The Power of Acknowledgement

Healing A Broken Heart

I was talking to a friend of mine recently about conflict and how people often choose to deal with confrontation and disagreement by offering a non-apology – usually a version of I’m sorry you feel that way.

I’ve written about this before, so anyone who follows my articles and social feeds will know my thoughts on the importance of us somehow (no matter how painful it can feel) accepting responsibility for the way we might make another person feel.   It’s not easy but it’s so healing when you can hear each other.      

The friend I was speaking to – we’ll call him Steve – told me a story.

Nearly 40 years ago Steve’s maternal grandfather was diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer.

As the end neared, Steve’s parents left their 17-year-old son to look after the house and the family dog and travelled to help nurse his grandad.

Two days later, in the middle of the night, Steve suddenly woke up, aware of a heavy weight at the end of the bed. At first, he thought the dog had somehow managed to get into the room and onto the bed, but when he sat up to send the dog out, he was met by the sight of his grandfather, sitting at the end of the bed, looking at him.

Steve says he felt no apprehension or fear. He says he remembers trying to work out how his grandad had got there, which totally confused him because it was two in the morning and it made no sense. He could feel his grandad’s weight, could see the detail of his face.

He says he remembers hearing his grandfather speak four words – “It’s all okay now” (or perhaps he imagined it; he can’t be sure which) and the next thing he knew it was morning.

He  immediately rang his grandmother to be told news that, deep down, he already knew.

His grandfather had died in the night. The death certificate gave the time of death as 2am.

When he told me this story, Steve said that what was most interesting about the encounter was that he found peace in it – that, in some way he still doesn’t understand even after all these years, one of them had acknowledged his grandfather’s life by making a point of saying goodbye.

He learned later on from a psychic he was interviewing for a newspaper article that it was common for spirits to seek validation for their existence from those left behind.

Now, it’s worth saying at this stage that Steve isn’t really inclined to the woo-woo side of life (or death, for that matter).

But the point he was making was that that moment of acknowledgement he experienced was also the permission he needed to be at peace and move on without regrets or sadness.

And he drew an interesting parallel with the non-apology, saying he’d told me the story of his grandad because just as acknowledgement is part of the process of letting go of grief (or of allowing a spirit to move on, if that’s part of your belief system), acknowledgement is also critical in being able to be at peace with conflict.

How we deal with conflict is important. Let’s go back to the non-apology for a moment.

The important thing to remember is that the problem with the non-apology and the problem with conflict is that generally-speaking neither one acknowledges how you feel.

There is no room within I’m sorry you feel that way to acknowledge that the person is responsible – either in whole or in part – for making you feel the way you do. It doesn’t acknowledge your pain or that you have been heard.

And when we feel we haven’t been heard, we get angry and with anger comes conflict. And so it goes on, a vicious circle of emotional malaise.

That’s because the unwritten and unsaid part of ‘I’m sorry you feel that way is ‘but it’s nothing to do with me.

So why is acknowledgement so important? Well, in very simple terms acknowledgement is absolutely essential to healing. Nothing – absolutely nothing – can heal without it.

When we are in emotional pain, we need our feelings to be validated. It is not essential for us to be in the right to be able to heal, but to be able to agree to disagree, or to admit we’re wrong? Yes, to be able to do that we absolutely need people to acknowledge the part they have played in what we feel.

Failure to acknowledge is at the root of every feud, every conflict and every breakdown in relationships – personal, business and political – throughout history. Without exception. Every. Single. One.

Period.

So, when you fail to acknowledge how you impact on someone else, what you are essentially doing is placing yourself into conflict with them.

Even in the last year we can see the explosive impact of what happens when acknowledgement is missing.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer earlier in the year underlined a total failure of the global political establishment to acknowledge and respond to systemic racism within society.

The Black Lives Matter movement is not about George Floyd’s death. It is about generations of BAME people’s first hand experiences of racism not being heard or acknowledged.

And every person who counters Black lives matter with Every life matters just perpetuates the problem, because it’s a response that fundamentally fails to acknowledge the simple premise that Black lives can’t matter until every life matters and, worse, fails to acknowledge the responsibility we all have for the society we have created.

I say again, healing cannot happen until there is acknowledgement.

Elsewhere this year, the government has been rightly taken to task over its handling of its response to the pandemic with growing calls for the restrictions we face to be lifted.

Why are people angry about being in lockdown? It’s not because they’re selfish. It’s not because they’re unhappy about not being able to go out and get pissed with their mates at the pub on a Friday night, or not being able to go and watch Arsenal play or not being able to go to the cinema.

They are rebelling – emotionally if not actually – because the restrictions are causing real suffering by hobbling businesses, destroying mental health, stripping away financial security, exacerbating poverty and homelessness and denying vital healthcare.

They are angry because that pain is criminally unacknowledged by a government that is hell-bent on pursuing its own ends on the basis of advice it receives from the narrowest possible community of scientific expertise.   Many other experts are up in arms and campaigning vigorously in opposition.    

If you want to know why therapy is so healing, it’s because what takes place in a therapist’s consulting room is very often the first time in that person’s life that they have truly been heard and acknowledged.

Acknowledgement is so important that the outcome of the conflict – whether we ‘win’ or ‘lose’ is often of secondary importance. The fact we have been acknowledged is enough to defuse the conflict completely and render it trivial.

It’s important, too, to understand it’s also entirely possible to be wrong and reasonable, just as it is possible to be right and unreasonable.

Acknowledgement validates us to the point where we don’t necessarily need to be proven right or proven wrong. Lack of acknowledgement fuels anger which, in turn, fuels conflict and prevents healing.

Whatever else happens in the next few months, one thing is certain – we have to find a way to acknowledge each other so we can all heal from what has happened in the past year. If we don’t, then 2021 will have the power to make 2020 look like a horrifically crazy but much-loved aunt.


Why This Government Is Acting Like An Alcoholic Parent

Broken Trust Concept

Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP)

Definition: A mental health problem in which a caregiver makes up or causes an illness or injury in a person under his or her care, such as a child, an elderly adult, or a person who has a disability. Because vulnerable people are the victims, MSBP is a form of child abuse or elder abuse.

Stockholm syndrome

Definition: A psychological response. It occurs when hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors or abusers. This psychological connection develops over the course of the days, weeks, months, or even years of captivity or abuse.

One of the main symptoms developed by people who live with an alcoholic parent is a difficulty or inability to have trust in that person.

When you grow up in an atmosphere where denial, lies and secrecy are the norm, children of alcoholics can develop serious trust issues in adulthood because they have learned from the broken promises of the past that trust will eventually backfire on them.

Let me make myself crystal clear here regarding alcoholism and alcohol abuse: alcoholism is a powerful, baffling and cunning addiction. It’s devastating for everyone – the alcoholic, the partner and children, friends and colleagues. 

I have enormous compassion for anyone battling this addiction and enormous respect for those who face it through any form of recovery for it.  I work with recovering alcoholics and I also work with the now-adult children of alcoholics who grew up in a home of addiction.

Make no mistake – I’m painfully aware of the devastation alcoholism wreaks. 

Yet in many ways, this government has now begun to behave like an alcoholic parent, and we have become the children at the centre of its abuse. And it’s downright scary.

There are times when it feels very much like we’re being held against our will as an endless stream of flaky ‘statistics’ and inept testing combine to create a narrative that’s thin on substance and fat on control.

Like the child of an alcoholic parent, we are coerced and cajoled into pretending everything is okay – Eat Out to Help Out and ‘Go back to work’ – only for the inevitable U-turn to plunge us back into the anxious reality of lockdown.

If we don’t comply with the evidence-lite strategy we are bullied and shamed into believing we are to blame for the pandemic, that our selfish ambition to be able to live lives that are as normal as possible will kill those closest to us, that we are ignorant Covid-deniers.

Let’s get one thing straight here and now. Covid-19 is real. It exists. It’s serious. Only the most foolish would deny that.

But does the tangible provable risk justify the extreme response? Does the evidence exist to support the blanket Munchausen by proxy strategy that one way or another turns us all into Covid victims? Does it justify the unquestioning and wholehearted support of Government strategy that feels more and more like a mass episode of Stockholm syndrome with every passing day?

With hindsight it’s easy to see where we might have done things differently to mitigate the impact of Covid-19. Maybe we should have gone into lockdown earlier. Maybe we should have closed our borders sooner. Maybe we should have insisted on mask-wearing immediately.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

The negative impact of not doing things sooner or later, quicker or slower earlier this year was extraordinary. Businesses failed, people lost their jobs and income, and critical health services were compromised as NHS resources were diverted to deal with demand that – as the empty Nightingale Hospital standing silently sentinel proved – simply never materialised.

But, hard though it will be to accept for many of those who have been scarred in some way by the virus and the Government’s response to it, we can at least in part empathise.

No one really knew what we were or weren’t dealing with until it was much too late, and so a reluctance to do some things and a hunger to do others can in some ways be understood, even if it’s hard to accept.

Not so this time, as we make our way through the first week of this lockdown. Because this time the hindsight we developed should have served as the foresight we needed to get a grip of the second spike.

Yet knowing what they do about the catastrophic economic and mental health impact that shutting down the country will have on us all, Boris Johnson and his government have instead chosen to plunge us into another month-long abyss of isolation.

It’s a decision taken on the frankly sketchy advice of a very narrow panel of so-called health experts who seem more or less incapable of agreeing with each other on the best way to deal with the virus.

Before the pandemic, one in 5 people in the UK admitted to having considered suicide. One in four families worldwide has a family member who suffers with a serious or severe mental health disorder. One in six adults claimed to have experienced depression or anxiety in the previous 7 days.

We were already in the middles of the biggest global mental health pandemic imaginable. It has become exponentially worse. Poor physical health, isolation and financial worries are the key triggers for depression. We have seen all of them in abundance over the last seven months.

We’re told the current lockdown is a ‘firebreak’, a measure intended to deprive the virus of sustenance. Like an alcoholic parent, the government behaves with an inconsistency that bedevils the possibility of trust.

Just who does Mr Johnson think he’s kidding? When two of his pet rats – the sneering architects of doom who have overseen rampant hysteria and the decimation of livelihoods – jump ship following a reported power struggle within 10 Downing Street, how are we to trust him or anything that comes from his mouth?

When two Tory front benchers – first Gove, then Hancock – break ranks within a week to contradict their boss and tell us that even though the Prime Minister has said the lockdown will end on December 2nd it could go on for much longer, how do we attach any credibility to anything we are told?

When a former front bench Government minister says the Cabinet is ‘hopeful of having more of a say in Government strategy’ now Cummings and co. have gone to spend the proceeds of their calamitous policies, how we can do anything other than ask who in God’s name has been governing us for the past seven months or more?

Like a marriage between two alcoholics, the marriage of Cummings and Johnson lies in tatters, the mental health and financial security of hundreds of thousands of people lying in its wake, gasping their last breaths.

Johnson leads a government that makes promises it can’t possibly be sure it will keep, offers directions that seem to have no root in sense or logic, says one thing under the intoxication of ‘science’, only to say something completely different tomorrow.

It brandishes the stick of threat (on the spot fines for lockdown rebels), guilt (we’re all going to kill other people if we don’t follow the new evidence-lite rules) and ruin, whilst simultaneously offering the carrot of an extended furlough, a Christmas with fewer if any restrictions, a tangible end to the pandemic, only to be plunged back in come January.

And in the process it makes us hostages to a rule of law that lacks true scrutiny and oversight, that lacks the weight of compelling scientific evidence, that lacks any empathy for the financial, economic and mental health devastation that will be left in its wake.

Half the nation now follows these directives with the alacrity of conversion that is almost religious – an alarming transition to a form of Stockholm Syndrome that is necessary for the measures to be upheld – whilst the rest of us stand in furious objection to the march of totalitarianism that threatens to overwhelm and devour our civil liberties, livelihoods and mental health.

And as if in counterpoint to the severity of the situation in which we find ourselves, there is the syncopation of the bizarre as we see the introduction of the spot-checking Covid police, the relaxation of the travel embargo for those who want to commit the currently illegal act of assisted dying abroad, the you-can-play-golf-with-a-friend-wait-no-you-can’t-play-golf-with-a-friend advice of the Conservative front bench and apparently deserted Covid testing centres the length and breadth of the country.

If the Government truly believes lockdown is the right approach – and I don’t believe it is – then logic compels it to shut everything down. If lockdown isn’t right, then shut nothing down.

But this one-foot-in-both-camps approach of locking down one part of society and then allowing it to interact with another, unrestricted part makes no sense at all.

I specialise in complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which is governed by four primary survival defences: fight, flight, freeze and fawn. 

All of those responses are vital for our emotional and physical safety. We use ‘fight’ to stand our ground. We use ‘flight’ to act quickly and decisively and escape danger. Freeze allows us to stop and make rational decisions about what to do next. Fawn gives us the tools to calm the situation down and find agreement and reason. 

But when we’re put under chronic and relentless stress such as the current lockdown, we risk our nervous systems becoming get stuck in fight or flight mode (on), or stuck in freeze or fawn (off). 

Most people in the UK are stuck in one of these trauma defence responses right now. It’s nothing new, and in fact I wrote about it in my previous blog, but the problem is they’ve been stuck since March. 

In his book Complex PTSD – From Surviving to Thriving, leading psychotherapist Pete Walker talks of the over-reliance on the four trauma responses by those who are repetitively traumatized in childhood and how this leads to the emotional impoverishment of life. 

Whilst Walker’s text is primarily aimed at children, the responses to the Covid pandemic mean adults, too, are now experiencing the same phenomena through constantly changing restrictions and rules, job losses, uncertainty, impacted relationships, the loss of homes, the anxiety of children, looming poverty or financial hardship, enforced loneliness and the removal of control and choice.

Of these four responses it is fawn that I fear most. I see a nation acquiescing to a confused and bewildered government as a child would to a drunken parent who has long been without all their faculties.

On its own, this is a problem. But without any exit plan or believable reassurance from the government, it is a crisis.

2.9 million mostly self-employed people are excluded from any government support yet are still being reminded to pay their income tax by the end of January. Suicide rates among excluded communities are rising. Use of food banks is escalating. And we haven’t even begun to talk about the children yet 

Any therapist worth their salt, and especially a hypnotherapist with a very clear understanding of the subconscious mind, knows just how ‘installing’ a trauma works.

Take a young and tender psyche and shock it enough times with a repetitive message, and what do you have?

Anxiety, OCD, depression, negative self-belief, negative and possibly dangerous perceptions about the world and others.

Children’s charities are now dealing with Covid PTSD. But we shouldn’t be surprised. When the Health Secretary tells them they could kill granny, what should be their response? Apart from directly undermining the decision to send children back to school, it paints every child as a potential murderer or monster.

When the Government tells us life will never be the same again, it takes away a reason for living and erodes our connection with the world and with each other.

Recently, I was asked to play an active role in the work of Recovery – a collaboration of people from all walks of life, all political persuasions, all creeds – to lobby the Government for a more considered and reasonable approach to managing the pandemic.

I am honoured to be a member of the mental health committee for the group and here you can find out more about what Recovery does and the 5 Reasonable Demands it is making. My purpose in being part of this group is to bring reason, logic and – most importantly – proportionality to the Government’s strategy.

But the confusing data, lack of trust in Government policy and the blinkered focus on Covid to the exclusion of everything else is in danger destroying lives – and we are only at the edge of the precipice 

When MPs and high ranking civil servants can’t follow their own rules or, in the case of Michael Gove last week, don’t actually appear to understand those rules, how are we supposed to believe they know what they’re doing, never mind trust the integrity of their decision-making?

I am now treating people who had no underlying anxiety or depression issues prior to March. I am treating kids with newly-developed OCD, who see other children as a contagion, who are terrified mummy and daddy are going to die.

Children, in other words, who are being forced to skip their childhood in under the weight of adult fear.

Like a domineering and belligerent alcoholic parent, the likes of Matt Hancock rail against anyone with independent thought, insisting that Covid-19, not Government policy, is responsible for our mental health issues.

His Mini-Me Nadine Dorries – that renowned bandwagon-jumper – takes a more invidious approach, using minimisation and denial to counter hard evidence (the like of which Professor Chris Whitty and his Government lapdogs have been conspicuously devoid) to denounce the very notion of a gargantuan Covid-related mental health crisis.

The measures we have implemented in the last 10 days are like a voracious and fast metastasising cancer. They consume common sense. They erode mental health to dangerous degrees. They are unaccountable. And they appear to have no cure.

Good government is about selflessly doing what is in the interests of those whom that government represents and affects.

We all hope an alcoholic parent this harmful and this dangerous would never escape real scrutiny. Would never be allowed to care for a child. Would never be trusted to safeguard the mental and physical health of a fellow human being.

How long must we wait and how much more damage must be done in the name of ‘protecting’ us before responsibility for our welfare is forcibly removed from Boris Johnson and his self-serving cronies?

Just as the child of an alcoholic parent or a deeply dysfunctional parent must begin the painful yet necessary  process to see them with utter clarity, we must now do the same with our Government and call out what we see.      


How To Stay Sane In A World Of Heartbreak

Craig Mccann Mcmillan

Two years ago this month, I wrote an article about the current occupant of the White House and the future world of post-traumatic stress that he was wilfully and deliberately creating for migrant families through a policy of enforced familial separation.

I didn’t name him in that article and I have no intention of dignifying him by doing so now.

Recently, that individual has threatened to do what no American leader has done in nearly 30 years and deploy troops to tackle the violent protests that have erupted in the wake George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis last week.

It hardly seems coincidental that when George Bush Senior sent the army into Los Angeles in 1992, it was also to quell rioting that followed the death of another black man – Rodney King – in police custody.

For those who have missed the context of George Floyd’s killing, he died when a police officer – who has since been charged with murder and manslaughter – knelt on his head for more than eight minutes, even though Floyd persistently said he couldn’t breathe.

Law and democracy demand that the officer, Dennis Chauvin, be presumed innocent unless proven otherwise by a jury of his peers. But the video evidence that traversed the globe even more quickly than the pandemic that currently grips us is compelling.

Right-minded people have little tolerance for brutality among those whose job it is to protect us, and none at all where that brutality is inflicted on the disadvantaged and oppressed; so there is a sense of inevitability about the insurrection that has bloomed in cities around the US on each of the last seven nights.

But it seems to me that what we are witnessing across the Atlantic is also, in small part, a reflection of the extraordinary pressure under which people all over the world are currently living.

As a global society we have been living through a period of growing and unprecedented trauma for years, one that has now triggered an explosive emotional response that was as inevitable as it has been unavoidable.

Now we are tasked with healing it; but in order to heal, trauma must first be acknowledged and addressed.

I say this constantly, and I repeat it here: there is no hiding place from trauma.

To ignore it only allows it to grow and fester like a cancer until it creates an inner wrecking ball that then manifests itself in negative behaviours in your own life that can range from an horrifically persecutory superego, to car-crash relationships with yourself or others, drug addiction or rapacious mental health issues.

No amount of positive thinking, self-affirmation or good intentions will override unhealed trauma – it must come to the surface in order to be healed.

What we are witnessing now across the world is the same volcanic effect of society’s pent-up trauma – and specifically that caused by centuries of unaddressed racism, prejudice and injustice – erupting.

The demonstrations we have seen over the past few weeks are specifically rooted in the shameful abomination of historic entitlement of white privilege at the expense of people of colour; but every person who has taken the knee or marched in protest is also making a wider statement about equality.

Trauma on an international scale, such as the current pandemic and the emotional responses it has provoked, is not uncommon. The financial crash of 2008 and 9/11 are two examples within just the last two decades.

Many people have drawn a comparison between the current lockdown and what life must have been like during the Second World War, but the truth is that the effect of lockdown on the human race globally goes far beyond the that experienced by most ordinary (by which I mean non-military) folk between 1939 and 1945.

Rationing was tough. Living under the constant fear of bombing runs by the Luftwaffe over strategic UK locations was fearsome. Not knowing if your spouse, sibling, parent or child would return from action was impossibly hard. Learning they wouldn’t was harder still. We know this from the stories passed down by the silent generation and their parents.

But this is the first time in history that the world has stopped as one. It may turn, but it barely functions. Businesses have collapsed. Thousands have died on contact with an unseen enemy. Homes have been lost. People who had teetered on the edge of poverty have been cast into its abyss. We queue for food and we are forcibly distanced from people we love.

And it has all happened in the space of just a few short weeks.

On May 8th 1945, people emerged from six years of hardship knowing the enemy they feared had been beaten and had surrendered.

Over the last ten days we have begun to realise that unlike our forefathers, we are now expected to return by degrees to a world we last saw on March 23rd and a world in which our unseen enemy has not been bested – and is unlikely to be for months or maybe years.

We’re being asked to create a new normal in a world where death potentially lies in wait in everything we touch, breathe and taste.

And for many people, that’s absolutely terrifying.

What that terror translates into is a state of emotional paralysis, decision-making inertia and a process of denial in which fear and anxiety thrive. Both characteristics are master storytellers and as a species we are hardwired towards confirmation bias, where we seek to confirm what we already believe or have been told.

That all adds up to a toxic thought chain fear, anxiety or total shutdown – traits that characterise our typical inbuilt defence mechanisims – trigger one or more of the four human trauma response modes: fight, flight, freeze or fawn.

I explain those response modes in my last article which sought to help people define their apocalypse style, but it’s a unique characteristic of the current global lockdown that it should trigger those responses in us both at its start and the point at which we begin the journey to its end.

When the lockdown was announced on March 22nd, many of us experienced one or more of those four responses.

Whether it was the indecision and inertia of freeze as we tried to make decisions in our dressing gowns at three in the afternoon, or the panic of flight as we cancelled non-essential direct debits and applied for mortgage payment holidays, each day was defined by the way in which we individually coped with an unfamiliar world.

Now we’re going through exactly the same thing as we are coaxed into ‘normality’ (note: there is absolutely nothing normal – yet – about what we’re heading into).

Some of us may be richer for our time of self-reflection; we may even have found a resilience we didn’t know we had; we may have discovered, as I did, that we owned a pair of Fuck-It pants (you’ll have to read the apocalypse blog to understand that).

But that was learning and evolution designed for a different purpose – to cope with lockdown.  

And whilst it may have been appropriate then, what do we do now when we are faced with the heartbreak of many people of colour and may feel compelled to fight not just for ourselves but also others without wrecking the world and our own lives at the same time?      

The cognitive dissonance we are experiencing right now couldn’t be more polarised: we feel an urge to protest, but we are being urged to stay at home.  

Brene Brown was quoted this week as saying that in a crisis such as this we can either pretend we have nothing to learn, or we can take the opportunity to own the truth and make a better future for ourselves and others. 

Times are changing, as they must. Normal no longer exists. Perhaps what we are now seeing is the necessary effect of dismantling what is familiar but flawed in order to rebuild a new normal that serves us all better. Because now we know that the normal we were living before wasn’t working.

But a new normality brings its own worries and forces us to deal with all the ugly truth it may bring.

We’re in that twilit land where we’ve realised we may get to discover the reality of the reassurances we told ourselves. And part of us really, really doesn’t want to do that. Part of us recognises that we’d really rather stay within the confines of comfortable prisons we’ve built for ourselves over the last eight weeks.

The protests we are seeing today are a response to an injustice that is a symbol of a much darker social cancer within society.

The fear and anxiety we have all experienced over the last two months and now face anew in a shifted form as we prepare for life post-lockdown is gasoline on that already burning fire.

It’s important that we look after ourselves in this very traumatising time, not because we are selfish, but because we are no use to anyone if we are not able to stay relatively sane in the eye of a growing storm. 

But it’s equally vital that we don’t minimise or ignore the pain of others; by acknowledging it, offering support and being prepared to listen and understand we can all work to heal each other.

If you haven’t experienced racism personally, it’s impossible to understand what it is like to be a victim of racism. And no one should expect you to. But what you can share is empathy, because that is a gift within all of us.   

Accessing the inner strength and stability that allows us to live through this and work out the right way to contribute has never been more vital. It’s found in the window of tolerance.

The window of tolerance is not about tolerating the intolerable, either in your own life or in the world at large; it is simply about being able to access a pocket of stability and rationality that safeguards your own mental health.

It’s about creating time and space breathe and to feel, to rationalise and to simply be.

Staying in your window of tolerance gives you the strength to ride out this crisis whilst also doing the right thing by you and by others. It’s a potential gateway to positive action. And in the end, isn’t positive action where healing lies?

Photo of my incredible friend Sara M Noel and her beautiful little boy Luca – photo credit Craig Mccann Mcmillan


What’s Your Apocalypse Style?

Zombie Apocalypse Survivor Against Hordes Of Undead

These last couple of  weeks I found that I own a pair of Fuck-It pants.

This discovery came as a bit of a surprise, because presumably like you and pretty much everyone else in the world who suddenly found the world had irrevocably changed, I had spent the first week of lockdown feeling really fearful about what the post-Covid-19 future might look like.

There was a time in those first few days when I wondered if there would even be a future.

It seemed like one moment it was gin o’clock and then, in the next moment, Armageddon had arrived, coming at full tilt and howling like a banshee.

There is absolutely no doubt that the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic will be of a biblical scale. The human cost may be quantifiable, but when the final reckoning is done, it’s likely to prove conceptually unimaginable.

This is shit of the seriously serious kind, and I will never be able to truly accept or be untainted by the sheer scale of loss of life that we have seen and will continue to see for many more weeks to come.

Yet I have found a wierd kind of peace with its impact on me, whatever that turns out to be in the end. This week, I reached the point where I stopped running from what I feared, thought ‘Fuck it’, and chose to turn and fight instead.

By that I mean the impact on everything I’ve built over the past 18 years. There are many owners of businesses like mine who are staring into an abyss and don’t know if they’ll survive this period. I’ve come to the realisation that no matter what’s around the corner, I’m not going to let everything I’ve worked for be destroyed by a sneeze or cough.

Part of that is down to habituation. In psychological terms habituation is what happens when  you’re exposed to a particular stimulus – in this case fear – for such a prolonged period that your emotional response to it diminishes. We’ll come back to this in a bit.

But mostly I think it’s down to the fact that fighting is the way I’m genetically hardwired to respond to trauma. I grew up in a house of Dynasty levels of drama (minus the cash), and so it’s probably inevitable that once I’d recovered from the initial shock of what Covid-19 might mean for me, my go-to response kicked in.   

Regardless of how Covid-19 has affected you or will affect you personally, the reality right now is that we’re all currently experiencing a shared mass trauma event. To some extent, we could argue the entire world has complex PTSD right now.

Whether you’re considered vulnerable, are unable to work, have lost someone close to you, fear contracting the disease or are simply working from home and unable to travel, every one of us has been uniquely touched by the events of the past few weeks.

And the nature of trauma and the way the subconscious is configured means we each deal with it in one or more of four ways (it’s not uncommon to go through all of them – sometimes in the space of a single day – although usually there’s one response reflex that’s dominant).

Fight

Let’s start in the land of the Fuck-It pants.

If you’ve ever seen the film Network, this is the response which might have you yelling at the world: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” And if you haven’t seen the movie, now might be the perfect time to give it a go.

The fight response meets fear or trauma with fierce resolve and the realisation – either conscious or otherwise – that for you, standing your ground and facing the enemy is better than running from it, whatever the outcome.

The fight response is the province of the renegade. Those who are likely to opt for this approach to dealing with trauma are those who will have looked at all the possible outcomes and consequences of going in swinging (not literally, of course!) and decided they can live with and survive all of them.

In essence, this reaction to trauma is the one whose mantra is ‘if you’re going down, go down fighting’.

The fight response sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. There’s little point in fighting if it’s only going to cause more damage than the threat you face.

As with all responses they can also get out of balance and put you into a negative loop that sees you fighting long after the battle is over, which is inevitably exhausting for both you and everyone around you.  

Flight

Flight is what we’ve seen from most people in the opening weeks of this situation and it’s hallmarked by a sense of panic. Flight is a common trauma response because the subconscious is programmed to protect you at all costs and running from danger is a primal reflex.

Even those who ultimately and rapidly respond to fear, trauma and danger by fighting will usually experience and manifest flight as their default first reaction.

The primary characteristic of flight in the context of coronavirus and social distancing, and all that that potentially entails for individual personal and financial security, is to try to cover off every eventuality.

Those who opt for flight will be those who, if nothing else, now have sufficient toilet roll and pasta to last into the next millennium. They will have been in touch with their mortgage lender to arrange a payment holiday, cancelled every possible direct debit or standing order that isn’t entirely essential and will be scrupulously meticulous around personal hygiene.

Stockpiling hand sanitiser aside, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the flight response in principle. As I say, it’s designed to keep you safe. But it’s unsustainable in the long-term without causing additional mental health issues.

Unchecked, the flight road often leads to chronic anxiety, negative generalised behaviour and OCD – especially if you already had creeping obsessions with hygiene and financial security prior.  

Freeze

When we initially experience shock, we  ‘freeze’:  our systems shut down and we disassociate.  This is due to things being simply ‘too much’

We are the rabbits in the road, dazzled by headlights yet powerless or without the capacity to acknowledge or appreciate the one and a half tonnes of danger bearing down of us in a roar of engines and the hiss of rolling rubber.

For the rabbit, flight is obviously the best response – preferably via a hedgerow rather than an attempt to outrun the car; but rather than running or standing their ground to meet fire with fire.  Freezing is actually an entirely natural autonomic nervous response to danger, but it’s when get ‘stuck’ in freeze as a life-trance is when it becomes an issue. 

Disassociation can and often does work, but only through luck or when the perceived danger fails to materialise.

We are currently working with a lot of clients to help move them out of the freeze trauma response to the coronavirus.

Fawn

The final response to trauma is to fawn – which is when we go into automatic people-pleasing mode, twisting and contorting ourselves in all sorts of different and accommodating shapes in order to find try to deflect the confrontation or danger we face.

Those who respond to fear or danger by fawning are likely to be unable to say no easily and may have difficulty expressing how they feel. Often, fawners struggle with their self-esteem and are driven by the belief that admission to a ‘community’ is more important than looking after their own emotional needs.

For Covid-19 this response doesn’t work too well, since the danger is not one that can be avoided through passivity or becoming a people-pleasing pretzel that doesn’t serve you.   

What’s your window of tolerance?

Each of these trauma responses are valid and entirely natural in and of their own right, we all move through them, often several times a day, the problem is when we get ‘stuck’ in ‘on’:  fight or flight or fawn, or ‘stuck’ in ‘off’ freeze.     So where then, do we want to be?  Well as we manage our way through this pandemic, we should ideally be working to find our ‘window of tolerance’ – the place where you can take refuge and comfort in the knowledge that you’re going to be okay.

Is that easy to do?   Well generally, no. It depends on how financially secure you are already, how much support you have emotionally and practically and how good you were at staying within your window of tolerance before the coronavirus hit.   

It’s easy to find and stay in your window of tolerance if you’re in some kind of Kardsahian-style lockdown in a mansion with bottomless financial resources and nothing to do but bake and Tik-Tok your existence for the benefit of a world that’s permanently glued to Instagram.

Alone in a damp studio flat and living off dwindling credit card limits when you were already isolated to within an inch of your sanity? Not so much.

Ditto those whose backdrop for lockdown is an abusive relationship. Or an elderly person with serious health issues.   Or someone who was already battling the unholy trinity of anxiety, depression and insomnia.  

All the trauma responses are normal, but at times some can be more helpful than others.

The goal is here to recognise which, if any, of the trauma responses you’re in and from there work to get back into your window of tolerance.   

Fight: Stop threatening to drop-kick traffic wardens or a partner whose mere breathing is sending you into an incandescent rage.   Take time out and breathe.

Flight: Stop inhaling bad news, take a breath and soothe your nervous system

Freeze: Get up and do something that is good for you. Reconnect with yourself. Nature is great for this.

Fawn:  Stop looking after everyone else and put yourself first by getting some support.   

More than ever, we all need to find our window of tolerance – that place where we feel adult, reasonable and sane – and support ourselves through our actions, behaviours and self-talk so we can stay in that window as much as we can. 

By doing that, we can get through this and help others too.

Whatever your response to the corona virus.   Know that you do have a ‘window of tolerance’, that it’s possible to get back to, no matter how far away it might feel right now, and it’s possible to expand and it’s possible to wait until you are back in your window of tolerance to make decisions that you just can’t make (when you are in flight mode), that just aren’t good to make (when you are in fight mode), that aren’t your own to make (when you are in fawn mode)  and that you just can’t be arsed to make (when you are in freeze mode).    It’s OK to not know right now, it’s OK to be a confused mess right now, what isn’t OK is to give yourself a hard time about any of it right now.

We become strong by recognising which of the ‘four horsemen of trauma states’ we are currently in & coaxing, coaching & supporting ourselves back into our window of tolerance and this, my friends, is where the magic happens.

Whilst the current restrictions are in place, we have moved our treatments online. Zoe Clews & Associates is a leading provider of online therapy in the UK and we are able to continue to treat most issues and conditions as normal through virtual sessions held via Skype.

If you’d like to talk to us about any of the issues covered in this blog, or about any other problem or concern you may have, please get in touch via our contact page. Your call will be treated in utmost confidence and we do not charge for telephone inquiries about our service.


Why Caroline Flack’s Death Shames Us All

Screen Shot 2020 02 29 At 11.16.53

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

These are not my words. These are the words Caroline Flack posted on her Instagram account in December last year after she was charged with assaulting her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, and the media enjoyed yet another field day at the expense of a celebrity caught in its crosshairs.

The former Love Island host committed suicide in her London flat a fortnight ago, just a couple of weeks before the scheduled start of her trial.

Since her body was discovered and the news broke, social media has erupted into a firestorm of moral outrage at the way Caroline Flack was treated by the UK media, not just in the eight weeks since she was charged but in the near constant intrusion into her private life.

But the real truth is that her death shames us all, because we have allowed our society to abandon its human values in pursuit of an all-consuming voyeuristic need to spy on the lives of the people the media has enthroned in the high castles of celebrity.

The media is absolutely and directly responsible for the death of Caroline Flack. It hounded her into an early grave because she had a fight with her boyfriend.

Yet, her fate does not await the hundreds of other men and women who exist in turbulent relationships, because they are lucky enough that they don’t have to live in the white-hot glare of fame’s spotlight.

And for anyone reading this who’s even thinking about countering that last paragraph by pointing out that Caroline Flack chose to pursue a career in the public eye, I’d point out that it’s a facile argument and on the basis it’s usually better to be thought a fool than proved one, you may wish to keep the argument to yourself.

There are many definitions of what constitutes true journalism. One of my favourites is that it exists to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

In taking her own life two weeks ago Caroline Flack proved that she was someone who was afflicted by a terrible pain and in desperate need of comfort. But comfort doesn’t sell newspapers, so newspapers aren’t really interested in providing it.

Outside of what we might once have referred to as broadsheets, the media isn’t really interested in afflicting the comfortable, either. It’s why you’re more likely to see Nigel Farage on the front of the Daily Mail than you are any intelligent journalism that calls those in power to account.

It’s why the Daily Star was always more interested in Caroline Flack’s sex life than the politics that was shaping the world. It’s why The Sun was much more intrigued by the question of whether Olly Murs and Caroline Flack were rolling in the hay than they were about Boris Johnson’s row with his partner last summer – an event, ironically, more or less airbrushed from history by the right wing media that supported him.

I have friends who are journalists – proper journalists who have grown up reporting proper news. One of them was an investigative journalist who, among other things, first exposed child abuse within the Catholic church during the 1990s, covered the Lockerbie crash and the Kings Cross fire and uncovered institutionalised corruption and fraud in local government.

I asked him what he thought of the media’s treatment of Caroline Flack in the last two months.

This was his answer:

Responsible journalism is about understanding the difference between what is in the public interest and what is simply interesting to the public. If you challenged a hack working on a red top (tabloid newspaper) to apply that distinction to the case of Caroline Flack the answer you’re most likely to get is ‘but our readers want to know’. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem: we have finally got the media we deserve.

Which brings me back to my point. Unless you have never endorsed their existence and their principles by buying a copy of the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Sun, the Daily Mirror or the Daily Star, or reading their online articles, then I’m afraid you’ve played a part in what happened to Caroline Flack and you’re part of the problem.

If you watch Love Island – a TV show that is now directly associated with four suicides and whose 2020 summer series was, in a moment of astonishing poor taste, announced just two days after Caroline Flack’s death – then you’re part of the problem.

I write as one of the guilty, because I don’t believe there are many of us who can honestly say their money hasn’t added fuel to this particular fire.

I have written many articles on the mental health issues that come with fame and celebrity. The common theme is that those who are blessed – or, perhaps, cursed – by it are totally unprepared for the impact it has on their lives, completely ill-equipped to deal with it when it arrives and are often surrounded by people who put self-interest first.

The history of the entertainment industry is landscaped with the graves of those who didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to deal with their celebrity and who were either broken by it or found their pre-existing and perhaps unknown emotional vulnerabilities exposed by it.

The media can play a positive role in the fame game. Celebrity demands the oxygen of publicity. It is the essential part of fame’s DNA and it falls to the media to provide it.

But reflecting and amplifying the lives of those who are placed on the pedestal of public adoration is not a licence of ownership. Fame is not a proprietary commodity of the media and making a celebrity is not, de facto, reason or permission to break them when they have ceased to be useful distractions.

Yet this is the currency of the tabloid media in all its pernicious and unsavoury glory – and every single time we add our money to their balance sheet or bloat their user analytics, we join the illiterati and tacitly send a message that it’s okay to behave that way.

And in the process, we become silent shareholders in the ethics-free business of mass media.

So, if you’re one of those who feels disgusted by the role the media played in Caroline Flack’s death, and the deaths of those who went before her, then maybe it’s time to influence the media we deserve in the future.

Going to war with a keyboard, like I have here, is all well and good. But the real difference we can make in improving how we value those in the public eye is in choking off the revenue streams of those media channels that don’t reflect your own values.

I’m in. Are you?


Why You’ll Never Have All Your Ducks In A Row

ducks in a row

There is very little in this old world that’s truly finite. In most things thetre is scope and opportunity to prevaricate, delay and procrastinate, always with the one-size-fits-all excuse that you need to get your ducks in a row.

Here’s the truth: they never will be.

Even the most industrious and committed among us can find a reason not to start, just as the future always holds a better – and usually mythical – time to begin what you instinctively want to put off.

You’ll buy the dress or the suit or the bathing costume – but you’ll do it when you’ve lost a stone or you’ve toned up with the gym membership you bought on January 2nd but have never used.

You’ll pay off those debts, but there’s a good chance you’ll be getting some extra work in a couple of months, so there’s no point in starting to pay them down until then (even though they’re costing you more money than you can afford).

Continue reading…

We Need To Open Up About Closure

Closure

EXT. DAY. BOLIVIA.

Butch and Sundance emerge from the barn at a run, guns drawn. Both fire a couple of rounds.

The shot freezes on them and slowly begins to close in. As it does, we hear the commander of the Bolivian force surrounding the pair’s hideout give the order to fire.

There is a long volley of shots. The firing ceases momentarily before the commander repeats the order to fire. There is another sustained volley of shots, during which the image of Butch & Sundance begins to fade to sepia, and then melts away entirely.

It’s arguably one of the greatest endings in movie history.

The moment when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid bet the farm on escaping capture is significant because although we’re reasonably sure they’ve actually bought the farm instead we’ll never be completely certain.

Continue reading…

Is Your Marriage Getting Enough?

Sex Therapy

Here’s a statistic for you. If you’re in a room with four friends who are either married or in a long-term relationship and all of them are having sex regularly with their partner, the law of averages suggests your marriage is the one that isn’t getting as much as it should.

Although there’s no definitive study on the subject, anecdotal evidence suggests that between 15 and 20 per cent of all couples are locked into a sexless marriage.

Tempting though it was to write the word trapped instead of locked, we’re being deliberately non-judgemental about this because there’s plenty of well-respected opinion that argues lack of sex doesn’t necessarily make for an unhappy marriage or a relationship from which one partner must, de facto, be striving to escape.

But – and this is an elephant-sized but – there’s also no escaping pure anthropological fact here: ultimately, human beings are animals and thousands of years of evolution can’t be denied. Men and women are simply biologically predisposed to need to be at it regularly.

Continue reading…

This Christmas It’s Time To Negotiate Your Own Emotional Trade Agreement

mental health at christmas

Well here we are – the end, as near as makes no difference, of 2019.

Sometimes it’s felt like spending 12 months in some sort of shared experiment involving a mass mental health episode. Barely a day has gone by when, as a society, we haven’t been angry, depressed, riddled with self-doubt, mean-spirited, filled with hatred, intolerant, schizophrenic, phobic and lost.

As years go, this has been one of the more divisive.

It has been dominated by Brexit and political mistrust. It’s been a year of finger-pointing and disruptive direct action on climate change. A time when anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have been evidenced at the very heart of our system of government.

All in all, it’s been a year when our society hasn’t seemed to like itself very much.

Continue reading…

Generation Z & The Mass Hypnosis Of Porn

Generation Z & The Mass Hypnosis Of Porn

Sometimes I wonder what the generation born in the first two decades of the 20th Century would make of this new-fangled millennium.

The majority of them entered a world without cars, commercial air travel, television or radio. The BBC didn’t exist, there was no electricity network and no telephone system. A letter might routinely take a week or more to travel more than a few miles and it would be nearly three decades before a publicly-funded health system was more than a twinkle in Nye Bevin’s eye.

There are a great many things that the war generation didn’t have and that we now do, but one commodity that wasn’t in short supply back at the turn of the last century is pornography.

That might seem surprising given the contemporary view of porn is that it’s very much a late-20th Century phenomenon. But if you can bear to sully your internet history, it’s clear that porn has been around since the mid-19th Century. Continue reading…


Additional Credits

Video by Weeks360.

Photography by Liz Bishop Photography.

Production by Mark Norman at Little Joe Media and Joanne Brooks.

Hair by Jonny Albutt.

Make up by Olly Fisk and Nabeel Hussain.