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  • Carla Evans

A little GEM of a book for mental health

Hi everyone,

Thanks to a wonderful client, I've recently been listening to the book "The Resilience Project". Now, if you're at all like me, you might be sceptical of buzz words - in this case resilience. It starts popping up everywhere, it gets talked about in all different scenarios as if it's all of a sudden the most important thing. I get a bit over it. However, I also try not to judge a book by it's cover (or it's name) if it's been recommended to me so resilience aversion aside, I jumped on in.

And I was pleasantly surprised.

The book is engaging, easy to listen to, is more of a story than a self-help book and contains an awesome and easy to remember message. It's a little GEM (more on that in a moment).

I especially recommend it for boys*, men and anyone with an interest in sport. This is because it's written and narrated by a guy (Hugh van Cuylenburg) who loves sport so there are a lot of sporting stories along the way.

* there is a mention of sexual abuse and suicide in the book so please read/listen first and decide if it's age appropriate for your child.

Through stories of personal experiences both tragic and hilarious, Hugh manages to weave a common thread - GEM - Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness. I know, I know they can be a bit buzz wordy too but in this case they are used appropriately, trust me (or don't, but read the book and then make up your own mind!)

As a brother of someone who experienced a mental illness as a child, Hugh set out to help reduce the burden of mental illness in a society that has a disproportionately high rate of it - Australia. He became a teacher and it was his experience and learnings from others including an amazing little boy he met in India that led him to GEM.

Back to resilience for a moment - what does it actually mean? From the big three dictionaries:

  • the ability of an ecosystem to return to its original state after being disturbed

  • the ability to bounce or spring back into shape, position, etc.

  • the ability to recover strength, spirits, good humor, etc. quickly; buoyancy

  • the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress

  • an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

Basically... the ability to bounce back...mentally, emotionally and/or physically.

Oh, so you mean the good old fashioned - 'stop snivelling and get on with it'? No, I don't mean that. Occasionally that is appropriate if someone is behaving like a spoilt little brat. But if we're talking sexual abuse that's obviously not the case. It's the ability to recover from stress with appropriate levels of help. That may be learning how to behave when we lose a cricket match with a bit of tough love or it may be seeking professional help for a traumatic event. The idea is, the more resilience we have going into a stressful life event, the easier it will be to bounce back.

Hugh's approach to building resilience involves Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness. It's simple yet powerful. It's so simple you might think, oh yes I know that. But reading or listening to the book makes you really go ahhhh, makes you really get it.

Gratitude - focusing on and being grateful for the things we already have right here and now, rather than focusing on the things we don't have/would like to have. It's the opposite of the "I'll be happy when..." approach. It's not just a nice way to be. Practicing gratitude daily actually starts to rewire the brain to scan the environment for more positive things. According to Hugh's research this results in people who:

  • are less likely to get sick

  • have higher levels of energy

  • feel happier

  • are more enthusiastic

  • are more focused

  • are more determined

  • are more optimistic

  • have a better quality of sleep

  • have lower levels of depression and anxiety

Hugh's three gratitude questions to answer daily are:

1) what was the best thing that happened to me today?

2) who am I most grateful for today and why?

3) what am I looking forward to most about tomorrow? Or simply follow the approach of consciously acknowledging everything you are grateful for as you go about your day. Saying a silent (or aloud) thank you for all the little and big things, people, situations you come across. Even if you are feeling unwell, you might be grateful that you can stay in your cosy bed. If you didn't get the job you were going for, you can be grateful for the friend that is there to give you a hug. I am truly grateful to each and every one of you for allowing me to work with you, for laughing with me and for teaching me - thank you.

Empathy - an approximate definition is "being sensitive to the feelings, thoughts and experiences of another". Hugh talks about acts of kindness stemming from empathy and how being kind towards someone else makes us feel good by releasing oxytocin - a hormone linked with connection and bonding with others. Being kind to others when it comes from a genuine place of empathy within ourselves is a win-win situation - they feel good and we feel good!

A daily question to ask ourselves could be:

Who have I been kind to today?

Mindfulness - the term is a bit of a contradiction because the practice of mindfulness actually helps us to focus on something other than the mind and it's thoughts. There are an infinite number of ways to practice mindfulness and it can just be integrated into your daily activities if you don't feel you have extra time to stop and meditate. Here are a few examples:

  • box breathing - breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts. Repeat at least 3 times and do 2-3 times a day.

  • 54321 - what are 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste?

  • body scan / yoga nidra - this is a type of guided relaxation where someone talks you though simply bringing your attention to different parts of the body. You can find these on apps like Insight Timer or search for them online.

  • meditation - there are many types of meditation, you can go to classes, follow the steps in books, use apps like Ananda Meditation, go on retreats...

Although the GEM approach to supporting mental health was started by Hugh for school children, it has developed and is now used with teachers, parents, sports clubs (including the NRL and AFL!), corporate groups, groups of tradies, community groups, you name it. I think everyone will be able to relate to it no matter their background.

The GEM approach is not rocket science. In fact, I suspect our grandparents and great-grandparents would have been naturals at it. There are many reasons why people living today, especially in western societies, have less resilience, less bounce back - it would be another whole blog! But the mental health statistics are clear - we need help in this area so let's start to take action.

The Resilience Project by Hugh van Cuylenburg is available at the library (audiobook, ebook and paper book) and at all the usual retailers.

Happy GEMming!

Carla :)

P.S. Want to re-read a previous email but have deleted it? (accidentally of course!) Not to fear - all previous emails are available on the website blog or facebook.

P.P.S. Online bookings are available for current clients.



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