Springtime and hope for change…

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So much was happening this spring… as the General Election was coming up we were offered promises that change is on the agenda and will happen if only you vote for me… On a personal level, a few things have come up for me these past few months that have made me think about the likelihood of achieving change – is it possible no matter what your life experience has been and how old you are, and how might health and social care services play a role in supporting transformational change?

We know so much now about the functioning of the brain and how we can actively work to build new brain cells and build new, neurological pathways, which is encouraging, even as we age. As part of the Glasgow Centre for Population Health Seminar Series Prof Bruce McEwen, an eminent neuroendocrinology researcher from Rockefeller University in New York, recently spoke to a packed audience in Glasgow. The focus of his life´s work has been to research the effects of stress on health over the life course and to better understand why the burden of stress related health is greater for some, particularly people who have experienced socio economic disadvantage. I was at the lecture and then also lucky enough to be at a later round table discussion, chaired by Andrew Lyon, with Bruce and his colleague Karen (who specialised in inflammation) and folks from research and practice around Glasgow – stimulating conversation and so much covered…

We talked about finding windows of plasticity, the toxic effect of shame, the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACE), the greater burden of stress alongside widening health inequalities, placing love and compassion at the heart of policy and practice, agreed that inflammation is understudied, pondered if mindfulness has become the new religion, agreed that there is no magic bullet for non communicable diseases/long term conditions, and acknowledged the centrality of connection and good early attachment (serve and return) and so on.
So what’s my take home on all of this?

I´ve mentioned before in my blogs the work lead and developed by Dr David Reilly that supports people to learn to spark and maintain a more compassionate, self care approach to their health and wellness –it´s called TheWEL (Wellness Enhanced Learning). TheWEL is an example of an intervention that is working with people who are experiencing the negative effects of chronic stress, and often early life trauma, on their health. The WEL has demonstrated that by activating a shift – a sense that change can and is waiting to happen – is the first step in going some way to take back control and so reverse the damage done by the burden of toxic stress response (Prof McEwen calls this the alostatic load). In other words, what we often describe as an asset-based approach. We know that the use and presentation of the science and evidence base relating to neuroplasticity, neuroendocrinology etc. in TheWEL chimes with people and the idea of creating new pathways that can be myelinated, as well as demyelinating old and damaging habits, seems to work as a catalyst in visualising the benefits of daily wellness enhancing practices.

Folks round the table with Prof McEwen agreed that using recognisable language is an important key – using images and simple metaphors (the prefrontal cortex described as the air traffic controller) helps people to understand and internalise the scientific effects of stress and seems to help build motivation to action. In TheWEL such images are used to good effect: the plant, road to Dublin, the Gardner, the child, dog, 3d model etc.

Bruce emphasised that prevention is key and that…

The plasticity of the brain gives hope for therapies that make positive use of brain-body interactions…

The WEL is such an intervention and it is showing good, replicable and hopeful results in Scotland and internationally.
It was a privilege to hear first-hand from such experienced and renowned scientists – but who also showed up as human beings. Bruce and Karen summed up at the end by saying how they had been struck by the willingness to have these kinds of conversations in Scotland – scientists in the US are perhaps not so keen to engage in such an open way.
The lecture was filmed and is now be on GCPH website. http://www.gcph.co.uk/events/155e

Cath Cooney May 2015

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