New Support Group Present for Peace Offers Alternative to Mainstream Mental Healthcare
For more than a decade, Cindy Olejar dealt with abdominal discomfort, but mainstream medicine offered her little practical help. After determining that her discomfort was the result of anxious feelings, Olejar began researching the link between nutrition, uncomfortable sensations, and self-inquiry, which led to founding Present for Peace, a peer support group and resource hub for people dealing with anxiety and other mental discomfort. Here, Olejar tells us about her own experiences with the mainstream mental health system, how being present helped her to transcend the anxiety, and what she envisions for the future of Present for Peace.
Can you tell us a bit about your own mental health history?
I began to experience pain and tightness in my stomach in high school. When I was 29, I decided to visit my GP to see if there was anything to ease my stomach discomfort. The doctor’s only advice was to prescribe an antidepressant, which was confusing to me because I was not depressed. I told the doctor this, but I was assured that the prescription would solve my problem and that there was no risk in taking them. Unfortunately, over time, my stomach pain increased and I began to experience worsening digestive issues, tiredness, and a revved-up nervous system. Luckily my intuition guided me to investigate the long-term effects of the pills, and I discovered the doctor had misguided me. I decided to withdraw from the medication, during which time I was drawn to learn about behavior and thought patterns.
During this time, I was fortunate to connect with others who had similar experiences with psychiatric medications in online forums. What I discovered for myself, both through talking to people also going through withdrawal and in my own research, was that over the years, different experiences in my life turned on my “flight, fight, freeze and fawn” system––in other words, in the face of worry, fear and stress, I'd immediately either try to flee, struggle against it, freeze, or seek to appease the stressor. Over time, my nervous system stayed on guard 24/7 rather than shifting back to homeostasis. I eventually went back to school to study nutrition, where I learned that the stress response system gets first dibs of the body’s nutrients and then the other systems in the body get whatever nutrients are left over. This is usually OK when the body’s stress response does its job and then shifts back to its natural state soon after. However, when the stress response is constantly on, it wreaks havoc on the other systems of the body. Learning about my nervous system and how to calm it was the key to alleviating my stomach pain and my uncomfortable sensations.
What circumstances led you to start Present for Peace?
One day I was in a store and observed I was worrying about something unrelated to what I was currently doing. My partner shared that he was also worrying about something outside of our current experience. My partner reminded me of something we learned in a workshop we had taken: in order to break through to abundance and joy, first we needed to acknowledge the uncomfortable sensation and then lighten it up by doing something silly. So, we shared what we were feeling and then we linked arms and began to dance and twirl around in the store. In doing this, a profound shift in my awareness occurred and I suddenly felt this calm, content and peaceful state come over me. I quickly became more “mindful”––more aware of the “now.” Later, I researched this tactic more and discovered I could do similar exercises no matter what I was doing.
This led me to create Present for Peace, a website that highlights my insights and other resources, such as lists of recommended books and articles as well as links to guided meditations, calming music, and an explanation of Arrow UP, a tool I devised to help people recognize and diffuse anxiety or other uncomfortable sensations in the moment they occur. My hope is that these resources might be useful for others struggling to find a sense of inner calm.
What are the guiding principles of Present for Peace?
At Present for Peace, we believe uncomfortable sensations can guide you to experience a state of peace through being present. The vision of Present for Peace is to enable you to create a peaceful state of being regardless of external circumstances; this will benefit yourself, others, the world and the universe.
Contrary to what we’re often told by some psychiatrists, doctors and therapists, anxiety does have a purpose and message and is not meant to be dismissed or dulled. Instead of looking at anxiety as something to simply get rid of, it can be utilized as a message, a pointer, or a reminder to become present. The more present you are, the more awareness you have, and the more peaceful you become. When you are present the choices that arise will come from a peaceful and authentic state rather than from fear and projection.
For example, if you are talking with a friend and feel anxious, a circumstance may be because you have to be somewhere in ten minutes and are worried you are going to be late. As soon as you notice the worry, you can use that to remind yourself to become present and accept what is happening right now. What you might to do to ease your worry authentically is let your friend know that right now is not a good time to talk because you have to be somewhere soon and you don’t want to be late and you will reach out when you have more time to talk. You took care of your needs and will also be able to talk with your friend when you have the time and space to do so. You set the conditions to keep yourself grounded and present.
What resources does the organization currently offer?
Present for Peace offers free individual, family and group support for people who experience "anxiety" and other uncomfortable sensations and their loved ones. Some people come to us because they feel they have exhausted their mainstream mental healthcare system options, while others simply prefer to get support from peers. Some participants feel grounded already, but want to continue to learn new mindfulness tools. In addition, I send weekly resources via email that support what we talk about in the groups. People have shared that they enjoy connecting with others and that the groups help them not feel alone in what they experience.
Do you have any plans to grow or expand the organization in the future?
As time goes on and interest in the groups grow, I foresee adding other days and times. I value a small group so as to allow everyone to get the space to share, listen, practice and reflect. Additionally, I hope down the road for some groups to connect in person.