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Comfee Dolls by Griefwatch

Comfee Dolls by Griefwatch


You know how sometimes you just keep tripping over the same idea all day long, and you think: Maybe I should write about this? Well, the thought that has been popping up for me today—and I suppose all week to tell the truth, is the word 
comfort. What does comfort mean to you? Maybe you’ve never given it much thought. Nor had I until this week, but I  was finally curious enough to look it up in the Online Etymology Dictionary.

As a verb, the word comfort (the aforementioned dictionary says) comes from the late 13th-Century term conforten, meaning “to cheer up, console.” It’s from an Old French term conforter, meaning “to comfort, to solace; to help, strengthen.” This, in turn, comes from a more decisive Late Latin term meaning “to strengthen much.”

To less precise minds (like mine perhaps) there might be a shorter way of getting to the same idea. “Con/com,” (we all know that means together) and “fort,” something you hole up in to fight off a real or imagined enemy. When I was a kid we made forts out of piles of leaves the city dumped on our vacant lot so my father could till it under the next spring and turn our North Carolina clay into something he could grow vegetables in. There are good guys and bad guys when you’re playing fort, and the ones fighting with you to protect the fort are so undeniably on your side that even at the age of 8, no one had to explain it to me.

I really think this childhood imagery sheds important light on the subject of comfort, which the etymological dictionary somehow entirely misses. It’s too tempting to stand off to the side and posture as the “strong one” telling the “weak one” how they ought to deal with the fight; and then go merrily home to curl up with a Good Book, forgetting about the whole thing. But wait. If we’re together in a fort . . . your sadness is my sadness, every missile that hits you hits me. I feel what you feel, I’m in there with you. Now, that kind of friendship gives comfort.

But who hasn’t had the experience of suffering while well-meaning but detached friends gather to throw advice at you safely from one side while a threat still looms on your other side? They are determined they will prove their worth by being an example of strength and wisdom. Without actually saying it, they manage to convey how lucky you are to have them alongside to support you with pat sentiments and just the right pithy quote. They are the friends of Job; the Grande Dame, bringing a basket of goods (baked by her servants) to the poor townsfolk. If you’ve had this experience and you’re like me, you came away with the clear understanding that such a person doesn’t know how to be (or care to be) in the fort alongside you fighting off the enemy and feeling the stress with you. Much easier to offer you the dictionary kind of comfort that can be telegraphed from miles outside of the fort: “Oh, sorry this is happening, but just keep keep calm and carry on! Would you like a muffin?”

This isn’t to say that you have to be in near proximity to someone to fight in the fort with them. You can be far away in miles and suffering in the fort—and you can live next door and be emotionally distant. No, hunkering down in the fort together requires connecting in your heart and mind in ways that only the inner-most circle of your friends, or those whose similar experiences are still fresh in their minds, will take the time to do with you. This doesn’t lessen the value of your other friends, we need all levels of friendship. But it does tell you where your inner circle is.

As some of these thoughts were churning in my mind this week, one of my three daughters came home from a two-year absence and while we were chatting casually in my home office, she picked something up from my bookshelf almost absent-mindedly. It was a Comfee Doll, something I found a couple of months ago at the Childhood Grief and Traumatic Loss conference that I attend every year.

The Comfee doll is a cuddly and loosely doll-shaped bean bag scented with yummy herbs like lavender. You can put it in the microwave to warm it up, but you don’t have to. It’s just as comforting to snuggle with at room temperature. Kids love them, but as I learned from the reaction of my adult daughter—and from my own as well—you don’t have to be a kid to appreciate them.

“Oh, but how shallow is this?” you’re surely thinking now. “She starts off talking about making real connections when you’re suffering; and ends up implying that  an inanimate pile of beans, herbs and fuzzy cloth could take the place of human companionship.”

Well, judging from the way I’ve seen people try to comfort children in the past, I might venture to say that many of those kids would have been far better off with a Comfee Doll than facing the realization that nobody is interested in engaging with them in the trenches. And that impression is only reinforced when I see how children and adults alike cling like drowning men to these non-judgmental, soft and cozy, sweet-smelling, hug-in-a-bean-bag creatures.

Yes of course—we’d all prefer a real person fighting in the fort with us when it gets right down to it. But I’d have a Comfee Doll over a Grande Dame with a basket of croissants any day, and I’m willing to bet you would too. And even if you’re lucky enough to have the best of companions who are willing to hole up in the fort to endure the wearying bombardment alongside you, there will always be those times when sleep eludes and a Comfee Doll is just the thing to help you drift off into a much-needed lavender-scented dream.

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PTSDFacesRecently in an online community dedicated to the discussion of trauma, I came across a comment that I’ve heard many times before. The gist was, “Whenever people find out I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they assume I must be a combat veteran.”

Now, it’s true that way too many soldiers end up with PTSD. And it’s true that we can thank soldiers for the fact that PTSD was ever taken seriously enough to study in the first place. But almost twice as many women succumb to PTSD than men, and only a relatively small number of these women are soldiers. Most, in fact, are survivors of child abuse. And while that might not surprise you, here’s something that might: Even among soldiers, child abuse may lie at the root of PTSD, as this study suggests:

Embattled Childhoods May Be the Real Trauma for Soldiers with PTSD

This makes perfect sense, of course, when we consider how the brain develops. We are born to connect with other people, and it’s through nurturing interactions early in life that our self-regulatory systems—including fear and stress circuitry—are calibrated.

Born to Connect: The Role of Secure Attachment in Resilience to Trauma

Considering the far-reaching effects of our first experiences with caretakers, we can see why neglect counts as trauma alongside physical and sexual abuse, and we can also see why adults who have been abused as children are so much more vulnerable to stress than others.

Child Abuse Changes the Brain

This vulnerability to stress can lead to a host of mental health challenges. But, here’s a duh! moment: The brain controls processes in the body as well as thinking processes, right? So how is it we’ve managed for so long to overlook the fact that harmful effects of abuse in childhood are not confined to mental health issues? We’re only just beginning to acknowledge that we can’t really separate notions of the biological, the psychological, and the social aspects of human well-being. So, what does child abuse do to the body? Not only does developmental stress accelerate aging,

Risk of Accelerated Aging Seen in PTSD Patients with Childhood Trauma

but it also makes us vulnerable to cancer,

Study: Children Abused by Parents Face Increased Cancer Risk

as well as cardiovascular problems. In men who have been abused as children, this tends to be seen in an increased risk for heart attack,

Childhood Sexual Abuse Linked to Later Heart Attacks in Men

while in women, it’s high blood pressure, poor cholesterol levels, and metabolic issues like diabetes.

Middle-Aged Women Survivors of Child Abuse at Increased Risk for Heart Disease, Diabetes

PTSD is a complex disorder, and the costs to human potential and national budgets are equally devastating. And child abuse is a major contributor to PTSD, for soldiers as well as civilians. With that in mind, perhaps when we read studies like the next one, we’ll remember that it isn’t only the soldiering that that led to these findings, but life before soldiering too.

For Combat Veterans with PTSD, Fear Circuitry in the Brain Never Rests

And instead of asking civilians with PTSD whether they’re veterans, maybe we’ll start asking veterans whether they’re survivors of developmental trauma. Or maybe we’ll just offer them the nurturing support and friendship they need to work through the healing process, instead of making assumptions about them. Hey—It could happen! 

On the bright side, good relationships later in life can help repair the effects of abuse.

Marriage, Education Can Help Improve Well-Being of Adults Abused as Children

And while some relationships will certainly have challenges, it is well worth the time to find support for them.

Couple’s Therapy Appears to Decrease PTSD Symptoms, Improve Relationships

ClassroomStressTeacher Appreciation Week has passed, along with “Mom Appreciation Day,” but parents and teachers continue the important work of shaping children’s brains all year long.

Unfortunately, there are challenges that can get in the way of this worthy goal, and perhaps the most fundamental of these is the widespread misunderstanding of the conditions children need for learning. Just as a child needs secure attachment with caregivers at home to lay the foundation for healthy brain development, they also need secure attachment with teachers in the classroom if they are to build on that foundation.

However, points out Pepperdine University professor Dr. Lou Cozolino in his book The Social Neuroscience of Education, schools aren’t always constructed with concern for human biology. “Most schools are based on a model of industrial production where raw materials are converted into a predetermined product,” he writes.  But students and teachers aren’t “uniform raw materials or assembly-line workers,”he says. “Relationships are our natural habitat. . . . Our ability to learn is regulated by how we are treated by our teachers, at home and in the classroom.”

This is a profound truth. The human brain is a social organ, shaped by our interactions with others. When those interactions are positive, we feel safe and connected, which allows brain chemicals to support new neural growth: the stage is set for learning. On the other hand, Cozolino points out, thinking and feeling are so intertwined that plasticity turns off when anxiety levels are high. “Stressed brains,” he underscores, “are resistant to new learning.”

Is all stress bad? Of course not. But the circuits involved in arousal, stress, and fear operate much like a muscle. They operate well under low levels of intermittent stress, when there is adequate time for repair, but high levels of chronic stress can cause these circuits to malfunction. Anyone who has done weight training can easily understand the concept: a muscle burdened with too much weight for too long will break down rather than grow. In the same way, chronic, high levels of stress flood the brain with cortisol, shutting down all systems but those required to fight or flee. Immune systems are shut down, as are systems involved in neural growth and learning.

On the other hand, when people around us make us feel safe, understood and cared for, these biological processes are reversed. When teachers are aware of the emotional needs of their students as well as tailoring tasks to their abilities, they help regulate children’s stress levels. Even children with poor attachment at home are capable, given time, of responding well to nurturing relationships in the classroom. “Brains grow best in the context of supportive relationships, low levels of stress, and through the creative use of stories,” writes Cozolino. “Secure relationships not only trigger brain growth, but also serve emotional regulation that enhances learning.”

Of course, no parent is attuned to their child at all times and teachers will also have stressors that get in the way of their ability to attune with students. But “good enough” parents supporting and supported by “good enough” teachers are the building blocks of the kind of school communities that are needed to create a fertile ground for learning.

It’s the American holiday called Mother’s Day, a time to let Mom know how much we appreciate all the little things she does to help us reach our potential. We’ll start with the reminder that “Mom” upside-down is “Wow.”

Of course, as much fun as Mom is, she also helps us in some pretty serious ways. (Keep your shirt on, Dad, we realize parenting isn’t all about Mom. But we’ll get to you next month.)  In any case, maybe the following video will make a point about just how crucial that parent-child bond is to a child’s lifelong mental health:

Attachment is the primary process through which children develop self regulation. Unfortunately, as much as researchers know about the importance of secure attachment, many parents don’t know how to achieve it. Fortunately, it doesn’t need to be all that complicated.

As you’ll hear in the following video, “we are basically genetically programmed  to seek a secure relationship with a caregiver.”

However, with our hectic lives and scattered extended families, we are steeped in a society that may be more “child illiterate” than ever before. Many parents have no clue about what children need most.

“Events that occur during infancy,” says this next  video, “especially transactions with the social environment–much more than with the physical environment–are indelibly imprinted in the structures that are developing in the first year of life.”

“We know more about children and development than anytime in history,” say researchers. “And yet, there is a huge gap between what is known and what is practiced in the culture.”

This might be a good time to point out that no one is expecting mom to be perfect. Even when we try our best to practice what is known, we’re going to fall a bit short some of the time. Maybe even a lot of the time. Fortunately, UCLA Neuroscientist Dan Siegel has some positive perspective:

Children pick up on our positive intentions, even when we fall short, says Siegel. (Whew!) That’s a relief to this less-than-perfect mother.

Here’s to a happy Mother’s Day, moms. Wow.

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