your destiny.

To view the original article, click here.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Are You Making Your Wellbeing Harder Than It Needs to Be?

Are You Making Your Wellbeing Harder Than it Needs to Be?
3 Tested, Simple Ways To Eat, Move & Sleep Better

Published on November 2, 2014 by Michelle McQuaid in From Functioning to Flourishing

What are you willing to try when it comes to improving your wellbeing?  Would you eat dirt to eliminate bad bacteria?  Garden under the moonlight to beat depression?  Plunge into icy water to improve your immune system?

Is it just me or does it seem like each day there is another weird and wonderful way being recommended to improve our wellbeing?

Don’t get me wrong I’m open to trying the odd “woo-woo” idea in the name of better health, but I was recently reminded by a wonderful group I’m coaching that the very best place to start when it comes to flourishing is by getting the basics right.

You see everything from how well we sleep at night, the foods we put in our mouth, and how much we’re moving - particularly while we’re at work - has a profound effect not only on our own levels of energy, happiness and productivity but on everyone around you as well.

I know improving the way you eat, sleep and move might not feel like the most exciting changes you want to be making, but be in no doubt they are the hygiene factors of wellbeing.  Without them in place you make your journey from functioning to flourishing much harder than it needs to be.

Do you have your wellbeing basics covered?

Researcher and best-selling author Tom Rath, has found if you eat, move, and sleep well today, you will have more energy tomorrow. You’ll treat your friends and family better. And you’ll achieve more at work and give more to your community.

For example, a study of more than 80,000 people suggests that the amount of fruit and vegetables you eat is a robust predictor of overall happiness. It turns out every additional daily serving of fruits or vegetables, all the way up to seven servings, continues to improve your wellbeing and move you towards flourishing.

And I was shocked to learn that while working out regularly is a great habit because most of us now spend around nine hours a day sitting down it’s essential that we’re also active throughout the day if we want to remain healthy.

Finally, if you’re anything like me and often forgo an extra hour’s sleep in order to tick that last thing off your to-do list or stay out playing with friends, you might want to re-think this strategy. You see when you lose an hour of sleep, it decreases your wellbeing, productivity, health, and ability to think the following day.

Don’t worry I wasn’t thrilled about any of this research either! The good news is Tom has found that small decisions — about how we eat, move, and sleep each day — count more than we think when it comes to your ability to flourish at work.

What are the small changes you can make to eat, move and sleep more effectively?

Firstly when it comes to eating rather than trying different diets, try to create a day-in and day-out good approach to eating.  An idea that really helped me was to look at what I was putting in my mouth and asking if it was a net gain or net loss when it came to my wellbeing.

Net gains are foods that are good for us like fruit and vegetables (the darker the color the better), nuts and seeds, seafood and chicken.  Net losses are foods that are bad for us like fatty meats, fried cooking, added sugars and junk food.  Just asking how a food would impact my energy and mood, was a great motivator to slowly move me away from decades of bad eating habits.

Secondly when it comes to how much movement you need it’s important to be aware that every hour you spend on your rear end — in a car, watching television, attending a meeting, or at your computer — saps your energy and potentially ruins your health.

Try to stand, stretch and increase activity every 20 minutes if you can - even if its just for 20 seconds. Walk to someone’s office instead of calling. Park the car a block from where you need it.  Grab a pedometer and try to get to 10,000 steps each day.  Instead of viewing a long walk as something you don’t have time for, think of it as an opportunity to fire up your brain so you can think more clearly and creatively.

Finally when it comes to sleeping know that losing 90 minutes of sleep has been found to reduce your daytime alertness by nearly one-third.  I was also surprised to learn that in studies of peak performers, one of the factors that set them apart was the eight and half hours of sleep they got each night.

To improve your sleep try to turn off technology an hour before you go to bed, make sure your room is 3 to 5 degrees cooler than what you experience during the day and get up at the same time each morning – even on the weekend – to maintain your bodies natural sleeping and waking rhythm (it’s a great excuse for a nana nap later on).

To view the original article from Psycholody today, click here.