Dilemmas; Newton’s Third Law.

For myself, family, friends, and many of my clients, February was a month of dilemmas where people struggled between two or more hard choices. These dilemmas can include things such as staying in a relationship, career or friendship or making the decision to leave and start something new. Life is continually presenting people with these types of dilemmas, and often there is no easy answer, because if there was it would not be a dilemma. The difficulty with this is that dilemmas weigh heavily on people. Our minds race with trying to sort out the pros and cons of both options. We sit and envision multiple scenarios, trying to predict reactions, consequences of our choices, and try to understand how it will impact our futures. Dilemmas are fraught with anxiety, doubt, confusion and possibly disappointment. When trying to make a decision, we often forget one important fact that I was reminded about through my ACT training with Dr. Russ Harris.

No matter the dilemma, there is no way to not make a decision.

Each day you choose to do the thing you are thinking about changing, you are making the decision to stay in it. Newton’s third law of motion comes to mind here, as he stated that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Similarly, for a dilemma where one is put in a scenario where they have a choice to perform an action, or not, even the choice to do nothing is still a choice that will ultimately have consequences to consider. This is not a bad thing, but we often forget that we are always making a choice, even if it’s an unhappy one. For example, a spouse wanting to leave a relationship because their partner was unfaithful is, by staying in the home, actively making the choice to stay as opposed to making the choice to leave.

In situations like this it then becomes important to check in with yourself and validate the choices you are making. This validation might help you to focus and gain a sense of control over the decisions you make in the next 24 hours. The important thing is to remove some of the stress of needing to make a choice today. Often dilemmas take a long time, a lot of ruminating, debating, discussing, in order to be resolved. Constant repetition of the dilemma and continued focus on it often robs a person of their personal power. We become victims to our mind, and often lose connection with the present moment and the things we find fulfilling in life (e.g., family, friends, work, a sense of accomplishment, love, laughter). To regain this sense of personal power, it is important to get in touch with what you value and make sure you act and live towards these values on a daily basis. The worry may still be in your mind, but through focusing on your present moment, on today, you free some space for flexible thinking, inspiration, connection and more.

There are many ways to become mindful, and often it is through counselling, exploration, trial and error that you find ones that work best for you. Some people find meditation difficult, silly or annoying while others become focused and centered through it. Reminding yourself that you have time to focus on the pros/cons later and not at school works for some, while others need to have their pro/con list on them at all times in case a new idea needs to be added to it. Seeing a psychologist may be a helpful route. Though they cannot (and probably should not) tell you which choice to choose, through discussion they may help identify what values are important to you, how to connect to them better on a day to day basis, and may provide an objective sounding board that could be helpful. A good starting point that I often suggest to my clients is validate your decision each day, choose something important to live toward for the day, and set aside time to reflect on your pro/con list later. You are not avoiding making a choice by doing this, but simply acknowledging that being in a dilemma doesn’t need to steal you away from your day-to-day living.

I’ll Do It Later; Thoughts on Procrastination.

The holiday seasons are over, school is in full swing, and the weather is always constantly changing. Though the sun is coming up earlier, it is the perfect time for procrastination to rear its ugly head.

Procrastination is the avoidance of a task that a person has planned or aspired to do. It is tied to our self-control and our difficulty with predicting future tasks and events. People’s experiences of
procrastination are on a spectrum, some having an ability to push it away quickly, and others chronically struggle with it. It is also influenced by factors such as lack of sleep, poor eating habits, feelings of depression and anxiety.

One important component of removing procrastination as an obstacle is to understand that we often overestimate both the time, and unpleasantness of the activity we are avoiding. We build these up in our mind (e.g., writing a paper will take many hours today, and you do not have many hours) and avoid the task completely, thereby putting it off until we perceive we have more time. Overcoming procrastination is also tied to understanding that the value we place in an activity influences our likelihood of completing it. If we devalue the task, we are more likely to not complete it. Therefore finding ways to change how you think about the task is important. If you can find an aspect of the task that you value, for either its own worth (e.g., you enjoy talking about a part of a paper) or its external worth (e.g., you get more time to go out on the weekend) completing the task is easier.

Another important component of understanding procrastination is analyzing the reasons behind procrastination prior to implementing techniques to change it. There is a point when you think about a task that two things happen. You create a cue saying “I am going to do this” and may create a plan of action. Then when the time comes another cue occurs that distracts you from the original cue. Often this second cue is due to distracters such as Facebook, the internet, or Netflix. Finding and being aware of this change in cues is important. Reflect on the last time you procrastinated and try to slow the image down, going from when you intended to do something to when you procrastinated. Ask yourself what images, sounds, voices, and feelings you experienced that might have triggered this second cue. For example many of us have all put off writing papers or doing a project. Imagine when you think of the paper you have to write that you imagine a giant black hole full of question marks. That you feel anxious because you have no ideas, don’t know where to start, and feel like time will be eaten away. These are all perfect cues and feelings that can make avoiding the task seem like the best choice. Trying to face and change this image can help you get back on track. Some ways to change this image include…

Finding value in some small component of the image, so the black hole has a single area of clarity you can enlarge and focus on.

Visualizing what is at the end of the black hole, perhaps something you enjoy and can use as a reward to help push through the procrastination.

Visualize a mechanism which will help you break the black hole into smaller pieces. Perhaps reading a bit about the topic is less daunting and feasible. Start with a small component to help make the project
feel less anxiety provoking.

If feeling confused about why you are procrastinating, know that this is often another distracter cue. Often confusion is hiding other emotions such as anger or fear, so it is important to challenge yourself to see what image comes to mind by slowing the process slower. What happens before the feeling of confusion comes? What image might be creating this sensation? What voice/words are being spoken
that influence it?

Understanding the root of why procrastination is occurring can often be a first step to getting enough motivation to move forward. Now understanding it better, all those steps you have read about getting
past procrastination might work better.

New Years Resolutions: Tips on setting goals.

As 2016 starts, so to do our attempts at new years resolutions. Often well-intentioned, these resolutions can flop and bring a sense of failure and disappointment. A common theme that has arisen in counselling with the new year is the struggle of understanding, setting and achieving goals. This blog post will provide some ideas on how to set and obtain goals. The suggestions here are taken from various articles I have read and discussions with people I would classify as good goal setters.

  1. The first step is to identify a goal. Ask yourself what specifically is it you want? This goal has to be framed as a positive, “I want to be more assertive” versus a negative, “I don’t want to be a push over.” Neuro-linguistic programming has a lot to say about this distinction, but it comes down to the fact that negative thinking can freeze us, brings up instances/memories of being a push over, and can sap the motivation from us leaving us feeling helpless. Make sure this goal is realistic, in the sense that it is something that people can actually achieve- e.g.,, we can fly, but in a machine, not alone.
  2. The second step is to ask yourself how will you know when you have achieved this goal. Its important to really outline this for yourself, as we can often achieve something and don’t reflect back on it, therefore ignoring all positive steps we take in life. Describe this in sensory terms, how will you feel, what will you be doing differently, what will you see and hear that indicates you have obtained this goal? For example, if your goal is to feel more productive, you might state that you would feel a sense of achievement, you would notice more work being done, you would perhaps feel well rested, etc.
  3. The next thing to consider is who, where and when you want to obtain this goal. When: you need to give yourself time to set up the steps to obtain the goal, so it is probably unrealistic to have the entire goal by tomorrow. For this reason it is smart to break large goals into smaller chunks so you feel like you are moving towards it. So if you wish to be more productive, this might mean getting more sleep, something you can start on today. You should also be aware that humans are generally bad at predicting what makes us happy, and often we set large goals we think will create a sense of happiness, only to be disappointed once we have it. So you might get a degree thinking being a doctor would make you happy, only to find out you dislike the job and the long hours. For this reason it’s always important to test your goals by talking to others who have a similar job, trying to job shadow, looking into career information on job requirements, etc. You need to create an understanding of the whole picture as best you can to see if you actually fit within it, and how others respond to you once you have reached your goal. A common new years resolution is to increase exercise and get healthy. So you plan to do this by running at the gym, only to realize you hate running and it hurts your knees. It might be helpful to talk to others about what they do, test other exercise options. Perhaps yoga or riding a bike is best for you versus running. For this reason it is important to anticipate what possibilities you can, and to ask around to get more information to inform your goals.
  4. Now that you have a goal in mind, and know what it might look like to achieve it, you need to ask yourself what stops you. A lot of people often have ideas of what they wish for, but get stuck in moving towards them. It’s important to figure out what is eating your motivation and keeping you from obtaining your goals. Then you can start to reflect on what resources you might need to help you. Maybe your goal is to change careers, but you get scared and hopeless when looking up job opportunities because it means going back to school, a prospect that terrifies you. This is a good thing to be aware of, because now you can think about what resources can help you get over this fear of going back to school. Identifying this fear can also help you think about alternative pathways to obtain your goal. You then can reflect on what resources you do have that can help you. Perhaps your current work experience and education can be used in other career paths similar to what you want.

I also like to remind people that the closer we get to things we want, the more we might avoid it. There is a whole approach-avoidance theory to explain this, but often it can link to fear of failure, worry about being disappointed, and being scared/worried about what comes after you have obtained this goal. So you get your education, or you change careers, you lose 10lbs but then what? We worry that this might not actually bring happiness but a sense of stagnation. It is important to remember that many of us are goal driven creatures, so setting new goals is always a good idea- small and large. It might be that you work and start saving for a vacation, or you start focusing on your hobbies now that school is completed. Maybe after losing those 10lbs, you work on building muscle and staying healthy.

These are just some ideas about how to set and obtain your goals, and there are many theories out there. For many, it is even just the first step of reflecting on what it is you want in positive terms, that can be a powerful tool to create positive change.

Understanding Chronic Pain- A brief statement about supporting someone with this diagnosis.

To those who may read my posts, I apologize for the long break of no new entries. Sometimes things fall to the way side when life gets busy, and blogging was one of them. Today I would like to speak very briefly about chronic pain. I am no expert in this field, but have some information to share that might be worth considering.
A quick statistic to consider, 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from chronic pain, and Canadians often miss 28 days a year or more due to it. Chronic pain is often considered to be pain that continues 3-6 months after healing of an injury has occurred. It can be recurrent pain, intermittent pain or episodic pain and can happen to anyone at any age. There are a variety of causes, but it’s important to be aware that those suffering from chronic pain often start to have depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, and other mental health related issues. These are often symptoms of the chronic pain.
Though individuals suffering from chronic pain can take medications for their treatment, it may not always be effective. Treating symptoms as well may not get to the root of the problem-which may not always be understood medically. Dealing with chronic pain can be a very complex and very difficult process. This is why empathy and understanding for someone with this diagnosis is crucial. Often those struggling with chronic pain are seen as “lying” or “trying to get attention” or perhaps “not able to cope”. Those suffering from chronic pain have an entirely different reality, where they are struggling with a body they may feel is failing them. They can become depressed and anxious, questioning why treatments (medical, alternative, psychotherapy, etc.) are not working and wishing that they had a way to cope. They may be frustrated that at times the symptoms and pain go away, but then suddenly come back with no warning, making them cancel plans and have to stay inside. It is these reasons that understanding, empathy, and support are the greatest weapons you can give to a friend or family member suffering from chronic pain. Understand when they need to cancel plans and perhaps even consider visiting them to see if they need help. Listen to them when they wish to open up, even if you feel you have heard their story many times. Their story keeps repeating for them, and having that social support can be helpful in their healing. Though it may not take away their pain completely, often support can help increase catharsis, take their mind off of their pain momentarily, and give them a break. So, consider putting yourself in their shoes as much as you can.

Reference: Lynch, M. E., D. Schopflocher, P. Taenzer and C. Sinclair (2009). “Research funding for pain in Canada.” Pain Res Manage, 14: 113-115

Counting sheep isn’t working. Reflecting on sleep difficulties.

I would like to reflect today on a very annoying, and very common, sleeping problem called night time waking. Night time waking is a form of insomnia impacting roughly 15% of Canadians. There are three types of insomnia, trouble falling asleep, waking during the night, and waking in the morning wide awake. You can have a combination of any of these, and they all share one feature- being distressful. You sit in bed starring at the clock, knowing and also wanting to sleep, but being unable to. It might be because your body is sore, your mind is racing, you’re worried about something happening the next day- but all you know is falling asleep it tough. Then you do, sleep that is, for what seems like ten minutes. When you wake up you stare at the clock and it takes forever to fall asleep again. You might even wake up early in the morning and feel wide awake, despite barely having any sleep, and cannot get back to bed even though you know halfway during the day you will be restless.

Here are some sleep hygiene ideas (in no relevant order) to try to change your sleeping problems…

1. Do you nap during the day? If so, perhaps try meditating for 15 minutes instead as napping can alter your sleep schedule and make it harder at night to fall asleep.

2. You do need natural light- if your sleep schedule gets weird during winter you might be impacted by the change of seasons, blue light therapy can sometimes help alter your sleep cycle (Circadian rhythms). Continue reading “Counting sheep isn’t working. Reflecting on sleep difficulties.”

What drives your actions? (A brief thought on emotions and behaviours)

There are many theories about what drives our behaviours and I will only focus on one aspect in this entry from a basic level, the impact of emotions. A lot of research has been done on negative emotions and how they impact our behaviours, and recently a focus on positive emotions. What always comes to mind in reading these papers is that we need to be aware (as possible as we can be) to what we are reacting to, meaning, our emotional state and how it impacts our actions.

A lot of research says that emotions trigger a specific reaction. For example, you feel fear by seeing a threat, your action repertoire (the behaviours you think of doing) narrow to typically run and escape. When the emotion of fear is happening, you probably won’t be thinking about what you want for dinner or happy thoughts. The thing a lot of these articles forget to mention is this fear can be real, or imagined. Imagined fear or threats I consider to be all the things inside your mind that your brain tells you. For example, related to my previous post someone with social anxiety might have the imagined fear that they are going to choke up in public when asked a question. There is no actual scenario happening at the time that can cause fear, but as they vividly see it in their mind, their body reacts the same. These images, thoughts and sounds that we create can have just as much power as a real threat. So we imagine something scary, our body has a natural physical reaction to it, and it creates more scary thoughts. Not only do emotions therefore influence our behaviours, our reaction can also be mediated or interrupted by many factors such as culture, social expectation, coping strategies, previous experience and others.

So we have emotions which turn into a physical, sometimes behavioral reaction, which is mediated by many other factors. Taking the time to sit and ask yourself what is actually informing your behaviour (e.g., yelling, running, staying in the house, etc) can be very informative. Are you reacting due to an imagined fear that hasn’t come to pass? Are your values getting in the way of the emotion and the physical reaction and changing it? Perhaps you are having a normal day, but you get home and react in anger towards your partner and don’t really know why. It could be that when you saw the house wasn’t cleaned (and you expected your partner to do this) you got angry, but often see this as something that should not upset you, so it doesn’t enter into your thoughts right away. Instead of understanding what was triggering your frustration and evaluating it, you go onto autopilot and react. This is why it’s important to evaluate what is going on, is it an emotion changing a behaviour, or is the emotion trying to inform you that something else is being triggered like a value, expectation, hope, etc. Though there are many ways to do this, a basic starting point is to write down and notice when you have strong emotional reactions or behaviours you do not like, and then ask yourself “what was going through my mind?”. What thoughts were you having, what might you be responding to? What perceived threat might have been around you, real or imagined? This can help you to a. realize you have more control over your reaction to your emotions, and b. be aware of what is actually going on for you. Though this is just a first step, it can often help get the process started of changing your reactions to the person you feel you are, versus acting and then disliking your behaviours.

Avoiding the Crowds. Social Anxiety and You.

It is summer in Edmonton, and that means it is time for food, fun and festivals. It also means that there are many people staying in their homes locked in by a vicious beast, social anxiety disorder (called SAD for the rest of this blog).

Defining SAD and some statistics: A person struggling with SAD may experience extreme fear in social situations, worry that they are being judged by others, be scared of embarrassing themselves or worried about making mistakes among other worries. Often there are two subtypes, a fear of speaking in front of people (public speaking, groups or being assertive) or more generalized anxiety that can encompass a range of social behaviours such as eating around people, being in large groups, and more. A person experiencing SAD can have extreme distress, with individual symptoms ranging from fidgeting to a racing heart and difficulty breathing. SAD can present itself in children, adolescents and adults, though often SAD develops at a younger age and progresses into adulthood. According to Statistics Canada (2015) SAD is one of the most common anxiety disorders where 8-13% of Canadians will experience it at some point in their life.

How do people deal with SAD: A common coping strategy is to avoid the social situations that create stress, but this often leads to a person feeling incongruent since they want to go out, which can eventually lead to depression. Some people might self-medicate, or use alcohol in the hopes that it will take off the edge of their anxiety and make it easier to be in social situations. These are often short-term coping strategies, and can lead to bigger problems in the long-term.

So what can you do that is healthy and hopefully effective? Continue reading “Avoiding the Crowds. Social Anxiety and You.”

Turning Down the Kettle (On working with anger).

These posts are based on my experience as someone trained in the field of psychology, my personal experiences, and working with clients, friends and family. I write posts based on what I’ve seen in the last week or two, and think might be helpful to reflect on. Take what fits, and leave what doesn’t.

Turning down the Kettle
Ever have difficulties getting your day back on track when something frustrating happens and your anger is just boiling? Let me tell you, that is a normal reaction and feeling. Some people might be able to get back on track quicker, and others take longer. The main part of it is the adrenaline rushing through your body, and the thoughts rushing through your head.

Anger is an emotional response to a real, felt, or imagined grievance or to a frustrating situation, typically related to a perceived threat. The adrenaline rushing through your body will make your heart rate increase, your muscles will tense ready to move and pounce, your breathing will increase. These are all normal reactions. The best thing to remember is to try to stay cool, calm collected and be professional- but my guess is you’ve heard others say this and get annoyed by it all the time because you ask yourself, how?
So in the moment your anger is 10 out of 10, or pretty close. In these instances, there is nothing wrong with taking your frustration out on s-o-m-e-t-h-i-n-g. Not someone. It is normal to want to throw a temper tantrum; the only thing is to mediate where it goes. Scream into a pillow, punch the bed, rip apart pieces of paper. Take it out on things that you won’t feel guilty about after, don’t take it out on people, breakable objects, etc. We often see this as wrong or socially inappropriate, but trying to shut our anger out or turn it inwards without allowing ourselves to express it in a healthy way can be more damaging than screaming into a pillow. Imagine, events keep happening that make you angry the whole week, bordering on 8+ out of 10, but you never express it. The end of the week comes by, and someone says a small thing to you and you SNAP. The person gets the brunt of a built up week of anger, and your guilt comes right afterward. This is the scenario you want to avoid. When we burst out at others, or are irate, we often feel depressed afterward because this outburst is atypical of how we wish to view ourselves. Continue reading “Turning Down the Kettle (On working with anger).”

An invitation to take care of you.

I was listening to the radio today and the song Stompa by Serena Ryder started playing. While listening, I couldn’t help but reflect about how true some of the lyrics are. We spend a lot of our time doing work, cleaning our houses, taking care of tasks. Though these tasks are required, they are often to the detriment of our own sanity and health. What I mean by this is that we forget to do the fun things, to take care of ourselves, to engage in the “dreaded” self-care. Continue reading “An invitation to take care of you.”