Last week, I had the privilege and pleasure to be one of the speakers at the GOLD Learning Early Years Online Symposium 2021 on behalf of ACE Aware NL!
The early years… that is quite a topic! There is so much we can say about that period and there are so many perspectives one could choose to draw attention to their importance for lifelong health and wellbeing. Therefore, it felt like quite a challenge to decide about what to include and share with the audience. Of course, I did make choices eventually and I would like to explain a bit about my presentation. You can still watch it, just as the other presentations in the series, that are also really worthwhile. This is the page where you can read more and register. Here you can get a first impression through a short interview I gave.
Seeing I am an anthropologist and sociologist, I considered it appropriate to include that perspective, so my first poll question was: “How would we act as a community in case of upheaval ‘back in the day’?” What does that make you think of? How would we respond to adversity when we were still small-band hunter-gatherers? What is an important part of keeping a tribe or a community together, also in more recent times?
This is a theme that brought me to the concept of salutogenesis, coined by Aaron Antonovsky in the late 70s of the 20th century. He felt that the origins (‘genesis’) of health (‘saluto’) deserved more attention, instead of living in fear about all that we should avoid in order to not get ill. He said that the deterioration of the human organism is not the exception, but the rule! We all are vulnerable; we all will get ill and die someday. We are all in ‘the river of life’ and although a life vest can be helpful at times, most important is that we learn how to swim in the turbulent streams we may have to navigate. It is worth, Antonovsky said, figuring out how we can slow down the entropy, the process of decline, and how we can promote practices and behaviours that support our health. Another important aspect of his view is that he saw health and disease as a continuum, not as a dichotomy. You’re not either ill or healthy; it is not black and white. Health is a dynamic balance and depending on a lot of social, psychological and biological factors, you can feel less or more healthy. Therefore, he also considered people’s personal views important: what makes us happy, what calms us down after times of stress, what helps us to regain our balance after impactful experiences? This is, in fact, an invitation to listen to people’s stories: ‘What happened to you?’ That question, the question considered crucial in trauma-informed practice, is the same question that Antonovsky saw as very important for a salutogenic approach, because when we see people as the experts of their own lives, we listen to what their needs and their fears are and we can proactively work on those.
Antonovsky saw a specific ‘measuring tool’ for an estimate of our health and wellbeing: the Sense of Coherence. We discussed this before in a blog; it is the feeling that life is comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful. If these three are well balanced, most people will feel happy, even if there are chronic conditions that they have to face daily (either healthwise or socially).
There may be all kinds of factors, however, that complicate people’s ability to handle their tasks, to tackle life’s circumstances, to have a ‘response-ability’. The more threatened our existence feels, the harder it becomes to function well. The more pain we experience, the more likely it is that we look for things or behaviours that can soothe or numb that pain. To put it differently: a life filled with pain increases the likelihood of falling prey to addictions, whether they are substances or habits such as spending too many hours behind a screen, eating or drinking too much, or always working and not spending enough restorative time.
And then, if we become aware that some of our practices may have a negative influence on our health and wellbeing, this can be very ‘uncomfortable knowledge’, knowledge we have a hard time dealing with for two main reasons, that are flipsides of the same coin. On the one side, this knowledge may disrupt our worldview, our way of approaching life, our view on what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and what to do and what to avoid. We are creatures of habit and changing habits can make us feel uncomfortable. On the other side, unhealthy practices are usually part of our coping mechanisms that we cannot do without. If we need to get rid of a practice that offers soothing and an escape from pain, who or what else is there to help us feel comfortable again? The aspect that combines the two sides of the coin, is our deep need for a sense of security and belonging. As humans, we can feel the need for change, yet we may simultaneously find it difficult to take the steps to achieve that change, either personally or professionally, if we fear losing connections and attachment relationships.
With regard to salutogenesis and resilience, however, it is important to become aware of the things that promote learning processes and processes of change. What are the ‘Awesome (Childhood) Experiences’ that strengthen and challenge us in a positive way? What is it between us and other people that really feels like ‘buffering support’, like an invitation to bring out the best in us? This is where the seven pillars of ACE Aware NL come in, concepts that have a prominent place in all trauma-informed settings: connection, compassion, courage, curiosity, confidence, kindness and resilience. When we experience these, we feel strong and vigorous. And when we can show them towards others, we help create healthy environments. What better start could we wish for the ‘Early Years’?!
You are most welcome to register for the symposium for much more information on these themes in my presentation (and for another five beautiful lectures)!