On Forgiveness

Forgiveness does not mean that we suppress anger; forgiveness means that we have asked for a miracle: the ability to see through mistakes that someone has made to the truth that lies in all of our hearts. Forgiveness is not always easy. At times, it feels more painful than the wound we suffered, to forgive the one that inflicted it. And yet, there is no peace without forgiveness. Attack thoughts towards others are attack thoughts towards ourselves. The first step in forgiveness is the willingness to forgive.

Marianne Williamson

The laws of physics state that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Many of us bring this law into our lives in the form of retribution. If someone has done us wrong, our natural tendency is to pay it back in equal measure. After all, if we follow some of the axioms around us, such as “What goes around comes around”, they would seem to suggest that we “get what we give” and “give what we get”. Or if we are taught to “do unto others as you would others do unto you”, you might feel that if someone has wronged you then they should get a taste of their own medicine.

Can you see how many axioms I’ve quoted in the previous paragraph that seem to support the law of equal force or return? We are predisposed to react in a certain way, and in certain situations a lack of an equal response may be viewed as being a pushover. If someone punched you, and you stood there and turned the other cheek, they might have just taken it as a sign to keep on doing so, because in their minds they would only stop when they get a response, because that is what they assumed most people would do – give a response.

So it may be difficult when someone suggests that when you are wronged, to forgive the other person. After all the law of equal measures means that there is a force that must somehow be suppressed or dissipated within you. This is exactly why it is suggested that we see forgiveness not as a suppression but as a miracle. Somehow, somewhere, we need to absorb the injustice by looking beyond our natural instincts. And we need to let it go.

We live in a world that is high on stimulus. Our world is filled with various things that fight for our attention – work stresses, texts, social media, social injustice, anti-social behaviour, advertising, entertainment – that our minds are more heavily bombarded than those of our parents’ generation. There is so much stimulus going on that we need to filter things out rather than bombard our minds with more triggers. So “attack thoughts” towards others are actually stressors on our own minds. Forgiveness is not often easy but it is a long-term way of saving ourselves.

Keeping personal accounts in the black

In life we all have moments of sadness and moments when we feel down. Sometimes, we rationalise in our minds the things that we could have done differently, the things we might have to have landed ourselves in a bad situation, and the things we could do to break out of this funk. All of these take up tremendous mental resources, leaving us fatigued, sometimes unable to find the energy to perform daily functions such as work, or keep up social commitments, which impact on other areas of our lives. Before we know it, we have slowly slipped into a depression-like state, and it is very hard to climb out of.

How do we define depression? I have sometimes looked at it from the perspective of a bank account. Depression is when you are in the red for many bank accounts. Physical energy? Low. Happiness? Low. Enthusiasm? Low. Money? Possibly low. The problem when you have many of such “Low” accounts is that when you try to fix one such account, you end up having to withdraw from another. When you need a change of scenery, and perhaps work is bothering you, maybe you need to spend funds you do not have to go on a holiday. Perhaps when your enthusiasm for life is low, and you need to do something about it, you have neither the energy of time. And when you do perhaps, splurge in order to meet an impulse need, you end up withdrawing a large amount from one of your accounts.

How did you get into that state and what can you do to avoid that? It is like sinking into a deep hole and trying to climb out of it. You can only slowly dig the sides of the hole around you, and then try to pile up the debris you have dug, to stand on, so that you are incrementally getting higher and higher and out of the hole. But digging takes energy which you don’t have, and some how you need to find the will to keep going.

But more importantly it would be better if you never got into the hole in the first place. If there is an area of your life that needs attending to, channel all the other resources into addressing it, so that it does not slide and drag the other areas along with it. And if you know someone who is depressed, just offer your time to listen, to let them talk. Often when you give suggestions, it is like asking someone to do things, drawing resouces from already depleted accounts. Depression is like a mental wall and talking to someone else is like removing a brick of the wall at a time.

Sliding doors

When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so long regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.

– Alexander Graham Bell

In daily life we have to achieve some sort of balance between direction and opportunity. And just what exactly do I mean by that? We have to have a certain idea of how we would like our life to be – that is our direction. This gives us a certain focus and thing to aim for. Without one, we just end up being washed along by the tide of ambivalence, going along with what is determined for us. It is good to have ideas and focus, but these need to be revised along the journey in life. We might want certain things from life, but these are visions which we have to balance with opportunity and reality. Harsh reality, some might say.

For example, you may wish to be an engineer. You may undertake your undergraduate studies but midway a family crisis may mean you have to go out to work to provide for the family, and have to abandon your studies temporarily for that purpose. Or you harbour thoughts of being a fashion designer, but cannot raise the finances to train for that. In both cases, you cannot merely just bulldoze your way to achieve your dream. At least, not without causing great distress to the world around you. The pursuit of your dream, without balance, will only cause you great unhappiness once your initial drive has stalled.

When our expected view of life meets reality, often the change that is imposed on us causes on temporary unhappiness, when we realise that we have to make changes. But instead of dwelling on what could have been, it is better to focus the energy on what could be. After all, it could be argued that today’s world offers so much variety, that too much choice is only more confusing. When one door closes, look at it as life filtering out your choices so as to limit and focus them more finely. When one of your many doors closes, look at it as you not having to consider that option in future decisions. And the ones that remain become better options, that are gradually more in tune with your life journey.

So don’t regret the closure of the one door. Try to see which of those that remain become better future options.

Thoughts on Depression

If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.

– Stephen Fry

 

Depression is one of the things that many people go through. I would even say many of us go through it, because I have, and I am sure that at some point in your life you will have had too.

And if you have not suffered from it before, perhaps it is hard to imagine what it would feel like. Sometimes you may even be dismissive of depression and its existence, you may – as I have been guilty of in the past – even think that sufferers are merely malingerers, unable to work and simply finding an excuse not to go to work or to get out of bed.

Depression is crippling. Those suffering may find that it gives life a somewhat negative filter. You look through it through a dark lens, and unfortunately when you are in that funk, it is very hard to get out of.

How does one lapse into depression? There are many reasons, but one of them is the result of going too hard, too long. Life has its various stresses, such as financial, family, work, and while at various points in life one of these stresses may surge and grow out of proportion in comparison to the others, and when you are under this stress and your attempts to initially fight it are rebuffed, then not only is it physically tiring, it is also mentally tiring as it sends your mind into overdrive, which tires you out, so eventually you may find that even though you may know what you need to do, you may actually lack the energy to do it, and the disconnect causes you depression, which becomes only sapping in itself.

Depression is something that must be worked through. It is a cycle of incremental gains, slow positivity, that helps one out of depression. And sometimes we find that the thing that has been causing us depression, is removed through time. For example, many men report depression in their thiries and forties, at at time when they have young children, when they experience life stresses of having to be the breadwinners while not being at home to see their child grow up, being away from home while wanting to be home, yet returning home only to have their spouses, tired from the stresses of looking after children, snap at them when they return. And they wonder why their wives suggested having children in the first place …? Do you know someone like that? This can easily cause someone to lapse into depression. But when children grow up, and these stresses are removed, the depression is lifted with time.

Perhaps it is worth considering the thought that depression is the disconnect of an overworked mind and a physically tired body. The mind has been going into overdrive and the body is tired, and the soul is unhappy because the body has no energy or mental will to do the things that need doing.

So whenever you encounter someone with depression, don’t offer advice. Don’t give them more mental triggers that tax their minds, and your advice, no matter how well-meaning, only drains their mental energy. Listen if your friend needs a listening ear, because in the course of talking through their troubles your friend may be relieved of them, and all the mental associations they spin off. You can help your friend mentally filter out the mental thoughts that cause depression. Help them do something physically active to work off the depression when they are ready.

To paraphrase Stephen Fry, if someone you know is feeling cold because it is snowing, you can’t help them by asking why it is snowing. Just huddle with them, keep them warm, until the snow passes. It is truly a noble thing that you can do.

Managing change

Change is something we all have to embrace. Some of us are more welcoming of it, while others are more resistant. There is nothing right or wrong about these attitudes, they are normal human reactions.

Why do some people welcome change? For some people, change brings variety and a new scenery – whether physical or mental – and being in a new situation creates a buzz of some sort. Being in a new situation brings new stimulus – mental and physical – which they enjoy.

For the others, the new stimuli is what they seek to avoid. They do not enjoy the new stimulus that comes with change.

But that does not mean we ought to criticise these people. When you look at why people avoid change, it may give you some insights into their life.

Let’s say you are a busy mother with three children, trying to balance a part-time job with running your family. Change for your children is good and exciting, but for you, the logistics of going to new places and clubs and doing new things may cause you stress. And if you move your children to a new home or school, this brings about new concerns that you may not have the capacity to deal with at the point in time.

So change is good, as long as you have the energy to deal with it. If you are in a stressful moment in life, then change is obviously not the thing to strive for. Try to adapt to a sense of calm normality in order for your inner spirit to equalize. There is nothing wrong to avoid change at that period in time. What we must avoid is to make over-generalisations about situations and our reactions to them.

Sometimes you can’t help but face change – and if you tend to react less positively about it, then focus your energies on changing the way you view the situation. Change the way you think, rather than fight the change – it may be less draining and less of an energy spend. Focus on building the new rather than fighting the old.

And if you are the sort that loves change and variety – enjoy it!

Change is inevitable. Life is full of changes, some big and some little. If there was none, we’d still all be babies in nappies. So we can’t go through life hating change and wishing there was none, but we have to see it as a natural progression of life, and manage it appropriately. If you like change, embrace it. If you dislike it, learn to manage it, and your reaction to it. Let that be your thought for the coming days.

Physical activity and depression

How do you deal with depression? How does it creep up on you? While the causes vary from person to person, it is certainly no argument that depression is a bad mental state to be in. Personally, I feel one of the reasons that depression happens is that there is a great disconnect between reality and expectation. And this gulf – and thinking about it constantly – is one of the reasons people get depressed.

One problem is that society builds us up to think that things should be rosy and ideal. We have sayings like “the world is your oyster”, we talk about loving your work and doing the things you enjoy as a career, and generally promote the that disconnect. For many people, especially young people, there are many things they would like to do – such as to travel, to work less, to enjoy life – but unfortunately reality and rising house prices means that they often have to do the opposite. We are often told that education improves your job prospects, yet the current market means that not only do you get deep in debt with a degree, but the lack of availability of jobs means that your degree not only does not count for much, but may work against you because you are overqualified.

And for many people, one of their rosy expectations of life is to be a blogger, one who earns money by writing, while going on holiday, living the dream by surfing. Unfortunately, like every other job, probably a small minority can manage that, while for the rest of us the income from that is unsustainable. But we are led to think this is possible, and by whom? Usually by those who have hidden agendas and can benefit from leading us down such paths – the travel industry, and the travel bloggers themselves (who usually make income by selling you ‘How I Made It as a Travel Blogger’ courses).

In my younger days I used to think I wanted to make a living from writing, and got hooked into the make a living from writing scene. The problem I found was that writers usually were trying to sell me courses, with actually no means of guaranteeing I would be successful or be able to make it as a career based on that. And the longer I got drawn into it, the longer I realised this was unsustainable and I would have to stop in order to prevent myself from harm.

It is my view that one of the initial causes of depression is the disconnect between practicality and dream. And dwelling on that, trying to resolve two impossible ends, is what sends the mind into overdrive and long term unhappiness.

What can you do if you are actively depressed? One of the things you can do is to change your environment. Do something to shake yourself out of the doldrums. Better yet, my suggestion is to do something different that involves physical activity. Why is that so? Because this helps your mind and body realign. You learn on a subconscious level how to realign the ideal and the practical together. For example, if you go for a run, you may initially run out of breath if you are going too fast because you haven’t paced yourself. Doing something physically active bleeds off the mental stress, and also helps you to understand what you want to do and how you have to take it slowly in stages. Physically activity is a great help in dealing with depression.

Did you know Martin Luther (the monk, not the civil rights activist) suffered from depression? He apparently conquered it by working on his garden, calming his mind through the activity. And perhaps one of the best suggestions is to do the task you least enjoy. You may find like many of us that depression arises often out of task avoidance too, of neglecting to do the things you need to do, and …. thinking too much of them.

Thought for the day: Do some physical activity. Bridge that mental disconnect.

And if you are feeling depressed, you can always try speaking to a counsellor, or ringing the Samaritans. It always helps to talk to a real person and get a sense of perspective instead of listening to the same thoughts over and over again in your head.

Expressing gratitude

Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

Have you noticed how people seemed to have forgotten how to say thank you properly these days? When you have a done a favour for someone, or gone out of your way, sometimes the only response you get is a curt “cool”.

This is not a rant at changing times or the slang of modern vernacular, or how the use of the words “thank you” are decreasing.

Rather, it is a look at how we have to be mindful of the way we express thanks.

Imagine this scenario. You have forgotten your phone and someone from your home has to bring it to you, knowing that perhaps it is an important element you cannot leave home without. If they make a big trek to your location, and all they get for the efforts is the phrase “cool” or “nice one”, how do you think they feel?

The problem with phrases such as “cool” or “nice one” is that they are sometimes uttered unthinkingly out of embarrassment, but they are so ungracious that it almost normalises the efforts of others, almost as if the extra mile they have gone was an expectation.

Be gracious for the things in your life and around you. And try expressing it fully to your fellow human beings.

Thoughts on love

To love someone is to acknowledge the goodness of who they are. Through loving a person we awaken their awareness of their own innate goodness. It is as though they cannot know how worthy they are until they look into the mirror of our love and see themselves.

It is an enlightening moment when we realise that if we truly love someone then we seek to allow them to do the things that are best for them and allow them to grow spiritually. A lot of the time we often hear things such as “I love you and I want to be with you”, where love gets confused with neediness. When we mix up the feelings of wanting to be with someone with love, that kind of love is a selfish love because it does not seek to give to the other but only looks to fill a need within ourselves. Much as we think are giving, to enhance the other, we are looking to them to give to us. That kind of love can be suffocating to the other person. When the other person feels that your presence is more because you get something out of the togetherness, and wants a bit of space, your need to be together, to “love” in your mind, can actually be misguided.

Let that be your thought for today. Instead of seeking to receive, seek to give in a way that is truly giving to the recipient, in a way that is not selfish, nor controlling, nor suffocating – that is love.

Recognising trauma symptoms can help deal with trauma

To fully understand the impact of trauma and complex trauma, practitioners will need to familiarise themselves with the primary symptoms of trauma. While each survivor’s reactions to trauma are unique and will vary from person to person and depend on the type of trauma, age, the frequency and duration of the abuse, and the relationship to the abuser(s), there are a number of commonalities.

It is crucial that survivors are helped to recognise that the physical and psychological reactions to trauma are normal responses which serve to protect us, and are elicited outside of conscious awareness or control. These reactions are like an emotional immune system, which instead of fighting invading bacteria or viruses, fights to protect us from harm.

To help survivors understand their reactions to trauma, practitioners need to be able to convey the following information in a way that is easily understood by the client and that makes sense to them. This can be supported with directed reading or self-help books such as The Warrior Within (Sanderson, 2010c). Persistent re-experiencing of trauma can be triggered by both internal and external cues. This means that even if the survivor is currently not in actual external danger, inner feelings and sensations can trigger a range of PTSD reactions. Given that they may already be in an elevated state of anxiety, it is easy to set off an already highly sensitive alarm system on the basis of internal physiological arousal. This is potentially dangerous as it prevents the survivor from recognising actual external danger and makes it hard to assess objectively the degree of safety.

To help survivors understand the neurological and physiological responses to trauma it is helpful to explore their knowledge of how the body reacts to danger. When in the presence of danger primitive biological mechanisms such as the alarm system are activated to aid survival. As a result the brain releases a cascade of neuro-chemicals which start a complex chain of bodily reactions, all of which are designed to protect us from the harmful effects of trauma.

Although the alarm system does not stop the emotional pain, stress or trauma from happening, it does cushion the trauma and helps us to deal with it.

The alarm system acts as an emotional immune system, which like the physical immune system, is activated outside of conscious awareness and is therefore not under our control. It is vital that survivors understand that whatever their reactions during the trauma, these were outside of conscious control and therefore they are not to blame or at fault for how they responded. Recognising this can dramatically reduce any crippling feelings of shame, self-blame, or guilt.

When the body’s alarm system is tripped and goes on red alert it sends signals to the brain to prepare for fight, flight or freeze. This sets off two crucial biological defence systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system mobilises high level energy necessary for fight or flight, while the parasympathetic nervous system slows down the heart and metabolic rate which results in the freeze response.

The two structures in the brain that regulate the alarm system are both located in the limbic system, the amygdala and the hippocampus. The role of the amygdala is to detect threatening information through external senses such as touch, taste, sound, smell or vision. The amygdala is responsible for determining whether incoming stimuli are desirable, benign or dangerous.

To maximise survival, this evaluation is instantaneous but crude and primitive in that it does not use deeper analysis, reason or common sense. This is why it is often referred to as the ‘fast and dirty route’. If the stimulus is life threatening, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released, which send messages through the nervous system to the muscles and internal organs to either attack, run or play dead.

The amygdala is highly sensitive to any danger and is easily activated to increase readiness to attack or defend (fight), run (flight) or submit (freeze). In contrast to the ‘fast and dirty’ route of the amygdala, the hippocampus is a much slower route in that it evaluates the external threat through deeper analysis using conscious thought, memory, prior knowledge, reason and logic. The hippocampus is also critical in laying down new memories and experiences. If the danger is truly life threatening, the hippocampus will send messages to continue with appropriate responses. If however the deeper analysis concludes that the stimuli are not dangerous it will send messages to deactivate the responses.

In most cases of threat these two structures work in harmony to balance appropriate responses to the situation. When the trauma is prolonged and repeated such as in complex trauma, the feedback loop that controls these two systems malfunctions and floods the body with high levels of stress hormones.

While these stress hormones are critical for survival, they are highly toxic and only designed to circulate for short periods of time so that the individual can get to a place of safety or remain safe until the threat is over. In the case of certain traumas such as CPA or CSA where the child cannot fight or run to safety, the only option is to freeze. This means that the stress hormones cannot be discharged and remain in the system, which can have a number of negative consequences, not least forcing the alarm system to remain on red alert, or ‘online’(Sanderson, 2010c).

Evidence shows that high levels of cortisol that are not discharged can lead to the destruction of brain cells which can affect the function and size of the amygdala and hippocampus (Gerhardt, 2004; Teicher, 2000). Such malfunction leads to increased arousal, fear and anger responses, as well as memory impairments. When the brain and body are flooded with chronic levels of stress hormones the hippocampus goes ‘offline’and is unable to accurately evaluate the degree of threat or danger. It is also not able to assess whether the danger is internal or external, or whether the traumatic incident is over or on-going, and cannot send the appropriate messages to the amygdala to deactivate the alarm system. This leads to the alarm system remaining on constant red alert and the continued release of stress hormones.

As a consequence the body responds as though the trauma is on-going, even after the threat is over. Over time the alarm system is reset on a default setting of ‘on’, with survivors feeling as though they are being repeatedly traumatised. This leads to a heightened or continuous state of danger, known as hyper-arousal.

This hyper-arousal forces stress hormones to continue to flood the body and brain, and the tyranny of post-traumatic stress responses. Since the hippocampus is not able to regulate the alarm setting, or halt the release of chronic levels of stress hormones, its ability to store new memories is reduced. This means that the trauma is not stored within context or time, making it seem as though it is continuous and never ending.

This in turn prevents the processing of the trauma keeping it ‘online’ with the same vividness and intensity as when the actual assault happened. Not being able to process the traumatic experience makes it harder for survivors to store it in memory or to recall it leading to amnesia, or incomplete or fragmented memories. A crucial goal in recovering from complex trauma is to bring the hippocampus back ‘online’ so that its function can be restored to regulate the alarm system to evaluate danger, and differentiate between internal and external threat.

Prolonged release of high levels of stress hormones impacts on physical well-being leading to a range of physical problems such as hypertension, physical exhaustion, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), sleep impairment, and digestive, respiratory and endocrine problems. In addition, chronic fear reactions and high levels of adrenaline evoke waves of overwhelming anger which survivors cannot release for fear of consequences, thereby creating even further stress. Hyper-arousal also affects concentration and the ability to reflect on or process experiences, preventing survivors from making sense of their experiences.

While the alarm system can activate three alternative reactions – fight, flight or freeze – in most cases of complex trauma, especially when it occurs in childhood, there is only one option: to freeze. The freeze response is designed to conserve energy so that the individual can escape when the danger is over. Young children are not able to outrun or fight an adult effectively, and are thus left with no option but to freeze.

While the freeze response protects the individual from the greater threat of the consequences of fighting back or running away, it is often experienced as passive submission. This can make survivors feel as though they were weak in not fighting back or running away, which can lead to shame, self-blame and guilt. It is important to convey to survivors that realistically children are not able to escape, especially if the abuser is a significant figure in the child’s life such as a parent, relative or priest. In that moment they are both powerless and helpless.

However, the sense of submission can often haunt them and leave them feeling ashamed that they did not do more to prevent the abuse. This is also true for adults who are in thrall to an abuser who has power and authority over them. The freeze response also protects individuals from the full impact of the pain of the abuse.

As the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, a sense of calmness descends on the brain, slowing everything down, and the body begins to feel numb in order to cushion the anticipated pain and the emotional terror of the trauma. Once the danger is over, these reactions fade and the stress hormones are discharged through movement.

Understanding the responses to trauma and conveying them to individuals suffering from them can help them recognise their own reactions and how to deal with them. This will empower them and give them the confidence to break free of the hold traumatic experiences have on them.