Healing Trauma with Compassion

by Lisa McLean

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How would you live if you were able to live the life you choose, if you lived without fear?

Dr Deborah Lee, Head of Berkshire Traumatic Stress Service and South Central Veteran’s Service in the UK, asked participants to reflect on this thought provoking question during her recent Australian workshop and keynote address at the University of Queensland’s Compassion Symposium in September, 2018.

My own response to this question did not relate to physical courage – despite having a fear of heights. I did not imagine suddenly taking up sky-diving or abseiling, or tightrope walking.  Instead, I imagined what it would be like to live without social fear - to not worry about the judgement of others, and whether or not I would be accepted and valued by them. I thought about how it would change the choices I made if I no longer worried what other people thought of me.  It was clear, my life would be quite different!

As Dr Lee explained, the fear of how we are perceived by others has an evolutionary function.  We are highly social organisms and the threat of being rejected by and disconnected from other members of our group results in us perpetually monitoring our place within the broader social system.

We Are Wired for Connection and Belonging 

So what does this mean for people who have experienced interpersonal trauma or as Dr Lee framed it, those who have been “hurt and harmed at the hands of others”.  If we are wired for connection and belonging, how do we make sense of experiences that involve other members of our social group, especially those who are closest to us, when they act in ways that violate our safety, freedom, and dignity.

Unfortunately, the way many people who have been harmed by others make sense of this experience is to blame themselves, and to carry with them a burden of shame and self-loathing.  This leaves them feeling alone and disconnected from others. When you believe you are shameful, it is easy to assume that others will think the same.

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Experiences of interpersonal trauma can lead to the development of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD). The 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11, World Health Organisation, 2018)[1] defines Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as “a disorder that may develop following exposure to an event or series of events of an extremely threatening or horrific nature, most commonly prolonged or repetitive events from which escape is difficult or impossible (e.g., torture, slavery, genocide campaigns, prolonged domestic violence, repeated childhood sexual or physical abuse).” 

Dr Lee highlighted the sobering reality that consistent with this definition, complex PTSD is entirely preventable.  It only exists because another person (or people) made a choice to cause harm, quite often during formative periods of development, resulting in physiological and psychological changes to the way someone perceives and relates to themselves, others, and the world around them.

These experiences can leave those who have been harmed with debilitating symptoms, including the re-experiencing of the traumatic event/s in the form of flashbacks and nightmares, avoidance behaviours to reduce exposure to any reminder of the original traumatic content, and hyperarousal due to chronic activation of the fight/flight system.  Additionally, complex PTSD involves severe and pervasive problems relating to managing difficult emotions, relationship stress, and negative self-perception.

Is Compassion the Antidote?

In her workshop for health professionals, Dr Lee demonstrated through empirical evidence, reinforced by insightful case studies, and experiential exercises how Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) has the potential to effectively respond to the debilitating impacts of complex PTSD. As Dr Lee explained, calm minds think differently, and CFT facilitates this process. Unlike a traumatised mind, which maintains a state of fear and shame, a compassionate mind responds to suffering with kindness, courage, warmth, wisdom, and strength.  In other words, Dr Lee suggested a compassionate mind perspective recalibrates the brain and body to develop the skills that are linked to resilience and well-being. These are skills that would have been present for survivors of interpersonal trauma had it not been for the experiences they endured through no fault of their own. 

Whilst complex PTSD is indeed preventable, Dr Lee’s workshop helped participants develop a sense of hope and encouragement that it is also treatable. If the cause of complex PTSD is characterised by a lack of compassion, the provision and cultivation of compassion may offer the perfect antidote to promote healing.

Dr Lee started her Australian workshop by acknowledging the pivotal moment she attended training facilitated by the founder of Compassion-Focused Therapy, Dr Paul Gilbert, and how it changed the way she understood and worked with clients who had experienced interpersonal trauma. I have no doubt that anyone who attended her Australian workshop and/or keynote address will be recalling their experience in the same way and have been transformed in the way they work, and inspired by her warmth, wisdom, and passion. 

[1] Retrieved from https://icd.who.int/browse11/l-/en#/http://id.who.int/icd/entity/585833559

Can We Expect Compassion from the Banking Industry?

by Lynne Reeder

(Article originally published in 'The Courier', 5th July 2018)

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We can – but only if the new science of compassion is understood.

Following the banking crisis of 2008, investigations in many countries revealed an industry that at times had lost its social focus. Ten years on the stories from the Royal Commission into banking, including that of the former Tasmanian farmer Michael Hirst are unfortunately providing similar examples of insensitivity. In his evidence Hirst claims that his banking group never showed his family any compassion in its dealings with them. While another family were told to sell their farm and home and then were threatened with bankruptcy if they didn't come up with $300,000 within eight days.

Banking executives have accepted that their conduct has fallen well below community standards and expectations. But they have also said that, ‘while these stories of farmers are sad - nonetheless, what they were doing was to pursue their contractual rights to get paid the money that belongs to depositors’.

This statement goes to the heart of the problem. Any business that focuses purely on the bottom line of financial return, regardless of its treatment of employees or customers will create environments that are lacking in compassion and will be unpleasant to work in, or be served by. In addition such views underestimate the complexity required in running large organisations today.

Businesses have multiple groups to whom they are accountable, and many are now recognising that managing corporate reputations requires much more than simply meeting contractual duties.

Co-founding editor of Wired, John Batelle once wrote that ‘business is humanity’s most resilient, iterative and productive mechanism for creating change in the world’.

Banking organisations can only create positive change if they recognise they have both a social and economic contribution to make. Economist, Ross Gittens recently noted that while the business of producing and consuming, earning and spending is and always will be vitally important, it needs to be kept in its place. An economics-obsessed nation is not likely to be a happy, fulfilled nation he concludes. 

The science of compassion as a motivation has a contribution to make to these current debates. Humans have a range of motivations and these motivations include defending themselves against harm, seeking to belong in groups, forming attachments with parents, and as we grow older seeking our own relationships and caring for our children.

Amongst these motivations two of the basic social motives are to:

·       Compete with others, focus on self-advancement (self can include kin and group) control resources, and accumulate;

·       Cooperate with others care and support, for others especially those less fortunate and share rather than accumulate.

The problem with these two motivational systems is that they can produce intense conflicts. Humans have a powerful competitive and acquiring motivation, which tends to turn off other motivational systems that are linked to caring and supporting others. For example, when we are focused on our tribal identity we can be very hostile to people we see outside our group, while at the same time be very caring to those we see within our group.

So for people to engage with the work of compassion it is important they understand about compassion. Compassion is not about being overwhelmed – it’s not about sinking into other people’s pain – compassion is not about being superficially nice, so that people will like you – and it’s definitely not pity, or about patronising others, it’s not about weakness,  softness, or letting people off the hook when they cause harm.

Prof Paul Gilbert, Director of the Compassionate Mind Foundation, UK says that ‘at the core of compassion is courage - the courage to descend into the reality of the human experience’. In calling for more compassion in business we need to understand what a compassion motivation system actually is.

Research has shown there is three parts to compassion:

1)    paying attention and noticing suffering in self and others.

2)    working out how to respond to that suffering within the context it is arising.

3)    creating a sense of self that seeks to avoid carelessly or purposely causing suffering.

This is very important for business and competitive behaviour, because humans will always compete. But when they also become dissociated from, or don’t notice or are indifferent to the suffering they are causing, then that becomes an issue. Gilbert states that the human mind is very tricky and it is very easy to get individuals to turn off their compassion motivation.

Businesses need to be aware of the motivations and behaviours they reward in their staff, because if they do not find a way for competitive businesses to operate within a moral arena then increasingly businesses will be quite happy to make money for their shareholders and themselves, regardless of the harm they are causing to their employees, their customers, or indeed the societies in which they operate.

While businesses are beginning to realise that employee well-being supports profitability and sustainability the compassion question is much broader. The emerging science of compassion based in extensive research is providing new insights into how we can improve our capacity to ‘see’ suffering – because when we are able to ‘see’ suffering then we are better able to address it.

These concepts are important in the banking industry because what the current banking Royal Commission is highlighting is that bankers are often working with people at very vulnerable stages of their lives - some that have life changing consequences.

Science is now studying human motivations, in particular focusing more on understanding the positive qualities and motivations of the human mind, which include compassion, altruism and empathy.  

In his new book, Living Like Crazy, Prof Gilbert points out that developing a compassionate mind creates certain patterns in our brains that organizes our motives, emotions and thoughts in ways that are conducive for our own and other people’s well-being.’

Organisations need to better understand that once they have provided their employees with an underlying motivation that organises their motives, emotions and thoughts, and behaviours then those are what will emerge within the organisation. If individual self-interest promoted, then individual self-interest is the way the organisation will go and employees that find that difficult will simply leave.

The point is that a self-interested competitive motivation (not all competitiveness needs to be self-interested) will organise the mind in a particular way – one that is more likely to focus on profit and bonuses, rather than on the wider impact of those decisions. Clients and customers are often simply not ‘seen’ in a scenario of personal and windfall gains.

If the banking system and indeed all corporate organisations are to engage with compassion then they need to appreciate the power of evolved human motivations. While banking executives may have stated that there are no KPIs for staff to maximize the amount of money made from the sale of assets – it is clear that the sales culture of the banking system rewards employees through incentives such as bonuses, salary, and promotions. And as Peter Drucker reminds us, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.

In order to become proficient at noticing what motivation is guiding us, and what emotions are being stimulated, all of us, including banking executives, can learn to be more attentive and mindful. This means is that we come off automatic pilot and start to notice and be aware of what we are actually thinking feeling and doing. How often do we drive home, put the car in the garage and realise that we don’t really remember the drive because we’ve been thinking of something else. Neuroscience tells us that it is very easy for humans to live without attentive awareness.

There is now considerable evidence that becoming more mindful of our emotions, motives and behaviours and making compassionate choices enhances well-being not only of ourselves but also of those around us. Mindfulness allows us to choose what motivation is most conducive to our own, and other people’s well-being and to activate deliberately our prosocial and compassionate motivation.

The science of human motivations needs to be studied if compassion is become part of corporate business. Prof Jane Dutton and Monica Worline in ‘Awakening Compassion at Work’ write that we need to develop ‘compassion competence – so that we are capable of noticing, interpreting, feeling and acting in effective ways when alleviating suffering in the workplace’. Their research is showing that managing with compassion can be learned and developed through practice.

A ‘better world is better for business’ according to the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella.  In his recent book, Hit Refresh he concludes that is why ‘corporations need to think about the impact of their actions on the world and its citizens long into the future’.

As corporations navigate their economic and social impact - the science of compassion can now assist them in keeping both their competitive and cooperative motivations in clear sight.

Dr Lynne Reeder is an Adjunct Research Fellow at Federation University Australia, and the Founder of the Mindful Futures Network at Australia21. As a member of the Compassionate Ballarat Steering group, she is working to bring the science of compassion to organisations within Ballarat.



Holding on to Self-Compassion in the Midst of 'Mummy Guilt'

By Tiegan Holtham

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I fell pregnant with my first baby when I was 27, years after I had started working on taming my inner critic.  I knew there would be doubt, yet I felt prepared – what could really go wrong? Luckily I was surrounded by people willing to let me know just how much we were messing it up.

The most unexpected twist I discovered along the journey into motherhood was the sheer amount of judgement and guilt that is foisted upon new parents by virtually everyone - health providers, family, friends and an alarming number of strangers.

Some of my favourite comments:

“Oh the poor love is tiny, aren’t you feeding her?”

*wearing baby in a carrier* “Oh is that one of those new hippy things that lets mummy be lazy?”

“Holding her again? You’ll regret it when she’s older, you need to leave her to cry more”

For every developmental stage there was a new round of don’ts. It was exhausting. A brand new baby means brand new parents, who definitely don’t have all the answers. It was far too easy for my critical voice to worm its way in with doubts and fears.

 “I’m terrible at this! She deserves a better mother than me”

“I yelled again! I’m such a horrible parent”

Hormones and sleepless nights aren’t a great mix either, and often it wasn’t just my baby crying. Parenthood is hard. It is years upon years of questioning, “Am I doing the right thing?”

Honestly, having a little self-compassion was the only thing that saved my (and our) sanity.

Luckily, research suggests it’s not just me. 

Recent research out of Canada found self-compassion to be associated with lower stress and depression in parents of children with developmental disabilities, and in parents with a history of depression, those with more self-compassion were less critical and responded with less negative emotions to difficult situations. It seems that self-compassion isn’t just helpful for parents, but good for their children as well.

In a recent Australian study 262 new mothers were given access to brief online resources which outlined simple techniques to increase self-compassion. Although only half had the time to participate, those that did reported feeling more self-compassionate and less stressed, and were more satisfied with their breastfeeding experience.

Another Australian study asked 61 parents to complete either a loving-kindness meditation (LKM) or a matched control focused imagery exercise. They found that most parents enjoyed LKM, with 60% saying they would continue to do it weekly. Parents in this group were more motivated to treat themselves compassionately, and showed more positive (calm and sympathetic) and less negative (frustrated and angry) reactions to difficult child behaviours, than the parents in the control group. The researchers suggested that LKM “might help to support parents’ well-being, their capacity to be less reactive in responding to child distress, and their capacity to cultivate compassionate responses to their child.” Interestingly, parents who practiced LKM were no more motivated to treat others compassionately, so it may not help you resist telling off the next stranger who insults your parenting approach.

The evidence stacks up. Guilt and doubt may be a part of the parenting experience, but it doesn’t have to be.

For me it came down to taking a breath, and realising that feeling miserable about being a terrible parent wasn’t actually making me a better one. What helped was to step back, let go of all the expectations of what I should be doing and focus on enjoying being with her. Babies grow up so fast – it really is worth slowing down and enjoying the journey.

Other things that can help:

  • Find supportive people. It’s not important to agree on everything, but is important to be respectful of each other’s parenting choices.
  • Find time, every day, to do something soothing and enjoyable. Even a few minutes savouring a coffee counts!
  • Talk to others about the good, the bad and the ugly – parenthood can be isolating when we aren’t sharing what is really going on. It’s good to be honest and ask for help when it’s needed.
  • Think about all the fun and enjoyable aspects of parenting, and what we love about the little people in our lives. 
  • Try a loving-kindness meditation (like this one https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/loving_kindness_meditation )

  • Take a self-compassion break:

    •  First – acknowledge this is a difficult moment with a comment like “this is tough, I’m finding it really hard”
    • Second – remind yourself that you aren’t alone. Most parents struggle with the same things – and there are probably millions of others experiencing a very similar moment right now!
    • Third – offer yourself kindness. This can be a comment like, “May I be kind to myself while we get through this”. I often find it helpful to check in with a question, “what do I need right now to feel calm and soothed?”

There is no way to get self-compassion wrong, as long as it is coming from a genuine desire to improve our wellbeing and to be kind to ourselves. Who knows, we may discover we aren’t doing such a bad job after all.


How Self-Compassion Can Help Teens De-stress - Mindful

How Self-Compassion Can Help Teens De-stress - Mindful

In a 2014 national survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 31 percent of adolescents aged 13 to 17 said that their stress increased in the previous year, and 42 percent said they were not doing enough to manage their stress. Adolescents who experience frequent stress are more prone to depression and perform worse in school.

How can teens foster emotional well-being during this often-turbulent time of life?

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