Petrea King: How Trauma Can Lead to Positive Change

This week on the podcast we're going to be talking to a legend in health care in Australia, Petrea King. We talked about her foundation, Quest For Life, trauma, default mode network, task-positive network, mental health - for both patients and health practitioners, and so much more.

Petrea is the CEO of Quest For Life Foundation, a well-known author (having written nine best-selling books), an inspirational keynote speaker, and a facilitator. She has received the Advance Australia Award, Citizen of the Year, and Centenary Medal for her contribution to the community and has been regularly nominated for Australian of the Year.



Health Podcast Highlights

Petrea King: How Trauma Can Lead to Positive Change Introduction

Well, today we’re going to be talking to a legend in health care in Australia, Petrea King. Petrea is CEO of Quest for Life Foundation, which she established in 1989. She’s a well-known author, having written nine bestselling books, as well as an inspirational keynote speaker, teacher, and facilitator. She’s also qualified as a naturopath, herbalist, clinical hypnotherapist, yoga, and meditation teacher.

More than 125 thousand people have attended residential programmes or counselling with Petrea and her team. She lectures and conducts workshops across Australia and internationally. Petrea has received the Advance Australia Award, Citizen of the Year, and Centenary Medal for her contribution to the community and has been regularly nominated for Australian of the Year. I hope you enjoyed this conversation I had with Petrea King.

Podcast Transcript

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:00:00] I’d like to acknowledge that I am recording this podcast on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay my respects to their elders past, present, and emerging.

Hello and welcome to Unstress. My name is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Well, today we’re going to be talking to a legend in health care in Australia, Petrea King. Petrea is CEO of Quest for Life Foundation, which she established in 1989. She’s a well-known author, having written nine bestselling books, as well as an inspirational keynote speaker, teacher, and facilitator. She’s also qualified as a naturopath, herbalist, clinical hypnotherapist, yoga, and meditation teacher.

More than 125 thousand people have attended residential programmes or counselling with Petrea and her team. She lectures and conducts workshops across Australia and internationally. Petrea has received the Advance Australia Award, Citizen of the Year, and Centenary Medal for her contribution to the community and has been regularly nominated for Australian of the Year. I hope you enjoyed this conversation I had with Petrea King. Welcome to the show, Petrea. 

Petrea King: [00:01:28] It’s lovely to be with you, Ron.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:01:30] Petrea, I always look forward to listening to you, but to talk to you personally like this is great and to share you with my listeners. Listen, in 1999 you started Quest for Life and the Quest For Life Can you tell us a bit about Quest For Life?

What is Quest For Life?

Petrea King: [00:01:46] Well, I started Quest For Life, really, because I’d had a series of personal traumas, including leukaemia and my brother’s suicide, and I’d had three years in hospital as a teenager and I’ve been sexually assaulted and oh, you know, a few other bits, chronic pain. 

And so it’s very hard to find a safe place when you’re in the caverns of your own despair and anguish. And so for me, that ended up being a little cave outside of Assisi when I had leukaemia. And it was in that little cave, really, that my whole life unravelled. But I also found a good deal of pace and resolved a lot of the past trauma. 

So I really wanted to pay that forward, I guess, because when you nearly die and then you don’t, you know, that happiness is not about the stuff. What gives me joy? What fills me with purpose and meaning is if I can be of any small assistance to another human being, then that makes my life worthwhile.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:02:49] Well, you’ve certainly been more than small assistance to the many individuals. I know that. But are you’re talking about pre-1989 with leukaemia? And here we are in 2021. And I have to say, as I said to you when we started, you look fabulous. It’s often a trauma that drives people to major change, and yet traumas are different things to different people, isn’t it? What happened?

The role of trauma

Petrea King: [00:03:17] That’s right.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:03:18] How do we define trauma? I mean, how do we even define that?

Petrea King: [00:03:21] Yeah, you’re right, Ron, because, for one person, a situation is traumatic. For instance, I could say, you know, it was terrible. I had three years in hospital and 12 major surgeries, and I missed out on my teen years and all of my friendships went down the tube. And frankly, it was fantastic. 

You know, I had three years to read all of the books that I was actually interested in. I was away from my mad, chaotic brother, whom I adored, but found really scary because he told me that he knew he had to kill himself by the time he was 30, and I’d taken that on as my responsibility.

Petrea King: [00:03:56] So being in hospital was a safe place. It got me out of school and I really was not into school at all. I just felt totally overwhelmed by the number of kids. So it’s not so much the things that happened to us in our life, but the view that we take of those things. And of course, that’s up to us. We can change our view of things. 

And so I think that’s a real key and an enormous point of power because we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can always control how we choose to see that circumstance, and then how we choose to respond to that circumstance. We can either feel helpless, hapless victims of whatever’s happened to us, or we can say, you know, this was unexpected, unthinkable, unimaginable. But it did happen. And boy, I’m sure learnt more about myself. 

Petrea King: [00:04:50] And you’re quite right, Ron. Most people wake up only through two mechanisms suffering. That as suffering becomes so great that we get to that place where we say, that’s it. Something has to change. And it’s me because I can’t change the outer circumstance. What I can change is how I choose to see it. So that’s an enormous point of power. 

Otherwise, we just feel like we’re helpless, hapless victims of our circumstances. And I think right now with COVID and pandemics and lockdowns, so many people are feeling that a lot of the things over which they have control have been stripped away from them. 

And of course, that happens with graves and traumas and diagnoses. We call them the Ds — the deaths, the despair, the depression, the diagnosis, the drama, the disaster, the divorce, the deaths, the drought. I think that it’s lots of Ds.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:05:53] Wow. I’ve never, never drawn the D-connection there, but that’s certainly deep, I must say. It’s interesting, too, because we focussed on, for example, regenerative agriculture as a change in farming practise. And it’s often trauma and in farmers’ lives, that is an extended drought, flood, or fires, and that forces people to stop and assess. 

Petrea King: [00:06:23] Yes, exactly. And I think, you know, we struggle along trying to do what we’ve always done, but then we finally get to that place where we say, that’s it. And for some, that’s called rock bottom. Mm-Hmm. But we say, that’s it, and something has to change, and it’s me. 

And the interesting thing is that it actually does change because what we’re really saying when we get to that place is I’m willing to see things differently because the way I’m seeing them is not working for me any longer.

Now, when it comes to regenerative farming, that’s like, you know, I remember my godmother, I used to be shipped out to the country a lot in between surgeries as a teenager, and she could pick up a clot of dirt and smell it and tell me when it did rain blast what the soil needed. It’s health or lack of it. She just knew the land. 

And I think when you have wisdom and you see what’s happening, I mean, then we used to plant a crop of loosening, you know, and loosens roots, go down 32 feet, and then we would plough that into the soil to nourish the soil for the next crop. But I don’t know that that happens so much anymore.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:07:42] Well, we hope it’s a growing movement. It’s certainly one that’s I’m focussing on. But what made me think of it too was so many of the people the teachers tell the farmers to focus on what they can control. Control what you can control. You can’t control whether it rains or not, but you can control what happens when it does.

Petrea King: [00:08:00] Oh, that’s interesting. Yeah.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:08:01] So it’s interesting to hear you say that, but trauma is an interesting one, too, because have you found that people are surprised by the effects that certain events have in their life and the impact that it’s really had? Is that a surprise to many people?

The impact of trauma in our lives

Petrea King: [00:08:16] Absolutely. Because a lot of people feel, “I’m pretty resilient and I can keep on keeping on.” These changes that we’ve had in the last 18 months have been so considerable, though, that I think a lot of people have found their resilience is beginning to run a little thin. And that’s why it’s so important to talk about this because it’s so, we’ve lost a lot of our routines. 

You know, we used to get up by a particular time. Maybe we stopped off and get a juice or a coffee or whatever it was before we hit the clinic or hit the office. And then our day had a rhythm and a routine. And in a way, we’re grieving that as well. 

Some people are definitely grieving. Maybe we’re never going back to that world in the way that we had it, and we can’t quite see yet how we’re going to emerge from this either. So it’s a time of great uncertainty, which for me is tremendously exciting because that’s where transformation happens.

Petrea King: [00:09:15] But a lot of people discover that what’s second, nature to them just doesn’t work in this situation with an accumulation of stress over a period of months. And it’s interesting that we call it second nature because you’ll often hear people say, “Oh, it’s second nature for me to think like this, to feel this way, to react like this.”, and no one ever questions, “Well, what your first nature? What was there before you took on the habits, the behaviours, the beliefs, the thoughts, the feelings that you have? What was there before that?” 

And often it’s suffering that gets us to that place where we’re willing to relinquish everything that’s become second nature to us so that we make that return journey home to what is more essential in us, our essential nature.

Petrea King: [00:10:08] Now look, in brain terms, we can say that our default mode network gets programmed with the I’ll be happy when story, how we fit into our family, the us and them, the judgements that we pick up unconsciously. 

But the moment we engage our task-positive network by coming to our senses, focussing on our breathing, reading, looking at something as soon as we engage the task-positive network, we change the physiology in our body and so we can teach people who’ve been through traumatic experiences how to regain control over the default mode network and re-engage their tasks positive networks so that they can become far happier and productive and have a greater level of equanimity and balance within themselves.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:11:04] Hmm. Wow. I was going to ask you before you started on this process that, you know, we are so aware of the challenges. I don’t think we should dwell on them too much because it’s, I think we both agree, that this is an opportunity for reflection and growth. 

So that is, you know, that is an is a great perspective. How else do you think we could be, you know, working on and making this time that we are living in a very challenging time, a more positive experience?

How can we make the pandemic a more positive experience?

Petrea King: [00:11:39] Well, people do it in different ways, and that’s why there’s not one pathway. But you know, some people find practising gratitude, you know, gratitude for what you actually have got — A roof over our heads, food on their table, hopefully, love in our life, access to being with nature, music, candlelight, fun night. 

All these wonderful things that we do have in our lives so much and what we do when we focus on what there is to be grateful for where we’re moving out of our default mode network and we’re becoming more aware.

So the key to this really is increasing our awareness so that we’re in the present moment all of the time. Because, you know, when the tasks positive network is engaged, we have access to some fabulous qualities, insight, intuition, wisdom, humour, spontaneity, creativity, compassion, and the moment our default mode network takes over where we’re suddenly back in the past or projecting into the future. 

We lose access to inside intuition, wisdom, humour, spontaneity, creativity, and compassion. They’re really useful qualities for us, especially those of us in the helping professions or the health professions where we hope to be in service in some way to alleviate the suffering in other people.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:13:05] Hmm. And in the Quest For Life, can you give us an idea of the range of costs or what people expect when they come down there?

Quest For Life programmes

Petrea King: [00:13:13] Yes. Well, right now, of course, we’re delivering all of our programmes online, but hopefully, very soon we’ll be open again for our programmes. We are currently running 34 five-day programmes a year and about 100 workshops are out in the community. 

Our team, after natural disasters or in communities really suffering through drought or mice or whatever it might be. And we have about a dozen weekend programmes which may be around grief from suicide or other complex grief.

So our six major programmes, The Quest for Life, which is for people with physical illnesses – cancer, Parkinson’s, MS, MND whatever it might be, we have taken control of chronic pain, which obviously is for people who want to reduce their experience of chronic pain.

Petrea King: [00:14:08] We have Healing Your Life, which is for people with depression, anxiety, loss, grief, trauma, but different from post-traumatic stress injuries, but who have been through trauma.

Then we have Moving Beyond Trauma, which is for people with a post-traumatic stress injury. So we’ve become the go-to place for police and paramedics and firefighters, and so the insurers pay for them to attend our five-day programme.

And then what else do we have? Reclaiming Your Brain. I needed to do that, which is about how do we age healthily with access to our memory focus, concentration, humour, how do we continue making a contribution to life.

Petrea King: [00:14:52] So those are our major programmes. And most of those run once a month for Healing Your Life and Moving Beyond Trauma. The exciting thing is we’re about to build 24 more accommodations. So what we find is that in five days people learn about neuroplasticity and epigenetics and how they can influence and improve their brain chemistry and their physical health. 

But then they sometimes go home to unsupportive, isolated environments. So we want them to do the five-day programme in which they receive a lot of education and start putting these things into practise. And then it continues on.

Petrea King: [00:15:33] They stay with us for three or four weeks to fully implement everything that they’ve learnt by, you know, working in the gardens and being part of their own meal prep and clean up and daily yoga and meditation and weekly counselling and exercise groups. And this therapy pools and flight tanks and infra-red saunas and all of those things that we know can be beneficial for people who’ve suffered trauma. 

So people come to us really when they’re at that place where they say, “That’s it, something has to change. And it’s me.” And a lot of people who come to us have come to us as a last resort sometimes. Many people have attempted suicide. And so, you know, we feel so privileged and so grateful to be able to work with these amazing people who refuse to be defined by the appalling things that have happened to them. And that takes so much courage and is wonderful.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:16:35] Mm-Hmm. Well, I know that you and I both are attending mental health, well, you’re presenting, I’m emceeing, a mental health symposium from the 1st to the 3rd of October, and it’s focussing on mental, obviously and mental health, but for both patients and health practitioners.

Petrea King: [00:16:53] Indeed

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:16:54] Yes. Healer Heal Thyself. How big a problem is mental health for health practitioners?

Australian Mental Health 

Petrea King: [00:17:01] Well, it’s interesting because I just was reading some research this morning that showed that Australian health professionals are amongst the most stressed in the world. 

Well, at a higher level, really, than any other country that was represented. And I think it’s the ongoing nature of this and that we can draw on our reserves for a period of time. But then we really need to be building those reserves on a daily basis and not just running on half-empty because really the greatest gift any of us can give to ourselves, give to our families, give to our patients, our participants is the gift of our own good physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. 

Then we’re going to be useful for something. But if we don’t take good care and right now, we need to have a laser focus and might need to revisit the things that normally replenish you because you may need some new things at the moment.

Petrea King: [00:18:09] You know, oftentimes we realise yes, having some quiet time every day is really important, but oh, I’m too busy. And so we let it go. And yet your brain will function so much better if you give it that deep rest so that your brain can do its own housekeeping. 

We need to be sleeping really well because you know your glymphatic system turns on when your stomach’s empty and you’re in deep sleep, and that’s where your brain is being looked after, you know, getting rid of connections we don’t need, laying down long-term memory. So our sleep is really important.

Nutrition, of course, is of prime importance at the moment. We really need to be eating for our microbiome because that’s the seat of our health and we’re far outnumbered by bugs. And really, we need to be thinking about, well, what what is my microbiome want to eat rather than what does my tongue enjoy to taste? 

And we know that 95% of our serotonin receptors are in the gut, and that’s our happy feel-good stuff that’s made by gut bacteria, not by human cells, only a small amount by human cells. So we need to be addressing our physical body through nutrition, sleep, exercise because a lot of us are now more sedentary. We need to quieten down that brain so that we can begin to hear from our first nature, not just trot out whatever second nature to us.

Petrea King: [00:19:48] We need to become aware of our thoughts and our feelings and be more mindful of what’s going on in our brains so that we have the greatest skill. So there’s a lot that we need to proactively engage in right now. And people often say, “Oh, but I don’t have time.” And the fact is you get 168 hours every week. 

Whenever I ask, “People hands up how many people feel like they own every one of their 168 hours?” My hands, usually the only one that goes up, and the chances are you could be resenting some of the ones that you think other people have got a claim on. 

So we want to reclaim our 168 hours, divvy them up so that we replenish ourselves first before the kids, before the partner, before the patients. First, replenish yourself. Then you bring your well-replenish self to the challenge, the drama, the chaos, and you get to function much better. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:20:50] Hmm. Well, I think the timing of the conference couldn’t actually be more appropriate. It is one of our biggest challenges now is mental health. When you reflect on this pandemic and how it’s going, how it’s being. I mean, I know our freedoms are being undermined, but how are you seeing the whole thing? I’m interested in your perspective. 

Petrea King: [00:21:13] Look for some of us the pandemic has worked extremely well because we’ve had a lot more time at home. We’ve been with our loved ones. We’ve not suffered, I have not suffered during the pandemic at all. I’m surrounded by nature. I’m incredibly blessed and there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not deeply grateful for that. But that’s not everyone’s experience by a long shot.

So for a lot of people, this has been that experience that will stop them in their tracks and cause them to think about those perhaps more existential questions. “Who am I? Actually, I don’t want to go back. I know what I don’t want anymore in my life. I’m not quite sure what I do want, but I definitely know I don’t want to go back.” So I think a lot of people are going through this reflective time. 

Now, a lot of people, of course, don’t even have time to reflect because they’re up to here with financial worries, with homeschooling, with teaching a class as well as how does that work for teachers who were teaching a class as well as homeschooling their own children? You know, these are enormous and unrealistic pressures.

Petrea King: [00:22:35] So I’ve been asked a lot lately whether it’s to speak to all the faculty of private schools, whether it’s to talk to vets, which I’m doing through Blackmore’s. You know, we’re going to talk to have like a support group for vets because we know vets have a tremendous amount of stress in their life. I’ll be doing some through AIMA so that doctors can also have an opportunity for a fortnightly or monthly check-in in a support group facilitated online support group. 

So this is springing up in so many different arenas now that people are needing a safe environment in which they can talk about what’s going on for them without trying to keep up appearances where we can just be honest with one another and find that actually we’re all feeling many similar things, and this has the potential to be an incredibly inspiring and positive transformation in the world. We have a choice in that right now.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:23:46] Yes, I agree with you. I think this is a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect and sort out what is important. You mentioned that Quest For Life has now, because you’re not face to face, has now some online offerings as well, which I think will be interesting to share with our listeners because this is an opportunity to connect with all that you’re talking about.

Petrea King’s Online workshop

Petrea King: [00:24:08] Yes. Well, for the last couple of years or more now, I’ve been running just a little chat and a meditation for about half an hour, 40 minutes every Monday evening. And that’s through the Facebook through Petrea King Meditation Group. It’s about 4000 people in that group all over the world, and some people join us live at half-past seven on a Monday evening and some people at different times so all of those practises remain there. There are hundreds of them now because I’ve been doing it for a couple of years.

Also, some of our facilitators are there online every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 11 am till 11:30, and they might unpack something about managing anxiety or fear or sleep or whatever, but very practical things.

Petrea King: [00:25:00] Then we have Quest Connect on the first Sunday of every month from two to three p.m. That’s through the Quest Facebook page, so people are welcome to go to the Quest For Life website, so it’s questforlife.org.au and all of our online, there are a lot of free offerings there, and there are a lot of paid offerings as well.

So at the moment, we have one for people with post-traumatic stress injuries, just a two-hour session over three nights. We have three-day online programmes. We have all different kinds so people can access those, as well as the support groups, said that I’m facilitating online through AIMA and through Blackmore’s

So we hope to be able to provide a lot more because we’re getting used to this environment now online and I’ve been very inspired and amazed by the depths of vulnerability and that people are willing to have in an online forum. And so it can be a very powerful way of us joining together. We need to reach out and feel connected to like minded people at the moment. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:26:13] And I think a big part of that is feeling safe and in that environment, and I can only imagine the, you know, how safe people feel in your presence there with all your team as well. The people we took a step back and I just want to finish up, but we took a step back from this pandemic. 

And if I was to ask you, you know, we’re on our health journey through life in this modern world, putting aside the pandemic, what do you think one of the biggest challenges is for individuals on that journey?

The Biggest Health Challenge

Petrea King: [00:26:44] Probably resolving past issues? Hmm. Because a lot of people kind of suppressor submerge trauma from the past, and I’m not talking about a major trauma like crime and violence and sexual assault. 

And, you know, we certainly see plenty of those people, too. But there are many little traumas that happen as we grow up where we felt our needs weren’t met or we felt abandoned or whatever it was, you know. And the problem with the default mode network is that it just causes us to react from these past traumas until we acknowledge they exist.

We deal with them and learn how to engage better at the task-positive networks. We want to be able to use the brain. Not your brain, you’ve got a brain, and it makes a great servant, but a shocker of a master.

Petrea King: [00:27:42] And so maybe the greatest challenge that we all have is learning to master our brain, and that means that we do need to bring to consciousness the trauma that we might have experienced with the tears. Write about it, read about it, talk about it, dance it, sing it, whatever you need to do to until you can say, “Yep, that happened, and it’s part of my story, but I’m no longer living in this story. 

I have a story and I’m grateful for that story because those are the things that broke me open that caused me to explore parts of myself like never willingly go to. So I have a story, but I sure don’t live in that story”.

And I think that is a liberation that is just so wonderful that we are no longer limited by our history and that we can heal ourselves from past trauma. And then really, all that matters is being in service to life because that’s where joy lies is in our ability to be in service in some way through art, through the way we cook a meal, through our clients, our patients. Our participants, through our interactions, our relationships, how can we be in service to life? How can we bring a bit of love and life into the world?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:29:11] Well, what a great note to finish on. And Petrea, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your wisdom and wonderful insights with us.

Petrea King: [00:29:18] That’s a pleasure, Ron. So nice to see you again.

Conclusion 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:29:24] I love talking to Petrea. Many years ago, she and I were on a programme, actually, she mentioned the word AIMA, which is the Australasian Integrated Medical Association, which I’m very proud to be a member of. 

And we were on a programme together over 20 years ago, and Petrea gave a terrific presentation. But she said something which has stayed with me to this very day and actually it has informed much of what I do. 

And she said her favourite bumper sticker was “My karma just ran over your dogma.” And I just thought that was brilliant. And I still do to this day. And I think that we are surrounded by so much dogma, it’s actually even more relevant today than it was then. My karma ran over your dogma.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:30:18] Now she mentioned two things the default mode network, which is a group of brain regions that seem to show lower levels of activity when you are engaged in a particular task, like paying attention, and high levels of activity when we are awake and not involved in any specific mental exercise. 

There’s a tendency towards negativity is what the brain’s default mode network is suggested that it might be about. Perhaps that’s a protective or cautious thing. Some people have suggested that it’s associated with introspective thought, including activities like daydreaming or retrieving memories.

Now what’s interesting about the default mode network is we’ve done a programme from Mind Medicine Australia, and we’re going to catch up with him again soon because that’s all about Psychedelics and MDMA and psilocybin mushrooms and all of that. 

And many people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder have had that kind of psychedelic therapy and have actually come through have overcome the condition. And that is quite a breakthrough. And many people who have been on that therapy describe it as one of the five top experiences in their life. And it’s done not socially, not recreationally, but it’s done in a very controlled environment with proper support.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:31:44] And one postulation is that the default mode network is activated so that memories and emotions and all that all the connections within the brain re-established, which during the traumatic experience, you end up apparently going through just round and round in a bind if you like. 

And actually, it’s interesting that meditation is said to improve the default mode network as well. So I thought that was interesting to hear Petrea discuss that and also introduced me to the Task Positive Network, which is active during attention, demanding tasks. And includes our conscious attention towards the external environment, which we may also refer to as being present. And she was encouraging us to be far more present.

Look, I just think what Patricia does, her organisation, Quest For Life, is phenomenal. We will, of course, have links to the Quest For Life website. That’s questforlife.org.au, and there are some great facilities there. There are some great programmes there. It covers so many bases and how you want to think about being proactive. 

I mean, in this time of reflection and new beginnings and new priorities, what a way to really help organise your thoughts than being proactive in one of those programmes. Anyway, I hope this finds you well. Until next time. This is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Be well.

 

This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.