I hope you found the February interesting ideas round to be interesting and that the articles inspired some reflection. If you have articles you think would be interesting to share, please let me know.
Welcome to 2021! May everyone be healthy and safe.
The data isn’t available for 2021, but if you are like the 30% of Canadians who made resolutions going into 2020, almost half of us had goals around eating better and losing weight. However, with the arrival of Covid-19, many of us fell off of the resolution bandwagon. When we’re in survival mode, it’s difficult to change habits. In fact, we often resort to comfort activities. Baking and online shopping, anyone?
One of the results of Covid-19 is the negative effect on our mental health. Anxiety and depression levels are increasing rapidly across all age groups, as we live with uncertainty, isolation and 24/7 news coverage about pandemic numbers and positive or negative testing and vaccination numbers. We are grieving not only the death of loved ones but the loss of regular, physical contact with our friends, family members, coworkers and casual contact with other humans.
So, as we move into 2021, what can we do?
What Some Of The Experts Are Saying
As the pandemic continues, experts are offering suggestions on how to get through the waiting period for the life to return to a ‘familiar normal’. A recent University of Waterloo article, provided data from a study that asked a number of scientific psychologists for their ideas of how to get through the pandemic. Their results were tabulated, and…
“The most common psychological recommendation was to establish a sense of agency — to find a way to remain in charge of your day-to-day life, despite pandemic uncertainty. Research in psychology shows that such mental focus can help regulate emotions in the face of uncertainty. It includes finding ways to reframe the pandemic as a manageable challenge, to find “something that you want to get out of bed for,” as one interviewee mentioned, or to establish structure and habits to compensate for lack of external structure in a lockdown-imposed work from home.”
What would happen if we combined our desire (i.e. resolutions) for making positive dietary changes with our need to improve/maintain our mental health?
Disclaimer: I’m not a dietician! Any ideas that I’m presenting are based on research articles and websites that I’ve read. I’ve linked to these resources throughout this post.
The Link Between Diet and Mental Health
Researchers in the relatively new field of Nutritional Psychiatry are discovering the links between dietary patterns and mental health. Basically, the more we eat a ‘western’ or highly-processed diet, the greater our risk for anxiety and depression. Based on what I’ve read, I’ve found three areas in which diet affects our physical health–leading to declines in mental/brain health: Obesity, the Gut/Brain Axis and Inflammation.
Even before the pandemic, the numbers are frightening. According to Statistics Canada (2018) data; 26.8% of Canadians 18 and older (roughly 7.3 million adults) reported height and weight that classified them as obese. Another 9.9 million adults (36.3%) were classified as overweight – bringing the total population with increased health risks due to excess weight to 63.1% in 2018.
When we think about mental/brain health, obesity is linked to higher instances of Alzheimer’s disease and depression due to vascular cognitive impairment (which can be caused by lifestyle habits such as poor diet and excess weight).
When our microbiome is in a healthy balance, this system works well. Unfortunately, the gut imbalance can happen due to chronic stress, poor diet, environmental toxins and infections.
While the science on this is relatively new, a study (mentioned in the above link) found rodents undergoing emotion-like changes based on changes in their microbiome. When fecal gut microbiota from humans with depression was inserted into rodents, the rodents showed depression-like behaviours.
According to this 2019 Psychology Today article, inflammation is the body’s defence mechanism for infections, irritants, stress and physical trauma. The body produces small protein cells called cytokines in response. According to the author, studies link depression and anxiety to inflammation and high levels of cytokines.
“One randomised controlled trial published this year in BMC Medicine demonstrated quite striking effects of a 3-month dietary intervention on moderate-to-severe depression, with a significantly greater improvement in the dietary intervention group and remission achieved in 32 % of this group”.
The dietary intervention that seems to have the most positive effect on mental health is one made up of whole foods–i.e. the opposite of the Western, processed food diet that is common in our culture.
The Mediterranean Diet
According to the Mayo Clinic, interest in the Mediterranean diet began in the 1960s with the observation that coronary heart disease caused fewer deaths in Mediterranean countries, such as Greece and Italy than in the U.S. and northern Europe. Actually, it’s more accurate to say the “Mediterranean diet” is not a diet as such, but a way of eating with slight variations depending on which Mediterranean country you’re looking at.
It is comprised of lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes; moderate amounts of fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Eat limited amounts of red meat.
As I delved deeper into my research, it was easy to become overwhelmed by the amount and complexity of the information. My 2021 resolution? Keep it simple. Move to a more whole foods diet, while being kind to myself. Change is never easy, especially during stressful times such as these.
Let’s all raise a carrot to better mental health in 2021!
For more information, here’s a Library of Congress documentary on the Mediterranean diet to get you started. Enjoy!
It has been quite a journey. Who knew that when our daily lives underwent an abrupt change in mid-March that we, now staring at mid-August, would still be adjusting to a world with COVID-19.
Personally, when I reflect on this time, I am given hope by the many acts of kindness and respect that I have witnessed…people choosing to wear masks before it became mandatory, the smile and wave from fellow walkers as we cross the street to allow for physical distancing, neighbours running errands for others who are at risk, and front line workers that I know who have gone above and beyond to support those who need their help.
On the other side, while there have been many disheartening stories, for my own mental health, I am choosing to focus on the positive aspects of my fellow humans.
Professionally, if I sum up the last few months, one word would be anxiety.
When COVID first appeared there was the anxiety around fulfilling basic tasks such as getting groceries, PPE and hand sanitizer. Remember the concern about toilet paper shortages? We worried about at-risk friends and relatives who suddenly became isolated. So many of our seniors lost their lives, and anxiety about their circumstances was a constant. Many parents juggled working at home with home-schooling their kids.
For those who lost loved ones, there was the anxiety and altered grief journey due to the inability to be with our person when they died and the changes/restrictions to funeral services.
Eventually, we settled into a ‘new normal’ and our levels of anxiety levelled off as well. And then we hit Stage 1 of reopening.
Anxiety and the Re-opening Process
Slowly we’ve been able to come out of our homes. First, it was increasing our ‘bubble’. Next COVID hair was ‘shorn’ and we could visit on outdoor patios. There have been visits to massage therapists, chiropractors or dentists. And this hasn’t always been easy.
I’ve started to notice that some of us are ‘early adopters’. At each stage of reopening, these are the people who are first in line to experience the newly returned activity–dinner on the patio or inside the restaurant…trips to the spa…going to movies. On the other hand, there are those of us that are slower in venturing out. We want to see what will happen at each new stage of opening. Will the local COVID case numbers increase, decrease or stay the same? Does the mandatory mask-wearing have the desired effect? How will opening up my world affect my ‘bubble’?
It’s not a surprise that moving back into the world is a source of anxiety. For so long we were told to “stay the blazes home!”, keep ourselves and others safe. Now we’re encouraged that all is well and to go out. Some of us can’t make the change that quickly.
The Need for Respect
Whether you’re an early adopter or someone who wants to see the results of opening businesses and services before changing your behaviour, either option is ok. And, it’s important to respect each person’s choices (as long as they are keeping the safety of others in mind when making them).
I remember at the beginning of the pandemic, becoming aware of the stress of the lock-down on relationships. We saw loved ones taking risks that we found to be impossible to understand. Maybe we thought they were being reckless and strongly voiced our opinions. Social media was flooded with messages about the need to be kind. Now we’re in the same boat, but at the opposite end as the world opens up.
How To Cope
I admit that during COVID-19, I have not been an early adopter. Even before the pandemic, I’ve followed a somewhat iterative style of decision making…Let’s try this and see what happens. Let’s get a bit more information before moving on. What’s the plan going forward? I’ve found this to be a useful tactic in times of anxiety.
So, what does this style look like? Basically, just because my area has moved to a new stage, doesn’t mean that I have to. Stubbornly, I find peace in that, as my internal two-year-old stamps her feet saying “I’m the boss of me!” Want to be bossy too?
Set your own parameters of when you want to move on (while not going ahead of government rules). Maybe the COVID new case numbers have to continue to decline daily for a number of days/weeks before you’ll take advantage of new opportunities.
Listen to your ‘gut’. What is your own anxiety level telling you about safety? You can learn from this. However, recognize that being afraid to leave your home is not what I’m talking about here.
If others pressure you to move forward before you are ready, hold your ground. You can let them know that while you respect their choice. . . you are choosing something else and will let them know when you are ready to join them.
Continue to keep up with your self-care. One of the best ways to cope with anxiety involves eating healthy food, exercise, hobbies…anything that helps to keep you feeling balanced.
Strange Days Ahead
One of the most anxiety-provoking things about living in the time of COVID-19 is all the things that we don’t know. How long will this last? When will there be a vaccine? What about a second wave, potentially mixed with flu season? What is the best decision about sending our kids back to school, and how does that affect COVID numbers? While there is a lot of chatter out there, ultimately, it’s various degrees of informed opinions.
Feeling that we can have some level of control over what we do helps to decrease anxiety. So, at the end of the day, I strive to make decisions with the best information that I can find at the time….balancing hope and preparation.
And now…a story of how one person copes with stress…Enjoy!
It’s been suggested that I write about ways to cope with the anxiety that is a reality as we try to cope with having the world as we know it turned upside down. However, I’m not sure that I have anything to add to the already helpful resources available (I recommend this article from the Globe and Mail if you are looking for a good summary resource). ?Instead, I want to share with you what I’m experiencing and doing to cope.
I’m writing this in the early hours of the morning because I can’t fall asleep. I try, but my mind is a kaleidoscope: of images from the news items I have watched throughout the day; thoughts of my friends and family who are experiencing social distancing, work closures and the reality of the recently declared state of emergency; students who have been told to leave University residence with little notice.
I think about my clients and how I can continue to support them. I think about those who don’t have the ability to work from home because their jobs are to provide support to others in person. I think about people who are frantically looking for toilet paper, food staples and cleaning products, and others who volunteer to continue to provide food to primary school students who use the school nutrition programs (now that the schools are closed for three weeks).
So, in this swirl of anxiety, thoughts, fears and negative images; how will I cope?
In times like these, I think about Viktor Frankl and his observation that we can’t control what happens to us, but we can control our reactions.
My reaction? Love.
I will clean. Self-love is to make sure that my home is in some semblance of order. I’ll take the time to wash floors and clean out the fridge. Furniture will be dusted and mirrors polished. Junk drawers and Tupperware cupboards may be sorted.
I will bake (and then share). I plan to bake many, many, many cookies and then leave them at loved one’s front doors.
I will only buy what I need rather than giving in to fears of scarcity that prevent other humans from getting what they need.
I will go for walks, and smile and say hello?while practicing social distancing.
I will try to be kind. This means keeping my opinions to myself.
I will practice self-care by limiting the amount of news I listen to or read. Instead, I will enjoy books, knit and watch movies that I’ve been too busy to watch.
When I’m at the store looking for toilet paper and eggs? I’ll also buy flowers.
When I told a friend the topic for this post was anxiety disorders and ankles, she was understandably confused…if you feel the same, please stay with me, it will make sense!
It’s About the Ankles
Living in a land that is often covered by ice and snow for a number of months during the year, many of us (who are not fans of winter) take advantage of being able to get out during the warmer months. For me, this means walking to most places that I want to go. There’s nothing like striding down neighbourhood streets–running errands or just going for a tour to see what’s happening outside. Unfortunately, I’m not the most graceful sheep in the herd and can easily be distracted by the sights and sounds around me. This means that at some point during the ‘walking season’ I end up tripping over something and going over on my ankle.
Now for anyone who has suffered a twisted ankle, you know how acutely aware you become of its tenderness. You baby it for a while, ever vigilant for the possibility of another sprain. Being careful is a good idea because once an ankle has been injured, there is a greater chance of it being hurt again.
Ankle injuries can get in the way of life. Depending on how severe the injury, we have to cope with difficulties ranging from hobbling around with a tensor bandage to a full-on cast if we are recovering from surgery. Maybe we miss time from work, need help with chores or errands. Due to pain and mobility challenges, we may not feel like getting together with friends or family. Basically, the injury is not something we want to repeat–possibility making us hyper-vigilant about any bump in the road (or sidewalk).
Now for the Anxiety Piece…
When people are recovering from an anxiety disorder, one of the most common fears is that it will reoccur. Because mental illness is identified as a chronic illness (Government of Canada website), this isn’t an unrealistic fear. Just like an injured ankle is more susceptible to further injury, so are our brains.
As we discover the triggers for the bouts of anxiety and how to cope with them, another trigger can become that we will become anxious/depressed again and travel back to when it felt like anxiety was in control. However, it doesn’t have to be this way…
Chronic versus Acute Illness
The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines “chronic” as “continuing or occurring again and again for a long time”. The opposite of “chronic” is “acute” (meaning of short duration, rapidly progressive, and in need of urgent care). Think “depression” (chronic) and a 24-hour stomach flu (acute).
We’re more comfortable dealing with an illness that we know will be over in a short period of time. When we have the flu, we know how to take care of ourselves (or a loved one)–rest, fluids, medicine. We see the results of our efforts fairly quickly and know that the illness will pass on its own.
Chronic illness is another story. Taking care of ourselves requires a longer-term commitment (perhaps for the rest of our lives) and can change how we see ourselves in relationship to others. There is a big difference in letting a friend know that we can’t attend their party because of a bad cold, versus we’re stuck at home because of a bout of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Working with Anxiety Disorders
When I start working with someone who is suffering with an anxiety disorder, after learning about how anxiety is affecting their life and key information about their history with anxiety; one of the first things we do is look at the anxiety from the perspective of a science experiment.
We start to gather data. Something as simple as tracking their mood on a daily basis (between 1(low) and 10 (high) gives an idea of any mood cycles. As we start to add self-care activities (diet, exercise, mindfulness practice, etc.) we can see how these affect mood. Additions of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help to find anxiety triggers and ways to cope when anxiety attacks hit. We work on tools. Maybe medication is needed.
Treating Anxiety Disorders as a Chronic Illness
Acceptance is key to being able to treat anxiety disorders as a chronic illness. When a person is diagnosed with diabetes, they need to learn to “manage” their illness through diet, exercise, decreased stress levels, etc. Anxiety is no different. But how can we manage anxiety when it seems to come out of nowhere?
This is where all the information we gathered during treatment is useful. The person knows what self-care activities help to keep them feeling mentally healthy. They know what their usual mood range is, and are more aware of when they start to feel “off”. This knowledge gives them the opportunity to catch symptoms before they get out of control–and take back their control. Go back to basics…tools and coping strategies.
Go back to tracking your mood to see if things are as bad as you may think they are in the moment.
Improve your diet, exercise, sleep hygiene. We tend to let these things slip when we’re feeling better.
Go back to the daily breathing exercises. If you don’t know about them, you can download one from this website.
If your anxiety doesn’t appear to be improving, visit your doctor. Maybe your medication needs to be adjusted or starting medication may be helpful.
Relax…being anxious about being anxious is a vicious circle.
Anxiety and ankles…in my mind they do go together…especially since I’m not the most graceful sheep in the herd!
And now…a piece of pure silliness (which is perfect for our brain health)…Shaun the Sheep! Enjoy!
As humans, we have a tendency to think of the worst case scenario. A boss looks grumpy and we fantasize about losing our job. We get a call from our child’s school and we imagine a playground accident or possible suspension. A bad headache arrives, and we’re picking out our funeral clothes.
However, the catastrophes that we imagine, often never happen. The boss is smiling an hour later, the teacher is calling to let us know that our child is being considered for an award, and the headache is only a headache. We return to a sense of perspective.
Unfortunately, when we are dealing with mental health challenges, our sense of perspective can be illusive. Everything feels like an overwhelming crisis.
Natalie (age 40) and her wife (Jane) recently separated after being together for 15 years. The decision to end the relationship was mutual, and they are now in the process of working with lawyers on a separation agreement. There are no children involved, making the creation of the agreement fairly straightforward.
Natalie has struggled with anxiety and depression throughout her adult life and been able to manage her symptoms with a combination of self-care and medication. However, even though the decision to separate was amicable, Natalie experienced an increase in her anxiety as she and Jane worked through the process of dividing possessions, deciding on how to tell their friends and family, and many of the other life ripples that come after making a big decision.
Shortly after Jane moved out of their house (pending its sale), Natalie started to feel as if her body was ‘revving’ all the time–she couldn’t relax or settle to anything. As she felt more overwhelmed, her sleep patterns changed–sleepless nights spent listening to house noises and ruminating on past and future decisions. As time passed, the ‘revving’ morphed into a general fear of the future.
It was after experiencing a panic attack (first one in 10 years) while looking at paint colours for her new apartment, that Natalie decided to talk to a therapist.
The Anxiety Path
When we pay attention, we can notice that anxiety arrives slowly. It may feel as if we wake up one day ANXIOUS, but looking back we can follow the trail. Even though Natalie had history with anxiety and depression, its return wasn’t immediately visible. Instead, her symptoms were lost in the situational stress she was experiencing.
When working with clients experiencing anxiety one of the first things we do is start looking for triggers–becoming anxiety scientists. ?Keeping track of the body sensations, thoughts and emotions that lead to feelings of anxiety. For Natalie, she and her therapist would be exploring the thoughts that proceeded her body “revving”, or the messages that were keeping her up at night.
The Story Continues…
As Natalie worked with her therapist, it became clear that while Natalie’s increased level of anxiety was centred on two areas. The first was situational: her recent separation from Jane and the resulting major life transitions. The second was Natalie’s fear of her unknown future. What would her life look like now that she was single? She was happy with her decision not to have children when she thought that she and Jane would be together “till death did them part”, but now the idea of being alone for the rest of her life was terrifying!
The “So What” Game
The “So What” game is quite simple in theory and takes some work. It involves taking the thoughts and worries that are leading to anxiety and basically following their path to their conclusion. As we follow where the path leads, we check to determine how reasonable the thoughts are and if necessary, what is the plan to deal with them.
Natalie’s anxiety path looked like this:
Ruminating about fears of the future…specific fear that she has made the wrong decision in agreeing to end her relationship with Jane…why she is afraid that she made a mistake…if she’s not in a relationship, she will grow old alone.
Once we have some content of the fear (it isn’t also so easy to determine), then we can decide on its likeliness of happening and look at a plan. Growing old alone is a normal fear, but in Natalie’s case is it reasonable? There is no reason to assume that Natalie won’t re-partner at some point (if she chooses to). However, if she doesn’t, what’s her plan?
Natalie realized that, during her relationship with Jane, she had lost contact with many of her friends and family members. Also, their “couple” friends had originally been Jane’s friends and we now rallying around Jane. Natalie’s feelings of isolation were contributing to her anxiety. Her immediate plan was to reach out to old friends and check in with family members.
Natalie also decided that she needed to create a new life for herself. Her future plan is to think about interests she would like to pursue and find communities that support those interests.
The Benefits of “So What”
Anxiety can be related to the fear of the unknown. When we look at what is making us afraid and come up with a plan, we take some control over the situation. We also gain a sense of perspective as we discover that perhaps our worst fears aren’t as likely as we think that are. When we decide that we can live with the worst, we’re no longer as afraid.
Natalie Carries On…
Because Natalie had a history of anxiety and depression, her recovery included checking in with her doctor to see if her medication was still appropriate. She also restarted her self-care practice of exercise, breathing exercises and healthy diet.
Natalie used the “So What” game every time that she encountered new fears and used the results to add to her plan. Getting over the grief of a? lost relationship and doing the work of moving on is difficult, so she was adding self-compassion into her plan.
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 the 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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Accept feelings. And accept that they are just that:? feelings.
Don’t grab life by the throat. “Life should be touched, not strangled,” said the writer Ray Bradbury.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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!
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”.
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.