Life continues to be interesting. Depending on where you live, and the status of your vaccination schedule, your life may be seeing signs of returning to some sort of pre-pandemic normalcy. While many of us have been craving and dreaming of being out in the world, now that the reality is getting closer, many of us are also feeling anxious about what this may actually look like.
Many people I have spoken to, both personally and professionally, are concerned about social anxiety, loss of confidence and fear of leaving their homes after almost 15 months of being stuck at home. On one hand, we want to be out and about, yet on the other, our Covid routines are safe and predictable. In March 2020, our world ground to a screeching halt, and we adjusted. And, it is reopening at a slower rate, giving us time to re-enter with awareness.
The following three interesting articles speak to this return to society. This commentary from the Guardian suggests ways to re-approach friends that have fallen to the wayside during the pandemic.
Covid-19 has brought us all many curve balls in the past 14 months. We have collectively had to adapt, pivot, react, adjust and so much more. I thought this post from the archives spoke to our collective need to be able to cope and that we don’t always cope as well as we might. I hope you find a nugget or two in here that helps you manage the curve balls already thrown and any more that might be on their way.
From the Archives: When Life Throws You a Curve Ball
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!
This weekend the world was given an image of the loneliness of grief. On April 17, 2021, many people in the world watched as the British Royal Family said goodbye to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at his funeral service in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
Through media coverage, we were granted an intimate view of a family in mourning. No matter our opinion of the monarchy, it’s important to remember that this is a family that is grieving the loss of a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Prince Philip would have celebrated his 100th birthday this June.
A Common Experience
While we are probably not a member of a royal family, many of us have shared this experience of losing and honouring a loved one during this pandemic. We can relate to having to limit the number of guests who can attend the service and internment. We know what it’s like to maintain physical distance from our friends and family members when what we need more than anything is a hug and words of comfort whispered in our ear.
Part of the original plan for Prince Philip’s funeral was that his coffin would be carried by a custom-built Land Rover hearse (Prince Philip designed it himself) through the streets of London in order for the public to pay their respects and say their farewells. Understandably this didn’t happen. We also know the pain of not being able to honour our loved one in the way that they may have pre-arranged themselves or as we would like to do for them.
A Woman Alone
One of the most poignant images from the service is that of Queen Elizabeth sitting alone. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, only thirty people were able to be in the church. Those in attendance had to sit in their household ‘bubbles’. This wife is now alone in her bubble.
For a minute, let’s forget the famous identity of this woman and think of her as a fellow human. Elizabeth met Philip when she was thirteen years old. Philip was 18. Apparently, for Elizabeth, it was “love at first sight”. For eight years they continued their relationship through letters until they were able to marry when Elizabeth was 21.
As a married couple, they set up a household, had children and worked at their careers. Sadly, a few years into their marriage, Elizabeth’s father died suddenly. This meant that Elizabeth had to take over the family business. Philip, knowing how important this work was to his wife and her family, had already agreed that he would support her in this endeavour—even if it meant stepping back from his career.
When Philip died, they had been married for almost 74 years. Throughout those years, their relationship weathered good times and bad. They worked together on common goals—supporting each other along the way. Elizabeth was heard to say soon after her husband’s death, “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years…”
And now…like many other people who have lost a spouse, Elizabeth is without ‘her person’.
How Can We Help?
Unless we personally know Queen Elizabeth, there isn’t anything we can do for her. However, I think she represents many grieving people that we do know.
One of the most common things I hear as a therapist is that people mourning the loss of a loved one (no matter the connection to them), is that they are surrounded by care and support immediately following their person’s death. However, over time, the check-in calls dwindle away, notes and emails stop and offers to spend time together become farther and farther apart. Others go back to their own lives, and the person in mourning is left sitting alone. The loneliness of grief is intense.
While being busy can be the way of life for everyone, what the griever experiences is a ‘secondary’ loss.
We can think of it this way…imagine a still pond of water. A large rock is dropped into the pond sending large ripples away from where the rock entered. This rock symbolizes the death of the loved one and the ripples are the major changes that happen in the griever’s life.
As the ripples move away from the initial point of contact, they become less violent—yet they still make waves—upsetting the surface of the pond. These are the secondary losses. The difficult thing is that they tend to happen as the bereaved is coming out of the shock phase that follows the death of a loved one, and are experiencing active grief experiences such as grief bursts (sudden crying jags), sleep issues (too much or too little), and grief brain (brain fog).
If you know someone who is grieving, please stick around. I know that life is busy, and it doesn’t take much. In fact, you often don’t even need to say anything. One client shared with me that one of the most comforting things a friend did for them was to show up for regularly scheduled walks. This wise friend let them take the emotional lead. Sometimes they needed to talk, other times to laugh or cry. Often, they needed to be quiet together and not feel quite so alone.
And now…here’s a wonderful video from grief therapist, Megan Devine, on How to Help a Grieving Friend. Enjoy!
Like everyone else I know, I’m tired of the pandemic.
Now that we’re at the one-year mark of the beginning of the first Ontario lockdown, it’s hard to avoid the commemorative pieces flooding the airwaves. I’m ignoring them all. I’ve lived through it. I don’t need a reminder.
And yet, as someone who loves words, I’ve been thinking about the nouns, verbs and adjectives that have been created (or modified) to describe Covid 19. We’ve been told to “shelter in place” in order to “flatten the curve“. We talk about “airborne transmission” and “variants“. Are we “asymptomatic“, while we watch the rates of “community transmission“? We no longer live in families or have friends, but are part of a “bubble“. Many of us are thankful for “CERB“. Some of us can not only rhyme off the “Five Zones of Public Health Measures“, we know which ‘colour’ applies to the location of our loved ones.
With all the new words we’ve added to our vocabulary this year, I’ve decided to resurrect an old word, and use it in a new context.
My New Favourite Word–“Dialectical”
At its most basic level, dialectical means that two opposing things can be true at the same time. For example: when squirrels ate the sunflower seeds I planted last spring, I was angry that my dream of a sunflower hedge had been ‘digested’; while also feeling happy that the squirrels had found food.
Dialectics (or Dialectical Method) is as old as ancient Greece. It was a method to hold a discussion between two or more people who held different points of view but wanted to figure out the truth by using logical argument. Emotions weren’t involved.
Today, the idea of dialectics is best known as the basis for DBT (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy). In DBT, a therapist and client work together to develop the client’s acceptance of their current situation, while at the same time, working on ways to change it. Details about DBT can be found here.
But why is this my new theme word?
The Idea of Control
Our desire for control is the theme behind The Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr (1872-1971). It asks:
God, grant me the serenity to
accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
No matter how you describe your religion or spirituality, one lesson over the past year is that there’s very little we can control. Many of us have spent a lot of time and energy fighting against this truth–with little success.
The Serenity Prayer speaks to the dialectics of life–the things we can change versus those we can’t. Pandemic time versus ‘a new normal’. In other words, accepting today as it is while planning for the future.
A lot of articles are being written about how the authors are planning to live post-pandemic. While they have no control over how long Covid will dictate a large part of their daily existence, they see themselves applying the lessons they have learned over the past year–less rushing around, less spending, more time with loved ones, lots more hugs…
They are living dialectically…accepting where they are today while working towards what they want in the future.
One way to do this is to create a “future” list. However, the list doesn’t include just activities, but how we want to live–emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Are there new things we need to learn to fulfill our vision? People we need to reconnect with? Skills to develop?
As we move through this pandemic, we can choose to do so with hope. As we create our individual lists, what do we hope for? Emily Dickinson said:
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”
As we keep living dialectically today, let’s keep leaving seeds out for the ‘thing with feathers’.
I was planning this week to write on the importance of structure for mental health.? However, after a trip to my neighbourhood drug store, I decided to save that topic for another time.
Here’s what happened…while standing in a long checkout line at the drug store, I started reading the fronts of the magazines that were positioned on the way to the till.? Without exception they were all touting ways to lose weight…diet tips, recent celebrity fitness regimes, the next ‘slimming’ food choice…everything necessary to create the “New You”.? When I was in a similar lineup in December, these were the same publications that were pushing all the yummy, high calorie holiday treats!? A group of other women were also waiting in line and I asked them if they were feeling manipulated…they smiled.
The Art of Manipulation
I don’t like marketing; not all marketing, just the type that is trying to push me to purchase a product that I don’t need in order to make my life become as ‘perfect’ as the lives of the people in the advertisement.? Encouraging items that solve a problem, created by advertising departments, that I didn’t even know I had–until I came across their commercials (written, electronic or verbal).? These types of marketing are easy to spot and are the obvious forms of manipulation.
However, there are subtler forms that are harder to fight against because we don’t always know that we are being affected.? I suggest that one of these forms is the topics covered in mainstream magazines and how they are presented to potential readers.
The headings on the front covers of many magazines are designed to get us to buy the publication.? They do this by making us consciously (or unconsciously) question if we need the information contained in the magazine.? Unfortunately, the questions are not asked in a strength-based, straight-forward way.? For example, instead of advertising ways to reach a healthy body weight, they promise ways to ‘drop 25 lbs by eating soup’–the title illustrated by a model who may or may not be of healthy body weight.
We’re Not OK
The message we often get from media is that we’re not wonderful in our current form.
For fun, try this experiment.? The next time you pass a magazine rack, look at the headings on the cover (both large and smaller print).? Chances are that the contents are providing ways to change yourself.? Maybe it’s tips to adapt your personality, dating style, sexual ability, update your wardrobe, get ‘swimsuit ready’…the list is endless, depending on the time of year.? When we dig under the headlines, the bottom line is that we are being told that we’re not ok the way we are.? There is something we need to buy or change in order to become ‘acceptable’.
Granted, there are times when we need to make changes in order to take care of ourselves.? If we have reached an unhealthy weight or need to improve our interpersonal skills, then there is work to do.? However, at the same time, we also can accept that we are ok where we are (in this moment).
Acceptance and Mental Health
In graduate school, when I first heard about acceptance as a component of mental health, my alarm bells started to ring.? How can we be asked to accept the ‘unacceptable’?? How could I tell a future client living in an abusive relationship that acceptance was necessary?? Later, I learned that acceptance doesn’t mean that we condone negative behaviour, or situations where we are in emotional or physical danger.? It also doesn’t mean that we accept every bad thing that happens to us. Instead, acceptance comes from taking an honest and compassionate inventory of where we are at this time, and how we arrived here–knowing that we want to make some changes.? Acceptance means that we stop fighting or judging ourselves, for where we are, and putting that energy into moving forward in a new way (if we choose to).
I think that our ability to practice acceptance takes work.? Like a muscle, it gets stronger the more we use it.? I wonder what would happen if, on a daily basis, we took one thing about ourselves that we viewed with judgement and instead looked at it with compassion.? Chances are, our mental health would improve, and we’d buy a lot less magazines!
And now a wonderful teacher of self-acceptance…Enjoy!
One of my roles as a psychotherapist is to be an advocate for those who experience mental health challenges.? A positive way to do this is to help raise awareness about brain health as well as attempt to dispel common negative beliefs about mental illness and the individuals coping with the challenges it can bring.
Sometimes this feels like an uphill battle.
Some Numbers on Mental Health
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), in any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental health or addiction problem.? By the time Canadians reach age 40, 1 in 2 have–or have had–a mental illness.? That’s 50%!
Coupled with statistics regarding the stigma of mental illness and we have a major problem.? A 2008 survey by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) reveals the following disturbing statistics:
Just 50% of Canadians would tell friends or co-workers that they have a family member with a mental illness, compared to 72% who would discuss a diagnosis of cancer and 68% who would talk about a family member having diabetes.
42% of Canadians were unsure whether they would socialize with a friend who has a mental illness.
55% of Canadians said they would be unlikely to enter a spousal relationship with someone who has a mental illness.
46% of Canadians thought people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour, and 27% said they would be fearful of being around someone who suffers from a serious mental illness.
Effects of the Stigma
A big outcome of the stigma about mental health is that individuals, family and friends don’t reach out for the help and support that they need.? A person suspecting that they may be suffering for anxiety, depression, burn-out they could choose to suffer in silence rather than seek help.? I suspect that the more severe the mental health issue, the less chance there is of disclosure–unless the problem has reached a level where it is impossible to hide.
Having a friend or family member dealing with a brain health challenge is difficult and can negatively affect relationships.? Due to the stress of support, caregivers can not only experience compassion fatigue, but anger and guilt (resulting from feelings of anger).? Once again, the stigma of mental illness may prevent people from getting needed support.
In some cases, a mental health diagnosis is not provided for fear that the individual would be stigmatized for the rest of their life.? This can be a problem as it may prevent people from obtaining necessary social supports and funding that would help to make their lives easier.
A Light in the Darkness
The?Mental Wellness Network of Waterloo Region?was formed in 2012 under the name ?The Waterloo Region Mental Health Work Group.? The group came together after a local Waterloo Region?community picture?identified healthy eating, physical activity, and mental health as three key areas to focus local policy advocacy work.
After working with the Sustainable Societies Consulting Group and consulting with the local community on how to promote mental health, The Mental Wellness Network of Waterloo Region recently launched this website.? The goal of the site is to promote well-being.
The website is organized around three main areas:? Mental Health and Wellbeing (including a list of local crisis resources and contact information); Ways to Wellbeing in the areas of connection, exercise, mindfulness, learning and volunteering;? and a Resource section for both individuals and professionals.
I heartily recommend this site. Not only is the information useful, but the resources and contact information are local to Waterloo Region.? The website looks at mental health as part of holistic wellness–encouraging us to look at ourselves from the perspective of body, mind and spirit.
Decreasing the Stigma Around Mental Health
Hopefully websites such as this one will help to lessen the negative impressions of mental health struggles and the individuals who strive to cope with the impacts on a daily basis.
When speaking with someone who is feeling shame about their decision to seek help for mental illness, I will ask if they would have the same hesitancy if they were dealing with a broken leg or chronic pain.? Mental health deserves the same consideration.
Canadians Are Not Alone
This powerful, nine minute TED Talk shows that as Canadians we are not alone in our stigma about mental health.
None of us were created out of the mist, but have generations of family members that came before us. ?Even if we are no longer speaking to them, or know nothing about them, these people?continue to ?have an influence on us–even it’s unconscious. ?How do we bring this influence into consciousness? ?Enter the genogram!
Simply put, a genogram is?a graphic representation of a family tree that displays detailed information?about relationships among individuals. It is more complicated than a?traditional family tree?as it can include individuals’ characteristics, health history, cause of death, emigration patterns…basically anything that the therapist and/or client feel they would like to add to the document.
If you’re curious and want to discover more about the structure and history of genograms, you can check out this Wikipedia entry.
The Use of Genograms in Therapy
When I begin to work with a new client, one of the first things we often do is create a genogram. This is a joint process, and the document is created from the client’s perspective. ?We start with the client and work outwards by adding partner(s), siblings, children, parents, etc.–going as far back as grandparents–though sometimes farther back if it will be useful.
Once we have the added?the people, then we start to include ‘relationships’ between the client and key people on the chart. ?Are they close or distant? ?Who doesn’t speak to whom? ?Who disappeared from the family never to be heard from again?
Often a useful component is the addition of a few words describing each person on the chart. ?As a client tells their family history/personal story, additions are made to the chart. For example, perhaps emigration is a large part of a family ?history, which effects the relationships between members that stay in the country or origin and those that leave. ?It’s also interesting to track items such as divorce, suicide and drug/alcohol use over the generations.
While genograms follow a definite structure and use specific symbols, each chart is as individual as the person creating it. ?In fact, their usefulness is due to their flexibility as we can include any information that feels important to the creators.
The genogram is?a ‘living document’ and?the product of an iterative process. ?As more information comes to light during the course of therapy, it may?be added to the chart. ?We can also go back to the chart during sessions to confirm thoughts or perceptions when needed.
The Client Response to Creating a Genogram
Ideally, creating a genogram is an?enjoyable activity. It can be interesting?to look at our family history from this perspective. ?When I ask clients what they think of the process, I often hear about how they never thought of their family in this way and are enlightened when they start to see the patterns that emerge.
Clients often apologize when they don’t know information for the chart. ?However, it’s all good information–even not knowing is valuable. ?Why don’t they know? ?What does this say about their family system? It’s acceptable?not to know as it’s all grist for the mill.
The Use Of Genograms In Couple Work
Genograms can also be completed when working with couples. ?In this case, we complete a chart for both partners–‘marrying’ it into a?whole picture. ?It’s often fascinating to see how family of origin pieces affect their current relationship and how each person is being affected by family history.
The Benefits of Creating a Genogram
Besides showing multi-generational patterns, one of the benefits of completing a genogram is that it puts some distance between the clients and the current concern(s) that brings a couple or individual into therapy. ?We can see the challenge from another, less-personal perspective.
Another benefit is the unveiling of family secrets. ?Holes in family of origin information often point to family secrets. ?Why don’t we know what happened to Great Uncle Ed? ?Why did Cousin Louise disappear only to return suddenly? ?How come no one talks about Aunt Nancy? ?Family secrets are important as they are part of the rules that govern families. As these rules often affect our core beliefs and subsequent mental health, it’s important that we explore them. ?A genogram is often the first hint that a secret exists.
A third benefit of a genogram is as a tool to encourage interactions?between family members. ?While in grad school I created a complex genogram as part of a family of origin course. ?In order to fill in missing information, I had to initiate conversations with family members that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise. ?While these talks were not always easy, the results were worth the effort, both for information gained and relationships renewed.
It’s Not Our Ancestors’ Fault–At Least Not Intentionally
One of the pitfalls of a genogram is the possibility of blaming our family for our current struggles. While they may have a part to play–especially as patterns are repeatedly acted out, at the end of the day it’s safe to say that parents desire to love their children unconditionally and attempting to do their best. ?However, this doesn’t always seem to be the case. ?Why?
Dr. Gabor Mat?, in his book, When the Body Says No: ?Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection, writes about how multi-generational stress and trauma affect the ability of parents to attach to their children. ?It is well-documented that our attachment style (secure vs. insecure) is?a key component of our mental health and the way we interact with others. Our ability to handle stress is deeply related to brain development, both before?and post birth, as much of our brain development continues well into the first years of age. Therefore, if our grandparents were stressed and unable to attach securely to our parents, it affected our parent’s brain development and their ability to attach…and on it goes.
“Parenting styles do not reflect greater or lesser degrees of love in the heart of the mother and father; other, more mundane factors are at play. ?Parental love is infinite and for a very practical reason: ?the selfless nurturing of the young is embedded in the attachment apparatus of the mammalian brain…Where parenting fails to communicate unconditional acceptance to the child, it is because of the fact that the child receives the parent’s love not as the parent wishes but as it is refracted through the parent’s personality. … For better or worse, many of our parenting attitudes and responses have to do with our own experiences as children. ?That modes of parenting reflect the parent’s early childhood conditioning is evident both from animal observations and from sophisticated psychological studies of humans.” (p. 211-212)
What Do We Do With?The Information?
Once we have looked at and integrated the information from a genogram, what do we do with it? ?Awareness is the key. ?When we begin to notice patterns, both in ourselves and?in our relationships with others, we have taken a big step in making things better. ?We can choose to do something differently. ?We can choose not to continue the pattern to our children and grandchildren.
The ?7th generation? principle taught by Indigenous tribes?and Native Americans say that in every decision, be it personal, governmental or corporate, we must consider how it will affect our descendants seven generations into the future. ?This also relates to taking care of?our mental health. ?When we do the hard work of healing the results of multi-generational stress and trauma, we not only benefit ourselves and those we are currently in relationship with, but also?generations to come.
Now for some vintage comedy…family dynamics from the?Carol Burnett Show. ?Enjoy!
As a therapist, one of my professional goals is that?the people I work with will leave therapy with a greater understanding of the issues that brought them to see me, as well as?tools to cope if the challenge should occur in the future. ?As a way to work towards this understanding and skill development, I often ask clients to complete homework assignments. ?The assignments?may be to reflect?on part of our discussion, practice a new skill or write a letter (not to be sent) to a difficult person. ? Over time, I have found that clients’ willingness to complete homework outside of our sessions has a positive influence?on their therapeutic success. ?Because of a presentation I recently heard?on Experiential Learning Theory, I now have a clue as to why.
What Is Experiential Learning Theory (ELT)?
Simply put, the theory is based on the idea that people?learn through “discovery and experience”.
Imagine that you want?to learn how to ride a bike. ?If someone told you how to ride a bike or you read “Bike Riding for First-timers”, you could gain theoretical knowledge about physical balance or types of bikes. You may even get an idea of?how to fix a bike, but would this information be useful in fulfilling your desire to race through the neighbourhood on your own steam?
Instead, now imagine that you are standing beside your ‘new-to-you’ bike. ?You are brimming with determination to start riding. ?My guess is that you would be using a?process of ‘trial and error’ to figure out how master this new skill. ?Learning would involve finding ways?to sit?on the seat, pedal, turn and stop–while?not falling off. ?It would take time, and while a book or lecture could be helpful, their content may make more sense after your had the experience of actually playing with your bike. ?This is experiential learning!
David Kolb and the Experiential Learning?Cycle (Kolb Learning Cycle)
Kolb’s cycle has four parts: ?experience (doing something), reflection (review what was experienced), conceptualization/generalization (making sense of what happened and the relationships between these elements, and experimentation (putting what was learned into practice). ?When we see how what we learned is useful in our lives, we’re more likely to retain the knowledge. ?The gift of this cycle is that it is a cycle–we can keep repeating the process as a way to fine-tune our knowledge when learning a new skill.
Let’s return?to the bicycle example–you want to learn how to ride your bike. ?To begin (experiential stage), you straddle the bike, sit on the seat?and put a foot on a peddle. ?So far, so good. ?However, as soon as you start to lift your second foot off the ground, you feel a loss of balance and find yourself on the ground! ?The reflective stage starts as you think about what just happened (one second sitting on your bike, the next lying on the ground). ?As you make sense of this experience (conceptualization/generalization) you may be thinking about how unsteady you felt as you moved for the second peddle. ?You may decide to go back to “Bike Riding for First-timers”?and re-read the section on balance–this time with a new perspective. ?Finally, after your bruises have healed, you will return to your bike and apply what you have learned (experimentation). ?As you repeat this cycle, you will roaring around the streets in no time!
What Does ELT?Have To Do With Mental Health?
As I was listening to the presentation, I was thinking not only about how this could explain the success of?therapy homework, but also how it could affect the development of phobias?and be used in their treatment.
Phobias are learned behaviours–based on previous experiences. ?Common treatments for phobias are Exposure Therapy (treating the avoidance behaviour by helping individuals to slowly become acclimatized to the phobic trigger) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy?(CBT)(exploring thoughts around the feared object, as well as develop alternative beliefs about the phobia and its effects on their life).
If we?bring in the Experiential Learning Cycle, can the Learning Cycle help to explain the creation of a phobia? ?There was the original experience (for example being bitten by a small dog). ?A time of reflection–“I was just bitten by a small dog!” followed by conceptualization/generalization–I put my hand out and a small dog bit me, so small dogs bite. ?Finally, experimentation when we put what was learned into practice–“I’m staying away from small dogs!”… and a phobia may be born.
On the other side, does CBT and ?Exposure Therapy use ELT concepts to help people explore and unlearn the basis of the phobia–especially when used together?
I’ll Keep Suggesting Homework
Experiential Learning Theory has confirmed for me the value of therapy homework, as the homework is assigned based on a specific client experience.
Let’s take the example an argument with a co-worker. ?In therapy we would reflect on the?argument, look at past incidents with the co-worker, and talk about emotions connected to this event. ?We would explore?possible ideas of what could be done differently in the future. ?We may move into role-playing a specific communication skill or conversation. ?The resulting homework would be to practice the skill, and perhaps, have the conversation with the co-worker. ?The cycle continues at the following session when we debrief the homework, fine-tune and explore where to move from that point.