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Wellbeing: how to get some and maintain it when life hands you buckets of sh…lemons!

Date: May 19, 2020
Author: CAS MASTRONE, RAMHP Coordinator

Despite having been a psychologist for nearly half my life I am not immune to negative events or emotions. December 2015 to December 2019 were by far the most challenging times of my life. It started with my marriage falling apart and a suspicious lump in my left breast and lymph nodes. I had those removed which thankfully were benign, but caused no end of post-surgery complications (axillary web cording) that required six months of physiotherapy and a huge amount of physical pain and expense.

Then my mum died rather suddenly and the associated loss and grief from losing the first person who ever loved me unconditionally. I then lost the home I loved in my marriage separation, so I moved house and within six weeks of moving I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in my right breast three years to the day of the previous surgery; and I had just changed jobs, so I had no sick leave. I was one year into a relationship with a man who I utterly adored, but there were adjustment issues in his world too and eventually we crumbled under the cumulative buckets of change that life handed us. That was the final loss and probably the hardest one too.

To say at times I felt defeated would be an understatement. The losses were multiple and seemed never ending and some were completely out of my control. The breast cancer diagnosis took away my certainty and filled me with anxious thoughts. I was fit, 40, a non-smoker and I had no family history of breast cancer, how could this be? Would I see my kids grow up? If I did survive would I have complications and a life without pain? Would I get back to doing the things I love? Could I afford the surgery and time off work with no sick pay coming in, let alone my mortgage payments and the expense of children? How would my children cope as they too had already had enough change in their short lives? The worried thoughts were many and at times consuming. I didn’t always get the emotional support I was seeking from those I valued, they seemed to struggle to acknowledge my fears. I guess it was all a bit confronting for them too.

Somehow I got through those years and although I didn’t realise it at the time, when I look back now on all that happened, I can see I leant on a model of wellbeing called PERMA developed by Prof. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology. He details five elements found to be associated with wellbeing. Below is what I did and continue to do now with a lot more awareness.

Positive emotion: Optimism and joy are linked to wellbeing.

I certainly tried to have hope (although some days I did not succeed at this) and found moments of joy and a break from worry in people, sunsets, animals, my kids, music, exercise and photos from much happier times. One of the things that still to this day makes me smile and laugh, was sitting in the waiting room of the breast surgeon’s office 1 week after my double mastectomy/reconstruction and seeing a woman older than me, elbow her husband, point at me and say, in what she thought was a whisper ‘she had a reconstruction’. ‘Where?’ He said. ‘Over there’, she said whilst pointing at me. I turned to my then partner and whispered, ‘do you think I should tell them that my ears are still real?’ We both laughed. The thought of that just over a year later still makes me smile and the evidence of the value of smiling on our wellbeing is well documented.

Engagement: Being able to lose yourself in an activity or interest. My love of aerial circus kept me mentally well during those years. I would lose myself in the activities of learning new skills and building strength. It was a time I didn’t have grief thoughts or feelings, or worry about money or living. It brought me peace for an hour at a time and I loved it. When I physically couldn’t do circus I set myself goals of gaining my strength back. I also used music and small walks to lose myself in the joy of being outside for a few moments.

Relationships: I had a small number of good people in my corner. People who add value to my life rather than suck the joy out of it. I quickly figured out who I needed and who I didn’t during those turbulent years and I culled some people from my life who brought more stress than joy! When things were really dire I noticed who stepped forward and who stepped away from me. I now only put effort into connecting with people who I value and who value me and whilst social connection is incredibly important, having value for yourself is important too.

Meaning: Is a really individual thing – it could be political, religious, or spiritual, the list is endless.
I was lacking in this area during those tough years. Work had never defined me, but I always felt too busy with it to have other meaning. I have come to find a spiritual understanding of life. I now enjoy yoga and the breath, movement and mind connection it provides. I also use gratitude each day, simply listing three things I’m thankful for each day e.g. coffee!

Achievement: Having things to work towards and achieve.

During the tough years I changed my achievement focus to include small daily wins and some bigger picture things. I learnt to do this whilst working as a psychologist in gaols. I will never forget how disappointed I was when the first inmate I had worked with was released and returned to custody only four weeks later. He hadn’t reoffended, but he had failed to report for parole and therefore thankfully he hadn’t directly harmed anyone! From that moment I changed my level of success and noticed all the incredibly small steps in achievement as just as important as the big strides towards the goal! With that in mind I was pleased some days that the kids got to school and me to work. I focused on learning new skills at circus and when I was sick I set myself goals of regaining my strength. Anything that gives you a sense of accomplishment should be celebrated and some days it was a simple as we got through the day!

This model is not going to make life all rainbows and unicorns; it won’t stop the drought or cure COVID, but it does help to incrementally add to our wellbeing on a daily basis. I certainly had days were I felt defeated and overwhelmed and I found this hard to do, but even focusing on one aspect helped. I have over 8000 photos in my phone and mostly they are moments of joy that I have experienced and captured to look at later. This is always my go to strategy when I feel low.

In addition to the PERMA model being an effective daily tool, I found some understanding of my turbulent years through two books, which I would encourage everyone to read or listen to. Bessel van der Kolk’s book “The Body Keeps The Score”, along with Leigh Sales “Any Ordinary Day” helped me to make sense of all I had experienced. Bessel has dedicated his life’s work to trauma research and treatment. The benefit of movement and breath work, like that found in yoga is highly effective in the treatment of trauma. Leigh Sales is an accomplished journalist, who highlights the importance of kindness and how in the blink of an eye, through no fault of our own our worlds can change. Both books highlight how the simple gesture of listening with kindness and acknowledging a person’s experience reduces the likelihood of them experiencing difficulties after a challenging, devastating or traumatic situation. A simple notion, but one that is often difficult for people to do.

As we navigate this uncertain world of change thanks to COVID19, which for some is another change or loss off the back of multiple adversities already – drought, fire, flood or all of them, I encourage people to try PERMA as a way of increasing wellbeing and taking the edge of the buckets of lemons that life dishes out amongst the joy.

Prof Martin Seligman
Bessel Van Der Kolk: ‘The Body Keeps The Score: Mind, Brain And Body In The Transformation Of Trauma’. Penguin 2015.
Leigh Sales: “Any Ordinary Day”, Penguin 2019.

4 responses to “Wellbeing: how to get some and maintain it when life hands you buckets of sh…lemons!”

  1. Jocie says:

    So inspiring Cas thank you for sharing your personal story – Very generous. Also loved Leigh Sales book and found it enormously insightful.

  2. Mike says:

    This is one of the most powerful, positive and inspirational stories I have ever read. Thank you so much for being you.

  3. Lucy says:

    What a journey! So inspiring and positive. Thank you.

  4. Illona says:

    Thank you Cas for sharing your journey so openly. Very inspirational. Your story confirms with me that its the small positive steps and actions we do that have the biggest impact in our lives and in other people’s lives.

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