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Tag: tolerance

The Recipe for Trauma Recovery; Rwanda and Resilience

Trauma happens on many social levels including very intimate violence, to car accidents, to terrorism, to genocide (and many other levels in between). Following the visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial as well as talking with Rwandans about the recovery process, we have discovered many parallels in terms of how trauma manifests, when symptoms show up, and what kind of response is effective.

People in this country who survived the genocide have spent the last 20 years rebuilding their country as well as trust between people. The children who were orphaned have grown into adulthood and, while life is clearly not easy for many, there is movement beyond their horror and loss. Re-integration between survivors and perpetrators is occurring now and very strict laws are in place to eliminate racial division (which have been very effective by the way); these two things must occur together in order to prevent further violence. Rwanda has done an excellent job in the first phase of recovery from trauma. Naturally I cannot help but to compare.

Trauma therapists know that there is a certain recipe for recovery that is necessary to lift ourselves out of our past. Here is a general description:

1. Safety must be established first. Basic needs must be met.
2. Acknowledgement that the bad thing happened.
3. Validation that the bad thing was indeed bad and any kind of associated grief is appropriate.
4. An appropriate response must be offered. Responsibility must be appropriately assigned.
5. A plan for justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, letting go must be developed.

Generally if a trauma is acknowledged, that is the first necessary ingredient for moving towards trust (in others and in safety). Often in the United States, we get stuck here. It is very difficult for us to acknowledge the bad thing without blaming the survivor or denying it all together. Unfortunately a survivor of some sort event is often put on a timeline for recovery, is blamed for what happened to them, are not believed, and of course the other ingredients can only be added if the basics are addressed.

Rwanda has been able to do several things that has allowed the country to move towards healing. The first, as mentioned before is the acknowledgement that racial division is dangerous; it is not allowable to identify people based on ethnicity. One Rwanda One People. The second is responding appropriate by building community and helping people in concrete ways. There has been a significant effort to provide justice to survivors at a community level; survivors have a voice in that process and it is very intimate. As a result, Rwanda is now the safest country in Africa and has crime rates lower than the majority of states in the U.S. Citizens are required to give back to their community every month (it’s the law!). As a result, Rwanda is spotless; there is no trash anywhere! Rwanda’s economy is stable and strong and growing. There are laws supporting women~for example there must be a certain percentage of women in governing positions. Leveling the playing field between ethnic groups and gender has fostered a very stable and growing economy; one of the strongest in region.

Rwanda has figured out how to recover and thrive following a very recent and horrific tragedy in their country; we can all learn from what they have done.

Rwanda's recipe for recovery
Rwanda’s recipe for recovery

Mindfulness: All it Takes is a Moment

I’ve been running short on time lately, which has threatened one of my most important personal self-care strategies, and one I often recommend to my clients: mindfulness.  When I mention this to folks they usually state: I don’t have time for that! In most cases, what they are in fact thinking they don’t have time for is meditation. Yes, many of us do not have time to sit cross legged on a pillow with our eyes closed, focusing on our breath and nothing else. I agree with that (and suffer from the same challenge!). Fortunately, mindfulness is a little bit different. The technical definition is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the well-established Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction model.

So, if you look at that definition, true mindfulness just takes a moment! Okay, okay, after years of practicing a moment here and there, I now do try to get 10-30 minutes of meditation in my daily schedule (because of the further health benefits which I will detail in another blog post). However, most days, I find myself squeezing small doses of mindfulness into my lifestyle to encourage this beneficial practice and, quite simply, to give myself a shot of pleasantness here and there. This is important because our minds need a break at times, AND, when it comes to pleasant emotions and experiences, our minds are wired like teflon: Nothing sticks. We’ve got to apply mindfulness of pleasant moments here and there like a vitamin so we can counterbalance all the doubt, fear, pain and stress we encounter on a regular basis.

Traumatic experiences and unpleasant emotions like fear and sadness, unfortunately, DO stick. Stress is like velcro in the mind. Why? Because this was important for human survival. Evolution shows us that humans had to face the demands of a threatening environment and HAD to consider safety and react quickly to sustain life. We were lucky to survive until our reproductive years, so pleasant moments might not have been as important as the emotion of fear and the hormones of adrenaline and cortisol we needed for survival.

Now, though, we are living longer and we no longer face the saber tooth tiger or other previous threats. Unfortunately we are hardwired to still have adrenaline and cortisol coursing through our systems, and long term that can be detrimental to our health.

So, start small and counteract this biology by attempting to shift out of auto-pilot and into the present, moment-to-moment experience of your life. Think of a small child who has a sense of wonder about them (maybe start by watching little children and observing how they take in their experience without judging, often noticing the physical sensations rather than jaded thoughts or emotions).

All mindfulness takes is pausing to be more aware of your thoughts, feelings and body sensations. There is no success or failure, it’s simply paying attention (relaxation, having an empty mind or suppressing thoughts or emotions is NOT the goal, that is an incorrect belief many people have about meditation). If a recording would help, take 5-7 minutes to try these online, from the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) in California.

Practicing this behavioral skill can actually help you develop a greater tolerance for the reality of what is occurring within yourself, and often allow the amazing opportunity for choice and strategic change. So just check in, see how you’re doing, and then respond with mindful awareness (this practice also makes those pleasant moments and positive hormones that much easier to access when you are in distress).  Then contact me to join ITTC’s mindfulness groups to cultivate your practice and decrease your stress!