Bringing this one back from the archives – with the cold weather that’s blasted through Ontario recently, we’ve all gotten a reminder that the holidays are coming. The holidays can be a time of joy as well as a time of stress. Do you have a plan for your own holidays?
As I write this, the weather has become colder, decorations are in store windows and the local grocery store has been playing carols since the day after Halloween. Whatever your tradition: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Festivus, it’s becoming impossible to ignore the fact that the holidays are fast approaching.
While main-stream media perpetuates the idea of the holidays as a time of gift-giving, spending time with family and friends and eating beautifully prepared food; this is not the reality for many people. For some people, financial difficulties may prevent them from buying the same number or type of gifts they were able to give in previous years. For others, 2017 may have brought a change in family/relationship structures either through death, divorce or family members and/or friends moving away. Even happy events such as the birth of a child or the addition of a new adult member into the family can lead to changes in previous holiday traditions.
Instead of anticipating the holidays with a sense of dread, how can we make the ‘season’ as peaceful as possible?
Consult and Plan Ahead
Once we recognize that not only is the festive season coming, but that it will be ‘different’ this year; having a plan for the holidays goes a long way to working through any potential rough spots.
Contrary to popular belief, traditions can adapt to deal with new circumstances. However, consultation is key. If these traditions involve others, a sound idea is to have ‘the conversation’ before the event is looming. That way everyone is agreed on the new plan and has time to make necessary changes. For example, Aunt Shirley may not be open to limiting the price of gifts to $10, if you tell her the week before Christmas, and she has already spent $100 on your gift.
Do Something Completely Different
Sometimes it can be fun to take a break from our traditions and do something completely different. Rather than missing what isn’t there, we focus on doing something new. Often families may choose to travel over the holiday season rather than be reminded of a loss–whether it’s loved one, relationship, job, pet, etc. Once they are through the ‘year of firsts’ they may return to their regular plans, but in the short-term creating a new plan is a way of getting through the ‘first holiday’.
If You Are Going To Be Alone, Take Advantage of the Holiday Buildup
In most traditions, the celebrations last for more than one day. Let’s take Christmas for example. While the main focus is usually on December 25th, many events start to happen anytime from mid-November onward. If you know that you are going to be alone on “the day” (and this isn’t your first choice), get your fill of pre-December 25th events, and then plan a special day for yourself filled with activities that have special meaning for you.
No matter your holiday tradition, one common factor is love for each other. This time of year provides many opportunities to give back to your community. Volunteer at a shelter, visit seniors in retirement homes whose family members are unable to visit, offer to take care of a friend’s pet (who wasn’t invited to holiday celebrations)…the list is endless.
By lifting our eyes from our own situations, we have a wider view of the world and places where we can be helpful.
“Festivas for the Rest of Us!”
And now…Festivas! Enjoy! Warning…Seinfeld’s humour may not appeal to everyone.
You don’t have to do it all. 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 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 shovelling…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 than it already is. Everything is overwhelming.
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. Anyone 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 other 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 an 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.
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.
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 to 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 you 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 when facing a curve ball?
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) have 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!
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?
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;
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.
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!
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
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!
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.
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!
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!
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?!