Healing from toxic stress

This blog is written by Minna Järvenpää.  For Minna, yoga and meditation have played a key role in regaining inner balance. She is now finding ways to share the tools she learned, through Tools for Inner Peace, which promotes the mental and emotional wellbeing of aid workers, journalists and other frontline professionals.

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First snow on the main bridge in Mitrovica. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Somewhere along a decade-long road from Sarajevo to Kabul I started tilting out of balance – as a result of toxic levels of stress.

The tipping point came on a day of rioting in Mitrovica on 17 March 2004. Nineteen people were killed that day and two hundred hospitalised. I was the ‘Mayor’ of Mitrovica, appointed by the UN in Kosovo as caretaker when the Serbs of the divided town refused to vote. I had seen the violence coming but had been unable to convince those who could have prevented it to act. During the months after leaving Kosovo, I sat and stared out at the Adriatic sea, until the images of that day blurred along with the remembered smell of tear-gas and the sound of bullets ricocheting from the trees.

Already in the lead-up to the violence, I had developed brutal insomnia and started lashing out at people in a state of exhausted dysfunction. The only times I remember experiencing real relaxation in the months before March 2004 were when a friend and colleague in Mitrovica dragged me along to a yoga class.

In the aftermath, when I began suffering from hypervigilance (every car on the road was potentially out to run me over) and avoiding people and conversations that would trigger Continue reading

Exhale on 2016.

Exhale.  We made it.  We’re in 2017.  The churning jowls of last year didn’t devour all of us, even if they ground our souls to gristle.

Why did 2016 feel so existentially threatening?  For those of us involved in international affairs, especially humanitarianism, the broad political trends were hard not to take personally.  Brexit was a stunning reminder—a wake-up call?—that growing global cooperation is by no means a given; many components of the Leave Campaign demonstrated the power of xenophobic falsehoods, fear-fueled hatreds that then reared their ugly heads time and time again throughout the Republican campaign for the American presidency.  As these efforts and others, like the “no” vote for Colombian peace, drew to their nasty, lamentable ends, we became increasingly distrustful of those around us: are my neighbors closet xenophobes?  Are my friends secretly racist?  What do my family members really think?  The gap between public polls and private voting booths left us wondering if civility had crumbled behind closed doors.  The loss of trust was one of 2016’s greatest casualties.

As humanitarian aid and international development workers, we were right to take far-right political campaigns personally: they targeted our livelihoods, which reflect core sets Continue reading

My Dark Night of the Soul in Aid Work, Part II

This week an anonymous Missing in the Mission blogger shares what she terms her ‘dark night of the soul’, in the second of a two-part post. Grief can be scariest when it seemingly erupts out of nowhere, yet refuses to be stemmed.

Read Part I here.

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Original artwork by Francesca Belardini Arte.

Fast forward to August 2012. My dark night of the soul had been triggered, I believe, by a Qi Master I just happened to be put in touch with through an advert I’d seen offering 40% off an acupressure treatment. The Qi Master had massaged gently around various parts of my body before telling me with a look of concern on her face that I appeared to be holding in a lot of anger, as my liver was extremely blocked.

According to eastern medical traditions, which she’d studied and followed for years, blockages in the body prevent the circulation of vital energy known as ‘qi’ (chi) which in turn can have a deep effect on our emotional wellbeing. Unlike Western medical sciences and their propensity to isolate pain to one particular area of the body from which it originates, Eastern traditions see the body as a whole, with qi acting to ignite every part of our being, determining our mental, physical and spiritual health.

I went home from my massage slightly baffled, both by what the Qi Master had told me and by the unfamiliar pain I’d felt when she was massaging my midriff and abdominal Continue reading

My Dark Night of the Soul in Aid Work (Part I)

This week an anonymous Missing in the Mission blogger shares what she terms her ‘dark night of the soul’, in the first of a two-part post. Grief can be scariest when it seemingly erupts out of nowhere, yet refuses to be stemmed. 

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Original artwork by Francesca Belardini Arte.

August 2012. In the UK, it was the summer of the Olympics, of the Queen’s golden jubilee, of jet streams that interrupted every sunny day with sudden downpours. It was also the year when the world was supposed to come to an end, when the planets were to come into total alignment with the sun – an astrological event occurring only every few million years – and when we were to move beyond the technology, modernism and cold logic of the last few hundred years and towards a state of deeper consciousness, more connected to the earth and humanity.

That month found me in my small box room in my parents’ house, in hysterical tears. The tears were so uncontrollable for so many days and weeks, that I could be anywhere – not just in the quiet solitude of my bedroom – and I would start welling up with sadness and despair. I could be on the bus, or in a shop, or sitting at dinner with my family, and I would have to start choking back the wave that came rushing in; Oh no, not now…now is not the Continue reading

The mo(u)rning after

This post is written by an anonymous contributor.

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“Cosmic Bruise” by artist Ivy Michelle Berg, available at: ArtbyIvy

Like many who work in humanitarian aid, when I am asked about why I do it, I dissemble and misdirect, I make a joke or change the subject without actually answering. Sometimes I tell the truth as a joke, and hide it in plain sight. “World Peace” is such a reliable cliché to raise a smirk and avoid the question. To say out loud why I really do it, to put those words into the air, is too hard. I am afraid of the look I will see in the other person’s eyes, and afraid of their judgement. I am afraid that if I am honest, I will have to say it through the medium of a jaunty pop song, possibly from the 80’s. Because the truth is, I do it because I believe in love and I believe love can make the world a better place. Saying it out loud sounds so adolescently idealistic, so sentimentally naïve at best, self-righteous, arrogant and sanctimonious at worst.

I left my job at the end of last year in a maelstrom of mess; stretched out to the point of coming unravelled, shattered by too many emergencies, and a level of hostility within the organisation that I was entirely ill-equipped to withstand, profoundly disillusioned. I felt like the worst kind of fool for believing in any of it, and no longer had any faith in my own judgement. In the months since then, I have been trying to work out what happened, to parse out what it was all about, and to find my way back to myself.

I know about fear, as so many of us do. I know about those moments of absolute clarity when we think we may actually die, today, now. I know about the exquisitely heightened alertness of being in a moment that could go either way; a checkpoint guard toying with Continue reading

Brené Brown & the Power of Vulnerability

In aidspeak, ‘vulnerability’ is almost always a negative word. It denotes weakness, fragility,  a heightened possiblity of something or someone being in danger or at risk, unsafe or unprotected. It is something to be guarded against, mitigated, planned for; we often talk or (moreso) write about how our programs will ‘target vulnerable populations’ or ‘reduce vulnerability.’ We show donors and security officers how we recognize existing vulnerabilities and have made plans to keep ourselves and our staff safe.

This is not the fault of the aid world. Merriam-Webster defines vulnerability as meaning “easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally” or “open to attack, harm, or damage.”  A quick scan of other online dictionaries did not turn up any indication of Continue reading