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.

My Wish for You This Season…

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).

The Path to Forgiveness

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.

One way to describe forgiveness is to point out what it does not do.  According to Ron Pevny, in his book Conscious Living, Conscious Aging, forgiveness does not…

  • Mean that we have to ignore our hurt feelings.
  • 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.”.

In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu states,

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.

And now…a quick lesson in self-compassion.  Enjoy!

 

 

 

Resilience–A Gift From Hard Times

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?

Developing Resilience

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;
  • develop self-confidence;
  • 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.

Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté in their book The Resilience Factor:  7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles, identify the five typical emotions that are associated with a lack of resilience, namely;

  1. anger
  2. sadness or depression
  3. guilt
  4. anxiety or fear
  5. embarrassment

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!

Now That You’re Cured…The Second Half of the Journey

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…

Picking Up the Pieces:  Moving Forward After Surviving Cancer by Sherri Magee, PhD & Kathy Scalzo, M.S.O.D.

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.

The Cancer Survivor’s Companion:  Practical Ways to Cope With Your Feelings After Cancer by Dr. Frances Goodhart & Lucy Atkins.

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.

And now…something to think about…a Ted Talk by a cancer someone who completed her cancer journey.