“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!
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
trouble focusing or concentrating
loss of interest in pleasurable or fun activities
sleep issues (too much or too little)
craving unhealthy foods
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!
When people find out that I publish a blog post on a regular basis, they often ask where I find ideas to write about. I share that the inspiration can come from lots of different areas. Sometimes it’s a book or article that I’ve read. Sometimes a discussion with a friend, colleague, client or stranger has been the spark. And then there are posts that I write as a way to wrestle with a topic that I am puzzling with…such as today’s post on balance.
physical equilibrium (keeping your balance on a sailboat)
the equal space between two opposing elements (junk food vs. exercise)
in the context of art, balance is an aesthetically pleasing integration of elements
an amount in excess especially on the credit side of a bank account
mental or emotional stability.
The ideas of physical equilibrium, space between opposing elements and mental/emotional stability are somewhat helpful, but they don’t quite fit what I’m looking for. They are describing an exact point, but life is made up by a series of ‘points’ or moments.
Balance as a Concept
At some point during the time that a client and I are working together, we will talk about how things may be different when they have finished therapy. What is their picture of life after ‘the change’? In order to discover your view ‘balance’, substitute ‘balanced’ for ‘finished therapy’ or “What is your picture of life after you have achieved a level of balance?” I suspect that each of you will answer differently.
When we recognize that what is an ideal balance for one person, is completely out of balance for someone else, it becomes clear that ‘balance’ as a concept is incredibly individual. Also, what a balanced life looks like at one stage of life no longer fits at a later stage. To complicate things, that sense of being balanced can change from one day to another depending on energy levels, weather, people contact, or an endless bunch of other factors.
Finding Balance…By Paying Attention to the Opposite
I wonder if being able to live a balanced life requires a certain level of self-awareness…knowing not only when we feel balanced, but also being aware of when we feel ‘off-balance’. Feeling ‘off balance’ is one of the most common reasons that people begin to see a therapist. They may not be sure what is going on, but they don’t feel ‘right’.
Similar to the old saying, of “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”, maybe we don’t recognize that we are living a balanced life, because everything is ticking along nicely. We are living our lives with few problems. We look for balance only when we become aware of it’s non-existence. Then we play the game of adding more of this and less of that in an attempt to bring back feelings of equilibrium. How many of us have thought that “I just need more sleep… or less work, or more fun, or less … and life will be better”.
Once we can imagine what a balanced life looks like for us…what we are aspiring to…how do we get there?
Tools for Living a Balanced Life
It appears that the search for a balanced life has been a human activity for a long time. Here are some of the tools that I have found:
The 80/20 Rule: The idea behind this tool is that when looking for balance it’s unnecessary to micro-manage things in your life or constantly correct when things feel a bit off-kilter. People use this as a way to balance spending (80% of total income) and saving (20%), or managing food. If 80% of your diet is healthy, don’t worry about the rest.
The Buddhist Idea of the Middle Way: The Buddha came to this idea after living a life of extremes. In his youth, he was a wealthy prince, and then chose to give it up to live as a ascetic. As a holy man, his practices were so extreme that he almost died. As part of his spiritual journey, he discovered the value of living between the two extremes, or the Middle Way.
Everything in Moderation: This tool fits with the Middle Way as the search for balance doesn’t preclude anything–just don’t do too much of it!
The One in/One out Rule: This tool helps to maintain balance once it has been reached. Basically, for every new thing you add into your life, something else must leave. This could apply to things, people (in some cases) or activities.
Can We Have It All?
One of the reasons that many people search for a balanced life is their desire to have/or do it all. But is this possible? Maybe, but not at the same time.
Perhaps one piece to the search for a balanced life is that we need to expand the time-frame. Rather than asking if we’re balanced in this week, month or year; maybe we can ask if we are living a balanced life at this stage. Or what if the Merriam-Webster definition is right and balance takes place in the moment, only to shift out of balance so easily? Hmmm….the search continues….
And now…an amazing display of balance–elegant, graceful and inspiring….Enjoy!
I recently attended a one-day conference (organized by Hospice Waterloo Region) for caregivers and professionals who support them. As I sat with the other participants and heard the stories of people who are actively being a ‘care partner’ for a loved one(s), I was struck by the love and dedication that helped them to make meaning of the difficult role that they had agreed to take on. I was also aware of the feelings of exhaustion, frustration, fear, and loneliness that many bravely shared as they told their stories. This is the first in a three-part series on Care-giving.
The information in this post is a partial summation of information that was presented by Dr. Virginia Wesson, Psychiatrist and Dr. Rhonda Feldman, Psychologist. Both Drs. Wesson and Feldman see patients, and their families, at The Cyril & Dorothy, Joel & Jill Reitman Centre for Alzheimer’s Support and Training.
The Caregiver’s Journey
According to data presented that day, there are 3.3 Million caregivers in Ontario. Of those, 500,000 of them are ‘young’ caregivers (falling between the ages of 6 and 25). If as a society we were asked to pay for the caregiving services provided free-of-charge by loved ones, the bill would be in the Billions of dollars. Wow!
Based on the numbers, if we are not personally affected by the need to take care of a family member or friend, then we know someone who is–a friend, co-worker, other family member…the list goes on. As people in our circle, how can we support them as they support others? I suggest that a first step is to understand the path that they are walking.
Dr. Wesson believes that there are three stages to the caregiving process: the early stage, the middle stage and the late stage.
The Early Stage
When a partner, spouse, close friend or family member has been diagnosed with a debilitating illness we often experience shock and grief. While we may have suspicions that our ‘person’ has been struggling, having it confirmed can still be devastating. We don’t know what the future really looks like, and we may feel that we are starting an ‘endless’ journey.
If we are the primary support, we can be overloaded with information by medical staff or our own research. On the other hand, we may feel that we are being provided with little information and not sure where to turn.
Once the initial emotions subside, and if the disease in question is progressing slowly, the illness may intrude in our life, but we are able to carry on with a sense of normality. You may be providing more emotional support vs. physical support for your loved one, taking on more of the hands-on chores that may now be more difficult and becoming a ‘manager’ of the care required by your loved one (i.e. managing medical appointments).
Coping Strategies for the Early Stage
It is during the early stage that you can start to put supports in place for the future. Will there be physical changes that need to be made to your surroundings? Are you aware of community organizations that can be called upon when needed? How may other family members or friends can be asked for help? What do you need to take care of yourself–such as self-care activities?
This is the time for planning.
The Middle Stage
By the time you have reached the middle stage, you have realized that your loved one isn’t going to get better. Their illness is a constant consideration as you plan your day–both personally and professionally. Some people may have decided to leave their jobs, or scale back their hours of work. Many may be coping with the financial stresses brought on by the illness–either through loss of income or rising expenses.
Feelings of loneliness and overwhelm can be common at this stage–especially as your world is shrinking due to care-giving responsibilities that never seem to end.
Coping Strategies for the Middle Stage
Be realistic about what you are able to do. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If you have not done so already, now is the time to call on your support system for help…friends, family members, outside organizations.
To the best of your ability, keep up with your self-care practices–eating well, exercise, and any activities that help you to cope.
Be aware of the abilities of your loved one, due to their illness. It may be less frustrating when we understand that their actions are due to physical challenges vs. negativity.
Try to find any positive aspects or meaning in the care-giving role.
The Late Stage
By this stage, caregivers may be feeling that “I can’t do this anymore”. If they have had little or no support, they may be suffering from burnout.
There may be feelings of both internal and external conflict as the need to make decisions start to arise. Internally, there’s the struggle between the guilt you could be feeling as it becomes more difficult to take care of your loved one in their home and the possibility of them moving into a place with full-time paid staff; and the recognition that continuing the current way of doing things is becoming impossible.
Family conflict may come into play if family members are not agreed on next steps, or resentments have come out regarding the sharing of care-giving duties.
Coping Strategies for the Late Stage
As above, be realistic about what you can do…physically, mentally and emotionally.
Look to your medical supports for information about what can be expected during the late stage of illness and how much care will your loved one require.
Access mental health support either privately or through community organizations that specialize in your loved one’s illness. Organizations such as Cancer Support Centres, Alzheimer Society, etc. have care-giver support groups.
While it may seem like it, as a care-giver you are not alone…no matter where you are on the journey.
Next week, we’ll look at care-giver burnout and further ways to cope.
We all worry. It’s part of being human. But if we look closely at a worry, what is it? How does it work? What is it made up of? How do I cope with it? Can I make it go away? One way of dealing with a challenge is to intimately understand it–so let’s dissect a worry and see what makes it tick!
What Is A Worry?
Finances…health…job…family members…what others think of us…I bet that we can all give a list of what the topics that we worry about, but what actually is a worry? Goodhart and Atkins define a worry as “a natural, instinctive, human response to a perceived threat”. When we worry, we are afraid that something negative is going to happen. Worries are future-driven.
While worrisome thoughts may cross our minds, worrying becomes a problem when we can’t stop and begin to ruminate on specific ideas. These thoughts start to take over all of our brain space to the point that we can’t think about anything else. When worrying becomes out of control, we can’t determine between big and small things to worry about–we worry about them all equally. Our sense of perspective is gone.
Worrying is such a common, human experience that you can buy something to do your worrying for you. A Worry Bird! They also come in a charm bracelet version, so you can take it with you!
How Does It Work?
There are four parts to a worry: thoughts, behaviour, feelings and body sensations. They are all inter-related and play off of each other. A body sensation (perhaps a muscle spasm or stomach ache) triggers a thought about a threat which leads to feelings of fear. This fear may then cause us to stop what we’re doing and focus on the subject that is worrying us (I’m getting sick or my boss wants to get rid of me…), then we’re off to the worry races.
Treating Worry as a Science Experiment
The key to coping with a worry is to learn to handle each of it’s parts: thoughts, behaviour, feelings and body sensations. When we can do that, we can break the cycle and decrease the control that worries have over our lives.
One of the ways to get a handle on worry behaviour is to treat it like a science experiment. The more we know about an activity, the better able we are to change it. When you find yourself caught in a worry, pay attention. When did the worry start? What were you doing at the time? Was the trigger a feeling, action, body sensation or thought? As we gather more information, we can start to see trends and triggers.
It’s Usually About Our Thoughts
For most of us, the worry trigger is our thoughts that are fed by thought traps. Here are some common thought traps that lead us down the path of worrying.
Mind reading: We are mind reading when we are making judgements about what others are thinking. (“I know that she’s mad at me because she didn’t return my text”.)
Fortune telling: None of us are able to predict the future. When we make negative assumptions about what will happen, we are giving in to worry.
Thinking the worst: When we are in a worry cycle, we never think the best, but of the most negative possible outcome. (“My boss is looking for any reason to fire me…if I’m late, I’m going to lose my job.”)
Labelling yourself: These are all the negative “I am” statements that we beat ourselves up with…”I’m lazy”, “I’m dumb”…
If…then thinking: Logic stops being our friend when we link it to thinking the worst. “If I don’t hear from the recruiter today, then I didn’t get the job.”
Should and oughts: When we ‘should’ or ‘ought’ ourselves, we are putting unrealistic expectations or demands on ourselves. “Even thought I’m feeling overwhelmed, I should be taking care of everyone else.”
Selective thinking: When we only remember the negative parts of an interaction or situation and forget the positive parts, we are falling into the trap of selective thinking.
Now that we have gathered information, what’s next?
One you know your triggers, you are on the way to getting the upper hand on your worry.
If your trigger is a thought:
Write down your actual thought.
Compare the thought to any of the thought traps listed above.
Problem solve about what you can do, if your actual worry became real.
Being able to do this exercise takes practice, so in the beginning you can work with someone your trust.
If your trigger is a body sensation:
Slow your breathing–counting your breaths as you breath deeply is a useful technique.
Exercise–go for a walk, dance around your room, do a few yoga poses–anything that will help to release the energy surge that often accompanies worrying.
Relaxation techniques. There are many guided relaxation exercises on-line. Check out this link for an example.
If your trigger is a feeling:
Here’s a method for dealing with negative feelings. Feelings are energy–they arrive, peak, and subside. When we can recognize their pattern, we can practice sitting with them until they move on.
For example: When a feeling of fear arrives, try not to get hooked into the ‘story’ of the fear, but watch the ‘fear’. What does fear feel like in your body? Do you feel hot or cold? Does it sit in a particular part of your body that leads to a negative body sensation? If you don’t feed your fear with thoughts, how big does it get? How long does it last? Over time, you will be able to ‘ride the wave’ of feelings/emotions.
If your trigger is a behaviour:
Sometimes a worry begins with an action. For example, if you are coping with an illness, researching information on the internet may trigger worries about possible diagnosis or outcomes.
Once you know what the triggering behaviour is, you can avoid the behaviour when possible.
While worries are a fact of life, but they don’t have to let them control us. We can get the upper hand!
Another common question I hear from clients during therapy is “Is this normal?”. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are many definitions depending on the area of ‘normal’ you are looking at. Since we’re not talking about the areas of science or math, I’m using the definition of “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern” as a jumping off point for this post.
Individually, we often come up with our personal idea of normal by looking and comparing ourselves to others. That’s how we determine what is the standard or regular pattern. However, what happens when what we are experiencing is unlike that of our those around us?
Miriam-Webster also defines ‘normal’ as “occurring naturally“. From a life perspective, I think that this meaning is more helpful, and forgiving. Every person is an individual–with their own reactions, thoughts, and feelings. These occur naturally based on our experiences.
In Buddhism there is the concept that we are the sum of our experiences. We can be a mixture of the happy five year old and the despairing teenager; the ecstatic newlywed and the stressed parent; the toddler and the senior. It all fits organically into who we are at this moment. Therefore, while there can be a range of ‘normal’, I suggest that this range is very broad. The challenge comes when ‘our normal’ negatively effects our life or the lives of those around us. That’s when we may want to seek help.
The Only Constant Is Change
Another Buddhist concept is that everything changes–nothing stays the same. This means that we are constantly in transition. Sometimes the changes are minor–we gain or lose a few kilos, we need to change our route to work, a house plant dies. At other times, the changes are major–we lose a partner, or we get sick. Changes don’t always have to be negative. Maybe a new member joined our family or we started a new relationship, moved to a new city.
“Even inanimate material is subject to continual change: continents, mountains, rocks, beaches, the oceans, the atmosphere, the earth itself, even stars and galaxies all change over time, all evolve, and are spoken of as being born and dying. We humans live for such a brief time, relatively speaking, that we tend to think of these things as permanent and unchanging. But they are not. Nothing is.”
“The point is that life is constant change from the word go. Our bodies change in countless ways as we grow and develop over the course of a lifetime. So do our views of the world and of ourselves. Meanwhile the external environment in which we live is also in continual flux. In fact, nothing at all is permanent and eternal, although some things appear that way since they are changing so slowly.”
So if everything is in constant change, how do we find normal?
Coping With Change
When we think of change/transitions the concept of resilience comes to mind. Resiliency is our ability to adjust and recover. We build our resilience by practicing self-care (sleep, diet, exercise), having realistic expectations about what we can do, avoiding toxic thinking, being able to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing a support system.
When we are able to cope, we are working towards a ‘new normal’.
Peggy was an 84 year old woman who had lived in her home for 60 years. When she arrived to the house as a newlywed, it was a mess. The previous owner had let the place go, and it was in much need of repair. Peggy and her husband Ron renovated the home themselves–learning the necessary skills as they went. Once their children were born, the house moved from it’s new pristine condition to the patina caused by a busy family.
Peggy’s memories were tired to her home. She could tell you the origin of each bump on the wall or scratch on the floor. When working in the kitchen, she could “see” the face of her late husband sitting at the table. Peggy could “hear” the hurried footsteps of her children as they raced up and down the stairs. On cold days, she could feel the draft coming through the living room window–the window that had defied their attempts at weather proofing.
One night, Peggy awoke to the smell of smoke. Looking outside her bedroom, she saw that the hallway was filled with smoke. Peggy called 911 from her room and fire fighters were able to rescue her through the window. As Peggy stood outside, it was clear that the house could not be saved. The property was well insured. Peggy would be able to afford a new place, but her home and many of her belongings were gone.
Peggy moved in with her son while the insurance was being settled. Because she liked her privacy and independence, Peggy knew that living with either of her children was a short-term solution to her housing situation. After a few months, Peggy found an apartment that she liked. It was close enough to the library and her favourite grocery store that she could walk there when she wanted to.
The months between the fire and actually settling into her new home were busy. Peggy was distracted from thinking in any great depth about what had happened. However, once the last of her new furniture was in place and all was quiet, the enormity of the change hit her.
The New Normal
How many times have each of us, after a major change, said…”When things get back to normal…”? But what if the change, like Peggy’s, is the new normal? What if we have experienced a life-changing event?
Major changes, even good ones, usually involve loss. Peggy’s loss is easy to see–her home and possessions. However, some are more difficult to determine, and may not become apparent until we are faced with post-change life.
While Peggy liked her new apartment and it’s proximity to places she regularly visited, she missed the walk through her old neighbourhood. She was accustomed to checking on the progress of her friends’ gardens or greeting the cat who lived on the corner. At the beginning Peggy was a little late for appointments because she forgot to factor in the time it took for her to get from her unit to the parking garage. In the kitchen, preparing meals too a bit longer as she had to hunt to find utensils that were in new places.
Everything felt difficult and feelings of grief began to emerge.
The Mourning Process
When we experience a loss, grief is a natural response. For Peggy to be able to be able to move to and embrace her new normal, it was important for her to work through the tasks of mourning. Peggy’s next steps:
Task 1: Accept the reality of the loss. Peggy has already started this task as she spends time in her new apartment and becomes aware of how much has changed–both large and small.
Task 2: Process the pain of grief. The key to completing this task is to give ourselves permission to feel pain. Rather than turning away, we acknowledge that we are hurting and missing what we have lost. When we pay attention to our pain, we may notice that it has isn’t as sharp as before, or doesn’t visit as often. During the first year in her new home, Peggy would often find herself caught up in a grief cycle, as she moved through the “year of firsts”. She discovered that if she sat with her tears, they would eventually subside. Peggy learned that she would feel sad leading up to a major family event or holiday. These celebrations now took place at her son’s home as she no longer had the space.
Task 3: Adjust to a world without what was lost. As time went on, Peggy found that she thought about her house less often. The depth and frequency of her sadness started to ease, and she started to think about what a future in her new home could look like.
Task 4: Start a new life, while keeping a connection to what was lost. One day Peggy was surprised to notice that she was looking forward to her walk to the library. She had started to pay attention to the houses on her route, and was curious to see how a recently-started renovation was going. When the next family event approached, Peggy suggested that it be changed slightly so that a new version could be held at her home. As she became more comfortable in her apartment, she started to host smaller dinner parties for friends and family. Peggy was starting to create new memories in her new home.
As Peggy became more comfortable and life felt less difficult, she was approaching her “new normal”.
Embrace YOUR normal!
‘Normal’ can fit into a broad range of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. So long as your normal isn’t negatively affecting you or others; then I suggest the wisdom of accepting what currently is. Life can be stressful enough without comparing ourselves to others and questioning ourselves when our normal is different from someone else’s.
And now, a lesson in ‘normal’ from SpongeBob SquarePants…enjoy!