These days I am spending some time at a Danish Hospital. Recently I suffered some damage to my spinal cord due to a blood clot in my spine. I am here at Herlev hospital to heal and learn how to walk properly again, as well as focus on other matters of the body and soul.
This isn’t just any ordinary hospital. The art at Herlev hospital was designed by the Danish artist Poul Gernes, and when I say art, I mean everything functional has been made into a piece of art - from the door handles, to the elevators, to the closets. The curtains are colorful with floral patterns - and the intricate design in every little detail is amazing. The curves, the symmetry, the colors - everything speaks to a part of my brain which stimulates happiness and joy. Several people have jokingly asked me: “Did they give you some funny pills?” when I enthusiastically have sent them pictures of the place I find myself in.
But honestly, look at this place - isn’t it beautiful? When you lie in the hospital bed and look towards the door, you see a closet with the coolest design of a number on it, and a brightly vibrant door - which makes you smile. When you look out the window, you see a colorful curtain with flowers. When you go to the bathroom you see a bright green toilet holder and yellow beautifully formed hangers.
I am not sure if I am tricked to believe I am in a circus or kindergarten, reminding me of joyful memories as a child, and if that is what is causing my brain to spark. Or if it is the colors themselves hitting my nervous system in just the right way. No matter what, it works wonders for me!
Healing Art and the Art of Healing at Herlev: Making the Connection
In 1976 Herlev was constructed, with its artwork designed by Poul Gernes. It was one of the first polychrome hospitals in the world. Gernes was originally commissioned to paint just the lobby, but was subsequently asked to add color to the whole building, including the patient rooms. Besides the decoration of the walls and interior, the hospital foyer includes 65 individual paintings and two painted folding doors. Gernes described his work in the hospital as having an artistic function as well as an atmospheric one. By atmospheric, what Gernes really meant was that color played an almost structural role, helping people find their way and maintain their bearings in the space. Color breaks the uniformity and monotony which are too often associated with institutional spaces, such as hospitals. Large, uniform spaces can be incredibly disorienting, offering no landmarks to aid navigation, and they numb the senses. As Gernes describes, color is an easy way to address these structural issues.
I could imagine, though, that to some people, all these colors can also be overwhelming and overstimulating. Back in 2012, a doctor actually had the colors painted over because he and his staff found them “too much”, giving them an “eternal feeling of noise and unorder”.
To me, though, they do wonders. I am soothed by the lines, the structures, and the symmetry - which remind me of a world of joy and humor, of art, of people doing their best to make things beautiful. Even when you are not well, it's comforting to know that someone is out there trying to make things nice for you. I feel gratitude, gratitude for being surrounded by something someone really did their best to create, just to soothe you! That’s beautiful. And healing. I am sure of it.
How Life Might Have Prepared Me For This Moment
Luck favors the prepared mind, as the saying goes. And I feel lucky!
Back in the 90s I studied Health Psychology at University of California, Irvine. The field of health psychology is based on the assumption that health and illness can best be understood and nurtured by examining biological, psychological, and social factors in an integrative fashion. I went on to complete a masters degree within Pain Management , and wrote my master's thesis at UCSF Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, as a comparative study comparing how psychologists and doctors healed chronic and terminal pain, in Denmark vs. the US.
Coincidentally, my first real job as a psychologist was at the pain management clinic at Herlev - the same hospital where I am now recovering from my spinal cord damage. Peculiarly, back then, I did not notice all the colors at this wonderful hospital. I guess I did not need them to speak to me in the way they do now. Which is interesting, I mean, the colors were there, also 23 years ago - but they did not ”show themselves” to me the way they do now. Which makes me think: What else is all around you that you do not notice? Love? Laughter? I guess, when you need it, you will find it. Or when you need it, it will appear, if you are open to it. Or as Picasso is quoted for saying: ‘’I do not seek, I find’’. For many years this quote was hanging on my wall reminding me to relax, lean into whatever would appear and not “try so hard” but rather experience and be open to whatever would show itself. And here it is again, with a new meaning this time around
What Heals - Besides Art? What Helps You Recover?
So, besides being totally psyched up (in a good way!) by the colors and art at this hospital, I have also been thinking about other factors that I know for sure helps you heal. You gotta do what you can do to heal, right? So I have been thinking about what I know - from studying health psychology and from research and life in general - helps and how many of those things I am lucky to have! So here they are - in random order:
I know a great support system helps, I know humor helps, I know a growth mindset helps, I know sleep, rest, stretch, exercise helps and I know mindfulness helps. And lucky me - being pretty well nurtured, versed and trained within all these areas, now that I find myself in need of all of them!
The Wonders of a Great Support System
It becomes very apparent when you are hospitalized, how important it is to have a good support system. I feel sooo lucky being surrounded by a caring family and great friends, who genuinely ask me: “How are you? How can we help?” And who do not only ask, but also instinctively figure out ways of helping and cheering me up One example includes writing me a fun story about closets and the many ways the word closets are used: Coming out of the closet, skeletons in the closet, hanging your clothes in the closet, and so on. And another friend suggesting to stop by and make sure there is a railing at my house, when I come home (which I completely opposed to of course, because I am in great denial and imagine I am jumping up and downstairs - so no need for a railing, how dare you suggest I need a railing, haha…)
It is not always easy to figure out how to help another person recover and be the best support, but one thing I can for sure say helps in a situation like mine, is to respect the boundaries of the person who is in need of help. Do not come visit, unless the person says it's okay to do so, for instance. For me, this has been respected - and I have really needed this time to recover on my own, doing my exercises, sleep, eat, sleep some more, read, rest, recover. Others, I am sure, would love a visit - so of course you need to use your own judgement to figure out what a person really needs and benefits from, as no two persons are alike. Just like I know for a fact, that others probably do not love the colors at this hospital as much as I do, and would not necessarily like them in times of illness, like I do.
Having access to a great support system is a fundamental part of the healing journey, which I know to be true from my own experience, as mentioned, but also from research. Research has shown that having a strong support system has many positive benefits, such as higher levels of well-being, better coping skills, and a longer and healthier life. Studies have also shown that social support can reduce depression and anxiety. So, if you do not have a good support system around you I would like to say the following: it’s never too late to grow and nurture it. There are a number of resources and support groups that can help you in building up a support system. As the poet John Donne once wrote: ‘’No man is an island’’ - we all need human connection, belonging, and understanding - both on the journey of healing, and on the journey of life.
Humor - Let’s Laugh A Little
Another thing that helps us heal, is having a sense of humour. In the HBR article, “Leading with Humor” Alison Beard writes: “Laughter relieves stress and boredom, boosts engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.” The importance and benefits of laughing are often overlooked. Yet we all know how GOOD laughing makes us feel. In fact, the magic of laughter is actually healing. Research shows how laughter brings physiological benefits to the body. It lessens people’s pain, so if anything, we need to be spreading more healing laughter in all of our interactions. Laughter is like a bee pollinating flowers and bringing them to life. It makes you want to live, and it reminds you of something very basic in life: Don’t take it too seriously, or you will end up dying from worry or boredom!
Therefore, for the past week, I have deliberately tried to laugh, look for the bright things, appreciate when people have told me jokes - and joked with how old I look when I try to walk. “Come on - get a grip - pull yourself together - you still have two functioning arms, right? Oh, do you feel some nerve pain in your fingers too? Well, no arms, no cake. Ha ha ha. :-)”
I know it is easier said than done to try to joke a bit about your situation, and not take life too seriously. And some might argue : Well, aren’t you supposed to take it seriously? Of course, but not too seriously. “Just enough” is also an appropriate saying here. Which leads me to the next thing about the Growth Mindset - because having and deliberately nurturing a Growth Mindset is ALSO something you can set your mind up for and which might help you heal, recover, get well and live a nice(r) life!
Nurturing a Growth Mindset
Lately, there has been a lot of talk about the Growth Mindset within Psychology as well as at work. The research behind the Growth Mindset started more than 30 years ago, though, when Carol Dweck and her colleagues started looking into students' attitudes about failures and setbacks. They noticed that some students found failures and setbacks inspiring in terms of “giving it another go”, while others were left devastated. After studying the behavior of thousands of children, Dr. Dweck coined the terms “Fixed Mindset” and “Growth Mindset” to describe the underlying beliefs people have about failure, setback, and learning.
The Growth Mindset can be defined as a mindset where you think:
- Let me try again!
- What is there to learn in this situation?
- Challenges help me to grow
- Feedback is constructive and I can benefit from taking it to heart
- 'I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.( Aka Astrid Lindgrens’ Pippi Longstocking!)
On the contrary, the Fixed Mindset can be defined as a mindset where you think:
- This is hard, I will never succeed
- If I fail it means I am now good (at it)
- Challenges are no fun, I would rather avoid them
- Feedback is hurtful
- When approached with "Good morning!" Eeyore (from Winnie the Pooh) /the Fixed mindset responds, "Well, I suppose it is...for some."
And why am I mentioning this now, again? Well, you guessed right, deliberately nurturing a growth mindset also helps you heal! This is something I for sure have experienced while being hospitalized too.
Throughout this last week, I have found myself saying things like: ”I might not be able to walk straight, but at least I have one leg that carries me!” and at least my heart is beating and my brain is functioning, and when I am in pain - hurray - I feel something! Which is better than feeling nothing! Some people consider this naive, a bit too overly optimistic, but hey - it works!
Focusing on what works, helps. The contrary does not. So, my advice from my hospital bed - in life and at work: Focus on everything you HAVE and CAN do and everything that WORKS. It works wonders. As we also explored at our webinar back in October with David Cooperrider and Roberta Baskin.
Sleep, Rest, Stretch, Exercise
I cannot leave out the importance of sleeping, resting, stretching and exercising in an article on recovering from illness and finding your zest and getting your energy back. Before I studied Health Psychology, I earned a Minor Degree in Science, studying Physical Education at the University of Copenhagen. Again, I feel like life prepared me for this moment, giving me vital information about our body, how it functions, and the importance of exercise in general.
One of the principles in Session’s Coaching Philosophy is Body Awareness. This might be a bit strange to those who wish to learn and grow within a business context. Session offers Business Coaching and not Life Coaching - so why do we still put emphasis on Body Awareness? Well, because it counts - at work as well as in life in general - that you are able to feel and listen to your body, take care of your body and learn from your body. Your hands are wiser than your brain will ever be, as Bagger Vance (Will Smith) tells Junah (Matt Daemon) in the movie "The Legend of Bagger Vance".
Listening to your body gives you huge advantages in many situations. Your body contains hidden wisdom. It sends you all sorts of signals, which you can learn to take into consideration and learn from in different situations, when making decisions, and making best judgments. In my current situation, I am also listening to my body. It tells me when I need to rest, stretch, exercise, and eat. It also confuses me with weird pain signals - some of them are “not real” due to damage in the spinal cord - but in general, I can trust what my body tells me - if I listen to it. And when I sleep - because without sleep, it is hard to know “what is what”.
Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor in chief of the Huffington Post, has helped shed light on the devastating effects of human beings not sleeping enough. She has started a sleep-revolution movement, casting light on the importance of sleep and rest, and how detrimental it is to think that we can just work a little more, push through, and deprive ourselves of the nurturing effects of sleep. Sleep does wonders, so does rest. We just need to allow ourselves to sleep and rest, which many unfortunately do not do enough of. It is of utmost importance, though, to the healing process and to our ability to stay healthy and sane in our daily lives, that we sleep and rest and it is vital when you are recovering from illness!
So is stretching and exercising. Getting out of bed. Stretching the body. Feeling the oxygen run through our body, giving life to all the cells in our body.
Exercise makes you smarter and healthier. No doubt about that!
Last, but not least, I want to mention how Mindfulness has helped me cope with my situation this time around, as well as many other times in my life, when life was not the easiest. -Mindfulness is the art of staying present in the moment - with curiosity, openness, gratitude, trust, patience and acceptance. I first learned about mindfulness in the 90s, when I studied Health Psychology in the US. Jon Kabatt Zin is named “the father of modern mindfulness” and his introduction to mindfulness has done wonders for not only me, but thousands of others around the globe who have engaged in mindfulness practices.
Therefore, let me end this piece of writing by telling you a bit about what mindfulness is and can do for you in a situation like mine, where pain is there - but you need to learn to deal with it - whether this be psychological or physical pain. I will keep it short, there are plenty of other great articles “out there” digging deeper into the subject.
Mindfulness - as defined by the Magazine Mindful:
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us”
In order to do this, you need to cultivate a certain outlook at life, or a certain way of judging - or NOT judging - what is going on around you, between you and others and inside you. The non-judgemental part is so important. Being curious. The perspective you deliberately take when you practice mindfulness includes the following:
In my situation, what I have done, is to try to look at my situation, my pain and sensory experiences from this perspective:
Curiosity: Wow, that’s interesting! One bottock is burning hot against the toilet seat, the other is ice cold. I have never experienced that before in my life - I wonder how many have?
Openness: One of my legs is hurting. Where does the pain start, where does it end?
Gratitude: I FEEL something - it would be worse, if I didn’t!
Trust: The pain is telling me something. I am confused about the signals, but will eventually learn to “read” them in the right way, and I can trust that my body will help me recover, if I allow it to - give it time - and, thus, practice:
Patience: Yes, patience… just wait… give it time… (this is hard for me, I admit it!)
Acceptance: Everything is temporary. Also this will pass. This is how it is right now. Not how it was yesterday, not how it will be tomorrow, Life is like a box of chocolate: You never know what you are gonna get, (so better enjoy what you get - and hey - if it is all chocolate - what’s not to like?!)
Mindfulness is a lot more than “just” applying a certain set of attitudes to your life situation, though. It is about caring, it is about breathing. It is about living your life fully awake to the present moment. Breathing in - I follow my breath and feel how the oxygen does its wonders to my body. Breathing out, I let go. And then again. Repeat. Until you master the art of being, at a new level.
Life is short. Enjoy it. The Dalai Lama once said “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.’’ - all humans inevitably experience pain and hardship, that’s just the deal with living. However, if we can nurture our strength and resilience we can turn this pain into a learning experience - rather than suffering endlessly. If you are going through pain in your life, I encourage you to deliberately focus on the beauty around you, nurture a growth mindset, develop a support system, and maintain a sense of curiosity and humour. Remember to sleep and exercise, stretch and rest. And try out mindfulness!
If you are not going through pain right now, start to build the foundations that can help you cope in the future should you happen to experience pain and difficult life situations. No matter where you are in your life, I hope these words have provided you with some useful advice. And hey - if you want help on your journey - get a coach! We can help you learn and grow :-) (yes, I still love my job, and yes, I still believe everyone deserves a great coach!).
Over and out and see you out there!