Category Archives: Holidays

The Importance of Gratitude

For Canadians, this weekend is Thanksgiving–a time to get together with family and friends, eat copious amounts of food and think about what/who we are thankful for. While as a culture we have set aside Thanksgiving to be a time of gratitude, I suggest that gratitude is something we should be aware of daily.

What is Gratitude?

One of my recent, favourite books is The Book of Joy:  Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, written by Douglas Abrams.  In April 2015, Archbishop Tutu and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama spent five days together in Dharamsala, India, to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday and to discuss, in detail, their thoughts on joy (it’s nature, components, and the obstacles to experiencing it).  The details of these conversations were chronicled by Abrams and compiled into this book.

How do these esteemed spiritual leaders define gratitude?

“Gratitude is the recognition of all that holds us in the web of life and all that has made it possible to have the life that we have and the moment we are experiencing.  Thanksgiving is a natural response to life and may be the only way to savour it.”

While gratitude may be a natural response to life, our experiences aren’t always positive.  What about thankfulness when life is difficult?

Gratitude When The Going Gets Rough

The opening sentences in M. Scott Peck’s classic book The Road Less Traveled is:  “Life is difficult.  This is a great truth.  One of the greatest truths.”  We know this.  As humans, we experience grief, loss, stress, sickness, anger, anxiety. Our fellow humans disappoint us, or we disappoint ourselves.  “Life is difficult.”

However, what if there are seams of light, threaded throughout the difficulty? If we can trust that they are there, thankfulness helps us to recognize these glimmers in the dark.

Why Practice Gratitude?

As human beings it’s easy to get stuck in the “full catastrophe”of our lives–the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s often hard to look up from our challenges, and it’s easy to take our good fortune for granted.  As Joni Mitchell famously sang in Big Yellow Taxi, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone”.  That’s why it’s important that we focus and be grateful for what is in our lives in this moment.

Abrams writes:

“Both Christian and Buddhist traditions, perhaps all spiritual traditions, recognize the importance of gratefulness.  It allows us to shift our perspective, as the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop counseled, toward all we have been given and all that we have.  It moves us away from the narrow-minded focus on fault and lack and to the wider perspective of benefit and abundance.”

The magic of gratitude comes from this shift in perspective.  When we are grateful, the glass is no longer half empty, but half full.

When I work with individuals who are coping with challenges, we often explore their history for times when they have survived and grown from past difficulties.  As we look at what they learned and the resiliency gained from this experiences, they may feel thankful.  While they wouldn’t want to re-live the rough times, in hindsight, they also wouldn’t ask to have them taken away–the benefits are too great.  This new perspective helps them to see the opportunities for growth in their current situation.

A Way to Practice Gratitude

One of the easiest ways to practice gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. At the end of the day, take some time to reflect on the day and what gave you joy.  What helped you to learn or grow? Did an interaction with someone give you a lift?  Were you able to help someone else? Perhaps, not all the events were positive, and look for the benefits in those as well. Maybe your flat tire gave you a chance to relax while you waited for CAA. Maybe you kept your cool during a conflict. Think about the seams of light in the darkness.

Once you have thought about the day, pick a few to write about.

The benefits of this practice are a change of perspective (as discussed above), as well as an increasing sense of awareness.  When we commit to this daily exercise, we start to be mindful of things we can be thankful for. As we practice, our gratitude grows.

Gratitude is an enhancement to life.

Now, one of the best gratitude songs of all time…Enjoy!  And Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

 

It’s Groundhog Day! Are you SAD?

We are a hardy people living in the northern hemisphere!  While we may enjoy snowy and cold activities–we also lust for spring–especially  after an especially cold, dark or wet winter.  Whether it’s a longing for spring or the desire for a distraction from the cold, enter Ground Hog Day!

First popular in 1956, February 2nd is set aside each year as a day to place our faith in the predictions of a ground hog to forecast the coming of spring.  While Wiarton Willie (an albino ground hog from Wiarton, Ontario) was the original weather-forecasting rodent, he has been joined by Shubenacadie Sam (Nova Scotia), Gary the Ground Hog (Ontario), Balzac Billy (Alberta) and Brandon Bob (Manitoba).

For those who are unaware of the process–people get up before dawn to wait for their groundhog of choice to come out of his den.  If the animal sees his shadow, he flees back into his den and we’re destined for six more weeks of winter.  If not, spring is on the way.

According to Willie’s website, he has been able to predict Spring with a 90% accuracy rate.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

All fun aside, some people need spring, and the longer hours of daylight, for bigger reasons than to get a break from the cold and dark.  These are people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD is a type of depression that is related to the change of season.  It is experienced by individuals who are not usually depressed at other times of the year.  It often begins, and ends, at the same time every year.  While most people who suffer from SAD do so in the winter, some may do so in the summer instead.

How Do I Know If I Have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

There are a variety of symptoms that people coping with SAD are dealing with.  These include:

  • Low energy
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
What Causes SAD?

While there are no known clear-cut causes, we do have some ideas of what may bring on SAD.

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm).The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels.A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels.The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
What Can I Do?

There are many ways that you can cope with SAD symptoms.   Depending on the severity of your symptoms, some or all may help.

Increase Your Exercise
While it’s easy to hunker down during the winter, especially when feeling depressed, increasing your level of exercise has been shown to improve negative effects of SAD. Exercise releases endorphins (the ‘feel good’)  hormone as well as improving seratonin levels.

Cut Back on Simple Carbs
During cold days, when we spend more time on the couch, we may also be spending more time with white pasta, candy, potato chips, cookies and other ‘comfort’ foods. Unfortunately, these foods cause sharp spikes in our glucose levels that play havoc with our moods.  If you’re suffering with Seasonal Affective Disorder, it’s a good idea to pay special attention to eating well.

Take Advantage of Natural Light
When possible open your drapes or shutters to let in the sun (when it makes an appearance!).  Spend time outside by going for a walk, shoveling the driveway, or inviting friends over for a snowball fight or snowman-building competition.  As long as you dress warmly, it can be fun.

Use a Natural Spectrum Energy Light
If Mother Nature doesn’t provide enough natural light, box light therapy is an alternative. Natural spectrum energy lights mimic the sun’s rays.  While data on the results of these lights is mixed, many people say that they are helpful.

Make a Point of Socializing
When we’re feeling depressed, often the last thing we want to do is be with other people. However, this is often what is needed.  If possible, plan a regular get-together with friends–even a coffee date will do.

Meet with a Therapist and/or Medical Professional
As with any form of depression, sometimes it becomes difficult to cope with.  If you are feeling unsafe, hopeless, attempting to self-soothe with self-harming behaviours, alcohol or drugs, feel that SAD is taking over life or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for professional help ASAP.  You don’t have to cope with this alone.

Spring, and with it warmer and longer days, will come again!  For laughter…here’s a clip from the iconic movie Ground Hog Day…featuring the famous Punxsutawney Phil (Pennsylvania’s Ground Hog)….and Bill Murray.  (Spoiler alert…contrary to what the ending looks like…they survive!).  Enjoy!

 

Happy New Year 2017! Do you have Resolutions?

fireworksWelcome to 2017 and the first blog post at Blaikie Psychotherapy! My hope is that you will find them useful and thought-provoking.

As humans, we are fascinated by new beginnings. It’s an opportunity to turn the page on what has gone before and start again. While some people see the beginning of a new school year in this light, the clicking over into a new calendar year is culturally treated as a chance to sweep out the old and bring in the new. Some people, myself included, like to clean house and put away Christmas decorations on New Year’s Day as a way to welcome the new year.

A big component of this ‘starting over’ philosophy is New Year’s resolutions. The idea that we set intentions for the New Year has become such a large part of our cultural experience, that talking about our resolutions is a frequent topic of conversation in the time between December 26 and midnight on the 31st.

A web search for New Year’s resolutions shows 3,700,000 results–everything from why we should make them, how to make them, how to keep them, and statistics on if we keep them. According to one site, the top 10 resolutions for 2015 were: lose weight/exercise more, stop smoking, drink less, eat healthier food, spend less/save more, learn new things, travel, give back to the community and spend more time with family. All admirable goals; and we all know how busy the gym gets in January, only to fall back to normal levels in February!

A Problem with New Year’s Resolutions

I have to admit that I have a problem with New Year’s resolutions. After decades of falling short on the ones I’ve set, I wonder if we are set up to fail. There’s something about the ‘stroke of midnight’ starter’s pistol…ready, set, eat healthy food!…that feels abrupt. All the top 10 resolutions involve lifestyle changes. Lifestyle changes require planning, dedication and support. With all the business of the holidays, I was never able to find the time to plan for January lifestyle changes.

Let’s take the resolution to stop smoking for example: are you a person who can quit cold-turkey or do you need to taper off? Do you need medical support to conquer this addiction? Do family members and/or friends smoke? Have you thought about how not smoking may affect these relationships or spoken to them about the change you want to make? Will they be supportive in whatever way you need?

We can do the same exercise for any resolutions.

This year, my resolution will be to encourage gentleness—both to myself and others. This means that I will try to accept others and myself as we are. Holding the both/and of who we are now along with the people that we would like to become as we experience life—and being OK with both. Rather than a change that will start at the stroke of midnight on January 1, it will be a way of being that I hope to grow into. I know that I may not always be successful, and that there is value in the attempt.

Happy New Year! I wish you all the gentleness, peace, health and joy that exist.

Now, on a lighter note, let’s dance into the new year.