I was planning this week to write on the importance of structure for mental health. However, after a trip to my neighbourhood drug store, I decided to save that topic for another time.
Here’s what happened…while standing in a long checkout line at the drug store, I started reading the fronts of the magazines that were positioned on the way to the till. Without exception they were all touting ways to lose weight…diet tips, recent celebrity fitness regimes, the next ‘slimming’ food choice…everything necessary to create the “New You”. When I was in a similar lineup in December, these were the same publications that were pushing all the yummy, high calorie holiday treats! A group of other women were also waiting in line and I asked them if they were feeling manipulated…they smiled.
The Art of Manipulation
I don’t like marketing; not all marketing, just the type that is trying to push me to purchase a product that I don’t need in order to make my life become as ‘perfect’ as the lives of the people in the advertisement. Encouraging items that solve a problem, created by advertising departments, that I didn’t even know I had–until I came across their commercials (written, electronic or verbal). These types of marketing are easy to spot and are the obvious forms of manipulation.
However, there are subtler forms that are harder to fight against because we don’t always know that we are being affected. I suggest that one of these forms is the topics covered in mainstream magazines and how they are presented to potential readers.
The headings on the front covers of many magazines are designed to get us to buy the publication. They do this by making us consciously (or unconsciously) question if we need the information contained in the magazine. Unfortunately, the questions are not asked in a strength-based, straight-forward way. For example, instead of advertising ways to reach a healthy body weight, they promise ways to ‘drop 25 lbs by eating soup’–the title illustrated by a model who may or may not be of healthy body weight.
We’re Not OK
The message we often get from media is that we’re not wonderful in our current form.
For fun, try this experiment. The next time you pass a magazine rack, look at the headings on the cover (both large and smaller print). Chances are that the contents are providing ways to change yourself. Maybe it’s tips to adapt your personality, dating style, sexual ability, update your wardrobe, get ‘swimsuit ready’…the list is endless, depending on the time of year. When we dig under the headlines, the bottom line is that we are being told that we’re not ok the way we are. There is something we need to buy or change in order to become ‘acceptable’.
Granted, there are times when we need to make changes in order to take care of ourselves. If we have reached an unhealthy weight or need to improve our interpersonal skills, then there is work to do. However, at the same time, we also can accept that we are ok where we are (in this moment).
Acceptance and Mental Health
In graduate school, when I first heard about acceptance as a component of mental health, my alarm bells started to ring. How can we be asked to accept the ‘unacceptable’? How could I tell a future client living in an abusive relationship that acceptance was necessary? Later, I learned that acceptance doesn’t mean that we condone negative behaviour, or situations where we are in emotional or physical danger. It also doesn’t mean that we accept every bad thing that happens to us. Instead, acceptance comes from taking an honest and compassionate inventory of where we are at this time, and how we arrived here–knowing that we want to make some changes. Acceptance means that we stop fighting or judging ourselves, for where we are, and putting that energy into moving forward in a new way (if we choose to).
I think that our ability to practice acceptance takes work. Like a muscle, it gets stronger the more we use it. I wonder what would happen if, on a daily basis, we took one thing about ourselves that we viewed with judgement and instead looked at it with compassion. Chances are, our mental health would improve, and we’d buy a lot less magazines!
And now a wonderful teacher of self-acceptance…Enjoy!
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 holiday 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.
The following poem, written by Maureen Killoran , found me the other day. It summarizes what I wish for you, not just for this holiday season, but every season. Take care.
A CHRISTMAS PRAYER
Not gold, nor myrrh, nor even frankincense
would I have for you this season,
but simple gifts, the ones that are hardest to find,
the ones that are perfect, even for those who have everything (if such there be).
I would (if I could) have for you the gift of courage,
the strength to face the gauntlets only you can name,
and the firmness in your heart to know that you (yes, you!)
can be a bearer of the quiet dignity that is the human glorified.
I would (if by my intention I could make it happen) have for you the gift of connection,
the sense of standing on the hinge of time,
touching past and future
standing with certainty that you (yes, you!) are the point where it all comes together.
I would (if wishing could make it so) have for you the gift of community,
a nucleus of love and challenge,
to convince you in your soul that you (yes, you!) are a source of light in a world too long believing in the dark.
Not gold, nor myrrh, nor even frankincense, would I have for you this season,
but simple gifts, the ones that are hardest to find,
the ones that are perfect,
even for those who have everything (if such there be).
In this post, we explore the concept of forgiveness…What is it? Who benefits? Why is it important? And, most importantly, how do we do it?
The idea of forgiveness is a difficult thing. When we have been disappointed or hurt by someone else our instinct is often to recoil and protect ourselves. When a person close to us breaks our trust, the last thing we want to do is forgive them. On the other hand, when we have hurt others, forgiving ourselves can be just as difficult.
However, in order for true healing to happen, walking the path to forgiveness is a necessary journey.
What Is Forgiveness?
When we think of forgiveness, we may think of cheesy movies where by plot’s end, mortal enemies have become best friends–the closing scene showing them walking hand-in-hand into the sunset. While this could happen in real life, forgiveness doesn’t usually look like this.
Change the past, or assume that we have to forget what happened.
Mean that we have lost and the offender has won.
Excuse the act that did the wounding.
Absolve the offender of karmic or legal consequences.
Mean that we will resume a relationship with the other person–especially if it is not safe (emotionally or physically) to do so.
What forgiveness does is to provide the opportunity for healing and being able to move on with our life, without being limited by what happened. According to Buddhist philosophy, “Holding on to resentment is like picking up a hot coal with our hand with the intention of finding an opportunity to throw it at the one who has hurt us.”.
“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past. Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.”
When we can forgive, we are able to stop labeling our self as a “victim” and move forward from a place of growth.
Holding on to negative events that lead to ongoing feelings of resentment, anger, hostility may undermine our health. In one study, psychologists asked people to think about someone who has hurt them, while monitoring their heart rate, facial muscles and sweat glands. When people remembered these grudges, their heart rate and blood pressure increased. However, when they were asked to think about forgiving these people, their stress responses returned to normal (Book of Joy, pg. 237).
Steps to Forgiveness
While it seems obvious that forgiveness is a good thing–for our physical and mental health–how do we do it? Especially since rehashing the juicy details of past hurts can provide an addictive energy rush.
It’s important to remember that forgiveness is a process; one that is repeated over and over as new feelings and details arise as we work to let go.
Pevny breaks down the path to forgiveness into the following five steps:
Uncovering and feeling what happened. Before we can forgive, we need to be clear about what we are forgiving. It’s important to explore the actual event–what were the circumstances? Who said what? What emotions did you feel? Take your time and be gentle with yourself.
Committing to forgive. Forgiveness is a choice–sometimes a difficult one. When we have held on to resentments for a long time, they become part of our story. Forgiveness is choosing a new story.
Humanizing the offender. Forgiveness begins to happen when we are able to separate the person from the action. To do this requires compassion and the ability to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. Maybe there were things going on that you didn’t know?
Honestly looking at your role in relation to the situation. This is especially challenging when the emotions are still raw, so it’s useful to use your logic vs. emotions. Human relationships are never simple. As my grandmother used to say “It takes two to tango.”
Forgiving and continuing to forgive. Forgiving is an act of will–we choose. This act will play out differently for each person. For some, it’s a private, quiet letting go. For others, they want to meet with the person involved and voice their forgiveness. No matter how it manifests, forgiveness is an ongoing process.
What If I Need to Forgive Myself?
When we have hurt others, the feelings of guilt and shame that we carry can be overwhelming. While we may be able to show compassion to others, doing so to ourselves is more difficult–if not impossible as we’re our own harshest critics.
Pevny suggests that the five steps are applicable to those working on self-forgiveness, and may include specifically asking for forgiveness from those we have hurt (if possible and appropriate). However, sometimes the person we have hurt is ourselves. Pevny writes:
“In a great many cases, what needs self-forgiveness is not harm done to others but personal weaknesses or perceived choices or actions that we feel have damaged our own lives. Self-forgiveness depends upon our willingness to carefully examine our choices and actions and, in many cases, acknowledge that we did the best we could with the awareness we had at the time. If we see that we did not do the best we could, it requires that we use our regrets not to berate ourselves but as important guideposts on our journeys into a positive, conscious future. The biggest catalysts for our growth are often (perhaps mostly) what we learn from our mistakes, weaknesses and poor choices.”
Rewriting our Stories…Sometimes We Need Help
Whether we need to forgive ourselves or others, walking on this path gives us the opportunity to rewrite our story–and sometimes the stories of others. And we know that the journey isn’t easy. Self-care is important. If you start on this journey and feel that you are losing your way, please reach out to a trusted friend, family member or professional to provide support. Sometimes, our hurts are too big walk up to on our own.
In 1978, M. Scott Peck (American psychiatrist) published his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled in which the first sentence reads: “Life is difficult.” Dr. Peck wasn’t kidding! On a daily basis we deal with problems large and small–ranging from not being able to find our car keys to dealing with a difficult co-worker. Usually, we’re able to cope with these challenges with the help of our friends, family and self-care practices.
However, what happens when we are hit with something really big? A loved one dies. A marriage ends. A job is lost. We’re not the only ones trying to keep it together. On a global scale, the problems appear to be insurmountable. We only have to hear the local, national or international news to realize that, to put it very mildly, “Life is difficult”… and many of us are able to move past the challenges. Why? The answer is resilience.
The Concept of Resilience
While the term ‘resilience’ was first the object of research in the 1970’s, it has now become somewhat of a buzzword. A google search provides over 10,600,000 sites to explore–everything from physical resilience to the for resiliency in the work-place and why companies should encourage this trait in their employees. The resilience that I’m focusing on is psychological resilience.
What is psychological resilience? The American Psychological Association (2017) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.” It’s our ability to pick ourselves up after hard times and carry on–often wiser and more resourceful.
What Does Resilience Look Like?
Resilience doesn’t look the same from one person to another. However, it does allow individuals to bounce back from a stressful or traumatic situation with “competent functioning”–i.e. the ability to ‘carry on’. Like a piece of bamboo, we bend, we don’t break.
A common misconception is that resilient people are free from negative emotions or thoughts, and remain optimistic in most or all situations. Instead, a sign of being resilient is the ability to use proper coping techniques that allow them to effectively and relatively easily navigate around or through crises. But what are these coping techniques? How do we develop them?
Ideally, resilience is something that we learn in childhood through the key adults in our lives. We were able to grow up in stable-enough homes and become securely attached to our primary caregivers. Perhaps we were able to watch adults in our lives practice resilience. We were encouraged to develop our ability to self-sooth when we are emotionally upset and taught self-efficacy (confident that we were able to take care of ourselves). Our physical, emotional and spiritual needs were adequately met. Unfortunately, not everyone was fortunate enough to grow up in such an ideal nesting ground for resilience. But it’s never too late to develop resilience.
The American Psychological Association suggests “10 Ways to Build Resilience”, which are:
maintain good relationships with close family members, friends and others;
avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems;
accept circumstances that cannot be changed;
develop realistic goals and move towards them;
take decisive actions in adverse situations;
look for opportunities of self-discovery after a struggle with loss;
keep a long-term perspective and consider the stressful event in a broader context;
maintain a hopeful outlook, expecting good things and visualizing what is wished;
take care of one’s mind and body, exercising regularly, paying attention to one’s own needs and feelings.
There’s No Time Like the Present
Just like it’s important to have a support system in place before it’s needed, resilience is the same. If you have decided that the ability to bounce back from adversity is a skill you would like to improve, then start now–before a major life event calls for its use.
Resilience and Mental Health
Sometimes mental health challenges get in the way of increasing our level of resilience.
While it’s normal to experience these emotions, the key to recognizing them as indicators of a lower level of resilience is whether they are disproportionate to the event (looking back you might catch yourself thinking, “I really over-reacted”), or if the same event triggers the same emotion repeatedly. If this is the case, speaking to a therapist may be helpful.
Resilience and Gratitude
I’ve spoken to many people who have been able to successfully live through hard times and are grateful for the experience. A common theme that runs through their description of the events is that, while they wouldn’t choose to repeat the experience, they are thankful for what they learned–a recognition of their strength, the creation of new relationships, or an increased sense of self-efficacy.
Hard times come to everyone, and we can choose how we respond and find meaning in them.
Now, here’s a very inspiring Ted Talk about trauma and resilience…Enjoy!
There is a belief that once someone has been cured of cancer, they should feel ecstatically happy. Why wouldn’t they? The treatments are over! They are cancer-free! The battle has been won! However, many of the people I have met during this stage of their cancer journey don’t feel like it’s time for a party. In fact, they feel that their journey isn’t over. If the first half of having cancer is the treatment, then the second half is ‘after the cure’.
In this post, we’ll explore some of the physical, emotional, spiritual and social challenges that can be part of post-cancer life.
Why Am I Not Happy? What’s Happening Emotionally.
Last year, I was able to take a tour of the Grand River Cancer Centre. I didn’t see it, but I’ve heard that a gong is rung each time a patient completes their series of chemotherapy treatments. While some patients thought that this was a useful ritual to signify the end of a challenging time, others have shared with me that they didn’t. Some were too tired. Others were remembering fellow patients who were unable to finish their chemotherapy treatment. Many were busy integrating their experience and the ringing of a gong wasn’t significant enough.
Depending on the treatment you received, there are emotional side effects…depression, anxiety and anger. There is also the fear that the cancer will return leading to hyper-vigilance about any physical symptoms. A headache no longer is just a headache. These emotions are normal and learning to cope with them is part of post-cancer recovery.
One reason for these emotions is that you may feel that you are now on your own. During your treatment, your calendar was filled with medical appointments. You were supported by medical staff, and received regular updates on the state of your health. You had a routine. Now cancer-free, you’ve graduated and expected to go back to your life–without the supports you became used to.
Since the mind and body are connected, what you are feeling relates directly to your physical self.
Your New Body
It’s accurate to say that your ‘pre-cancer’ body is different than your ‘post-cancer’ body. Depending on your cancer and treatment, you could be learning to cope with fatique, chronic pain or numbness, early menopause, weight gain or loss…to name a few. As more people are sharing their post-cancer experiences, cancer is being seen as not only an acute illness, but also a chronic one, because some of these changes are permanent to some degree.
A task of thriving in the second half of the cancer journey is to find ways to cope with these changes. Talking with your doctor, therapist support (i.e. massage) and/or other cancer patients who have tools to share from their own experience can be helpful.
However, on a deeper level, I think that one of the biggest physical challenges is the loss of body confidence. How did I get cancer in the first place…especially if I took good care of myself? There may be feelings that your body betrayed you and is no longer trustworthy. In this matter, time can be the greatest healer. While there may continue to be flareups of anxiety/mistrust as medical checkups or routine illnesses come up; over time, if you remain cancer-free, some form of trust will redevelop.
What’s Going On Spiritually?
A cancer diagnosis can make us ask many existential questions…especially when we survive. Why did I survive while others didn’t? What am I meant to do with the rest of my life? I’m a good person, so why did I get cancer? The cancer journey puts us in touch with our mortality…often for the first time. These questions are normal and, while difficult and uncomfortable, can lead to a greater sense of meaning and purpose.
Our New Social Reality
Often when you are in active treatment, you’re surrounded by family and friends who want to help. Offers of food, transportation or household help arrive. However, after given the cancer ‘all clear’, these supports disappear as the crisis is over. Sometimes people who supported you expect that you’re back to normal. Unfortunately, as noted above, you have a new body that may not allow you to do all the things you used to. You may not have the energy to socialize or find talking difficult. As You wrestle with spiritual issues you may need time alone. Friends and family may not understand.
Another social reality you may struggle with is coming to terms with who wasn’t there to support us during our treatment. Often we can be surprised and delighted by who showed up to help, and we can be sad and disappointed by those who we thought we be there for us and weren’t. One of the tasks of this stage is to come to terms with this disappointment and figure out how or if this changes your relationships to these people.
The “New Normal”
At some point, there was an expectation that after treatment you would return to your old life, only to discover that the ‘old life’ no longer exists. Maybe you see your relationships differently. Perhaps your energy level or physical abilities are not the same. It’s time to create a new normal that takes into account the massive changes you have gone through.
Here are two resources that I’ve read and think are helpful on this journey…
This book takes up where the books on how to cope with cancer treatment leave off. Written from the concept of putting pieces of a puzzle together to form a healthy whole, the book describes a four-phase healing process–each relating to the physical, emotional, spiritual and social aspects of the new normal. There are lots of tools, quotes from cancer survivors, and valuable information describing may be occurring for you. Magee and Scalzo set out the tools needed to create your own healing plan.
In this book, the authors look at the emotional reality of post-cancer life–including sleep and sexuality. Each chapter contains coping strategies and coping strategies. I especially appreciate that Goodhart and Atkins have included ways for friends and family members to support ‘their person’.
As Dr. M. Scott Peck notes in the first line of The Road Less Traveled…life is difficult. And it can also be joyful, no matter where we find ourselves. If you are in the second half of your cancer journey, take your time and be gentle with yourself. If you are supporting someone, thank you.
People come and go in our lives for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s because we meet a new friend, or a relationship ends. Maybe we’re the one coming and going as we change jobs or move to a new city. At some point, our entrances and exits are more substantial…we are born and we die. That’s the circle of life.
In the Not So Distant Past
While both birth and death are an unavoidable part of the human experience, I suggest that as a modern culture, we treat each of them very differently. However, this hasn’t always been the case.
As a big fan of Call the Midwife, I never tire of watching the sanitized TV version of babies being born. The series takes place in an East-London neighbourhood, during the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Among other things, it chronicles the progression from the norm of home births to hospital births; and the resulting changes in the expectations of everyone involved. I’m not advocating one birth experience over another, just noting the shift of birth taking place at home vs. taking place in a medical setting.
Like birth, death has also moved locations. In the past, the common practice was that we died at home–circumstances allowing. Ideally, the dying person was surrounded by family and/or friends who were there to offer comfort to the individual and each other. Family members shared the final tasks of preparing their loved-one for burial. Visitation was held in the family home. Birth and death were very personal, yet community, experiences. Now, most of us can expect to die in a hospital, and prepared for our final resting place by funeral home staff.
On the flip side, 2014 saw approximately 384,000 Canadian births (142,000 in Ontario). A December 2015 Toronto Star article outlined a three-year McMaster University study that noted midwives attended 10% of all births in Ontario (2014 is included in their data). Of this 10%, 20% of these births occurred at home.
The bottom line…most of us will come and go in a hospital. However, the picture may be changing.
Thoughts on Current Practices of Life…
Midwifery, was regulated in Ontario in 1994, as a publicly funded service. Currently there are more than 700 registered midwives in Ontario who provide neonatal care to pregnant women, attend their deliveries and look after the mother and baby following birth. With the 1994 law, midwives have hospital privileges (including access to hospital staff and resources). The blending of the two options gives expectant parents more choice of where to deliver their babies. It is no longer a binary decision of at home with a midwife vs in hospital with a obstetrician (most family doctors no longer deliver babies).
According to the McMaster study, for women with low-risk pregnancies, babies delivered at home were at no greater risk than those in hospitals. We can have the best of both worlds.
The same choice has begun around end of life decisions as well. The number of hospice centers and palliative care support is growing steadily. According to an Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care position paper:
“Ontario is working to provide patients with more choices for palliative and end-of-life care.
This includes investing in more hospice care across the province and expanding caregiver supports that help families and loved ones support palliative patients at home and in their communities. Ontario will also support more public education about advanced care planning so that patients’ wishes for end-of-life care are understood. The province is establishing clear oversight and accountability for Ontario’s palliative care services, to further advance patient-centred care.”
It will be interesting to see the effects of assisted death legislation on end-of-life location options.
Speaking of options, there are now death doula’s or midwives who spiritually help individuals and their families through the death process. Training programs to become a death doula are now available throughout Canada and the US. Both MacLeans magazine and Global News have covered this subject.
Death is Making an Appearance
While our culture tends to hide death–even in the language we use to describe death (“passed away” or “passed on”); I have started to notice some changes. Besides the increased visibility of hospice and palliative care and debates on assisted death, end-of-life has started to take up space in our current frame of reference.
At first it was something I glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. A colleague had mentioned that he had attended a weekend workshop on “home funerals”. The event took place in a private home, and included information about the rules and some basic skills for taking care of your deceased loved from death until burial. While not for everyone, this is a fascinating alternative to the current practice.
Next, over the six-month period, numerous articles appeared in the local paper:
A story about a Romanian cemetery (called the Merry Cemetery) where the crosses are etched with colourful epitaphs and drawings describing the deceased’s life and/or personality;
A helpful article about “tying up the loose ends of life”;
Another article assuring readers that “death doesn’t have be so frightening”;
A commentary of the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead–a family celebration that sees family members and friends having parties in local cemeteries as they visit their loved ones;
I came across information about the Good Green Death Forum (an event organized by the Green Burial Society of Canada) and DeathCafe.com (a social event where people talk about death with the goal of increasing their awareness of life).
Ideas about death appear to be popping up in popular culture.
Why Does This Matter?
As a therapist, I tend to look at things through the lens of mental health. While birth is usually a happy event (no matter where it takes place), I have concerns about how we deal with the end of life. With the movement of death from plain sight over the past decades, it has become scary. Combined with our culture’s fixation on youth, this fear has escalated. As with most things in life that we don’t understand, when we push them away they become something mysterious, and to be feared.
But do we have to continue to treat death this way? Instead can we use a familiarity with death as a tool to help us live more aware and fulfilling lives?
Another Way to Look at Death
In many Buddhist traditions, a purposeful contemplation of death is one practice that is used to help individuals become aware of the constancy of change and life’s fragility. The concept is that when we realize that nothing in life is permanent and everything is easily broken, we look at events in our lives differently. We may appreciate to a greater level not only what we have (including health, relationships, and things), but also the people we love. From this perspective, while we may grief loss (from the breaking of a favourite cup to the loss of something greater), we understand it to be part of a greater whole. As well, to quote a best-selling book title, we “Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff”.
These authors lead a guided exercise in which the reader imagines, in detail, their own funeral or memorial service–paying particular attention to what their family and friends are saying about them. These imaginary statements become nuggets to be mined as you set life goals. I’m not sure if it works, but could be an interesting exercise.
We can’t hide from the comings and goings in our lives…whether it’s us or someone else. However, we can become less fearful and more mindful.
And now…somewhat predictably, but none the less still moving after all these years (movie came out in 1994)…The Lion King – Circle of Life. Enjoy!
Humour is a funny thing (no pun intended!). What one person thinks is hilarious, another person barely breaks a smile. What’s counts as humour in one culture, is seen as insulting in another.
Not only is humour tricky, we hold certain beliefs about it’s value–especially regarding our health. In this post we’ll explore three areas of belief about humour’s effect on mental and physical health: popular culture, science and personal experience.
Laughter: The Best Medicine
Much of our beliefs about humour and health are thanks to Norman Cousins (June 24, 1915 – November 30, 1990), an American political journalist, author, professor, and world peace advocate. Norman believed in a link between emotions and the successful fight against illness. When diagnosed with a crippling connective tissue disease, he tried to alleviate his pain by watching television comedy. Norman discovered that laughter helped to decrease his pain levels for a period of time. He continued this practice until he was cured and went on to write a collection of best-selling non-fiction books on illness and healing.
As a culture, we now attribute laughter to being able to:
strengthen our immune system
improve our mood through the release of endorphins
lessen feelings of anger
Laughter is thought to provide these benefits even when we don’t find something to be funny. Enter laughter yoga…a practice involving prolonged voluntary laughter. It’s based on the belief that voluntary laughter provides the same physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughter. Laughter yoga is done in groups, with eye contact, jokes and playfulness between participants. Apparently, forced laughter soon turns into real and contagious laughter. If you’re curious, you can find out more here.
What Science Suggests
Originally, when I started thinking about this post, I naturally assumed–based on common thought–that comedy was good for our mental health. However, as I researched, I learned that the study results are inconclusive. Some find no correlation between boosts in psychical or mental health and humour, others that there are minor improvements and still others that suggest any improvement is short-lived.
There is even some thought that Norman Cousins illness was misdiagnosed and his ‘cure’ would have occurred given enough time.
It looks as if the scientific jury is still out!
The Value of Personal Experience
As my old aunt used to say, “The proof in the pudding is in the eating!” In other words, try it for yourself to see if it works. So it is with the benefits of humour for mental and physical health. At the end of the day, usually what we care most about is what works for us and the people that we love. Treat the effects of humour on your life as a personal science experiment.
Here’s what I’ve learned about the effect of humour by watching myself, loved ones and clients:
Laughter feels good. There’s nothing like a full belly laugh to bring on physical relaxation. If having a good cry is on one side of the coin, a good laugh is on the other.
Laughter can be contagious (or not). There is an old story that I am guaranteed to laugh at whenever I tell it…often to the point of being unable to continue to share it because I’m overcome with a fit of giggles. Usually others don’t find it funny…maybe it’s my delivery!
Sharing humour strengthens relationships. When we laugh with others we are sharing a common experience, which leads to positive memories. Even when we share a lighthearted moment with a stranger there is a connection.
Laughter helps diffuse conflict. There have been times in couple therapy when during a heated moment, one of the partners is able to step out of the argument and see some humour. When the other partner is open to this, the mood lightens, attitudes shift and there is a moment of healing.
Dark humour can be helpful. Even when things feel really bleak, being able to laugh (not at anyone’s expense) can help make things a bit more bearable.
The ability to experience humour is an important human characteristic. It makes life more fun…and we all know that we can use more of that!
And now…here’s some classic comedy to tickle your funny bone. Enjoy!
If someone asked you how you know something, what would you answer? I learned it at school. My parents taught me. I checked on Google.
When we’re talking about facts or skills, it’s often easy to remember how or when the information came to us. However, if I asked you about a personality trait or ability, such as if you are kind or able to keep a secret, your response may be, “I’m not sure, I just know (whether I am or not).”
Depending on the question, you may feel embarrassed or proud. Either way, there is an emotional charge that is a result of how you feel or what you believe about yourself, in the context of the trait or ability. In other words, my question would have come upon one of your core beliefs.
What Are Core Beliefs?
Core beliefs are the very essence of how we see ourselves, other people, the world, as well as the future. Our core beliefs then inform how we operate in the world. Below is a list of common negative core beliefs.
I’m not good enough.
I can’t get anything right.
I’m a bad person.
I’m unattractive (ugly, fat, etc.).
I’m a failure.
I don’t deserve anything good.
There’s something wrong with me.
While it’s painful to think these things about ourselves, the pain is increased when these belief systems are used to navigate our way in the world. When we incorporate negative core beliefs into our psyche, they become self-fulfilling. We think we’re a failure, so we don’t try new things, which seems to prove that we’re a failure…and the cycle continues.
Where Do Core Beliefs Come From? An example.
A kindergarten class is preparing for the end-of-year concert. Everyone is working very hard to get the song right and the teacher keeps moving individual children around to maximize the quality of the sound.
In the back row stands a boy named Jeremy. Jeremy loves to sing and has been practicing the words every day as he walks home from school. Jeremy sings with enthusiasm and his teacher has moved him a few times in order to find the appropriate place for his ‘sound’. Finally, in exasperation, the teacher suggests that Jeremy not sing, but whisper the words, in order to fit in with the group. While Jeremy doesn’t completely understand what just happened, part of him sees that his way of singing doesn’t fit. Maybe he doesn’t fit? Maybe there’s something wrong with him? Jeremy grows up, never to sing again, and becomes hyper-aware of being ‘too much’ when out in the world.
Core Beliefs in Therapy
Often a key part of therapy is discovering our core beliefs (both negative and positive) and then exploring their history and validity. One way to do this is through life review therapy.
Life Review Therapy involves looking at our past from the perspective of today. The goal is to help the individual, couple or family to find meaning and resolution regarding a painful incident and be able to move on with greater awareness and sense of calm. Often the painful incident involves the creation of a negative core belief.
The Example Continues…
Our young singer, Jeremy, is now 35 years old and has decided to see a therapist to deal with long-term social anxiety that has affected his life on many levels. He made his education and career choices (accounting) to fit in with his fear of interacting with groups of people. He choose a smaller post-secondary school and a program that would allow him to work somewhat alone.
Jeremy accepted a junior management position three years ago, and discovered that he is good at it. Due to his management skills, he was recently offered a promotion that will involve speaking in front of groups of people to present financial information. On one hand, Jeremy wants the promotion–he’s become bored with his current position and would like the extra income. On the other hand, he is terrified at the thought of presenting and ‘making a fool of himself’ in front of his colleagues.
With his therapist, Jeremy explores the history of his social anxiety. He talks about the thoughts that are linked to his feelings when having to interact with groups of people. They treat the process like a science experiment–looking for similarities in thought content and events. Jeremy reports that he’s afraid of being ‘out there’. He remembers that people are often telling him to “speak up” as they can’t hear what he has to say. This direction increases his anxiety as he swings between wanting to be heard and ‘being out there’.
During therapy, Jeremy remembers his kindergarten experience and is able to begin to unravel his current feelings and how this core belief has affected his life. Is this belief accurate? He was also able to process the anger that he feels on behalf of his young self towards his teacher and her actions.
Jeremy did accept his promotion and learned skills to cope with his social anxiety. A big piece of his ability to move forward was that he was able to question the negative core belief that was holding him back.
This is a very strait forward example and determining our core beliefs are not often this direct.
I invite you to think about your core beliefs. What are they? Do you know? How many of them are positive? Are they helping you to go the places in your life that you want to go, or are they preventing you from living your best life?
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”….Maimonides
When I think of fishing (which isn’t often), I think of two things. The first is the gorgeous scenery in the Oscar-winning, 1992 movie A River Runs Through It. For those who haven’t seen it, the story is about the two sons of a stern minister — one reserved, one rebellious — as they grow up in rural Montana. Fly fishing is a major theme in the movie. Part of the landscape’s beauty may be due to the fact that one of the brothers is portrayed by a young Brad Pitt!
The second is self-sufficiency. When we are able to feed ourselves, whether by growing, fishing, hunting or foraging; there is a confidence that comes from knowing that we are able to provide food for ourselves and loved ones. Self-sufficiency is a value. It is also be a component in therapy and mental health.
The Art and Science of Therapy
Therapy is a cross between art and science. The tools that a therapist uses arise from specific theories that have been tested by research to show that they are helpful to clients. Ideally, a therapist has studied a few different modalities of therapy and is able to have various tools in their tool belt that they can use.
The art comes in how to apply the tools. Good therapy is molded to fit each individual client. Individuals in pain are not like cars with faulty brakes–the same intervention doesn’t work for all!
Skill-building in Therapy
It has been my experience that clients don’t want to see a therapist for ever….and ethically, my role is to help them to feel better and move on with their lives. One way that this goal is accomplished is through skill-building.
Skills come in all shapes and sizes…
A couple comes to therapy looking for relationship support. As they describe what has brought them in to therapy, it becomes clear that communication is challenging, so we work on communication tools. We work on spotting patterns that block positive discussions. We look at ways to get around this barriers as well as how to talk to each other to avoid their creation in the first place.
For individuals seeing a therapist for anxiety and depression, skill-building is a major part of therapy. Clients will learn techniques to help lessen their anxiety as well as ways to monitor thoughts that may be contributing to their anxiety or panic attacks. Similar tools can be used to manage anger.
For anxiety and depression, one of the skills that I teach the most often is a breathing exercise. The free 20-minute download talks you through the exercise, as if you were in the office with me…though the wave sounds are only in the audio version! You can find the exercise here (at the bottom of the Welcome Page).
My wish for clients, is that once they have learned and become comfortable with necessary skills, they will become self-sufficient in managing any remaining issues that brought them into therapy.
The Joy of Homework
Even more important than learning a new skill or coping strategy, is putting in the time to practice it. This is the reason that I often suggest homework to clients. Sessions usually last for 50 minutes, so the more work clients can do outside of our meetings, the more successful therapy will be. Based on the theory of Experiential Learning, homework provides an opportunity to apply skills in different areas of life and in different ways–cementing the new ability into a client’s tool kit. They have learned to fish!
When clients are able to leave therapy with the skills and tools that they need to help to keep themselves mentally healthy and/or better cope with life’s challenges, I believe that this is one indication of successful therapy. To repeat the quote by Maimonides,
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
And now…speaking about fish, who said they can’t be adorable, interactive and cute! Enjoy!