Category Archives: Self-Care

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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Advice on Panic Attacks (from someone who knows…)

If you’ve never had a panic attack, you’re fortunate.  And, if you’re curious about the experience,  you can try this exercise.

Imagine that you are in a crowded place, perhaps a shopping mall, and you start to feel anxious.  This isn’t your ‘normal’ level of anxiety.  This feels different.  You begin to notice that everything around you becomes “too much”…it’s too noisy, the people too close, the lights too bright, the sounds too loud.  As the anxiety peaks, you realize that you’re having trouble breathing.  You try to catch your breath, and you can’t.  Your chest begins to hurt, you alternate between feeling cold and clammy (then hot and sweaty).  You feel dizzy.  Your heart races, and you think you’re going to pass out.  You start to panic as you think that you are going to die.  You have never felt so afraid before. 

If you’ve never had this happen before, you may find yourself at a hospital emergency room because you are sure that you’ve had a heart attack.  After hospital staff check you out, you learn that you’ve had a panic attack.

While many people experience anxiety (sometimes at a severe level), panic attacks are often the experience that brings them to see their doctor, therapist or both…and you’re not alone.  According to Government of Canada data, one in ten Canadians suffer from an anxiety disorder–panic attacks being one of them.  Unfortunately, like most mental health issues, it’s not something that people like to talk about.  So, when I discovered author, Matt Haig, I was delighted.

Who is Matt Haig?

Matt is the bestselling author of Notes on a Nervous Planet.  Matt also shares, in his many books, his experience of having mental health issues…including a panic disorder, anxiety and depression.  In “Notes” he describes the connection between the rate of change in our planet (through technology, media, personal interactions) and our mental health.  More importantly, he shares his coping strategies from the perspective of someone who has been there.

Throughout his book, Matt Haig talks about the role that self-care has played in his recovery and maintenance of mental health.  So, I share with you, Matt’s tips for avoiding panic attacks.

How to exist in the 21st century and not have a panic attack.
  1. Keep an eye on yourself.  Be your own friend.  Be your own parent.  Be kind to yourself.  Check what you are doing.  Do you need to watch the last episode of the series when it is after midnight?  Do you need that third or fourth glass of wine?  Is it really in your best interests?
  2. Declutter your mind.  Panic is a product of overload.  In an overloaded world we need to have a filter.  We need to simplify things.  We need to disconnect sometimes.  We need to stop starring at our phones.  To have moments of not thinking about work.  A kind of mental feng shui.
  3. Listen to calm noise.  Things that aren’t as stimulating as music.  Waves, your own breath, a breeze through the leaves, the purr of a cat, and best of all:  rain.
  4. Let it happen.  If you feel panic rising the instinctive reaction is to panic some more.  To panic about the panic.  To metapanic.  The trick is to try to feel the panic without panicking about it.  This is nearly–but not quite–impossible.  I had a panic disorder–a condition defined not be the occasional panic attack but by frequent panic attacks and the continuous hellish fear of the next one.  By the time I’d had hundreds of panic attacks I began to tell myself I wanted it.  I didn’t, obviously.  But I used to work hard at trying to invite the panic–as a test, to see how I could cope.  The more I invited it, the less it wanted to stay around.
  5. Accept feelings.  And accept that they are just that:  feelings.
  6. Don’t grab life by the throat.  “Life should be touched, not strangled,” said the writer Ray Bradbury.
  7. It is ok to release fear.  The fear that tries to tell you it is necessary, and that it is protecting you.  Try to accept it as a feeling, rather than valid information.  Bradbury also said:  “Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get.”
  8. Be aware of where you are.  Are your surroundings over-stimulating?  Is there somewhere you can go that is calmer?  Is there some nature you can look at?  Look up.  In city centers, the tops of buildings are less intense that the shop fronts you see at head level.  The sky helps, too.
  9. Stretch and exercise.  Panic is physical as well as mental.  For me, running and yoga help more than anything.  Yoga, especially.  My body tightens, from hours of being hunched over a laptop, and yoga stretches it out again.
  10. Breathe.  Breathe deep and pure and smooth.  Concentrate on it.  Breathing is the pace you set your life at.  It’s the rhythm of the song of you.  It’s how you get back to the center of things.  The center of yourself.  When the world wants to take you in every other direction.  It was the first thing you learned to do.  The most essential and simple thing you do.  To be aware of breath is to remember you are alive.

Panic disorders don’t have to be a part of your life.  There are many things you can do; including self-care tools, mindfulness practices and medication.  If you’re looking for a breathing exercise/meditation that can help to calm down your anxiety level, a free download is available on my website.

And now…if you want a reminder of how we’re meant to breath, here’s a good teacher.  Enjoy!

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Relax! You’re Ok Just As You Are…

I was planning this week to write on the importance of structure for mental health.  However, after a trip to my neighbourhood drug store, I decided to save that topic for another time.

Here’s what happened…while standing in a long checkout line at the drug store, I started reading the fronts of the magazines that were positioned on the way to the till.  Without exception they were all touting ways to lose weight…diet tips, recent celebrity fitness regimes, the next ‘slimming’ food choice…everything necessary to create the “New You”.  When I was in a similar lineup in December, these were the same publications that were pushing all the yummy, high calorie holiday treats!  A group of other women were also waiting in line and I asked them if they were feeling manipulated…they smiled.

The Art of Manipulation

I don’t like marketing; not all marketing, just the type that is trying to push me to purchase a product that I don’t need in order to make my life become as ‘perfect’ as the lives of the people in the advertisement.  Encouraging items that solve a problem, created by advertising departments, that I didn’t even know I had–until I came across their commercials (written, electronic or verbal).  These types of marketing are easy to spot and are the obvious forms of manipulation.

However, there are subtler forms that are harder to fight against because we don’t always know that we are being affected.  I suggest that one of these forms is the topics covered in mainstream magazines and how they are presented to potential readers.

The headings on the front covers of many magazines are designed to get us to buy the publication.  They do this by making us consciously (or unconsciously) question if we need the information contained in the magazine.  Unfortunately, the questions are not asked in a strength-based, straight-forward way.  For example, instead of advertising ways to reach a healthy body weight, they promise ways to ‘drop 25 lbs by eating soup’–the title illustrated by a model who may or may not be of healthy body weight.

We’re Not OK

The message we often get from media is that we’re not wonderful in our current form.

For fun, try this experiment.  The next time you pass a magazine rack, look at the headings on the cover (both large and smaller print).  Chances are that the contents are providing ways to change yourself.  Maybe it’s tips to adapt your personality, dating style, sexual ability, update your wardrobe, get ‘swimsuit ready’…the list is endless, depending on the time of year.  When we dig under the headlines, the bottom line is that we are being told that we’re not ok the way we are.  There is something we need to buy or change in order to become ‘acceptable’.

Granted, there are times when we need to make changes in order to take care of ourselves.  If we have reached an unhealthy weight or need to improve our interpersonal skills, then there is work to do.  However, at the same time, we also can accept that we are ok where we are (in this moment).

Acceptance and Mental Health

In graduate school, when I first heard about acceptance as a component of mental health, my alarm bells started to ring.  How can we be asked to accept the ‘unacceptable’?  How could I tell a future client living in an abusive relationship that acceptance was necessary?  Later, I learned that acceptance doesn’t mean that we condone negative behaviour, or situations where we are in emotional or physical danger.  It also doesn’t mean that we accept every bad thing that happens to us. Instead, acceptance comes from taking an honest and compassionate inventory of where we are at this time, and how we arrived here–knowing that we want to make some changes.  Acceptance means that we stop fighting or judging ourselves, for where we are, and putting that energy into moving forward in a new way (if we choose to).

I think that our ability to practice acceptance takes work.  Like a muscle, it gets stronger the more we use it.  I wonder what would happen if, on a daily basis, we took one thing about ourselves that we viewed with judgement and instead looked at it with compassion.  Chances are, our mental health would improve, and we’d buy a lot less magazines!

And now a wonderful teacher of self-acceptance…Enjoy!

 

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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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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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Art Therapy and Mental Health…Have you Doodled Today?

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

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

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

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

Art Therapy

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

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

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

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

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

What is a Mandala and How Do I Practice It?

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

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

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

The Mandala Practice

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

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

Ready To Give It A Try?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most of all…have fun!

Ultimate Mandalas–Made of Sand! 

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

Enjoy!

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The Precariousness of Balance

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

What is Balance?

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

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

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

Balance as a Concept

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

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

Finding Balance…By Paying Attention to the Opposite

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

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

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

Tools for Living a Balanced Life

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Benefits (and Challenges) of Slowing Down

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

The following is from the archives.  Enjoy! 

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

 The Popularity of “Slow”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 How Can We Slow Down?

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

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

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

Leonhardt writes:

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

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

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

Slowing Down and Self-Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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