Tuesday, January 29, 2019

From Illness to Wellness


Isha called in sick for work, as she was down with a bad cold. The youngest child of her parents, Isha was brought up in a loving, protected, environment. As she had been small and weak as a baby, her parents had always been extra careful about her health, always that she was well protected against rain, heat and cold. She was never allowed to eat out, as her mother feared she would come down with a stomach bug. Every little physical complaint was catered to, and taken care of, with the utmost love and attention. Isha grew up with the belief that she was physiologically delicate and did not keep good health.

Sandhya, Isha’s colleague, was always at work, come rain or sunshine, come health or illness. She grew up in a family where minor scrapes, aches and pains were considered as part of day-to-day life, where she was encouraged to go about her daily work even if she were down with a fever, and where mental and physical resilience were always encouraged and appreciated. Sandhya’s self image today, vis-a-vis her health is that she is a sturdy and resilient individual, who does not crash at the first sneeze or cough.

Today, all of us, at some level, understand and accept the huge impact our mind has on our physical well being. Research has today implicated the mind, not just in psychosomatic disorders such as ulcers, blood pressure and headaches, but in chronic conditions such as diabetes as well as in terminal illnesses such as cancer and tumours! This intangible, invisible thing called the mind, which has the power to bring the body to its knees, is also a delicate entity, easily influenced by external winds. And the strongest influence on the human mind is the thoughts and messages communicated by the significant others in our life. Our close family members can, and often do, influence the way we think, the way we look at life, and at ourselves. It is only natural; then, that our thoughts about our physical health and well being can be significantly influenced by our close relationships. And we, in turn, influence the health and well being of our family members as well.

Knowing this, it is time for each of us to take charge of how we impact the health of our family members, and do so in a positive manner rather than otherwise. Let us look at some ways in which we can be a positive influence on the health of our loved ones. 

Be a Positive Support
When your loved one is feeling unwell, sympathise with him or her. Be sensitive to the illness, or condition, that is causing pain or discomfort. Communicate your understanding to your loved one. At the same time, point out the positive aspects of the situation. For instance, if your spouse is down with a viral fever and has to miss an important meeting, empathize with him. At the same time, also point out that “at least you will be well in time for the big presentation next week.” It always helps to be positive in the face of illness. It helps restore immunity, it makes you feel better, and it makes the present situation far more tolerable.

Condition Health, Not Illness
A lot of our behaviours are the result of conditioning, that usually takes place in our childhood. Behaviours reinforced by our parents in a positive manner are repeated, and those that are criticised or punished are less likely to be repeated. Thus, as parents, ensure that you condition your children to grow up as healthy adults, and not as sickly, delicate beings. Treating a child as a weak child, and giving too much attention every time the child is sick, will condition the child’s system to repeat those behaviours, and will also condition the mind to believe that he is a weak child. In contrast, if you focus on health and well being, the child will be conditioned to do so himself, and if you teach him to be tough in the face of illness, he will eventually internalise this idea. Build psychological hardiness in children, and that in turn will ensure higher resilience to and quicker recovery from illnesses.

Don’t Mollycoddle
People often mistake care with mollycoddling. It is one thing to care for a sick child and be concerned about his well being, it is quite another to fuss over a slight sprain or a little stomach ache! When a loved one is unwell, pampering him or her will always make him feel better, and there is no harm in doing so – to a certain extent. Overdoing it can backfire badly, not so much on you, but more on the person himself. Mollycoddling leads the person to believe that even a small illness or ache is big enough to bring work to a standstill, lie on the bed, and complain about the discomfort. Worse, it conditions the person’s mind to believe that the body is really suffering and is unwell, and as discussed earlier, this conditioning goes a long way in shaping the person’s belief about his or her own physical health and well being.
As a child, Parag suffered frequently from the Flu. Every time he came down with the Flu, his mother would take leave and be home with him. He would not be allowed to go to school until not only his fever, but his cold and cough were completely recovered. Eventually, every time he got a cold or cough, his parents started him off on an antibiotic course, and his mother often said to him, “You are coughing, I know tomorrow you will come down with fever.” Now, as an adult, Parag has the same mindset. Every time he comes down with a severe bout of cold, he gives up on his body, and “knows” that he will now come down with a high fever.
In psychological terms, the person inculcates something like a ‘learned helplessness’. This means, that the person does not even make an attempt to fight the illness or overcome it, but succumbs to it meekly.

Teach By Example
Every time Rohit feels unwell, he remembers his mother. Diagnosed with cancer at the age of 42, Rohit’s mother never lost her zest for life. Despite intensive and invasive treatment interventions, she was always smiling, and went about her life as normally as she could. Rohit could not remember a single day when his mother was not up and about every morning, waking them up with a smile for school, seeing them off, having hot lunch waiting for them, taking their studies, and going about being a mum and a wife as though there was nothing wrong with her. She maintained not just her positivity and her enthusiasm for life, but also her routine and her activity levels, right up to the last few months, when her body was racked with pain, medications, and radiation.
Actions speak louder than words. It’s as simple as that! If your children and your spouse, or any member in your family, see you taking illness or physical discomfort in your stride, it will create a far stronger impact than any words could. Thus, the way you tackle illness, both in action as well as in thought, will help shape the way your family members look at it.

Use Humour
Ill humour is often a concomitant of ill health. Naturally, when one is unwell, one feels irritable and out of sorts. Showing them the light side of the situation, helping them laugh at themselves and their condition can often create a positive change in the person. Of course, it is important to use humour sensitively. In our attempt to distract the person from his illness, we should not engage in humour that could be even remotely perceived as being derogatory, sarcastic or insensitive. Remember, humour is to be used to generate positivity and bring a smile to the person’s face, and happiness in his heart. 

Enumerate Strengths
When Bhushan got a severe asthma attack and could not accompany his daughter on her first day of nursery school, he was very upset with himself. Bhushan suffered from chronic asthma since childhood, and this had often deprived him of many opportunities. This time around, he felt really low, as he felt he was missing out on little things in his child’s life due to his asthma. Bhavna, his wife, smilingly told him that this was not the case. She pointed out how, while he did have this chronic illness, he otherwise enjoyed good health and was always around when she or their daughter needed him. She reminded him of the times when he had taken so much pressure at work and yet not subdued to an asthma attack.
As a family member, if you can support your loved one to focus on his or her strengths, it can be immensely helpful. Illness is typically a time when you feel low and down, and it is natural that at such times, you dwell on your limitations or your weaknesses and lose sight of the strengths. Having someone see those strengths can be heartening and uplifting.

Help Build Perspective
At the end of the day, what really helps change one’s mindset from illness to wellness is the way in which one sees the illness, the perspective that one is able to gain on it. Here, having a family member with a positive, sensitive, and sensible approach can help the person see things in the right light. Yes, illness can be debilitating, and at times, even devastating. Its implications range from a few missed days at work, to a complete lifestyle change, and at times, a real threat to life. Yet, when dealt with in a positive manner, each one of us can take illness in our stride and carry on with life as best as we can.

Restore Harmony
A disease is a state of dis-ease. Another way to see it would be that a disease, or an illness, upsets the internal harmony in an individual. This disharmonious state could be in the mind or the body, but usually, the repercussions are felt and experienced in the body. Anything you can do to help restore this equilibrium for your loved one, will not only make him or her feel emotionally relaxed, but will also directly impact the severity of the symptoms as he or she is experiencing them. While the mind-body relationship is a complex subject of scientific study, as a supportive family member, it is enough if we just try to understand the internal sense of upset or disharmony that our loved one is experiencing, and do whatever is in our power, to restore harmony.

Create a Wellness Culture
Every family has its own unique culture, shaped by the family members, their experiences, and their personalities. Make a proactive, conscious attempt to ingrain in your family members, this positive outlook toward wellbeing. Create a family culture that focuses on health and wellbeing, and not on ill health and illness, that can accept occasional health upsets as part of life, yet not get overwhelmed by them, and can keep the focus on becoming and being healthy.

Just one word of caution, though! Having an illness focus by no means implies that you have to be insensitive to an unwell family member, that you must expect every member in your family to be on his two feet no matter what. Far from it! What it does mean is that you see, and help that family member see, that occasional illness or disease is part of Life, and must be treated as such. It means being sensitive to the discomfort the person may be suffering, at the same time, encouraging the person to see that it is a small part of his existence at any given point in time and help him focus equally on other things that are happening in his life.

Article first published in Complete Wellbeing magazine, July 2011

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Psychotherapy and Healing: The Twain Shall Meet …….

First published in Just Let Go, a magazine released at the World Congress for Regression Therapies (WCRT-6), in September 2017

Psychological Counselling and Healing both use techniques that are very diverse, and on the surface, there seems to be no common ground. Psychology is a social science, it scientifically studies human behaviour, creates postulates about what drives normal V/s abnormal behaviour, and comes up with theories about the same. Based on this, various therapeutic interventions have been developed by psychologists over the years, to help clients deal with issues and problems. Right from Freudian psychoanalysis, to Rogerian person-centred therapy, to the currently more popular REBT and CBT, all these therapeutic interventions have been developed after years of research by some of the best psychologists our era has ever produced. Their efficacy has been proved over the years, and it takes years and years of rigorous training and certification to be able to practice these therapies.

The mental illness model is a bio-psycho-social one. In other words, it posits that mental illness is caused by a combination of biological (neurochemical, electrical, hormonal, or structural abnormalities), genetic, psychological (personality and temperament) and environmental (family dynamics, society, peers) factors.

Healing, on the other hand, is based on a very different approach. Healing works on things that may not be immediately and tangibly measurable scientifically. Many (though not all) healing modalities are based on the energy or chakra model (Reiki, Pranic Healing, Crystal Healing, Aromatherapy, Flower Remedies) or variations of the same. Healers work intuitively, psychotherapists are trained to work scientifically. Healers deal with the intangible (aura, energy, soul, spirit), therapists on the tangible (behaviours, responses, cognitions and beliefs). While every healing modality has its own conceptual framework, primarily it works on the mind-body-soul inter-relationship.

Coming from a background of Clinical Psychology, the world of ‘healing’ seemed like an unreal one. When I first started working with clients, I was armed with (or so I thought) all the various therapeutic tools and interventions to help them work on their issues and problems. My journey was initially a very fulfilling and satisfying one. As the years progressed though, I felt the need to equip myself with more tools. The more I engaged with clients, understood their issues and held their hand as they walked their often painful paths toward recovery, I felt I needed to do more. There were things I sensed that no therapeutic model or theory could explain.

My journey to seek for more tools, more ways to help clients led me to various healing modalities – hypnotherapy to begin with, and later, Reiki, crystals and so forth. Today, I still retain my conceptual bio-psycho-social training and approach and use this to remain grounded and keep my clients grounded. But I also do not hesitate to use my intuition, my ‘gut’ and my innate sense of what needs to be done in the moment with the client to make sure I am able to help them to the best of my abilities.

Essentially, my journey has taught me this: while classical psychotherapy and healing may seem like two ends of a spectrum, they are both driven by the same goal – that of helping clients overcome issues and arrive at a higher level of functioning. While we have some exceptionally effective psychotherapists, and some amazing healers in this world, combining the two approaches can bring benefits to the client that are priceless. Helping clients transcend their blocks and difficulties, while at the same time keeping them grounded in the current reality of their situation, is a feat that can easily and repeatedly be achieved through this combined approach.

Thus, healers and psychotherapists have much to learn from each other. Healers can learn the art of listening without judgement, the ability to maintain objectivity and give empathy, the ability to refrain from giving advice, challenge irrational thoughts, use confrontation wisely and empower clients do fight their own battles from psychologists. Psychologists on the other hand, would benefit immensely by learning to at times simply ‘be’ with the client in the therapy, learn to trust their gut and sixth sense, at times go with that sense and provide a soothing, healing space for the clients for their healing to take place. Instead of seeing each other as adversaries, if we learn to accept the best from every healing modality and integrate  it in our work with clients, we would have achieved what we all set out to do in this journey – help ease the path for people in pain.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Limits to Goodness

Goodness is the only investment that never fails
-        Henry David Thoreau

Goodness is a virtue that is highly valued in our society. ‘Be good’ tells every mother to her child as he sets off for school, ‘do good’ is what we always hear great people say. It is no surprise then that we all aspire to become ‘good’ human beings. And we all like to believe that we are good human beings.

In a book I recently read, the protagonist was faced with a tricky situation in her life. Mulling over this, she realised that ‘there are limits to her goodness. She could have gone through her entire life without knowing these limits.’

Limits to goodness? This phrase made me sit up straight and start thinking …… what does that mean? The more I thought, the more it slowly started making sense to me, and made me wonder: what are the limits to my goodness? Do I know them? I believe myself to be a morally upright, ethically sound, and essentially good person. But just how far does my goodness go? Do I know it? If I am faced with a very real dilemma between what is the right and good thing to do, would I do that right and good thing even if it meant doing irremediable damage to a loved one?

We all think we know ourselves, but every once in a while, Life throws up situations that stop us dead in our tracks, that make us question everything we have ever believed in. Situations that show us a side of ourselves that stuns, and at times, even shocks us. Is this me thinking like this, we ask ourselves.

By the time we are out of our teens, most of us have a fairly stable value system in place. There are things that are key priorities for us, goals that we wish to achieve, and the various means that we are willing to explore or use in order to achieve these goals. We go through most of our lives more or less using this value system implicitly or explicitly. Of course, there will be times when temptation will come our way, and there will be times when we will give in to temptation, abandon momentarily our values, and then do course correction. After all, most of us are mortals with mortal minds and mortal resolves, and we don’t always pass Life’s exams with flying colours. As long as we remain aware and open, we can assimilate these experiences without too much difficulty and keep moving forward in Life.

Consider Reena’s situation.

Reena has been a conscientious teacher for over 14 years. She prides herself on her integrity and uncompromising honesty, and has always instilled this in all the children she has taught over the years. One fine day, going through her husband’s computer looking for an important file, she finds irrefutable evidence that her husband has been embezzling funds from the organisation he works for, stealing away hard earned money of the company’s clients. Reena, who has never tolerated any student cheating in exams at school, is now wondering what to do? Her entire moral code recoils at what she has found out and were it anyone else, she knows she would have had no second thoughts turning in the person to the authorities. But this is her husband of 12 years, whom she loves with all her heart. What to do?

Her values and morals would tell her the right thing to do is to report him to the authorities.
But then, what about her responsibility toward her 6 year old child? Is it fair to deprive him of a father?
And what about her marriage? She has loved her husband and they share a good, strong marriage? Is it right to sacrifice everything for the sake of some abstract values?

What seems to me is that, most of us would like to be good. Some of us are almost always good The very notion of ‘goodness’ assumes being good to others. However, when being good to others comes in direct conflict with being good to someone very close to us, that is when our limits get tested. If Reena has to be true to her values and be good to her husband’s clients, then she has to turn her husband in, and then she is not being good to him. Is she? Isn’t she?

There clearly is no one right answer to such moral dilemmas. If you catch your loved one (a parent, a child, a spouse, a close friend) doing something wrong, immoral or bad, what happens to you? What would you do in such a situation? It is a good idea to ask this question to ourselves every once in a while. More than that; it is important not to judge the actions of any other person, for we have no idea what inner battles he or she has fought before doing or not doing certain things. And ….. never know when the tables will turn, and we will find ourselves face to face with the limits to our goodness.