Becoming a Wild Human

Who doesn’t love fairy tales?  These stories have been a mainstay of many a child’s bedtime routine–introducing us to mythic characters while teaching  life lessons from the safety of our pillows.  Think of the grandfather/grandson from the Princess Bride!

There’s something about hearing the words “Once upon a time…” that makes us settle into our seats and listen…

A Story…

Once upon a time a human was born into a ‘good’ family.  The parents had looked forward to the birth of their child and they planned to do all they could to raise her to the best of their abilities.  Their child would be protected from harm, sheltered from sadness, and provided with everything she needed.

The small human thrived in this stable environment, and as children do, started to become curious about the world outside of his family unit.  When he was three years old, he wanted to climb the slide at the park.  “Oh no!  You may fall and be hurt.”, said one parent.  So, the child reluctantly left the slide and sat on the bench beside his parent.

Once this small human started school, she wanted to walk down the street to visit her friend.  “Oh no!  You may not make it there safely; besides, how will I know that you arrived?”, said the other parent.  So the child was accompanied to her friend’s house by her parent, with strict instructions not to walk home on her own.

As the child grew, he continued to be cosseted and protected by his parents.  While he loved them, he was feeling trapped.  He knew that there was a bigger world beyond his parents’ and he wanted to explore.  Unfortunately, he was unable to fight against the cocoon woven by his family.  Every time he struggled, his family was there to provide solutions–money, things, contacts…

Eventually, not trusting in his own abilities, he stopped struggling and stayed in his safe world, taken care of for the rest of his days.

Another Story…

This story attributed to Henry Miller, the writer, about a little boy in India who went up to a guru who was sitting and looking at something in his hand. The little boy went up and looked at it. He didn’t quite understand what it was, so he asked the guru, “What is that?”

“It’s a cocoon,” answered the guru, “Inside the cocoon is a butterfly. Soon the cocoon is going to split, and the butterfly will come out.”

“Could I have it?” asked the little boy.

“Yes,” said the guru, “but you must promise me that when the cocoon splits and the butterfly starts to come out and is beating it’s wings to get out of the cocoon, you won’t help it. It is important not to help the butterfly by breaking the cocoon apart. It must do it on it’s own.”

The little boy promised, took the cocoon, and went home with it. He then sat and watched it. He saw it begin to vibrate and move and quiver, and finally the cocoon split in half. Inside was a beautiful damp butterfly, frantically beating its wings against the cocoon, trying to get out and not seeming to be able to do it. The little boy desperately wanted to help. Finally, he gave in, and pushed the two halves of the cocoon apart. The butterfly sprang out, but as soon as it got out, it fell to the ground and was dead. The little boy picked up the dead butterfly and in tears went back to the guru and showed it to him.

“Little boy,” said the guru, “You pushed open the cocoon, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said the little boy, “I did.”

The guru spoke to him gravely, “You don’t understand. You didn’t understand what you were doing. When the butterfly comes out of the cocoon, the only way he can strengthen it’s wings is by beating them against the cocoon. It beats against the cocoon so it’s muscles will grow strong. When you helped it, you prevented it from developing the muscles it would need to survive.”

Becoming a Wild Human

Each of these tales is a cautionary tale about what happens when life is made too easy for us, and we don’t have the opportunity to gain strength and wisdom by learning lessons through adversity.  Neither the parents or the boy were bad people, only over protective of what/who they loved.  All were unaware that there are lessons to be learned at each stage of development.

Recently, I was given the book Women Who Run With the Wolves:  Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, PhD.  I had read (and lost) this book years ago, and was thrilled to have it come back into my life.  It’s one of those classics that shares new wisdom at each reading and at each life stage.

In her book, Estés analyses myths, fairy tales, folk tales and stories from different cultures to uncover the Wild Woman archetype of the feminine psyche.  (Note:  The author is talking about an archetype as defined by Jungian psychology, which applies to all genders.)

What does it mean to be “wild”?  The author equates being wild with moving from society’s strict rules of conduct–i.e. being “nice” to being able to live authentically from a place of wisdom.  Wild isn’t always nice.

How Do We Get There?

The main premise of the book is that there are a set of skills that must be learned in order to become “wild”.  Being “wild” takes courage, as well as the ability to have patience when sitting with discomfort.

Each chapter/story of the book outlines a particular skill that must be mastered in order to progress throughout life.  These skills include:

  • Living through a loss of innocence (marking the end of childhood)
  • Developing the ability to discern one thing from another
  • Developing and trusting our intuition
  • Recognizing our family (and these are not necessarily the people we’re related to biologically)
  • Being able to judge who will be a good romantic partner
  • Knowing when it’s time for things to die (such as relationships).
Why is Wild Important?

Besides being an Jungian analyst and cantadora (story teller), Estés also studies wolves.  She marries her vision of a wild human with the idea of a wolf–able to take care of itself, form strong relationships with others, ability to discern what is healthy for itself and the pack…basically an innate level of confidence in it’s abilities to thrive–even when things get tough.

Being in touch with the “wild” part of our nature stops us from being used by others because we are able to smell out when something isn’t quite right.  When “wild”, we don’t put up with things that are harmful to us in order not  to make waves.  “Wild” humans care about others and can be fiercely loyal to their “tribe”, while at the same time knowing when it’s time to let go of people, places, things or ideas.  I think of “wild” humans as being sure-footed.

As illustrated by the stories above, when we don’t develop this side of ourselves, we don’t live our fullest lives.  In a worst-case scenario, we can become prey for others because we don’t have fully developed senses to route out danger.

So here’s to being “Wild”!  Not in a “you better have bail money” kind of way, but by being able to confidently stand on our own two feet and smell which way the wind is blowing kind of way.

And now…thinking of the Princess Bride…here’s one of my favourite scenes.  Enjoy!

 

 

Anxiety Disorders and Ankles

When I told a friend the topic for this post, she was understandably confused…if you feel the same, please stay with me, it will make sense!

It’s About the Ankles

Living in a land that is often covered by ice and snow for a number of months during the year, many of us (who are not fans of winter) take advantage of being able to get out during the warmer months.  For me, this means walking to most places that I want to go.  There’s nothing like striding down neighbourhood streets–running errands or just going for a tour to see what’s happening outside.  Unfortunately, I’m not the most graceful sheep in the herd and can easily be distracted by the sights and sounds around me.  This means that at some point during the ‘walking season’ I end up tripping over something and going over on my ankle.

Now for anyone who has suffered a twisted ankle, you know how acutely aware you become of its tenderness.  You baby it for awhile, ever vigilant for the possibility of another sprain.  Being careful is a good idea because once an ankle has been injured, there is a greater chance of it being hurt again.

Ankle injuries can get in the way of life.  Depending on how severe the injury, we have to cope with difficulties ranging from hobbling around with a tensor bandage to a full-on cast if we are recovering from surgery.   Maybe we miss time from work, need help with chores or errands.  Due to pain and mobility challenges, we may not feel like getting together with friends or family.  Basically, the injury is not something we want to repeat–possibility making us hyper-vigilant about any bump in the road (or sidewalk).

Now for the Anxiety Piece…

When people are recovering from an anxiety disorder, one of the most common fears is that it will reoccur.  Because mental illness is identified as a chronic illness (Government of Canada website), this isn’t an unrealistic fear.   Just like an injured ankle is more susceptible to further injury, so are our brains.

As we discover the triggers for the bouts of anxiety and how to cope with them, another trigger can become that we will become anxious/depressed again and travel back to when it felt like anxiety was in control.  However, it doesn’t have to be this way…

Chronic versus Acute Illness

The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines “chronic” as “continuing or occurring again and again for a long time”.  The opposite of “chronic” is “acute” (meaning of short duration, rapidly progressive, and in need of urgent care).  Think “depression” (chronic) and a 24-hour stomach flu (acute).

We’re more comfortable dealing with an illness that we know will be over in a short period of time.  When we have the flu, we know how to take care of ourselves (or a loved one)–rest, fluids, medicine.  We see the results of our efforts fairly quickly, and know that the illness will pass on its own.

Chronic illness is another story.  Taking care of ourselves requires a longer-term commitment (perhaps for the rest of our lives) and can change how we see ourselves in relationship to others.  There is a big difference in letting a friend know that we can’t attend their party because of a bad cold, versus we’re stuck at home because of a bout of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Working with Anxiety Disorders

When I start working with someone who is suffering with an anxiety disorder, after learning about how anxiety is affecting their life and key information about their history with anxiety; one of the first things we do is look at the anxiety from the perspective of a science experiment.

We start to gather data.  Something as simple as tracking their mood on a daily basis (between 1(low) and 10 (high) gives an idea of any mood cycles.  As we start to add self-care activities (diet, exercise, mindfulness practice, etc.) we can see how these affect mood.  Additions of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help to find anxiety triggers and ways to cope when anxiety attacks hit.  We work on tools.  Maybe medication is needed.

Treating Anxiety Disorders as a Chronic Illness

Acceptance is key to being able to treat anxiety disorders as a chronic illness.  When a person is diagnosed with diabetes, they need to learn to “manage” their illness through diet, exercise, decreased stress levels, etc.  Anxiety is no different.  But how can we manage anxiety when it seems to come out of nowhere?

This is where all the information we gathered during treatment is useful.  The person knows what self-care activities help to keep them feeling mentally healthy.  They know what their usual mood range is, and are more aware of when they start to feel “off”.  This knowledge gives them the opportunity to catch symptoms before they get out of control–and take back their control.  Go back to basics…tools and coping strategies.

  • Go back to tracking your mood to see if things are as bad as you may think they are in the moment.
  • Improve your diet, exercise, sleep hygiene.  We tend to let these things slip when we’re feeling better.
  • Go back to the daily breathing exercises.  If you don’t know about them, you can download one from this website.
  • If your anxiety doesn’t appear to be improving, visit your doctor.  Maybe your medication needs to be adjusted or starting medication may be helpful.
  • Relax…being anxious about being anxious is a vicious circle.

Anxiety and ankles…in my mind they do go together…especially since I’m not the most graceful sheep in the herd!

And now…a piece of pure silliness (which is perfect for our brain health)…Shaun the Sheep!  Enjoy!

 

When Life Throws You a Curve Ball.

Sometimes life throws us a curve ball.  Maybe we have been diagnosed with a serious illness.  Our partner has ended the relationship or died.  Something else happens, and we suddenly we find ourselves living alone and struggling to cope.

It is at the curve ball points in life that people often seek out a therapist.  When I’m working with people who are at this point, one of the common challenges they are encountering isn’t emotional, but involves the regular tasks of life.  They are stressed about home maintenance, groceries, laundry, auto repairs, cutting the grass/snow shoveling…all the ‘bricks and mortar’ things that need to be done, no matter what else is going on in life.

It is these seemingly ‘simple’ items that can make our situation appear to be even worse that it already is.  Everything is overwhelming.

A Story…

Edith is a 40 year-old, parent of 10 year-old twins.  She was diagnosed two years ago with fibromyalgia.  By working with her doctor and making lifestyle changes, her symptoms had decreased significantly.  Just as Edith thought that life was beginning to feel manageable, her long-term partner said that they wanted to end their relationship and was moving across the country.

Edith was devastated!  Suddenly she became a single parent of twins as well as in charge of running the household on her own.  The increase in stress led to an increase in her symptoms.  Any one of these changes in life situations would be enough to make someone feel overwhelmed.  Unfortunately, Edith was handed both–with one exacerbating the other.  Edith was having trouble coping.

The Power of Habit

One thing that is true about humans, is that we are ‘creatures of habit’.  If we’ve done something for a while, we feel that we should continue to do it…and in the same way.  On some level this mode of being serves us well. We don’t have to keep rethinking how to do routine tasks…we go on autopilot, leaving brain space to think about others things.  However, sometimes this habit isn’t in our best interest.  We need to make alterations.  Habits are difficult to overcome when our lives are on a even keel, and when we are stressed we don’t usually have the mental space to make changes.

When I suggest to people that they may want to try something different, I’m often met with the response “but I’ve always done it that way” or “so and so will be so disappointed if I stop doing this” or “If I don’t do it, I’m failing as a …..”.

These comments especially come out at curve ball times, when we trying to cope with a new reality.

We Don’t Have To Do It All!

It often comes as a surprise to people that they don’t have to do it all.  They are allowed to ask for help or ‘outsource’ tasks.

One of the best resources that I’ve found is the book CEO of Everything:  Flying Solo and Soaring by Gail Vaz-Oxlade and Victoria Ryce.  While the title is aimed at ‘newly single’ people (either through death or divorce), the book is valuable in many situations.

Both the authors speak from experience (Gail through multiple divorces; Victoria because of the death of a spouse).  Between the two of them, they cover everything from coping during the early stages of change to childcare to dating to housing.  They share their thoughts and experience on what to look for as you make decisions on whether to outsource or not.

The thing that I appreciate most about this book is that it gives the reader permission not to have to do everything.  In fact, the authors logically explain why it’s impossible–especially if you’re trying to cover the work of a missing person when life has been turned upside down.

Story Continues…

After a while, Edith realized that she needed help with her ‘to do’ list.  She figured out what she could manage based on her health and time commitments.  Talking with her therapist she was able see how the difficult emotions of grief and guilt were getting in the way of making choices about what tasks she could let go of.  Edith knew that, after her own self-care, her main priority was supporting her children through this change.

Once Edith became clear about where she wanted to focus her energy, she created the list of what else needed to be done and who could help.  Even though Edith didn’t feel comfortable asking for help, she began to accept offers from friends and family.  Thankfully, she could afford to pay someone for any other help she needed.

The road ahead for Edith and her children wasn’t going to be easy, and at least she had less on her plate taking up her time and energy.

But What if can’t afford to hire someone?

Not everyone is as fortunate as Edith in being able to hire help.  This is where your support system can come in–those friends and family members who help each other when the going gets tough.  With an established support system, we’re less likely to feel uncomfortable asking for help.

However, not everyone has been able to create such a system, either due to being new to an area, work pressures, etc.  So where can we look for help?

  • Talk to the people you know and explain what you’re looking for.  You may not be able to get help for free, but there are often people who are willing to do work at a lower rate.
  • If you belong to a church group or other organization let people know that you need support.  You don’t need to go into a lot of detail, and most organizations (especially religious groups) has committees or ministry staff set up to help.
  • Check with local high schools for students looking for volunteer hours.  In Ontario, secondary students are required to complete 40 volunteer hours before graduation.  Volunteering for household chores does count towards these hours–since they’re not being paid.

And now if you decide to get help for household repairs or chores, watch out for this guy!  It’s some classic British comedy for the series Some Mothers Do Av Em.  Enjoy!

 

Being Gone and Coming Back

The following is a very special guest post regarding one person’s experience with depression.  It was written by the client of a colleague as a way to make sense of their time with depression.  These are their words…unedited.

For anyone who is currently in depression’s grasp, you may be able to relate to this person’s story and take hope that ‘coming back’ is possible.  For those who have never had to cope with a mental illness, this first-hand account provides amazing insight into what it is like.

I would like to thank the author of this piece for their courage in sharing their story…

I wake up, and immediately wish that I hadn’t. The overwhelming feeling of despair isn’t the first thought I have, it is just there from the day before. It’s like I never slept at all.

There is a constant darkness pushing down on me, it surrounds and invades me. It’s the most oppressive feeling I’ve ever had. I feel trapped.

I’m in a deep, narrow hole like a well. I’m standing on a small, slippery rock with thick mud up to my waist. If I slip off the rock, I will sink in the mud. The top of the hole is covered, there is very little light. I’m desperately clinging to a small strand of hope that I’ll get
out, but I have no idea how.

I am thinking and moving very slowly.

I endure living for the sake of my family. I tolerate living because I want to see them all again. I miss them horribly.

Every thought I have is sad, anxiety-provoking or both. I try to push everything out of my head, and I will do anything to avoid being alone with my thoughts.

I spend the day waiting to be able to go back to sleep. While I’m awake, I constantly crave distraction from what’s going on in my brain – TV & movies give me a distraction for 5-10 minutes at a time. I have no emotional reaction to the stories, and only vaguely
care what happens to the characters. I have a lot of trouble following a plotline and remember few details about what happened afterwards. A game on my phone will give me distraction for 10 minutes at a time.

People are not a distraction, basic interaction seems impossible and scary.
I sit alone in the basement for hours at a time watching TV, frozen in place with no interest in moving. When I hear my family upstairs, some deeply buried part of me wants to join them, but most of the time I just can’t do it.

Just getting through a day is mentally and physically exhausting. I can’t nap because that means being alone with my thoughts, and I’m terrified of not being able to sleep at night.

I desperately want to talk to my family, but also just want to be alone. I have things to say, but at the same time I have no idea what I would say if I did talk.

It can take days to figure out how to say something. When I do talk, I usually regret what I say or how I said it. I’m often irritated and harsh with my family and hate myself for it. When they talk to me, I struggle to show that I hear them and that I care, and I hate
myself for that too.

I hate the effect I am having on my family. I don’t know if I really comprehend how I affect them, I just know it’s not good.

I hate the fact that I am absent and missing a big and important chunk of my daughters’ lives. I hate being an absent husband and father.

I go to watch them in sports or performances, but I’m not really there. I desperately want to find enjoyment, but the emotional response is buried far inside and that makes me sad. I know I’m proud, but can’t really feel it, or communicate it. Afterwards I have a poor memory of what happened.

I’m proud of who my daughters have become, but don’t know how to tell them. I’m disconnected from the positive feeling of that pride, more just sad that I’m absent. I hate that I’m not the Dad I want to be, and hate myself for not being able to help them with their
challenges. I’m vaguely aware and thankful that they are being unbelievably patient with me.

I am enormously grateful for my wife’s support and patience, and that she somehow picks up the huge amount of slack I create. The gratitude doesn’t feel good, I hate myself for what I’m putting her through and I don’t know how she puts up with it. I’m aware though,
that her support makes things easier. I’m scared she’s going to leave, and really wouldn’t blame her.

At the beginning I used to be able to cry, but I can’t anymore. Although I feel intense sadness, I’m somehow disconnected from it.

I think it’s possible or even likely I will die of a heart attack or blood clot from being so immobile, which seems sad in an abstract way, but I don’t seem to really care.
I’m so lonely, but have no idea how to change that. I feel completely isolated. I don’t like myself, and can’t see why anyone would feel any differently about me.

I’m constantly fearful that someone will talk to me, but disappointed when they don’t. I fear being alone with another person, any silence is deafening. Eye contact is terrifying.

The smallest things seem impossible to do. I delay everything until it becomes absolutely necessary, even the basics like going to the bathroom. The only reason I do anything is to try to avoid disappointing my family or people at work.

I have limited interest in basic personal hygiene, and am only sometimes embarrassed by it. I just want it to happen without having to do it, showering seems like a huge, difficult effort. When I do shower, I don’t feel refreshed.

I have no interest in food, except to fill a void. I’ll eat until I feel sick trying to fill the void.
My brain isn’t functioning. It does the basics like keeping me breathing and my heart beating, and I’m somewhat surprised it can. My brain is encased in wet concrete that is hardening, any thought processes with the slightest complexity or need for problem solving seem impossible. My thoughts are very slow, like fighting my way through heavy sludge.

I’m paralyzed by uncertainty and fear; I have no confidence in my judgement, even for simple decisions.

I can hear what people are saying, but usually don’t really understand what they are telling me. I can understand simple statements, but have a hard time piecing together more than one simple concept or understanding the implications of what is being said. More
often than not, I don’t remember what people tell me, or that we had a conversation.

Somehow I desperately want to understand and figure things out, while at the same time I have absolutely no interest.

When at work, I spend most of the time staring at the computer and trying to figure out how to get out of there as soon as possible. I focus on small, simple, necessary tasks. I don’t know what else to do, or if I do know of something I could or should do, I can’t
picture the steps that are needed and can’t figure out how to start. I can’t remember the details of repeated tasks, and need to relearn them each time. I’m fearful and embarrassed that others know how little I am able to do.

I generally don’t remember what happened the day before, or even earlier in the day, everything is in a deep fog.

Irritation with commotion or noise around me is all-consuming. Any noise is too noisy. I feel like I’m made of ice and the noise will shatter the ice.

Outdoors is too bright, too cold or too hot, and always too noisy.
I can’t listen to music, it just sounds like noise and is irritating. I can hear the music, but have no emotional response other than irritation and a sadness that I can’t connect to it.

Hearing people laugh irritates me and makes me sad. People talking around me, and most of their actions, are deeply irritating.

I can’t imagine talking to people or being in social situations. I have no interest and have all-consuming anxiety they’ll see through me and quickly become disinterested or disapproving. It’s exhausting to have basic conversations. I’m embarrassed to be who I am.

I occasionally go to things like family gatherings, but only because I know it’s important to my wife and to prove to her that I am trying and care about what is important to her. I have no interest in being there other than that, and am consumed by painful anxiety. All I
can think about is how to get out of there.

I believe I am weak for not being able to lift myself out of this. I feel shame and guilt that I’m not doing enough to fix the problem.

None of these are things that I can just shake off, they are deeply rooted and they just are who I am.

I feel intense sadness, despair, fear and desperation. Not much else. If I smile, I’m faking it.

I’m terrified of the future.
…………………………………………………………………………………………………….

That was my life.  More than 5 years ago, it started with an anxiety that quickly grew to be severe and constant. Over time, life spiraled into the depressive state that I’ve tried to describe. It’s bleak, but doesn’t quite capture how horrible life was, or the intensity of the
desperation. I don’t have the words for an adequate description.

But I’m back now.

I’m back after being very far gone for a long time. The oppressive weight has lifted, and somehow, I’ve emerged from a dark and desperate state of being.

My brain is working again. I can think, I can feel, and I smile for real. I can see the humour in things, I make jokes, and unbelievably, I can laugh a real laugh.

I can talk to my family. Instead of feeling like I’m on the outside looking in, I know I’m part of the family. I’m capable of engagement, and no longer absent.

I don’t push everything away anymore, I take things in, and it feels good.

I can see things that need to be done, and I can think through the steps that need to be taken. I actually want to do things, and I don’t question my every thought and move.
Music is deeply meaningful to me again. The first time I chose to listen to music in a very long time I cried, overcome by the enormity of having access to real emotions back.

In quiet times, I can feel a sense of calm and peace.

I still have worries, concerns and irritations but they are no longer all-consuming, and are manageable. They feel normal.

I feel a bit fragile and cautious, but that is slowly getting better every week. I know I will be alright. I’m saddened by the tragedy of what I’ve missed, but it’s ok.

I have my life back.

Getting better involved prolonged periods of trial and error with pharmaceuticals and their side effects, talk therapy and naturopathic treatments – all endured with some form of seemingly impossible patience.

If you think you should be able to do it alone, you’re wrong. Anyone who implies that you should be able to just ‘get your act together’, ‘pick yourself up’, and ‘snap out of it’ doesn’t know what they are talking about.

While I was gone, with my wife’s encouragement I somehow managed to reach out for help. Help from healthcare professionals, and compassion from friends and family. Asking for help was not a sign of weakness, it was a sign of strength and courage.

Wary of the cliché, but without exaggeration, reaching out for help probably saved my life. And I can see now it is a life worth saving.

So What?

As humans, we have a tendency to think of the worst case scenario.  A boss looks grumpy and we fantasize about losing our job.  We get a call from our child’s school and we imagine a playground accident or possible suspension.  A bad headache arrives, and we’re picking out our funeral clothes.

However, the catastrophes that we imagine, often never happen.  The boss is smiling an hour later, the teacher is calling to let us know that our child is being considered for an award, and the headache is only a headache.  We return to a sense of perspective.

Unfortunately, when we are dealing with mental health challenges, our sense of perspective can be illusive.  Everything feels like an overwhelming crisis.

A Story…

Natalie (age 40) and her wife (Jane) recently separated after being together for 15 years.  The decision to end the relationship was mutual, and they are now in the process of working with lawyers on a separation agreement.  There are no children involved, making the creation of the agreement fairly straightforward.

Natalie has struggled with anxiety and depression throughout her adult life, and been able to manage her symptoms with a combination of self-care and medication.  However, even though the decision to separate was amicable, Natalie experienced an increase in her anxiety as she and Jane worked though the process of dividing possessions, deciding on how to tell their friends and family, and many of the other life ripples that come after making a big decision.

Shortly after Jane moved out of their house (pending it’s sale), Natalie started to feel as if her body was ‘revving’ all the time–she couldn’t relax or settle to anything.  As she felt more overwhelmed, her sleep patterns changed–sleepless nights spent listening to house noises and ruminating on past and future decisions.  As time passed, the ‘revving’ morphed into a general fear of the future.

It was after experiencing a panic attack (first one in 10 years) while looking at paint colours for her new apartment, that Natalie decided to talk to a therapist.

The Anxiety Path

When we pay attention, we can notice that anxiety arrives slowly.  It may feel as if we wake up one day ANXIOUS, but looking back we can follow the trail.  Even though Natalie had history with anxiety and depression, it’s return wasn’t immediately visible.  Instead, her symptoms were lost in the situational stress she was experiencing.

When working with clients experiencing anxiety one of the first things we do is start looking for triggers–becoming anxiety scientists.   Keeping track of the body sensations, thoughts and emotions that lead to feelings of anxiety.  For Natalie, she and her therapist would be exploring the thoughts that proceeded her body “revving”, or the messages that were keeping her up at night.

The Story Continues…

As Natalie worked with her therapist, it became clear that while Natalie’s increased level of anxiety was centred on two areas.  The first was situational:  her recent separation from Jane, and the resulting major life transitions.  The second was Natalie’s fear of her unknown future.  What would her life look like now that she was single?  She was happy with her decision not to have children when she thought that she and Jane would be together “till death did them part”, but now the idea of being alone for the rest of her life was terrifying!

The “So What” Game

The “So What” game is quite simple in theory, and takes some work.  It involves taking the thoughts and worries that are leading to anxiety and basically following their path to their conclusion.  As we follow where the path leads, we check to determine how reasonable the thoughts are and if necessary, what is the plan to deal with them.

Natalie’s anxiety path looked like this:

Ruminating about fears of the future…specific fear that she has made the wrong decision in agreeing to end her relationship with Jane…why she is afraid that she made a mistake…if she’s not in a relationship, she will grow old alone.

Once we have some content of the fear (it isn’t also so easy to determine), then we can decide on it’s likeliness of happening, and look at a plan.  Growing old alone is a normal fear, but in Natalie’s case is it reasonable?  There is no reason to assume that Natalie won’t re-partner at some point (if she chooses to).  However, if she doesn’t, what’s her plan?

Natalie realized that, during her relationship with Jane, she had lost contact with many of her friends and family members.  Also, their “couple” friends had originally been Jane’s friends and we now rallying around Jane.  Natalie’s feelings of isolation were contributing to her anxiety.  Her immediate plan was to reach out to old friends and check in with family members.

Natalie also decided that she needed to create a new life for herself.  Her future plan is to think about interests she would like to pursue and find communities that support those interests.

The Benefits of “So What”

Anxiety can be related to the fear of the unknown.  When we look at what is making us afraid and come up with a plan, we take some control over the situation.  We also gain a sense of perspective as we discover that perhaps our worst fears aren’t as likely as we think that are.  When we decide that we can live with the worst, we’re no longer as afraid.

Natalie Carries On…

Because Natalie had a history of anxiety and depression, her recovery included checking in with her doctor to see if her medication was still appropriate.  She also restarted her self-care practice of exercise, breathing exercises and healthy diet.

Natalie used the “So What” game every time that she encountered new fears and used the results to add to her plan.  Getting over the grief of a  lost relationship and doing the work of moving on is difficult, so she was adding self-compassion into her plan.

And now….”So What?” from the Great Miles Davis…Enjoy!

 

At Blaikie Psychtherapy, Online Therapy is an Option

When we think of taking part in counselling, we might imagine sitting in an office and speaking in-person with a therapist.  Unfortunately, this often meant that mental health support was only available to those who had a care-provider in their area (rural areas are often under-resourced), and were able to make it into the office.  If transportation was a problem, or a critical/chronic illness prevented someone from leaving home, therapy wasn’t a viable option.

Thanks to the internet, and the advent of online therapy programs, mental health support is now available to more people.  I’ve been offering on-line counselling sessions since September 2018, through a program offered by OnCall Health, and it’s proving to be a good option for people who cannot make it into the office.  

Due to CRPO regulations, I can only provide on-line therapy to Ontario residents.

How Does it Work?

It’s easy!  As long as you have a device that is able to download the OnCall Health application, you’re good to go.  Here’s the process:

  • Contact Blaikie Psychotherapy in the usual way: my website, Psychology Today or Theravive.
  • When we have our initial phone or email conversation, let me know that you are interested in on-line therapy.
  • Once you have decided that you would like to me with me, I book the session through OnCall Health, and email you the Service Agreement and consent documentation that is usually completed in person at the first session. You will also receive payment instructions.
  • You will get the information from OnCall Health about downloading the app.  I’ve found their technical support to be amazing.  If you have any problems with the computer end of things, you only have to get in touch with them and they’ll walk you through it.
  • Email reminders of your sessions is part of the app.
  • At the agreed time, we both log onto OnCall Health, and the session begins.
Specifics About OnCall Health

After a lot of research, I specifically chose to use the OnCall Health platform for the  following reasons:

  • Confidentiality is a huge component and concern in any therapeutic relationship.  OnCall Health ensures confidentiality by having encrypted communications, and locating their servers in Canada vs the US.
  • Ease of use for both me and my clients.  I spoke to colleagues who use OnCall Health and they had very positive things to say.  The technical support is strong–which is especially helpful for someone like me who is not computer-savvy!
  • The quality of the on-line therapy experience.  So far, my experience and those of my clients and colleagues who are using the platform, is that the transmission between client/therapist has been clear and in real-time.  No lagging or weird voice delays.

Mental health support should be available to anyone who wants it, and online therapy is a step in that direction.  If you are interested in exploring this option for therapy, please contact me at laurie@laurieblaikie.com.

 

Let’s Be Kind to Ourselves

Recently, I had dinner with two close friends.  As the evening progressed, we talked about how sometimes we struggle with negative voices in our head. These are not the kind of voices that tell us to do harm to ourselves or others, but the ones that undermine our confidence and leading us to feel negatively about who we are and what we do.

If we’re completely honest, I think that all of us could have the same conversation.  Sometimes this voice tells us that we’re not good enough. That it’s only a matter of time before everyone else notices how we’re faking it, and the image of ourselves that we’ve built comes crashing down.  Maybe the voice tells us that we’re too thin, or not thin enough.  If we were only a better partner or friend, or did thus and so, then our life would be perfect.  Once we learn how to (fill in your own words here), then all will be well.  We will have made it!  We believe that our life isn’t perfect, because we are ‘lesser’ than others.

Sometimes we know where ‘the voice’ came from.  We recognize the tone or words.  In some cases, it belongs to a critical parent or teacher.  In others, the voice belongs to a ‘friend’ who really wasn’t a friend.  The owner of ‘the voice’ may no longer be in our life, but their messages persist.  However, what if they lied?  What if we’re good enough the way we are?

Why are we so mean to ourselves?

We’ve talked about some of the places where our negative messages come from, but why do we continue to believe them?  On a basic level, it’s because we continue the behaviours (even negative ones) that serve us in some way.

At a recent workshop (Mindful Self-Compassion presented by Diane Frederick), Diane showed this clip of an interview with Dr. Paul Gilbert.  Dr. Gilbert is a British clinical psychologist, author, and the founder of compassion focused therapy/compassionate mind training.

Gilbert suggests that one of the reasons we don’t give ourselves the benefit of the doubt is because of society’s current fascination with ‘winners’.  Dr. Gilbert cites the increase in reality programs where, instead of focusing on the winner—in which there was usually only one or two—we negatively focus on the ‘loser’.  Because we’re human, we’re programmed to want to be part of a group.  In fact, until fairly recently in our evolution, being excluded from the group meant certain death.  No one wants to ‘be voted off the island’!

Another reason that we beat ourselves up is that we want to know where we fit in hierarchy.  As humans we compare ourselves to others.  However, not so long ago, we only compared what we did or had to our close neighbours.  Now, through the magic of social media, we can compare to everyone—even if the comparisons aren’t realistic or true.  Not only do we get the negative messages from past people in our lives, but now also from mainstream media; and our self-worth suffers in the process.

A third reason we continue to be mean to ourselves is that we think it helps us to succeed.  If we didn’t have that negative inner voice, we might give in to our baser instincts—eat whatever we want, spend every night devouring the latest Netflix series, or not giving 110% at work.  How are we to get ahead in life if we don’t keep trying to improve ourselves?  We don’t want to fail.

Why Should We Care?

Simply put, when we’re mean to ourselves, we are hurting ourselves.  We are both the perpetrator and victim.  Our mental health suffers.

Anxiety, depression, stress, rumination (negative, repeating thoughts), perfectionism, fear of failure and shame are the outcomes of a habit of ‘beating ourselves up’…and we can choose to do something different!

How Do We Stop?

Be mindful of your inner life.  We do this by checking in with ourselves throughout the day…especially if you notice physical symptoms (headache, tense muscles or stomach issues).  Our bodies are a wonderful barometer of what our mind is doing.

Argue with that inner voice.  Through mindfulness, once you become aware of how you are being mean to yourself, argue with that voice.  One Cognitive Behavioural Therapy method is to question the validity of our negative thoughts.  A good way to do this is in writing.  Write down the negative statement, then beside or underneath it, list a rebuttal.  Keep going until ‘you’ win the argument.  At the same time, rather than using an “I” statement, move the statement into the third person (i.e. using your first name).  This provides distance and makes it less personal.

Imagine that the voice is talking to your best friend or other loved one.  Would you say those things to them? You can also imagine yourself as a small child that you are taking care of.

Download and use “Ditty”.  This app lets you record a negative statement and then pick a funny way to play it back.  It’s hard to take a mean message seriously when it’s being said to the soundtrack for “the chicken dance”!

Focus on the positive. Some people love to use affirmations, others not so much.  If positive affirmations work for you, go for it.

Invite the voice in for tea.  If arguing with your inner critic doesn’t work, try looking at it with compassion.  Sometimes we spend a lot of energy fighting against something.  However, once we accept what we don’t like it loses its power.

Life is sometimes difficult and the world can be a scary place.  We need to be kind to others, and to ourselves….

And now, this beautiful song has become one of my new favourites…Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

Advice on Panic Attacks (from someone who knows…)

If you’ve never had a panic attack, you’re fortunate.  And, if you’re curious about the experience,  you can try this exercise.

Imagine that you are in a crowded place, perhaps a shopping mall, and you start to feel anxious.  This isn’t your ‘normal’ level of anxiety.  This feels different.  You begin to notice that everything around you becomes “too much”…it’s too noisy, the people too close, the lights too bright, the sounds too loud.  As the anxiety peaks, you realize that you’re having trouble breathing.  You try to catch your breath, and you can’t.  Your chest begins to hurt, you alternate between feeling cold and clammy (then hot and sweaty).  You feel dizzy.  Your heart races, and you think you’re going to pass out.  You start to panic as you think that you are going to die.  You have never felt so afraid before. 

If you’ve never had this happen before, you may find yourself at a hospital emergency room because you are sure that you’ve had a heart attack.  After hospital staff check you out, you learn that you’ve had a panic attack.

While many people experience anxiety (sometimes at a severe level), panic attacks are often the experience that brings them to see their doctor, therapist or both…and you’re not alone.  According to Government of Canada data, one in ten Canadians suffer from an anxiety disorder–panic attacks being one of them.  Unfortunately, like most mental health issues, it’s not something that people like to talk about.  So, when I discovered author, Matt Haig, I was delighted.

Who is Matt Haig?

Matt is the bestselling author of Notes on a Nervous Planet.  Matt also shares, in his many books, his experience of having mental health issues…including a panic disorder, anxiety and depression.  In “Notes” he describes the connection between the rate of change in our planet (through technology, media, personal interactions) and our mental health.  More importantly, he shares his coping strategies from the perspective of someone who has been there.

Throughout his book, Matt Haig talks about the role that self-care has played in his recovery and maintenance of mental health.  So, I share with you, Matt’s tips for avoiding panic attacks.

How to exist in the 21st century and not have a panic attack.
  1. Keep an eye on yourself.  Be your own friend.  Be your own parent.  Be kind to yourself.  Check what you are doing.  Do you need to watch the last episode of the series when it is after midnight?  Do you need that third or fourth glass of wine?  Is it really in your best interests?
  2. Declutter your mind.  Panic is a product of overload.  In an overloaded world we need to have a filter.  We need to simplify things.  We need to disconnect sometimes.  We need to stop starring at our phones.  To have moments of not thinking about work.  A kind of mental feng shui.
  3. Listen to calm noise.  Things that aren’t as stimulating as music.  Waves, your own breath, a breeze through the leaves, the purr of a cat, and best of all:  rain.
  4. Let it happen.  If you feel panic rising the instinctive reaction is to panic some more.  To panic about the panic.  To metapanic.  The trick is to try to feel the panic without panicking about it.  This is nearly–but not quite–impossible.  I had a panic disorder–a condition defined not be the occasional panic attack but by frequent panic attacks and the continuous hellish fear of the next one.  By the time I’d had hundreds of panic attacks I began to tell myself I wanted it.  I didn’t, obviously.  But I used to work hard at trying to invite the panic–as a test, to see how I could cope.  The more I invited it, the less it wanted to stay around.
  5. Accept feelings.  And accept that they are just that:  feelings.
  6. Don’t grab life by the throat.  “Life should be touched, not strangled,” said the writer Ray Bradbury.
  7. It is ok to release fear.  The fear that tries to tell you it is necessary, and that it is protecting you.  Try to accept it as a feeling, rather than valid information.  Bradbury also said:  “Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get.”
  8. Be aware of where you are.  Are your surroundings over-stimulating?  Is there somewhere you can go that is calmer?  Is there some nature you can look at?  Look up.  In city centers, the tops of buildings are less intense that the shop fronts you see at head level.  The sky helps, too.
  9. Stretch and exercise.  Panic is physical as well as mental.  For me, running and yoga help more than anything.  Yoga, especially.  My body tightens, from hours of being hunched over a laptop, and yoga stretches it out again.
  10. Breathe.  Breathe deep and pure and smooth.  Concentrate on it.  Breathing is the pace you set your life at.  It’s the rhythm of the song of you.  It’s how you get back to the center of things.  The center of yourself.  When the world wants to take you in every other direction.  It was the first thing you learned to do.  The most essential and simple thing you do.  To be aware of breath is to remember you are alive.

Panic disorders don’t have to be a part of your life.  There are many things you can do; including self-care tools, mindfulness practices and medication.  If you’re looking for a breathing exercise/meditation that can help to calm down your anxiety level, a free download is available on my website.

And now…if you want a reminder of how we’re meant to breath, here’s a good teacher.  Enjoy!

Relax! You’re Ok Just As You Are…

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!

 

Happy New Year 2019! Do you have Resolutions?

fireworksWelcome to 2019!

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.