Are you Rooted?

Are you rooted?  If you are a gardener, your first thought may be about plants; but I’m talking about being connected to a place.

When our children were preschoolers, my husband and I seriously considered moving  from our home to a bigger city in order to be closer to family members.  We had arrived in our city due  to employment, and the plan had been to stay for a few years before moving on.

As part of the decision-making process we listed all the things that we would like to have in a new community.  What would we miss by moving away?  How could we replace the doctor we relied upon, my hairstylist who had been part of our children’s first haircuts? Where could we find a neighbourhood park that we loved as much as the one we already had?  What about our friends and neighbours?

After creating many lists of the pros and cons of going vs. staying; we decided to stay. We could visit family, and so many things about our community were irreplaceable. We were rooted.

The Importance of Being Rooted

“To be rooted”, philosopher Simone Weil once wrote, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”  When we are rooted, we feel that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves.  We have a vested interest in the health of our community.  We develop a sense of ‘hometown pride’.  We care.

When we feel attached to our community, we’re more likely to be social and volunteer. We feel a connection to our local economy and may support neigbourhood businesses by spending our money locally.  As we learn more about our community, we may support local farmers at the market or join a Community Shared Agriculture group.

A key benefit is that the system is reciprocal…when we give to our community, it gives back.  Our support systems grow, there are more local choices, and there is a sense of belonging that we experience when we walk down the street and say ‘hello’ to people that we know, or the local barrista already knows our order when we walk in the cafe.

Being Rooted in our Community is Good for Us

Research confirms that being rooted in our community is good for us.  In the July/August 2016 issue of  Psychology Today,  author Melody Warnick (in her article”Right Where You Belong“) describes a study conducted in Tokyo.  This study discovered that elderly Japanese women who felt attached to their neighbourhood were more likely to be alive five years later than were women who didn’t care about their communities.  For women who liked where they lived and also interacted with their neighbours, their chance of survival compared to more ambivalent residents increased by 6 percent.

In her book Lonely:  Learning to Live with Solitude, Emily White describes her experience with loneliness.  She cites many studies that show the connection between loneliness, loss of health and increased mortality.  However, we may be less lonely and have an already-developed support system in place when we are rooted in our community.  These support systems are there when life becomes difficult.

Rootedness In Practice

When I think about support systems, I  often remember a particular example of individuals being rooted in their community.  There was a group of widows that attended the same church.  As Sundays can be difficult for people on their own, this group of women would plan a day’s worth of activities (church and lunch, followed by a matinee or concert).  By the time each arrived home, the day was mostly over– they had connected to others and enjoyed themselves.  These women made a point of including anyone they knew who needed to take part in this group–especially new widows.  Participation ebbed and flowed, and the group continued to be there when needed.  They looked out for each other.

Being Rooted Takes Effort

Being rooted and building community are reciprocal, and takes effort.  For many years a laminated copy of this poster hung beside our door.  It was a reminder of how to grow roots.  It recommended:

  • Turn off your TV
  • Leave your house
  • Know your neighbors
  • Look up when you are walking
  • Greet people
  • Sit on your stoop
  • Plant flowers
  • Use your library
  • Play together
  • Buy from local merchants
  • Share what you have
  • Help a lost dog
  • Take children to the park
  • Garden together
  • Support neighborhood schools
  • Fix it even if you didn’t break it
  • Have potlucks
  • Honor elders
  • Pick up litter
  • Read stories aloud
  • Dance in the street
  • Talk to the mail carrier
  • Listen to the birds
  • Put up a swing
  • Help carry something heavy
  • Barter for your goods
  • Start a tradition
  • Ask a question
  • Hire young people for odd jobs
  • Organize a block party
  • Bake extra and share
  • Ask for help when you need it
  • Open your shades
  • Sing together
  • Share your skills
  • Take back the night
  • Turn up the music
  • Turn down the music
  • Listen before you react to anger
  • Mediate a conflict
  • Seek to understand
  • Learn from new and uncomfortable angles
  • Know that no one is silent although many are not heard. Work to change this.

These ideas may sound like a lot of work, and the payback is tremendous–much more than is originally put in…and it’s good for us and others!

Now, for a flashback to how some of us learned about community; here’s some vintage Sesame Street.  Enjoy!



8 Frequently Asked Questions About Therapy

When someone learns that I’m a psychotherapist, I’m often told that they think they should “talk to someone”, but that the whole idea is overwhelming and scary.  I understand their fear and hesitation.  Talking to someone that you don’t know about personal things is really difficult…and that’s after you’ve gone through the process of finding someone.  The goal of this post is to answer some of the frequently asked questions that I get, in the hope that contacting a therapist will be less intimidating and you will be able to find the right therapist for you.

Why would I want to talk to a therapist?

People usually decide to talk to a therapist when the pain of what they are trying to cope with becomes too big for them to handle on their own and they recognize they need help.  For more ideas, this previous blog post gives 10 reasons why you may want to see a therapist.

How can I find a therapist?

Once you’ve decided that you would like to speak to a therapist, here are a few different ways to find one:

Referral from a friend or family member.  While seeing a therapist is not something we often share with others, in our close relationships we may know of someone who is.  If you feel comfortable disclosing to this person, you can ask if they are happy with their therapist and ask for their contact information.

Web Searches.  You can search on-line for a therapist in your  area.  Psychology Today and Theravive are two sites that provide listings of local therapists.  Professionals on both sites have been vetted for their credentials.  There is detailed information about their specialties and links to the therapists’ website if they have one.

Health Professional Referrals.  Medical professionals (doctors, chiropractors, massage therapists, naturopaths) often have a referral list for therapists.  There is a connection between physical and mental health.  Sometimes health professionals will suggest counselling and provide a list of potential therapists.  If not, and you want a referral, all you need to do is ask.

What should I be looking for?

There are lots of very good therapists out there–doing all types of therapy.  However, studies show that more important than the type of therapy, the biggest indicator of client success is the therapeutic relationship that develops between the therapist and client.  In other words…there needs to be a ‘good fit’.

If possible, have a phone or email conversation when you first make contact with a potential therapist.  Ask if this person has experience in helping people to deal with your area of concern.  If that goes well, then book a first meeting.  You will have to pay for the first session, but it’s money well-spent if you decide that this isn’t the therapist for you.  Trust your instincts.  Your friend may feel comfortable with their therapist, but that doesn’t mean she’s ‘your’ therapist.

What happens in a therapy session?  Do I have to lie on a couch?

Lying on a couch is no longer required!  Instead, clients come into an office (that’s usually quite comfortable) and talk to the therapist.  Sometimes the therapist will have a plan for what to talk about during that session; at other times, the client drives the conversation.

I’ve found it helps clients to have an idea of what will happen in a session, so I have a basic structure.  The session starts with the client telling me about what has been happening for them since our last meeting.  We check in on any homework that was suggested.  I ask the client if there is anything they want to talk about.  Normally the client has outlined goals for therapy (what they would like to be different when therapy is finished) and that always provides areas for conversations.

This is your therapy, so again you get to choose!

How long will I be in therapy?  Do I have to go forever?

While therapists learn various types of therapies (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Emotionally Focused Therapy, etc.), therapy is also an art.  Every client is different, with different needs for the amount of time they will be seeing a therapist.

Personally, I operate from the perspective of ‘this is your therapy’ and you get to choose.  If a client is in crisis, then I suggest meeting weekly until things become more stable.  Once the crisis is past, we move to bi-weekly or even monthly.  It depends on what the client chooses as well as what is in their best interest therapeutically.  Ethically, a therapist shouldn’t want a client to have to come forever.  The overall goal is that people feel better and go back to their lives.

Once clients ‘graduate’ from seeing their therapist, many treat their therapist as one more tool in their health toolbox–checking in when necessary.

How does confidentiality work?

Basically, whatever you say in therapy, stays in therapy.  However, there are times when a therapist is legally obligated to break confidentiality:

  • Harm to self or others.  If a therapist believes that you are in imminent danger of hurting yourself or someone else, a family member, police or ambulance will be called to ensure safety.
  • A child under the age of 16 or older adult in care is in danger.  In these cases Family and Children’s Services or the police will be called.
  • Your files are subpoenaed by the court or by the College of Registered Psychotherapists.
  • A client experienced a health emergency during a session.  In this case, medical staff would be provided only with necessary information.  No information  about why a client is in therapy will be shared.

Some therapists (myself included) carry confidentiality into the community.  I inform clients that if I see them in the community I will not say hello.  I don’t want to put anyone is a situation where they have to explain how they know me.  I am always open to speaking to clients outside of the office, but they get to make first contact.

My benefits plan covers services provided by a psychiatrist, psychologist, psychotherapist or social worker.  What’s the difference?

Since each of these professionals can provide mental health services, it can be confusing to figure out which one is right for you.  The best way to explain it is by breaking down the services they provide.

Psychiatrist:  A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (MD) who has done extra training in psychiatry.  Psychiatrists are able to diagnose a mental health issue, such as schizophrenia, and prescribe any necessary medication.  Some psychiatrists provide therapy to their patients, but due to the shortage of psychiatrists, in my experience they usually  provide diagnosis and medication management.  Psychiatrists may refer their patients to counsellors for therapy.

Psychologist:  Psychologists hold at least a Masters degree in psychology.  They are qualified to diagnose mental health issues, but not prescribe medication.  Some will do counselling.

Social Worker:  Social workers can be put broadly into two camps…clinical (do counselling) and community.  Community social workers do such activities as working for Family and Children’s Services providing case support and assessments, helping governments or local agencies with social policy, etc.  Social workers can either have a Bachelors degree (BSW) or Masters degree (MSW).  All social workers must belong to the College of Social Workers in order to practice.

Psychotherapists:  Psychotherapists are counsellors.  That is our speciality.  We hold a Masters degree (or equivalent) in psychotherapy and must be registered with the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario (CRPO).  If I have a suspicion that a client may be dealing with a specific issue that would benefit from a diagnosis or an exploration of the use of medication, I will suggest that the client talk to their family doctor.

I don’t have benefits, and can’t afford to pay out of pocket.  Is there anywhere I can go?

Seeing a therapist is expensive and not everyone is covered under benefits.  Some therapists provide a sliding scale or see different groups of clients at a discounted rate.  Many agencies (KW Counselling, Carizon, etc.) have a sliding scale based on income.  As well, agencies such as KW Counselling offer free weekly drop in counselling services.

Making the decision to talk to a therapist takes courage…and studies show that counselling works!

And now…Bob Newhart shows us the type of therapist we may not want to see.  Enjoy!

Once We’re Gone…

Unless we are presented with an opportunity to think about our own death (a diagnosis, loss of a loved one, serious car accident), it isn’t something that most of us want to spend time doing.  If left to our own devices, we tend to imagine that we’ll live, if not forever, at least for a very long time.  However, once in a while, we are given a non-traumatic invitation to think about what will happen once we die.

A while ago I discovered Magareta Magnusson’s book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning:  How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter in my local bookstore.  Having been somewhat captivated by the Marie Kondo phenomenon that swept North America after the publication of her book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I wondered if Magnusson’s book was going to be more of the same.  However, I was sold enough on the title to make the purchase. What followed was a trip I hadn’t expected.

Down the Rabbit Hole

This is a deceptively simple book.  It can be read in an evening.  Rather than finding directions on the correct way to fold socks and organize my closet, “Death Cleaning” took me down an existential rabbit hole.  It wasn’t only a matter of doing family members the favour of paring down my possessions so that they would not have to take on this task once I am gone–I’m somewhat of a minimalist, so the job should be fairly easy.  Instead, it forced me to look at the items that I have held on to from the perspective of those I have left behind.  Would they know the story of a cherished mug or why I kept a moth-eaten sweater?  What is the ‘value’ of my stuff?  Does it really matter?

As I pondered these questions, I was reminded of a scene from Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel.  Late in life, the main character, Hagar Shipley had her first manicure.  She was so astounded by the positive feelings she experienced during the treatment that, once her nails had grown, she kept the nail clippings in a match box as a reminder of being cared for.  After Hagar’s death, when her children find the box, they can’t understand why their mother would keep such a thing, and put it down to dementia.  Hmmm….

Not Everything Is the Same

Imagine that you are looking at your things through the perspective of your loved ones, after your death.  Some things we leave behind will spark feelings of humour (I can’t believe that Mom kept every card I ever sent!), confusion (a box of nail clippings?  Really?) or neutrality (the contents in the bathroom cupboard).  Unfortunately, some possessions are emotionally charged, and it is these items that require more thought and action.

A Story…

After their mother’s death, Sylvia and her older sibling Paul had the task of cleaning out the family home in preparation for sale.  Their father had died two years before.  As the siblings started working through the house, they were astounded by the amount of things that their parents had collected.  Neither parent had wanted to discard anything, and the house was a museum of their lives together and as a family.

Over time, many car loads of items were taken to charity shops. Family members and friends were invited to choose an item to remember the couple by.  A dumpster was placed in the driveway to get rid of decades of newspapers, magazines and assorted other ‘junk’.

On most weekends, the siblings worked together on this project.  It was going well…until…they found…THE BOX.  Hidden in the back of a closet was a box of journals written by their father.  They covered the years from being newly married until Paul’s birth.  Sylvia and Paul were excited to discover a record of their beloved father’s thoughts and feelings and looked forward to learning more about him–in his own words.  Unfortunately, as they read, their excitement turned to hurt and confusion as they realized that their father had never wanted to have children, but did so as a concession to their mother–whom he had loved deeply.

Suddenly their relationship with their father came under the microscope.  Did he change his mind?  Did he ever love them?  Was the time he spent with them only to please his wife?Since they already had one child, was Sylvia planned?  Because both parents were dead, all these questions were left unanswered.  The siblings could be trying to come to terms with this information for the rest of their lives.

When We’re Ready the Teacher Will Come

As I continued to look at my possessions from the perspective of not being able to explain them to those I leave behind, asking myself what (if anything) I should get rid of now in order to spare them any future pain or misunderstanding; I met Jill Sadler.

Jill is the owner and principal consultant of Parosol.  She describes her company as “estate planning redefined”.  Parosol’s promotion material explains:

“We work with you to document and create a complete care, legacy, health and aging plan that you can share with the important people in your life–making sure your wishes are known and you are in control of your future.”

I wasn’t looking for Jill. Yet she came across my path as I was asking myself difficult questions about how to make decisions easier for my family if I was no longer able to provide direction or explanations.  As I learned more about Jill and her company, I realized that she would be a valuable resource as I move along this path.

Your Mission, If You Choose to Accept It

While the story of Paul and Sylvia is fiction, unfortunately their experience isn’t uncommon.  I have worked with many clients who struggle with information learned after the death of a family member or with having to make decisions without knowing a loved one’s wishes.  And, as I learned from Jill, we don’t have to be dead to be unable to communicate what we want–an incapacitating illness will do it!

I encourage you, no matter your age or life situation, please take some time to look at your ‘personal’ belongings from the perspective of those you leave behind.  It may be a bigger bequest than anything you leave in your will.

And now…for those of you too young to recognize the last heading…some vintage Mission Impossible (before Tom Cruise)!  Enjoy!



Are You Being Mindful? A Primer on Mindfulness


Mindfulness doesn’t go out of style!  The following post is a popular one from the archives.  Enjoy! 

The word “mindfulness” has become very popular over the past few years.  A quick Google keyword search finds about 58,400,000 sites–everything from how to learn mindfulness, business applications, links to books and exercises, organizations, professionals specializing in mindfulness…the list goes on.   Companies such as Google, General Mills and Target have created mindfulness meditation programs for their employees to help them deal with stress and improve their health and productivity.

Advertisers have jumped on the bandwagon and are linking mindfulness practice to their clients’ products to encourage sales…and they can be subtle.

This two-minute commercial was made for and funded by a mindfulness app called Calm.  While it appears to be a ‘non-commercial’ commercial–providing a relaxing break from usual advertising–it’s not.  The Calm app, while free to download and try, costs $9.99 for a monthly subscription or $39.99 for a year.  Mindfulness can be big business!

What is Mindfulness?

While the term “mindfulness” or “mindfulness meditation” may be everywhere in popular culture, what does it really mean?  Mindfulness began as an ancient Buddhist practice that has been adapted for modern use.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Mindfulness for Beginners:  Reclaiming the Present Moment–and Your Life, describes mindfulness as “awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way:  on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

There are different ways to practice mindfulness.  Kabat-Zinn explains, “There are two complementary ways to [practice mindfulness]:  formally and informally.  Formal practice means engaging in making some time every day to practice–with tools such as guided meditations.  Informal practice involves letting the practice spill over into every aspect of your waking life in an uncontrived and natural way.”

In other words, being ‘mindful’ means taking time to ‘be in the moment’ and notice what is happening.  If you are washing the dishes, then you’re washing dishes–take the time to see the wet dishes, feel the water on your hands, experience the weight of the bowl as you place it on the drying rack.

It’s called “practice” because it is something that we commit to doing over and over again–and it’s impossible to do it incorrectly.  The benefit is in showing up!

Benefits of Mindfulness Practice

So what are the benefits of mindfulness practice?  In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) clinic at the UMass Medical School.  The program teaches Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness meditation techniques to individuals coping with a variety of physical and mental health challenges.

Over the past almost 40 years the program has been the subject of research by the Medical School to determine MBSR’s effectiveness.  In short, the results have been amazing, as people meditating for as little as a few minutes per day have seen a decrease in their symptoms and an increase in the effectiveness of their medications.  In some cases, patients have been able to lower and stop taking their medications.  If you would like more information about the program and research, check out the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the UMass Medical School.

Personally, and in my work with clients, I have discovered the benefits of practice as a way to lower stress and anxiety levels.  Clients have reported that they feel less reactive to difficult people and situations.  When I teach the breathing exercises in sessions, clients report that they feel more relaxed and are willing to continue to do the exercises between our meetings.

A Mindfulness Exercise

Curious?  Want to try?  Here’s a mindfulness exercise that can give you a quick taste of the experience.  It all starts with chocolate!  To begin, have a small piece of chocolate (or your favourite treat) in front of you.

  • Stand (or sit) still and feel yourself breathing. Listen to the sounds around you.
  • Slowly pick up the piece of chocolate. Feel your hand as it makes contact with the candy.
  • Look at the chocolate. Notice the colour, texture, size, shape.  Feel the weight.
  • Pay attention to any thoughts that are arising about the chocolate.
  • Note any feelings that you are experiencing.
  • If wrapped, slowly unwrap the piece of chocolate. Feel the texture of the wrapping.  Listen to any sounds that the wrapping makes.
  • Slowly put the chocolate in your mouth. Pay attention to the taste.  Feel the texture.
  • Hold the chocolate in your mouth. Enjoy the taste and the sensation of the chocolate.
  • When you are ready, swallow and feel the chocolate as it slides down your throat.
  • Stand still and feel yourself breathing as you rest for a moment.

The idea of informal practice, is to bring the awareness you felt in this exercise to other activities in your life.

Formal Mindfulness Practice

Formal mindfulness practice involves discipline, and as already mentioned, the value is in showing up.  As with any new activities, I recommend you give it a try for a few weeks to see if it makes a difference in how you feel and interact with others.  Discover if it lowers your stress levels.

If you would like to try a type of formal practice, here’s a link to a guided meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  The meditation lasts approximately 20 minutes.  Be aware that there are long stretches of silence during the 20 minutes while you are following the directions.  Enjoy!


The Magic of Non-Verbal Communication

When we look at the family of communication types, sometimes verbal communication is over-rated.  In a world where we are usually bombarded with
noise–traffic, construction, one-sided cell phone conversations–silence can be a gift.  Non-verbal communication is often a gentle, yet powerful, alternative– lovers glancing at each other across a crowded room, the gentle touch of a friend when we are upset, the wink shared with a co-conspirator.   I suggest that there is an intimacy in non-verbal communication that can be missing from it’s louder sibling.

An Experience Without Spoken Language

I recently returned from travelling in an Asian country where English is not the first language.  In fact, where I was staying, most people didn’t speak English at all (or very little).  Other than some rudimentary French, I’m uni-lingual.

Often one of the first questions I received when I returned home was how I coped with no ability to speak the language.  My response–very well!  The question is how–especially when we put such store in verbal communication.

Trust and Vulnerability

I believe that the answer lies in both parties taking part in the ‘dialogue’ being willing to experience vulnerability.  It can be scary not to be able to rely on shared language (verbal or written), and when out of our comfort zone there needs to be an element of trust.  This was a lesson that I learned early in the trip.  As a blond, blue-eyed human; others who saw me could safely assume that I wasn’t from their country.  When I spoke, their suspicions were confirmed.

Where does the trust come in? By being open to the help of strangers.  I lost count of the number of times that I was gently guided by a local person who noticed my confusion when looking at a subway or street sign, or the person at the market who helped me to figure out where to find a desired item.  Many may think that I was naive, and I prefer to balance risk with believing the best of people.

Vulnerability?  I suggest that the individuals who were willing to offer help to a stranger who was a guest in their country required them to step out of their comfort zone.  I could have rejected their aid.  My non-lingual attempts to be understood (usual by making hand gestures or animal sounds–when trying to avoid dairy products) could certainly make those trying to help me ask themselves what they had gotten themselves into!  However, what was happening was the magic of non-verbal communication–the human desire to hear and be heard.  Part of being human is our desire to connect with others.

Non-Verbal Communication In Our Daily Lives

Whether we are aware or not, we use non-verbal communication all the time, and in many different ways.  Already mentioned are  examples like the healing touch of a friend, or meeting a lovers gaze, and there are also the small forms such as motioning a driver to turn ahead of us, or waving at someone across the street.

What about facial expressions?  We don’t like something and we grimace.  We notice a happy baby across the cafe and we smile.  Our partner does something to annoy us and we frown.  Reading facial expressions is now in popular culture with shows like as Lie to Me.   Do a google search on body language and you’ll have close to 73 million sites to explore.  Being able to read non-verbal communications isn’t only of interest to poker players!

Where We Get Into Trouble

Non-verbal communication can wreak havoc in our relationships for two reasons–lack of awareness and assumptions.  One is on the sending side and the other on the receiving side.

An example:  Bob and Sarah meet for coffee after work.  This is a first meeting.  Bob has already arrived and Sarah rushes in a few minutes later.  She throws her bag on the floor and flings herself into a chair.  She sits with her arms crossed and leaning back from the table while smiling/grimacing nervously.  Bob, somewhat taken aback, shifts in his seat, and pulls away from Sarah.

If we could look into the inner world of this couple we would know that Sarah is a high-energy person, who uses big physical gestures as she moves about the world.  She is excited and nervous about meeting Bob.  Bob, simply based on Sarah’s physical communication, assumes that Sarah is angry and doesn’t really want to get to know him.  Sarah’s lack of awareness of how her gestures may be perceived (she wonders why people often ask her if something is wrong), combined with the stories that Bob is telling himself about Sarah may contribute to this being their first and last meeting.

Lack of awareness and making assumptions are more common than you think.  We tell ourselves stories all the time–he doesn’t like me because he pouted when he walked in the room, but what if his chin was itchy?.  She is feeling sad because she is walking slowly, but perhaps she hurt her knee.

What Can We Do?

This is where non-verbal communication’s sibling comes in.  Ask!  “You look angry.  Is everything ok?”   “You don’t seem to be your usual self, what’s up?”  When we take the time to question our assumptions we connect with others–and isn’t that what communication (both verbal and non-verbal) all about?

And now…one of the masters of non-verbal communication–Charlie Chaplin.  Enjoy!



The Anatomy of a Worry

The following content is a summary of information contained in The Cancer Survivor’s Companion:  Practical ways to cope with your feelings after cancer by Dr. Frances Goodhart and Lucy Atkins.  While the book is from the perspective of cancer patients, I believe that much of the information on worrying is applicable to all of us “worriers”.

We all worry.  It’s part of being human.  But if we look closely at a worry, what is it?  How does it work?  What is it made up of?  How do I cope with it?  Can I make it go away?  One way of dealing with a challenge is to intimately understand it–so let’s dissect a worry and see what makes it tick!

What Is A Worry?

Finances…health…job…family members…what others think of us…I bet that we can all give a list of what the topics that we worry about, but what actually is a worry?  Goodhart and Atkins define a worry as “a natural, instinctive, human response to a perceived threat”.  When we worry, we are afraid that something negative is going to happen.  Worries are future-driven.

While worrisome thoughts may cross our minds, worrying becomes a problem when we can’t stop and begin to ruminate on specific ideas.  These thoughts start to take over all of our brain space to the point that we can’t think about anything else. When worrying becomes out of control, we can’t determine between big and small things to worry about–we worry about them all equally.  Our sense of perspective is gone.

Worrying is such a common, human experience that you can buy something to do your worrying for you.  A Worry Bird!  They also come in a charm bracelet version, so you can take it with you!

How Does It Work?

There are four parts to a worry:  thoughts, behaviour, feelings and body sensations.  They are all inter-related and play off of each other.  A body sensation (perhaps a muscle spasm or stomach ache) triggers a thought about a threat which leads to feelings of fear.  This fear may then cause us to stop what we’re doing and focus on the subject that is worrying us (I’m getting sick or my boss wants to get rid of me…), then we’re off to the worry races.

Treating Worry as a Science Experiment

The key to coping with a worry is to learn to handle each of it’s parts:  thoughts, behaviour, feelings and body sensations.  When we can do that, we can break the cycle and decrease the control that worries have over our lives.

One of the ways to get a handle on worry behaviour is to treat it like a science experiment.  The more we know about an activity, the better able we are to change it.  When you find yourself caught in a worry, pay attention.  When did the worry start?  What were you doing at the time?  Was the trigger a feeling, action, body sensation or thought?  As we gather more information, we can start to see trends and triggers.

It’s Usually About Our Thoughts

For most of us, the worry trigger is our thoughts that are fed by thought traps.  Here are some common thought traps that lead us down the path of worrying.

  • Mind reading:  We are mind reading when we are making judgements about what others are thinking.  (“I know that she’s mad at me because she didn’t return my text”.)
  • Fortune telling:  None of us are able to predict the future.  When we make negative assumptions about what will happen, we are giving in to worry.
  • Thinking the worst:  When we are in a worry cycle, we never think the best, but of the most negative possible outcome.  (“My boss is looking for any reason to fire me…if I’m late, I’m going to lose my job.”)
  • Labelling yourself:  These are all the negative “I am” statements that we beat ourselves up with…”I’m lazy”, “I’m dumb”…
  • If…then thinking:  Logic stops being our friend when we link it to thinking the worst.  “If I don’t hear from the recruiter today, then I didn’t get the job.”
  • Should and oughts:  When we ‘should’ or ‘ought’ ourselves, we are putting unrealistic expectations or demands on ourselves.   “Even thought I’m feeling overwhelmed, I should be taking care of everyone else.”
  • Selective thinking:  When we only remember the negative parts of an interaction or situation and forget the positive parts, we are falling into the trap of selective thinking.

Now that we have gathered information, what’s next?

Coping Strategies

One you know your triggers, you are on the way to getting the upper hand on your worry.

If your trigger is a thought:

  • Write down your actual thought.
  • Compare the thought to any of the thought traps listed above.
  • Problem solve about what you can do, if your actual worry became real.
  • Being able to do this exercise takes practice, so in the beginning you can work with someone your trust.

If your trigger is a body sensation:

  • Slow your breathing–counting your breaths as you breath deeply is a useful technique.
  • Exercise–go for a walk, dance around your room, do a few yoga poses–anything that will help to release the energy surge that often accompanies worrying.
  • Relaxation techniques.  There are many guided relaxation exercises on-line.  Check out this link for an example.

If your trigger is a feeling:

Here’s a method for dealing with negative feelings.  Feelings are energy–they arrive, peak, and subside.  When we can recognize their pattern, we can practice sitting with them until they move on.

For example:  When a feeling of fear arrives, try not to get hooked into the ‘story’ of the fear, but watch the ‘fear’.  What does fear feel like in your body?  Do you feel hot or cold?  Does it sit in a particular part of your body that leads to a negative body sensation?  If you don’t feed your fear with thoughts, how big does it get?  How long does it last?  Over time, you will be able to ‘ride the wave’ of feelings/emotions.

If your trigger is a behaviour:

Sometimes a worry begins with an action.  For example, if you are coping with an illness, researching information on the internet may trigger worries about possible diagnosis or outcomes.

Once you know what the triggering behaviour is, you can avoid the behaviour when possible.

While worries are a fact of life, but they don’t have to let them control us.  We can get the upper hand!

And now…some classic Bobby McFerrin…enjoy!


Travel and Therapy–Both Are Adventures

As I continue on my travels, the following post from the archives explores how we can have adventures (in therapy) without even leaving home!

In February 2015, I was able to spend two weeks in Thailand.  While it was a once-in-a-lifetime, amazing trip; getting to my destination was a challenge.  Travel time was over 24 hours door-to-door, including 22 hours on three separate planes.  I arrived in Bangkok feeling exhausted, disoriented and overstimulated.  After leaving cold and snowy Waterloo, walking into a hot and humid Bangkok evening was a shock.  Thailand is 11 hours ahead of Waterloo, making jet lag a factor.

After a good sleep and breakfast, I started taking in my surroundings and appreciating where I was.  Everything was completely different from what I was accustomed to–the food, language, population density, weather, currency and customs.  I had no idea how to get where I wanted to go.  I had been set down into a different world!  Fortunately, I was travelling with family members who knew Thailand well.  They led the way.  I was able to relax into the experience and know that I was safe–even if not always comfortable.

The Connection Between Travel and Therapy

During my trip back home, I mulled over my experiences and wondered about the similarities between travel and taking part in therapy.  Here are a list of the correlations I discovered.

Travel and therapy are often started by choice.
In come cases, people are mandated to attend therapy (court ordered or at the strong request of family and friends). However, individuals, couples and families usually seek therapy because they find themselves at a difficult point in their lives and want some help. When we travel, we usually begin the journey, not because we are in crisis, but because we want to explore new places.  Unless we’re being forced to attend a particular out-of-town event (weddings of third cousins, once removed!) we get to choose.

Therapy and travel can be uncomfortable at the beginning.
Long distance travel is uncomfortable–first and business class passengers, and NEXUS Card holders excepted!  The long lines, security checks, boarding, cramped seating, baggage claims…the list goes on.  However, once you arrive at your destination, the hope is that the scenery, people and once-in-a-lifetime experiences are worth the discomfort.

Let’s look at the similarities with therapy.  At the beginning of a plane trip, you are checked by airport security–questions asked, carry-on searched, and shoes, belts and coats removed.  In therapy, you are not asked to remove your shoes, but the therapist can ask some uncomfortable questions as he or she starts to learn your story about what brings you into therapy.  The topics discussed in sessions can be painful and bring up feelings of guilt, anger, sadness, fear or other difficult emotions.

On long flights, it’s important to bring things that will help you to be comfortable–a neck pillow, warm socks, music.  Therapy is no different.  Sometimes clients will carry something into a session that has meaning for them and provides stability (a picture, piece of jewelry, favourite article of clothing).

I usually check in with clients after a therapy session as to how they plan to take care of themselves for the rest of that day as they make themselves comfortable while their emotions ebb and flow.

Travel and therapy can land us in new and wonderful places.

Travel brochures are created to entice us to take trips.  I grew up in a time when booking on-line wasn’t possible, and the walls of the travel agent’s office were full of racks of booklets touting possible destinations.  Browsing the pamphlets, it was easy to imagine myself hiking across England or lounging on an island beach.

Unlike travel, there may not be exciting brochures promoting therapy.  My office doesn’t have pictures of happy families, loving couples or emotionally centered individuals. The reason for this is that therapy is completely individual.  Unlike a packaged tour, you get to pick where you go in therapy.  What are your goals?  Where do you hope to be at the end?  Your therapy is your therapy. I often ask clients to imagine that if I could wave a magic wand, how would their life be different after we had finish our work together–and that is the road map that we keep in mind when meeting.

Ideally, we have a guide for the journey.

Because I had never been to Thailand before, I really appreciated that my family members knew the terrain.  When I became overwhelmed trying to negotiate the traffic in Bangkok or find our hotel in Chiang Mai, I was able to relax because they knew what they were doing.

While you are the expert on you; during therapy, your therapist is your guide and companion.  Just as I was comfortable with my children showing me around Thailand due to our relationship, it’s very important that you feel that you can rely on the therapist that you have chosen.  When trust has been developed, you are able to relax into the process knowing that your therapist is knowledgeable and has your best interest at heart–even when the going gets tough.  Therapy is often a process of two steps forward/one step back, and it’s important to know that it’s normal to temporarily move backwards.

After travel or therapy, we never quite look at our world in the same way again.

Therapy and travel change the way we see the world. What we see, we can’t ‘unsee’.  After spending time in numerous Buddhist temples and studying the intricate mosaics, I now have a greater appreciation for any mosaic pieces that I encounter at home, or anywhere else that I travel.

When I work with clients, I often explain how certain ideas are relevant to their situation. A popular theory, Triangulation, describes how we often get pulled into being a third person in difficult relationships. This is done in the hope that our involvement will decrease the level of stress felt by the original two people.  Once clients have learned this idea, they often report that they see the dynamic everywhere–at home, work, with friends.  Not only can’t they ‘unsee’ the behaviour, but now they have tools to prevent themselves from being pulled in.

Finally, we are stronger than we think.

Both travel and therapy can be hard.  Depending on the type of travel you like, you may be backpacking and staying in hostels, trekking up the side of mountains and tenting on ledges, or driving a camper van and looking for places to sleep on the spur of the moment. Travel requires ingenuity and stamina.  Even on tours, where everything is provided, can be grueling–ten countries in ten day?!

We are no different during therapy.  Instead of exploring different countries, we’re exploring our past–including the sad and messy bits that we would rather pass over. This too takes strength, stamina and courage.  And we do the work, because the result is worth it.  The plan is that we will feel better at the end of the therapy process than we did at the beginning.

One of the benefits of travel is that we get to do and see things that we don’t at home. Since elephants are not usually found in Kitchener-Waterloo, here’s a video of a baby elephant from a sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Enjoy!



The Grief of Saying Goodbye…to our stuff


The recent Spring-like weather may have some of us thinking about Spring Cleaning!  If this is you, here is a post from the archives that may be helpful.  Enjoy! 

We often think of grief and loss as relating to life events such as the death of a loved one or being let go from a job…but what about, through financial difficulties, divorce or aging, we lose our stuff.

There’s help for the physical process.

I recently met with Susan Kemp of 4 Life’s Transitions (  Susan and her team help families and older adults deal with the issues and challenges of dissolving a lifetime of residential  accumulation.  A large part of Susan’s work is supporting individuals to sort through their belongings with the goal of moving their treasures on to new owners.

As we talked, it became clear that often the most difficult part of this process for people isn’t the physical moving of the items, but the act of letting go.  A table isn’t only a table; it’s the location of countless family dinners and the associated memories.  Even simple items such as a collection of sewing fabric is a reminder of when each piece was purchased, or was left over from making a child’s cherished prom dress.

There are ways to cope with the emotional process.

Some people have no problem saying goodbye to their things as they choose to move them on to others.  In fact, individuals practicing minimalism or simplicity report that the act of downsizing their possessions is emotionally freeing.  The important word here is “choose”.  How do we cope when we are forced to say goodbye to our treasurers or possessions by events beyond our control?

Recognize that the process is difficult.

The process of letting go is hard, so be gentle with yourself.  You know the healthy things that make you happy and help you relax, so make sure you have easy access to these things.  Have  trusted people ‘on call’ who are aware of what you’re doing and can offer support.

Be sure to take frequent breaks–nothing can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed than being tired or hungry.  I often encourage my clients to create a ‘self-care box’ that houses items that they can use to help with calming.  While the contents are individual, some people include a favourite movie, tea, bubble bath, journal, list of phone numbers of supportive friends/family members, etc.

Share the task with a friend or family member.  Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus of “The Minimalists”  describe hosting ‘packing parties’, where they enlisted friends with task of boxing up Ryan’s possessions.  In this way, many people are there to help, and it was a party.

It’s not just about stuff—some items are emotionally loaded.

It’s easy to get blind-sided by the memories of our possessions as we sort through them.  Not only can this add a lot of time to the process, it can also leave us emotionally drained. Besides tapping into the self-care ideas/box mentioned above,  what are your other healthy coping strategies?

Have a ritual for saying goodbye.  Some people take pictures of their possessions before putting them in a box.  This way, they can visit their ‘things’ whenever they want.  Other people will write a farewell note to items that hold special memories.

Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up:  The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, encourages her readers to imagine the new life that their possessions will have when they meet their new owners.  When I chose to donate many of my children’s toys when I downsized my home, it helped to think about the children who would be able to enjoy them.  Especially since my adult children had outgrown the Fischer Price castle!

Control who receives your items.

I recognize that choosing who is to receive your possessions can be tricky.   In some families there is little argument about who is to take home Dad’s stamp collection or Grandma’s favourite china cup.  In others, disagreements about who takes possession of possessions can cause permanent cut-offs between family members.  If you think that your family may fall into the second camp, it’s a good idea to work with a therapist to help sort out the underlying feelings that are leading to these arguments.  Often, the fights are not about the family china, but deeper, undisclosed issues.

On a more positive note, when my grandmother decided to move into a senior’s home and pass on her possessions, she chose who was to receive each item and then spent many years visiting her ‘things’.  Nana reported feeling great joy at seeing how her belongings took on new lives in her grandchildren’s homes.

Tap into your values by supporting a charity.

Donating our items can be a wonderful way to say goodbye.  For some people it gives the process of letting go a sense of meaning.  If your favourite charity doesn’t accept physical items, selling your belongings and donating the money is an alternative.  Some agencies, such as the Mennonite Central Committee will even pick up large items such as furniture.

At the end of the day, it is only ‘stuff’.  As Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff says in the 1938 Academy award winning movie “You Can’t Take It With You”; “As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends”.

If you’re in the middle of packing up your stuff, here’s the link to the radio version of the movie.  Enjoy!



Is This Normal?

Another common question I hear from clients during therapy is “Is this normal?”.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are many definitions depending on the area of ‘normal’ you are looking at.  Since we’re not talking about the areas of science or math, I’m using the definition of “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern” as a jumping off point for this post.

Individually, we often come up with our personal idea of normal by looking and comparing ourselves to others.  That’s how we determine what is the standard or regular pattern.  However, what happens when what we are experiencing is unlike that of our those around us?

Another Definition

Miriam-Webster also defines ‘normal’ as “occurring naturally“.  From a life perspective, I think that this meaning is more helpful, and forgiving.  Every person is an individual–with their own reactions, thoughts, and feelings.  These occur naturally based on our experiences.

In Buddhism there is the concept that we are the sum of our experiences.  We can be a mixture of the happy five year old and the despairing teenager; the ecstatic newlywed and the stressed parent; the toddler and the senior.  It all fits organically into who we are at this moment.  Therefore, while there can be a range of ‘normal’, I suggest that this range is very broad.  The challenge comes when ‘our normal’ negatively effects our life or the lives of those around us.  That’s when we may want to seek help.

The Only Constant Is Change

Another Buddhist concept is that everything changes–nothing stays the same.  This means that we are constantly in transition.  Sometimes the changes are minor–we gain or lose a few kilos, we need to change our route to work, a house plant dies.  At other times, the changes are major–we lose a partner, or we get sick.  Changes don’t always have to be negative.  Maybe a new member joined our family or we started a new relationship, moved to a new city.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Full Catastrophe Living writes:

“Even inanimate material is subject to continual change:  continents, mountains, rocks, beaches, the oceans, the atmosphere, the earth itself, even stars and galaxies all change over time, all evolve, and are spoken of as being born and dying.  We humans live for such a brief time, relatively speaking, that we tend to think of these things as permanent and unchanging.  But they are not.  Nothing is.”

“The point is that life is constant change from the word go.  Our bodies change in countless ways as we grow and develop over the course of a lifetime.  So do our views of the world and of ourselves.  Meanwhile the external environment in which we live is also in continual flux.  In fact, nothing at all is permanent and eternal, although some things appear that way since they are changing so slowly.”

So if everything is in constant change, how do we find normal?

Coping With Change

When we think of change/transitions the concept of resilience comes to mind.  Resiliency is our ability to adjust and recover.  We build our resilience by practicing self-care (sleep, diet, exercise), having realistic expectations about what we can do, avoiding toxic thinking, being able to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing a support system.

When we are able to cope, we are working towards a ‘new normal’.

A Story…

Peggy was an 84 year old woman who had lived in her home for 60 years.  When she arrived to the house as a newlywed, it was a mess.  The previous owner had let the place go, and it was in much need of repair.  Peggy and her husband Ron renovated the home themselves–learning the necessary skills as they went.  Once their children were born, the house moved from it’s new pristine condition to the patina caused by a busy family.

Peggy’s memories were tired to her home.  She could tell  you the origin of each bump on the wall or scratch on the floor.  When working in the kitchen, she could “see” the face of her late husband sitting at the table.  Peggy could “hear” the hurried footsteps of her children as they raced up and down the stairs.  On cold days, she could feel the draft coming through the living room window–the window that had defied their attempts at weather proofing.

Change Arrives

One night, Peggy awoke to the smell of smoke.  Looking outside her bedroom, she saw that the hallway was filled with smoke.  Peggy called 911 from her room and fire fighters were able to rescue her through the window.  As Peggy stood outside, it was clear that the house could not be saved.  The property was well insured.  Peggy would be able to afford a new place, but her home and many of her belongings were gone.

Peggy moved in with her son while the insurance was being settled.  Because she liked her privacy and independence, Peggy knew that living with either of her children was a short-term solution to her housing situation.  After a few months, Peggy found an apartment that she liked.  It was close enough to the library and her favourite grocery store that she could walk there when she wanted to.

The months between the fire and actually settling into her new home were busy. Peggy was distracted from thinking in any great depth about what had happened.  However, once the last of her new furniture was in place and all was quiet, the enormity of the change hit her.

Now what?

The New Normal

How many times have each of us, after a major change, said…”When things get back to normal…”?  But what if the change, like Peggy’s, is the new normal?  What if we have experienced a life-changing event?

Major changes, even good ones, usually involve loss.  Peggy’s loss is easy to see–her home and possessions.  However, some are more difficult to determine, and may not become apparent until we are faced with post-change life.

While Peggy liked her new apartment and it’s proximity to places she regularly visited, she missed the walk through her old neighbourhood.  She was accustomed to checking on the progress of her friends’ gardens or greeting the cat who lived on the corner.  At the beginning Peggy was a little late for appointments because she forgot to factor in the time it took for her to get from her unit to the parking garage.  In the kitchen, preparing meals too a bit longer as she had to hunt to find utensils that were in new places.

Everything felt difficult and feelings of grief began to emerge.

The Mourning Process

When we experience a loss, grief is a natural response.  For Peggy to be able to be able to move to and embrace her new normal, it was important for her to work through the tasks of mourning.  Peggy’s next steps:

Task 1:  Accept the reality of the loss.  Peggy has already started this task as she spends time in her new apartment and becomes aware of how much has changed–both large and small.

Task 2:  Process the pain of grief.  The key to completing this task is to give ourselves permission to feel pain.  Rather than turning away, we acknowledge that we are hurting and missing what we have lost.  When we pay attention to our pain, we may notice that it has isn’t as sharp as before, or doesn’t visit as often.  During the first year in her new home, Peggy would often find herself caught up in a grief cycle, as she moved through the “year of firsts”.  She discovered that if she sat with her tears, they would eventually subside. Peggy learned that she would feel sad leading up to a major family event or holiday.  These celebrations now took place at her son’s home as she no longer had the space.

Task 3:  Adjust to a world without what was lost.  As time went on, Peggy found that she thought about her house less often.  The depth and frequency of her sadness started to ease, and she started to think about what a future in her new home could look like.

Task 4:  Start a new life, while keeping a connection to what was lost.  One day Peggy was surprised to notice that she was looking forward to her walk to the library.  She had started to pay attention to the houses on her route, and was curious to see how a recently-started renovation was going.  When the next family event approached, Peggy suggested that it be changed slightly so that a new version could be held at her home.  As she became more comfortable in her apartment, she started to host smaller dinner parties for friends and family.  Peggy was starting to create new memories in her new home.

As Peggy became more comfortable and life felt less difficult, she was approaching her “new normal”.

 Embrace YOUR normal!

‘Normal’ can fit into a broad range of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. So long as your normal isn’t negatively affecting you or others; then I suggest the wisdom of accepting what currently is.  Life can be stressful enough without comparing ourselves to others and questioning ourselves when our normal is different from someone else’s.

And now, a lesson in ‘normal’ from SpongeBob SquarePants…enjoy!





It’s the Middle of February…Are We Having Fun Yet?

A colleague greeted me today with the announcement, “I’m so done with winter.”  I think that many of us would agree…the recent snow, fluctuations in temperature that bring the gift of freezing rain, clearing the driveway yet again.  A local newscaster announced yesterday that there is a shortage of sidewalk de-icer!

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.

And now…here’s a break from the winter.  No sunscreen required!  Enjoy!