Sheila Hamilton is an Emmy Award-winning radio personality who hosts shows on KINK-FM and KXL. She was recently voted Oregon’s best radio personality.
But there’s a lot more to Hamilton than what you hear on the radio. She should be voted “most able to cope with life’s sudden crises.”
About 20 years ago, her estranged husband killed himself, leaving Hamilton with a young daughter, a house and mountains of debt.
“I had a major panic attack,” she says. “I thought I was dying. He left me with enormous debt and I was worried whether I could keep the house, keep my daughter in school. I worried that if I die, my daughter would be an orphan.”
She got through it by learning how to breathe. She began to be present in each moment, and became aware of her thought patterns. Her meditation, walks and work has sustained an overall feeling of well-being.
Eventually, Hamilton wrote a book titled “All the Things We Never Knew,” that dealt with her husband’s depression and suicide. Since its publication, she has been leading workshops and lectures throughout the United States on the topic of mental illness and resilience.
She believes teaching coping skills to today’s youth is even more valuable than preparing them for college entrance exams.
“We should be teaching emotional coping skills at an early age,” Hamilton says. “It should be part of the curriculum in schools. Recognizing what we are thinking and doing to our peers and ourselves is important.”
Too many children are being medicated with poor results and only temporary relief, she says.
“Coping skills can take us through life,” Hamilton says. “I’m pleased to know that 280 schools in this country have added the ‘Mindful Schools’ curriculum for teachers and young people. Students are learning impulse control and how their playground activities affect themselves and others.”
There is no charge for the nonprofit program, which includes instruction on stress management, emotion regulation and interpersonal skills.
Hamilton credits mindful meditation for helping her cope with her husband’s suicide, as well as another trauma she experienced last year — when her daughter Sophia was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia.
When she first heard the diagnosis, and during Sophia’s chemotherapy, Hamilton found herself “sinking into sadness,” she says. “At first, my mind went to the worst things for my daughter — wheelchairs, having no children, me taking care of an adult child the rest of my life.”
But, “I didn’t spend a lot of time there,” Hamilton says. “My mindfulness practice taught me to ask myself, ‘What is happening in this moment? What proof do I have of all my fears?’ My brain wanted to glom onto the most dramatic and stressful thoughts. This is part of being human. We are wired to think like this because we have evolved from when we feared lions. Instead, I asked myself, ‘What is true this moment?’”
Having developed tools through mindfulness meditation, she was able to stay with her thoughts, analyze them and deal with the moment rather than be swept up in anxieties.
Years of research and development have demonstrated that mindful-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy have been effective, she says; and that the moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, emotions, sensations and surrounding environment has had positive neurobiological impacts.
“Research has identified how depression and emotional stress cause biochemical changes in our brains,” Hamilton says. “We have to remember that medications stop working after a while and learning coping skills is a more sustainable path.”
Fortunately, Sophia responded well to her cancer treatment. She went from a cancer cell count of 450,000 to 4,000 in just five or six weeks, “an incredible turnaround and a testimony to modern research,” Hamilton says.
Sophia now takes a daily medication, and is back at Stanford University where she participated in a 12-week study program in Italy.
Looking back on the experience, Hamilton says she realizes how lucky she was to have such a large support system. While in the hospital, Sophia saw another cancer patient who had no visitors and no one to help him pick up his prescriptions. This made her aware of how fortunate she was.
She believes her daughter has benefitted from her mother’s influence, although she was unaware of how much until this recent crisis.
“She sees the world deeper than other kids her age,” Hamilton says.