LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Art Therapy ft. Alexis Decosimo

While Art has always been considered a means of self-expression and communication, the establishment of Art Therapy as a therapeutic approach to mental health has been a relatively recent find. 

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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today let’s understand Art Therapy and how it can promote mental well-being as we talk to Alexis Decosimo, a registered art therapist and licensed mental health counselor with a doctorate in Public Health. She focuses on empowering individuals and helping them heal through artistic expression and self-discovery. 

Welcome, Alexis.

Alexis- Thank you, Valerie. It’s so good to be here.

Valerie- Thank you for taking out time to talk to us today about Art Therapy. Let’s try to get a very basic understanding of how art relates to mental health.

Alexis- Absolutely. Let me explain it this way- We live in a multi-dimensional world. We live through senses and relationships, sights and smells, and what I noticed about myself is what when I’m only talking, I only can access just a little bit of that storyline. So what art does is it breaks through some of those barriers of words and allows you to express yourself through all the different senses that you experience throughout your day to day. I can go into more detail from the mental health standpoint as well, if you’d like me to. 

Valerie- Sure.

Alexis- So we have our analytical brain and then we have our creative brain. An an Art Therapist, when I’m working with clients, by using art I’m able to integrate both the analytical and the creative brain, allowing a client to explore past the boundary of words to really explore through creativity and thoughts and feelings and memories, and do it in a way that feels safe and fun and creative. That really allows someone to see their memories and their feelings in a holistic way. 

Valerie-  Alright, so you did tell us what Art Therapy is but how does it compare to conventional Psychotherapy?

Alexis- Conventional psychotherapy uses words as the medium through open-ended questions and story-telling and really relies on that analytical brain, a lot of the time. What art does is it allows somebody to engage through their creative brain. I think the best way is to give you an example- In typical psychotherapy, when you’re working with someone, you might ask them “Tell me about your strengths”. A person might give you a list and maybe some examples. 

What an Art Therapist would do is say “Explore your strengths through imagery”, “Tell me what it would be like if you were a superhero”, “How would you go throughout your day and be able to use the superhero strengths to engage with the world around you?”. Then that person actually creates imagery of their idea of their strengths in a way that is fun and exploratory as well as a little bit magical but it goes beyond our conventional day to day life and it really allows someone to sink into that perspective of what strength and resiliency is and that person then gets the time to create those images and create those ideas, and then they’re able to use their analytical thinking brain to go back and explain their ideas. So it’s this holistic approach that connects both sides of our thinking brain.

Valerie- So what’s a simple way to get started? Is it possible for us to do it if we’re not artistic as people? Because I am someone who considers herself to not have any artistic ability so what’s a simple way for us to get started?

Alexis- I always laugh when someone says this. Clients come in and say “I want to do Art Therapy but I’m not an artist” and I always say “You can’t tell an Art Therapist that you’re not an artist”. If you have the ability to move your body, you are an artist. One of my favourite artists is actually blind and he creates all of his paintings through his senses and his memory of colours and what the world looked like before he became blind. There are people who aren’t able to use their arms and legs and they use their mouth to paint. So it’s not so much about this conventional idea about what art is, it’s more about being able to express yourself. 

I think it’s important to make the distinction between Art Therapy and art for mental health. Art Therapy is a mental health profession facilitated by a trainer or therapist. Unfortunately, even in the United States, Art Therapists are few and far between and a lot of the time, require financial means to be able to pay for sessions and so when you asked the question of how we can use Art therapy in our everyday life, putting aside the diagnosis, psychoanalysis and ideas of when we really look into mental health, and we look at it more as how to integrate art into our lives because art, in and of itself, is healing. It gives us the space to shut down the stimulus of the world and whatever we have to engage in, in our daily lives, and just gives us a moment to reflect and be creative. That’s really one of the most important reasons when we think of how to integrate art for our own wellbeing. 

You have mentioned that you’re not an artist although I believe everyone is an artist but I do understand that looking at a white piece of paper can be really intimidating and so colouring books are a really good start for a lot of people. I will say that they do term themselves as Art Therapy itself but it is not Art Therapy because it is not facilitated by a mental health Art Therapist but it’s really soothing and it can be really meditative so it can just be a really good place for you to go to where you don’t have to think about what you have to create but you can have some colours next to you and just shut down the rest of the world and engage in just the act of colouring and creating. 

I will say that art itself creates a bilateral stimulation in your brain, which actually helps you to relax and to let go of your day and so even colouring, with your eyes moving back and forth and your hands moving back and forth itself, can be a really huge thing but there are so many other things in coloring books so that is a great start for people who are really hesitant but there is knitting, I’m a huge fan of taking classes because it helps you learn a couple of skills so then you can go past that and create your own expression. There is a lot on YouTube about painting and about clay and knitting and so that’s a really good way to start as well.

Valerie- Right. In your opinion, when should people try seeking Art Therapy? If you’re going to psychotherapy, of course this is something that complements psychotherapy but how do you draw the difference?

Alexis- Well, I think the first piece is to know if there are Art Therapists available. I know in India there are some Art Therapists and it depends in different parts of the world. That’s where I struggle the most. Art therapy is still a relatively small field and it would probably be different for different people but if you’re in psychotherapy and you find that you have a bunch of walls that you can’t seem to get past and you can feel it and sense it and you can maybe see what you’re trying to get to but you can’t get words to it, that would be a great time to try and find an Art Therapist to see if they can help facilitate breaking past those walls or putting those sensations into words. 

The cool thing about Art Therapists is that we are trained as mental health clinicians so we are trained in the traditional psychotherapies and behavioral therapies. We have this extra skill that in learning all this, we’ve also learnt it through visual art and how to facilitate it through art. Some people have an art therapist as an additional therapist to help them and in a lot of cases, even in my private practice, I am a person’s primary therapist because I’m trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) so we can do EMDR but we can also have that additional art piece to it.

Valerie- Right. So let me ask you, you just said that even Art Therapists are trained in the traditional form of therapy. What got you interested in the alternative form of therapy through art?

Alexis-  As a kid I was always really artistic and I really had two passions- it was art and it was also engaging with people. One of my challenges as a kid was that I had a speech impediment and so I had a hard time communicating with other people and so I learnt that art was a really good way for me to express myself. I felt very confined with words. I should say that some people are very artistic with their words, with singing and poems and so words can definitely be used artistically as well but for me, I had a hard time communicating and so art was this way for me to break past that. When I was in high school, I was told about Art Therapy and after that I knew what I wanted to do! So I looked it up and I realised it was accessible to be and from then on, I knew I was going to do that. 

I will say something that I can is important is that Art therapy was accessible to me, to be able to go study. I think there are over thirty five schools in the United States so I knew it would be accessible but after graduating as an Art Therapist, I immediately went to my doctorate in Public Health because what I realised in my global work was that universities and schools of Art Therapy are still pretty inaccessible outside of some key countries and so my career build is really to look at the skills and knowledge of Art Therapy but beyond the therapy word. So really looking at it as how can individuals who aren’t Art Therapists or don’t have access to Art Therapists, access some of the key pieces of art, as you’re asking right now. This is how you can access art for well-being and for that positive aspect in our loves.

Valerie- I think it’s wonderful that you found a place where you could combine two passions- engaging with people, and art, and actually do that for a living and do that every day of your life. 

Alexis- It’s pretty amazing! It’s sometimes hard to explain because it almost feels magical sometimes, I guess that’s really the greatest word for it. I’ve had some clients recently where I give them an art activity like the superhero or creating space for your anxiety outside of your body, where it’s just a suggestion that I give but I don’t know where it’s going to go and all of a sudden the next week, the client comes back saying they feel so much better because they can visualize what they’ve been feeling or a place to put their anxiety outside of their body so that they don’t have to carry it. And we both just sit there stunned saying “That really worked!”. That really did something. Yeah, it’s a pretty amazing thing.

Valerie- Yeah, it is. So, what I wanted to ask you is that when you have the pandemic currently with everyone with isolated and a lot of people now dealing with a lot of mental health issues, also in general for you, working as a mental health counselor you listen to people in distress and you help them cope and that’s probably a constant part of your life. Personally, how do you take care of your mental health? Does Art Therapy play a therapeutic role in your life?

Alexis- Those are great questions. I would say that mental health clinicians now are definitely frontline staff. We end up being the safe place for a lot of people to put their worries and fears so that they can move a little bit lighter throughout this pandemic and feeling a little bit more safe and secure and so then we as mental health clinicians have the responsibility of carrying that and to me, it is such an honour to carry those things but as a human being, it is also very difficult. I am no stranger to trauma, one of my specialities is humanitarian crises and then additionally to that speciality, I worked during the Ebola epidemic and so viruses are also not a stranger to me. So it’s also quite interesting moving through this Pandemic because all of a sudden, it’s personal. In the humanitarian crises and Ebola, it wasn’t so much personal. I knew my family was safe and I knew I had a place to go home to where I could decompress before starting again and then all of a sudden, this Pandemic is everywhere and you can’t hide from it. So it’s a whole different kind of stressor. 

I had a pottery wheel in my Art Therapy studio that I had bought for my clients and they loved it and I loved being able to facilitate that with them and I’m only working telework right now because of the virus so I actually brought the pottery wheel home and I have it in a wooden shed out in my yard and I go to that pottery wheel almost every single day. It has been such a lifeline for me because I’m not in a place where I want to visually express my stressors right now, it’s better for me to feel like I can hold them and so for pottery, it’s something I don’t have to think about, analyse or dive too deep into but it’s soothing and I think that’s a really important thing about art- that it can be soothing and it doesn’t always have to be analytical or deep. It can sometimes just be soothing and enjoyable and a place to turn off the brain for a moment. So that has been my way of coping. That and just getting outside has been a huge thing for me. 

Valerie- That’s nice. It’s really nice that something that you do for a living also helps you calm down because you deal with so much stress when it comes to dealing with people and carrying that with you. It’s good that art is also a way for you to tune it all out and also just be there with yourself.

Alexis- Absolutely and I would also say that I have my own therapist that I see weekly right now. I sometimes look at her thinking that I know I’m giving her my stressors as other people give me theirs so it’s almost like a pass-off to some degree but I think it’s important to acknowledge that as a mental health clinician, it is almost as important for eating and sleeping as it is for acknowledging that it is a basic need right now to have that safe person to pass off some of your stressors and I think that is so important.

Valerie- That is so true. It is so important for us to just have people to talk to with so much going on and it’s great that you have that for yourself as well.

Alexis- Yeah, it’s been really wonderful.

Valerie- So Alexis thank you so much for taking out the time and talking to us and actually giving us an introduction to what Art Therapy is and how it works. We learnt from you that it’s one way to break through the barriers and when you can’t express yourself through words, there are other means for you to seek help and just calm yourself down and find peace. Thank you so much for being here and introducing us to this.

Alexis- Yeah absolutely, thank you Valerie. Really appreciate it. Thanks for having me. Thanks for all the work you guys do.

Valerie- Thank you.

Toxic positivity

If you find yourself being around people that make you feel like you’ll only ever be sad or if you keep hearing “you should be more positive about life,” “it’s not all bad,” “it could be worse,” welcome. I share your anger, I share your angst and I understand your frustration. 

Toxic positivity leaves a very bitter aftertaste when trying to open up about one’s mental health condition. One single comment can downplay serious and dangerous mental health conditions, especially if it is chronic. 

The sad part is that most people don’t realize the toxicity of “love and light” until much, much later. 

How exactly do you ascertain your confidant is toxic-positive? 

  1. The “positive reaffirmations”– if you keep hearing “it’s going to be okay,” “it could be worse”, “you’re attracting negativity by being sad all the time,”- You have a toxic-positive friend/ associate. 
  2. The “down-playing”– if your worries or concerns; insecurities and sadnesses are deemed “unworthy” of attention and you are asked to “deal with it”, you have a toxic-positive associate. As a human being, it’s your birth-right to feel things- regardless of if they are “positive” or “negative”. You specifically need no one’s validation for the same. 
  3. The “you are killing the vibe”– while boundaries are important in any relationship and no one should be subjected to emotional burnout, saying rude/hurtful things to someone who is already hurting and therefore excluding them from activities is top tier toxic behavior. Leaving such a situation will improve your environment of healing.  
  4. The “divert yourself, get busy”– your mental health is important and requires attention and time. Piling work on your plate can cause severe burn-outs. 
  5. The “you always feed down” – with any mental health issue, recovery isn’t speedy. And you should have all the time in the world to deal with it healthily. If you find yourself being rushed into recovery, your associate is toxic. 

How to avoid being toxic-positive confidant?

  1. Acknowledge their feeling– you don’t need to understand or empathize with your friend’s emotions or decisions, but telling them it’s okay to feel that way will open up a comfort zone/ safe place for them. 
  2. Healthy processing – seeking professional help is paramount in any mental health situation. Apart from that, using services such as LonePack Buddy, reading and researching ways to cope with the different types of mental health disorders, and assisting your friend in practicing the same is a healthy manner to deal with difficult times. 
  3. Healing isn’t linear– understanding that sometimes despite steady improvement there are times when one can revert back to their old state. Being patient and giving room for such conditions and reassuring them is important. Healing isn’t always beautiful or linear. It is energy and time-consuming. If you do feel exhausted, take a step back without trampling on your friend’s journey. Check out our blog about setting up effective boundaries without feeling guilty! 

How to distance yourself from a toxic-positive friend? 

  1. Set up effective boundaries
  2. Communicate your concern (in a nice way)- for example, “hey, f/n, I need a safe space to process/talk about my emotions, I understand that this might be heavy for you, but sometimes saying certain things is trivializing my actual condition, which isn’t healthy.”
  3. Respect the relationship. Not everyone can be in total harmony at all times; however, respect the past and present you share. Simply distancing yourself from this person is enough. You don’t need to take it upon yourself to educate the said friend right now. You can do that later. The last thing you need right now is more drama. 

What you really need when battling any kind of mental health issue:

  1. Unconditional support, but in the right direction. 
  2. Understand your condition and care for it- just like caring for a fracture or a wound, treat your condition as if it were physical- do the things that augment healing, don’t over-exert! 
  3. Get professional help- Therapy is always good and seeking professional help can assist in speedier healing! 

Remember, there is no sunshine without storms and there is no rainbow without rain clouds. To be absolutely healthy and sound, emotions need to be dealt with in waves. It is always an ongoing process, rather than a one-day event. Give yourself the time and right environment for the same. 

Habits as self-care

We have entered into yet another year. And a new year gives us the perfect opportunity to start new habits. But the most common problem that we all face is keeping up with the habits that we set and following them through. When it comes to mental health, habit formation can be a really effective form of self-care. On the days that you feel like everything is too much, habits ingrained into your routine can help give that little push you need to do basic tasks that in turn might help you feel better.

But before we take a look at what habits might actually help with self-care, have you ever wondered what actually goes into forming habits? 

Habit formation

Habit formation is essentially broken down into 3 parts[1]

  1. The cue
  2. The action and 
  3. The reward

We are given an incentive to do the action and once done, we reward ourselves to keep the positive loop up. But complexities in real-life habits make habit formation not as simple as it sounds. 

One of the popular studies that talks about habit formation looks at how automaticity relates to complexity of an activity [2]. The study concludes that consistency in settings is key to keeping up the habit. The more we perform an action, the more it becomes easier to turn it into a habit. And the level of automaticity also depends on the complexity of the task. The more complex a task, the lesser we tend to do it and hence the longer it takes to turn it into a habit. 

This gives us insight into what we can do to form effective habits — break them down into simpler, doable tasks. The simpler it is, the more times we are intrinsically motivated to it and the easier it turns into a habit. Now, how do we use habits as a form of self-care?

Habits as a form of automated self-care

Now that we’ve taken a look at what goes into forming habits, here are a few habits that you can consider building into your routine!

1. Planning out your whole day – One of the major things we struggle with, especially under the virtual environment we are working in given the pandemic, is feeling productive. Feeling unproductive can be a big let down and can weigh on us immensely. 

Planning out your whole day on a calendar system with allocating blocks of time for each task you wish to complete can help you tackle your day better. You will have set goals in mind to achieve and you can even get them done with menial distractions. But also keep in mind to set realistic tasks that you can achieve without pushing yourself too much.

2. Logging your day – Journaling and keeping track of your thoughts and emotions can be a great way of understanding your own self. Identifying what causes you unease and distress can be a great way to work towards bettering them. Doing this can also be a great way to remember your days as much more than just blurs of passing time. 

3. The 2 minute rule – This is something that is explained in the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. He goes on to say that if some activity can be completed in 2 minutes then it should be done right then rather than later. I’ve followed this myself and it is a great way to actually finish small tasks that build up with time and seem like mountains that tire you out to climb at the end of the day. 

Things like making your bed, washing your small dishes as soon as you use them, arranging your shoes when you enter your home are all some examples of this habit that I’ve developed myself and it serves as small bursts of happiness and accomplishment at the end of a long day. 

4. Meal-prepping – This one is actually something that has helped me quite a bit. As someone who has to cook their own food for every meal, every single day, it becomes very tiring very easily. Cooking can become more like a chore needed for survival than something to look forward to. While resorting to take-out is always an option, I prefer to meal-prep so that I can easily reheat my meals, save some money and also make sure I have a healthier diet, all of which help in feeling better about myself. 

5. Exercise – This might be the most heard of tip, but believe me it works. I’m not a person who enjoys exercising nor do I particularly want to be social and go out but doing some form of physical activity really does help. It can be as short as a 10 minute yoga stretch/ workout or even a small walk in your terrace. But this habit, as cliche as it might be, works. Do not forget that physical health influences your mental well-being as well and remember to take breaks and take care of yourself.

Habits might seem very hard to form, but a small step a day can actually help build them quicker than you might believe. Start off with simple tasks and track them over a time period. Before you know it, you’ll have built effective habits that actually help you with your physical and mental well-being. Happy habit building!


[2] Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009.

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: An Introduction ft. Beth Donahue

In recent times, various forms complementary and alternative therapies have been adopted by people going through mental health issues, owing to therapeutic benefits. Let’s introduce ourselves to alternative therapy and learn how it can aid mental health.

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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we have Elizabeth Donahue, Associate Chair of the Art Therapy Program at Antioch University, Seattle. She is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a Registered and Board Certified Art Therapist. She enjoys working with her clients to find their voice through artistic expression.

Welcome, Beth.

Beth- Thank you, Valerie.

Valerie- Thank you so much for taking out the time to talk to us today. 

Beth- Oh, I’m happy to be here.

Valerie- Let’s start with you telling us what Alternative Therapy for mental health is and how it compares to conventional psychotherapy.

Beth- Yeah, so I think many people are familiar with how conventional psychotherapy works. You go to see your therapist and you sit in your office and you talk with them and they listen and maybe they would give you some feedback or some advice. And that works really well for a lot of people but other people maybe don’t have the words to express their emotions, or maybe the things that they need to talk about are a little too hard to talk about, maybe too traumatic. So that’s where alternative therapies can come into play. Art Therapy, Drama Therapy, Clay Therapy, Music Therapy- these are all ways for people to rest their thoughts and emotions through different media rather than through just talking.

Valerie- Right. You said that you can express yourself through different media apart from just talking. Is that the only reason that one would consider Alternative Therapy or could there be other reasons as well?

Beth- There could be other reasons! Some people might find that they enjoy creative expression, that the simple act of art making or music making is therapeutic in itself. They might find that being guided through their creative activities by an art therapist or a music therapist might be beneficial. 

Valerie- Okay. Like you just told us, there are various forms of alternative therapy for mental health. There’s art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy, and a lot more. How would we know which form would help us best express ourselves? 

Beth- I think one option might be to consider which one you enjoy engaging in media. If you are a person that likes to draw or paint, then Art Therapy might be a good fit for you. If you enjoy using your body and movements to express yourself, something like Dance Movement Therapy or Drama Therapy might be more appropriate for you. I think the best way to choose is based on what you’re already interested in.

Valerie- Right. So I consider myself to be somebody who does not draw, who does not dance, who does not sing very well either. So taking all of this into consideration and if you want to try out Alternative Therapy, is it necessary for you to have an inclination towards one of these specific things or can you try it out regardless?

Beth- Such a good question! Yeah, of course. The job of an art therapist or a drama therapist, the alternative therapist, is to help you express yourself through these different mediums and they can assist you. Say maybe you want to express yourself through dance but you’re not a dancer. You’ve never taken a dance class and you don’t know anything about it. Their job is to help you obtain the skills that you need to express yourself. They might show you a couple of dance moves or a few poses, to help you express yourself. It’s the same with art or drama therapy. 

For example, to be an Art Therapist, you must be a trained artist yourself. So you know how to use the different art supplies that might be present and you can teach the person who’s with you, your client, to use those supplies as well. So you don’t need to do anything! The other cool thing is that art therapy or music therapy, these aren’t about creating fine works of art that might hang in a museum. Their purpose is the journey itself so the creation of the artwork is what’s important and not really the end result. You don’t have to worry about not making something that looks beautiful, you just worry about making something that expresses yourself. 

Valerie- Right. I love that you said that the purpose is the journey. It’s not about what you create or the quality of the stuff that you’re doing but it’s about the process of doing it.

Beth- Yes, exactly. That’s totally true.

Valerie- So you are a registered mental health counselor. You chose to take an alternative form of therapy and work as an Art Therapist. What made you make this decision? 

Beth- Well, there are a couple of reasons that I decided to be both, a mental health counselor and an Art Therapist. One of them is that I want to be able to support my clients in whatever way they want to express themselves and so sometimes that means through art, and sometimes that means they do just want to just talk, and I want to be able to support them in doing both things. The other thing is that there’s a little bit of a technical issue in the United States. In most places, you can’t be licensed as an Art Therapist, you need to also be licensed as a mental health counsellor in order to work with people. So I thought it’s a good idea to have that background as well in case I want to work in various settings. So really, I wanted to make sure that I was able to support and help the largest number of people and I didn’t want to limit myself to only doing alternative therapy. I wanted to be able to do both.

Valerie- That’s beautiful, that you wanted to help as many people as you could and also take the interest that you have in art and use that to help people.

Beth- Well, thank you! Yeah, it’s been amazing. It’s been wonderful.

Valerie- Could you give us an insight into what happens in an Art Therapy session?

Beth- Sure! A number of different things might happen. A person might come into my art therapy room and just sit down at the desk and just pick up some supplies and start expressing themselves that way, right away. Sometimes I am just a compassionate witness to the art-making and we don’t really talk at all. They make art and they find that therapeutic and maybe we’ll talk a little bit at the end of the session. Another way though can be that a person comes down in my office and they sit down and they’re really struggling to tell me about something. They really feel like there’s something they want me to know but they don’t have the right words and they’re kind of frustrated that way. And so I might ask them to pick a colour and draw whatever shape comes to mind first. Then we start there with something really simple, and then we might move on to a far more detailed picture that helps us both understand that they’re trying to say. Is that helpful?

Valerie- Yes but this actually made me think of another thing- the tasks that you’re talking about like trying to ask them to draw a shape, it’s all so abstract that I don’t understand how you can actually make sense of stuff like that and help people. How do you do that? Or is that something you’ve been trained to understand?

Beth- That’s a really good question! So no, say I ask somebody to pick a colour and draw a shape. They picked green and they drew a square. I’m not going to know what that means just by looking at it but what I would do is ask the person who drew it to explain it to me. I might say- Well, I noticed you chose a bright colour of green. Can you tell me what this reminds you of? When you look at this colour of green, what else do you think about? And then I might ask- I notice you drew this shape. What does this shape remind you of? What do you think of when you use this shape? When’s the first time you saw that shape? – And so by association, the client starts to explain why they chose the colour and shape and then we might get to something deeper, something more about the issue that they want to talk about. One thing people think art therapists might do is find meaning in other people’s artwork and be able to read their minds by looking at the art but we don’t do that at all. We ask the clients questions.

Valerie- So it’s really digging deep into what and why your client has chosen something and trying to understand it from their perspective, taking into account what they’ve drawn or what they’ve chosen to draw.

Beth- Exactly. That’s exactly right.

Valerie- That’s interesting. So in your life, you are an Art Therapist to all of your clients but when you feel low or when you need help, is art something you turn to as well?

Beth- It is something that I turn to as well. I find art-making to be really soothing. I do two kinds of art- I do textile work, which is about repetitive motion, so embroidery or cross-stitch, something that is really concrete and takes a lot of the same motion over and over, and I find that doing that kind of activity can be really relaxing. In the other kind, I don’t need to relax, I actually need to get energy out and so I draw on really big canvases and make really big artwork so that I’m moving my limbs a lot to express myself and that helps me release some emotion, when I need to do that. 

Valerie- Right. So is a lot of Alternative Therapy engaging in repetitive motions that can try to calm and soothe you? 

Beth- It is for some people. That’s a thing that works for me. For other people, it can be more about engaging with the materials itself. I’m thinking about a little girl that I worked with years ago- she liked to work with clay and she really liked to just grab the clay and squish it between her fingers and have that experience of just feeling the clay, and that’s how she releases tension. She just really squished that clay, tore it to pieces and then she felt relieved from that, she felt better. 

Valerie- Right. Another question I want to ask you is that you’ve introduced us to Alternative Therapy, what it is, when one should consider using Alternative Therapy but can it replace conventional psychotherapy or does it work as something that complements it?

Beth- I think it depends on the client. Yes, it can absolutely be the only therapy that people are using, it can replace conventional psychotherapy for a lot of people. For some other people, maybe depending on the diagnosis, they might need both kinds. They might need both talk therapy and an alternative therapy to support that.

Valerie- So when we talk about Alternative Therapy, we have music, art, dance, drama, there’s so much. Is it something that somebody can try at home or is that different from actual alternative therapy?

Beth- You have so many good questions! Yes, absolutely. People can engage in alternative therapies at home. They can engage in art-making, dance, music, clay therapy, they can do all of this at home and they are therapeutic. But what makes it Art Therapy or Drama Therapy is having a trained alternative therapist, somebody trained with you in the room, because that is what takes it to the next level and makes it a therapy rather than just therapeutic. Am I making sense?

Valerie- Yup. That makes sense. Another question I wanted to ask you is that with the Pandemic and so much going on, I’m sure you must have a lot more clients coming to you because there’ just so much going on in the World that’s making everyone so uncomfortable. At the end of it all, I’m sure you must be going through a lot of long days right now but how do you unwind? How do you take care of your own mental health to make sure that you’re not burning out and you can still help the clients that come to you?

Beth- That’s a lovely question. Well, the first thing is that I see an Art Therapist myself. I have an Art Therapist that I see and work with and I think it’s really important for all therapists, counsellors, healers to have their own person that they can talk to and make art with, if that’s how they express themselves. So that’s one way. Another thing that I do is try to engage in activities that are totally different from art therapy. So I’ve really gotten into cooking in the last six months or so. I was a person who ordered takeout a lot but now I have cooked things from scratch in my own home and it’s good! It’s a soothing activity and then I have nourishment at the end, I have something to eat. 

Valerie- Right. Well, Beth thank you so much for talking to us today about Alternative Therapy because it’s something that we’re going to try to explore now with every episode that we have and we’re going to try to get in-depth into the therapies that we discussed today. Thank you so much for actually coming here and spreading light about Alternative Therapy and how it can be used. Also, a very nice thing I liked that you said at the end was that you have your own therapist as well. We always need someone to talk to and share our burden with and I think that was an absolutely beautiful note to end this on. Thank you so much for coming today.

Beth- Thank you so much. I look forward to hearing the rest of the episodes in the podcast.
Valerie- Sure, thank you.

Taking on Food and Festivities

Tis the season to be jolly, isn’t it? The lights, the revelry, the joyous air and the endless delicacies define the holiday season. The sheer excess is a welcoming bliss for most of us, to flag off yet another hectic year. Everything, from the bright advertisements to the sweet rom-coms to the upbeat music, tells us that this is the most magical time of the year and we should be extremely excited about it. But it is also an undeniable fact that this excess comes with plenty of baggage. It pressures one to look happy, put-together and be sociable- a fair trade-off for the average person. Unfortunately, many individuals, specifically those battling eating disorders cannot afford that luxury.

While food has always been a central aspect of social festivities, the consumerism of the holiday season has further accentuated this. One cannot waft past Diwali, Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years without stumbling upon some signature dishes. Thus, from the stress associated with the holiday season, to the food centrism of it, the whole thing is a terrifying affair for those with eating disorders. In an article by Deseret News, personal experiences of eating disorder patients during the holidays were chronicled (Click here to see the article). One patient summarized the troubles of the holiday season-

I always hated it when the holiday season would roll around. It meant that I would have to face my two worst enemies – food and people – and a lot of them.”

There is a plethora of eating disorders, each characterized by very specific behaviours. The most well-known disorders are Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. Let us explore them in greater detail. 

According to The National Eating Disorder Association , Anorexia Nervosa is “a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self starvation and excessive weight loss”

(https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/what-are-eating-disorders). These behaviors are guided by an intense fear of gaining weight, or of becoming fat, and an accompanying need to look thin. Similar goals steer the behaviors of those with Bulimia Nervosa, which is characterized by “a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating” 

Besides the guiding principles, many symptoms are common to both disorders. They include continuous weight checking; regularly surveying how some clothes fit; comparison of one’s own body to that of others; having unrealistic and far-reaching benchmarks; body dysmorphia and so on. Such disorders are triggered by much more than the desire to look thin and feel empty. Emotional upheavals and downward spirals also contribute to eating disorders, since the adoption of such eating routines give one a sense of control over their body, as observed by Dr. Hilde Burch (Click here to learn more about her observations). Furthermore, disordered eating habits also sometimes make for routes of escape from a tumultuous reality. Such coping mechanisms, however, end up being counter-productive, as they intensify feelings of guilt and self-hatred (sci-hub.se/10.1037/h0079241).

How do the holidays pose a threat to those with eating disorders? The food centrism of holidays ensures that such occasions are filled with stressors and triggers. Having anorexia, on one hand, can make one feel cornered at the idea of consuming any food, especially in the presence of other people. Dr. Randy Hardman, a doctor at Center for Change, offered some perspective (https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp.8)-

I have had patients describe that they would rather jump off a cliff without a parachute than to have somebody watch them eat food.”

Those with bulimia may have ample opportunity to indulge in binge sessions. One patient told Deseret News-

“So much food, so much love and so much joy, but I could not feel the love or joy, so I indulged in the food as a replacement.”

Thus, fear sets in- those with anorexia find themselves trying to avoid food without raising eyebrows; those with bulimia find themselves surrounded by opportunities to binge eat. Such scenarios end up emotionally wrecking one’s state of mind. Shame, guilt and self-loathe sets in.

While most of us casually speak of “packing on holiday weight”, this looms as a matter of life and death for someone with an eating disorder. Festivities may derail them from their usual routine of maintaining strict vigil on their food intake and weight. This in turn may lead compensatory behaviors such as over-exercising, purging and so on to take  a whole new significance in their lives. In this context, Dr. Timothy Walsh points out that “For people with eating disorders, guilt feelings become so distorted they lose all perspective” (https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp.8). To illustrate this point, Kaitlin Dannibale explains, “The destructive thoughts consume every inch of their brain and the meal becomes the only thing they can obsess over for a fixed period of time. This is when the compensatory behaviors will most likely begin. For those with anorexia, they may restrict dramatically over the next day, week or month. Those who over exercise will try to compensate by participating in vigorous physical activity. People with bulimia will attempt to purge their meals immediately after completion” (https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp.8)  

Another key trigger during the holidays can be resurfacing of negative emotions and trauma, particularly with respect to family. Oftentimes, unsupportive familial environments are where eating disorders begin. This is particularly significant in the Indian context, where weight shaming is common. In a blogpost, Gwen details into how the weight shaming culture proved to be detrimental for her body-image-

I know calling someone “fat” in India is not the same as in the US. But it doesn’t change years of baggage I am carrying with me.” (read the full blog-post here)

Thus, the rehashing of past trauma may intensify the need to use disordered eating habits as a coping mechanism. This is further accentuated by the lack of understanding or awareness on part of the family about eating disorders.

Dr. Hardman explains, “most family members think it is about food and weight, but it is about self-rejection”(https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp.9).  Hence, the family environment isn’t conducive for one to feel secure in the midst of a stress-filled situation. Oftentimes, the family isn’t even aware of one’s eating disorder.

Unfortunately, such obstacles make even survivors of eating disorders stumble. As Ginean Crawford explains, eating disorders are different from other addictive disorders, in that one cannot completely abstain from food, as can be done in the case of alcohol (https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp. 8) . Thus, they encounter stressors and triggers on the daily, more so during the holidays.

How can one help someone cope with an eating disorder during the holidays?

  • Make sure that the person battling such a disorder has a support group. This ensures that they are able to communicate how they feel about the triggers around them, and can help alleviate feelings of guilt. A supportive family setting would be ideal. If the individual has even a single friend or family member to rely on during arduous festivities, it would make a huge difference.
  • Restrict the disruption of routine as much as possible. If meal times can be close to that of the individual’s schedule, it will be less stressful for them.
  • It is also worth noting that celebrations with few loved ones won’t be as overwhelming as large gatherings.

Overall, helping the sufferer of the eating disorder to plan ahead, encouraging them to voice their concerns, letting them indulge in the festivities at their own pace will help them tackle the holidays.

A pivotal concern specific to the Indian context, is the startling lack of discourse and awareness, which has further fuelled the ‘weight-shaming’ culture. Oftentimes, remarks about appearance and weight are hardly driven by malicious intent, given the lack of understanding about body image. There are very few studies documenting the prevalence of eating disorders in India, most of them confined to relatively small regions. The larger picture is unknown. Moreover, the scanty discourse that does exist, purports the notion that it is mainly a result of ‘western import’. In one study in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, it is said that “The process of admixture of western attitudes and behaviour now occurring at a rapid rate in India may soon lead to emergence of severe eating disorders in the vulnerable populations” (sci-hub.se/10.1177/002076409804400305, pp. 196).

This brings to the forefront, the individual responsibility of each and every one of us, to educate ourselves as well as those around us. We can take it upon ourselves to contribute to the scanty discourse and mend the environment which enables eating disorders. Let us all strive to inspire such conversations and be more mindful of the not-so-jolly aspects of the holiday season.

Navigating Intense Emotions

Try as we might to always have a Zen state of mind, we fail miserably when emotions rise to the surface and sometimes boil over. We can feel overwhelmed by them if we do not learn how to manage them correctly. As a result, we might end up being plunged in sadness, anger, or even in the best of cases, intense euphoria that can leave us feeling as if something were missing after it subsides. It is important to learn to identify, process, and navigate through intense emotions.

Emotions are valid

Different people feel different emotions even when they are put in the exact same situation. Emotions stem from thoughts and sometimes, preconceived notions. For instance, the Holidays can make some people happy, while others feel sad, angry, or even afraid. These feelings cumulatively influence our thoughts, enabling us to form split-second opinions about various situations and guide our decision making through intuition. 

Even though emotions form the cornerstone of the eventual development of intuition and gut instinct, they get a bad rep and people who carry their emotions right on the surface are often viewed as somehow inferior. In men, this social conditioning can cause toxic masculinity, where men tend to project a stoic personality and suppress their emotions to meet the expectations from society. 

“…Teach him there is no shame in tears…” -Abraham Lincoln

We need to collectively realize that we mustn’t censor emotions within us or others. Instead, we must hone and develop this tool that evolution has bestowed upon us into a life skill.

Processing Intense Emotions

As we go through life, we might face situations which can stir emotions stronger than we are generally used to. The untrained response to such situations can be a complete shutdown or feeling overwhelmed. Though most of us recover quickly and completely after the situation passes, it might still leave a lasting adverse impact if it was improperly processed. These events can seed a negative connotation to the experience itself, which almost always never stops with the experience itself but goes on to chip away at our self-confidence.

In order to learn to navigate intense emotions, we must first practice identifying our emotions with focussed intention and mindfulness. Some experiences can leave us feeling a lot of mixed emotions and as a result can sometimes impair our critical thinking. A useful practice can be to maintain a journal and track the emotions that one goes through throughout the day. Each entry can contain an event and how this event inspired a specific emotion or a group of emotions. If you cannot find words to describe the emotion, you can even use emojis or caricatures to identify them. This exercise is to consciously connect the dots between thought, feeling, and back to thought as a result of the feelings. Identifying emotions as we go through a ‘normal’ day can sharpen our ability to swiftly discern specific emotions in case of a sudden outburst of intense emotions. 

Once we identify our emotions, the task is to mindfully allow it to run its course without hindering or intensifying it based on our snap judgement. A personal tip is to use breathing as a focal point from which we shift our attention to the emotion and back to the breathing, the moment we realize our interference. Some things that you can notice are physical manifestations (for example, sweating, flushing or tearing up) or change in mental state (maybe, memories and thoughts that surface and how this affects our current actions). Emotions often play a crucial role in helping us through an experience and it is our mind’s response which in turn triggers a wide variety of bodily functions. So, it is important that we don’t shirk away even as they build up to a hot white intensity.

Finally, as the emotions subside, take your time to retreat within yourself and sit with the thoughts and feelings and consciously bring them to a close. Some might feel that reacting quickly is of the essence, however, more often than not, actions taken when we aren’t thinking straight are regrettable when we look back at them. So, it is wiser to be patient when coming up with a decision or response, verbal, or otherwise. 

Shifting our Locus

It is important to reiterate again and again that we needn’t be rigid in our thoughts and must broaden our perspective to the possibilities. Our views regarding an experience can change and will change for the better, if we learn to process our emotions in a healthier way . We must make a sincere attempt to refrain from consciously or subconsciously passing blanket statements, such as, “I can never learn to socialize properly.”, “I will always have a short temper.” or “No one will ever love me for me.” This can always change. We only need to shift our locus. 

We might also consider talking about these experiences and feelings with close friends and family. They can offer a different perspective to the situation and can even help transform your thought process completely. It might be helpful to preface this conversation by communicating your expectations and that this is a serious discussion so that you can avoid judgement for opening up.

Emotions are a part of our minds and might even have provided an evolutionary advantage to building strong social bonds. They are vital to living a mentally healthy life and there are no good or bad emotions since each and every one of these complex feelings help us navigate life on a constant basis. So, instead of fearing or hiding them, we must embrace them. 

Establishing Boundaries and sticking to them

The Holidays can be a great opportunity to spend quality time with family and friends but what happens when this is forced on you? How do you navigate this tricky conversation with people who love you and genuinely care about you and let them know that you need your personal space and time, without hurting their feelings? I had the same questions and miserably failed at communicating my needs and having them respected for many years before learning to successfully establish boundaries and sticking to them. 

Knowing when you’ve hit your limit

The first problem was understanding my own limits. I am an introverted person and I tend to feel exhausted after spending time with a group of friends or family. But, for fear of offending loved ones, I have stifled my yawns and rubbed my eyes red to be ‘present’ through long conversations. Afterwards, I feel drained and need a nap to invigorate myself back into action. Not knowing when to say ‘No’ or ‘Enough’ is another way in which I have often over-committed myself and end up feeling overwhelmed. I cannot count the number of times I’ve got a stomach ache because of overeating at a relative’s place because I didn’t want to disappoint them. Mental health is no different. The impact, though less acutely pronounced, is on a long-term, chronic basis.

The key is to identify symptoms and patterns of exhaustion in yourself and over time become a better judge of your limits. People might try to make you feel guilty, saying that you’re too rigid and boxed in, but you should never feel bad about respecting yourself and your mental health. One way in which I have learnt to enforce this limit to myself, is through my smartphone. I have set it to automatically turn on sleep mode at bedtime. This silences notifications and provides a gentle nudge to wind down. Yes, I have spent time surfing YouTube and Instagram, after it is my bedtime, but providing this hard physical limit, means that you are now explicitly aware that you’ve crossed your own limits.

Communicating your boundaries

The view on being in your comfort zone is a two-faced one. On one hand, we need to respect ourselves enough to say, “Enough is enough”, but on the other, if we don’t force ourselves into unfamiliar territory, how will we ever grow? This is a slippery slope and only you can be a good judge and honest evaluator of when you are recognizing that the situation is beyond your ability and when you’re just being lazy. And, you only need to be honest with yourself and mindful about these mannerisms, because only through conscious recognition will you be able to even begin to communicate your limits effectively to others. That is because most people can tell when you lie, this might not even be conscious, but they might make this judgement about you and use this as a basis to subconsciously mark your words to be lies every other time.

Once this fact sinks in, next comes the more difficult part – being polite but firm. This is a skill that is so useful in life that there must be complete courses on this taught at school. But alas! Where our school curriculum falls short, the school of life must step in. I am not great at this skill but I have seen people who are particularly well versed in effective but courteous communication. One of my recollections takes me back to the Resident Services at my apartments. I was there only for the latter part of the conversation, so, I didn’t know what the resident’s issue was. This was part of what the agent said to the resident,

“I understand that the maintenance team had missed the appointment at your place. The email must’ve slipped through our notice. I am sorry about that. But, we cannot reschedule your appointment on the coming Thursday. It is a Holiday and we don’t work that day. I can always look into my calendar and see which time after the Holidays works for both of us, but that is the best I can do right now.”

Delivered without a pause, this effectively conveyed that the service agent was sincerely apologetic, was willing to work towards a solution while also firmly denying the resident’s demand to work during a holiday. It takes a little bit of knack and patience to convey our limits and personal boundaries to people who aren’t the most understanding but this saves us a lot of pain in the future if we’re being open right up front.

Respecting your boundaries – yourself!

This could be the most difficult and yet the most important step in your journey to set proper boundaries and enforce them – respecting your boundaries yourself. The reason why this is so important might not be what you’re thinking. It is the most crucial step, primarily because humans are generally narcissistic (not to be confused with Narcissistic Personality disorder). Most people are so in their own heads that your own convictions and beliefs about yourself, might become the yardstick by which we measure how others perceive us. 

Simply put, you are either your biggest cheerleader or your harshest critic. Once we become aware of our limits, and have communicated them to others, we must learn to enforce them. This does not come naturally to us. Ironically, we are often left feeling guilty or sometimes too strict when we are on our own side. The trick (or not really) to moving through the guilt is to go back to the foundation, the reasons why you started this journey and reinforce the bitter memories of when you were a pushover and allowed people to walk all over you. While the current situation might not be as serious as your original foundational memories, you must always use them as a big red warning sign to what it might turn into. So, through this repeated process of reinforcement of ‘why’ and ‘what’ your limits are, you can begin to see a world of difference in how other people treat you.

Finally, sometimes, even after taking the necessary steps to communicate and enforce your boundaries to others, this could be a hard pill for them to swallow. For instance, a friend might be constantly dumping their troubles on you, while you are already enervated and are having a rough time. In this scenario, it feels wrong to ask them to stop complaining and even if we had previously communicated this to that person, we end up making excuses for them and do not respect the fact that trying to heal them is eating away at yourself. In my personal experience, this generally happens when there is an inherent imbalance in the dynamic of the relationship. One is always playing the role of the listener, the healer and the giver while the other always complains, is the only one with issues and constantly consumes. Due to non-verbal communication, this dynamic slowly crystallizes into permanency and becomes the norm. And the earlier you try to wean the other off this feeling, the better. But even after years of knowing someone, it is never too late to completely re-evaluate your relationship and communicate your boundaries to them.

Coming back to the most jolly time of the year – the Holidays, it can be particularly tricky to enforce these limits. This can be of greater significance to someone going through a serious mental health issue, like depression, anorexia or bulimia. Forcing yourself to conform to the society’s dictation of the “correct” way of spending your Holidays might mean that you might have to undergo some seriously stressful situations and for some, it might be the final straw that shoves them deeper into their crisis. For many of us, things might not be as serious but having this thought at the back of your mind might help you be on the watch for stress in your loved ones. You can be that person who would respect their boundaries and allow them to flourish without reservations in your company. 

The Kingdom of Dreams

When I was younger,
I dreamed of being Cinderella,
The beautiful, distressed, princess
Who would be saved by her Prince Charming
From the big, ugly, ogre.
If only I had understood then 
That beauty is in the eye of the beholder
And the ogres and demons existed inside my head.

When I was a little older,
I dreamed of being Jackie Chan
(From the cartoon, duh!)
And tour the world with Uncle and Jade
And Toru and El Toro and all the others. 
If only I had known then
That no number of magic stones
Could help me to fight the battles of the real world.

When I was older still,
I dreamed of being Hermione Granger,
(Because a brilliant witch is way cooler than a brave wizard, IMO)
Wise, loyal, but fierce if need be,
I wanted to fight evil with Harry and Ron by my side.
If only I had known then
That true evil exists in the heart and head
And it takes more than a cloak, a wand and a stone to vanquish it.

Fast forward a decade,
I’m too old for my own good.
And all I want to do now,
Is to go back to the Kingdom of Dreams,
A time when 9.00 AM was Popeye and 9.00 PM was shuteye.
A time when bingeing on Cheetos was the norm.
A time when having imaginary friends was considered cool.
A time when anything was possible…

LonePack Conversations – Child Sexual Abuse and its impact on Mental Health ft. Viji Ganesh

In our country, safety has always been a major public health concern. While it’s disheartening to see cases of abuse almost constantly flashed on our television screens, stigma around the issue prevents us from talking about it or discussing the personal trauma that one battles.

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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m Valerie. 

Today, we have Viji Ganesh, Personal Safety Coach and Educator.  She volunteers and works as a freelancer promoting awareness and prevention education about Child Sexual Abuse and imparting sexuality education. She is here talk to us about the impact that child sexual abuse has on one’s mental health and how we can help contribute to a safe space for children.

Welcome, Viji. 

Viji- Thank you, Valerie. It’s such an appropriate time to do this because just yesterday, Child Safety Week ended. November 14th being Children’s Day in India, November 19th being International Day of Abuse Prevention and November 20th being International Children’s Day. We had a week-long session on creating awareness about this particular topic. It’s so apt that we’re doing this today. Thank you for this opportunity.

 Valerie- Thank you. It’s amazing that you spent the entire last week and actually, most of what you do is to promote a safe space for children and create awareness about child sexual abuse. 

Viji- That’s right. I’m mostly into primary prevention, which is to get people to talk about it more and help child children and empower them to get into protective behaviours- to protect themselves from abuse and also to not become abusive. 

Valerie- So, when we look at statistics in India, it shows that around 110 children are sexually abused every single day. You can see around us that a lot of people may not even be aware of the fact that such acts are committed, or we choose not to talk about them because we find ourselves in uncomfortable positions. When you look at the people affected by it, it is so difficult for them to talk about it because of so much stigma that’s associated with it, or sometimes it happens at such a young age that they don’t even understand what’s happening to them. What are your views on this?

Viji- Child sexual abuse is rather disturbing, abhorrent and most often an unimaginable crime for most of us but the unfortunate reality is that it exists and does keep happening. Many people say that only of late, the incidences have increased but I wouldn’t agree with that because it is only now that the reporting has increased. It has always been happening but thanks to social media, the reporting has increased now. As you said, there is a lot of stigma around this, most of us are in denial. Most of us are also uncomfortable and inhibited from talking about this. That is where primary prevention comes in. The response to child sexual abuse should be handled with a view to increase awareness rather than to be in denial. It may seem very daunting and we can get overwhelmed by it but let me assure you, the fears, concerns and inhibitions are all very relevant and cannot be wished away. We have to deal with it so that we can empower our children effectively, address this issue to prevent it and help survivors heal. 

You are very right when you say there is so much stigma around this, mostly because when a survivor speaks up, they are most often not believed or are shamed. They are blamed and asked questions about what they were wearing, till what time they were out, and other typical questions. So most often, they prefer to keep quiet and suffer in silence. But we need to speak up about this. Not only the affected or the survivors, those who are not affected should also have the same amount of empathy towards it and only then can this issue be addressed in its totality. It starts with the community. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a community to address this issue. All of us have a role and responsibility in addressing this issue, is what I feel.

Valerie- Very true. When you spoke about the amount of stigma that’s associated with it that so many children prefer to suffer in silence as opposed to being questioned and shamed, in relation to this I wanted to ask you that people who face child sexual abuse often battle psychiatric disorders mostly because of stigma, suffering in silence and the after-effects of trauma. This may extend and reflect largely on their adult lives too, at times. Could you elaborate on this for us? 

Viji- Yeah, sure. Most often, ninety percent of child sexual abuse cases are by people known to the child. Stranger danger is no longer a real danger. Not all strangers are dangerous and not all known people are safe. In most CSA cases, it is a known person that commits this crime. That is the first difficulty that a child faces- not being able to accept that it has happened by someone they trust, like and have to live with in the same house, sometimes. That’s where it all starts. The confusion and emotional conflict that they have with the person. As a child, they suffer a lot. It can lead to a fall in academics, eating disorders, bed-wetting, sexualized behavior or becoming introverted. It could manifest in many ways but these should not be looked at in isolation, they have to be seen together. 

But as an adult, it can manifest in varied complex ways. There could be physical symptoms which disappear after a while which could be treated and medically addressed but there are a lot of emotional aspects that an adult survivor could go through- anxiety, depression, PTSD and emotional distress. Some of them could even suffer from eating disorders. They could even have externalizing behaviours such as substance abuse, alcoholism and in some cases, can also become abusive themselves, but not all abusers have a history of being abused so it has to be seen in isolation. The fact that ninety percent of these cases are of abuse by trusted adults leads them to trust issues, issues in interpersonal relationships and may also become revictimized in several relationships. They may be in a self-blame mode thinking that they did something which is why this happened to them. The system doesn’t respond to tell them that it’s not their fault, that it was never their fault. We always tell parents that to encourage disclosure, first listen and listen actively. In fact, we tell the parents that if they suspect that some child is on the threshold of disclosure, the first words that you should say is “It’s not your fault”. Once we start from there, the healing journey becomes easier. That’s how it manifests. The effect of CSA could be very complex and long lasting. 

I would like to quote a particular incident that happened in my workshop- a 63 year old grandmother had brought her granddaughter for my workshop in Hyderabad, around 8 years ago. After the session, I was quite overwhelmed listening to her tell me that she wished she had these kinds of workshops and education when she was growing up because she was also abused as a child and at 63 years old, this was the first time she was talking about it. That kind of jolted me, to realise that somebody could live uncompromisingly as an adult, with this in the background. One of the ways they deal with it is to push it to the back-burner, but you never know when it will erupt. Broadly, these are the effects that it can have on a functional adult. Sometimes, there could be a compromise on adult functionalities- they could appear to be normal but you don’t know what they are going through within. There is so much more to it than what I can tell you during this brief podcast.

Valerie- Right, but thank you for spreading light on this for us. You are someone who is deeply involved in the cause of child sexual abuse awareness and prevention, like you said, you host plenty workshops to spread awareness about this. How important would you say reaching out is for those affected by it? When you come across someone affected by child sexual abuse, what is your approach and interaction like? 

Viji- In nature, everything is resilient with an attitude to bear with all to heal and spring back to life. The first thing a survivor should have is the bravery to ask for help. That’s the bravest thing that one can do and it opens up a floodgate of options for them to start their healing journey. Which is why we keep reminding them that it’s not their fault and that they should ask for help. You do not have to define yourself by what happened when you were a child, when things were out of your control. It’s just like if you meet with an accident on the road, if you break your knee, you get surgery. You do not define yourself by the accident or what your knee has undergone. If you have the same perspective about abuse as well, it is easier to heal but even as I say that, I am aware that the two are not comparable situations but what’s important is that we do not define ourselves by what happened to us as we were a child, when things were out of our control. It is very difficult but it is not impossible to start our healing journey towards closure. 

This is where our society comes in to work on the stigma attached to it. In newspaper headlines, when they report incidents of abuse, it is always the victim that’s highlighted and not the abuser. We need to change that narrative. The blame needs to shift from the victim to the abuser. That in itself gives acceptance and can help start the path to healing. There are many ways to deal with the trauma from sexual abuse, there is no one solution that would fit all. Some people could spring back to action soon, some people could put it on the back-burner and live a normal life, some people could do things positively and help heal others. There are various ways to heal and that journey starts with the bravery to ask for help. That would be my message to all survivors- ask for help.

Valerie- I think it’s beautiful that you said don’t define yourself by what happened. You don’t centre your life around one incident. I thought that was beautiful.

Viji- Thank you.

Valerie- How do you approach people when they come to you and show bravery to talk about what they have been through? How do you approach and interact with them?

Viji- Basically, it all comes down to listening. Abuse is all about power inequity. It’s never about a sexual act but about somebody more powerful doing something that you have no control over. That is the stage they are in which is why even a grown adult gets into patterns of revictimization and self-blame, and always look for validation in others. This is one of the manifestations. We try to tell them that now you are in a safe position, it is over and done with. We may even take them back to that memory or place or time and relive it at their level of comfort and get over the lack of power that they felt at that time, and feel more powerful about their current empowering situations. They say that even now, it is a child that’s trapped in an adult’s mind even now. When they think about the abuse, they think of themselves as the child which was abused then and not as an adult now. That is why we have to start the journey from there and overcome their limitations. Also create safe spaces now, surround yourself with positivity, positive people and safe people.

Valerie- Okay. Talking about the importance of safe spaces, could you elaborate on some personal safety lessons that one can learn at schools?

Viji- Schools are a great place for transformation. It is where every child spends two-thirds of their waitful hours. Be it disclosures or learning about safety measures, it all happens majorly in schools. Their resources for disclosure are peers and teachers. We advocate personal safety education for children right from kindergarten till the end of their school years. It’s a holistic life skill approach that we follow, that gives them the education that empowers them to take part in their own protection, with knowledge, assertive skills, and information. The basic problem with most children when it comes to child sexual abuse is the lack of vocabulary, we do not name our body parts correctly. To children, a hand, a forehead and a penis are all body parts when they are just two or three years old. It is the adult mind which thinks of these parts as reproductive organs to use for sexualized behaviours. To a child, a vagina or a penis is just another part like a hand or a leg. Our education proceeds by giving them the correct names of their body parts, teaching them their functionality and slowly, as they grow into adolescence, discuss sexuality education. 

We teach them assertive skills by telling them that they are unique and special and have full body autonomy and they have every right to say “no” to any unwanted touch. It is not “who” that matters but the action. It could be anybody, it doesn’t matter but what matters is what they do, whether you like it and whether you want it. The commonly used terms of “bad” and “good” touch are not recommended, instead we should teach children about “safe” and “unsafe” touches. I would like to quote from one of my workshops- a small boy asked me “What if I feel good about a bad touch?”. Some of these touches could make them feel good even though they are intentionally wrong because these are all places filled with nerve centres and a lot of blood flow so it could make them feel good and pleasurable but they do not have the perception to know that the act itself is wrong so they could just stop with feeling that it makes them feel good. 

We want to teach children that they have absolute body autonomy and the full right to say “no” to any touch that they do not like. Any form of physical affection should always be at the behest of the child and not the calling of an adult. We cannot make our children responsible for an adult’s emotion. We educate the parents to accept a “no” every now and then so that the children know that it all starts from home and that the significant people in their lives will accept it when they say “no”. Once you give them the confidence that they can say “no” and that it will be accepted in the right spirit, they will do it outside as well. Whereas if you tell them that they have to respect adults and listen to whatever they say, they will remember that and even if it is a wrong touch, they may think about it and stay silent. 

We also teach them to build a robust support system of adults and communities by choosing their trusted adults, possibly parents, family and teachers, and also how to handle emotions like fear and anger, which are normally seen as negative emotions but we tell them that fear and anger are very positive emotions, which are like red flags. If you fear something, it means that you need to do something about it. It is an action point. If you feel angry, you need to act on that anger in the right way. We teach them conflict resolution and how to handle their emotions. Before telling them how to handle their emotions, we tell them to recognize and talk about their feelings. We do not know how to put a label on our emotions. Only when we know what we’re feeling will we be able to address and handle it. We also help build empathy because while every care is taken to prevent abuse from happening to them, we also need to ensure that they do not become abusive and that’s where empathy comes into play. The most important thing we teach them is that despite all this, if it still happens, do not blame yourself because it was never your fault. This is our personal safety education in a nutshell.

Valerie- Thank you for talking to us about this, it was very informative. Especially the part where you said that you’re supposed to understand your emotions and channel it correctly. Also not to blame yourself for anything that happens, if it does.

Viji- That’s the most important, yes.

Valerie- Also, when we talk about the current situation in the World, there is so much darkness when it comes to sexual abuse. There is so much talk about it and it’s because it keeps happening. I wanted to ask you- How do you see things getting brighter in the future? How do we become part of the solution? 

Viji- That’s a very good question. We have to be a part of the solution and not stay in the problem forever. There are many knee-jerk reactions whenever a case is reported- there is media bashing and a lot of blogs being written but after that, nothing happens. Do we do anything to make sure that it doesn’t happen again? We are all in denial that it is happening to someone else, it may not happen to me. Prevention and healing require an equal amount of sensitivity, care, positivity, optimism and being practical. 

When it comes to care, you teach personal safety education to children, start a conversation about it, make note of the vulnerable points in your community and the possibility of abuse happening. Adults need to sit and talk about it and not live in denial. It is very difficult and daunting but we need to work positively and believe that things can be changed. A lot of people are creating awareness now. Earlier men never used to talk about it but now there are a lot of men rooting for this cause and talking about it. A lot of survivors are now bold enough to open up and talk about their journey, and not define themselves by it. 

Practically, we have to translate prevention and healing into an actionable blueprint. That’s where practical tips on personal safety education in all schools and resources for survivors need to happen. So it is possible and to be a part of the solution, the first thing we can do is to start a conversation around it. It can be a dinner table conversation at home or even a conversation with the children while travelling in the car. If the parents need more information, there are plenty of resources available on the internet. It’s not rocket science and you don’t need a professional to come and talk about it but a little training and research certainly helps to not teach the children a wrong lesson because un-learning is very difficult here. It’s better to always give the right message by reading up, doing your own research and there are professionals working in this area. 

That’s how you can start a conversation around it and address the issue, and be a part of the solution. In fact, a lot of people took part in this week-long child safety week and I had interviewed four or five people from various walks of life who are rooting for this cause. The first thing is to get people to talk about it and normalize it just like a fire safety drill or a road safety drill. That is how it has to be taught to a child, like another life skill. 

Valerie- Thank you so much for talking to us about this. I hope that through this conversation that we’ve had, we could help raise more awareness on child sexual abuse. I really appreciate everything that you said to us about the importance of starting conversations and normalizing them for children so that it’s not looked at as such a taboo thing to talk about or something that’s associated with shame. Also, more importantly, not to live in denial of the fact that it will not happen to us but in turn to do some research, to start reading up on it and to handle situations with empathy, sensitivity and optimism, and empower people. There’s so much that we got to learn from you today and I’m really grateful that you took out the time to talk to us about this. Thank you so much, Viji.

Viji- My pleasure. Awareness is the key to all this and it’s the only sustainable solution to end this social malady, I would think. Thank you so much for this opportunity, Valerie. My life’s motive is that if I can save one child from abuse, I will have lived my life well.

Valerie- Yeah. Thank you so much.

You can learn more about Viji Ganesh’s work on YouTube

The Lessons that the Men’s Mental Health Movement can Learn from Feminism

In recent years, many women and men have increasingly rallied behind the feminist movement, which fights for equality in opportunities and rights between men and women. The idea is to eradicate gender stereotypes, the age-old argument that ‘men and women are not the same’, at its rotten core. Being ‘same’ is not the same as being ‘equal’. Proponents of the women’s rights movement have made progress in finding the words to convey this stance and drive the wider public to their cause. This is apparent from the growing attendance at marches and protests across the world that mark important milestones in the movement.

Destigmatisation through dialogue and demonstrations

An intentional yet subtle outcome of the movement has been the growing change in perspective and the consequent destigmatisation of conventionally taboo topics of rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence. The normalization of discussion of these issues in the widespread media through the sharing of stories by influencers and stars (the ‘Me Too’ movement is a prime example) has given strength to the common public to come forth with their own life stories. As the dialogue surrounding these topics grows louder, awareness increases, allowing development of sensitization to these issues.

This outcome is exactly what is expected when it comes to men’s mental health. We need to shatter the stigma surrounding the issue and engage the media, thus reinforcing the fact that it is okay to discuss these issues which are also considered taboo. The measures that were effective in the Feminist movement can help the men’s mental health movement too. November is men’s health month, also called Movember, as men grow mustaches to raise awareness for issues such as prostate and testicular cancer and also mental health of men. While on one hand, men dominate professionally and politically, they’re also more susceptible to suffering from a wide range of mental health issues such as suicide. This article by the American Psychological Association outlines the guidelines for psychological practice with men and boys. Organizing events surrounding this month’s theme and engagement by widespread media can grow the movement by leaps and bounds. 

Enemy Number One

The women’s movement has a clear Enemy Number One – The Patriarchy. So protests and marches were led targeting this common foe. There is no single person who represents this enemy – it is rather the idea that there is something to fight against, which inspires people to rally and come together. It lifts the haze of incoherence and provides a focal point around which the entire ideal can be constructed. In terms of men’s mental health, such an adversary is absent, which is because clarity can be scarcely afforded on a deeper investigation of the subject. This should be a primary goal of the movement as it is stories which instill passion in the public rather than just a bulletin of goals. We need to ask the question, ‘What is stopping men from discussing their mental health?’ and we might find our rallying cry in its answer.

Equity not Equality

Finally, the solution to women’s rights being equity rather than equality to the whole cacophony of ‘men are not the same as women’ has a profound lesson for the men’s mental health sphere. We are all different and unique in our own way. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to destigmatizing men’s mental health issues. We need to approach the problem in a different way, by creating additional opportunity for the severely-disadvantaged in a disproportionate fashion so as to bring them on equal footing. This might mean that we need to research heavily on what bolsters chances of men seeking therapy and what undermines these efforts. We may also come up with innovative and unique therapeutic methodologies to sensitively address the issues so as to build trust in male patients. 

We need innovative solutions to tackling the difficult challenge of destigmatizing men’s mental health and inspiration is abundant for those who look for it. We may need to look no further than to women in their fight and learn from their struggles and victories to build a better tomorrow for men, too.