RESILIENCE IN A HURRICANE SHELTER

 As a new Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer, I had no idea what to expect in my first visit to a hurricane shelter. Would the Hurricane Irma evacuees be freaked out? Would they be unable to cope? Would they feel helpless or hopeless? What I saw was actually the opposite. I learned the true meaning of resilience in the face of disaster in that hurricane shelter.

The shelter residents I visited, some of whom were homeless even before the storm, and others who had no idea if they would have a home to return to, displayed optimism and strength despite their circumstances. I have been contemplating what made them so resilient. I learned that their resiliency came from caring for each other, rather than isolating themselves in despondency and despair. In addition, many of the evacuees called on their religious or spiritual strengths, and were able to create meaning from their traumatic experiences. These are all keys to resilience in the midst of difficult life transitions.

Keys to Resilience

Columbia University psychology professor and resilience researcher George Bonnano has described what he calls “multiple and sometimes unexpected pathways to resilience”[i] in the face of profound grief and trauma. I witnessed a myriad of these pathways to resilience among those in the hurricane shelter: the ability to find meaning and purpose in life in difficult circumstances; compassion and care for others; the belief that we can learn and grow from all life experiences, both positive and negative; the ability to call on our spiritual beliefs and strengths in challenging times; and the ability to maintain a sense of humor.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, describes meaning making as a key to survival in his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning.[ii] Frankl concluded that those who survived the Holocaust and thrived thereafter had found meaning in their circumstances. They chose to call on their spiritual strengths, love and compassion with the knowledge that every moment of living, even in suffering, can have meaning. Frankl’s fellow Auschwitz prisoners who banded together to help and protect each other were more likely to survive than those who gave in to hopelessness and despair.

Resilience in a Hurricane Shelter

The Red Cross hurricane shelter I visited in Miami was vast, and seemed impersonal at first glance. However, many of the hundreds of evacuees housed there transformed their cots into mini-homes that expressed their diverse personalities. Some came to the shelter alone; others came as multi-generational families. It didn’t matter if they were rich or poor, Black, White or Latino. They created a community and bonds based on their shared experience.

I saw individuals bond and create what seemed like small village communities within the larger community of the shelter. I witnessed deep listening to each other. When we open ourselves to hearing others’ life stories and beliefs, we develop deeper respect and empathy and an appreciation of our shared sorrows and joys. This in turn gives us further strength and resilience.

I have seen time and again in my work as a psychotherapist the healing power of compassion for others. In fact, I have often prescribed volunteering to depressed clients as a way to ease their tunnel vision and self-focus. When we allow room for others in our hearts, we gain a broader perspective about our own problems. We feel less alone as we share our humanity.

The compassion displayed by the hurricane evacuees, in the midst of trauma and life-changing uncertainty, was truly inspiring. For example, I saw a young woman befriend and support a frail older woman, feeding her and advocating for her medical care. I saw a group of seemingly hardened Key West men talking together about their life experiences – both shared and disparate — from a place of true empathy and caring.

Many of the evacuees told me of their strong faith and inner resolve, and how it helped them at this deeply challenging time. In my work as a grief counselor and psychotherapist, I have heard similar expressions of spiritual strength in the face of adversity As a result, my therapeutic approach is strength rather than pathology based. I see my work as helping clients realize their inherent and innate strength and goodness.

A number of evacuees wanted to tell me their life stories, some of which were heartbreaking to hear. As a therapist with a specialty in narrative therapy, I know that people create meaning by telling their life stories, as a way to reinforce that their lives have had, and continue to have, meaning.

The amount of laughter I heard in the hurricane shelter was a refreshing surprise. I was reminded of the many hospice team meetings I have attended, hearing reports of imminent death, grief and family challenges interspersed with many moments of levity. A sense of humor brings a sense of perspective, and takes us out of the tunnel vision of hopelessness and despair. Many of the men and women in the hurricane shelter wanted to tell me jokes and funny life stories. It was an honor to share their joy in the midst of sorrow, and it was an honor to be reminded in such a poignant way of our shared humanity and resilience.

 

__________________________________

[i] Bonnano, G. (2004). Loss, Trauma and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive after Extremely Aversive Events? American Psychologist, Vol. 59, pp. 20-28.

[ii] Frankl, V. (1946, 2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.

 

LETTING GO IS NOT GIVING UP


“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.
None but ourselves can free our minds.”

–Bob Marley, Redemption Song

We resist the idea of letting go because we tend to equate it with giving up or surrendering to another’s will. When we let go and accept what we are actually feeling and listen to what another is saying, compassion and freedom can arise. In contrast, when we immediately guard or defend ourselves, we cannot hear what another is actually saying. In addition, when we reflexively defend our position, we are dissociating ourselves from our emotions and the truth.

How to Let Go

The first step in letting go is to experience our feelings in a direct, non-judgmental and honest way. The best way to do that is to take a breath and feel your bodily sensations. For example, if someone says something to me that seems judgmental or accusatory, my go-to reflexive response is to immediately defend myself and my position. When that happens, the tension between us escalates, and neither of us truly hears what the other person is saying.

When I am mindful and take a step back before automatically reacting, I can hear both what the other person is asking, and what I am feeling in response. In his book Emotional Rescue: How to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You , Dzogchen Ponlop calls this taking a “mindful gap.” Taking a pause rather than immediately reacting allows me to hold the present moment, feel the energy in my body, and look directly at my experience, without creating extraneous thoughts or story lines.

Using the example of someone saying something to me that seems judgmental or accusatory, when I take a mindful step back and observe my bodily sensations, I may feel a tightness in my heart. I breathe into that tightness and find that what I am feeling is hurt and sadness. Then I can get perspective and can choose to respond in a responsible way, hearing the need the other person is expressing rather than my hurt feelings. This does not mean that I give up feeling hurt, but rather, take responsibility for it in a compassionate way. I can then let it go and respond in an empathic and responsible way.

From Emotional Slavery to Emotional Liberation

This process is described by Marshall Rosenberg in his seminal book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life : “We take responsibility for our feelings, rather than blame other people, by acknowledging our own needs, desires, expectations, values and thoughts.” This is the key to compassionate communication and healing our relationships, with ourselves and all others.

The result of taking responsibility in this way is what Rosenberg calls “emotional liberation.” Freedom occurs when we experience and take responsibility for our feelings, understand what another needs and what we need, and make requests that are in accord with our needs. As Bob Marley notes in Redemption Song, when we own our feelings, we can free ourselves from “mental slavery” and let go.

_________
References:

Bob Marley, Redemption Song. © 1980. Kobalt Music Pub. America o/b/o Fifty-Six Hope Road Music Pub. Ltd. and Blackwell Fuller Music Pub. Ltd.

Dzogchen Ponlop. (2016). Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion Into Energy That Empowers You. New York: Tarchen/Perigee. https://www.amazon.com/Emotional-Rescue-Emotions-Transform-Confusion/

M. Rosenberg. (2015). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. 3rd edition. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.https://www.amazon.com/Nonviolent-Communication-Language-Life-Changing-Relationships/

(c) 2016 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved

FREEING YOURSELF FROM FEAR: AN EMOTIONAL RESCUE APPROACH

Fear is one of the most powerful emotions we experience. The power of fear can be overwhelming, and can activate the brain’s flight, fight or freeze automatic response. In his new book, Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You*, acclaimed Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop offers an effective mindfulness approach to working with powerful emotions and freeing ourselves from their grip.

I recently had the opportunity to use Dzogchen Ponlop’s “Three Step Emotional Rescue Plan” as described in Emotional Rescue to work with my experience of fear when I make a perceived mistake. In reflecting on this emotional reaction, I realized that I had not previously identified what I was feeling as fear. I was afraid that allowing myself to experience the intensity of fear would overwhelm or paralyze me. I guess you could call this “fear of fear.”

Neuroscience teaches that when we experience an intense experience like fear, our amygdala or reptilian brain reacts automatically for survival by going into fight, flight or freeze mode. My brain reacts to fear about making a mistake by going into fight mode. In fight mode, I tend to overdo things by trying to make up for the supposed mistake, apologize needlessly and endlessly, or go overboard to justify my actions so I look good.

Rather than alleviating my fear, my automatic fight response becomes more of a habitual pattern, creating deeply entrenched neural pathways in my brain. It is like a highway with no exit ramp. The signposts on this highway in my brain include perfectionism, depression, self-doubt and loss of confidence. By working with Emotional Rescue’s three-step plan, I found, much to my relief, that the plan provided an exit ramp for this heavily trafficked highway of mine.

MINDFUL GAP

Dzogchen Ponlop calls the first step of the Emotional Rescue Plan Mindful Gap. Ponlop says this gap is like hitting the pause button on our DVD player. Taking this pause or time out allows us hold the present moment, feel the energy in our body, and look directly at our experience, without creating extraneous thoughts or story lines.

I took a deep breath as a way to hit the pause button and not go into my habitual fight mode. Taking that breath, I experienced a shaky tightness in my gut and a quickening of my pulse. By being in my body, rather than in my head, I was able to experience the raw, naked energy of my fear. I also noticed my tendency to concoct a whole story in my head, in which I create a scenario of being judged, criticized and even rejected because I made a mistake. By being with my direct experience of fear, on an energetic bodily level, I was able to let go of those thoughts. It was such a relief not to go there.

CLEAR SEEING

The second step of the Emotional Rescue plan is called Clear Seeing. This step allows us to gain perspective and see the big picture. Clearly seeing helps us get to know and create a relationship with our emotions, their triggers and patterns. By working with this step, I was able to look directly at my fear. I got to know it, rather than trying to avoid it, as I had habitually done in the past. I also came to better understand, with compassion and kindness toward myself, my fear trigger when I make a perceived mistake.

LETTING GO

Creating a mindful gap and clearly seeing leads naturally to the third step of the Emotional Rescue Plan: Letting Go. Letting go entails naming an emotion when it comes up, simply and without judgment. Naming the emotion effectively decreases its intensity and power. Naming the emotion of fear, I was able to look at its energetic qualities, deepening my acquaintance with it, and learning what my experience of fear is telling me on a non-verbal level.

Using the three-step Emotional Rescue Plan allowed me to look, with a sense of compassionate curiosity, at my fear. This in turn allowed me to let go of my unreasonable need to be perfect. I have become well acquainted with the experience of fear in my body so that it no longer overwhelms and overpowers me. It is easier now for me to feel compassion for myself. Breathing into compassion for myself further lessens fear’s grip. I can then extend my compassion outward, to all of us who suffer from fear when we make a perceived mistake. I know that I am not alone in experiencing this, and this knowledge has further freed me from the grip of fear.

I can now welcome fear when it arises as a friend that has something to teach me. As soon as I recognize it in my body, I can say, through taking a mindful gap, clearly seeing and letting go, “Hello, my friend Fear. What do you have to teach me today?

*Dzogchen Ponlop, Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You. New York: Tarchen/Perigee

http://www.amazon.com/Emotional-Rescue-Emotions-Transform-Confusion/dp/0399176640/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1458830746&sr=1-1&keywords=emotional+rescue+dzogchen+ponlop

MAKING FRIENDS WITH PAIN AND OVERCOMING SUFFERING

You may have read the title of this article and thought to yourself, “Why would I want to make friends with pain? I’ll do anything to avoid it!” Paradoxically, it is only through acknowledging and going through the pain of our suffering that we can then work with it, overcome it, and achieve happiness. As the Dalai Lama has said,

We have to relate the Four Noble Truths to our own experience as individual human beings. It is a fact – a natural fact of life – that each one of us has an innate desire to seek happiness and to overcome suffering. (The Dalai Lama)[i]

The Four Noble Truths that the Buddha taught provide a universal framework for the practice of Buddhism. This small book can be viewed in the context of this basic teaching of the Buddha after he gained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in India.

The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. Until we find a way out of our own unhappiness through our individual path toward healing and growth and our spiritual practice, we are stuck in the endless cycle of samsara. Like a hamster on a wheel, humans tend to do the same things over and over, and wonder why we’re not getting anywhere and staying miserable.

The Second Noble Truth describes the cause of our suffering, that is, our attachment to our thoughts, our possessions, our negative beliefs and emotions, and above all, our clinging to a solid sense of self.  It is difficult to let go of these attachments. They become habitual patterns. We mindlessly perpetuate these patterns, wondering why things never change. Both psychotherapy and Buddhism provide tools in this regard to help us mindfully disengage from our negative habits and tendencies.

The Third Noble Truth teaches that our suffering can actually cease through our letting go of our belief in a solid self and coming to understand on an experiential level that all phenomena are empty of a solid self and are impermanent, always changing if we stop long enough to notice. This is so difficult for us humans. It is so hard to let go of our habitual tendencies and our thoughts. Enlightenment, “lightening up,” is possible, however, through practicing on our path with patience, discipline, diligence and above all, compassion and gentleness.

The Fourth Noble Truth describes the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. The yearning to let go of the habits that cause our suffering is universal. Sometimes, we use unhealthy means in our attempt to escape suffering. We find, however, that there is no escape from doing the work if we want to heal. We have to lean into our pain and go through the suffering to get to the other side.

Only through leaning into and experiencing our pain can we transform our suffering and develop compassion, true understanding, healing and growth.

 

[i]Dalai Lama, H.H. (1997). The Four Noble Truths. London: Thorsens.

TREATING TRAUMA AND GRIEF: A HIERARCHY OF NEEDS

John was referred to me for counseling after his wife was killed by a drunk driver in a head-on collision witnessed by John.  Mary came to see me for grief counseling after her husband died a painful and horrific death from cancer.  Louise is seeing me to deal with intrusive memories of her brothers’ emotional abuse when she was caring for her dying father.

These three situations are different in many ways – different relationships, different coping mechanisms, different types of deaths.  However, each of these individuals is experiencing traumatic grief.  It might be more accurate to say that they are experiencing the effects of trauma that are preventing them from processing their grief in a healthy way.

Through my work with many clients experiencing traumatic grief, I have come to understand that trauma must be processed before the loss of a loved one can be processed in a healthy way.  This truth brings to mind “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.”

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who posited that basic physiological needs, such as food and shelter, and then safety and security, must be attended to before one can accomplish “higher” needs, such as a sense of belonging, and ultimately, self-actualization and the achievement of one’s potential.  The classic diagram for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a pyramid, with fundamental physical needs at the broad base of the pyramid, and self-actualization at its pinnacle.

In describing self-actualization, Maslow (1943) said:

“[S]elf-actualization… refers to the desire for self-fulfillment.  This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”

The prioritization of needs to be attended to in the work of healing trauma and grief strikingly parallels Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  This hierarchy is reflected in trauma therapies like EMDR, which works first on the physical realm, then the behavioral, cognitive, emotional and ultimately the spiritual realm of existence.

The physical effects of trauma can be tremendous.  Many traumatized individuals have difficulty sleeping due to intrusive images and thoughts.  They are often hyper-vigilant, leading to imbalances in the adrenal and other bodily systems. These physical effects can lead to other dire effects, such as deep depression and suicidality. It is thus critical to treat these physical effects of trauma as the first priority.  Moreover, if one is experiencing the physical effects of trauma, it is virtually impossible to process the loss of a loved one in a healthy way.

Moving up the pyramid, once physical symptoms are managed, it is necessary to deal with the behavioral dysfunctions that often result from trauma.  For example, a person trying to cope with trauma may turn to drugs or alcohol in a vain attempt to ease the pain.  He or she may also self-isolate and cut off sources of social support.  Finding healthy ways to cope and and cultivating support are important in healing trauma and grief.

Cognitive work can be seen as the next priority in processing trauma.  Negative self-beliefs go hand-in-hand with trauma.  For example, the surviving partner of a sudden or violent death may believe “it’s all my fault.” An individual dealing with an abusive relationship may believe “I don’t deserve love.”  Cognitive therapeutic work is thus necessary to let go of the power of such erroneous thoughts.

Once the grip of erroneous negative self-beliefs is loosened, and those beliefs are replaced with positive and healthy beliefs, one can then go about the work of healing grief.  The intense emotions and unpredictability of grief can be navigated successfully on the broad base of physical well-being, healthy ways of coping, and positive beliefs.

The healing of grief, like working to achieve the stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, is a process of transformation and spiritual growth, i.e., self-actualization. The fruition of this process includes a sense of acceptance and realism, self-compassion and compassion for others, independence and interdependence, and an appreciation of life in all of its impermanence and imperfection.

References:

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50, 370-96.

Maslow, A.H. (1943). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.