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Staying sane in a mad world

Mental Health

Trauma can find you in many ways. It can be an image of people massacred to death, their bloodied bodies strewn grotesquely on a hill in a province they called home. It could be a story of innocence stolen during childhood or a loved one’s fist hammered into your face. It could be grief left by a killer typhoon that struck in the middle of the night and took away everything you ever had.

It could be one incident. It could be a thousand. It could be just one small voice, crying for help in the darkness or the deafening sound of raging waters. The stories are as countless as they are varied but the effect on the human spirit is common.

People from all walks of life suffer mental distress in the face of adversity. Such trauma manifests in many ways. We get angry. We suffer in extreme pain. We hurt our loved ones. We get sick. Some take away their lives to free themselves from suffering.

Others, however, just go on with the daily rush of life, living each and every single day in the same old routine. They refuse to look inside, afraid to come to terms with whatever it may be.

But experts say that the mind needs as much healing as the body.
Switzerland-based psychotherapists Matthias Witzel and Sarah Monz told this blogger during a recent visit to the Philippines the importance of psychotherapy and overall stress management in helping traumatized and stressed-out individuals.

In a three-day stress and trauma workshop for conflict journalists who covered the tropical storm Sendong, the two experts helped participants come to terms with their experiences.

The workshop was organized by the Peace and Conflict Journalism Network (Pecojon) and the International Institute for Journalism (GIZ).

It’s not your typical on-couch one-on-one counselling session, and the workshop instead provides techniques on managing stress and dealing with trauma. Participants are given techniques by which they can cope with difficult situations, instead of getting them to talk about their issues.

Trauma acupuncture

One such method is trauma acupuncture. Developed in the 1980s in the United States, trauma acupuncture is also known as the 'NADA protocol'.

With just five needles, it focuses on points that make a person calm and relaxed – two important areas in managing stress.

‘It has a calming effect,’ said Monz, a doctor who practises both traditional and alternative medicine.

According to Monz, the NADA protocol focuses on the following areas of the ear: the kidney, liver, heart and lung zones, as well as the shen men point and the vegetative point.

Breathe in, breathe out

Another effective technique is deep breathing. Breathing is so basic one would think there’s nothing more to learn about it, but Matthias says most stressed people just breathe to survive.

The proper way, apparently, is to breathe really deeply by inhaling through the nose and not through the mouth.

‘You can’t stay calm unless you control your breathing,’ says Witzel.

One technique, he said, is to breathe in very slowly through the nose for a count of three and then breathe out for a count of seven. Pause for one or two counts to feel the stillness of the moment, and repeat the process.

Think positively

Another technique, Witzel says, is to cancel out stress-provoking thoughts.

‘Since many of us have been programmed to focus on the negative rather than the positive, you might want to try meditation or specific stress management techniques to control your focus,’ he said.

One way to do this is to take five minutes every day to observe your thinking habits. This enables people to use their thinking facilities more consciously.


Caring for oneself is another very important way by which a person can deal with stress.

‘Lack of sleep, poor diet and no exercise wreaks havoc on our bodies and minds. If you only get five hours of sleep a night, you double your chance of dying of a heart attack,’ says Witzel.

There are other techniques, but the first step is to recognize that one’s soul needs nourishment and help.

With the world as cruel as it is now, it’s hard not be get depressed or angry. Sometimes it feels like there’s no end in sight.

As writer Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation said: ‘That’s the thing about depression, a human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end. The fog is like a cage without a key.’

But Witzel and Monz say that recovering from depression or trauma, caused by the world’s many stressors, is possible.

One needs to muster the courage to recognize the pain rather than to numb oneself, to come to terms with the problem, to make a giant leap of faith and try to live through the chaos.


Look out for the May 2012 issue of New Internationalist, which will argue the case for restoring social health as an essential part of the mental health discussion.

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