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

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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

Writing to Save Our Lives

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Is anyone reading me?  Source: http://static.guim.co.uk

Writing is a matter of life and death.  I sincerely believe that.  If you do not, consider what it meant for a person’s name to be written—or not—on Schindler’s list.  If writing were not so grave, governments would not target journalists with such chilling zeal.  Words are power, and we face a moral obligation to harness them with as much heart and conscience as we can.

As crucial as I know the act of writing to be—a godsend for humanitarians and, we hope, a salve for readers—I marvel and sometimes despair at how much we are writing about so little.  My natural inclination should be to support the proliferation of the written word.  But when The Guardian published a “call to arms” last month, calling for an end to the “report writing madness,” I raised the pitchfork.  We are writing into the void.  When I 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

Singing in the storm

bird-by-bird“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

― Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

On change

to take and to give, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 519 x 880 cm. Artist: Chris Ofili. Source: http://www.victoria-miro.com/artists/6-chris-ofili/

Chris Ofili, painter, on moving from London to Trinidad:

I felt ready for the change to happen, and I knew it was happening inside me, he said, straining to be clear. It’s hard to go away from something that’s very enjoyable, and a domain where I felt supremely confident. Before, I was focussing on high impact, and what I wanted to find was less complex and maybe less visible.