Prisoner Self-Help

tools for healing, changing, growing

How to Hug a Tree

by Masha Bennett http://www.practicalhappiness.co.uk

When I include this exercise in my courses and personal development sessions, many people are reluctant to try it. But virtually everyone later reports that that it was a profound and healing experience..

If you have access to a real tree, that’s great. If you don’t, you can still do the exercise in your imagination. Think of a tree that you know – or you can make one up in your mind. Then go through the following steps, slowly, with no hurry, trying to maintain an attitude of curious openness…

1. Approach the tree slowly.

2. From some distance, notice the shape of the crown, the way the branches reach out to the sky.

3. Take in the colours, different shades of green, the texture of the foliage, how the leaves are intricately positioned, to allow in as much sunlight as possible.

4. Notice – what do you like most about the tree? And is there anything you don’t like – are there any flaws, perhaps some damage to the branches, gaps in foliage, anything that is not pleasing to your eye?

5. Come closer, touch the tree trunk, feel the bark gently underneath your palm, your fingers. Is it rough, or smooth? Warm, cool?

6. Lean on the tree trunk, allow it to support your body.

7. Optional (I really like this bit):  put your cheek on the bark, really allow that sensitive part of your to feel the tree’s outer skin.

ash_tree

8. Put your arms around the tree – depending on the size of the tree, your hands may or may not meet on the other side of the trunk.

9. Close your eyes and focus on your physical sensations and your emotions. Feel the energy of the tree (it is a very large energy field of a very large organism!)

10. Spend a few minutes just quietly noticing whatever you are experiencing, without trying to analyse or judge it

11. You may like to ask the tree a question – out loud, or in your mind perhaps. Wait for the answer. This may come as thoughts, images, physical sensations, an awareness, insight.

12. Let go of the tree trunk slowly. Thank the tree.

You may now feel energized, or perhaps a little emotional, or possibly calm and peaceful. Whatever it is, it’s the right thing for now. You can now take your new insights, the new energy, the new connections with you.

Try this with different trees – and if you can, try it both with a real tree and a tree in your imagination – the experience will vary but will always be healing and enlightening.

Masha Bennett is a UKCP registered psychotherapist in private practice, specialising in psychological trauma and addictions. She has worked for a number of years within the UK criminal justice system, including running a drug rehabilitation programme in a women’s prison, and offered psychotherapy to staff and patients in the National Health Service. Masha teaches trauma awareness, therapeutic and self-help tools to professionals and general public and has delivered training across Europe, Asia and Middle East. Her website is  www.practicalhappiness.co.uk.

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Are You Hanging Onto Old Wounds?

by Andy Hunt www.practicalwellbeing.co.uk

A man walks into a bar with an arrow sticking out of his chest.

He walks up to the astonished barman and asks for a beer.

The barman stares in disbelief at the arrow poking out through an old check shirt encrusted with dried blood.

He asks: “What the hell happened to you?!”

The man, rolling his eyes, says ” What does it look like? I was shot in the chest with an arrow!”

“Does it hurt?”, says the barman, staring at the arrow while pouring the beer.

“What do you think?”

“Why don’t you go to hospital and have it taken out and get yourself patched up?”

“No! I’m not letting any doctor take this arrow out! That the job of the evil S.O.B who shot me. He’s the only one who can take the arrow and the pain away!”

“That’s stupid!”, says the barman, “You should have someone remove that arrow and patch you up. I’ll phone a paramedic, you could be free of that problem in half an hour”.

“No! You don’t get it! Only the man who shot me can make this right, I’m waiting for him to come to me on bended knee and apologise for what he’s done, he can take out the arrow and then we’re done. He did the damage, he can make it better”

The barman studies the arrow noticing how old and tattered it looks, some of the feathers are missing, the wood is stained and splintered. He also notices that the mans shirt is old, ragged and dirty.

“When did you get shot?”

“20 years ago! … one of the worst days of my life!”

“What!!! You’ve been walking around with an arrow in your chest for 20 years! Are you nuts!”

Indignant the man says: “No, I’m in pain, can’t you respect my suffering?”

“Yeah, but 20 years!”, pointing at the arrow, “Doesn’t that cause you problems?”

“You bet. It hurts like hell, I have to avoid revolving doors, and can’t do press-ups, it’s a real nuisance”

“And you’re waiting for this guy to come and take the arrow out?”

“Yeah”

“Isn’t that unlikely, I mean he did shoot you in the first place. Why would he want to help you?”

“He should do it! It’s only right that he should make amends for what he did”

“Do you know where is he?”

“Yeah. In the cemetery. He’s been dead for seven years”

“What! How can he take the arrow out if he’s dead? You need to get someone else to take out the arrow”

“No way, that’s his job! I’d rather go to my grave suffering than let him get away with what he did by having someone else take this arrow!”

“You’re crazy! You’re holding onto this pain waiting for someone who will never come to make it all better”

“You don’t understand”, says the man finishing his beer, “Nobody ever does … “, putting down his empty glass he leaves the bar (being very careful of the swing doors).

Andy Hunt is a therapist, advanced practitioner and trainer of EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) and master practitioner and trainer of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming). His website is www.practicalwellbeing.co.uk

43,000 strip searches of children

Freedom of Information request revealed that despite promises by the Youth Justice Board to stop routine strip-searching of children in young offender institutions and other secure settings, more than 43,000 took place over the last 21 months in England and Wales, some on children as young as 12, with 48% of those strip searched coming from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Read the full article on The Guardian website.

Chief inspector’s concerns over Winchester prison

The Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales, Nick Hardwick, found that HM Prison Winchester is overcrowded and has unacceptable levels of violence. 10% of prisoners reported that they developed a drug problem in jail.

Read the summary of his findings on The Guardian website here, or the full report here.

Grounding Techniques

by Masha Bennett www.practicalhappiness.co.uk

When we suffer with anxiety, have been shocked or traumatised, it is not uncommon for us to feel disconnected from our body or from reality (psychiatrists may call these states “depersonalisation” and “derealisation”).  We may feel numb, spaced out, distracted and generally “not with it”. It is a way our mind protects us from difficult feelings. However this disconnection or dissociation from our bodies can cause problems, as it numbs positive emotions as well as negative ones, and can also prevent any healing or therapy you undertake from working effectively. When we are ungrounded we are also more likely to suffer flashbacks to traumatic experiences.

The so-called grounding can be very important especially during stressful times, and helps us to reconnect our body and mind. It involves some very simple techniques that can help us feel calmer and safer. Grounding is also very useful to do in preparation for learning and practice of any form of relaxation, meditation or self-hypnosis. (If we are ungrounded when we attempt to relax, it is possible that the relaxation process itself may, paradoxically, provoke anxiety.)

Photo by gubgib atwww.freedigitalphotos.net

Photo by gubgib atwww.freedigitalphotos.net

To put it simply, grounding refers to our sense of connection with the ground (the earth or the floor) – with our physical environment.

The basic principles of grounding are straightforward – it is about paying attention to the sensations of your body being physically connected to the ground, floor, chair or any other surface you are in contact with. For example:

  • Feeling your feet standing firmly on the floor
  • Feeling the weight of your body in the seat
  • Feeling your back against the chair
  • Feeling your elbows on the armrest.

That’s it! When practising grounding, you will probably notice that your attention drifts from the physical sensations of your feet on the floor and your body in the chair to something else – e.g. everyday thoughts or worries, and that’s completely normal. When you notice that just gently bring your attention to the physical sensations of connecting with your environment again.

Touching and holding objects with your hands also has a gentle grounding effect – hugging a pillow or a soft toy, touching wood or metal and noticing their temperature and texture, focusing on the feel of fabric of your clothes or bedding – all can help to practise being in the “here and now”.

If you get a chance to try grounding outdoors, that is even better – when we can feel the ground or the grass with our bare feet, we re-connect with the Earth naturally. Hold a handful of soil, touch (or even hug) a tree, feel a leaf or a twig with your fingers.

Some people like to enhance the pleasant feeling of relaxation that is often associated with grounding through visualisation techniques (making pictures in your mind)– for example, imagining that there are “roots” growing from the soles of their feet, reaching deep into the ground, anchoring them firmly to the Earth, supporting them and holding them. The well-known holistic teacher and author Dr William Bloom suggests a range of grounding visualisation techniques in his book The Endorphin Effect, including imagining and sensing  that you are:

  • a tree with a strong trunk and deep roots
  • a mountain rising out of the earth
  • the big fat smiling Buddha sitting firmly on the ground
  • the wide-hipped “Earth Goddess”

tree

You can also ground yourself whilst walking – just pay attention to the sensations in your legs when you move them and the feeling in your feet as they connect with the floor.

If you are beginning to feel anxious and it seems like a part of you is disconnecting from your body, or when you are getting a flashback to a traumatic experience, you can bring yourself back to “hear and now” by stamping your feet hard on the ground or floor a few times (if there are people around you, it may be helpful to explain what you are doing, so that they don’t think you are having a tantrum!) Any other strong sensory input can be helpful – for example, holding an ice cube or putting your hands in cold water (or splashing it into your face. Strong smells can also be useful for grounding too – if you can get hold of spices or herbal teabags, you can use them to help yourself ground.

Eating food also has a grounding effect (meat, root vegetables and starchy foods especially so) so try to make sure that you don’t miss your meals, and pay conscious attention to the food whilst eating it. This may be one of the reasons that some people who have experienced trauma develop eating disorders – with the numbness and painful emptiness inside being temporarily soothed with food.

If you enjoy listening to or making music, deep low notes also tend to have a grounding effect – if you have enough privacy to do this comfortably you could hum or sing to yourself at the lower range of your voice and notice the effect it has on your mind and body.

Regular grounding practice is especially important for people who experienced trauma, suffer with anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and addictions, and should become an integral part of your healing process.

References and further information

Bloom, William (2011) The Endorphin Effect. Piatkus.

Behaviour Health Resources www.bcbhr.org/Articles.aspx?7

Mosaic Minds www.mosaicminds.org

Masha Bennett is a UKCP registered psychotherapist and a trainer of EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques). She has worked for a number of years within the criminal justice system, including running a drug rehabilitation programme in a women’s prison, and currently combines work in the UK National Health Service with her private therapy and training practice. Masha teaches EFT, trauma awareness and self-help tools to professionals and general public across 10 countries in Europe, Asia and Middle East. Her website is  www.practicalhappiness.co.uk.

How to Get Over Grief

by Pete Michaud www.petermichaud.com

I was 21 years old when my dad killed himself.

Dad had left after a big fight with my mom. I had been talking to my mom for the whole week he’d been missing, and that morning was no different. I had to hang up with her to go to class, and I called her back afterward to keep her mind busy while we figured out where dad was driving to.

A man picked up the phone and asked who I was. The detective passed the phone to Mom when I told him I was her son, and that’s when she told me they’d found Dad at a reststop a few miles outside of town. His body baked for 2 or 3 days in the back of his Denali before someone found him. His toxicology report told me what I already could’ve guessed: cocaine, narcotic pain medication, and a bottle of red wine.

My family had been normal. In his youth my dad had been wild, but he was sober since before I was born, he was a middle manager at a major corporation. He was a good dad, always joking, everyone liked him.

Pete MichaudWhen we lived in Mexico, he decided to have a taste of the old times while he could, and he got just a little coke. Five years later, his body rotted in the back of an SUV at a rural Ohio reststop.

The news literally knocked the wind out of me and knocked me off balance for a moment. That’s why people need to sit after news like this. I remember the exact view I had when I fell into my office chair, looking at my wife at the time, who immediately understood what I’d heard on the phone. Grief instantly struck her face as she fell back onto the couch. She, like everyone else, loved my dad.

A couple of numb hours later, I picked up a video game controller and pretty much didn’t put it down for the next three days. When I stopped playing, I’d start crying.

Reimagine

Grief is the process of reimagining what your life will be like now that something or someone you expected to be part of it, no longer will be.

You had one idea before your dad died, or before your husband left you, and now that idea doesn’t make sense anymore because those people aren’t in the picture anymore. They aren’t there, and the needs that were being met by their presence will no longer be met by them. Your subconscious goes into overdrive, deep down into the recesses of your brain, and has to tear that whole future narrative out from the root.

That whole process hurts like hell, and we call it grief.

I flew to my parents’ house to help with the funeral, and I was busy for about a week. I felt nothing really, I was just doing things like writing the eulogy, and arranging flowers and that sort of thing.

Someone had picked up a Stevie Ray Vaughan CD to play at the funeral, as that was some of my dad’s favorite music. I popped it in to figure out what song to play. I was sitting on my mom’s couch when “Life Without You” came on, and I lost my shit. I bawled like a heart broken toddler.

Distracting myself felt better than sitting and dwelling on my dad, that’s for sure. But remember what all that pain is for: it’s rebuilding the mental image of your life.

It’s identifying needs that used to be filled by someone, going through the pain and fear of feeling that those needs will no longer be met, then connecting with new resources to get those needs met in lieu of the departed.

So all those video games, busy work, alcohol, long work hours, only serve to slow down and stop the process of grief. You’re trying to make it go away, but the way you’re doing it is just making it stay longer.

Take breaks from the pain if you must, but let the tears, rage, and desperation flow through you until it’s said its piece. Then you’ll be free.

Pete Michaud is a catalyst. He accelerates change by pulling you toward the ingredients necessary to transform, and pushing you away from anything that keeps you static. Pete’s website is www.petermichaud.com

Sources of information and support

Cruse Bereavement Care is a UK charity offering information, counselling, practical advice and support with bereavement and grief. In Northern Ireland Cruse provides specialist Prison Support Services as well as services in the community.

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide provides emotional and practical support to those bereaved by suicide of a close relative or friend.

The Compassionate Friends offers support for parents, grandparents and siblings after death of a child or children.

Young servicemen at high risk of violence

A recent study of 14 000 armed forces personnel in the UK returning from Afghanistan and Iraq Over suggests that 20% of the young servicemen under 30 had gone on to commit a violent offence after coming home, compared with 6.7% of young men outside the military, with PTSD and alcohol being major factors.

Read the full article on the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-21790348

Coping with Self-harm

by Masha Bennett www.practicalhappiness.co.uk

Among approximately 86,000 prisoners in UK jails in 2011, there were over 24,500 recorded incidents of self harm that year, affecting just under 7,000 prisoners. The good news is that the figures for women self-harming in prison are seemingly going down – with women comprising only 5% of inmates, in previous years they often accounted for almost half of self-harm incidents, and for 2011 it is just over one third of them. (We should bear in mind that these figures refer just to those instances of self harm which were recorded – it is likely that many went unnoticed, as many people who self harm try to hide it – despite the popular belief that they do it for attention.)

A quote from my good colleague and friend Dr Mike Smith of Crazy Diamond“Self harm is one of the most misunderstood and heartlessly represented  areas of British healthcare…  Traditional psychiatric responses to selfharm are to see it as an illness, a deviancy, attention seeking, hysteria, weak mindedness or suicidal intent. As a selfharmer, or as someone who works with someone who self-harms, it is readily apparent that none of the above models have any roots in reality.”

There are many reasons why someone may self-harm, and it is simplistic to assume that the individual who injures himself is “attention seeking”. Much of self-harm is hidden, and whilst some people may hurt themselves to communicate their distress to others, this is only one of the possible motivations. Self-harm can be a strategy to cope with unbearable emotional/ psychological pain, a way to survive, to release overwhelming emotion, to punish self, to gain some control when feeling out of controls, to re-gain feelings when numb or disassociated, or can have several functions at the same time (and the sufferer is not necessarily aware of these functions).

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Self-harm is commonly associated with the following mental health issues: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (especially trauma associated with childhood abuse and neglect); Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality); Eating Disorders; Substance Dependency; Clinical Depression; Personality Disorders.

However, you may not have a mental health diagnosis but still have the urge to injure yourself. It is a widespread problem, and you may have heard of a few well-known people who have been affected, including Diana Princess of Wales, Kelly Holmes (UK athlete), Bradd Pitt and Angelina Jolie (US actors) and Sia Furler (Australian singer) whose beautiful song “Breathe Me”  refers to her own experience of self-harm – even for celebrities with money, status and freedom, self-injury is a painful, distressing and traumatic issue. Self-harmers who find themselves in jail may find that the urge becomes much worse – and some only start injuring themselves when imprisoned as a way to cope with their distress.

Some forms of self-injury or self-harm are socially acceptable and some are even fashionable in the western society, such as tattooing, piercing, cosmetic surgery, overeating, binge-drinking, dysfunctional relationships. Many professionals mix up self-harm and attempted suicide, whereas there is a big difference between the two. There are a lot of myths and stigma around self-harm, but generally it can be understood is a coping mechanism for emotional and psychological pain, used to soothe and tranquilize unbearable feelings.

Below are some ideas for people who want to cope better with the urges to self-injure, with some possible alternatives and strategies which you could, if you choose to do so, use to prevent yourself from hurting yourself. Depending on the type of emotion/feeling which creates the urge to injure yourself (which could be rage, grief, fear, numbness, feeling out of control etc.) different things may work at different times. Some of these activities may simply act as distracters, others have a soothing and healing effect, some allow to express overwhelming emotions safely, and some others allow to experience a limited degree of physical pain (e.g. when someone who feels numb and injures themselves in order to actually feel something) without actually causing injury.

Of course in a prison the choice of activities you could do easily is likely to be restricted as you may not have access to equipment or space required, and your privacy may be very limited. However I tried to include at least some things that would be possible for most people even in prison. Some of these can be done very quickly, and some will require time and a bit of practice:

  • Break some sticks
  • Choose a random object and list 30 different uses for it
  • Clean your room
  • Create a secret code
  • Crush an empty plastic bottle
  • Do some vigorous exercise
  • Draw a picture
  • Draw an outline of your own body and colour in the areas where you feel strong feelings
  • Draw on the place you want to cut with a red pen
  • Draw your own comic
  • Go for a walk (if you can)
  • Have a rant
  • Hit a punchbag/pillow/cushion
  • Hum a tune
  • Imagine a special box or container where you can hide away your troubles
  • Imagine yourself as your favourite superhero and create a story about yourself
  • Learn a martial art
  • Learn acupressure points for calming down
  • Learn grounding techniques
  • Learn mind training games and do them in your head
  • Learn relaxation techniques
  • Look at a tree (touch the bark if you can) and imagine having a conversation with it
  • Look at stars
  • Look for pictures in the clouds
  • Make a wish list
  • Make your out-breath longer than your in-breath
  • Meditate
  • Play a real or imaginary musical instrument
  • Play music
  • Pray
  • Re-arrange your room
  • Remember your favourite joke
  • Remember the best moment from your favourite comedy
  • Rip up a cardboard box
  • Rip up an old T-shirt that you don’t need
  • Sing an upbeat tune
  • Snap your wrist with a rubber band
  • Squeeze a stress ball
  • Squeeze ice hard (if you can get it)
  • Stomp around in heavy shoes
  • Take a shower and imagine the water washing away the pain and bad feelings
  • Talk to a Listener (in UK, a prisoner trained by Samaritans to counsel other prisoners)
  • Talk to a member of staff you can trust
  • Tear some old papers you don’t need into shreds
  • Throw a pillow at the wall
  • Visualise different colours of the rainbow one by one, and notice what effect each colour has on you
  • Visualise your favourite place in nature and imagine being there
  • Visualise an imaginary Healing Room (where you can have  magical equipment and potions that would make you feel better)
  • Watch birds out of the window
  • Watch your favourite comedy
  • Write a letter
  • Write a list of things you are grateful for
  • Write a poem or story
  • Write a song
  • Write down your feelings

An important note for prison staff, carers and professionals – please remember that the self-harm in itself is not the problem, it is a coping mechanism for another problem, so don’t be punitive or force the self-harmer to stop the behaviour (unless of course it poses an immediate and serious risk to their life).
The best you can do is to support them in a non-judgmental way, to help them understand the emotional reasons for self-harming behaviour, and encourage them to seek appropriate support and professional help – if psychotherapy or group therapy is available, consider making a referral, discussing this with the individual.

Masha Bennett is a UKCP registered psychotherapist and a trainer of EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques). She has worked for a number of years within the criminal justice system, including running a drug rehabilitation programme in a women’s prison, and currently combines work in the UK National Health Service with her private therapy and training practice. Masha teaches EFT, trauma awareness and self-help tools to professionals and general public across 10 countries in Europe, Asia and Middle East. Her website is www.practicalhappiness.co.uk.

References

UK Ministry of Justice – Safety In Custody.

National Self-Injury Awareness Day (2000). Self-injury: Beyond the Myths.

Townsend, M. (2012). Women prisoners: self-harm, suicide attempts and the struggle for survival. The Observer, 11 February 2012.

Sources of information and support

A helpful booklet on Self-Harm published by the UK mental health charity Mind.

National Association for People Abused in Childhood is a UK charity offering support and information for people who suffered any type childhood abuse.

Bristol Crisis Service for Women  is a UK organisation that supports girls and women in distress nation-wide, in particular those who self harm.

Mosaic Minds  is a primarily internet based organization founded by a group of dissociative survivors of childhood trauma and their loved ones.

Survivors UK  is a charity offering help for men who have been sexually abused or raped.

PODS (Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors) is UK organisation providing support, information and training for people suffering with dissociative disorders.

Mentors for prisoners

In an effort to cut re-offending the UK government plans to extend a mentoring programme to prisoners serving short sentences. Typically, prisoners serving less than 12 months have fewer opportunities for support and rehabilitation, and it’s hoped that mentoring could help redress the balance. One of the challenges is that the mentors, who are often ex-offenders themselves, have a difficulty in getting inside prisons because of the strict security rules.

Read the full article on the BBC website.

China phasing out prisoner organ harvesting

Last week Chinese health officials have been quoted as saying that the use of organs from executed prisoners for transplants will be gradually phased out over the next five years.

China carries out the largest number of prisoner executions every year of any country in the world – the actual figures are not known but Amnesty International estimates that they far exceed the number of prisoners executed by all other countries put together.

Voluntary organ donations are currently scarce in China for cultural and religious reasons, and a huge number of people are waiting for transplants. Chinese officials have said that death row prisoners volunteer to give their organs but human rights groups believe that prisoners are pressurised into agreeing to this.

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