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Finding Solutions through Relationship and Connection

101 Scholars & Fellows 09-12-22

Looking back on 2022, I feel a renewed sense of connection. Throughout this year, which also marked the Nova Institute’s 15-year anniversary, the importance of relationships and reconnecting was very apparent. After many of us had been apart for so long, we longed for belonging and new ways to connect — and to feel that, working together, we could do something about the many crises unfolding around us. We saw the value of relationships with each other, with ourselves, as well as with the environment in which we live.

In September, I was thrilled to convene an in-person meeting with our incredible Scholars and Fellows for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic. We shared stories of what sustained us and investigated the meaning of flourishing — including the idea that flourishing is not just about our own well-being, but also what we do to improve the lives of other people and even our own planet.

We also heard from communications experts about how to better connect our research with wider audiences during a time when skepticism and mistrust create harmful barriers.

And how important that outreach is, with this group of passionate individuals examining such diverse yet connected issues as art in hospitals, how to help children thrive, light exposure’s affect on the body, ideas for improving primary care, mindfulness in college students, and so many valuable contributions that change how we think about health. 

Throughout the year, we joined in community with each other through virtual Nova Campfires around such timely issues as mental health, social justice, and healing, as well as a terrific Annual Conference that included speakers and attendees from more than 30 countries. Along with presentations about “tapestry thinking,” engaging people with different perspectives, and the intersection of a myriad of topics, presenters reminded us of the importance of doing the inner work — the relationship with ourselves so necessary to making change.    

Also, after months of planning, we launched the Nova Integration Hub. Thank you to everyone who participated in focus groups, surveys, and beta-testing to help us make this customized (and free) online meeting space a reality! The Hub is a space to build new relationships and strengthen old ties as we gather to discuss research, share inspiration, and explore ways to collaborate. The Hub truly reflects an interdisciplinary approach that encourages us to reach outside our silos and see how so many factors — such as creativity, nature, nutrition, and social determinants — influence well-being. We are eager to connect not just with each other but with other institutions, communities, and associations on the Hub.    

Continuing to expand our online and in-person networks around the world, we were pleased to announce the new Nova Network, directed by Nova Scholar Susan Prescott. This growing community’s mission is to transform the health of individuals, communities, and the planet through deeper understanding of the interdependence of all systems and by promoting awareness, attitudes, and actions required for meaningful, collaborative change.

Relationships and networks are so essential in this time of great challenges, including a mental health epidemic, widespread health disparities and inequality, increasing chronic disease, environmental degradation, and dangerous disinformation. Too much “othering” and not enough “belonging.”  

I firmly believe that through the power of relationships, we can lift up new ideas and ways of thinking that lead to real solutions. Working together, we can see our vision of a world where health is valued as our most basic and essential asset and where people, places, and the planet flourish for the benefit of all, come true. 

I am so grateful to all of our friends, colleagues, and supporters for joining us in this critical work and look forward to all we will achieve next year and in the years to come.

Professor Brian Berman, MD
President and Founder, Nova Institute for Health
Professor Emeritus Family and Community Medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. 

When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) 

“When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” 

Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. “…they gradually found relief from suffering and began to exhibit emergent characteristics: a sense of hope, self-acceptance, and a desire to help others—the immediate precursors to healing.”

 In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” 

  • Helping Others: We find meaning in helping others. “Understanding that suffering gives the strength and experience to help others in similar situations.”
  • Hope: We begin to have hope that we will not always feel this bad. A Crohn’s patient said, “I think gradually I realized that I was going to feel better. I did have days when I actually didn’t vomit, when I did feel better. And I think gradually I came to believe that maybe I could have a normal life again.”
  • Self-Acceptance: We see our inherent value and understand that we are not to blame for our suffering. A participant living with HIV said, “I’m really proud of myself. I think that now I still want to live. I don’t want to die, and I really love myself a lot. I have a lot of comfort in myself.”

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. 

There is some debate about whether people always experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. 

“The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”

Characteristics: How predisposed someone may be to wounding/how many tools and resources someone may have to deal with trauma/illness.

Lifestages: Developmental timing plays an important role in the impact of trauma — young children often do not have the same resources as older adults.

Relationships: Relationships can provide solace and support for those suffering, while lack of healthy relationships can prolong suffering.