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The real story of healing

As mediators and people working at the front line of conflict it can be overlooked to value the role that self-care for both participants and mediators can bring to the table.  We all know that when our bodies are tight, we are unable to process creativity.  It is common knowledge that lightbulb moments happen in the bath, the shower, on holiday, and often during a good night sleep.  Science has now unlocked the mystery behind the mind and body, something that modern medicine separated and till today is still separated by many practitioners. This article looks at ways we can, as peace makers, peace builders and more importantly as human beings, invite ourselves and those we work with, to honour the self-care practices that are likely being forgotten.

First of all, what does self-care mean, and why do I feel called to write this article? I recently fell down the internal stairwell in my home and within hours found myself in hospital dealing with a broken back, a vertebra broken meant I was unable to move. As the moments from when the slip occurred, I recounted all the wisdom that years of studying natural therapies, offered me, practicing as much as I could from a lying down position.  From hour to hour, day to day, reality proved itself a great place to practice self-care. So much so, that without the self-care, I doubt I would have recovered. At least not to the point of where I am now, just 6 months on, and doing all I was doing before, swimming, nature walking, carrying my grandchildren and all the many up and down tasks that caring for young children require. (I have a published book on titled Self-Care the real story of healing, that goes into detail.)

In the context of mediation, there is lot to be gleamed. First off, is the reality of trauma. We all have moments in our lives that take us to a place of fight and flight and sometimes freeze. Some of these could be from incidents we fully understand and can explain, and yet others seem to be overreacting, overwhelming, and overinflating. Trauma is when stress takes us out of our capacity to recalibrate to a healthy balanced state. Stress may take us out of balance temporarily, but it becomes trauma when we find ourselves reexperiencing to the same degree, hurt, pain and discomfort.  Trauma is when triggering seems to be common place, and we are not able to just ‘change our perception’. Trauma is in our body not just in our perception. It can be described as small t and large T trauma.

“Small ‘t’ traumas are events that exceed our capacity to cope and cause a disruption in emotional functioning. These distressing events are not inherently life or bodily-integrity threatening, but perhaps better described as ego-threatening due to the individual left feeling notable helplessness. Some examples include:

  • Interpersonal conflict
  • Infidelity
  • Divorce
  • Abrupt or extended relocation
  • Legal trouble
  • Financial worries or difficulty….”

Large ‘T’ Trauma

A large-T trauma is distinguished as an extraordinary and significant event that leaves the individual feeling powerless and possessing little control in their environment. Such events could take the form of a natural disaster, terrorist attack, sexual assault, combat, a car or plane accident, etc…”

Whether is it interpersonal conflict or dealing with an experience that was life shattering, the emotional journey is that of being shaken out of comfort. Where thinking takes on fear and the need to protect oneself becomes a primary task. In many t and T situations the capacity to protect is not immediate, and so the fear replaces a basic set state of relaxed, comfort. Being on edge becomes the norm. With self-preservation being the thinking style connected to fear, the tightness of body and mind limit creativity. So how can we create the environment where people with trauma are able to shift perceptions, in order to come to agreement?  Before neuroscience Mediation was heralded by mind body connection practitioners, even if that wasn’t what they were identified as.  It was in the Promise Of Mediation, that Folger and Bush, created the model of transformative mediation. 

The essential ingredients? Empowerment and Recognition.  They both, coming from very different worldviews, saw the same critical fulcrum for change, for recalibrating from stress and often trauma.  It wasn’t their professional qualifications that guided them to these human qualities of being, it was their lived experiences that lay behind the intuitive knowing that dignity and feeling safe came before cognitive reasoning. 

Bessel Van Der Kolk, is a Dutch born Medical Doctor and Psychiatrist, who has been studying trauma in children and adults since the mid 80’s, he is a clinician, researcher and teacher in the area of post-traumatic stress.  In his well-known book, The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk, explores the connection between our mind and body in relation to trauma and reveals that it is with empowerment, in creative ways, that healing is often found. The antonym of trauma is found in safety, or rather as Dr Paul Gilbert, the founder of Compassion Focused Therapy calls ‘safeness’.

Now 20 years later we see that it is empowerment and recognition that lie behind the neuroscience of safety.   We can see that our mirror neurons, our body sponges up the energy, feelings, state of those around us, and are experienced deep in our cells, reminding us of safe and unsafe messages that are embedded in our very being, both mind and body. We either tense up or relax based on the messages we receive, not necessarily those consciously being sent by others either. These messages are related to our very own nervous system that pick up safe or unsafe signals. It is when we are able to shift these feelings, these literal messages that are felt both in body and mind, that allows a flow of blood and oxygen to enter our cells and free us from the tension that keeps the guards of our perception on defence.

Empowerment can be found in choices, in real choices that invite our curiosity, our internal questions of which, where, what if, when, how?  Without empowerment we are being directed, ordered and enslaved. The feeling of power over us, comes from outside. The feeling of empowerment stems from within. It is the sense that we have no power that can trigger defensiveness, and the sense that we are free that can soften our mind and bodies to relax.

With empowerment we are invited into our power, into our creativity that frees our spirit and soul.  It is no secret that artists are depicted as non-conventional, outside of the ordered conventions that keep eccentricity out of bounds. For artists to create they need to free themselves from restrictedness and open up to newness, to difference, to the force that comes from within their very souls.

Conflict and trauma both keep us locked into habits of pain. They create pathways in our being, both mind and body that require defensive approaches to keep us alive. These pathways are limiting resources, they are limiting and restrictive of the conditions that make flow, the critical ingredient for energy to move between. Energy that moves between the cells in our body, the relationship between people, the movement that is required for creativity.

So how do we support people to tap into this resource?  We can be the facilitator of creativity by reminding people of their innate capacity to imagine, to use what is now being called mentalising, the use of our mind to enter into the world of otherness. The capacity to free ourselves from enslaved restriction can only come from feeling safe. Like a child that stops crying once the caregivers pick up, hold and soothe the child, as adults we are no different. The soothing ways can be more sophisticated, and so can the sense of danger. But the mechanisms that are within ourselves to shift from painful to playful are the same, they are sitting there in our body and mind, waiting to be activated.  

In traditional cultures peace making was part of life, it happened as a ritual in community living. In some cultures, it took place after the pipe or wine or meal was shared, once the group and engaged in sharing. Dancing and singing were integral to community peace. The experience of body was part of the experience of mind. It was not expected that community could be at peace if there was isolation. Cheryl Robinson a bestselling author of self-care, reminds us the self begins with s, the same letter as spirit and soul. This lies at the heart of our selves. Our personalities, our emotions, our thoughts are expressions of our selves. However, to get back to our creativity, our true selves, we need to tune into our spirit, our soul. It is there, it is our breath our heartbeat. Research is now reinforcing that the singing, dancing, painting, laughing that uses our body to connect with our inner world and experience is a critical component of inter personal connection.  

We need to be in tune with our self, our spirit to tune into the spirit of the other. So how do we do that?  How do we self-care? 

One of the techniques I have used in my Conflict Resolution Practice to cultivate this coming home to self with care has been to have people, and if they have been groups, then each group, to create their perspective of what is happening in a creative form. With butchers’ paper and coloured pens, with the use of power points using images, with playing a game (with children).  

The first noticing is the shift that happens with curiosity. Many people will say they are not artistic, can’t draw. I had one person tell me that she has a form of autism that means its impossible for her to draw or use colours. So I acknowledged the concern and said, well however you want to use these is fine, just give yourself permission to be playful.  She ignored the colours and went straight to listing words in columns. The next time this person came back for a session, she wanted to tell me how she couldn’t believe how much she had fun with colours and now is using the computer to design artwork that before she would never attempt.

I took my son for singing lessons when he was young, not because he wanted to sing in a band, but because he used his voice with monotone consistency. I could see his voice was stifled, blocked. The first lesson was magical, with the teacher getting my son to put a hand on his heart and open his mouth to express a sense of pain, of joy, of wanting or hope. To access his voice wasn’t working in traditional therapeutic interventions. But with a musician, it worked the first time. I can say that after a year of singing lessons, not only did the monotone shift hut my son started singing with his ukulele and made social media videos. The teacher was not a therapist, he was a musician. But he shifted my son, more than any of the many therapists we had tried.

It may seem to be unconventional to begin a mediation with drawing, singing, prayer or sharing wine. But that is how traditionally peace making was experienced. Self-care is not about going to the hairdresser, or getting a new car. That is more like self-centeredness. Self-care requires a tapping into the inner part of us that connects us to our spirit and soul. As peace facilitators that is where we should begin our sessions. 


Michelle Brenner

Michelle Brenner PGDip Conflict Resolution (Macq.Univ.) was one of the first to receive post-graduate qualifications in Conflict Resolution within Australia in 1994. Since then she has been a pioneer in the practice and development of the field. She was a forerunner in mediation in local government, being the first full… MORE >

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