“You have planted a seed,” he tells us, before we all go off to bed. “Other ways, like medication and just talking, weren’t working or were too difficult, or even if good, like prayer, were not enough. But this seed is now becoming a tree and it is bearing fruit.”
We are in Port-au-Prince this week doing an Advanced Training in Mind-Body Medicine with 120 Haitian health, mental health and education professionals and caregivers. Please look for more posts in the days to come. More info on our Global Trauma Relief program in Haiti can be found here.
We move during the rest of our week in Haiti from one group of health professionals and community leaders to another. It is a slow progress through the traffic jams in Port-Au-Prince’s rubble-narrowed streets, and sometimes even slower over the gorged-out, flooded dirt roads that take us to Bishop Pierre Andre Dumas’ diocese in Anse-a-Veau, three hours outside the city.
We use a variety of techniques in our workshops, including explanation of the fight-or-flight and stress responses, meditations, guided imagery, and shaking and dancing. We also do a drawing exercise that has been enormously helpful to children and adults in war, post-war, and post-disaster situations, in Kosovo, Gaza, Israel, and New Orleans, and with US military. For a while, everyone—bent over paper, crayons in hand—becomes young, earnest, playful, surprised.
The drawings allow people to tap into their intuition and imagination without effort. As a series of pictures unfolds, they find themselves creating images they’d never imagined, sketching solutions to problems that seemed insoluble.
In Haiti, we guide our groups through three drawings. The first picture is of “yourself,” the second, “you and your greatest problem,” and the third calls for “the solution to that problem.” (We modify the exercise when we use it with children: read my post about using the drawing exercise with Haitian children in the General Hospital.) Afterwards, participants share their drawings in groups of two or three, telling what they see in what they’ve created and how it makes them feel. Then they have the opportunity to share with the entire group.
As you will see, the results are often touching, and almost always surprising.
Here are a few examples and snapshots of the workshops in which they are created:
For L’Institut Haïtien pour la Doctrine Sociale Chrétienne (Haitian Institute for the Christian Social Doctrine)
Such wonderful, accomplished people: 100 of them—physicians, architects, lawyers, police officials, business men and women. All, in this time of crisis, are renewing their commitment to the welfare of those who have suffered even more than they have. They tell us about the terrible sadness—their own, and others—and about unaccustomed irritation that surfaces at home and at work, as if, somehow, angry will could restore what has been lost.
An obstetrician/gynecologist, tall, broad-shouldered, powerful and handsome in a bright, tailored shirt, has come “for rest and peace—I have not slept since January 12th.” He says he works “always” to forget the loss of his house, the deaths in his family—his sister, nieces, nephews—as well as to care for his patients. In his second drawing (a picture of his biggest problem), he is inside a tunnel, tiny as an ant, lost, unable to touch the equally tiny figures outside. In the third (a picture of his problem’s solution), the figures are larger, recognizably human. They are dancing together and he is laughing, “for the first time since the quake.”
For Anse-a-Veau diocese—nuns, priest, lay brothers
Out in the countryside a couple days later, we are meeting with priests, nuns, and lay brothers in Bishop Dumas’ diocese. It’s like rural Africa out here: lush, green and very still, faded pastel cottages with tiny yards in which seeds, sown or thrown, produce a few vegetables and fruits. We begin and end our visit with Bishop Dumas’ blessing and simple ceremonial meals: tiny, boned, tender white fish, rice, beans, greens, fresh lemonade and thick coffee.
The religious, in straight-backed chairs, are as still and elegant as the statues in the porticos of Chartres. They are so attentive, so sweet tempered amidst the flood of suffering, homeless, city people that the earthquake has forced back to the countryside. One priest draws a scene of despair—“The Cross of Death—Good Friday without Easter Sunday,”—and then, in his third picture, much to his amazement, produces a sun that covers the page with radiant yellow. “It’s the sun of freedom. Together we can overcome.”
They dance, too—nuns, brothers, and priests together—as freely and as happily as children. Before we finish in mid-afternoon, another, older priest calls the Bishop from the next diocese. It turns out he would like us to come there.
More soon about another workshop, this time with the Haitian Red Cross staff and volunteers . . .
We keep our sessions as simple and clear as we can: an introduction to fight-or-flight, stress, and trauma, answers to their questions, and three lessons.
Here they are:
1. Slow deep breathing with the belly soft. This, we explain, is the antidote to the flight or flight and stress response that the earthquake has inscribed in the kids’ minds and bodies. Soft belly will quiet their physiology, slow their racing thoughts, give them a little perspective on the flashbacks of dead bodies, the horror of loss and the ambush of fearful anticipation. Knowing—feeling—that they can breathe deeply and relax, they will have a small but important sense of control in world where so much—whether or not they can concentrate or sleep, where they live and how they will make a living—is, or feels, beyond their power to affect.
You can experience a relaxing guided Soft Belly meditation here, at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s website.
2. Later we do some shaking and dancing so they can let go of fixed patterns of physical tension and mental preoccupation; can feel their bodies moving freely; can raise their energy, lift their mood, and lower their anxiety. They clap and laugh and shout and afterwards, flop happily onto their hard seats.
3. We also explain the value of sharing here in the classroom, at home, or with a friend, the pain they feel and the fears and concerns that arise.
Many of the kids would like us to do more, to tell them where they can go to practice the techniques and talk to others. For now, I say, “you have each other and your families. We are giving you these techniques, written in French. Practice them at home and we will come back to your school. Soon we will be training many people, including some of your teachers, to do this with you.”
The story of how CMBM’s model helped Andre, a Haitian boy, overcome feelings of grief and guilt, coming soon . . .
Some thoughts on Jonah Lehrer’s article from The New York Times Magazine, February 25, 2010.
In his article on the possible evolutionary purpose of sadness, Jonah Lehrer, a talented writer and knowledgeable scientists confuses an adaptive mechanism –the capacity for greater focus that the rumination of depression may afford – with a therapeutic one. Even more important, he does not address the causes of depression and, in accordance with his emphasis on enhanced problem solving, limits his discussion of therapeutic efforts to cognitive change.
Work with many hundreds of depressed people in my psychiatric practice and tens of thousands more in war, post-war and disaster situations around the world gives me a very different perspective and leads me to different conclusions. So many of us are depressed because we are living at variance with both our genetic programming and our need for meaning and purpose. We are affected so dramatically by losses of relationships, jobs, etc. because we are not sustained by the adequate social support that is a hallmark of traditional societies. We are subject to an unprecedented level of stress and overstimulation in our environment, to toxic food, and sedentary ways of living that are anathema to our evolutionary development and detrimental to our mood. Many of us lack a sense of purpose in our lives, a connection to something greater than ourselves that gives human life meaning, and can give us hope in difficult times.
The symptoms of depression – both the rumination on what went wrong and why that Lehrer focuses on, and the lethargy, hopelessness, decreased interest in sex and food that go along with it – are best understood and responded to not as an evolutionary advantage but as a wake-up call. They let us know that it is time to address the conditions that are creating the imbalances in our lives; to use food and exercise, meditation and imagination to improve our biology and enlarge our perspective, and to reach out to others—therapists, clergy, family and friends—who can help us. The true purpose and challenge of our depression is to wake us up to what is wrong in the way we live, to point us toward ways to become more fully human.
In Haiti three days of “memorializing the dead,” of prayer and fasting have begun.
Shortly after we arrived yesterday afternoon, Star and I crossed the street and walked down the ragged line of incongruously bright new tents that front the road. An open space gives us entry, and we wander through the maze of living and cooking spaces, a large, older white man, a small, younger black woman whose “bonsoirs” are often returned with smiles.
We reach one boundary of the encampment formed by a four-story concrete building which has been crushed like a paper hat. A young woman with an infant greets us. The baby is a little thin, a little dour, a little jumpy. Her name is Miranda, and she is two months old. Miranda’s mother shows me a place on her head where the nearby building had quite literally fallen on her. It hurts still, a month after the earthquake, and so do her neck and back. I go into her tent to take a look. There is great tension and tenderness at the site of her injuries. I do some gentle manipulation, and she smiles with relief. I reassure her that in time the symptoms will subside and remind myself to bring acupuncture needles next time.
Others have not been as fortunate as Miranda and her mother. One woman’s two children have been seriously injured and are still at the hospital. Another’s aunt has died. A third is missing her husband. A fourth has lost the sight in one eye. The pain from injuries received in the earthquake persist. Memories of loss and unspeakable terror seem to have attached to and continually restimulate the pain—the ever-present physical replaying of the catastrophe, the physical manifestation of psychological trauma and ongoing distress. Some “cannot remember the simplest thing,” or “make any decision.” The blind woman fears that she will not receive medicine without money to pay for it. No one sleeps well. All are fearful of further loss or injury, or—they are not quite sure what.
And, indeed, the situation is enormously stressful. The tents, which look so good, just arrived yesterday, brought by the French Red Cross. . For a month, these people have been sleeping in the open. “We have a committee,” says Wilson, Miranda’s father, “to organize ourselves.” And they are indeed cooking communally. “But we do not have toilets, or other necessary sanitation.” There are no doctors readily available to them, or medicine, or replacements for needed glasses lost, or hope for more adequate or permanent housing, or indeed, much communication with the world beyond the tent city. As we are leaving, Wilson invites us to share the rice that half a dozen families are beginning to eat.
More in days to come.
Day 1, part 1 of 2–Arrival
There is a weight to the air; we begin to feel it at the border where we enter from the Dominical Republic. We can smell it, too, in the swirl of dust that forces some to wear masks, in the acrid edge of burned and burning building materials. It grows heavier as we bump around flanks of rubble on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. In the city, it roughens our voices and presses tears from our eyes.
Happily, surprisingly, we have a place to stay—in the Coconut Villa, a hotel near the airport that is an undisturbed island amidst collapsed houses. Across the street, several thousand Haitians live in tents.
Rosemary Murrain, Star Myrtil, and I are here to see if our approach can help bring psychological relief to the people of Haiti—and to see if we can work with and find support from the large international agencies that are funded to bring food, housing, schools, and emergency medical care to the people. Our approach, which combines such mind-body techniques as meditation, guided imagery, biofeedback, and yoga, self-expression in words, drawings, and movement, and small group support, has made sense to and worked remarkably well with war- and disaster-traumatized populations in Kosovo, Macedonia, Israel and Gaza, in post-Katrina New Orleans, and with US military returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s practical, easy to learn, and feels right to people who are trying to gain control over the thoughts, feelings, and memories that overwhelm them in the wake of catastrophe. We’ve published the only randomized controlled trial (RCT) of any invention of any intervention for war-traumatized kids. It showed an 80% decrease in symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in Kosovo high school students, an improvement that was maintained at three months’ follow-up. More recent studies on 1,000 children and adults in Gaza show similar sustained gains in spite of the ongoing constraints and tragedy of life there. Altogether, the several thousand clinicians, teachers, and community leaders’ we’ve trained have made our CMBM model available to hundreds of thousands of children and adults around the world.
Rosemary is CMBM’s new Director of Finance and Administration. Immensely capable, unflappable, fluent in French, she’s an MBA student who has helped to create and lead educational programs throughout Africa. She’s in charge of the logistics that brought us on our journey here, and she will help create necessary partnerships. She’s also, I say with pride, my goddaughter. Star is her friend, a Haitian living in Florida, leading women’s programs there and fluent in Creole as well as French; a human bridge for us to Haiti and to its people.
I’ll post more this afternoon, about our visit to the tent city outside our hotel and the people we met there.
The Christian Science Monitor featured an article on our Healing the Wounds of War program in the Middle East! Ilene Prusher interviewed some of our Gaza trainees, and myself, to write this thoughtful piece. She also notes that it is the one-year anniversary of the Israel siege on Gaza, “Operation Cast Lead,” which devastated the people and landscape of Gaza, and from which they are still struggling to recover a year later.
Here is an excerpt of the article, but I hope you check out the original, with some pictures and related stories on Gaza and the Middle East, here.
Gaza war anniversary: How one group helps victims overcome trauma
By Ilene R. Prusher Staff writer / December 28, 2009
Rawya Hamam was watching her son deteriorate. Hisham wouldn’t sleep, clung to her incessantly, and said he wanted to go back into her belly so he’d be safe. “Grandma is lucky she died so she doesn’t have to live here now,” the boy told his mother.
It’s not a normal statement to expect from a five-year-old child, but neither were these normal times. A year ago, at the outbreak of war between the militant Palestinian group Hamas and Israel, anything resembling a normal life disappeared into a violent maelstrom that wreaked unprecedented destruction on the Gaza Strip. More than 1,400 Gazans were killed, according to a Palestinian count, in a campaign the Israeli army named “Operation Cast Lead,” with the aim of getting Hamas to stop the daily launch of occasionally fatal rockets onto Israeli communities. Thirteen Israelis were killed in the three-week war. . . . keep reading
We’re so thankful for the recognition of our work in Gaza, alleviating psychological pain and suffering, and all of the work we do, both in the Middle East and here in the US teaching health and mental health professionals to learning to handle their stress and incorporate mind-body techniques into their practice through our Mind-Body Medicine Training as well as our Healing Our Troops program. These warm, caring professionals we train use their skill and wisdom to help families recovering from disaster, like those who survived Hurricane Katrina, as well as working with troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and their families.
(If you kept reading my post, don’t forget to check out the rest of the original CSM article with pictures and related stories on Gaza and the Middle East, here.)
My piece, “Some Simple Steps for the Stressed-Out: Psychiatrist Offers Simple Steps for Coping with Uncertainty,” on dealing with stress from the economic downturn, appeared on the front page of the Washington Post Health Section today.
A middle-aged, working-class woman recently came to my medical office complaining that her back had “seized up.” Her husband had lost both his jobs and was feeling quite disheartened; not long after, her blood pressure had “jumped though the ceiling” and she began sleeping poorly.
Another patient came to see me suffering from crippling anxiety attacks. He had lost the better part of his considerable fortune in the economic collapse. Now he was waking in the middle of each night feeling his chest crushed, unable to breathe, half fearing and half wishing he would die.
I have been practicing psychiatry for 40 years, but I’ve never seen this much stress and worry about economic well-being and the future. There is a sense that the ground is no longer solid, that a system we all thought would sustain us no longer works as we were told it would. In the past, when patients reported job-related stress, it was from unfulfilling work and the anxiety of making choices. “Should I stay in this job that I can’t stand and keep feeling so unhappy?” they would say. Now, I hear about unmeetable mortgages, months without work, fears of ending life in a low-paying, entry-level job. “What went wrong?” my patients say. “What could I have done?” “How can I manage?”
In this uncertain time, symptoms of chronic illnesses — hypertension, back pain, diabetes — that were controlled or dormant are erupting. Low-level depression, whose hallmarks are feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, is endemic.
Large numbers of people across the country are trying to quiet their apprehension with drugs or drink, or have turned to antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications and sleeping pills. But after decades working not only in Washington but also with war-traumatized populations overseas, I’ve found there are simple strategies for helping people cope that are easy to learn, practice at home and, in these stressful times, free.
1.Begin a simple meditation practice. Loss — of jobs or economic security, as well as of a beloved person — is perhaps the greatest and most common of stressors, and the most frequent cause of anxiety and depression. Slow, deep breathing — in through the nose, out through the mouth, with the belly relaxed and soft, and the eyes closed — is a sure “evidence-based” antidote to the stress response that uncertainty provokes. Practicing this “soft belly” technique several times a day for several minutes each time quiets the “fight-or-flight” response that makes people anxious and agitated, and brings us what cardiologist Herbert Benson famously called “the relaxation response.” Financial advisers, child-care workers and soldiers back from a second tour in Iraq with whom I’ve worked have all found, in this simple practice, a source of calm.
2.Move your body. With the possible exception of talking with a sympathetic, skilled human being, physical exercise may be the single best therapy for depression. It’s very good for anxiety as well. Exercise has been shown in animal studies to increase cells in the hippocampus, a region of the brain concerned with memory and emotion, which can be depleted by significant psychological trauma (and financial stress is one of the most significant traumas) or chronic depression. Exercise increases mood-enhancing neurotransmitters in our brains, and decreases the levels of stress hormones that exacerbate chronic illness.
It may not be easy to get moving when you’re feeling defeated, but every step you take, literally as well as figuratively, will encourage you to take the next one. Make sure you do something physical that you enjoy or once did enjoy. Aerobics or yoga classes may feel overwhelming or too expensive. Don’t worry: Dancing at home by yourself works just as well, and so does walking. Exercise is often the first item on my prescription pad.
3.Reach out to others. Human connection — to family, friends, co-workers in the same boat — is an antidote to the sense of aimlessness and isolation that may come from job loss or unexpected economic insecurity. Social connection also helps prevent the chronic illness that can often follow prolonged stress. I see the healing power of group membership every day in mind-body skills groups that colleagues and I organize, when a group member, demoralized and humiliated by job loss, realizes he or she is not the only one. Acknowledging and sharing (but not indulging) this sense of grief and pain is a remarkable source of strength for many people.
4.Find someone who will listen and help you take a realistic look at your situation. When the middle-aged woman with the “seized-up” back came to see me, we discussed her finances as well as her feelings. Although her husband had lost his jobs, her own job, in the health-care industry, was still secure. She and her husband would have to give up some of the “little luxuries” to which they’d been accustomed, but it was clear they could still manage. She needed to relax (using the soft-belly technique), recognize what she could and couldn’t do, give her husband a fair share of the household chores while he looked for another job, and generally unburden her mind, body and spirit. This simple exploratory conversation — and a subsequent heart-to-heart with her husband — allowed her to turn aside the cascade of anxious emotions. Her body began to repair itself.
5.Let your imagination help you find healing — and new meaning and purpose. The wealthy man who came to see me last winter paralyzed by anxiety attacks after losing much of his fortune was able to put his own trauma in perspective by using his imagination.
Though he still was, by most standards, wealthy, his sense of himself as a wise, sure-footed investor had been shattered. He did soft belly breathing to relax and began to cut out and copy pictures from magazines that seemed to him somehow hopeful. He spent days, he told me, copying a photo of a man his age, a grandfather apparently, standing with his arm around a young boy on the verge of the hole where the World Trade Center had been. “The tragedy in the picture is so much greater than my own,” he said, “and I realized that what’s really important is the connection between this man and boy, the hope for the future. I drew it, and I really started looking for this connection in my own life — a connection with meaning now, not money.”
Other patients find relief and assistance from imagining themselves in a safe place and consulting their inner “wise guide” to help them find peace, direction and meaning. This may seem kind of strange at first, but it’s an ancient process used in many indigenous cultures and is actually pretty easy.
First, after breathing deeply and relaxing, imagine someplace safe and comfortable, one you know or one that just arises at the moment in your imagination. As you sit there, you allow your “guide” to appear. Accept whatever image appears — a wise old man or woman, a relative, a figure from scripture or literature, or even an animal. Mentally introduce yourself, and ask this guide a question about what’s troubling you, and then “listen” to the response that comes into your mind. Let the dialogue with you and this guide continue. Often helpful guidance will emerge from your own intuitive understanding.
6.Speak and act on your own behalf. Sometimes this produces rapid and even material benefits: One patient, a financial analyst, talked to her colleague about impending cutbacks; they forestalled a layoff by offering their supervisor a job-share alternative. Often speaking up for yourself produces valuable information and greater peace of mind and clarity: An anxious nanny finally asked her employer, who was herself experiencing a significant decrease in income, if her own job was secure and discovered it was; an IT consultant, asking his boss for a straightforward response, discovered his job was likely to be eliminated and began the search for another job, early, unsurprised and still employed.
There are two common denominators to these six strategies for dealing with and healing from financial setbacks and the unnerving feeling that the ground has shifted. All of them remind us, in times when the economy has made us feel powerless, that there are things we can do to help ourselves. And none of them costs money.
You can read the original article here.
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Thanks for reading, and I hope the techniques in the article will be useful to you and to everyone in these difficult times.