Art Therapy and Mental Health…Have you Doodled Today?

As we look for ways to improve our mental health, mindfulness exercises such as colouring seem to be gaining in popularity.  The following post from the archives speaks to this, as well as giving an exercise to try.  Enjoy! 

If you have been out in the world over the past year, you may have noticed the increase in the number of adult colouring books for sale.  They are everywhere!  You can pick one up when buying your groceries, refilling prescriptions or waiting for your flight at the airport.  They cover a range of topics, disciplines, genres, moods, spirituality and life events.

In the October 2016 issue of Psychology Today, Emily Silber reports that an estimated 12 million colouring books were sold in the U.S. in 2015, up from 1 million in 2014.

When reflecting on the growth of this popular item; Silber quotes clinical psychologist, Ben Michaelis, who suggests that “even if colouring does not help people process negative feelings directly, it may a least offer an effective form of relief”.

Art Therapy

While some people may balk at this popular culture activity, using adult colouring books could be considered a form or art therapy.  The Canadian Association of Art Therapy describes art therapy as “the combination of the creative process and psychotherapy, facilitating self-exploration and understanding. Using imagery, colour and shape as part of this creative therapeutic process, thoughts and feelings can be expressed that would otherwise be difficult to articulate.”

While art has been used since the beginning of human history as a way to share thoughts and ideas–the oldest cave painting was found in the El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain and dates back 40,000 years to the Aurignacian period–art therapy, as we know it, didn’t really start until the 1940’s.  The original art therapists were artists who recognized the value of creation on their own mental health, and chose to share the creation process with others.

If you are interested in a detailed history of art therapy, you can check out Art Therapy Journal for a wealth of information.

But What If I’m  not Creative and Can’t Draw?

While I am not an art therapist, in the past, I sometimes suggested a ‘drawing practice’ to clients–especially if they were working with anxiety and/or depression–as a way to calm their thoughts and shift their focus.  One of the most common responses that I heard was “I can’t draw” or “I’m not creative”.  The idea of being forced to create ‘art’ increased rather than decreased their level of anxiety.  So, instead I started suggesting a ‘mandala practice’.

What is a Mandala and How Do I Practice It?

Mandalas have been with us for a long time.  The word ‘mandala’ is Sanskrit for ‘circle’.  In Hindu and Buddhist traditions it is a graphic symbol for the universe.  Famous mandalas in the Christian tradition can be seen in the Celtic cross and rose windows.

In some traditions they have been used as part of meditation practices and some people believe that they have magical properties.  In fact, meditation paths are often built to form a mandala.

For people who don’t feel that they are creative (everyone is, whether they realize it or not!) or think that they can’t draw, a mandala practice is ideal as it is unstructured and free-form.  The practice doesn’t require a large outlay of cash for art supplies or take up a lot of space.  All that is required is a blank piece of paper, pen or pencil, pencil or regular wax crayons and a drinking glass or pot lid.  Intrigued?

The Mandala Practice

The way of this practice is to do it daily–similar to meditation practice or breathing exercises.  Besides being an enjoyable activity, there are many benefits to creating mandalas on a daily basis.  It is a way to step into mindfulness as you focus on the act of making your own mandala.  As you work, you may notice your thoughts slowing down.  As you engage the decision-making part of your brain, the emotional part of your brain may experience a sense of calm.  Clients have reported feeling a sense of accomplishment when they complete their mandala.  You are giving yourself the gift of a ‘time-out’.

There is no right or wrong way to do this practice–the value is in showing up.  It can take as much time, or as little, as you like.

Ready To Give It A Try?

Assemble the necessary tools (pen or pencil, blank paper, pencil or wax crayons, pot lid or glass) and find a comfortable place to work.

Step One
Empty out the box of crayons where you can see all the colours and easily reach them. This is easy if when sitting at a table.  Take a minute and appreciate the range of colours.  Think about the colours that you are drawn to and those you shy away from.  Take a deep breath.

Step Two
Using the pen or pencil, on the blank sheet of paper, trace around either the glass or pot lid.  The goal is to have  a circle of a size that you are happy with.

Step Three
Look at the selection of crayons, and without over-thinking it, choose one that appeals to you.  Using that crayon draw a shape inside the circle.  It can be anything you chose.  When you feel that the shape is complete, stop and return the crayon to the pile.  Take a deep breath.  Select another crayon and either add to the shape, or create another shape inside the circle.

Step Four
Continue  Step Three, until you feel that your mandala is complete.  Again, don’t overthink it.  You’ll know when it’s finished.  The circle may be filled, or it may only have one or a few items in it.

Step Five
Initial and date the mandala and file it way.

When you develop a regular practice, over time, you will have a collection of mandalas.  It is often interesting to look back over the series (several months’ worth) to see how the drawings, colour choices and subjects have changed.

Most of all…have fun!

Ultimate Mandalas–Made of Sand! 

As well as having my own mandala practice, I have been fascinated by the Tibetan practice of making sand mandalas. Their creation and destruction can be viewed as the ultimate expression of impermanence and love for the benefit of others.  Below are two clips showing this amazing act of creation.  The first gives a sped-up overview of the process. The second shows the process in more detail.

Enjoy!

Trying Something New? Expect Some Anxiety!

It’s September, and if you live in Ontario, we’ve just finished the first week of a new school year.  If you are a student (no matter your age), it means new teachers, new subjects and maybe a new school with the potential for new friends.  For non-students, the beginning of September brings the end of summer and the return to old routines, or creation of new ones.  In fact, many people see Labour Day as a more accurate indicator of a ‘new year’ than January 1.  And…all this ‘newness’ can lead to anxiety.

A Story…

Elaine had never traveled on her own before, but when she was given the opportunity to meet a friend (Karen) in Germany, she immediately said yes.  The thought of travelling alone scared her a bit, but as the trip was 6 months away she ignored any anxious thoughts that popped up.  Excitedly, she booked her flight.   In order to safe money, she booked an indirect flight to Frankfurt.  During the following months, the women planned that Elaine would rent a car and drive to the small town where Karen was staying.

As the date of the trip drew closer, Elaine started to become anxious.  She had her flights in place, and now she had to think about everything else.  Her brother (Brad) helped with booking the car rental, so that was taken care of.  However, when Elaine thought about what was causing her the most anxiety, it was the actual travel experience.  What if she was late for her flight?  What if she couldn’t find her gate at the airport?  Once she landed, how would she find the car rental place?  When she booked her flight, she didn’t think that a two-hour stop-over in Chicago was a big deal.  Now she wasn’t so sure.  What if she missed her connecting flight?   Elaine was starting to wish that she hadn’t agreed to visit Karen.  She wondered if it was too late to invite another friend to join her.

The Connection Between ‘New’ and Anxiety

No matter the time of year, while novel things can be exciting as they move us out of our comfort zone, they can also promote anxiety.  In fact, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between excitement and anxiety as they can feel the same way in the body–tummy butterflies, repetitive thoughts, sweaty palms.  So how do we know the difference?  It’s the internal dialogue that shows us the difference.

When we look at Elaine’s story, she was excited when she approached by Karen and decided to go on the trip.  She wasn’t ruminating about what could go wrong.  Instead, she recognized that she hadn’t traveled alone before, and was able to put the ‘what if’ questions aside.

Growing Edges and the Stress Response

We often think about stress as a bad thing…and chronic stress does have negative effects on our minds and bodies.  Chronic stress happens when we are living in conditions where we have little or no control over a difficult situation (at work or home) and it continues over a long period of time.  Our bodies react by increasing our levels of cortisol that eventually wreaks havoc with our adrenal system…possibly leading to adrenal fatigue and depression.  Generalized anxiety is the first step down this path.

“Good” stress is something different.  Good stress is paired with excitement.  We experience good stress when we are pushing ourselves to try something new–moving into our growing edges.  As a wise mentor once told me…”growing edges are meant to help us move to a next level, not break us!”.

The Story Continues…

While Elaine was thinking about cancelling the trip, Karen (who didn’t know about Elaine’s anxiety) was sending her pictures of where she was living and ideas of things they could do when Elaine arrived.  Elaine started to feel ambivalent…she wanted to take part in the exciting plans, and was afraid of what it would take to get there.  Plus, she didn’t want to lose the money she had paid for flights, or disappoint her friend.  Elaine decided that she needed to come up with a plan.

Elaine’s first step was to ask for help.  Talking to Brad, she learned that what she was feeling was normal.  Brad shared with her that the first time he traveled alone he was terrified…especially as he was travelling to a country where English wasn’t the first language.  Brad explained that his plan was to think about what could go wrong with the goal of putting safety factors in place.

Brad and Elaine mapped out her entire journey from the time she left home to when she would meet Karen.  Once Elaine had her ‘itinerary’ she created her plan:

  • She spoke to service providers who were able to answer her ‘what if?’ questions.
  • She found maps of the airports she would be using and learned how to get where she would need to be.
  • Elaine was able to speak to a car rental employee who gave her detailed directions to get to where the office was located, and offered the use of a GPS as an upgrade.
  • Google Maps provided backup directions in case the GPS didn’t work.  Using Google Earth, she found visuals of her route.

Finally, Elaine let Karen know about her anxiety.  Even though Karen offered to meet Elaine’s plane, Elaine was confident in her plan and excited to see if she could do it on her own.

Ways to Cope with the Anxiety of Trying Something New

Our lives are enriched when we try something new–whether the new thing is pushed on us or we choose to branch out.  So here are some ways to make the growing edges easier.

  • Be patient with yourself.  If possible take baby steps.  You can do this by breaking the new experience into manageable steps.  For example, if Elaine could have tried travelling on her own by taking a smaller/shorter trip.
  • Remember past successful experiences of trying new things.  Chances are that you have tried something new before and enjoyed it.  Use those memories to decrease anxiety when it shows up.
  • Plan ahead.  Follow Elaine’s example and map the potential new experience into as many detailed steps as you need.  You’re not thinking about the ‘what if’s’ as an exercise in worry, but as the items for an action plan.
  • Recognize that anxiety in this situation is normal.  Are you feeling anxiety or excitement?  Both are normal, and anxiety is a matter of degree.  A bit of anxiety is normal, but if it’s getting in the way of doing what you want to do, or becoming a constant companion, it’s gone overboard!
  • In moments of anxiety, breath.  You can find a downloadable breathing exercise here (at the bottom of the page), to help cope with anxious feelings.

So here’s to trying new things!

And now…speaking of air travel…here’s some vintage Frank Sinatra.  Enjoy!

Happy Labour Day Weekend!

Here it is…the last long weekend of Summer 2018!  It’s the one we commonly refer to as “Labour Day”, but what does this mean?  According to this site on Canadian history, our current practice of recognizing Labour Day evolved from a massive working class demonstration in Toronto in 1872.  How far we’ve come from the day’s original roots!

Whatever your plans for this weekend…spending time with family and friends, getting kids ready to go back to school or catching your breath before the business of September hits; I wish you all a restful weekend.

 

7 Ways to Cope With Grief From the Loss of a Pet

We encounter loss in all sorts of ways…the death of a loved one, the end of a friendship, the loss of a job….  One that we often experience is the loss of a pet, either  through death or the end of a relationship–and the grief that comes from this.  This special, and often unrecognized loss, is not easy.  So, how do we cope?

Our Culture’s Ideas About Pet Loss–Disenfranchised Grief

When a person dies, we usually know what to do.  We plan/attend some kind of service.  Perhaps we bring food to the grieving family.  Often, we send a sympathy card or donation to the requested charity.  However, there are types of losses when there aren’t clear-cut norms on how to behave.  Pet loss fits into this type of loss.    We are grieving, but others don’t understand why we are feeling so bad.  This is disenfranchised grief.

After telling a friend or co-worker that your pet is no longer in your life, you may receive the following remarks:

  • “Why are you still upset?  It’s only a dog/cat/bird/snake, ferret….”
  • “Why don’t you go and get another one?”
  • “He/she was really old/sick, so you had no choice but to ‘put him down.'”

The problem with these types of comments is that they don’t recognize the essential loss of our loved one, and the grief that you are feeling.  While people don’t often know what to say after a human dies (often due to lack of knowledge and discomfort); I can’t imagine telling someone to get a new partner right after the death of the love of your life!

Why We Grieve the Loss of our Pets

We grieve the objects, relationships and living things that mean something to us.  Our pets fit into a special category.  They provide unconditional love and companionship.  For some of us they fill the role of children or best friend.  We fit our lives and routines around theirs.  When they are gone, that means a lot of change.

It can become even more complicated when the loss occurs because of the end of relationship.  Our ex-partner has ‘custody’ of our pet.  We’re grieving not only the loss of our pet, but also the loss of the  human relationship.  It’s one thing to recognize that our animal family member is no longer on this earth, but to know that he/she is alive and inaccessible to us is another.

Grief is Grief…No Matter What We Have Lost

While everyone has different ways of grieving, J. William Worden in his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, suggests that the following four tasks are part of the grieving process.

  1. Accept the reality of the loss.
  2. Process the pain of grief.
  3. Adjust to the world without what we have lost.
  4. Maintain a connection with what we’ve lost, while at the same time starting a new life.

These tasks apply whatever loss we have suffered, and in in working through them we find ways to cope.

7 Things You Can Do When You Lose a Pet
  1. Take the time you need to recognize what has happened.  You have suffered a loss, and that can be an emotional shock.  Even if your pet’s loss was anticipated, the reality is the same.  Taking time may mean booking some quiet time for yourself away from work or outside activities.
  2. If possible, think about what you want to do with your pet’s belongings before your pet’s death happens.  A big grief trigger can be coming home to see your pet’s leash or bowl.  Maybe your pet’s possessions can stay with a friend until you are able to decide what to do with them.
  3. Recognize that there may be big emotions.  Sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness can be part of the grief process.  What you are experiencing is normal.  One way to cope with them is to let them flow through you–they will pass.  If you find that the emotions are overwhelming, physical activity (such as going for a walk or run) can help.
  4. Talk to friends or family members who understand what you are going through.  Other’s who have lost a beloved pet tend to get it, and may be willing to walk with you on your journey.
  5. Increase your self-care.  When we are grieving we tend to stop taking care of ourselves.  Make sure that you are eating healthy food, and getting enough rest and exercise.
  6. Create new routines.  Our pets influence our routines as we plan our days around feeding times, walks and play time.  Think about how you can find ways to put new (and healthy) activities in those times in your day.  For example, go for a walk at the usual time, and change your route or ask a friend or family member to go with you.
  7. Find a way to honour your pet.  Some people create a ritual as a way to say goodbye.  Others keep their pet’s ashes or send the ashes to an artist so they can be included in a piece of artwork, glass or pottery.

In time, you will recover from the grief of losing your pet.  However, it may take time and the journey is an individual one.  If you find that you are getting stuck in this process, please reach out for support–either from friends, family or a therapist.

And now…since we’re talking about pets…what’s not to like about kittens and laser pointers?  Enjoy!

 

One Perspective: I’ve learned to live with my mental illness

There is an old saying…”We can’t climb into another person’s skin.”  The meaning I take from this is that, while we can show empathy to others, we don’t know their intimate experience–mental health included.  That’s why it’s useful to hear directly from others.  The following First Person article, was published in the July 23, 2018 issue of the Globe and Mail.  First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers.

My disquieted mind is like a party I was invited to, but I don’t know who sent the invitation. Trading cloaked glances across the open bar, ice clinking audibly in swirling glasses, olives skewered onto toothpicks with a tidy, yet menacing accuracy. The conversation becomes hushed around me as I move about the room. I look to the door, but can’t navigate my way to exit. None of my bipolar highs or lows or my various anxieties have ever been gracious hosts. Yet, the invitation remains, unavoidable and persistent.

Is it natural for your most complex relationship to be with yourself? Some nights, I fall asleep in the bed of one likeness and awake in another. Some mornings my visage looks like an offence, as if the mirror is trying to disparage me. Other days I see the face of an old friend, my heart swelling and breaking concurrently as I ask, “Why am I so hard on myself?”

Everyone wants to be free of themselves at some point, counting down the minutes to the weekend to intoxicate ourselves and create moments we won’t remember. It’s easier to say, “I love you” when drunk, faded, high or rolling anyway. Many of us will gladly sacrifice a slice of control for a helping of chemically induced simplicity. The small become large, the indifferent become invested. But what is perspective without a window; what is scale without reference?

Perhaps internal peace is meeting one’s self in no man’s land, between the trenches, caked in grime. Looking up and recognizing the resemblance, breaching the gap that separates us from our real selves – a silent pause, commanding in its stillness. To catch and maintain our own gaze is powerful. We hide our darkest corners most aptly from ourselves.

I want to fall in love with myself, but it’s never been that simple. At 27, I find myself on a fulcrum, feeling the past behind me, a soundless breeze on the back of my neck reminding me of everything I’ve lost, every object dropped, every person who removed themselves from my life.

I don’t fear these accusations of inferiority and inadequacy as I used to, but I admit to my trepidation surrounding them. My most difficult endeavour was admitting my deficiencies, confused by what strength actually was.

My faith in myself never falters, except when it does. I live with self-doubt, all-encompassing and seemingly endless, waiting for a day that may never come. Grand victories may be rare, but with patience and perseverance they arrive. I gave a speech at my grandfather’s memorial service and it was enthusiastically received. I probably wouldn’t be writing this essay had that not occurred. It was a victory in an unexpected place from unexpected people with unexpected consequences. I was able to exhale and breathe for another day. My grandfather would have been proud.

I’ve discovered that it’s not the elimination of so-called shortcomings that leads to self-improvement. It’s more about sensibly maintaining composure when that composure is called into question, especially when it’s me who’s doing the questioning.

I know there is no cure for my mental illness, no dusting hands off and settling down after a job well done. There is balance and consistency. The world doesn’t change; you need to change within it. I suppose that’s why I take my medication every morning and every night without fail. I’m recovering from whispers and shadows. My pills come in handfuls – my anxieties I consume single file.

It’s been years in the making, but when I have a good day, it’s mine. In these moments, I control as much of my destiny as possible. My social anxiety has kept me on a short leash my whole life and my mental health has at times taken my legs out from under me. But when I wake up early, start writing, survive another yoga class and lay down for an early bedtime, it adds another solitary brushstroke to the canvas that is the true, unflinching and unremitting me.

So, here I stand. I’m not a boy, but I’m not far divorced from boyhood. I’m intelligent, but applying that intelligence has proven a difficult and layered struggle.

I was never successful in school; my attitude was loud and my interest quiet. My indifference about formal education did not evaporate over the summer between Grade 12 and my first year at Concordia, which in retrospect is about as shocking as the sunrise. Since turning 20, I’ve been in and out work, missing multiple years cumulatively, because of my mental health. I have a lot of love in me, but I’ve never been able to make any of my relationships last at least a year. Life is complicated: My friends’ lives are complicated, my life is complicated and my family’s is as well.

I am the cat who climbed too high; those closest to me bring the ladder and carry me down.

As far as we travel, we never leave ourselves. We might lose ourselves around a dark corner, but we will always be there. My faith is to no deity or prophet; my faith is a manifestation that exists between the gaps of my ribs, looking out, viewing the world with colourful inquiry and nervous anticipation. I suppose I’ve found no god and no ego to be a worthwhile forfeit. Between the heart and the heavens, warmed by a lack of expectations, I find peace and feel courageous in my lack of understanding.

The truth is what happens between the lies. Back at the party, in my mind, the hostility suddenly abates. I can recognize old friends I simply could not see before. We will greet each other happily. When a round of socializing leaves me dizzy, I retreat to the bathroom for a brief reprieve. I wash my hands and look to the mirror. I love you, Jack.

Jack Altman lives in Vancouver.

6 Simple Things You Can Do To Improve Your Mental Health

Thinking about improving our mental health can feel overwhelming–especially when we’re under the influence of negative emotions such as anger, sadness or anxiety.  However, there are a few simple things that you can do in the moment that can help…and, if you practice these things on a regular basis, you may see an improvement in your overall well-being.  So, what are they?

1.  Stop and Breathe

As humans, we are under a lot of stress.  Our stress levels encourage us to be ‘shallow’ breathers–instead of taking deep breaths; we take short,  shallow breaths.  If we pay attention, we may notice that most of our inhales barely make it past our collar bone!    This way of breathing encourages panicky feelings as we’re not getting enough oxygen to our brains–it’s as if we’re hyperventilating.   If that’s our normal, how should we breathe?

Have you ever watched a baby breathe?  They  naturally ‘tummy’ breathe…slow, deep, relaxed breaths.  Tummy breathing helps to calm the nervous system, which puts the breaks on the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.  You can practice this type of breathing by gently placing your hands on your stomach and inhaling until you feel your tummy rise and fall.

If you are interested in practicing your breathing as a way to cope with difficult emotions, a meditation/breathing download is available on the Welcome Page of Blaikie Psychotherapy.  The exercise takes 20 minutes and includes instructions.

2.  Eat Something Healthy

Are you familiar with the ‘hang over’ from a greasy, high-fat, calorie-dense meal?  I know that I am!  If I have made a stop at my local fast-food palace as a way to cope with negative feelings, I can pretty much guarantee that I won’t feel better afterwards.

Our brains and bodies are connected.  There is now a branch of science called Nutritional Psychiatry that looks at the effects of food on our mental health.  Scientists are recognizing the interplay between mental health and a healthy gut (the microbiome).  When we provide our bodies with healthy nutrients, we are encouraging brain health.  This article from the Harvard Medical School explains how eating a diet high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants helps to increase serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain.

So, if you’re feeling down, grab an apple instead of a doughnut!

3.  Move

We have known for a long time that exercise is a good way to improve our mood.  There’s nothing like a good stomp around the block after an argument!

The great thing is that it doesn’t have to be a big deal…just 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week will provide benefits.  While 150 minutes may sound like a lot, it’s only a 20 minute walk per day.  And the 20 minutes can be spread out over the day…park the car a bit farther from where you’re going…take the stairs when possible…hit replay on your favourite tune and keep dancing.  When we’re mindful of ways to increase our amount of movement, it’s easy to find 20 minutes.

4.  Enjoy Nature

Not only can we add 20 minutes of movement into our day, we can do it outside.  While spending time in a forest or at a lake is ideal, the benefit is in getting outside.  Is there a park or other green space in your area?  What about your backyard?

A recent trend called “Forest Bathing” encourages us to benefit from the healing properties of trees.    According to a CTV News article,  the forest bathing movement is all about immersing oneself in the healing properties of trees and plants.  It involves simply walking — quietly, slowly and deliberately — in a forest, and taking in the sounds, scents, colours, forms and general vibe of nature.

The concept is inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere.”  The certified forest therapy guide quoted in the article stated that “studies in Japan and Korea found forest bathers after their walks had an increased number of “natural killer cells,” immune system cells that combat disease and may even help prevent some kinds of cancer. The researchers believe natural killer cells are boosted when people breathe in organic compounds called phytoncides released by trees.”  Apparently, forest bathing helps to lower cortisol levels, thereby lowering your stress levels.

If you’re curious about nature therapy or forest bathing, you can read more about it here.

4.  Count

We’ve all heard the advice about counting to 10 before losing our temper, and for a good reason as it often works.  However, sometimes we need more than that.

When we get overwhelmed by big emotions like anxiety or anger, our limbic system (or lizard/emotional brain) is over-stimulated.  This means that the logic part of our brain (pre-frontal cortex) is not in charge.  By counting, which is a ‘thinking’ activity, we put that part of our brain back in the driver’s seat, and we stop the flooding of emotions.  While counting our breaths may help, it can be more helpful to count something that is external to us.

One suggestion that I often give to clients is, when needed, look at what is around and find something to count.  In a meeting room?…count the number of pens or paperclips on the table.  In a store?…How many items are on the rack or shelf in front of you.  At home?…Count the number of books on a shelf, spots on the carpet, dust bunnies on the floor.  Outside?  Count trees or cars.  We can always find something to count.

6.  Talk to Someone

One of the signs of depression is self-imposed social isolation.  We don’t feel like interacting with other people, so we don’t.  The more we keep to ourselves, the deeper we fall into our negative thoughts and the less we want to spend time with others….and the pattern repeats.  I’m not talking about the bigger problem of a chronic lack of friends, but the turning away for others.

Social interaction is important for our mental health.  We are social creatures and need contact with others.  So make a point of talking to at least one person during your day…maybe it’s the person who makes your coffee or tea…smiling at someone who crosses your path…asking a co-worker about their plans for the weekend.  It doesn’t have to be deep, just a sharing of humanity.

This post provides 6 simple ways to improve your mental health.  However, if you are dealing with a significant mental health challenge, these may not be enough.  If you would like to get in touch to talk more about what you are experiencing, you can reach me through my contact page.

And now, since humour is also good for mental health.  Here is some classic Monty Python.  Enjoy!

“Find Your Passion”…Apparently Not a Good Idea!

Whether you are in the process of finding your first or twenty-first career, we are often told to “Find your passion” and all will be well.  According to the following article published in the July 12, 2018 on-line edition of The Atlantic, following this advice may not be a good idea.

This is such a good article (and timely as the new University and College terms are fast approaching), that I’ve included it in it’s entirety.  Enjoy!

‘Find Your Passion’ Is Awful Advice

A major new study questions the common wisdom about how we should choose our careers.

A person wearing white gloves holds up a violin
Toby Melville / ReutersWhat Dweck asked her students is a common refrain in American society. The term “Follow your passion” has increased ninefold in English books since 1990. “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” is another college-counseling standby of unknown provenance.

Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, remembers asking an undergraduate seminar recently, “How many of you are waiting to find your passion?”“Almost all of them raised their hand and got dreamy looks in their eyes,” she told me. They talked about it “like a tidal wave would sweep over them,” he said. Sploosh. Huzzah! It’s accounting! Would they have unlimited motivation for their passion? They nodded solemnly. “I hate to burst your balloon,” she said, “but it doesn’t usually happen that way.”

That’s why he and two co-authors—Dweck and Greg Walton of Stanford—recently performed a study that suggests it might be time to change the way we think about our interests. Passions aren’t “found,” they argue. They’re developed.

In a paper that is forthcoming in Psychological Science, the authors delineate the difference between the two mind-sets. One is a “fixed theory of interests”—the idea that core interests are there from birth, just waiting to be discovered—and the other is a “growth theory,” the idea that interests are something anyone can cultivate over time.To examine how these different mind-sets affect our pursuit of different topics, the authors performed a series of studies on college students—a group that’s frequently advised to find their passion in the form of a major or career path.

First, students answered a survey that would categorize them as either “techy”—slang for interested in math and science—or “fuzzy,” meaning interested in the arts or humanities. They also filled out a survey determining how much they agreed with the idea that people’s core interests don’t change over time. They then read an article that mismatched their interests—a piece on the future of algorithms for the fuzzies, and a piece on Derrida for the techies. The more the participants endorsed a “fixed” theory of interests, the less interested they were in the article that mismatched their aforementioned identity as a techy or fuzzy.

The authors then repeated a similar procedure, but they had students read first about either the fixed theory of interests or the growth theory. Again, those who learned that interests are fixed throughout a person’s life were less captivated by an article that mismatched their interests. The authors believe this could mean that students who have fixed theories of interest might forgo interesting lectures or opportunities because they don’t align with their previously stated passions. Or that they might overlook ways that other disciplines can intersect with their own.“If passions are things found fully formed, and your job is to look around the world for your passion—it’s a crazy thought,” Walton told me. “It doesn’t reflect the way I or my students experience school, where you go to a class and have a lecture or a conversation, and you think, That’s interesting. It’s through a process of investment and development that you develop an abiding passion in a field.”

Another reason not to buy into the fixed theory is that it can cause people to give up too easily. If something becomes difficult, it’s easy to assume that it simply must not have been your passion, after all. In one portion of this study, the students who thought interests were fixed were also less likely to think that pursuing a passion would be difficult at times. Instead, they thought it would provide “endless motivation.”

Dweck, one of the paper’s authors, has previously studied different types of mind-sets as they relate to intelligence. People who have a growth mind-set about their own intelligence tend to be less afraid of failure, according to her research, because they believe smarts are cultivated, not inherent. Interests are related to, but distinct from, abilities, the study authors told me: You can be interested in something but not very good at it. “I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years, but I can’t say that my abilities have gotten that much better in the past 10 years,” O’Keefe said.

Dweck told me that “find your passion” has a laudable history. “Before that, people were saying, ‘Find your genius,’ and that was so intimidating. It implied that only people who were really brilliant at something could succeed,” she said. “‘Find your passion’ felt more democratic. Everybody can have an interest.” But this study suggests that even the idea of finding your “true” interest can intimidate people and keep them from digging further into a field.

The authors also had students learn about either fixed or growth theory and then exposed them to a new interest: Astronomy. First, they had them watch a video made by The Guardian for a general audience about Stephen Hawking’s ideas. It was easy to understand and entertaining. Then the authors had the students read a highly technical, challenging article in the academic journal Science about black holes. Despite saying just moments ago, after viewing the video, that they were fascinated by black holes, the students who were exposed to the fixed theory of interests said they were no longer interested in black holes after reading the difficult Science article. In other words, when you’re told that your interests are somehow ingrained, you give up on new interests as soon as the going gets tough.

This study was a preregistered replication, meaning the authors stated at the outset what their hypothesis and methods would be. This process is meant to prevent p-hacking, a shady data practice that has cast a shadow over many psychology studies in recent years.

Ann Renninger, a professor at Swarthmore College who was not involved with the study, has researched the development of interests and said that “neuroscience has confirmed that interests can be supported to develop.” In other words, with the right help, most people can get interested in almost anything. Before the age of 8, she said, kids will try anything. Between the ages of 8 and 12, they start to compare themselves with others and become insecure if they’re not as good as their peers at something. That’s when educators have to start to find new ways to keep them interested in certain subjects.

Though the authors didn’t examine adults, they told me their findings could apply to an older population as well. For example, people’s interest in parenthood tends to escalate rapidly once they have a real, crying baby in their house. “You could not know the first thing about cancer, but if your mother gets cancer, you’re going to be an expert in it pretty darn quick,” O’Keefe said.

A different study done on adults’ views toward passions suggests that people who think passions are found tend to pick jobs that fit them well from the outset. They prioritize enjoyment over good pay. People who think passions are developed, meanwhile, prioritize other goals over immediate enjoyment at work, and they “grow to fit their vocations better over time,” the authors of that study write. “In conclusion,” they add, “people who have not found their perfect fit in a career can take heart—there is more than one way to attain passion for work.”

How to cultivate a “growth” mind-set in the young, future-psychology-experiment subjects of America? If you’re a parent, you can avoid dropping new hobbies as soon as they become difficult. (Your kids might take note if you do, O’Keefe said.) Beyond that, there’s not a clear way to develop a growth mind-set about interests, other than knowing that it’s a valid way to think, and that your passion might still be around the corner.

“We’re just trying to pull the veil back on the hidden implications of things like, ‘find your passion,’” Walton said. “Is that really how things work? A little bit of knowledge is power.”

Are You In a State of Lykke?

Libraries are magical places.  Unlike looking for books on Amazon or Chapters.com where you are presented with book selections based on previous choices; wandering around a library allows you to stumble upon all sorts of interesting things that you had no idea existed.  And, if you have a library card, it’s all free!  Such was the case the other day when I stumbled upon the little gem entitled The Little Book of Lykke by Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen.

What is Lykke?

Lykke is the Danish word for happiness.  According to Wiking’s research (based on the combined average of World Happiness Reports 2013-2017) Dane’s are the happiest people on the planet…followed by Swedes and Norwegians to round out the top three.

Wiking suggests that the reason for Denmark’s high happiness rating is due to community norms around togetherness, freedom, trust, and kindness; as well as those around money and health.  If you are interested in learning the details of Wiking’s theory, I recommend his book as an enjoyable, thought-provoking read.

A Definition of Happiness

As discussed in last week’s post on balance, the definition of happiness is also individual.  What makes me happy, may be misery to my neighbour.  That being said, Wiking provides a helpful framework to look at happiness.  He suggests that happiness can be divided into three categories:  the affective dimension, the cognitive dimension and eudaimonia.

When we are operating in the affective (or hedonic) dimension we’re thinking short-term.  What was our mood today?  Sad, scared, anxious, happy?  In the cognitive dimension we take a step back and look at our live overall.  Wiking asks:

“How happy are you in general?  Think of the best possible life you could lead, and the worst possible.  Where do you feel you stand right now?”  “When trying to evaluate happiness, the important information is what your dream is and how close you feel to living that dream.”

The concept of eudaimonia takes happiness one step further.  Eudaimonia is the Ancient Greek work for happiness and is based on Aristotle‘s perception of happiness–i.e. happiness comes from living a meaningful and purposeful life.  If you’d like to read more about the ‘meaning of life’ you can check out this previous post.

Chasing Happiness

I think that it’s safe to assume that we all want to be happy.  In fact, it’s often a motivating factor in why we behave the way we do.  In some cases, we even go so far as to believe that we have a right to be happy.  In at least one country, the right to happiness is codified in their founding documents.    The United States Declaration of Independence  gives citizens the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

As with most things that we want very badly, we are seldom content to let them come to us–instead we chase them.  Advertisers know this.  Consumerism is based on the idea that we will buy things that we think will make us more popular, thinner, fitter, smarter…ultimately happier.

Not only do we chase happiness, but in today’s world of ‘fitbits’ and other ways of constant monitoring, there are ‘happiness apps’ that use results of research into brain science and happiness to give users daily exercises that will help to improve their overall state of happiness.  If you’re interested, you can check out Psychology Today’s review of the Best Happiness Apps of 2018.

Unicorns

What if happiness is like a unicorn?  In fairy tales, we learn that if we are looking for a unicorn we’ll fail if we chase them directly. Instead, we need to sit quietly and wait.  She will come to us, and not usually full-on, but  glimpsed out of the corner of our eye.

I like the idea of happiness being somewhat mystical–like unicorns.  It comes when we’re not looking for her.  We can put things in place to encourage her to visit, but we can’t force her to come…or stay forever.

If we measure happiness from the affective standard, it’s easy to look at happiness as something to grasp and get attached to. This can only lead to disappointment.  However, if we think of the long game, happiness over time, we can relax and not get so caught up in our ‘internal weather’.

Happiness and Depression

There is a time when we do need to be aware of our daily happiness–if we suspect that we may be suffering with depression.  One of the symptoms of depression is the absence of happiness or no longer finding joy in activities that used to fulfill us.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • sadness
  • tiredness
  • trouble focusing or concentrating
  • unhappiness
  • anger
  • irritability
  • frustration
  • loss of interest in pleasurable or fun activities
  • sleep issues (too much or too little)
  • no energy
  • craving unhealthy foods
  • anxiety
  • isolation.

If you have been experiencing any of the these symptoms for more than a few weeks, you may be dealing with depression, and need to seek medical support.

Happiness…individual, illusive and part of what makes life worthwhile.  May she find you!

And now what is happier than a baby goat and kittens?  Enjoy!

 

The Precariousness of Balance

When people find out that I publish a blog post on a regular basis, they often ask where I find ideas to write about.  I share that the inspiration can come from lots of different areas.  Sometimes it’s a book or article that I’ve read. Sometimes a discussion with a friend, colleague, client or stranger has been the spark.  And then there are posts that  I write as a way to wrestle with a topic that I am puzzling with…such as today’s post on balance.

What is Balance?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘balance’ in a number of ways…

  • as a piece of equipment used for measurement
  • physical equilibrium (keeping your balance on a sailboat)
  • the equal space between two opposing elements (junk food vs. exercise)
  • in the context of art, balance is an aesthetically pleasing integration of elements
  • an amount in excess especially on the credit side of a bank account
  • mental or emotional stability.

The ideas of physical equilibrium, space between opposing elements and mental/emotional stability are somewhat helpful, but they don’t quite fit what I’m looking for.  They are describing an exact point, but life is made up by a series of ‘points’ or moments.

Balance as a Concept

At some point during the time that a client and I are working together, we will talk about how things may be different when they have finished therapy.  What is their picture of life after ‘the change’?   In order to discover your view ‘balance’, substitute ‘balanced’ for ‘finished therapy’ or “What is your picture of life after you have achieved a level of balance?”  I suspect that each of you will answer differently.

When we recognize that what is an ideal balance for one person, is completely out of balance for someone else, it becomes clear that ‘balance’ as a concept is incredibly individual.  Also, what a balanced life looks like at one stage of life no longer fits at a later stage.  To complicate things, that sense of being balanced can change from one day to another depending on energy levels, weather, people contact, or an endless bunch of other factors.

Finding Balance…By Paying Attention to the Opposite

I wonder if being able to live a balanced life requires a certain level of self-awareness…knowing not only when we feel balanced, but also being aware of when we feel ‘off-balance’.  Feeling ‘off balance’ is one of the most common reasons that people begin to see a therapist.  They may not be sure what is going on, but they don’t feel ‘right’.

Similar to the old saying, of “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”, maybe we don’t recognize that we are living a balanced life, because everything is ticking along nicely.  We are living our lives with few problems.  We look for balance only when we become aware of it’s non-existence.  Then we play the game of adding more of this and less of that in an attempt to bring back feelings of equilibrium.  How many of us have thought that “I just need more sleep… or less work, or more fun, or less … and life will be better”.

Once we can imagine what a balanced life looks like for us…what we are aspiring to…how do we get there?

Tools for Living a Balanced Life

It appears that the search for a balanced life has been a human activity for a long time.  Here are some of the tools that I have found:

  • The 80/20 Rule:  The idea behind this tool is that when looking for balance it’s unnecessary to micro-manage things in your life or constantly correct when things feel a bit off-kilter.  People use this as a way to balance spending (80% of total income) and saving (20%), or managing food.  If 80% of your diet is healthy, don’t worry about the rest.
  • The Buddhist Idea of the Middle Way:  The Buddha came to this idea after living a life of extremes.  In his youth, he was a wealthy prince, and then chose to give it up to live as a ascetic.  As a holy man, his practices were so extreme that he almost died.  As part of his spiritual journey, he discovered the value of living between the two extremes, or the Middle Way.
  • Everything in Moderation:  This tool fits with the Middle Way as the search for balance doesn’t preclude anything–just don’t do too much of it!
  • The One in/One out Rule:  This tool helps to maintain balance once it has been reached.  Basically, for every new thing you add into your life, something else must leave.  This could apply to things, people (in some cases) or activities.
Can We Have It All?

One of the reasons that many people search for a balanced life is their desire to have/or do it all.  But is this possible?  Maybe, but not at the same time.

Perhaps one piece to the search for a balanced life is that we need to expand the time-frame.  Rather than asking if we’re balanced in this week, month or year; maybe we can ask if we are living a balanced life at this stage.  Or what if the Merriam-Webster definition is right and balance takes place in the moment, only to shift out of balance so easily?  Hmmm….the search continues….

And now…an amazing display of balance–elegant, graceful and inspiring….Enjoy!

 

The Benefits (and Challenges) of Slowing Down

Now that summer has truly arrived with a vengeance–+40 degrees with the humidity anyone?  Slowing down is something to think about. 

The following is from the archives.  Enjoy! 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about self-care and it’s importance for mental health. Part of self-care is giving ourselves permission to slow down. But what does “slowing down” look like?  I suggest that it will look different for everyone and that there are no shortage of resources to help us find our way.

 The Popularity of “Slow”

The first time I heard of “slow” was in the context of slow food.  In 1986 Carlo Petrini, an Italian, started a group that celebrated the concept and practice of enjoying local food, that is lovingly prepared, and shared with friends and family.  This group was in protest to a McDonald’s restaurant that was being built in his town.  Part of his plan, against what he saw as the encroachment of fast food into his fellow neighbours’ way of life, was to dismantle the McDonald’s at night (himself with a band of followers)–while it was being built.  The legal repercussions of this are another story, and included in the creation stories of the Slow Food Movement.

Since Petrini’s start in 1986, the Slow Food Movement has become an international institution that not only includes the founder’s initial plan, but also the idea of local eating, organic foods and beverages, as well as preserving various food preparation skills.

The slow movement has spread to the idea of slow money, slow fashion, slow cities, slow schools…the list goes on.

If you are interested in finding more information on this concept, the following books are worth checking out.

In Praise of Slowness:  Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honore
Slow is Beautiful:  New Visions of Community, Leisure, and Joie de Vivre by Cecile Andrews.

 Sounds Interesting, But What Gets in the Way of Slowing Down?

Recently, a colleague and I were discussing self-care and why it’s so difficult to slow down–especially when it would be in our best interest to do so. She suggested that it comes down to being attached to outcomes. When we have a fixed idea of how things should be, we can become incredibly invested in making situations, people, etc. fit our ideal.

One way that outcome attachment is visible is when we have a picture in our mind of what we should be doing and how productive we should be.   This attachment can become a problem when we are fixed on a certain plan or idea and then react negatively when we can’t fulfill that plan.  Often our answer is to speed up rather than slow down in an effort to shape our world.

 How Can We Slow Down?

While slowing down looks different for each person, I suggest that in each case it involves letting go of our attachment to outcomes.  In Buddhist psychology, attachment (to states of mind, situations, our plans for the future) leads to suffering (pain in our lives). What would happen if we allowed ourselves to be less in control?  Would our lives start to have room for some ease?

The act of slowing down often takes deliberate effort.  In the April 22, 2017 issue of the New York Times International Weekly, there appeared a brief article by David Leonhardt entitled:  You’re Too Busy.  You Need to a ‘Shultz Hour’.  The article describes the habit of George Shultz (US Secretary of State in the 1980’s) to carve one hour each week for quiet reflection.  During that time he would think about the strategic aspects of his job, and ponder larger questions.

Similar to the book reviewed last weekSolitude:  A Singular Life in a Crowded World–the individuals Leonhardt interviewed in the article would agree with Solitude’s author Michael Harris about the negative impact that technology has had on the practice of slowing down.

Leonhardt writes:

“Whether you decide a Shultz Hour makes sense for you, I’d encourage you not to fool yourself into thinking that you can easily change your habits in little ways here and there. The ubiquity of smartphones, together with our culture of celebrating busyness, makes ad-hoc approaches difficult.  You are much more likely to carve out time for strategic thinking by making concrete changes to your habits.”

The author’s suggestion? Hide your phone…sounds easy, but how many of us could actually do it?

There are lots of bloggers that explore and chronicle their experiences of slowing down.  I recently discovered Cait Flanders, a blogger out of British Columbia, who has decided that 2017 will be her ‘year of slow living’.  Her posts are insightful and provide great tips.  I encourage you to check our her blog.

Slowing Down and Self-Care

Slowing down can be a key component of self-care.  However, the guilt we feel about taking things at a quieter pace, may defeat the purpose.  Often we have a fixed idea of what we want self-care to look like–get to the gym six days/week, floss our teeth daily, get to bed before 11 p.m…. The list can be endless, and we beat ourselves up when we haven’t been able to meet our self-care goals.  How will we be able to maintain the outcome we desire of being able to fit into a size 8 dress if we don’t push ourselves? How reasonable is this?

My friend and I decided that perhaps a better question is:  What do we need right now?  If the answer is something less healthy, spend the time to slow down and explore the feelings underneath the desire.  Am I really hungry, or do I need to sleep or talk to a friend about the challenging day I’ve had?

The Benefits of “Slow”:  A Real-life Example

In researching this post, I encountered a clip that told the following story.  An ambulance driver was taking part in a community group focused on the idea of ‘slow living’.  He decided to see what would happen if he drove slightly slower when rushing to an emergency call.  (I assume that he did this when it wasn’t an actual emergency!).  He found that by slowing down, he gave the drivers ahead of him more time to get out of the way, and he was able to reach his destination in less time than if he had increased his speed. Interesting… I wonder how much more productive we would be if we weren’t in such a rush.

To borrow a great line that I recently heard:  “You ain’t going to get all your possums up the same tree.”  My addition is, why rush around trying?

Now, if you have 20 minutes to spare, I invite you to take some time and listen to a Ted Talk from one of the ‘masters of slow’–Carl Honore.  Enjoy!