Women SOARING into Strength to Celebrate International Women’s Day

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Wen a child is ill, the whole family is in crisis. Often mothers are the ones who nurture and support the entire family. That’s why today and everyday we salute millions of women who love, support, care for, and inspire ill children, teens, and families to “Never give up!”

The SOARING into Strength model of my organization, SoaringWords, is built around seven core Positive Psychology constructs to enhance the well-being of ill children, teens, families and caregivers. This evidence-based model has been tested among hundreds of hospitalized children and teens around the world. I’m going to use this structure to celebrate some of many heroic women who have shaped the SOARING components of positive psychology:

  • Shifting
  • Optimism
  • Altruism
  • Resilience
  • Imagery
  • Narrative
  • Gratitude

SHIFTINGis creating changes in your attitude, your body, and overall well-being. When a child is hospitalized, each day the child’s PATIENT identity gets reinforced as hospital technicians read the code number on his hospital identity bracelet before each medical procedure. The child is forced to wear institutional hospital scrubs identical to the other patients. The child is isolated from his or her friends and family. Even the hospital bed often resembles a jail cell with cumbersome plastic or metal guardrails on either side. The child starts habituating to this new identity of someone who is SERIOUSLY ill. They can lose their sense of self. Child life professionals and nurses do the daily heavy-lifting of patient-care, essential to restoring children’s identity and well-being. Soaringwords’ expressive arts projects are powerful tools to shift a child’s perspective from isolation and despair to engagement and re-connection to sense of humor, creativity, and kindness.

Photo: courtesy of Soaringwords. Children and caring professionals enjoy making SoaringJoke Books and other expressive arts projects to share with other children.

OPTIMISM is finding the good even when times are difficult or painful. When we think of positivity, Barbara Fredrickson, one of the founders of the field of Modern Positive Psychology surely comes to mind. Barbara’s Broaden and Build theory of Positive Emotions proves that when we experience positive emotions it broadens us and enables us to experience MORE positive emotions. Our peripheral vision expands, our relaxation response kicks in, and our body produces more endorphins, making us feel better.

Photo: the author interviewing Barbara Fredrickson for the launch of her book, Love 2.0, at the International Positive Psychology Association World Congress in L.A.

Optimism is expecting good things to happen in your life, while pessimism is expecting bad things to occur. Optimistic people and pessimistic people tend to approach life in radically different ways. The way a person approaches problems has an impact on her health and well-being and also her children’s well-being.

For example, when an Optimist faces a challenge she tends to expect a good outcome, even if things will be hard. Optimists acknowledge the problem, place it in as positive a light as possible, use humor to relieve the stress, and try to do whatever possible to lead to a positive outcome. This proactive way of thinking and acting gives her a sense of control that she is taking an active role to do what she can in the face of a challenging situation.

When JoAnne was born without the use of her legs, the pediatric neurologist told her parents “Children like this are like wet rags. Just enjoy the limited time you have with her….” Instead of succumbing to his dire prognosis, her parents created “Operation Puddle Jump” where they gave their daughter every opportunity to experience a happy normal childhood. JoAnne became a nationally ranked ballroom dancer (from her wheelchair) and is a Zumba® instructor inspiring her students.

Photo: JoAnne rocks the stage at the Soaringwords’ presentation at the International Zumba Instructor Convention in Orlando, Florida

ALTRUISM is gaining a sense of control by sharing your creativity, kindness, strengths, and hope with others. Jane Dutton is the world-renowned expert on compassion, a positive psychology exemplar who has mentored and nurtured dozens of accomplished leaders who have made valuable contributions to the world. Compassion and kindness are foundational for healing. Once you focus your attention on others, your heart opens and you feel connected to something larger than yourself. At Soaringwords, we motivate ill children and families to “pay it forward” to help others. When a child does something kind for another person, it accelerates transformative healing.

Isolation is often the most prominent negative emotion people experience when they are ill or hospitalized and when someone they love is ill. Being ill isolates people and physically removes them from their normal circles of support. Doing something kind for someone else lessens isolation considerably. So your grandmother was right, “It’s better to give than to receive.” And, the best part is, you also end up feeling pretty great too.

Photo: Lisa and Jane at the Compassion Conference in Louisville KY with the Dalai Lama.

RESILIENCE is flourishing through difficult times. We can’t control external factors in our lives such as illness, natural disasters, or the behavior of others. However, we can take an active role in our own responses to life’s adversities and challenges.

Being resilient is not about being strong on the outside or stuffing our feelings to present a brave front. True resilience is about being open and vulnerable to our deepest feelings, and then choosing to give our all to take the next right step even in the face of serious challenges.

Recently, grit, a new word for resilience, has burst into the vernacular. Dr. Angela Duckworth, my mentor, friend and professor, is the leading expert in the world.

Duckworth defines grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals that are really hard. Hospitalized children, teens, and their families are some of the grittiest people on the planet because they are fighting for the most important thing in the world: to regain health. This passion makes them resilient. There’s nothing more important than working hard to have a good life despite the challenges and limitations thrust upon you. Caretakers, parents, and hospital personnel may be able to enhance a child’s and teen’s grittiness by teaching him or her how to focus on what is going well.

Photo: Angela Duckworth on the eve of the launch of GRIT creating a video for hospitalized children and families.

Teaching and modeling can help children and teens experience a sense of accomplishment in the face of tremendous challenges. I believe that if a hospitalized child or teen and his or her parents can learn to focus on simple goals that a child can accomplish throughout the course of a day, they will be better equipped to stay positive.

When I was writing my Master’s thesis, we invited 220 patients to create a SoaringSuperhero message and artwork to donate to another patient. All 220 patients chose to make a superhero to pay-it-forward. One patient was in the Intensive Care Unit at the time of the survey. It took her two weeks to complete her superhero but she persisted in between surgeries and recovering. Imagine the pride and sense of accomplishment that she felt to know that she was capable of doing something so positive and significant to give hope to another child.

Photo Courtesy of SoaringWords.org: Rainbow unicorn girl artwork

IMAGERY is connecting to your inner knowledge to heal through imagery exercises. Imagery is the shared social language of the mind. It takes less than 60 seconds. When you have pressing work or personal challenges, imagery can immediately recalibrate your body chemistry, halting the fight or flight response and restoring you to equilibrium. ALL OF THE ANSWERS ARE ALREADY INSIDE OF YOU. The more you do imagery the easier it becomes to draw on it.

I first met Gabby a ten-year-old girl because her mother works at Johnson & Johnson, one of the amazing companies that supports the work of Soaringwords. Someone mentioned that her daughter had leukemia. I asked to speak to the mom and later that night I was on the phone speaking to Gabby and her mother. They were extremely receptive to learning how to reduce the pain from Gabby’s bi-monthly spinal infusions of chemotherapy. In less than ten minutes, I taught them how to do healing imagery to help Gabby take an active role in her self-healing. For the next two years every morning and night, Gabby and her mom did the healing imagery. She has completely recovered.

Photo Courtesy of SoaringWords.org: Gabby learning imagery

NARRATIVE is sharing the power of storytelling, reading and writing positive stories. In the old days people gathered around the fireplace or town square and lived in extended communities, often many generations living in the same dwelling. Today our families and our lives are fragmented. Everyone has heard the expression that laughter is contagious. So is happiness.

Dr. Margarita Tarragona has merged narrative therapy and positive psychology, helping people understand the stories they are telling themselves and construct new stories that fit the facts.

Link to short interview of Dr. Tarragona about narrative practices.

GRATITUDE is the most powerful of all the positive emotions. When you are grappling with serious illness or someone you know or love is ill, gratitude can often be the life-line that saves your sanity and prevents you from hating everyone you encounter whose life seems to be fabulous and perfect.

There are many wonderful way of EXTENDING gratitude. Writing gratitude letters is one very very effective way. You write the letter and then, if possible, set up a time to meet the person in person. When you get together you actually read the letter to them. You can still write a gratitude letter to someone you know or someone who has died. The act of writing the letter is extremely therapeutic.

Another powerful gratitude exercise is writing a gratitude letter to yourself to recognize and celebrate the wonderful qualities that you possess. Try it, you’ll be amazed at how powerful this exercise is.

In her book about 12 ways to enhance happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky has described other ways to use gratitude to enhance well-being.

Photo: courtesy of Soaringwords. Sharing a Gratitude Letter is a powerful way to experience positive emotions

Wishing you inner fortitude and strength as you celebrate wonderful women and thoughtful men in your life.