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How To Thrive In Your Environment

How To Thrive In Your Environment

As you read this blog, I strongly encourage you to give some thought to your environment and how it affects your mental health and wellbeing.

This is water

In his now-famous commencement address, David Foster Wallace delivered this parable: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’“

I remembered this story recently as I’ve been thinking about what that mysterious water is in my own life. I’ve been considering how the choices we make concerning how we occupy and conceptualize space define us and affect our mental wellness.

Take a walk on the wild side

I recently read an article about how walking in nature really does have a calming effect on people and can assist with managing stress. This doesn’t surprise me at all.

There is an entire discipline—called environmental psychology—which looks at the environmental impact of stress on humans. Studies on the dynamics of lighting on performance and similar studies of how temperature and noise impact our physiology and stress levels have revealed interesting evidence in this field. Consistent exposure can lead to the build-up of cumulative stress, or can in some cases, help to ease symptoms.


Declutter and organize

One of the tasks I’ve set for myself this year is to declutter and organize my space to increase my own mental health and wellbeing. While I’m not finished yet, the sheer fact that I set this goal, gave it importance, and can now see my progress makes me want to continue. The whole process makes me feel calmer and more in control of myself and my environment.

Redesign your space

Ask yourself the following questions about your current environment:

  • Do you feel calm when you go home or before you go to bed at night? If not, what is one thing you can do to make your space feel more calming to you?
  • Do you feel calm when you walk into work? Sitting in a small cubicle all day can have a negative effect on your psyche. What could you change?
  • How do you feel when you’re stuck in rush hour traffic and trapped in public transport? Could you walk or bicycle to work rather than feeling packed like a sardine?

How you manage your space has a reciprocal impact on your sense of wellbeing. This includes how you choose to design your space at home, at work, and in your community. I encourage you to spend some time thinking about the space in other people’s lives as well as your own. Try paying special attention to the silent space during conversations. It can lead to some helpful insights.

Learn more to keep yourself healthy and curious

If this topic interests you, I found an interesting podcast, featuring former Toronto Chief City Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, about the importance of green space on health. I also enjoyed reading both The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō, and The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Wellby Meik Wiking. Kondō’s book has been turned into a Netflix series worth checking out.

Whether you like it or not, your immediate environment affects you. Becoming aware of how, and of how you interact with it, can empower you to make positive adjustments and improve your mental health.

7 Tips for Changing Negative Behaviour

7 Tips for Changing Negative Behaviour

Sometimes we catch ourselves behaving in a way that surprises us.

Sometimes the feeling is a positive one: we accomplish a major goal that we weren’t sure we were going to accomplish, we crush that job interview that we were certain was a total failure, or we find the courage to ask for that big promotion at work.

However, there are times when we do or say something that surprises ourselves, but in a negative way. We snap at our coworker for taking too long to finish a report or we have an argument with a loved one that ends in tears.

So, what can you do when you find yourself engaging with others in a negative way?

Did You Read the Situation Right? If you find yourself responding aggressively to another person’s comments to you, it might be helpful to take a moment to double check that you read the situation correctly. Did your friend intend to insult you or were they simply making a joke? Sometimes, we or the people we love say things that we don’t mean. Taking a moment to determine if that was the case might help put things into perspective.

Be Accountable to Yourself. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re surprised by your negative behavior or someone close to you calls you out on it, try your best not to make excuses for it. Attempting to justify hurtful behavior or getting defensive isn’t a step in the right direction. Before you can start to make changes to your behavior, you first have to accept that you do those things in the first place. If you can’t do that, then you’ll trap yourself in a vicious cycle where you won’t be able to break the pattern and move toward a better mental state.

Don’t Put Yourself Down. When we become aware of our hurtful behaviors, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap where we feel guilt and shame for the way we acted. While this is certainly better than celebrating the fact that you just made a stranger cry by yelling out the passenger-side window at them in traffic, it still isn’t a productive reaction. If you get into a routine of shaming yourself into oblivion every time you display hurtful behavior, you might convince yourself that it can’t be changed. Acknowledge the incident and look for solutions that’ll help you not do it again.

Put It in Context. What was going on when you snapped at your coworker? Did you not get enough rest the night before? Were you stressed about a major deadline and felt the pressure? When you find yourself in situations where you exhibit this negative behavior, take a moment to reassess what might have been the cause of your stress or act out. Oftentimes, when we are feeling a certain way, we fail to notice other important contributing factors that might explain it.

Find the Pattern (So You Can Change It). If you can catch the pattern of decisions that you make or certain situations that feed directly into those negative behaviors, then you’ll be able to know how to correct them. If you regularly notice that not getting enough sleep at night contributes to a cranky morning the next day, then work to change your sleep schedule so you don’t put yourself in that cranky situation. Even making a slight change to your routines can help you find a steadier emotional state.

What Sets You Off?Sometimes certain people, situations, or places can contribute to our negative emotional states. For some people, it may be running into the wrong people at the bar or a coworker who loves to do exactly what you find annoying (like always talking to you about their personal life). A registered therapist can walk you through those moments where you found yourself unnecessarily agitated and help you find the things that set you off.

Once you have an idea of what those things are, you can then work on them. If you pinpoint those environments that push you over the edge, you can then work to change, accept or disarm those triggers. For others there may be need to engage in activities that ‘spark joy’ or add value to one’s life. That is because sometimes we engage in negative behaviours because we are unhappy. The simple act of taking a walk during your lunch time or even talking to a trusted friend can do wonders for your emotional state.

Practice Forgiveness. Forgive yourself and practice forgiveness with others. Humanity is messy; we all have our own personal problems that can lead to sticky situations when we interact with one another. Practicing forgiveness and working together to make interactions less of a negative experience can take the stress off and help us all feel a little bit better.

Therapy Can Help.If you find yourself engaging in harmful behaviour but you’re unsure of how you can start making changes to those behaviours, working with a registered therapist is a great place to start.

Therapists are trained to help you navigate through your emotional confusion and pinpoint the areas that are causing you the most grief. They can act as an unbiased third party that will help you examine those moments of anger or anxiety and work toward long-lasting solutions. That way, there won’t be so many surprises in the future.

How Not To Sabotage Your Self-Care

How Not To Sabotage Your Self-Care

Several years ago, I received a speeding ticket while rushing to get to my regular yoga class. The class was important to me as it was part of my self-care regimen.

The combination of poor planning plus an inability to accept that I just wasn’t going to make it to class that day brought me to an important realization: self-care, or at least a hyper-focus on a self-care routine, can sometimes become counter-productive.

How Important Is Self-Care?

Self-care is essential for reducing stress and all its associated problems, both physical and mental.

That said, not everyone understands what it really is and many people aren’t sure what to do.

Here are a few places to start:

Dr. Kristen Neff offers some great advice in her book, Self Compassion. Her TED talks are also helpful. Guy Winch’s, Emotional First Aid, is another book that I recommend as well as his TED talks. For some further reading, I recommend this piece on self-care in the digital age and this list of self-care ideas.

Creating your own self-care regimen will help you to develop and maintain positive mental health and wellness.

You’ve Got This!

Self-care for ourselves or others can be deliberate and planned, but often we’ve already built some self-care into our daily routines. Going to the movies, talking to a close friend, or taking time to read a book can all be acts of self-care.

Self-Care vs. Self-Sabotage

Sometimes, we find ourselves avoiding discomfort by hiding under the guise of self-care. It can often prevent us from showing up, growing up, and increasing our self-efficacy and self-esteem. For example, is it self-care or avoidance if you take a break from study during finals? It’s a trick question, really, because it could be both.

On one hand, a break will give you some much-needed respite so that you can regroup and come back to your study with fresh eyes. On the other hand, too many breaks or breaks that last too long can be procrastination. It’s important to remember that avoidance keeps you stuck and prevents you from connecting to your feelings.

Ask Yourself: Is This Self-Care or Avoidance?

If the activity feels nourishing, helps you grow, and moves you forward towards your goal, it is self-care. If it takes you away from your goal, then it’s avoidance. Using techniques such as mindfulness can help you to acknowledge your feelings, and understand rather than avoid them.

Make 2019 the year you fine-tune your self-care routine (and avoid nasty surprises like speeding tickets).

How To Learn From Life’s Transitions

How To Learn From Life’s Transitions

Many of us have a list in our minds of the things we want, and most of us go through life trying to get these things. Sometimes we rely on our beliefs as a roadmap on this journey –follow these rules and you’ll be enlightened, be happier and have healthier relationships. I used to think that there was a secret recipe to life, and when things are going great, I do tend to think I have it all figured out. However, reality eventually sets in when we realize that’s not always the case, and when that reality hits, we turn inwards and think that something is wrong with us because if nothing was wrong, we’d be getting what we want. Right?

When life isn’t easy or when we are dealing with a major transition we often look for the ‘bad guy’ and sometimes blame ourselves or our partners instead of turning towards each other or asking for help. An all-too-common negative dialogue emerges where we think, “I must be a bad person or a failure because [insert reasons here].”

That ‘looking for the bad guy tendency arises during periods of transition when we are overwhelmed, scared, or uncertain. However, I want to remind some of you that transitions are hard because they are opportunities for growth and growth is hard.

“Life opens up opportunities to you, and you either take them or you stay afraid of taking them.” — Jim Carrey

Marina Keegan wrote a wonderful article on her perspective of what her university experience meant for her. Although graduating university, much like starting university, can be a difficult period of transition; it is both natural and expected. It should, in fact, be something we aim for.

Some transitions are marked as natural development for many of us unless interrupted and then problems can emerge with some sort of pathology. Some transitions happen unexpectedly: loss of child, being diagnosed with Cancer, losing one’s job. Then sometimes that “find the bad guy tendency” arises and we need to deal with it.

No matter the type of transition you are struggling with, I find it helps to take a moment to breathe and reflect on what is happening before moving forward. Whatever that new you or situation looks like: Stop, Breathe, and, Reflect. By reflecting we help clarify how far we have come and it helps to recognize our own strengths and areas of growth and future growth. Reflection can also allow us a time to see if we are moving in a direction that corresponds with our values. Many of us fail to reflect and end up having a life based on being reactive and non reflective vs living life inline with our values.

Some tips to help navigate transitions and avoid ‘finding the bad guy’ tendency:

1. Go back to get to the future

Sometimes we need to think about passed struggles we have dealt with and how we overcame them. What skills or resources you’ve used that helped or didn’t help you. And then think about your current situation and see if these same character strengths or skills may help you deal with your current situation. Con with this technique: some people keep using the same strategies and don’t try to develop new ones.

2. Remember to ABC which means: Always Be Curious.

Things that help us be curious is having an open mind. Another thing that helps us to be curious is asking ourselves questions that force us to think about alternative solutions and ways of doing things. Noticing emotions and really questioning where they are coming from and what they are telling us may help us deal with the current situation. Con with technique: Overusing this technique so that you end up navel gazing and it prevents you from taking the leap or making a choice.

3. Learn to ride the Wave

You may not be able to change your course or whatever event you are dealing with and you may need to grab onto some coping skills and hold tight. Some may find learning mindfulness or learning to connect with the support system as 2 ways that help people ride the wave when dealing with a particularly hard transition. Con: Some people will ride the wave and end back at the same place they started at. When dealing with transitions sometimes we have to accept things will not go back to how they use to be.

Moving from one of life’s milestones to the next can be exciting, but if you are struggling with it, remember that it is a normal reaction and there are ways of managing it. For example, if you are unhappy with your job and are thinking of taking a leap to something new, you may be interested in Barbara Hagerty’s article here that talks about the upside of making a mid-life transition. If you like the article I would suggest you read her book, Life Reimagined. Instead of relying on finding the bad guy try one of the above techniques, read Barbara’s article or book and see if it helps or perhaps considering booking a session to process your life transition in counselling.

How To Take Care Of Yourself And Others

How To Take Care Of Yourself And Others

Having driven across Canada (most of it, still haven’t been to Newfoundland) I often equate being in a relationship to taking a road trip. Sometimes they are long or short, bumpy, frustrating and other times can be a pure sense of joy, spectacular, quite fun—the terrain isn’t always the same. So, when taking a road trip (i.e. being in a relationship) with your partner who has mental illness (e.g. depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder) one of the things I advocate for is that you gas up your car! That means you need to learn how to take care of yourself before you can take a successful road trip. But how do you gas up your car?

  1. Educate yourself on your partner’s mental illness. Get a map before you start on a road trip!
  2. Talk to your partner about what you see and get a window into their world as well as your own. Create a self-written owner’s manual for you and for your relationship!
  3. Understand the triggers that impact you in the relationship. Know your blind spots!
  4. Learn how to become emotionally regulated. Learn how to merge onto the highway or slow down at stop signs!
  5. Sometimes we need to set boundaries. We can often put our needs aside (and feel guilty if we don’t) in wanting to help our loved ones all the time. However, if we don’t take time for ourselves that can lead to burnout. Learn how to stay in your lane!
  6. Put gas in your tank. This is where we need to learn to become self-nourishing and figure out what helps us cope. Telling your partner “you’re crazy,” “just snap out of it,” “you’re overreacting,” or fighting fire with fire (i.e. anger with anger) becomes tiring, fruitless, and counterproductive. One of the reasons for these conflicts is that we’ve become emotionally drained and frustrated—our gas tank is low or empty—and we just want our partner to stop whatever negative behaviour they are engaging in. But if it was that easy, of course, they would have already stopped it!

Some questions to ask yourself and the next steps to take:

  1. What do I do to take care of myself?
  2. Is what I am doing right now helping me?
  3. What would I like to be doing to take care of myself that I am not? How much enjoyment would that activity give me? How much energy would that activity cost me? Is this activity for a long-term or short-term benefit?
  4. What could get in the way of achieving my goals and how could I overcome these obstacles?
  5. What are the thoughts, activities, or situations that are emptying my gas tank?

Share these answers with your partner and encourage them to make their own list so you can learn how to help and support each other. Learn to be each other’s co-pilot on this journey! Don’t forget to check in with your partner and yourself to see how you are doing. Regular maintenance is important! Booking a session with a therapist may be a wonderful way to keep your car on the road! 

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