Many of us understand the importance of self-healing through meditation and yoga, therapy and exercise. However, when the trauma and violence gets too much, when our healers find it difficult to cope, where do they go? What do they do? We recently sat down with Naku Masuku, MSc [Community Development], Professional Services Director at Central Gauteng Mental Health Society, CGMHS, Pam Gillingham, MSc [Social Work], Director of the Family Life Center, FAMSA, and Zanele Luhabe-Morrison, BSc [Business], Life Coach on Mokapelo, SABC1 and owner of CoLegacy Business Group. Ruth Naylor, PhD [Psychology] joined us. She is a cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist and a relaxation therapist. She’s a member of the British Autogenic Society (BAS), the European Flow Researchers’ Network (EFRN) and the National Guild of Hypnotists (NGH) and she’s been working at FAMSA and CGMHS for three months. She’s training small groups in the Zoo Lake community and counselors who work in Berea, Parktown, Soweto, Diepsloot, Alexandra, Lenasia and Westbury in relaxation methods. Here is the first of two interviews.
FLOW: So tell us, Dr Ruth, why did you pick South Africa for your training programme?
Ruth: It certainly wasn’t by chance because I worked at FNB for almost a year in the late 1990s and I loved South Africa from the start – there was so much excitement and hope. So I came back here for the third time in 2011 to stay with friends and to finish writing up my doctorate research. It was on Flow, anxiety and different relaxation therapies. I wanted to do that research because I believe so strongly in Patient Choice – choices of therapies, choices of medicines, patient choices. I know the evidence – relaxation therapies can work as well as talking therapies for many anxious people, and can help talking therapies work even better. For people with chronic illnesses, like asthma or diabetes, relaxation is so helpful. And, I could see that there’s lots of trauma here that holds people back from doing and being their best.
FLOW: Even holds them back from ‘going with the flow’?
Ruth: Yes, exactly, stress that keeps them from being in Flow. And I thought – I must try to bring Autogenic Training and a couple of other relaxation techniques – Mindfulness and Applied Relaxation – to people who work in the locations, where they are really needed. Bringing these techniques that anyone can do any time to remain calm in a crisis and to let go of whatever’s holding them back – this made sense to me. So I got in touch with FAMSA and CGMHS, and we got started training social workers and lay counselors in March.
FLOW: So Naku and Pam, tell me more about why you said yes to Ruth’s proposals.
Naku: For me, it was about trying to help my staff and my social workers to try to be able to de-brief themselves. A way to sit down and listen to ourselves on our own, a way to let go of the stress that comes with our jobs. And I want our workers to learn how to teach and use these methods for our in-patients, too. We want to help them make their lives better – I thought this can be a way to do that.
Pam: For me it was quite similar. The first short course Ruth proposed was Autogenic Training and it is only an hour and a half a week for 10 weeks. So that was a draw, it’s a short course, and at the end we have the foundation for a new skill. And I see what Naku sees. It’s a way for us to help ourselves in our jobs – to keep us from getting burned out, and for our clients, to add to the counseling we already do. Also I knew the history of AT a bit – that AT was used by Dr Patrica Cowings in NASA for training space shuttle astronauts and in businesses for performance improvement. And by hospitals keen on mind-body medicine. So I thought eventually we would be able to offer a new service to businesses and possibly to GPs and nurses, too.
FLOW: And Zanele why did you decide to take the course?
Zanele: First thing Dr Ruth asked us to do was to write down why we were taking the course, what we hoped to get out of it. I wrote that I wanted to understand the role that relaxation techniques can play in supporting an individual’s performance in the workplace and to learn to what extent our creativity is blocked or our performance is inhibited by stress and trauma. And I wanted to learn to apply and do autogenics on myself!
FLOW: So for this first round of trainings, what exactly is Autogenic Training?
Ruth: It’s about focusing our attention on parts of our bodies in a specific order, and it’s about keeping our focus passive, focusing without any judgment at all. So we learn to be in the moment, to be accepting, observing whilst we are training ourselves to be focused and calm…
Naku: And to feel our bodies where we don’t focus on them that much now. To feel them and be comfortable with that, to learn the body’s language by experience.
Zanele: Yes, when I first started to do ‘my arms are heavy’, I found myself discovering the back of my upper arm for the first time. And enjoying that, and asking myself ‘what does it mean?’ I felt it was linked to how much energy I was putting into working, and how little energy I was putting into listening to my body. And then knowing I am able to be in the moment, not think about the day that is already gone, not be in the past, just be right there thinking of nothing else, not even the question… So for me it is a way to stop, to take a breather.
FLOW: That sounds easy, is it easy for people with lots of stress and with trauma memories?
Ruth: For some people it is easy. For example, one of the first things we do is get comfortably seated and then take our attention to our right arm, as Zanele said, with our eyes closed, and we say in our minds ‘my right arm is heavy’ three times, then we come back to the room by flexing our hands and arms and giving a good stretch. That sounds simple, right? For some people it is easy, but for other people it is not so easy. For people who live closely with murder, rape, suicide, hijackings, robberies, for people who have lots of deaths in the family, or traumatizing surgeries, it can sometimes be much more difficult.
Naku: Yes, in some way it can be about re-living the reality of what happened, of flash backs of their experiences, while the memory and pain of it is being released by their bodies… This can be hard…
Zanele: Yes, I face that in my work, people tell me stories about these things all the time, and I really wanted to explore much deeper how people could be helped in simple ways to slowly release and manage their trauma…
FLOW: Why do you think that is, that it is more difficult if people are more traumatised?
Naku: Well, people with a lot of trauma, they can’t sleep well, they get headaches, back aches, stomach problems… They are holding the troubling memories in their bodies, and they may not even be aware of it.
Ruth: Yes, they may say to me – oh, that death of my sister, or that death of my mother, that’s sorted, l’m beyond that… Yet, as soon as they start to truly relax using a simple method that stuff that’s been worrying them or buried deeply comes to the surface. Not always as a ‘thought’ but sometimes as a smell or sound, or pains in parts of the body, or a feeling of spinning, or images like a video, and so on. This can be upsetting.
Pam: And well-trained coach or counselor can talk with them about their experiences as much as they might want to talk. And we immediately slow down the autogenic relaxation process, we take our time, we stretch the training out over more weeks, we are patient with ourselves.
FLOW: How does that work?
Ruth: Well, sometimes just feeling that pain or experiencing that smell, or dissolving in a flood of tears is enough to release the grip of a trauma, and to give the person a sense of feeling lighter and more free. And when they add the affirmation I Am At Peace to their practice, they begin to experience peace, and they begin to believe it, and their hope is revived. And in a few weeks, they say they are beginning to come back to themselves…
FLOW: So, can you say anything about how AT works?
Ruth: Well, I know what it works on – boosting immune systems, changing genome expression, reducing need for certain meds, lowering blood pressure, and so on – but not in detail how it works – researchers haven’t answered that question yet, so I go by reports of people who do it. We know that relaxation therapies change the way our immune systems work, how our genes are expressed, our need for some kinds of meds, like for blood pressure and diabetes meds. Exactly how all this happens? Maybe it’s about naming and accepting feelings, expressing them safely and in the right place and at the right time. Grow the positive feelings, off-load the negative ones, get in touch with their bodies in a new way, out of their heads, discover the body has a language of its own and this is to be respected and cherished! Give time for the mind and the body to do its own self-healing. Maybe that’s it…
Pam: I’ve been thinking about that question, too. Whilst I am doing it for a few minutes a few times a day, I am asking myself – “How is this working, how is it happening?” Because in a way the changes I’ve had in such a short time are unbelievable! Then I just let go of my questions and get on with doing it! For me, right away my sleep was better, so that made me rested and more in control during the day. Then, I found it revealed me to me in a new way, so it’s got lots of layers – and I saw this with the other 10 people in my class, too. Taking me-time, only a few minutes a day… so nourishing, I have a feeling of being much calmer and more resilient.
Naku: I haven’t finished the course yet, I am on week 4 now. I can say I see it as relaxing me, relaxing people who do it. And as a simple way of making you be in touch with you, in touch with yourself! And I think AT focuses a lot on your mind, how you teach your mind to focus and to be in touch with your body, and to listen to your body. And then that at the end gives you a way of releasing stress.
Zanele: I am still learning, I’ve got a few more weeks to go. For me, I feel the release of tension through my body. Funny, I have discovered how my face is really, really tense! Now I am realizing I need to learn to let go of my face! And when I do this Neck and Shoulders Heavy at work, I say to myself, I Am At Peace, I Can Do This, and I experience a positive memory, something I am grateful for. This is wonderful, keeping me calm and better focused during my work day.
Pam: Living in the present, being less judgmental, this changes how other people feel about us and that’s a big bonus! What I notice is that it’s helped our counselors stay calm in difficult times – we face crisis every day in our work. Staying calm and taking care of ourselves is a huge benefit to us, and learning how to do this in such a simple, practical and effective way has been so powerful.
For more information on Autogenics
To watch a youtube video of Helen Gibbons, clinical psychologist and founder of the Australian Autogenics Institute, speaking to members of the Mining Industry about AT, click here.
For more about Relaxation Response therapies click here and take a look at the research being done at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind-Body Medical Institute.
You can read a bit about Dr Patricia Cowings’ work at NASA adapting AT with biofeedback for managing astronauts’ motion sickness by clicking here.