I recently stumbled across Netflix’s docu-series The Mind Explained, which explores popular psychology topics over the course of six twenty-minute episodes. The episodes cover topics, such as anxiety, dreams, mindfulness, memory, and hallucinogenic drugs. I found the series to be educational and informative, while being simultaneously engaging and easy to grasp for non experts.
Each episode presents research from topic experts, a history on the topic and stories of individuals who have personally experienced the related topics, practices or activities. I enjoyed how these brief episodes are short enough to give you a better understanding of these pop psychology topics without boring the viewer. If you are not the type to want to read a book about anxiety or a full documentary on dreams, The Mind Explained may be the perfect bite size programming to teach you something new from the comfort of your couch or bed.
So if you are looking for something more educational than a christmas movie this week, The Mind Explained may be the perfect series to both binge and expand your mind in the process.
The Winter Blues
It is that time of year again… when it’s cold outside and all I want to do is stay inside.
For me, winter can bring to mind childhood memories of building a snowman, going ice skating, and making hot chocolate on the stove with my mom. Simultaneously, I can also be pulled to more recent memories of longer commute times, snow shovelling, and feeling frozen whenever I am outside pumping gas. For many, the holidays can also evoke thoughts of family arguments, fatigue, and financial pressures.
The winter blues, and at a clinical level, Major Depressive Disorder with the seasonal pattern specifier, is a diagnosis that involves symptoms of depression which recur seasonally. Even without a formal diagnosis or marked severity, many of us will notice a seasonal slump during the colder temperatures and gloomier days. As a resident of a colder climate, I myself notice a change in mood this time of year. Particularly, I hate waking up, heading to work, and departing for home when it is dark.
The lack of daylight in the winter months is often attributed as one of the reasons we feel tired, lethargic, deprived of energy, and with low mood. However, reduced light exposure is only one of the seasonal changes that can compromise our emotional experience. It is important to also look towards how we change our routines and the impact these subtle changes can have on our mood. In the summer, it is much easier to spend increased time outside, swim, and go for walks. As soon as the temperatures drop and the daylight hours shrink, we tend to become less active and, secondarily, less social. It just takes more effort, time and energy to leave the house.
While many of us feel the way I have described above, it is important that we do not accept this reality and that we not give up on our mood just because we cannot control the weather. There are many things we can do to actively limit the negative effects of the season. First, we can start prioritizing getting out of the house to socialize and exercise. We are fortunate that we have gyms, workout classes and indoor sports widely available these days. While it certainly takes an extra push to find the motivation to get out there on a cold day, I have found that the effort is usually feels worth it afterwards.
Making plans to go for coffee with friends or family also help to foster a sense of connection that inspires more positive moods. When busy schedules make it difficult to coordinate with friends, simply going for a mall walk can leave you feeling energized and less isolated. Not only does exercise and socializing improve mental health generally, but the act of just getting out of the house also helps to feel productive.
For individuals who experience more than just minor seasonal related mood changes, a light therapy lamp might help to give your body more of what it is lacking. These lamps are fairly affordable and have become much more widely accessible to purchase (http://bestreviews.com/best-light-therapy-lamps). Another common recommendation in the literature is Vitamin D supplements. A conversation with your physician can explore your needs in this regard, but the research certainly shows that Canadian’s are generally deficient in vitamin D during the winter months. Lastly, if you notice that your mood has been significantly disrupted, it does not hurt to talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. Winter may not be your favourite season, it certainly is not mine, but recognizing warning signs and how to help yourself might push you to make a change earlier.
A friend of mine recently suggested that I write a post on the topic of finding balance. I have always considered this friend to be the epitome of a multitasker. She has a prestigious career, a vibrant social life and is in a long term romantic relationship. Not only does she seem to manage all these aspects from her plate, but she also seems to make it to the gym, find time for proper meals, visit her family in the suburbs and look for a new apartment. When my friend suggested that I write about finding balance my first thought was, “WHAT? She is the definition of balance! If she hasn’t found it yet no one will!”.
While thinking about her suggestion further, I reflected on an earlier blog post where I wrote about the topic of self care. In that post I talked about how we cannot expect ourselves to focus on all of our priorities each day, but rather choose 1 to 3 priorities to focus on and rotate daily.
In my life, finding balance also encompases not striving for perfection, and being self compassionate when navigating this daily balancing act. To me, balance means not looking at others and what they are doing, but rather checking in with myself and what I need or would feel is needed to focus on that day. Balance also requires that we evaluate our priorities and see if those need to be changed. For many young adults the focus is on professional and romantic lives, and for many parents that priority is on meeting their children’s needs. It is different for everyone, and that is ok.
The most important thing that comes to my mind when assessing this balance is not imposing guilt on ourselves for our choices. On instagram we can feel trapped by shame, thinking that we are not doing enough because we do not have what a particular influencer appears to have. I too need to remind myself to not compare my pursuit of balance with that of my amazing friend mentioned above.
We can also cast judgement on our loved ones too and how they chose to pursue balance. It may seem crazy not to nudge your partner to focus more on health in their daily balance, or judge a friend for not pushing themselves professionally enough. But no one likes being judged for their choices and told what to do, even if it is out of wanting what is best for that loved one. There is a delicate line between suggestion and judgment and I can recognize that I may overstep that line more often than I intend to. Yes, we all have jobs, family, friends and health to balance but that does not mean that our lives are identical. Everyone has different needs that change weekly or even daily, and that is something that is better to accept than guilt ourselves for.
So next time you wonder about how you are going to get everything done, stop looking around you thinking everyone else has figured it out perfectly. Then, try to apply that same acceptance to those who are close to us, recognizing that everyone’s approach to balance is unique and that the obtainment of balance is a journey that changes for all of us over time.
Image used under Creative Commons license. CLICK HERE for the source.
It can seem that patience has become somewhat of a foreign concept these days. Certainly, we have become accustomed to nearly everything being immediate (on-demand), faster paced and easy. This might be at least partially due to technology, marketing and the way our society has become increasingly designed to expect instant gratification. However, no matter how much technology advances, our lives will always evoke times where patience is necessary.
While the ability to order through an app and skip the line at Starbucks is a welcome advancement, life’s bigger milestones generally do not come as easy and require fostering patience. Whether you are growing tired of going on date after date to find that special someone, attempting to get pregnant for months, or applying for jobs or graduate school for years on end, waiting can be painful.
While those longer journeys can be taxing, some of the smaller and more innocuous moments in our lives can get the best of us. Personally, traffic can really test my nerves and cause frustration. Other times I may find myself frustrated while talking to relatives who insist on bringing up the questions that I have previously asked them not to ask me. For you, those tougher moments could be your child misbehaving “again” and lead to you losing your cool.
We can all point to how factors with which we have little or no control can cause us to become impatient and frustrated. A more powerful impatience, however, can come from lack of patience for ourselves.
We all have moments where we think we should be thinner, stronger or more successful by now. This inner impatience can fail to recognize our efforts, the gains we have made in other areas, the reality that our lives do not fall into simple linear paths, or the obstacles that may be in our way.
As therapists, we regularly see an often overwhelming lack of patience during treatment. It is not unusual for a client to ask how many sessions it will take to feel better or “fix” the problem they have identified. This is certainly not our client’s fault, but rather an extension of a medical or curative model to treatment that extends from a simple remedy approach to treatment that we all ascribe to acute illnesses. Patience in therapy is further stifled by expectations from insurance companies and legitimate financial constraints that encourages a model that “cures problem A” and fails to fully consider that treatment is more often about intrapersonal growth obtained through the therapeutic process, rather than the resolution of a particular concern. In reality, therapy is a component of a life-long journey of self growth. Trying to rush insight and get to the “happy” phase often misses the lessons learned during that journey. Effective therapy is very much about the emotional investment and vulnerability that you employ in a session. This process opens us to a direction towards growth that can continue to flourish once treatment has been discontinued.
We also should ask ourselves “how can expect others to be patient, if we are not able to exhibit that patience ourselves?” Any journey brings unexpected moments, stressors, and frustrations. In that sense, life is, in itself, an exploration of patience and the process of how we move from one step of our lives to the next. When those stressors emerge, we have a choice to demonstrate patience or impatience. Can we just learn to accept the moment for what it is?
For me, the theme of patience ties back to an earlier post on Wellness Wednesday about mindfulness. By practicing mindfulness we learn to tolerate discomfort and that fosters patience. So maybe the next time you are caught in a line or in traffic, take a mental step back and ask yourself if you can take control of “waiting” and allow this moment to pass without strong feelings of frustration. If you are unable to foster patience, can you respond in a way that does not amplify the suffering that you or others experience? We must accept that we do not always have control over a situation or how others around us respond. We do, however, have some control over our own attitudes and reactions. Sometimes the best option is to take a deep breath, let go, and see if we can be patient with the current situation. You will be quite surprised how often that little step leads to far more gratifying outcomes and a journey to that outcome that is paved with less suffering.
This week I took the plunge and did something that I have been thinking about for a long time. It has been years since I took part in an organized hobby activity, but, with a push from a family member, I decided that it was finally time to stop googling it and actually sign up and show up.
I often encourage my clients to invest in themselves by practicing self-care. But self-care means more than just self-compassion, relaxation and rest. To me, self-care means participating in self-actualization and growth fostering experiences. We often do not think of hobbies as growth opportunities, but they certainly can be. So yesterday I took part in my first ceramics class.
It was immediately apparent that this was going to be more than just fun artistic hobby time. The benefits of the class started from the excitement of having something to look forward to in my calendar. For me, the class was a time to detach from my phone for a full three hours, and boy was that something that was foreign to me. The class also pushed me to be fully focussed on the present moment, my attention on my creation instead of my future responsibilities, worries and to-do lists. By focussing on the wet clay, instead of getting caught up in the past and future, I was practicing mindfulness while also creating art. Taking three hours to focus on something for the entire pursuit of pleasure felt freeing. This class was not for work or professional development, it was purely for me. It felt meditative to let my hands be in control rather than my busy mind. As the third hour approached, I became more appreciative of the repetitive motions and sensory exploration of the clay between my fingers. It felt exciting and satisfying to see my creation improve and more closely approximate what I had intended as the minutes progressed.
The most interesting thing that I took from the class was the feeling of being challenged. It has been a while since I have attempted to learn a completely new skill. I had to consciously fight the urge to compare myself to others that seemed to grasp the hand motions and techniques with greater ease. I had to remind myself that perfection is not the goal and that learning means things start off hard and slowly, but with practice gets easier.
Learning a new skill is healthy for your brain, excellent mental exercise, and an opportunity to train your sense of resilience. Avoiding struggle is avoidance of growth and a failure to explore what life can truly foster in us. During childhood, we are taught that we need to try different hobbies and that we should not give up when things are difficult. As an adult, we sink into what we are good at. We choose careers in line with our strengths and focus on everyday routines that become somewhat mindless and habitual. As a result, adults may forget that mistakes and challenges foster growth. We need to remind ourselves that small challenges prepare us for the big challenges that we cannot easily anticipate. By adaptively working through challenges we can train our brains to approach future struggles with that same adaptive perspective instead of crumbling in despair.
So next week, when I look at the non-symmetrical bowl I made, I will be reminded that I can continue to work on what is not easy for me instead of letting my imperfections and difficulties defeat me.
One of my goals with each weeks #WellnessWednesday is to inspire readers to think a bit deeper about their day to day experiences and use that thoughtfulness to encourage either acceptance or action. I similarly spend a lot of time perusing the internet for my own personal inspirations, during which I came across a great article from NPR that had me thinking more deeply about how mainstream North American culture teach children to regulate emotions compared to how other cultures approach this. While we have certainly moved forward in this regard over the decades, it also seems that other cultures are approaching this in a unique, and sometimes better, way.
The Other Side of Anger: How Inuit Parents Teach Kids To Control Their Anger (Authors: Ichaeleen Doucleff and Jane Greenhalgh) explores an alternative parental response to anger. Specifically, the article touches upon how the Innuit community traditionally responds to tantrums and outbursts through demonstrations of patience and storytelling rather than time-outs or consequences.
The article explains how responding through narrative can be a tool to help children understand the repercussions of their actions in a dramatic creative way. This approach to behavioural outbursts reminds us that mirroring back anger through yelling and threats are rarely successful for young children who need time to learn to self regulate. The Inuit community informs us that yelling only teaches children to respond with a raised voice when they are angry or to run away from you when they are upset. By not yelling, we model self control in moments of anger and then when the child is calm we can explore other ways that they could have reacted. This practice further helps children to learn perspective taking and critical thinking, which underlie the development of empathy.
The article is an interesting read and can act as a reminder to caregivers who already act in such a fashion or a valuable alternative approach for those who find themselves stuck in a retaliatory emotional battle.
You can find the original article by clicking here.
Last week on Wellness Wednesday we discussed the concept of mindfulness and how a regular meditation practice can help people increase their present moment awareness and move forward throughout their day in a deliberate manner. Undoubtedly, several readers viewed that article and reflected on their previous unsuccessful attempts at meditation. Do not be fooled, building a regular meditation practice is not easy. You may wonder if you are doing it right, you may wonder whether it is really working or not, or you may be struggling to simply build a mindfulness routine.
It can be beneficial to think about it as going to the gym. Sometimes people are able to just get to it and work through these challenges on their own. At other times, you may benefit from a gym buddy or personal trainer. In mindfulness circles, that buddy and trainer is MUSE. As a side bonus, this buddy/trainer can read your mind (well sort of)!
MUSE is a personal EEG headband from a Toronto based start-up called Interaxon. It was designed to bring neurofeedback, training, and habit building to the meditation process through the pairing of the MUSE Headband and the free Muse app (Android and iOS).
The MUSE app/headband provides you feedback during a meditation session to assist you in returning to your point of focus when you become distracted or distressed. It also provides the user a wealth of data that can help track their progress and understand how their mindfulness practices are helping their brains grow. This includes how many seconds your brain maintained a calm or active state, how often you become distracted, and how often you were able to disengage from those distractions and return to your point of focus. The data is displayed graphically in your app and helps you track your progress and decide when to step up your training by increasing the duration of your meditation.
Some of my clients also enjoy using MUSE without the headband. If the scores do not matter as much to you, you can simply engage in the various provided meditations, easily adapt your length of time, and provide a good mechanism to track your frequency of practice. I really enjoy the ability to customize my practice to my personal taste, a feature not available in many other free or premium apps. Specifically, I like that I can choose the number of minutes I want to meditate and be able to choose the background soundscape theme that I prefer. MUSE also provides a number of different meditations that are focused on the mind, heart, body, and breath. Finally, you can also choose ones that have minimal to no narration or those with more guidance along the way.
Getting into the habit of meditation can be tough, but with MUSE a simple three minute a day practice can help build a lifetime of mindfulness.
The MUSE Headband can be found online at http://choosemuse.com or through online vendors like Amazon.
FLEX Psychology currently uses Muse with a diverse range of clients. While we maintain a collegial relationship with the MUSE team, this post was not funded nor supported by Interaxon. All MUSE hardware used by FLEX Psychology was purchased independently at regular price.
“Mindfulness, is that the same as meditation? It sounds boring, but I have heard a lot of people talking about it lately.”
“I keep meaning to start doing mindfulness, but I’m so busy with what’s next on my to-do list. Who has the time.”
I have been recently hearing a lot of comments like these in the therapy suite, on social media, and even while venturing through my day to day life. While there are many different ways one can conceptualize mindfulness, there are common themes across all mindfulness models that may help clear things up for Wellness Wednesday’s readers.
Mindfulness can be considered both the philosophy and the practice of being actively in the present moment. In our daily lives, we often find that we pivot between thoughts about regrets or actions of the past and worries about the future. These may be major concerns, or even mild distractions, that pop into our minds and prevent us from being fully present in the here and now.
In a therapeutic context, mindfulness aims to help people integrate the concept of mindfulness into treatment (e.g., Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction [MBSR] or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT]). Meditation is one way that many people choose to practice being mindful, but mindfulness can be practiced in many more ways than the classic seated meditation.
Anyone can practice mindfulness by simply bringing their awareness to the moment by attending to their five senses while doing any activity (e.g., walking outside, showering, or eating). Anyone who drives regularly will recognize that we can go through life in a mildly effective way while on autopilot. In those moments we go completely into our head instead of focusing on the road We may generally arrive on the other end of that journey in a relatively safe manner, but that is certainly not always the case and what may we have missed along the way?
Being mindful is about taking in what you are doing more fully, rather than thinking about something else. Clearly, we do need to plan ahead and cannot always be 100% present, but how often is that past and future thinking not particularly helpful in the moment? Indeed, trying to be more present in our daily life can be a realistic goal to strive for and will benefit us all in some way.
The reason mindfulness mediation has become almost synonymous with the concept of mindfulness is because meditation provides us a specific opportunity to practice being mindful by focusing on the breath as an anchor to that present moment. No matter where you are or what is happening, the breath is something that is present and can be focused on.
However, meditation is like going to the gym. You cannot expect to go to two workout classes and see results. It needs to be a regular practice in your weekly routine and the more opportunities you provide to practice mindfulness the better.
The benefits of mindfulness have been well documented in research and the media. This includes improvements in emotion regulation, impulse control, attention, compassion, stress reduction and pain management. Mindfulness is also something that holds little risk and is healthy to learn for children, adolescents and adults.
One big component of mindfulness and the practice of meditation is learning to tolerate discomfort. Sitting in the same position without distraction focussing on your breath is uncomfortable, kind of just like life. If we can build a tolerance for discomfort, and an ability to disengage from it, we can start to build resiliency for those tougher moments ahead.
One of the most universal challenges that we all face is in the navigation of our romantic relationships. Our love and history with another person often makes it harder to evaluate the real complexities of the relationship and whether or not it is working for us. One of the main issues is our belief that “love” is the most important component of a healthy relationship and that we should stay or leave based on this key ingredient.
In reality, love can actually cloud our vision of other key ingredients in a healthy relationship, resulting in a relationship that is not harmonious with some of the other ingredients we need to be happy and have a longstanding and positive engagement with our partner. These other ingredients will vary from one person to the next in terms of what is important and how much weight they have in our lives. One’s key ingredients may include, shared values, a shared lifestyle, trust, commitment, intimacy, independence, and communication.
It also may not help to put pressure on a relationship to meet all future goals. Trying to find the perfect match that will lead to marriage, children and identity fulfillment puts a lot of burden on the here and now, where we may need to initially focus on whether this is the right partner for us in the moment and then whether our paths have the likelihood to continue to converge as we move forward together.
It is important to recognize that no relationship is perfect, but healthy, balanced, and fulfilling one’s core needs is possible. To obtain that, we need to be aware of what we are experiencing, not simply ignore or avoid problems, and be mindful of how we can move towards the relationships we want.
Success in a relationship with one we “love” is often reflective of how we face the challenges that will ultimately emerge. Some of those challenges are fleeting and do not hold much weight. Others, may be re-occur far more often than we would like.
So what do we do when we “love” someone, but see the same issues returning time and time again? It is all about asking the right questions, being honest with ourselves about the answers, and making an informed decision once we understand the situation better. Here is a guide of how we can assess our relationships and question ourselves to get you started:
What isn’t working in this relationship?
Are these differences/issues important to me?
Are these issues going to keep coming back?
Are my expectations fair and realistic?
What is leading me to stay?
What can I accept responsibility for?
Is change mutually desired?
Is change possible and fair to expect?
Can I tolerate things staying the same?
Will I be happy 5 years from now if things have not changed?
Does our partner see what we see?
Do they feel the same way?
Is fear or shame driving my instinct to stay or leave this relationship?
Do I need more time to understand my own desires?
What past experiences or worldview am I bringing into this decision? Is that important?
How do I feel about this being my future?
Am I going to likely bring these same concerns to future relationships?
This all leads to the tough part:
While the difficulties of making a decision were already there, this decision is an informed one. By asking good questions and reflecting on our responses we can better understand our needs and determine whether our current relationships foster those needs, have the potential to foster those needs through some reasonable work, or whether we will not be fulfilled and need to move forward in another matter.
Sometimes we need to rinse and repeat in relationships. It is certainly not easy to leave a relationship that we have invested a lot of time and emotions into, but sometimes that will be the decision that needs to be made. Other times staying and working on the relationship can feel right too. The key is to make an informed decision. That requires some tough questions.
A long time ago people used to write things down… on paper.
I know that I am not one to talk, as I am currently typing this on my laptop, but I really do see value in therapeutic journaling. Whether it is simply writing down two or three lines regarding what you are grateful for, the highlight of your day, or something you are looking forward to, journaling provides the opportunity to start or end your day on a more positive and reflective note.
Our mind can easily become cluttered with worries or negative thoughts. Capturing these thoughts can also be helpful. Looking down on our worries and negative thoughts in a more concrete form can sometimes help build space between yourself and the transient thoughts that can emerge. Looking down on these thoughts with curiosity and questioning their veracity can sometimes lead us to recognize that they are indeed fleeting and, in many cases, not necessarily accurate. Often, examining your inner thoughts on paper can help you to realize how silly they are, which, in turn, may make them easier to let go of.
If you really are not a paper and pen type of person, you may appreciate some of the gratitude applications that have emerged over the last few years. Grateful (iOS/Apple) is an excellent application for gratitude journaling, while our Android readers may enjoy Gratitude (iOS/Apple & Android) are two popular options. Grateful prompts you daily to input a response to various prompts that it randomly selects for you so you are not responding to the same question each day. You can also change the prompt to fit the mood of your day if there is something in particular you want to reflect on. What I like about this app is that you always have it with you, even if you are on vacation or at work, and that you have the option to attach a photo to your gratitude. It gives you the space to write just one sentence, but the option to write a full paragraph if desired.
What is so interesting about gratitude journaling is how quickly one can see results. While most of us have pretty fixed ways of thinking, it does not take much to provide your brain an alternative option for examining the world. Journaling can be an excellent way to challenge your moment to moment thoughts, but also provide an alternative pathway towards grateful interpretation of our lives, whether it be the little things or bigger events we can focus on in a different way.
Jessica is a member of the clinical wellness and learning support team at FLEX Psychology. Jessica started Wellness Wednesday out of a desire to provide further opportunities for her clients to extend their wellness journey to all avenues of their life. You can learn more about Jessica by clicking here or by learning more about her and the clinical team at FLEX Psychology by clicking here.