Let's end the stigma around mental illness

The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020, depression will be the the leading cause of disability across all age groups.  It is 2016 and yet there is still much stigma around mental illness even though it touches so many, directly or through someone we know.  Stigma stifles conversation that can lead to understanding, connection, and healing.  Together, we can end the stigma, and here are some great ideas from the  Bell Let's Talk Day campaign:


Mindful Living

Frequently, my clients embrace the idea of practicing mindfulness as a means to ground themselves mentally and emotionally in the present moment.  However, carving out time to practice appears to be one of the main barriers to practicing mindfulness (or any other new skill for that matter).  How then, might one become more mindful, if attempts at scheduling it in or willing oneself to practice do not pan out?

Enter mindful living, which involves introducing non-judgmental, present-centred awareness to routine daily activities.  A recent study published in the journal, Mindfulness, examined mindfully washing dishes in a sample of 51 undergraduate students and found that mindful dish washers reported greater positive feelings, reduced nervousness, and greater state mindfulness, compared to non-mindful dish washers.

Here are a few ways to add mindfulness to routine activities, by incorporating your five senses:

1. Showering - Visual - notice colors, textures of the bathroom fixtures, floor, objects.  Sound - notice the sound of water flowing out of the shower head and onto you/bathroom tile/floor.  Smell - notice the smell of your shampoo, soap, shower gel, etc.  Touch - notice the temperature of the water, texture of the suds, flow of water over your hair/skin, texture of the shower stall floor, etc. Taste - taste of the water (or any soap/shampoo that accidentally gets into your mouth!).

2. Drinking coffee - Visual - notice the color of the coffee, shape of the mug.  Smell - notice the aromas of the coffee and your surroundings.  Touch - notice the weight of the mug, texture of the mug's surface, texture of the coffee as you take a sip of it, temperature.  Taste - notice any flavors, like bitterness, sweetness, acidity, or textures.

3. Eating - Visual - notice arrangement of food, colors, shapes.  Smell - notice complimentary or contrasting aromas.  Touch - explore the weight and surfaces of utensils, the table, texture of food as it is cut into, and sensations of food in the mouth while it is chewed then swallowed.  Taste - take a small bite, balance the food on the tongue, notice any flavours that emerge, chew slowly and notice any additional flavours that emerge.  

To get a sense of what eating mindfully looks like, click here for a guided mindfulness meditation using chocolate.   

Mindfulness: 5 Tips for Practice Success

Mindfulness meditation seems to be everywhere these days, and for good reason.  Its practice has been scientifically shown to be beneficial for improving mental health, reducing depression recurrence, managing chronic illness, and addressing insomnia.  Neuroimaging studies are beginning to uncover the effects of mindfulness on neural activity.

Contrary to a popular misconception that emptying your mind and getting rid of thoughts is the cornerstone of success or doing it "right," mindfulness involves training the mind to attend to the present moment with a non-judgmental attitude of openness, acceptance, and curiosity.

The following are five simple tips to get you started with your mindfulness practice:

1. Opt for guided practice initially.  As with any new skill, having someone guide you through the practice initially will be invaluable, as it will provide pacing and structure for the practice.  Guidance might be from a therapist who offers individual or group training, or from online sources.  The appropriately named, Franticworld.com, and Headspace.com, are good, free sites to start with.  Franticworld features downloadable MP3 files both for general mindfulness practice and for applying mindfulness to coping with health conditions.  Headspace offers a 10-module crash course in mindfulness practice with clever animations and videos to illustrate key mindfulness concepts.

2. Allow the mind to wander.  The truth is, your mind will wander.  Your mind wanders throughout the day and it will wander during mindfulness practice.  There really is no way around it.  Trying to control the wandering mind or expecting otherwise is a recipe for frustration and disappointment.  Regarding mind wandering: Expect it, accept it, notice it, then redirect your mind back to being mindful of whatever you are being mindful of, such as your breath or body sensations.   Noticing when your mind as it wanders and redirecting it to present experience is an important mindfulness skill thought to be central to managing mood.

3. Practice first thing in the morning.  Think about your current morning routine and how it sets the stage for the day for you, mentally and emotionally.  Does your current routine reinforce or encourage a mentally and emotionally grounded approach to the day? Or, does it engender franticness, dread, and stress?  The nice thing about practicing mindfulness first thing in the morning is that you can settle your mind and bring a sense of centred awareness into your daily activities.

4. Practice in the evening.  Mindfulness practice at the end of the day can be an effective way to calm the mind and settle the self emotionally and physically.  This can be part of an evening wind-down routine that can promote separation or distance from the events of the day, which can also be beneficial for sleep (For additional ideas on how to sleep better, click here and here).       

5. Keep an eye on judgment.  A frequent question that may arise during mindfulness practice is whether you are doing it "right."  Or you might ask if mindfulness is "working" or why it is that you cannot seem to settle your mind? Such questions are natural but shift your mind from being open and observing of your present experience to being judgmental or evaluative of your experience which is counter to the core intent of mindfulness.  When these types of questions or thoughts arise, notice and label it as "judgment or evaluation" and redirect your mind to practicing mindful awareness.          

Stay tuned for my next blog post, which will include tips for mindful living.

Emotional First Aid

Image courtesy of  samarttiw

Image courtesy of samarttiw

The concept of first aid for physical wounds and injuries is a simple one that is often learned early on.  When there is a minor cut on your finger, most of us have learned how to clean it, disinfect it, and bandage it.  For more serious wounds or injuries, we generally know to seek medical attention.  When we fall ill with the flu, we know to stay home, drink lots of fluids, and get plenty of rest.  It amazes me that even my three year old niece knows the protocol for basic first aid.  When she spotted a cut on my hand, she asked, empathetically, with a furrowed brow, "Are you hurt? Do you need a Band-Aid?"

But what about emotional hurts and injuries? What do we know about emotional first aid?  What have we been taught?  What has been modelled by significant others with respect to how to express and address their own or others' emotional pain?

Emotional first aid is an area that is less intuitive and straight forward as putting on a bandage or seeing a doctor.  Not uncommonly, people disclose to me that they have few or no helpful strategies to address their own emotional wounds and injuries, often relying on strategies that are less helpful in the long run, such as self-criticism, avoidance/procrastination, or overindulging in various vices (e.g., videogames, shopping, work, food, alcohol, sex, substances).  What are the potential costs to the individual, family, or even society when people do not learn how to adaptively regulate their own emotions and empathetically address their own emotional wounds?

If you are interested in learning more, Psychologist Guy Winch describes 7 ways to practice emotional first aid: http://ideas.ted.com/7-ways-to-practice-emotional-first-aid/

What I would love to see happen is a perspective shift where emotional education and emotional first aid is prioritized and prized as much as academic achievement is, where it is taught at an early age, at home and as part of the standard school curriculum.         

What is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)?

figure 1: cbt model

figure 1: cbt model

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) emphasizes the inter-relationships between our thoughts, behaviours, and feelings (both emotions and physical sensations).  More specifically, CBT assumes that our thoughts, behaviour, and feelings mutually influence each other.  CBT also assumes that how we interpret or evaluate situations in daily life can influence how we feel and behave.  For instance, if a student is faced with a math test next week and thinks, "I have no time to study, I'm going to fail," there is a good chance that he or she would feel anxious, and have a hard time focusing on studying or avoid it altogether.  Alternatively, if he or she thinks, "I have little time to study, how do I make the most of what little time I have?," she still might feel tense and nervous, but she will likely experience better concentration and better quality study time.  

The beauty of the CBT approach is that when we become aware of how our thoughts, actions and feelings fit together, we introduce opportunity: to either carry on as usual with our reactions or make a conscious choice and shift our reactions.  Once we decide to modify any one of these three components, we can create change in the other components. 

In a nutshell, CBT focuses on helping people identify and change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors, which can trigger and maintain anxiety, depression, insomnia, and stress, to improve quality of life.  It is also an evidence-based approach, meaning that there are numerous studies that support its effectiveness in the treatment of anxiety, depression, stress, insomnia, and health-related concerns (e.g., chronic pain).  

Some CBT Basics:

1.       CBT can provide a new or different way of understanding problems, as well as emotional or behavioural reactions.

2.       CBT can help clients develop new coping skills to address their problems.

3.       CBT homework exercises are an essential part of therapy.

4.       CBT relies on active collaboration between the client and therapist.

5.       CBT aims to help the client become his or her own therapist.

6.       CBT focuses on the present.