We have become aware of people contacting us but thinking they’re not getting a response. There may be a good reason! Please read on. . .
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The most likely occurrence is that our email reply has been sent to your junk folder (and not your inbox). We ask everyone to please check and add us as a safe sender. This is particularly true of those using outlook or hotmail.
It is important to remember our email support ends in .org.uk and not .co.uk or .com.
Did you get an auto response message when submitting a message online? If not, there is a good chance it didn’t send correctly. Also, our email support system sends an auto reply. If you did not get one, something may have gone wrong and we kindly ask you to try again or look in your jump or spam folder.
If you don’t provide an email address, we may be unable to respond to your message. This is because our email support is only set up to respond to those people who provide a working email account. We will be able to make contact using a phone number, but this will cause a delay in getting back to you.
When you send an email message, we usually need more information before we can support you further. This is because we have to keep you safe, and ensure you get the right help. If you do not get back to us with the information requested, we may be unable to support you fully until we do.
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Sometimes we have responded but the time isn’t right for that person. They may chose to not opt in to services, or not engage with us. That is fine, and we are here when you need us and when you are ready. As mentioned above, Harmless will not confirm or deny if that person has or hasn’t responded unless we have consent. If a loved one has said we have not made contact, it could be they are not ready to engage. Remember, seeking support is often a difficult and daunting experience. This is especially true for those who may have been let down by services elsewhere. We would encourage family members and friends to support them during this distressing time, and seek help themselves in the meantime. We have a friends and family leaflet available if you need it. Also, we hold a monthly drop in service which often helps overcome barriers and challenges of accessing support.
Harmless aim to respond to emails within 5 working days, however, this may increase during busy periods. Please bear with us.
We do not get funding for our email support service. This is paid for by Harmless’ own generated income such as donations and training sales. That means we sometimes have to prioritise our funded face to face services during peak times. This can lead to a delay, but this is rare.
We are here to support you for as long as you need, but Harmless and The Tomorrow Project do not have the resources to provide immediate responses. If you need urgent help, we encourage you to contact one of the services below:
Samaritans on 116 123 (Listening support available 24/7, for all ages)
SaneLine 0300 304 7000 (Out of hours support service for those aged 16 and over, available 4.30pm until 10.30pm)
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis and need support, you can text SHOUT to 85258. (The service is available to all ages, available 24/7)
Childline at www.childline.org.uk (Phone, webchat, or email service for those aged 18 years old and under, available 24/7)
Hope Line on 0800 068 41 41 (For young people under the age of 35, open 10am – 10pm weekdays; 2pm – 10pm weekends; 2pm – 10pm bank holidays)
The Mix at www.themix.org.uk/ (Phone, webchat, or email service for those aged under 25 years old, opening times vary)
If you have an urgent medical problem and you’re not sure what to do, please contact NHS 111 (Available to all ages, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
Finally, on the very rare occasion your email has been overlooked, please contact us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org directly. Your email is important to us, and we are here to support you. We know that people who reach out to us are often in distress, and we are here for you as best we can. Remember, life can get better with the right help.
“Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play. “
Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play. If you don’t give a child food, the damage quickly becomes visible. If you don’t let a child have fresh air and play, the damage is also visible, but not so quickly. If you don’t give a child love, the damage might not be seen for some years, but it’s permanent.
But if you don’t give a child art and stories and poems and music, the damage is not so easy to see. It’s there, though. Their bodies are healthy enough; they can run and jump and swim and eat hungrily and make lots of noise, as children have always done, but something is missing.
It’s true that some people grow up never encountering art of any kind, and are perfectly happy and live good and valuable lives, and in whose homes there are no books, and they don’t care much for pictures, and they can’t see the point of music. Well, that’s fine. I know people like that. They are good neighbours and useful citizens.
But other people, at some stage in their childhood or their youth, or maybe even their old age, come across something of a kind they’ve never dreamed of before. It is as alien to them as the dark side of the moon. But one day they hear a voice on the radio reading a poem, or they pass by a house with an open window where someone is playing the piano, or they see a poster of a particular painting on someone’s wall, and it strikes them a blow so hard and yet so gentle that they feel dizzy. Nothing prepared them for this. They suddenly realise that they’re filled with a hunger, though they had no idea of that just a minute ago; a hunger for something so sweet and so delicious that it almost breaks their heart. They almost cry, they feel sad and happy and alone and welcomed by this utterly new and strange experience, and they’re desperate to listen closer to the radio, they linger outside the window, they can’t take their eyes off the poster. They wanted this, they needed this as a starving person needs food, and they never knew. They had no idea.
That is what it’s like for a child who does need music or pictures or poetry to come across it by chance. If it weren’t for that chance, they might never have met it, and might have passed their whole lives in a state of cultural starvation without knowing it.
The effects of cultural starvation are not dramatic and swift. They’re not so easily visible.
And, as I say, some people, good people, kind friends and helpful citizens, just never experience it; they’re perfectly fulfilled without it. If all the books and all the music and all the paintings in the world were to disappear overnight, they wouldn’t feel any the worse; they wouldn’t even notice.
But that hunger exists in many children, and often it is never satisfied because it has never been awakened. Many children in every part of the world are starved for something that feeds and nourishes their soul in a way that nothing else ever could or ever would.
We say, correctly, that every child has a right to food and shelter, to education, to medical treatment, and so on. We must understand that every child has a right to the experience of culture. We must fully understand that without stories and poems and pictures and music, children will starve.
Dance — and physical activity — should have the same status in schools as math, science and language. Psst: it may even help raise test scores, says Sir Ken Robinson.
For several years, I’ve been a patron of the London School of Contemporary Dance. In 2016, I was invited to give the annual lecture in honor of founding principal Robert Cohan, and I decided to talk about the role of dance in schools.
Before the lecture, I tweeted the title “Why Dance Is as Important as Math in Education.” I had a lot of positive responses and a number of incredulous ones. One tweet said, “Isn’t that going to be one of the shortest lectures ever?” Another said flatly, “Ken, dance is not as important as math.” One person tweeted, “So what? Telephones are more important than bananas. Ants are not as important as toilet ducks. Paper clips are more important than elbows.” (At least that was a creative response.) Some responses were more pertinent: “Is that so? Important for what and to whom? By the way I’m a math teacher.”
I’m not arguing against mathematics — it’s an indispensable part of the great creative adventure of the human mind. It’s also intimately involved with the dynamics of dance. Instead, this is an argument for equity in educating the whole child. I’m talking about the equal importance of dance with the other arts, languages, mathematics, sciences and the humanities in the general education of every child.
Dance can help restore joy and stability in troubled lives and ease the tensions in schools that are disrupted by violence and bullying.
What is dance? It is the physical expression through movement and rhythm of relationships, feelings and ideas. Nobody invented dance. It is deep in the heart of every culture throughout history; dance is part of the pulse of humanity. It embraces multiple genres, styles and traditions and is constantly evolving. Its roles range from recreational to sacred and cover every form of social purpose.
Some people have long understood that dance is an essential part of life and education. In Dance Education around the World: Perspectives on Dance, Young People and Change, researchers Charlotte Svendler Nielsen and Stephanie Burridge bring together recent studies of the value of dance in all kinds of settings: from Finland to South Africa, from Ghana to Taiwan, from New Zealand to America. The low status of dance in schools is derived in part from the high status of conventional academic work, which associates intelligence mainly with verbal and mathematical reasoning. The studies collected by Nielsen and Burridge explore how a deeper understanding of dance challenges standard conceptions of intelligence and achievement and show the transformative power of movement for people of all ages and backgrounds. Dance can help restore joy and stability in troubled lives and ease the tensions in schools disrupted by violence and bullying.
A number of professional dance companies offer programs for schools.One of them is Dancing Classrooms, a nonprofit based in New York City, which brings ballroom dancing into elementary and middle schools in some of the most challenging districts in the country. Using dance, the organization aims to improve social relationships especially among genders and to enrich the culture of the schools by cultivating collaboration, respect and compassion. Founded in 1994 by the dancer Pierre Dulaine, the program now offers each school twenty sessions over ten weeks, culminating in a showcase.
Toni Walker, former principal of Lehigh Elementary School in Florida, shares this story from working with Dancing Classrooms. “When this young lady first came to Lehigh, the file on her was probably two inches thick,” Walker recalls. “She felt she needed to prove herself and make sure everyone knew she was strong and would fight.” The girl didn’t want to join the ballroom dancing program … but participation wasn’t optional. Soon, she found she had a natural ability. “In the next lesson, she had a little bit of a different attitude and we didn’t have to fight with her to dance,” Walker remembers. “She just got in line.”
By the third and fourth lessons, Walker says, the student was transformed: “She carries herself differently; she speaks differently; she is kind; she is respectful; she has not had one [disciplinary notice], not one. Her mother can’t believe what she sees. It’s amazing. Amazing. The program is far greater than people understand.”
In one evaluation, 95 percent of teachers said that, as a result of dancing together, students’ abilities to cooperate and collaborate improved.
Dance education has important benefits for students’ social relationships, particularly among genders and age groups. Many forms of dance, including ballroom, are inherently social. They involve moving together in synchrony and empathy, with direct physical contact. In an evaluation of Dancing Classrooms in New York City, 95 percent of teachers said that as a result of dancing together, there was a demonstrable improvement in students’ abilities to cooperate and collaborate. In a survey in Los Angeles, 66 percent of school principals said that after being in the program, their students showed an increased acceptance of others, and 81 percent of students said they treated others with more respect. Dance has economic benefits, too. As well as being a field of employment, dance promotes many of the personal qualities that employers recognize as essential in a collaborative, adaptable workforce.
One principal was especially impressed by the improvements in reading and math scores among her fifth-grade students.“There are no ifs, ands, or buts about the program’s impact in the academic lives of our children,” says Lois Habtes of the Emanuel Benjamin Oliver Elementary School in the Virgin Islands. “When I first got here, they were failing scores. Last year — our second year in the program — they got up to 83 percent. This year, our fifth grade scored 85 percent on the reading test, the highest in the school.”
Dance and theater are mostly seen as second-class citizens in schools.
It’s not just dance, of course. The success of Dancing Classrooms is an example of the well-documented relationship between physical activity and educational achievement. The trend in most US school districts is to cut phys ed and similar programs in favor of increasing time for math, science and English. These measures have simply not improved achievement as so many policy makers assumed they would.
A panel of researchers in kinesiology and pediatrics conducted a massive review of more than 850 studies about the effects of physical activity on school-age children. Most of the studies measured the effects of 30 to 45 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity three to five days a week on many factors — physical factors such as obesity, cardiovascular fitness, blood pressure and bone density, as well as depression, anxiety, self-concept and academic performance. Based on strong evidence in a number of these categories, the panel firmly recommended that students should participate in one hour (or more) of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day. Looking specifically at academic performance, the panel found strong evidence to support the conclusion that “physical activity has a positive influence on memory, concentration and classroom behavior.”
Most children in public schools in the US receive some education in music and visual arts, patchy though it often is. But dance and theater are mostly seen as second-class citizens, and opportunities in the arts, in general, are lowest for students in areas of high poverty. “There are still millions of students who do not have access to any arts instruction. Many of them are in our poorer communities where the programs are arguably needed the most,” says Bob Morrison, the founder and director of Quadrant Research.
Would it be okay to have millions of students without access to math or language arts? he asks. “Of course not, and it should not be tolerated in the arts. There is a persistent myth that arts education is for the gifted and talented, but we know that the arts benefit everyone regardless of their vocational pathways,” he says. “We don’t teach math solely to create mathematicians, and we don’t teach writing solely to create the next generation of novelists. The same holds true for the arts. We teach them to create well-rounded citizens who can apply the skills, knowledge and experience from being involved in the arts to their careers and lives.”
Grief and death are often seen as taboo subjects that children should be protected from – but an innovative musical project aims to turn that on its head.
Pupils from Victoria Primary School in Edinburgh teamed up with patients at nearby St Columba’s Hospice to confront those difficult conversations, and offer comfort and hope through music.
Children and patients took part in workshops to write songs about how people can cope with death, dying, and illness.
Teachers were also given bereavement training to better equip them to support children when they lose someone close to them, while charity Fischy Music helped the children and patients with song-writing.
This week, the children performed the final songs at a special event at the hospice.
Patient Pamela Curran said the project “meant the world” to her, adding: “The children go through all the emotions as well as the cancer patients, so it was just so lovely to bond.”
The team behind the project hope it will encourage the wider community to have more open conversations around death.
Victoria Primary headteacher Laura Thomson said: “It is vital that we talk to children about death.
“Most children will be affected by the death of someone in their family or family friends and they need to know what this means practically and how to deal with this emotionally too.
“We look forward to performing our songs and developing resources for all schools to share.”
Donna Hastings, family support worker at St Columba’s Hospice, added: “If children are living with any kind of change or if somebody has a terminal illness or if a child has been bereaved, we wanted school to be best placed to support them.
“That means being able to have conversations with them. It also allows the children to talk to each other and to understand how somebody might be feeling.”
Persisting stigmas around mental health can make it difficult for Black youth to receive the help they need. They’re often forced to navigate misconceptions within their communities and anti-Blackness within the medical industry. One North Carolina based grad student is using tech to erase some of those barriers.
Henry Willis, a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Clinical Psychology Graduate Program, is developing a mental health app for Black youth.
Finding ways to provide Black youth mental health resources is an absolute necessity. Everyday factors of being Black — like exposure to racism — can drastically impact people’s mental health.
This is something Willis himself noticed in his own research.
“I’ve published papers that have looked at how things such as online racial discrimination can lead to increased PTSD symptoms, or how positive racial identity beliefs can lead to better mental health over time, for African American youth” Willis told AfroTech.
Willis’ research inspired him to find an innovative way to help Black youth cope with stress and discrimination through technology. Willis described the app as not only providing a gateway for promoting better mental health, but also offering users ways to deal with things unique to the Black experience.
When most people think of apps, ones for Black mental health don’t immediately come to mind. But for Willis, it made perfect sense, as he noticed the popularity of mobile-health apps increasing over the past few years.
“For instance, if you have any sort of smart watch, you’re probably counting your steps or setting daily fitness goals which targets physical health,”Willis explained. “So I figured, why not have the same thing for mental health?”
Willis decided to focus on Black youth specifically, because it’s often a time period full of changes. Young people are often going into new environments –like college or the workforce — or even moving away from home and their support systems. Those experiences, combined with the struggle of learning how to be an adult, can take a toll on mental health.
“We often see a lot of these symptoms emerge around this time (between 18 and 25), such as depression and anxiety,” Willis shared. “Yet, unfortunately, we also know that Black young adults are 90% LESS likely to receive or have access to effective mental health treatments when compared to their white counterparts, for a variety of reasons.”
The app will provide a variety of services, including education about basic mental health systems (like explaining the basics of depression or anxiety) and information on how symptoms manifest. In addition, users can create a profile and “mental health plan”, so they can engage in things that promote mental health awareness.
It will also connect users to Black and other providers of color in the area. For Black youth, this is huge, because it can be really awkward to try talking about mental health to a white provider who you feel may not relate to.
Willis’ idea for a mental health app focusing on Black youth is definitely needed. It’s also an example of how to start conversations by reaching people where they’re at, like on their phones.
The app is currently still in development, with an anticipated summer 2019 launch. First, it’ll be available on any device that can access the internet. Willis plans to release it to platforms like the Apple App Store after that.
Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world. This is according to the UN’s World Happiness Report, an important survey that since 2012 classifies the happiness of 155 countries in the world, and that for seven years has placed Denmark among the top three happiest countries on a global level. The fact that teaching empathy has been mandatory since 1993 in schools in Denmark is a factor that contributes to the happiness of the country.
Empathy helps build relationships, prevent bullying and succeed at work. It promotes the growth of leaders, entrepreneurs and managers. “Empathic teenagers” tend to be more successful because they are more oriented towards the goals compared to their more narcissistic peers.
In Danish schools an hour a week is dedicated to the “Klassens tid”, an empathy lesson for students aged 6 to 16 years. It is a fundamental part of the Danish curriculum. The hour of empathy is as important as the time spent, for example, on English or mathematics. During the Klassens tid students discuss their problems, either related to school or not, and the whole class, together with the teacher, tries to find a solution based on real listening and understanding. If there are no problems to discuss, children are simply spent the time together relaxing and enjoying hygge, a word (and also a verb and an adjective), which cannot be translated literally, since it is a phenomenon closely related to Danish culture. Hygge could be defined as “intentionally created intimacy”. In a country where it gets dark very early in the year, it rains, it’s gray, hygge means bringing light, warmth and friendship, creating a shared, welcoming and intimate atmosphere. It is a fundamental concept for the Danish sense of well-being. And it’s also becoming a global phenomenon: Amazon sells more than 900 books on hygge, and Instagram has more than 3 million posts with the hashtag #hygge.
American writer and psychologist Jessica Alexander, author of the book “The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids”, with Danish psychotherapist Iben Sandahl, and which is translated into 21 languages, has conducted field research to understand how the Danes teach empathy.
One of the ways is through teamwork, thanks to which 60% of the tasks at school are carried out. The focus is not to excel over others, but to have a responsibility in helping those who are not equally gifted. For these reasons Denmark is also considered one of the best places to work in Europe.
Competition is exclusively with oneself, not with others. Danish schools offer neither prizes nor trophies to their students who excel in school subjects or in sports, so as not to create competition. Instead they practice the culture of motivation to improve, measured exclusively in relation to themselves.
“The Danes give a lot of space to children’s free play, which teaches empathy and negotiation skills. Playing in the country has been considered an educational tool since 1871,” explains Jessica Alexander.
Then there is collaborative learning, which consists in bringing together children with different strengths and weaknesses in different subjects to make them help each other in class, working together on various projects. The latter method teaches children from an early age that one cannot succeed alone and that helping others leads to better results.
“A child who is naturally talented in mathematics, without learning to collaborate with their peers, will not go much further. They will need help in other subjects. It is a great lesson to teach children from an early age, since no one can go through life alone,” says Jessica Alexander. She then continues: “Many studies show that when you explain something to someone – like a math problem for example – you not only learn the subject much better than you would do by memorizing it yourself, but you also build our empathy skills which are further strengthened by having to be careful about the way the other person receives the information, and having to put oneself in their shoes to understand how learning works”.
Going to a lesson of empathy gives great satisfaction and joy to Danish children, and prepares them to become happy adults.
Creativity is an aspect of self-care that often goes unexplored. You may have been recommended to keep a mood diary, or write down your problems as a form of therapy, but there is a way to use creative writing as a self-care tool that goes beyond the idea of journalling…
Having a crafty hobby is a fun way to pass the time, but research suggests that creativity can have a tangible impact on our mental wellbeing. In 2017, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing reported that the “act of creation, and our appreciation of it, provides an individual experience that can have positive effects on our physical and mental health, and wellbeing”.
Supporting this, a study has found that 79% of people in deprived communities in London ate more healthily after participating in group art projects, while 77% engaged in more physical activity. Overall, 82% enjoyed greater wellbeing, proving that an enriched creative life can contribute to a more positive mindset.
To learn more, I spoke to Suzy Reading, chartered psychologist and author of The Self-Care Revolution: smart habits & simple practices to allow you to flourish, who explained why creative writing is such an effective self-care tool.
She tells me that people tend to have a deeper knowledge about themselves when they are encouraged to give a voice to their experience, and that this undervalued self-care tool is “a way to be heard, even if you’re just listening to yourself. It’s a way of processing your thoughts”.
If you needed more incentives to give creative writing a go, then perhaps note that not only is it effective, but it is simple, accessible – and free. Here are some tips to get started:
1. Let go of expectations
Many people give up at the first hurdle, because they think that they aren’t naturally creative. But the most important thing to remember is that no one else ever needs to read what you’ve written. This is just for you, so it doesn’t matter if you’re the new Shakespeare, or if you can’t tell a semicolon from a exclamation mark.
You may want to give the process a sense of occasion by choosing a particularly nice pen and a special notebook to write in, but this doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. If the thought of writing in a beautiful journal fills you with dread, Suzy advises the complete opposite. “Grab a scrap of paper with no intention to keep it, and just jot down your thoughts.”
2. Create a happy memory bank
One way to use creative writing to foster positive emotions is to write about happy memories. The act of reminiscing about sights, smells, and textures, will inform your writing, and when you read the words back you may experience those feelings all over again.
For those who can’t think of anything in particular, Suzy suggests using prompts, such as specific types of emotions. “Write about a pleasurable emotion like awe, curiosity, wonder, love or connection, and let that guide you.”
Another prompt would be to think of one good thing that has happened recently, and write about it in detail.
3. Learn to savour
Writing about your happy memories doesn’t need to involve creating long lists of all your achievements or defining moments. In fact, it’s just as effective to write about all the little things that make life great.
Suzy says: “People who have consummated the ability to savour are often happier than those who aren’t aware of the skill. It’s something that we do already, but I think once you name it you can do it more often, and with greater effect.”
Whether it’s your first cup of coffee in the morning, or a sequence of calming yoga poses before bed, the act of savouring can have a really potent impact on wellbeing. Try writing about a positive moment in your day, and thoroughly describe every aspect of what made it so enjoyable.
4. Timing is key
People often associate creative writing with the idea of expressing negative emotions, but it can actually be easier to master when you’re feeling mentally well. When you feel life is great, that’s the perfect time to write and record positive emotions. Then, when challenges arise in the future, you can refer back to your writing and rest assured that the bad times won’t last forever.
“In those times, it’s about reflecting on previous writing, and using that sense of context and perspective,” says Suzy.
Creative writing isn’t about downloading the negative thoughts and rereading them. You want to hold on to the positive experiences, the affirming life experiences, and reread those when you feel tested by life.
A while ago, my mother-in-law bought some math and reading workbooks for my six-year-old daughter. When I asked my daughter if she wanted to check them out, she just looked at the big, intimidating stack and said, “No thanks.” That was fine—she’s in kindergarten and I wasn’t about to push it. Later, though, I was flipping through the books, and thought some of the activities could be pretty fun and good practice. So I decided to try a little experiment: I’d tear out a page, tape it to the side of our kitchen island (which we walk past multiple times a day) and see if she notices it. That evening, she did. Without any prompting, she quietly got a pen, sat on the floor and completed the worksheet. And that was that! I didn’t say “Good job!” or anything at all—instead, when she was off at school the next day, I simply took down the completed page and put up a new one. And then she finished that one, too. So I put up another and another and another.
I started thinking that I could display other things I’d like her to see. This could be a “noticing wall”—a zero-pressure space for us to write notes to each other, ask questions, jot down fun things we learned, and make plans. Now, using scrap paper and washi tape, I add new thoughts and prompts all the time: “What would you like to learn how to cook?” “Let’s write some poems.” “What would you like to play in our fort?” She can respond to whatever she’d like, in her own time, if she wants to. We’ve also taped love notes on the wall, as well as apology letters.
If we’re talking about learning, the noticing wall has become a way for me to engage my daughter in purposeful reading. Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of Raising Kids Who Read, told me that parents can help kids read by taking advantage of situations where reading has some utility. The wall certainly does. My daughter wrote that she’d like to make “lemnatd” (lemonade) sometime, so we will plan to do that this summer. Sometimes, I’ll add in “educational” bits—her teacher says she’s been writing her letter Ps backwards, so I recently taped up some practice pages. She dug into them as eagerly as everything else. (I’m not sure if I would have gotten such an enthusiastic response if I had hovered over her and said, “Trace these letters now.”)
Most powerfully, though, the noticing wall has become another way for my daughter and me to connect. I get excited to look at the wall every day, and I think she does, too. I hope we’ll always find ways to write back and forth to each other about anything and everything, without judgment.
If you’re creating a noticing wall, a good first rule would be: Don’t talk about the noticing wall, or at least don’t talk about it too much. You don’t even need to give the wall a name. Let it just sit there and be a quiet place for thoughts, hopes and curiosities.
And sometimes, poems about farts. My daughter wrote one on the wall the other day, and I’m keeping it forever.
The “old stuff”—the things we carry from the past—cycles through our lives, in and out. We hold it in glimpses of childhood, images and emotions that are sometimes disconnected from one another. We carry mud puddles and faces, toys, bedrooms, yards. We hold memories of clouds, angles of sunlight on the side of a shed. Our bodies maintain postures of humiliations and accomplishments. They hold our sadness and fear, our anger, trust, and hope.
Living within our adaptations, we take what we are given biologically and survive childhood by ignoring the parts of ourselves that remain unreflected. We may discard the bits that trigger caregivers, and we may take their instantaneous bodily reactions to us as representation of the entire world and build our expectations and strategies around these.
After childhood, as we begin to explore and adapt to any number of new systems, we may start to recognize the arbitrary nature of systems themselves. This realization may lead us to to gradually and naturally gravitate toward reconnection with the parts of self we previously left behind. With this transition often comes a mix of acceptance and grief.
Our templates of childhood experience may lend form to our expectations in relationships, to our style of attachment. These experiences may be preverbal, and we may lack the concrete language to articulate them, even to ourselves. But when intimacy reaches a threshold, a certain temperature, they often rise up within us, perhaps presenting as fear or anger, as an automated reaction that occurs without awareness and is typically witnessed only in hindsight, when the body has calmed.
MEETING AS WE’VE BEEN MET FOR GENERATIONS
When our needs are met by caregivers and by ourselves, reliably and consistently, throughout childhood, this pattern of connection is likely to continue throughout generations. Secure attachment can be understood to mean that we know how to be, with self and with other.
The two extremes (anxious/avoidant) of insecure attachment can occur when caregivers do not know how to meet particular behaviors or emotions. Perhaps nobody modeled these skills for them, or perhaps they experienced trauma that affected their ability to meet our needs. Whatever the cause, when our early interactions are affected by this inability to have our needs met, we may begin to separate from parts of self and lose the connection to “other” as well as self.
When a person with limited tolerance for internal sensation becomes a parent, a specific set of “containment” skills is often passed to the next generation. In other words, children learn how best to avoid the discomfort of being with self or other. On one level, this is purely adaptive and may even be beneficial, based on what has been experienced. On another level, this training to protect the self from internal sensation can become a tunnel through which children learn to navigate the world, and it may perpetuate a pattern.
The parent is not the only teacher. Children learn from siblings, from relatives, through accidents, through the very unpredictability of life. In those homes where a child fails to define a sense of self or aspects of self are lost, an alternate cycle—a pattern of disconnection—can continue through generations, leading to extreme reactions and polarization. This insecure attachment may be avoidant or anxious, an internalized sense of rigidity or chaos, “too much” or “not enough.”
INTEGRATION THROUGH DIFFERENTIATION
Both within and without, we must define the pieces before building the puzzle. First we separate, identify, and name. We move apart to differentiate, to identify present changes since the previous separation. Then we come together. We join to experiment, to share what we have learned, to teach one another about ourselves, to teach others how to treat us, or to teach parts of self how to meet other parts. When our early interactions are affected by an inability to have our needs met, we may begin to separate from parts of self and lose the connection to “other” as well as self.
One major challenge here is the underlying “wish” of either extreme that someone else will come, to save or redeem us, bring us worth, nurture or define us. This wish is often born of a hoped-for childhood experience that did not happen. To take ownership of our own lives, we must grieve this wish.
Ownership often happens at a gradual pace. “If they are not coming, what must I do now?” Often ownership coincides with a relationship or takes place in a created community. There may be an underlying acceptance in the letting go, an acceptance that accompanies a recognized appreciation for what actually is: “In this moment, even without resolution of the ‘old stuff,’ I’m ok. I can grieve for those times when I was not ok. I am learning what my caregivers did not know at the time. My needs are met. My body is calm.”
THE UNDERLYING ANIMAL: FIGHT OR FLIGHT IN CHILD REARING
When our emotion or behavior as a child triggers a fight response from parents, we lose agency and may feel invaded at a core level. This is a building block of avoidant attachment. We may carry an internalized ongoing feeling of being controlled, emotionally rejected, unheard. We may feel as if our needs don’t matter, that we are losing self. Thus, we may decide to give nothing more, to close down.
These extreme responses serve to represent our individual positioning in a global pattern of basic human responses—fight, flight, or freeze—and illustrate the ways this pattern propagates, continuing from one generation to the next.
Alternately, when a parent pulls away or flinches in the presence of something we perceive as our core self, we may internalize this flight response and continue to abandon ourselves throughout life, believing that some part of us is hideous and must remain hidden. This belief—and the subsequent creation of patterns of internal polarization that only serve amplify that part within us and make it more obvious—characterize what is known as anxious attachment.
With the high prevalence of extreme attachment styles on a cultural and global scale, it may be of great importance to begin exploring our own reactions. At a foundational level, awareness and attunement to our own natural biological responses can potentially affect generations.
Attachment. (2012). Encyclopedia on early child development. Retrieved from http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/attachment/introduction
Kinnison, J. (2014). Type: Anxious-Preoccupied. Retrieved from https://jebkinnison.com/bad-boyfriends-the-book/type-anxious-preoccupied
“When our senses become muffled, we no longer feel fully alive… If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations … you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, and your self.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,”William James asserted in his revolutionary 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings. Two generations later, Rilke wrote in a beautiful letter of advice to a young woman: “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” And yet in the century since, we’ve made little progress on making sense — much less making use — of the inextricable dialogue between the physical body and the psychoemotional interior landscape we shorthand as “soul.”
Nowhere is this relationship more essential yet more endangered than in our healing from trauma, and no one has provided a more illuminating, sympathetic, and constructive approach to such healing than Boston-based Dutch psychiatrist and pioneering PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk. In The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (public library), he explores “the extreme disconnection from the body that so many people with histories of trauma and neglect experience” and the most fertile paths to recovery by drawing on his own work and a wealth of other research in three main areas of study: neuroscience, which deals with how mental processes function within the brain; developmental psychopathology, concerned with how painful experiences impact the development of mind and brain; and interpersonal neurobiology, which examines how our own behavior affects the psychoemotional and neurobiological states of those close to us.
Trauma, Van der Kolk notes, affects not only those who have suffered it but also those who surround them and, especially, those who love them. He writes:
One does not have be a combat soldier, or visit a refugee camp in Syria or the Congo to encounter trauma. Trauma happens to us, our friends, our families, and our neighbors. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.
It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability.
In trauma survivors, Van der Kolk notes, the parts of the brain that have evolved to monitor for danger remain overactivated and even the slightest sign of danger, real or misperceived, can trigger an acute stress response accompanied by intense unpleasant emotions and overwhelming sensations. Such posttraumatic reactions make it difficult for survivors to connect with other people, since closeness often triggers the sense of danger. And yet the very thing we come to most dread after experiencing trauma — close contact with other people — is also the thing we most need in order to regain psychoemotional solidity and begin healing. Van der Kolk writes:
Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.
This, he points out, is why we’ve evolved a refined mechanism for detecting danger — we’re incredibly attuned to even the subtlest emotional shifts in those around us and, even if we don’t always heed these intuitive readings, we can read another person’s friendliness or hostility on the basis of such imperceptible cues as brow tension, lip curvature, and body angles. But one of the most pernicious effects of trauma is that it disrupts this ability to accurately read others, rendering the trauma survivor either less able to detect danger or more likely to misperceive danger where there is none.
Paradoxically, what normalizes and repairs our ability to read danger and safety correctly is human connection. Van der Kolk writes:
Social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety. No doctor can write a prescription for friendship and love: These are complex and hard-earned capacities. You don’t need a history of trauma to feel self-conscious and even panicked at a party with strangers — but trauma can turn the whole world into a gathering of aliens.
The brain-disease model overlooks four fundamental truths: (1) our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being; (2) language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning; (3) we have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through such basic activities as breathing, moving, and touching; and (4) we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.
When we ignore these quintessential dimensions of humanity, we deprive people of ways to heal from trauma and restore their autonomy. Being a patient, rather than a participant in one’s healing process, separates suffering people from their community and alienates them from an inner sense of self.
The most essential aspect of healing, Van der Kolk asserts, is learning to fully inhabit that inner sense of self in all of its dimensions — not only emotional and psychological, but bodily — which are inseparable from one another. He explains:
The natural state of mammals is to be somewhat on guard. However, in order to feel emotionally close to another human being, our defensive system must temporarily shut down. In order to play, mate, and nurture our young, the brain needs to turn off its natural vigilance.
Many traumatized individuals are too hypervigilant to enjoy the ordinary pleasures that life has to offer, while others are too numb to absorb new experiences — or to be alert to signs of real danger.
Many people feel safe as long as they can limit their social contact to superficial conversations, but actual physical contact can trigger intense reactions. However … achieving any sort of deep intimacy — a close embrace, sleeping with a mate, and sex — requires allowing oneself to experience immobilization without fear. It is especially challenging for traumatized people to discern when they are actually safe and to be able to activate their defenses when they are in danger. This requires having experiences that can restore the sense of physical safety.
One place where our culture fails, Van der Kolk argues, is in integrating this physical aspect with the psychoemotional infrastructure of experience — a failure spanning from our clinical methods of treating trauma to our education system. (More than half a century ago, Aldous Huxley wrote beautifully about the need for an integrated mind-body system of education.) Education, Van der Kolk notes, tends to engage the cognitive capacities of the mind rather than the bodily-emotional engagement system, which makes for an ultimately incomplete model of human experience. In a sobering passage that should be etched onto the wall of every Department of Education the world over, he writes:
Despite the well-documented effects of anger, fear, and anxiety on the ability to reason, many programs continue to ignore the need to engage the safety system of the brain before trying to promote new ways of thinking. The last things that should be cut from school schedules are chorus, physical education, recess, and anything else involving movement, play, and joyful engagement. When children are oppositional, defensive, numbed out, or enraged, it’s also important to recognize that such “bad behavior” may repeat action patterns that were established to survive serious threats, even if they are intensely upsetting or off-putting.
With an eye to heartening counterpoints like a karate program for rape survivors and a theater program in Boston’s inner-city schools, he considers the reasons and the urgency for engaging the body in healing:
The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communication is the royal road to emotion regulation, this demands a radical shift in our therapeutic assumptions.
Drawing on his work with patients who have survived a variety of traumatic experiences — from plane crashes to rape to torture — Van der Kolk considers the great challenge of those of us living with trauma:
When our senses become muffled, we no longer feel fully alive.
In response to the trauma itself, and in coping with the dread that persisted long afterward, these patients had learned to shut down the brain areas that transmit the visceral feelings and emotions that accompany and define terror. Yet in everyday life, those same brain areas are responsible for registering the entire range of emotions and sensations that form the foundation of our self-awareness, our sense of who we are. What we witnessed here was a tragic adaptation: In an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive.
While this dissociation from the body is an adaptive response to trauma, the troublesome day-to-day anguish comes from the retriggering of this remembered response by stimuli that don’t remotely warrant it. Van der Kolk examines the interior machinery at play:
The elementary self system in the brain stem and limbic system is massively activated when people are faced with the threat of annihilation, which results in an overwhelming sense of fear and terror accompanied by intense physiological arousal. To people who are reliving a trauma, nothing makes sense; they are trapped in a life-or-death situation, a state of paralyzing fear or blind rage. Mind and body are constantly aroused, as if they are in imminent danger. They startle in response to the slightest noises and are frustrated by small irritations. Their sleep is chronically disturbed, and food often loses its sensual pleasures. This in turn can trigger desperate attempts to shut those feelings down by freezing and dissociation.
Agency starts with what scientists call interoception, our awareness of our subtle sensory, body-based feelings: the greater that awareness, the greater our potential to control our lives. Knowing what we feel is the first step to knowing why we feel that way. If we are aware of the constant changes in our inner and outer environment, we can mobilize to manage them.
But one of the most pernicious effects of trauma, Van der Kolk notes, is that it disrupts our ability to know what we feel — that is, to trust our gut feelings — and this mistrust makes us misperceive threat where there is none. This, in turn, creates an antagonistic relationship with our own bodies. He explains:
If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations — if you can trust them to give you accurate information — you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, and your self.
However, traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.
The more people try to push away and ignore internal warning signs, the more likely they are to take over and leave them bewildered, confused, and ashamed. People who cannot comfortably notice what is going on inside become vulnerable to respond to any sensory shift either by shutting down or by going into a panic — they develop a fear of fear itself.
The experience of fear derives from primitive responses to threat where escape is thwarted in some way. People’s lives will be held hostage to fear until that visceral experience changes… Self-regulation depends on having a friendly relationship with your body. Without it you have to rely on external regulation — from medication, drugs like alcohol, constant reassurance, or compulsive compliance with the wishes of others.
In its extreme, this lack of internal regulation leads to retraumatizing experiences:
Because traumatized people often have trouble sensing what is going on in their bodies, they lack a nuanced response to frustration. They either react to stress by becoming “spaced out” or with excessive anger. Whatever their response, they often can’t tell what is upsetting them. This failure to be in touch with their bodies contributes to their well-documented lack of self-protection and high rates of revictimization and also to their remarkable difficulties feeling pleasure, sensuality, and having a sense of meaning.
One step further down on the ladder to self-oblivion is depersonalization — losing your sense of yourself.
What, then, can we do to regain agency in our very selves? Pointing to decades of research with trauma survivors, Van der Kolk argues that it begins with befriending our bodies and their sensory interiority:
Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Schopenhauer’s porcupine dilemma, Van der Kolk writes:
The most natural way for human beings to calm themselves when they are upset is by clinging to another person. This means that patients who have been physically or sexually violated face a dilemma: They desperately crave touch while simultaneously being terrified of body contact. The mind needs to be reeducated to feel physical sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch. Individuals who lack emotional awareness are able, with practice, to connect their physical sensations to psychological events. Then they can slowly reconnect with themselves.
How we respond to trauma, Van der Kolk asserts, is to a large extent conditioned by our formative relationships with our caretakers, whose task is to help us establish a secure base. Essential to this is the notion of attunement between parent and child, mediated by the body — those subtlest of physical interactions in which the caretaker mirrors and meets the baby’s needs, making the infant feel attended to and understood.
Attunement is the foundation of secure attachment, which is in turn the scaffolding of psychoemotional health later in life. Van der Kolk writes:
A secure attachment combined with the cultivation of competency builds an internal locus of control, the key factor in healthy coping throughout life. Securely attached children learn what makes them feel good; they discover what makes them (and others) feel bad, and they acquire a sense of agency: that their actions can change how they feel and how others respond. Securely attached kids learn the difference between situations they can control and situations where they need help. They learn that they can play an active role when faced with difficult situations. In contrast, children with histories of abuse and neglect learn that their terror, pleading, and crying do not register with their caregiver. Nothing they can do or say stops the beating or brings attention and help. In effect they’re being conditioned to give up when they face challenges later in life.
With an eye to the immensely influential work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who pioneered the study of attachment and the notion that attunement between mother and infant lays the foundation for the child’s sense of self later in life, Van der Kolk summarizes these foundational findings:
If a mother cannot meet her baby’s impulses and needs, “the baby learns to become the mother’s idea of what the baby is.” Having to discount its inner sensations, and trying to adjust to its caregiver’s needs, means the child perceives that “something is wrong” with the way it is. Children who lack physical attunement are vulnerable to shutting down the direct feedback from their bodies, the seat of pleasure, purpose, and direction.
The need for attachment never lessens. Most human beings simply cannot tolerate being disengaged from others for any length of time. People who cannot connect through work, friendships, or family usually find other ways of bonding, as through illnesses, lawsuits, or family feuds. Anything is preferable to that godforsaken sense of irrelevance and alienation.
Although we can’t prevent most traumatic experiences from happening, having a solid formative foundation can make healing much easier. But what are those of us unblessed with secure attachment to do? Pointing to his mindfulness-based work with trauma survivors, Van der Kolk offers an assuring direction:
Nobody can “treat” a war, or abuse, rape, molestation, or any other horrendous event, for that matter; what has happened cannot be undone. But what can be dealt with are the imprints of the trauma on body, mind, and soul: the crushing sensations in your chest that you may label as anxiety or depression; the fear of losing control; always being on alert for danger or rejection; the self-loathing; the nightmares and flashbacks; the fog that keeps you from staying on task and from engaging fully in what you are doing; being unable to fully open your heart to another human being.
The crucial point is that trauma robs us of what Van der Kolk terms “self-leadership” — the sense of having agency over ourselves and being in charge of our own experience. The path to recovery is therefore paved with the active rebuilding of that sense. He writes:
The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind — of your self. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed. For most people this involves (1) finding a way to become calm and focused, (2) learning to maintain that calm in response to images, thoughts, sounds, or physical sensations that remind you of the past, (3) finding a way to be fully alive in the present and engaged with the people around you, (4) not having to keep secrets from yourself, including secrets about the ways that you have managed to survive.
One of the paradoxical necessities of the recovery process is the need to revisit the trauma without becoming so overwhelmed by sensations as to be retraumatized. The way to accomplish this, Van der Kolk argues, is by learning to be present with these overwhelming emotions and their sensorial counterparts in the body. He writes:
Traumatized people live with seemingly unbearable sensations: They feel heartbroken and suffer from intolerable sensations in the pit of their stomach or tightness in their chest. Yet avoiding feeling these sensations in our bodies increases our vulnerability to being overwhelmed by them.
Traumatized people are often afraid of feeling. It is not so much the perpetrators (who, hopefully, are no longer around to hurt them) but their own physical sensations that now are the enemy. Apprehension about being hijacked by uncomfortable sensations keeps the body frozen and the mind shut. Even though the trauma is a thing of the past, the emotional brain keeps generating sensations that make the sufferer feel scared and helpless. It’s not surprising that so many trauma survivors are compulsive eaters and drinkers, fear making love, and avoid many social activities: Their sensory world is largely off limits.
All of us, but especially children, need … confidence that others will know, affirm, and cherish us. Without that we can’t develop a sense of agency that will enable us to assert: “This is what I believe in; this is what I stand for; this is what I will devote myself to.” As long as we feel safely held in the hearts and minds of the people who love us, we will climb mountains and cross deserts and stay up all night to finish projects. Children and adults will do anything for people they trust and whose opinion they value. But if we feel abandoned, worthless, or invisible, nothing seems to matter. Fear destroys curiosity and playfulness. In order to have a healthy society we must raise children who can safely play and learn. There can be no growth without curiosity and no adaptability without being able to explore, through trial and error, who you are and what matters to you.
The pathways, both practical and psychological, to doing that is what Van der Kolk goes on to explore in the remainder of the revelatory, redemptive, and immensely helpful The Body Keeps the Score.