Category Archives: Stress

Resilience–A Gift From Hard Times

In 1978, M. Scott Peck (American psychiatrist) published his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled in which the first sentence reads:  “Life is difficult.”  Dr. Peck wasn’t kidding!  On a daily basis we deal with problems large and small–ranging from not being able to find our car keys to dealing with a difficult co-worker.  Usually, we’re able to cope with these challenges with the help of our friends, family and self-care practices.

However, what happens when we are hit with something really big?  A loved one dies. A marriage ends. A job is lost. We’re not the only ones trying to keep it together. On a global scale, the problems appear to be insurmountable. We only have to hear the local, national or international news to realize that, to put it very mildly, “Life is difficult”… and many of us are able to move past the challenges.  Why?  The answer is resilience.

The Concept of Resilience 

While the term ‘resilience’ was first the object of research in the 1970’s, it has now become somewhat of a buzzword.  A google search provides over 10,600,000 sites to explore–everything from physical resilience to the for resiliency in the work-place and why companies should encourage this trait in their employees.  The resilience that I’m focusing on is psychological resilience.

What is psychological resilience?  The American Psychological Association (2017) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”  It’s our ability to pick ourselves up after hard times and carry on–often wiser and more resourceful.

What Does Resilience Look Like?

Resilience doesn’t look the same from one person to another.  However, it does allow individuals to bounce back from a stressful or traumatic situation with “competent functioning”–i.e. the ability to ‘carry on’.   Like a piece of bamboo, we bend, we don’t break.

A common misconception is that resilient people are free from negative emotions or thoughts, and remain optimistic in most or all situations. Instead, a sign of being resilient is the ability to use proper coping techniques that allow them to effectively and relatively easily navigate around or through crises.  But what are these coping techniques?  How do we develop them?

Developing Resilience

Ideally, resilience is something that we learn in childhood through the key adults in our lives.  We were able to grow up in stable-enough homes and become securely attached to our primary caregivers.  Perhaps we were able to watch adults in our lives practice resilience. We were encouraged to develop our ability to self-sooth when we are emotionally upset  and taught self-efficacy (confident that we were able to take care of ourselves).  Our physical, emotional and spiritual needs were adequately met. Unfortunately, not everyone was fortunate enough to grow up in such an ideal nesting ground for resilience.  But it’s never too late to develop resilience.

The American Psychological Association suggests “10 Ways to Build Resilience”, which are:

  • maintain good relationships with close family members, friends and others;
  • avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems;
  • accept circumstances that cannot be changed;
  • develop realistic goals and move towards them;
  • take decisive actions in adverse situations;
  • look for opportunities of self-discovery after a struggle with loss;
  • develop self-confidence;
  • keep a long-term perspective and consider the stressful event in a broader context;
  • maintain a hopeful outlook, expecting good things and visualizing what is wished;
  • take care of one’s mind and body, exercising regularly, paying attention to one’s own needs and feelings.
There’s No Time Like the Present

Just like it’s important to have a support system in place before it’s needed, resilience is the same.  If you have decided that the ability to bounce back from adversity is a skill you would like to improve, then start now–before a major life event calls for its use.

Resilience and Mental Health

Sometimes mental health challenges get in the way of increasing our level of resilience.

Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté in their book The Resilience Factor:  7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles, identify the five typical emotions that are associated with a lack of resilience, namely;

  1. anger
  2. sadness or depression
  3. guilt
  4. anxiety or fear
  5. embarrassment

While it’s normal to experience these emotions, the key to recognizing them as indicators of a lower level of resilience is whether they are disproportionate to the event (looking back you might catch yourself thinking, “I really over-reacted”), or if the same event triggers the same emotion repeatedly.  If this is the case, speaking to a therapist may be helpful.

Resilience and Gratitude

I’ve spoken to many people who have been able to successfully live through hard times and are grateful for the experience.  A common theme that runs through their description of the events is that, while they wouldn’t choose to repeat the experience, they are thankful for what they learned–a recognition of their strength, the creation of new relationships, or an increased sense of self-efficacy.

Hard times come to everyone, and we can choose how we respond and find meaning in them.

Now, here’s a very inspiring Ted Talk about trauma and resilience…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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“Find Your Passion”…Apparently Not a Good Idea!

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

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

‘Find Your Passion’ Is Awful Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Goals…Are They a Good Thing?

Some of us love setting goals. We have a vision of where we want to be.  Then we create a plan of what we need to do in order to make our dreams a reality. Perhaps we use “To Do” lists, or track our progress on electronic devices–either way, we feel that we are working towards what we want.

Western culture, and it’s bias towards “doing” vs. “being”, elevates goals as a key component of attaining success.  We have self-improvement goals around fitness  and weight-loss.  There are work goals, relationship goals, company goals…the list goes on.  Do a search on Amazon.ca for goal resources and there books that tell you “How to Get Everything You Want–Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible”.  It’s not enough that we fulfill our plans, but now we must do it as fast as possible!

Questioning Goals

As a human, I’ve been goal-driven for a long time. As a therapist, I’m starting to question if this behaviour is a good idea. By I pondering the idea of goals, I’m starting to see that they may be a double-edged sword–if done well, they can be a useful tool for providing a framework for accomplishment.  However, they can also be an unforgiving taskmaster that gets in the way of enjoying life.

Are Goals a Good Thing?

There is little double that goals are a tool to help us get things done. Goals can keep us directed and focused on where we are going.  We experience the satisfaction that comes from crossing items off our “To Do” lists or noting that we have met our aspirations for the day or week.

However, I suggest that while goals can help us to be focused on where we want to be, they can lead us to become too focused.  When we have a narrow view of where we’re going, we can miss the wonder, magic and possibilities that are outside of our line of sight.  For example, if we see the only way to reach a fitness goal is by attending cross-fit classes, we lose out on the beauty and fitness opportunities provided by a hike in the woods.

What happens when we don’t reach a goal?  As we become attached to the outcome of our efforts, if things don’t work out as we expected we may feel guilty, or that we’ve failed. We become fixated on what we didn’t do, versus what we did accomplish.  Goals become a way to be unkind to ourselves.

The Story of Sylvia

Sylvia is a 35 year old woman who has decided that  it is time to regain her health and fitness levels that had declined due to the changes in lifestyle during and after two pregnancies.  Sylvia’s two children were born within 15 months of each other.  The short period between pregnancies left little time for her body to recover.  Now, three years later, Sylvia is struggling to lose the residual weight gain.  Her blood pressure is higher than recommended, and she is often winded when climbing stairs. Sylvia has decided to lose 30 lbs in three months, and get in better shape, by going to the gym and watching what she eats.

For the first week, Sylvia is highly motivated to reach her goal.  With Heather’s (her partner) support, she was able to go to the gym five times.  She created a meal plan and stuck to it.  She removed all the ‘junk’ food from the house and left fruit on the counter for snacks.  When Sylvia weighed herself at the end of the week, she was a little disappointed that she had “only” lost two pounds, but figured that it was better than gaining weight. She vowed to “do better” next week.

For the following two weeks, Sylvia kept to her schedule…though it was getting difficult.  She was losing her excitement faster than her extra weight.  Heather was starting to feel somewhat resentful of Sylvia’s time at the gym as it was taking away from family time.  It was difficult for the couple to keep up with the time needed for the healthy eating plan and both were starting to miss some of their favourite meals.

By the end of the fourth week, Sylvia had given up on her weight loss, fitness and health goals.  Both children had come down with colds and wanted more attention.  She had been to the gym only once, and when there felt too tired to do a complete workout.  They were sick of the strict whole foods diet, and had started ‘cheating’.  Sylvia had gained back two of the total five pounds she had lost since starting this process.  She felt frustrated, hopeless and resigned that she would be carrying around the extra weight for the rest of her life.  She was afraid that she would need to start taking blood pressure medications.

What if there had been another way for Sylvia to formulate her goals that would have been more helpful?  Enter SMART Goals!

SMART Goals

Goals are a tool, and like any tool they are most useful when we use them with skill.  The more thought we put in at the beginning when creating them, the better easier they will be to accomplish.  Used properly, they are no-longer a double-edged sword.

SMART goals are specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic and time-based.

Let’s look at how Sylvia’s goals would have changed if she had used this method.

Specific:  Part of Sylvia’s goal was specific (lose 30 lbs.); however, what did she mean when she wanted to “get in better shape”?  Would she be able to do 50 squats in one minute?  Ride her bike up a steep hill without stopping?  Run up a flight of stairs?  Did she know her ideal blood pressure score?

Measurable:  A goal is measurable when you are able to determine where you are in meeting the goal.  In Sylvia’s case, it means not only answering the question of how she will know when she has reached it, but also creating signposts along the way.  For example, if Sylvia wants to lose 30 lbs. in three months, that means she would need to lose 10 lbs/month or 2.5 lbs/week.  She can measure her progress along the way.  Perhaps she can check her blood pressure on a monthly basis by visiting her local pharmacy.

Realistic:  In order to avoid frustration and discouragement, it’s very important that goals are realistic.  How realistic was it for Sylvia to lose 2.5 lbs/week?  Is this healthy?  How much work and commitment to exercise would it take to accomplish this part of the goal?

Determining if our goals are realistic often requires knowing ourselves (what we’re truly capable of), and finding out how much support we have from others (Heather is willing and able to support four gym trips a week, but feels that five is getting in the way of family life).  We may need to do some research to learn what others have been able to accomplish under similar circumstances.

Time-based:  Having ideas of timing are important.  When we know our timing, it makes the goals more concrete.  It’s the difference between saying I want to learn to cook Indian food sometime in the future and I’m going to learn to cook vegetable curry by the end of next month.  The months can fly by and we’re no closer to serving homemade curry to our friends!

Sylvia set a time limit of three months.  Based on all that she has learned by looking at the other areas of SMART goals, is this still possible?  As the creator of the goals, she can decide.

Goals in Therapy

When I start working with a new client(s), I ask them how they would like things to be different when they are finished therapy.  By answering this question, we are starting to to think about therapy goals.  Depending on the individual client(s) situation, creating SMART goals may then become part of the therapy process.

In the end, if used wisely, goals can be a tool that can help you to reach where you would like to be.

And now for something completely different.  Goals come in all shapes and sizes!  Enjoy?!

 

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