Comings and Goings…The Circle of Life

People come and go in our lives for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it’s because we meet a new friend, or a relationship ends.  Maybe we’re the one coming and going as we change jobs or move to a new city.  At some point, our entrances and exits are more substantial…we are born and we die.  That’s the circle of life.

In the Not So Distant Past

While both birth and death are an unavoidable part of the human experience, I suggest that as a modern culture, we treat each of them very differently.  However, this hasn’t always been the case.

As a big fan of Call the Midwife, I never tire of watching the sanitized TV version of babies being born. The series takes place in an East-London neighbourhood, during the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Among other things, it chronicles the progression from the norm of home births to hospital births; and the resulting changes in the expectations of everyone involved.  I’m not advocating one birth experience over another, just noting the shift of birth taking place at home vs. taking place in a medical setting.

Like birth, death has also moved locations. In the past, the common practice was that we died at home–circumstances allowing. Ideally, the dying person was surrounded by family and/or friends who were there to offer comfort to the individual and each other.  Family members shared the final tasks of preparing their loved-one for burial. Visitation was held in the family home. Birth and death were very personal, yet community, experiences. Now, most of us can expect to die in a hospital, and prepared for our final resting place by funeral home staff.

A Semi-Current Picture

According to Statistics Canada, in 2014 approximately 259,000 Canadians died. The Fact Sheet published about Hospice and Palliative Care in Canada reported that 70% of those deaths occurred in hospitals.

On the flip side, 2014 saw approximately 384,000 Canadian births (142,000 in Ontario). A December 2015 Toronto Star article outlined a three-year McMaster University study that noted midwives attended 10% of all births in Ontario (2014 is included in their data).  Of this 10%, 20% of these births occurred at home.

The bottom line…most of us will come and go in a hospital.  However, the picture may be changing.

Thoughts on Current Practices of Life… 

Midwifery, was regulated in Ontario in 1994, as a publicly funded service. Currently there are more than 700 registered midwives in Ontario who provide neonatal care to pregnant women, attend their deliveries and look after the mother and baby following birth.  With the 1994 law, midwives have hospital privileges (including access to hospital staff and resources). The blending of the two options gives expectant parents more choice of where to deliver their babies.  It is no longer a binary decision of at home with a midwife vs in hospital with a obstetrician (most family doctors no longer deliver babies).

According to the McMaster study, for women with low-risk pregnancies, babies delivered at home were at no greater risk than those in hospitals. We can have the best of both worlds.

…and Death

The same choice has begun around end of life decisions as well. The number of hospice centers and palliative care support is growing steadily.  According to an Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care position paper:

“Ontario is working to provide patients with more choices for palliative and end-of-life care.

This includes investing in more hospice care across the province and expanding caregiver supports that help families and loved ones support palliative patients at home and in their communities. Ontario will also support more public education about advanced care planning so that patients’ wishes for end-of-life care are understood. The province is establishing clear oversight and accountability for Ontario’s palliative care services, to further advance patient-centred care.”

It will be interesting to see the effects of assisted death legislation on end-of-life location options.

Speaking of options, there are now death doula’s or midwives who spiritually help individuals and their families through the death process.  Training programs to become a death doula are now available throughout Canada and the US.  Both MacLeans magazine and Global News have covered this subject.

Death is Making an Appearance

While our culture tends to hide death–even in the language we use to describe death (“passed away” or “passed on”);  I have started to notice some changes.  Besides the increased visibility of hospice and palliative care and debates on assisted death, end-of-life has started to take up space in our current frame of reference.

At first it was something I glimpsed out of the corner of my eye.  A colleague had mentioned that he had attended a weekend workshop on “home funerals”.  The event took place in a private home, and included information about the rules and some basic skills for taking care of your deceased loved from death until burial. While not for everyone, this is a fascinating alternative to the current practice.

Next, over the six-month period, numerous articles appeared in the local paper:

  • A story about a Romanian cemetery (called the Merry Cemetery) where the crosses are etched with colourful epitaphs and drawings describing the deceased’s life and/or personality;
  • A helpful article about “tying up the loose ends of life”;
  • Another article assuring readers that “death doesn’t have be so frightening”;
  • A commentary of the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead–a family celebration that sees family members and friends having parties in local cemeteries as they visit their loved ones;
  • And finally, a review of the book  “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to free yourself and your family from a lifetime of clutter.”  A new reason to declutter.

I came across information about the Good Green Death Forum (an event organized by the Green Burial Society of Canada) and DeathCafe.com (a social event where people talk about death with the goal of increasing their awareness of life).

Ideas about death appear to be popping up in popular culture.

Why Does This Matter?

As a therapist, I tend to look at things through the lens of mental health.  While birth is usually a happy event (no matter where it takes place), I have concerns about how we deal with the end of life. With the movement of death from plain sight over the past decades, it has become scary.  Combined with our culture’s fixation on youth, this fear has escalated.  As with most things in life that we don’t understand, when we push them away they become something mysterious, and to be feared.

But do we have to continue to treat death this way?  Instead can we use a familiarity with death as a tool to help us live more aware and fulfilling lives?

Another Way to Look at Death

In many Buddhist traditions, a purposeful contemplation of death is one practice that is used to help individuals become aware of the constancy of change and life’s fragility.  The concept is that when we realize that nothing in life is permanent and everything is easily broken, we look at events in our lives differently.  We may appreciate to a greater level not only what we have (including health, relationships, and things), but also the people we love.  From this perspective, while we may grief loss (from the breaking of a favourite cup to the loss of something greater), we understand it to be part of a greater whole.  As well, to quote a best-selling book title, we “Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff”.

Death as an Exercise

I’ve come across a few books over the years (The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People and She Means Business (to name a few) that advise readers to become comfortable with their own death as a way to add focus to their lives.

These authors lead a guided exercise in which the reader imagines, in detail, their own funeral or memorial service–paying particular attention to what their family and friends are saying about them.  These imaginary statements become nuggets to be mined as you set life goals.  I’m not sure if it works, but could be an interesting exercise.

Finally…

We can’t hide from the comings and goings in our lives…whether it’s us or someone else.  However, we can become less fearful and more mindful.

And now…somewhat predictably, but none the less still moving after all these years (movie came out in 1994)…The Lion King – Circle of Life.  Enjoy!

 

 

Are You Laughing? Humour and Health

Humour is a funny thing (no pun intended!).  What one person thinks is hilarious, another person barely breaks a smile.  What’s counts as humour in one culture, is seen as insulting in another.

Not only is humour tricky, we hold certain beliefs about it’s value–especially regarding our health.  In this post we’ll explore three areas of belief about humour’s effect on mental and physical health:  popular culture, science and personal experience.

Laughter:  The Best Medicine

Much of our beliefs about humour and health are thanks to Norman Cousins (June 24, 1915 – November 30, 1990), an American political journalist, author, professor, and world peace advocate.  Norman believed in a link between emotions and the successful fight against illness.  When diagnosed with a crippling connective tissue disease, he tried to alleviate his pain by watching television comedy.  Norman discovered that laughter helped to decrease his pain levels for a period of time.  He continued this practice until he was cured and went on to write a collection of best-selling non-fiction books on illness and healing.

As a culture, we now attribute laughter to being able to:

  • strengthen our immune system
  • improve our mood through the release of endorphins
  • lessen feelings of anger
  • reduce pain
  • decrease stress.

Laughter is thought to provide these benefits even when we don’t find something to be funny. Enter laughter yoga…a practice involving prolonged voluntary laughter. It’s based on the belief that voluntary laughter provides the same physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughter. Laughter yoga is done in groups, with eye contact, jokes and playfulness between participants. Apparently, forced laughter soon turns into real and contagious laughter.  If you’re curious, you can find out more here.

What Science Suggests

Originally, when I started thinking about this post, I naturally assumed–based on common thought–that comedy was good for our mental health.  However, as I researched, I learned that the study results are inconclusive.  Some find no correlation between boosts in psychical or mental health and humour, others that there are minor improvements and still others that suggest any improvement is short-lived.

There is even some thought that Norman Cousins illness was misdiagnosed and his ‘cure’ would have occurred given enough time.

It looks as if the scientific jury is still out!

The Value of Personal Experience

As my old aunt used to say, “The proof in the pudding is in the eating!”  In other words, try it for yourself to see if it works.  So it is with the benefits of humour for mental and physical health.  At the end of the day, usually what we care most about is what works for us and the people that we love.  Treat the effects of humour on your life as a personal science experiment.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the effect of humour by watching myself, loved ones and clients:

  • Laughter feels good.  There’s nothing like a full belly laugh to bring on physical relaxation.  If having a good cry is on one side of the coin, a good laugh is on the other.
  • Laughter can be contagious (or not).  There is an old story that I am guaranteed to laugh at whenever I tell it…often to the point of being unable to continue to share it because I’m overcome with a fit of giggles.  Usually others don’t find it funny…maybe it’s my delivery!
  • Sharing humour strengthens relationships.  When we laugh with others we are sharing a common experience, which leads to positive memories.  Even when we share a lighthearted moment with a stranger there is a connection.
  • Laughter helps diffuse conflict.  There have been times in couple therapy when during a heated moment, one of the partners is able to step out of the argument and see some humour.  When the other partner is open to this, the mood lightens, attitudes shift and there is a moment of healing.
  • Dark humour can be helpful.  Even when things feel really bleak, being able to laugh (not at anyone’s expense) can help make things a bit more bearable.

The ability to experience humour is an important human characteristic.  It makes life more fun…and we all know that we can use more of that!

And now…here’s some classic comedy to tickle your funny bone.  Enjoy!

Core Beliefs…We’ve All Got Them!

If someone asked you how you know something, what would you answer?  I learned it at school.  My parents taught me.  I checked on Google.

When we’re talking about facts or skills, it’s often easy to remember how or when the information came to us.  However, if I asked you about a personality trait or ability, such as if you are kind or able to keep a secret, your response may be, “I’m not sure, I just know (whether I am or not).”

Depending on the question, you may feel embarrassed or proud. Either way, there is an emotional charge that is a result of how you feel or what you believe about yourself, in the context of the trait or ability.  In other words, my question would have come upon one of your core beliefs.

What Are Core Beliefs?

Core beliefs are the very essence of how we see ourselves, other people, the world, as well as the future.  Our core beliefs then inform how we operate in the world.  Below is a list of common negative core beliefs.

  • I’m not good enough.
  • I can’t get anything right.
  • I’m stupid.
  • I’m inferior/nothing/worthless.
  • I’m a bad person.
  • I’m insignificant.
  • I’m unattractive (ugly, fat, etc.).
  • I’m useless.
  • I’m a failure.
  • I don’t deserve anything good.
  • There’s something wrong with me.
  • I’m abnormal.

While it’s painful to think these things about ourselves, the pain is increased when these belief systems are used to navigate our way in the world.  When we incorporate negative core beliefs into our psyche, they become self-fulfilling.  We think we’re a failure, so we don’t try new things, which seems to prove that we’re a failure…and the cycle continues.

Where Do Core Beliefs Come From?  An example. 

A kindergarten class is preparing for the end-of-year concert.  Everyone is working very hard to get the song right and the teacher keeps moving individual children around to maximize the quality of the sound.

In the back row stands a boy named Jeremy.  Jeremy loves to sing and has been practicing the words every day as he walks home from school.  Jeremy sings with enthusiasm and his teacher has moved him a few times in order to find the appropriate place for his ‘sound’. Finally, in exasperation, the teacher suggests that Jeremy not sing, but whisper the words, in order to fit in with the group.  While Jeremy doesn’t completely understand what just happened, part of him sees that his way of singing doesn’t fit.  Maybe he doesn’t fit? Maybe there’s something wrong with him?  Jeremy grows up, never to sing again, and becomes hyper-aware of being ‘too much’ when out in the world.

Core Beliefs in Therapy

Often a key part of therapy is discovering our core beliefs (both negative and positive) and then exploring their history and validity.  One way to do this is through life review therapy.

Life Review Therapy involves looking at our past from the perspective of today.  The goal is to help the individual, couple or family to find meaning and resolution regarding a painful incident and be able to move on with greater awareness and sense of calm.  Often the painful incident involves the creation of a negative core belief.

The Example Continues…

Our young singer, Jeremy, is now 35 years old and has decided to see a therapist to deal with long-term social anxiety that has affected his life on many levels. He made his education and career choices (accounting) to fit in with his fear of interacting with groups of people.  He choose a smaller post-secondary school and a program that would allow him to work somewhat alone.

Jeremy accepted a junior management position three years ago, and discovered that he is good at it.  Due to his management skills, he was recently offered a promotion that will involve speaking in front of groups of people to present financial information. On one hand, Jeremy wants the promotion–he’s become bored with his current position and would like the extra income.  On the other hand, he is terrified at the thought of presenting and ‘making a fool of himself’ in front of his colleagues.

With his therapist, Jeremy explores the history of his social anxiety. He talks about the thoughts that are linked to his feelings when having to interact with groups of people. They treat the process like a science experiment–looking for similarities in thought content and events. Jeremy reports that he’s afraid of being ‘out there’.  He remembers that people are often telling him to “speak up” as they can’t hear what he has to say.  This direction increases his anxiety as he swings between wanting to be heard and ‘being out there’.

During therapy, Jeremy remembers his kindergarten experience and is able to begin to unravel his current feelings and how this core belief has affected his life.  Is this belief accurate? He was also able to process the anger that he feels on behalf of his young self towards his teacher and her actions.

Jeremy did accept his promotion and learned skills to cope with his social anxiety.  A big piece of his ability to move forward was that he was able to question the negative core belief that was holding him back.

This is a very strait forward example and determining our core beliefs are not often this direct.

I invite you to think about your core beliefs.  What are they?  Do you know?  How many of them are positive?  Are they helping you to go the places in your life that you want to go, or are they preventing you from living your best life?

Now for something fun…Enjoy!

 

 

 

Let’s Go Fishing…and Learn Something

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”….Maimonides

When I think of fishing (which isn’t often), I think of two things.  The first is the gorgeous scenery in the Oscar-winning, 1992 movie A River Runs Through It.  For those who haven’t seen it, the story is about the two sons of a stern minister — one reserved, one rebellious — as they grow up in rural Montana. Fly fishing is a major theme in the movie.  Part of the landscape’s beauty may be due to the fact that one of the brothers is portrayed by a young Brad Pitt!

The second is self-sufficiency.  When we are able to feed ourselves, whether by growing, fishing, hunting or foraging; there is a confidence that comes from knowing that we are able to provide food for ourselves and loved ones.  Self-sufficiency is a value.  It is also be a component in therapy and mental health.

The Art and Science of Therapy

Therapy is a cross between art and science.  The tools that a therapist uses arise from specific theories that have been tested by research to show that they are helpful to clients.  Ideally, a therapist has studied a few different modalities of therapy and is able to have various tools in their tool belt that they can use.

The art comes in how to apply the tools.  Good therapy is molded to fit each individual client.  Individuals in pain are not like cars with faulty brakes–the same intervention doesn’t work for all!

Skill-building in Therapy

It has been my experience that clients don’t want to see a therapist for ever….and ethically, my role is to help them to feel better and move on with their lives.  One way that this goal is accomplished is through skill-building.

Skills come in all shapes and sizes…

A couple comes to therapy looking for relationship support.  As they describe what has brought them in to therapy, it becomes clear that communication is challenging, so we work on communication tools.  We work on spotting patterns that block positive discussions. We look at ways to get around this barriers as well as how to talk to each other to avoid their creation in the first place.

For individuals seeing a therapist for anxiety and depression, skill-building is a major part of therapy.  Clients will learn techniques to help lessen their anxiety as well as ways to monitor thoughts that may be contributing to their anxiety or panic attacks.  Similar tools can be used to manage anger.

For anxiety and depression, one of the skills that I teach the most often is a breathing exercise.  The free 20-minute download talks you through the exercise, as if you were in the office with me…though the wave sounds are only in the audio version!  You can find the exercise here (at the bottom of the Welcome Page).

My wish for clients, is that once they have learned and become comfortable with necessary skills, they will become self-sufficient in managing any remaining issues that brought them into therapy.

The Joy of Homework

Even more important than learning a new skill or coping strategy, is putting in the time to practice it.  This is the reason that I often suggest homework to clients.  Sessions usually last for 50 minutes, so the more work clients can do outside of our meetings, the more successful therapy will be.  Based on the theory of Experiential Learning, homework provides an opportunity to apply skills in different areas of life and in different ways–cementing the new ability into a client’s tool kit.  They have learned to fish!

If you’re curious about this connection, you can find out more by reading this previous blog post.

Back to Fishing…

When clients are able to leave therapy with the skills and tools that they need to help to keep themselves mentally healthy and/or better cope with life’s challenges, I believe that this is one indication of successful therapy.  To repeat  the quote by Maimonides,

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

And now…speaking about fish, who said they can’t be adorable, interactive and cute!  Enjoy!

Looking for Patience in a Fast-Paced World

Never cut a tree down in the wintertime. Never make a negative decision in the low time. Never make your most important decisions when you are in your worst moods. Wait. Be patient. The storm will pass. The spring will come.      Robert H. Schuller

For some reason, the topic of patience has come up a lot lately in  conversations with family members, colleagues, clients and friends.  I’m not sure if it’s because we were coping with the rush to prepare for Thanksgiving, the fact that many of us spent time with seldom-seen family members for the holiday, or because the novelty that is “September” is over and we’re into routines.  Whatever the reason, we seem to be bemoaning a lack of patience–for others, for ourselves, for life.

What is Patience?

We talk about patience all the time.  We often advise our children to have patience.  But what is it?

The Oxford on-line dictionary defines ‘patience’ as “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious”.  While this description may apply accurately apply to our experiences around the Thanksgiving dinner table, I don’t think it’s what we’ve been talking about.  Instead, the context of the ‘patience’ that I’m hearing about has to do with the ability to wait.  How do we cope when things are not happening as quickly as we would like, or think they should?

Delayed vs. Instant Gratification

We live in a very fast-paced world.  With each new technological development we expect that we’ll be able to accomplish things quicker than ever before.  For example, I remember when communicating with others far away involved sending a letter or paying for an expensive phone call.  We didn’t expect quick responses, and there was a sense of anticipation about receiving one (delayed gratification).  Now, with ‘instant everything’, we’ve lost our ability to wait.  In fact, we get anxious if we haven’t received an immediate reply to an email or text (instant gratification).

This desire for instant gratification affects not only our desire for communication, but every aspect of our lives.  And, this lack of patience is supported by our society.  Want to lose weight?  Mainstream media will provide lots of diet plans that tell you how to lose 10 kg in 10 days!  No exercise required!  Not to mention, all the ‘get rich quick’ schemes, self-help gurus that provide advice that will solve all your problems in three easy steps…the list goes on…

We are in a state of hyper-drive all the time.

The Gift of Time

Some things take time. Their progress can’t be rushed.  Take an oak tree…we can provide the acorn with the best nutrients and elements it needs to grow, but we can’t make it grown any faster.  The same restrictions apply to the growth of a child, relationship, business or learning a new skill.  In fact, when we try to rush some things, the results can be hard to manage at best, and disastrous at worst.

According to medical knowledge, losing more than 1 kg a week isn’t a good idea.  Think tortoise rather than hare…weight loss is more healthy and successful when the progress is slow and steady.  When we jump down two sizes in two weeks, chances are that we’ll be back up three sizes in six months.  Managing this up and down, is difficult and ultimately hazardous to our health.

When we think about relationships, not giving them time to develop can be dangerous.  According to Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., and Megan Hunter, MBA–authors of Dating Radar: Why Your Brain Says Yes to “The One” Who Will Make Your Life Hell; one of the warning signs at the beginning of potentially unhealthy/dangerous relationships is that they move very quickly–‘love at first sight’.  By not taking our time in a new relationship, we don’t allow ourselves to get to know someone in different ways, allowing us to spot potential problems.

Sometimes it takes hard work (and self-compassion).

One definition of patience is the ability to persevere.  To me, this means endurance.  To keep going when it gets tough.  To ignore the siren song of instant gratification and hold steady for the rewards that comes from waiting, struggling, falling down three times, and getting up four.

However, when we are in pain, discouraged or exhausted; this is easier said than done.  Enter self-compassion.  When we are attempting to do something difficult, and it’s not going as quickly or well as we’d hoped, these feeling are normal.  Why would we feel anything else?  This is when we get to take care of ourselves.

  • Recognize the challenge of what we are attempting.
  • Forgive ourselves for what we see as our failings.
  • Take a time-out for self-care so that we can come back tomorrow with renewed energy and endurance.
Patience From the Perspective of Mental Health

When we are dealing with a mental health challenge, having patience is really hard.  We’re in mental pain that often translates into physical pain because our mind and body are connected.

Sometimes people come into therapy thinking that they’ll feel better immediately and get progressively better from there.  They believe that therapy is somehow magical!  Sorry to disappoint, but therapy is hard work.  It’s often two steps forward and one step back.  There is progress, and it takes time and work.

Let’s look at anxiety.  When a client starts working on anxiety, we look at ways to decrease their discomfort level through the use of breathing exercises (see here for a downloadable version), changes than can be made to improve diet, exercise, sleep patterns, and social interactions.  It takes time to see results from these activities, and persistence in practicing them.  At the same time, we are looking at thought patterns and body sensations that trigger anxious moments.  Like a scientist observing a phenomenon, we are collecting data.  The more information we have, the better, personally-focused tools we can create.

This process requires the client to have patience and be willing to continue to tolerate discomfort and trust that their hard work will pay-off in improved mental health.

Final Thoughts on Patience

Sometimes the search for patience is like looking for the mythical unicorn.  However, unlike the unicorn, patience does exist.  We all have it, and like a muscle it requires regular use to make it stronger.  Here are easy ways to flex that muscle!

  • Send someone a letter and ask them to ‘write’ back.  You can even provide the stamp!
  • Allow yourself extra time to get somewhere.  This will make you feel less rushed and give you the opportunity to show patience to others.
  • Send someone a text and then mute your phone.  See how long you can go before checking to see if they responded.
  • Sit with discomfort.  Watch it.  See how long it lasts.  What does it feel like mentally and physically?
  • Don’t give in to instant gratification.  See how long you can hold out!  Find positive distractions.

And now…here’s some wisdom on this topic from  Amanda Lambert…. Enjoy!

 

Happy Thanksgiving…Unless You’re a Turkey!

What’s not to like about Thanksgiving?  It’s a long weekend, the weather is usually wonderful, and the tradition is to celebrate with good food, family and friends.  Plus, there’s not the pressure of gift-giving that can accompany other celebrations.

However, if you’re a turkey, Thanksgiving isn’t a favourite time of year!  According to this site published by the turkey farmers of Canada: Canadians purchased 2.2 million whole turkeys for Thanksgiving 2017. That’s 31% of all the whole turkeys that were sold over the year.

So, if you’re a human…I wish you a restful Thanksgiving weekend.  If you’re a turkey…RUN!!!

The Importance of Gratitude

For Canadians, next weekend is Thanksgiving–a time to get together with family and friends, eat copious amounts of food and think about what/who we are thankful for. While as a culture we have set aside Thanksgiving to be a time of gratitude, I suggest that gratitude is something we should be aware of daily.

What is Gratitude?

One of my recent, favourite books is The Book of Joy:  Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, written by Douglas Abrams.  In April 2015, Archbishop Tutu and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama spent five days together in Dharamsala, India, to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday and to discuss, in detail, their thoughts on joy (it’s nature, components, and the obstacles to experiencing it).  The details of these conversations were chronicled by Abrams and compiled into this book.

How do these esteemed spiritual leaders define gratitude?

“Gratitude is the recognition of all that holds us in the web of life and all that has made it possible to have the life that we have and the moment we are experiencing.  Thanksgiving is a natural response to life and may be the only way to savour it.”

While gratitude may be a natural response to life, our experiences aren’t always positive.  What about thankfulness when life is difficult?

Gratitude When The Going Gets Rough

The opening sentences in M. Scott Peck’s classic book The Road Less Traveled is:  “Life is difficult.  This is a great truth.  One of the greatest truths.”  We know this.  As humans, we experience grief, loss, stress, sickness, anger, anxiety. Our fellow humans disappoint us, or we disappoint ourselves.  “Life is difficult.”

However, what if there are seams of light, threaded throughout the difficulty? If we can trust that they are there, thankfulness helps us to recognize these glimmers in the dark.

Why Practice Gratitude?

As human beings it’s easy to get stuck in the “full catastrophe”of our lives–the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s often hard to look up from our challenges, and it’s easy to take our good fortune for granted.  As Joni Mitchell famously sang in Big Yellow Taxi, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone”.  That’s why it’s important that we focus and be grateful for what is in our lives in this moment.

Abrams writes:

“Both Christian and Buddhist traditions, perhaps all spiritual traditions, recognize the importance of gratefulness.  It allows us to shift our perspective, as the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop counseled, toward all we have been given and all that we have.  It moves us away from the narrow-minded focus on fault and lack and to the wider perspective of benefit and abundance.”

The magic of gratitude comes from this shift in perspective.  When we are grateful, the glass is no longer half empty, but half full.

When I work with individuals who are coping with challenges, we often explore their history for times when they have survived and grown from past difficulties.  As we look at what they learned and the resiliency gained from this experiences, they may feel thankful.  While they wouldn’t want to re-live the rough times, in hindsight, they also wouldn’t ask to have them taken away–the benefits are too great.  This new perspective helps them to see the opportunities for growth in their current situation.

A Way to Practice Gratitude

One of the easiest ways to practice gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. At the end of the day, take some time to reflect on the day and what gave you joy.  What helped you to learn or grow? Did an interaction with someone give you a lift?  Were you able to help someone else? Perhaps, not all the events were positive, and look for the benefits in those as well. Maybe your flat tire gave you a chance to relax while you waited for CAA. Maybe you kept your cool during a conflict. Think about the seams of light in the darkness.

Once you have thought about the day, pick a few to write about.

The benefits of this practice are a change of perspective (as discussed above), as well as an increasing sense of awareness.  When we commit to this daily exercise, we start to be mindful of things we can be thankful for. As we practice, our gratitude grows.

Gratitude is an enhancement to life.

Now, one of the best gratitude songs of all time…Enjoy!  And Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

 

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.