Connection and positive triggers

When I am feeling wobbly and am struggling, the most powerful thing that can help me is the feeling of being connected to someone who cares. It is something I have struggled with a lot of my life and so when it happens, it feels pretty magical and special. I have found it a bit easier to find that connection in nature, with animals and birds than with people on the whole.

It is one of the main things I learned about in Compassion Focused Therapy which I wrote about a while back. Connection links us to a soothing mechanism in our brains that helps with turning down our threat system – the “smoke alarm” that is usually what cause so much trouble for me.

The problem with interpersonal trauma and that caused by people you trust especially, is that this soothing system is also linked to more threat and danger. So soothing starts to feel impossible. Especially in the presence of other human beings. And so begins a great deal of isolation and difficulty connecting with other people.

But with compassion focused therapy I learned to gently begin exploring connection in a safe way. I started by practicing, using imagery to try to imagine what a feeling of safe connection with a “perfect safe space” would be like and later on to what connection to a “perfect compassionate companion” would be like.

This very quickly gave me lots to work with in terms of working out what I didn’t like about this feeling and why I didn’t trust even this imaginary creature! But as I practice, I learn to more easily identify and feel more comfortable with that feeling. I have learned to treasure these magical moments of soothing connection as they become more available to me. Not only for what they are, but also because they show me how things can change for me.

One of the most memorable such magical moments for me was realising I really trusted my then-therapist. Realising I could tell her the most difficult thing I could think of using my words, and face to face – a way I rarely communicate actual feelings, nevermind ones this overwhelming. I don’t think I had ever been that vulnerable or shown my whole self to someone like that before. And to my extraordinary relief, she responded in the most compassionate and understanding way possible. I know therapy isn’t all about “breakthrough moments” but this moment felt exactly like that – though I know that if we hadn’t then maintained a trusting a relationship for months afterwards, I doubt I’d still feel anything had shifted.

It was a moment when trust had just pushed through the surface of the soil where it had been nurtured and poked its little leaves out. It was still very fragile and needed to be made stronger but that was the moment it suddenly became visible.

I formed a trusting connection whilst truly vulnerable and the power of that still remains. There are times when I try to use compassion focused therapy meditations or imagery exercises and I cannot. There are times when I feel entirely unreachable. But there are also times I feel almost unreachable.  During those times, the recordings I have of imagery exercises read aloud by my therapist are more able to reach me than anything else. I feel able to let her voice in when noone elses’ will be allowed. I am able to listen at first and then when I feel a bit more ready, able to listen and follow the “safe space” exercise. But only with this recording, of this person, from this time in my life.

Moments of connection do not just happen in therapy, but also in my real life relationships – and more so, now I practice these exercises – a photo, a card or a little trinket given to me by someone who cares for me can also do a similar thing.  As can photos of those special moments in nature when I suddenly felt safe, free and soothed by the beauty in front of me.

When we talk about trauma, we often talk about triggers – things that connect us again with a difficult or dangerous time, that throw our brains into that threat-focused state. I like to think of reminders of these magical moments as “positive triggers”. And like the other kind, they can be smells, sounds, sights or tastes. I use smells (lavender) when using my “safe space” imagery to try to link that feeling of safeness to a smell I can take with me wherever I go in everyday life. And I know that the light shining through the leaves of various trees in my safe space imagery, is something that feels extra special when I encounter the same light and trees in real life. We do have to nurture these positive triggers a lot more than we do the other kind that seem so easy to form and so difficult to shed, but we can do and they can make a difference in dark times.

 

I’ve created these little cards specifically to try and start the seeds of some positive triggers for people who are struggling.  Instead of sending a card-sized card, these little designs are credit-card sized to fit easily in a wallet. They can be carried with them wherever they go and remind them of the person who cares for them and sent them the card.

They are made from recycled cotton t-shirts – so you could add some drops of your favourite smelly to them (maybe on the back so as not to discolour the design), they look pretty (I hope!), they feel nice and they have a little space on the back for a crisis number, a personal message from a friend or other reminder. You can get matching stickers as an extra reminder to place on a phone cover, at your work desk or somewhere else helpful.

If you are are currently committed to, or on a journey of developing self-compassion and able to handle such a gesture, you could even buy one for yourself!

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Reflected Realities at The Arches Project

“The Road Less Travelled” – self-portrait with Silver Birch and lichen. (Faber-Castell Polychromos coloured pencils on Fabriano Artistico Hot Pressed 300gsm & handspun newspaper yarn. (£180)

I wanted to share the piece I have created for the “Reflected Realities” Exhibition by The Arches Project in Digbeth (June 9th – June 23rd) . You may have followed its progress on my instagram page, or this may be the first time you have seen it but now you can see it in real life at the exhibition in Digbeth, so do please come along!

When the most profound questions about life have to be confronted to survive, traumatic experiences leave us scarred and fragmented but can also foster great resilience and a more intimate and different connection with the world around us. Deceptively delicate looking, the Birch tree’s deep roots, when properly nourished, also make nutrients accessible for many other species.

To create this piece, multiple layers of coloured pencils have been worked into watercolour paper and newspaper stories have been painstakingly remoulded, crumpled, softened, cut into strips and spun through the fingers into yarn. These techniques are slow, sometimes tedious and often painful, mirroring the process of recovery.

 

 

Newspaper yarn Gallery

You can buy my newspaper yarn creations on my Folksy shop here.  

Making newspaper into yarn

A version of this post has also been published on “The Mighty” here.

The process I go through to make my newspaper yarn designs mirrors my therapy and recovery journey. It has mainly been about building a new way of “being”.  I can’t change my brain or my history, but I can try to dismantle some of the power held by the stories that make up my ingrained feelings, thoughts and behaviours. The stories that do not help me to thrive (though they have helped me survive). It’s not possible to get rid of these well-rehearsed stories so it’s more about accepting why they are there and reshaping my response to them by not buying into them. To create something new from these stories.

Much like recovery or therapy, the process can be painful, difficult and tedious.

So I take stories that seem so sure of themselves, printed in black and white and presenting themselves as fact. And to start I crumple the paper, to soften and ready it for the process. I liken this to the fact that sometimes it is a “breakdown” or crisis, or some other major event that triggers me to seek help. The softening produced by this crumpling is the safeness and calming created in a trusted therapeutic and in safe supportive social relationships.

Without this, the process will just result in the paper ripping apart.

I then cut strips of paper, paying attention to the colours they contain and the slow process of twisting it through my fingers to turn it into yarn begins. I keep the colours I want and mould the paper yarn using my fingers – a part of my physical body.

In the same way, experience of new feelings and ways of being have to be felt with your body to truly understand and learn. Our feelings are real physiological, biological things that happen inside our bodies. All the thinking in the world cannot change your feelings. We need that embodied experience to really learn new ways of feeling.

We can learn from hearing about something or seeing something done but we only really understand when we do it ourselves. It seems to me we often concentrate on the words and thoughts of our lives and can easily forget the spaces in between, where our essence of simply “being” resides. I think this is where compassion, soothing and connection acts, on the spaces between the words. Only in embracing the whole can we recover a fulfilling life.

This is a slow, messy process resulting in ink-stained, sore fingers but it’s needed to create something new. I can create anything from this yarn. It was once a set story (full of bad news and trauma) as well as sometimes misinformation. It is now flexible, pliable, stronger and more beautiful and can be used to create any design. The words have got new meanings in their new contexts as part of the yarn itself, or lifted from the newspaper to be given new life as little tags on golden thread.

We are not our history. We can be so much more.

An accidental Christmas card design

 

I was intending on entering a Christmas card competition, but I wasn’t actually thinking about this when I came up with my design. I had been doing a lot of doodles and sketches ‘inspired by’ how    s    l    o    w    mental health recovery can be. And because it feels so slow, sometimes appreciating things on a tiny scale can really help. It can help me see things from a different perspective and bring me back to the present moment. The present moment without the tangled webs of hopes, dreams, fears and stories we tell ourselves. Even in a city, it can help me feel much more connected to the natural world because on a minute scale, every tree, every wooden bench and brick wall can hold a tiny natural landscape.

So I think I was drawing about focusing on a minute scale during the festive period too. Christmas can be a sad or lonely time for some people, including those using mental health services over the holidays. It can be especially difficult when everyone seems to be enjoying it except you. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, it might not feel that great. Or you might be overspending and exhausting yourself to make sure you can provide a really great Christmas for others. And even if you love this time of year, it can still come with pressures, expectations and unnecessary stress. So I was hoping to draw something that could be for anyone, whether they celebrate or not – hoping they can all find a moment of kindness, connection, warmth and sparkle no matter how small during this festive season.

I ended up doing two versions because I thought the first one was a bit overdone but I am still not sure which I prefer. Both have been entered into the Birmingham & Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust Christmas card competition. You can find out more and enter here: http://www.bsmhft.nhs.uk/about-us/news/christmas-card-design-competition-2016/

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