Category Archives: Mental Health

When Life Throws You a Curve Ball.

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

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

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

A Story…

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

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

The Power of Habit

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

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

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

We Don’t Have To Do It All!

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

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

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

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

Story Continues…

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

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

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

But What if can’t afford to hire someone?

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

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

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

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

 

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Let’s Be Kind to Ourselves

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

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

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

Why are we so mean to ourselves?

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

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

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

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

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

Why Should We Care?

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

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

How Do We Stop?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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The Path to Forgiveness

In this post, we explore the concept of forgiveness…What is it?  Who benefits?  Why is it important? And, most importantly, how do we do it?

The idea of forgiveness is a difficult thing.  When we have been disappointed or hurt by someone else our instinct is often to recoil and protect ourselves.  When a person close to us breaks our trust, the last thing we want to do is forgive them.  On the other hand, when we have hurt others, forgiving ourselves can be just as difficult.

However, in order for  true healing to happen, walking the path to forgiveness is a necessary journey.

What Is Forgiveness?

When we think of forgiveness, we may think of cheesy movies where by plot’s end, mortal enemies have become best friends–the closing scene showing them walking hand-in-hand into the sunset.  While this could happen in real life, forgiveness doesn’t usually look like this.

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

  • Mean that we have to ignore our hurt feelings.
  • Change the past, or assume that we have to forget what happened.
  • Mean that we have lost and the offender has won.
  • Excuse the act that did the wounding.
  • Absolve the offender of karmic or legal consequences.
  • Mean that we will resume a relationship with the other person–especially if it is not safe (emotionally or physically) to do so.

What forgiveness does is to provide the opportunity for healing and being able to move on with our life, without being limited by what happened.  According to Buddhist philosophy,  “Holding on to resentment is like picking up a hot coal with our hand with the intention of finding an opportunity to throw it at the one who has hurt us.”.

In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu states,

“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past.  Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us.  We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped.  Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor.  When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings.  We become our own liberator.”

When we can forgive, we are able to stop labeling our self as a “victim” and move forward from a place of growth.

Holding on to negative events that lead to ongoing feelings of resentment, anger, hostility may undermine our health.  In one study, psychologists asked people to think about someone who has hurt them, while monitoring their heart rate, facial muscles and sweat glands.  When people remembered these grudges, their heart rate and blood pressure increased.  However, when they were asked to think about forgiving these people, their stress responses returned to normal (Book of Joy, pg. 237).

Steps to Forgiveness

While it seems obvious that forgiveness is a good thing–for our physical and mental health–how do we do it?  Especially since rehashing the juicy details of past hurts can provide an addictive energy rush.

It’s important to remember that forgiveness is a process; one that is repeated over and over as new feelings and details arise as we work to let go.

Pevny breaks down the path to forgiveness into the following five steps:

  1. Uncovering and feeling what happened.  Before we can forgive, we need to be clear about what we are forgiving.  It’s important to explore the actual event–what were the circumstances?  Who said what?  What emotions did you feel?  Take your time and be gentle with yourself.
  2. Committing to forgive.  Forgiveness is a choice–sometimes a difficult one.  When we have held on to resentments for a long time, they become part of our story.  Forgiveness is choosing a new story.
  3. Humanizing the offender.  Forgiveness begins to happen when we are able to separate the person from the action.  To do this requires compassion and the ability to see the situation from the other person’s perspective.  Maybe there were things going on that you didn’t know?
  4. Honestly looking at your role in relation to the situation.  This is especially challenging when the emotions are still raw, so it’s useful to use your logic vs. emotions.  Human relationships are never simple.  As my grandmother used to say “It takes two to tango.”
  5. Forgiving and continuing to forgive.  Forgiving is an act of will–we choose.  This act will play out differently for each person.  For some, it’s a private, quiet letting go.  For others, they want to meet with the person involved and voice their forgiveness.  No matter how it manifests, forgiveness is an ongoing process.
What If I Need to Forgive Myself?

When we have hurt others, the feelings of guilt and shame that we carry can be overwhelming.  While we may be able to show compassion to others, doing so to ourselves is more difficult–if not impossible as we’re our own harshest critics.

Pevny suggests that the five steps are applicable to those working on self-forgiveness, and may include specifically asking for forgiveness from those we have hurt (if possible and appropriate).  However, sometimes the person we have hurt is ourselves.  Pevny writes:

“In a great many cases, what needs self-forgiveness is not harm done to others but personal weaknesses or perceived choices or actions that we feel have damaged our own lives.  Self-forgiveness depends upon our willingness to carefully examine our choices and actions and, in many cases, acknowledge that we did the best we could with the awareness we had at the time.  If we see that we did not do the best we could, it requires that we use our regrets not to berate ourselves but as important guideposts on our journeys into a positive, conscious future.  The biggest catalysts for our growth are often (perhaps mostly) what we learn from our mistakes, weaknesses and poor choices.”

Rewriting our Stories…Sometimes We Need Help

Whether we need to forgive ourselves or others, walking on this path gives us the opportunity to rewrite our story–and sometimes the stories of others.  And we know that the journey isn’t easy.  Self-care is important.  If you start on this journey and feel that you are losing your way, please reach out to a trusted friend, family member or professional to provide support.  Sometimes, our hurts are too big walk up to on our own.

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

 

 

 

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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!

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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!

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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!

 

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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.

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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!

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“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.”

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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!

 

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