Trauma Does Not Have to be a Life Sentence

In an ideal world every child will be nurtured, loved and protected. Unfortunately, as my news feed keeps reminding me, we don’t live in an ideal world, the world is not a fair place and numerous children encounter adverse and even traumatic situations far too early in life.

These highly traumatising life events may involve experiences of abuse and neglect, domestic violence or a hostile divorce, just to name a few. Very often, these early experiences create an unhelpful template that people replicate in adult relationships with partners, children, and even employers.

As we routinely see in the therapy room, people carry narratives that sometimes originated in these early traumatic experiences. Numerous clients get really stuck in their narratives of abandonment, or defectiveness and of course they don’t always see that those early adverse experiences are at the origin of those narratives.

An active present focused therapy like Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT) brings hope because, even when the negative impact of those early experiences is strong, our work starts by helping people develop a sense of inner safety (sometimes for the first time in their lives), develop coping skills, process traumatic memories, heal and learn to meet their needs in a healthy way that may not have been available at an early age.

Three critical ACT processes – being present, opening up, and doing what matters – provide opportunities for people to take distance from unhelpful and unwanted narrative, connect with what they really care in life and commit to actions. These powerful ACT skill sets help people quickly learn that they can become grounded, begin to heal, cultivate self-compassion and acknowledge that their past experiences of trauma do not need to define who they really are here and now. An ACT approach fosters willingness to experience those painful narratives and feelings as a mental process, strongly validating the emotions associated with them and at the same time reducing behavioral avoidance. ACT is a very active therapy, where people learn skills to mindfully make room for difficult mental and physical experiences, without judgment but rather with a kind, curious and self-compassionate attitude.

Have you had experiences of trauma or adverse childhood experiences? Are you feeling stuck and struggling now? Why not give ACT and mindfulness skills building a go? After all, it is never too late to give your inner child a chance to lead a more fulfilling and meaningful life.

How to Become an Emotional Resilience Superhero

Life is full of challenges, some more difficult than others, it’s how we respond to those challenges that matters most. Everyone has the experience of facing a challenge that was just out of their realm of control. Facing tough times like that can make us stronger, but how can you prepare for a crisis in the easier times?

“Emotional resilience” is how readily you can cope with stresses both small and large, and how well you can adapt to difficult circumstances in our life. Resilient people tend to be happier and teaching resilience to children can prevent depression, anxiety and increase grades in school.

Developing resilience helps you keep going when challenges, sudden or expected, make the going get tough. Research shows that natural aptitude is only a part of resilience, and it’s largely a learned skill which you can cultivate to turn yourself into a stress busting super hero.

  1. Get Clear About Your Purpose.

Developing resilience is a personal journey of learning your strengths and working on weaknesses. Everyone’s journey is going to be different but one of the most useful things you can do on that journey is get clear about your motive and your purpose. Without a strong purpose driving you through adversity you’ll quit or crumble. A strong awareness of purpose works like a lighthouse guiding you through the heaviest of storms.

How do you get clear about purpose? Think about who and what you care about day to day, and how you’d like life to be in the future. Ask yourself how you’d like to behave through whatever challenges you face. What’s motivating you? What are the values you want to express right now?

2. Everyday is an Opportunity to Improve.

Practicing awareness deliberately with low to moderate daily stressors will build resilience. Developing skills of being present, emotional flexibility and keeping focus on your values and goals in relatively safe environments helps when the stress level gets dialled up.

View small conflicts and daily trials as opportunities to develop your skills as they come. Be like a scientist running an experiment, and be curious about the results. Pay full respect to the successes – and focus also on the areas that have room for improvement next time – learning opportunities!

3. Thing Big Picture.

Get in the habit of paying attention to the things are going well in your life. Remind yourself of things you’ve enjoyed, that have been worth your while, and take time to be grateful for things you’re fortunate to have, friendship, food, and shelter. Getting in this habit before you’re under a time of stress will help you to maintain a broader awareness within a crisis.

People who view their crises as insurmountable problems are less likely to thrive, whereas framing something as a challenge makes it easier to work through.

5. Let Yourself Feel Things Flexibly.

We’re all capable of feeling a dizzying array of emotions simultaneously, even feelings that are seemingly contradictory. An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy skill is learning to ‘defuse’ from thoughts and feelings and notice other feelings in your rich emotional landscape. Research by Barbara Fredrickson, PhD shows that in a crisis resilient people are able to feel both traditionally positive and negative emotions simultaneously. They allow themselves to feel upset while also being able to celebrate the good things. Contrasting to that less resilient people are in crisis all of their emotions turn negative. When challenges strike let yourself feel a broad range of emotions, not just the negative ones.

For more here’s a great post by the terrific blog Barking up the Wrong Tree that summaries research evidence about life skills which we can use in everyday life. Here’s an article on building resilience by the American Psychology Association that we used in our research for this post.

Bonus! 6: Enlist the Aid of a Professional.

The psychologists at Brisbane ACT Centre can help you develop these skills and many more – so that you’re ready to face the challenges that crop up in life. If you wanted to run a marathon you’d train before the race so that you could perform at your best, and a good psychologist can help you just the same way. Working with an emotional resilience professional in the good times to help you work on your psychological flexibility skills can make the difficult times ahead a whole lot easier.

The Struggle with Sleeplessness

One of the key tools that the world’s foremost sleep coaches at the Sleep School use is acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT. Guy Meadows nicely described ACT as “a revolutionary research-based psychological tool that recognises that it is our struggle or reaction to pain and suffering that actually makes them worse.” ACT promotes mental flexibility, openness and curiosity, so rather than struggling against negative thoughts and feelings, we learn to observe, accept and then let them go.

So how does this relate to chronic insomnia?

Research and clinical experience points to the struggle with sleeplessness is the critical process instigating and sustaining insomnia. Older approaches such as traditional cognitive behaviour therapy sometimes focus on getting rid of symptoms associated with poor sleep. Trying to block out or challenge certain thoughts, or remove anxious feelings. When it comes to the struggle with sleeping (as with anxiety, sadness, and so many other struggles), the thoughts and feelings end up coming back stronger, in greater numbers and with more frequency. Your energy is inadvertently put into trying to get rid of what you don’t want, rather than into what you do want, which is to sleep.

What if a sleep expert found he couldn’t sleep?

In the introduction to his fantastic “Sleep Book” Guy Meadows recounts when the thought popped into his head “what if I became an insomniac to?” Finding himself sleep sleepless, unable to switch off, his mind bringing up more and more worrisome thoughts, “I’m the guy who helps other people to sleep and now I can’t!” While his body wound up the tension, anxiety, urgency… Deep breathing, muscle relaxation, trying to clear the mind, all backfiring. Eventually falling asleep in the early hours of the morning. And the following day those thoughts showing up with even more urgency. He struggled to think back to what he used to do to get to sleep… nothing! Struggling with thoughts and feelings about sleep entangled and prevented. ACT skills are fantastic in this area.

How will we know this is working for you?

Is what you really want less worries about sleep, less agitation in the body, or simply more sleep? Is the quickest way to that battles with the mind, struggles with the body, or opening up to whatever thoughts and feelings are happening, letting them come and go as they will if we can but only actively let them, letting your body do its thing. Guy’s program helps his English clients discover how the struggle to sleep actually prevents sleep, learned through experience what they cannot change, through active coaching how to open up to those thoughts and feelings, to build a new sleeping pattern, and connect this with deeply held values for their personal and broader lives. We can’t take you to London, but we can train you in the skills to help sleep soundly, and live fully.

The Neuroscience of Stress and Mindfulness 

Fortunately, the emerging field of cognitive neuroscience is making it increasingly clear that you can train your brain to support you in taking a mindful approach to stress. With practice, you can achieve a more relaxed and transcendent state of mind that will override the rigid, anxious, autopilot mode that stress creates. Even better, the mental skills needed to make this shift aren’t difficult to master, and they get stronger and stronger with practice.

In this section, we’ll give you a brief lesson in brain anatomy and nervous system physiology so you can better understand how stress affects your brain and body. The brain consists of an elaborate system of neural circuitry that functions, in part, to help you maintain an ongoing balance between your stress and relaxation responses. This balancing act is achieved through continual interactions between two different parts of your nervous system: the reticular activating system and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

The Limbic System 

The limbic system is a complex set of brain structures that includes the hippocampus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and other nearby areas of the mammalian brain. It is primarily responsible for processing emotional responses to stress. The limbic system is integrated into an even more basic part of the nervous system: the reticular activating system.

The reticular activating system consists of the primitive part of the brain that produces emotional arousal and the well-known fight-or-flight response. This part of the brain evolved early on to offer protection from all kinds of natural threats to survival. Thus, it’s exquisitely sensitive to any kind of threat— including threats we just imagine. So you can merely think of a stress-producing situation at work or school and trigger numerous physical, emotional, and mental stress reactions, even though you aren’t actually in that situation. The branch of the nervous system that supports all of these stress-related changes is called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The name is ironic, because SNS activation makes you anything but sympathetic!

Sympathetic nervous system activation begins when some type of stress is detected that triggers the limbic system. Within a microsecond, the SNS initiates a cascade of changes in the body. Blood flow in the gut is directed instead to large muscle groups, to prepare them for immediate action, as well as areas in the mid-brain. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis of your endocrine system works closely with the sympathetic nervous system and releases stress hormones, such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol, into your bloodstream. These neurochemicals have an immediate impact on blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature. The release of cortisol, in particular, also creates cognitive confusion— which is why people under stress often complain of being confused and having difficulty accurately processing information and making decisions.

Unfortunately, even small daily stresses can stimulate the limbic system and produce powerful stress responses. This is why an awkward interaction with a co-worker or classmate can be as stressful as having a tooth extracted. Chronic SNS arousal, a common result of ongoing daily stress, is also thought to be the underlying cause of most stress-related health illnesses, such as hypertension, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

The Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex 

The second part of the brain that plays a key role in our response to stress is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain evolved later than the limbic system and is basically responsible for most of the higher-order functions we normally associate with being human: attention, emotion regulation, planning, abstract reasoning, and complex problem solving. This region of the brain is your friend when it comes to managing your response to stress. It’s closely linked with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), a part of the brain that puts the brakes on all of the physical changes produced by the SNS. When your PNS is activated, your breathing rate and heart rate slow, your blood pressure decreases, and your blood supply is redirected to your brain.

The good news is that, although the effects of SNS activation are immediate and can seem overwhelmingly intense, in reality the PNS is much stronger. The SNS evolved to help us act quickly and effectively in response to a threat and then shut down once the danger has passed. The basic nature of the SNS is to shut down if it receives any type of signal to do so. Therefore, something as simple as taking one or two deep, slow breaths when you’re under stress will immediately activate your PNS and help the SNS shut down. Better yet, applying the mindfulness techniques you’ll learn in this book will help you counter immediate stress reactions and also produce states of relaxation and clarity of thought that are uniquely associated with prolonged activation of the PNS.

Guidelines for Brain Training 

As we’ve mentioned, the brain is a dynamic organ that can be strengthened via mental exercise. So the question isn’t whether the brain can be trained, but how best to train it. As it turns out, there’s quite a bit of new, research-based information on this very topic. We want to share some of the more important findings because they’ll provide guidance in creating your own brain training program and using that program to develop a mindful approach to daily hassles.

Your Undivided Attention Is Essential 

As with creating any new brain habit, practicing mindfulness techniques requires that you pay attention to what you’re doing. Research backs up this commonsense philosophy, with studies showing that the benefits for neural networks and brain structures only occur when people pay close attention while practicing a particular skill (Davidson and Begley 2012). In other words, learning to pay attention, which just happens to be the first skill needed to be in the here and now, is also necessary for any mental training to have an effect on your neural networks and brain structures. So if this approach is to be effective, you can’t be half in the here and now while the other half of you is thinking about what you’ll eat for dinner. You have to be willing to show up and pay close attention to the specific skill you’re trying to master.

Vary What You Practice 

Functional magnetic resonance imaging studies use highly sophisticated brain imaging technology to reveal the strength of electrical activation in certain areas of the brain produced while the subject is performing various mental tasks, such as paying attention, naming or responding to emotions, and observing physical sensations, to name but a few. The basic finding of interest is that the more regions of the brain that are activated by skill training, the stronger the overall effect is on brain efficiency (Davidson and Begley 2012).

For example, the benefits of practicing observing skills (which you’ll learn in chapter 4) increase when you shift back and forth between what you’re aware of externally— like objects, people, smells, or touch—and internally , like thoughts, feelings, or memories. The ability to observe external and internal information is controlled by different structures or neural networks in the brain, so repeatedly shifting focus on purpose strengthens the linkages between these seemingly distinct skills. Therefore, in this book we offer a variety of specific skills to practice; collectively, they’ll give you a greater ability to activate your PNS.

Practice Produces Immediate Benefits 

An earlier view of the brain was that it was relatively fixed and hard to rewire, which meant you might need to practice mindfulness for years before seeing any positive benefits. This made it difficult to sell mindfulness to the general public, given that most people are already overscheduled. Newer findings indicate otherwise, and one immediate implication of neuroplasticity is that changes in brain function can occur much more immediately.

One of the more astonishing findings in this respect comes from the cutting-edge work of neuroscientist Richard Davidson, at the University of Wisconsin. In one study, volunteers were taught a brief loving-kindness meditation in an attempt to compare the electrical patterns in their brains to those of experienced meditators. Remarkably, even after only minimal practice, novice meditators exhibited unique brain activity patterns that were nicknamed the “compassion wave” (Lutz et al. 2004). More recent results suggest that both emotional control and compassionate behavior toward the suffering of others are strengthened by even brief compassion meditation training (Lutz et al. 2008; Weng et al. 2013).

Practice Makes Permanent 

Although brain changes can occur quickly, they aren’t necessarily enduring. In the aforementioned study by Richard Davidson’s team (Lutz et al. 2004), novice meditators did show almost immediate changes in brain readings, but their new patterns weren’t as strong as similar patterns in the brains of experienced meditators. This suggests that extended practice does have benefits: the more you practice, the stronger your compassion wave gets. This type of finding is common in the brain training literature. The more you practice a specific mental skill, like paying attention, the more your brain circuitry evolves to support that skill. The increase in specific types of electrical activity among experienced meditators is probably the result of a far more integrated set of neural circuits and the direct result of prolonged daily practice. Again, to update the old saying, practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent!

Throughout this book, we’re going to emphasize that this is a lifestyle issue. You can’t practice “drive-by” mindfulness and expect to benefit over the long haul. Then again, why would you want to? These are health-promoting, positive, prosocial skills that can play a huge role in helping you take a more balanced, compassionate approach to yourself and those you care about. Wouldn’t you like to have even more empathy, love, and compassion than you already do? Wouldn’t that be a good thing for you?

Use It or Lose It 

A related finding is that, as with working out to build muscle, if you don’t keep up your brain training regimen, new skills can begin to atrophy. In the University of Wisconsin studies (Lutz et al. 2004), the brain wave changes observed in novice meditators were astonishing but short-lived. Several weeks after the experiment concluded, a follow-up study was conducted to once again examine the brain wave patterns of the two groups of meditators, novice and experienced. Whereas the experienced meditators continued to exhibit the compassion wave at the same strength as before, novice meditators who had stopped practicing the compassion exercise no longer showed this change in their brain wave patterns. Therefore, ongoing practice of the techniques you learn in this book is important; otherwise you might begin slipping back into a stressed-out, autopilot mode. And this type of short-term neuroplasticity means that you’re always training your brain to do something. If you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing, you could end up training your brain to stress you out!

Gentle Reminders 

In this chapter, we introduced the idea that daily stress is a huge enemy in the quest to live the way you want to live. If you avoid, ignore, or downplay the importance of daily stresses, they can pile up and have a devastating impact on both your mood and your health. Therefore, we encourage you to take a more mindful approach to daily stress by paying attention to it and embracing it in a nonjudgmental way. This will help you think clearly about what matters to you in your life and then act intentionally, in ways that reflect your principles.

The tenets of neuroscience offer a fresh perspective on how you can train your brain to support a mindful approach to daily stress. You can directly train your brain to reduce the influence of harmful physiological and mental effects of stress while also increasing your ability to induce states of mindful awareness. But brain science isn’t a panacea for problems with becoming present and following through with your mindfulness game plan. You’ll have to commit to practicing new strategies and doing so persistently over time.

In our culture, we’re bombarded by messages to exercise more often as a way to strengthen our bodies and prevent disease. Yet people often twist their faces in distaste when the discussion turns to the virtues of brain training. For most people, the prospect of coming into contact with their mind on a daily basis seems to be much more aversive than engaging in vigorous physical exercise. In the next chapter, we’ll explore why this is. In large part, it happens because the mind doesn’t necessarily want to cooperate!

3 Quick Tips to Improve Confidence

Is a lack of confidence holding you back from the life you want to live?

By Renae Jarrett
Renae is available: Tuesday, 8:30am – 12:30pm and Thursday, 1pm – 5pm. Renee specialises in:Anxiety, stress, workplace issues, depression, substance abuse, communication issues, grief and loss, trauma, bipolar and life coaching. You can find out more about Renae at her profile.

People come to therapy for a variety of reasons such as anxiety, depression, work stress, relationship difficulties and substance issues just to name a few. However, in my clinical experience of working with a broad range of clients and their varied issues there is a consistent issue that crops up. Time after time it is reported that a lack of confidence holds people back from engaging with life in the way that they want to. The natural result of low confidence is inaction, holding back and living a smaller life.
When exploring confidence it is interesting to understand the history of the origin of the word confidence. ‘Con’ meaning with and ‘fidence’ coming from the Latin word fides, which is the root of the words fidelity and faith. So confidence literally means ‘with fidelity’ or ‘with faith’; that is being true to oneself.
When embarking on anything new or different or challenging it is normal for difficult feelings to arise. The urge to run away from these difficult feelings and to wait for feelings of confidence is a strong temptation however this is the antithesis of a confident action because the act of avoidance has no self faith.  The best thing to do is to feel the difficult feelings fully and engage in action. Mindfulness skills can help make the full experiencing of difficult feelings manageable. It is following the action of being true to oneself that ‘’confident’’ feelings begin to emerge.
When addressing your confidence issues I encourage you to consider:

1.       Identifying what is really important to you, what really matters to you deep in your heart? Clearly articulate your values and give due consideration to how you want to spend your finite time here on earth.

2.       Reflect on things that you have already achieved. Consider things which at one time, before you attempted them filled you with difficult thoughts and feelings. For example your first day at high school or starting a new job.

3.       Have an awareness of your body language and how you communicate to others. Stand tall with your shoulders back, look people in the eyes and speak clearly. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy reveals in this TED talk how standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident can help.
If you would like help and support to build your confidence and engage more fully in life please don’t hesitate to phone and schedule an appointment.

What is Occupational Therapy?

What does Occupational Therapy have to do with Mental Health?

There are times in life when it’s hard to think straight. Things don’t make sense anymore and sometimes we don’t even realise how much it’s affected us.

Our judgment can be foggy and we may behave in ways that are out of character. We can feel like strangers in our own body. Sometimes we can struggle to put one foot in front of the other and we stop carrying out the activities that are important.

The paradox of this, is that it can be these very acts of ‘doing’ that can help set us back on track.

Research has shown that participation in life’s activities is a defining factor in creating and maintaining an improved state of mental wellness.

Occupation Therapy has always been based around getting people engaged in the life they want to lead. Traditionally you may think of it as helping people rehabilitate after an accident, or sorting out the best actions and layouts for a safe and functional workspace. When it comes to people’s minds it’s no different.

In the mental health context, Occupational Therapy not only helps people unravel what’s behind mental challenges and resulting behavior, but sets about helping them to discover what’s individually important and to develop skills that help them to re-engage in meaningful activity. This understanding and encouragement towards taking practical steps helps to rebuild happy, healthy minds.

If you or your loved ones are struggling to get on top of things, and you’d like to learn more about how Occupational Therapy can support your needs and get you going again, make contact with our reception to have an OT from our service contact you.

Robbie Ellett

Mental Health Occupational Therapist
Phone: 1300 736 055