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How to Keep Moving Through the Unknown

How to Keep Moving Through the Unknown

The past few weeks have felt like the intro scene to a zombie apocalypse movie. The streets are getting quieter and quieter since the pandemic was announced. I know we’re all just at home doing our best to keep everybody safe, but it still seems eerie when I look outside.

It makes sense that many people are feeling some degree of anxiety these days. There are so many unknowns around COVID-19, it can be difficult to assure ourselves we are safe and secure.

One of the many challenges when we’re presented with huge unknowns in our lives is figuring out how to make and adjust our plans and how to accept when our previous plans are no longer possible.

It can be really hard to adjust especially when we’re facing the unknown. You may find yourself having to change your well-honed daily routine, lose out on your well-earned vacation plans, modify a milestone event, isolate yourself from loved ones, or perhaps all of the above. What’s worse is that many of the usual strategies you use for coping with these sorts of challenges, i.e. going to the gym or visiting with a friend, may not be possible anymore. Thus, whether you’re adjusting a financial plan, figuring out a new school schedule, solving childcare needs, etc., all of this unknown can create a spiral of anxiety. Our brains are always trying to help us plan and figure out the best course of action in a given situation. When we can’t, our bodies react.

Another effect we may experience as we try to manage and adjust to sudden change is loss. The initial response to a sudden change is often panic and/or shock, which is a sign of grief. We tend to go through many of the stages of the grief cycle, which includes: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are not linear so we might experience different stages at different times or sometimes all at once.

Sometimes, throughout this process, our brains want to fill in the blanks to try to make sense of the unknown. In order to regain some control over this process, here are some tips on dealing with the loss you might be experiencing:

  • Consider alternatives/other options for your plans

  • Ask for help! Talk to those you trust for emotional support, assistance with logistics, etc.

  • Use strategies that feel soothing, comforting, and enjoyable

  • Give yourself permission to feel sad, angry, or anything else that comes up. Whatever it is, your feeling is valid.

  • It’s not necessary to resolve everything at once. Take the time you need to make a decision.

  • Keep to your usual routines as much as possible by modifying them to your situation (e.g. workout at home or go for a walk, get dressed for work even if you’re working from home, etc.)

  • Find ways to be safe (e.g. currently that means washing your hands, sanitizing, staying inside, etc.)

  • Ask for and take time to yourself

There’s a lot going on for all of us as we try to adjust to these changes without having the answers. That’s okay! Myself and Shift’s team of therapists are here to support you if you have further questions on how to manage your mental health during this challenging time.

5 Ways to Manage Financial Anxiety

5 Ways to Manage Financial Anxiety

The past week saw a huge stir in the markets with oil prices dropping, the threat of COVID-19, and folks rushing into the supermarkets.

It’s perfectly normal that we start feeling the turbulence at home. Here are five tips to help us refine and manage that “stock anxiety” so we’re better able to manage emotions in stressful times.

1. Recognize and analyze the cognitive biases that impact judgement

One common bias at times like these is loss aversion. We often feel the impacts of loss to a greater extent than the gains we have experienced. Acknowledging this helps us to gain perspective: while highlighting a drastic drop we may be discounting the prior gains we have made.

Another is catastrophizing. It’s when we give greater weight to the potential outcome that would be most damaging. This is a troublesome bias to hold when working with something as unpredictable as the stock market because it moves along arbitrarily and is often hard to predict. This bias accelerates and enforces damaging thought patterns that may have negative impacts and increase our feelings of anxiety.

2. Seek mentorship and peer support

This provides us with a platform to meet with like-minded individuals that have dealt with similar situations. We can gain realistic tips on how to manage our anxiety when dealing with the stock market. In addition, it reminds and reassures us that the ebbs and flows of the market are to be expected.

3. Put things into perspective— adopt a bigger picture

We can use graphs to highlight the peaks and valleys that our stocks show. Adopting a bigger picture perspective allows us to see that these peaks and valleys are all over the stock market and this is not the first dip in the market and it won’t be the last. Adopting a perspective that considers the impact these dips will have in the future can be beneficial for our next moves and it can reduce some initial anxiety.

4. Research

Find an area you’re unsure of and learn. These moments of anxiety are often exacerbated by lack of understanding about markets. We can ground our anxiety and manage our expectations with validated expertise about trends from objective viewpoints that are outside of our own. We can also use this research to challenge some of the negative thought patterns that may reinforce anxiety.

5. Relax

When we experience dips in the market this triggers a fight or flight response in our body that is having a real impact on our anxiety. It is important to remind ourselves that we are safe from harm and practice exercises like meditation and mindfulness to ground ourselves in the knowledge that we are safe.

It’s completely normal to have anxiety when we face financial and fiscal challenges in the stock market. These challenges bring on new feelings of unknowing that impact our bodies in very real ways. It is integral to sit with ourselves, pay attention, and notice how stress is manifesting in our bodies.

The effort we put in now can be the foundation on which we build a strategic response to anxiety with a goal of preventing overwhelm. We’ll feel the benefits now and in the future.

Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic Panic

Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic Panic

I see you. I really do.

You are vigorously scouring your social feeds looking for the newest articles on the coronavirus and COVID-19 while simultaneously ordering overly expensive hand sanitizer on Amazon.

You are considering going to Costco to stock up on toilet paper and you are fearful of being surrounded by your family when they arrive home from work, school or errands.

You may even be nervous to leave your home and go outside.

I feel your panic.

I too am anxious about what this means for my own health and that of my loved ones. Currently, it feels difficult to decipher what I should believe and what is scaring me for no reason. Most of all, I want to be in control of my fear and cope with the stress of this pandemic in a healthy way.

First, it’s important to better understand why we feel panicked in the first place.

Anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress and acts as a built-in safety mechanism that prevents you from harm. When that mechanism is working well, it correctly assesses danger and offers us a safety response, kind of like a smoke alarm sounding when there is an actual fire. When we hear the alarm it triggers us to quickly change our behaviour to stay safe.

For many of us, our internal safety mechanism — a metaphorical smoke alarm — can be overly-sensitive or even faulty from time to time resulting in an inability to correctly assess the situational risk and properly determine the level of threat. Think of it as a defective smoke detector that signals an alarm at the right, and wrong, times. Fire or not, whenever we hear that alarm, we naturally respond with stress.

When it comes to anxiety around COVID-19, for some of us a similar stress response may be happening. While we are rationally aware that we may not be at significant risk, we may feel that we are not in control and therefore our internal panic button or alarm is triggered resulting in physical and emotional distress.

Second, let’s discuss what is helpful.

Each of us can take small steps that, taken together, can make a big impact on managing our anxiety.

  • Regular hand washing. Wash those hands! Experts recommend at least 20 seconds of vigorous handwashing with soap and warm water. Just an FYI 20 seconds is as long as the chorus of Lizzo’s Good as Hell.

  • Reading trusted news articles. Being careful to verify the source of the information. A lot of misinformation that is being shared on social media is inaccurate which can be further dangerous. For the most trustworthy information refer to the World Health Organization.

  • Discussing fears with loved ones or your therapist. Sharing your fears and concerns with trusted loved ones can help to alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety. As humans, we are wired for connection and sharing our stories and experiences helps us to make sense of them. Friends and loved ones may give us perspective that we don’t necessarily consider ourselves and may help us problem-solve around how to cope with our stress.

  • Checking in with your loved ones that are at higher risk (elderly and/or those with chronic medical conditions). We know that some populations are at higher risk than others. If you have a close friend or family member who is elderly or live with a chronic medical condition, checking in with them regularly can help them, and you feel more in control.

  • Naming the pandemic for what it is. The term pandemic can drive feelings of anxiety but as Mark Lipstick, Harvard Epidemiologist says, “it’s helpful to call a horse a horse”. In Pandemic, a podcast by Dr. Sunjay Gupta of CNN, Gupta states, “I keep reminding the viewers that still, based on two very large studies, the vast majority of people who get this infection are not going to get sick. They’re going to have a mild illness, if any, and they’re going to recover. This tends to be very reassuring to people. But I don’t want to minimize this. We’re dealing with something that is growing and becoming a legitimate pandemic.”

  • Practice social distancing. This buzz term simply means keeping people apart from each other, at least 6 feet apart, and avoiding direct human contact with others. What that means in actionable terms is that the notion of community may need to change for the short-term. As Author Max Brooks states in his New York Times Opinion piece, The best way to prevent “community spread” is to spread out the community. That means keeping people apart. No more handshakes, group photos and “free hugs” from those cosplayers at Comic-Con. In fact, it might mean no more Comic-Con for a little while, as well as no trade shows, concerts or any other events that draw a large crowd. Each individual is responsible to take precautions that prevent the spread of the virus, not only for themselves but also to protect those who are at higher risk.

  • If you are sick, stay home. Whether you are showing the symptoms of COVID-19 or not, adjust your work, school, and social commitments to avoid having to be in close proximity to others. Call on friends or family members to drop off food or supplies and simply lay low. If you are able to work from home and stay productive it will keep you focused on other things and increase a sense of control. Your employer or professor will understand and hopefully support your decision to stay home.

  • Get tested if you are showing symptoms. If you are showing symptoms of COVID-19, it is essential that you get tested. Rather than showing up unannounced at a clinic or hospital, it is best to call your healthcare provider or public health authority and they will be able to guide you on the appropriate location to go to.

Third, let’s tackle what might be unhelpful.

There are actions that will likely add to your anxiety. It’s important to remember that you are not superhuman — none of us are — and that means accepting that we have to keep our knee-jerk reactions in check.

  • It is difficult to understand how to not over or under-react. Often in an effort to keep us safe, our mind falls into a pattern of catastrophic thinking. It can be helpful to separate between what is necessarily going to happen from what is possible to happen. It may be possible, but is it certain? Similarly, it can be useful to not make assumptions or get ahead of yourself, instead of making choices one step at a time.

  • Overindulging in media consumption. Take a break from social media and news consumption if you feel that you are becoming increasingly worried or anxious. Notice what happens in your body and mind while on the break. If you feel calmer and less overwhelmed it’s a good reminder to take regular planned social media and news consumption breaks throughout your day. If any major updates occur, you’ll hear about them regardless of being plugged in constantly or not.

  • Ignoring your needs. When you are feeling particularly anxious, it is essential to pay attention to what you can control. Can you telecommute and work from home instead of heading into the office? Does your medical practitioner offer video appointments? Do you feel unwell and need a sick day? It’s okay to prioritize your needs during this time even if it includes cancelling a trip you were looking forward to. We expect to see a lot of grieving during this time, as people end up having to cancel time with friends and family or major life events due to precautionary measures to control the spread of the virus.

  • Ignoring your coping strategies and self-care. Self-care is health care and it’s important to continue the routines that have consistently helped you to remain healthy. Often, these routines can be modified to support recommended infection-control practices. Change your studio practice to an at-home yoga practice. Attend your regular therapy session over video or telephone instead. Take advantage of the meal delivery service you’ve been wanting to try and cook at home. Being creative will be your best strength here.

  • Identify your drive to panic buy and where it comes from. This article by CNBC interviewed Sander van der Linden, an assistant professor of social psychology at Cambridge University to determine why people are stocking up on toilet paper and how easily we can influence each other socially when we are stressed. The phenomenon, also known as fear contagion, was described by van der Linden, “when people are stressed their reason is hampered, so they look at what other people are doing. If others are stockpiling it leads you to engage in the same behaviour,” he said. “People see photos of empty shelves and regardless of whether it’s rational it sends a signal to them that it’s the thing to do. Sometimes there can be a lot of value in social knowledge — from an evolutionary perspective when we don’t know how to react to something, we look to others for guidance,” he added. “If you’re in the jungle and someone jumps away from a snake you automatically do the same thing. But sometimes that gets highjacked and you’re told to do something that’s not the right thing to do.”

Fourth, if you feel that you are overwhelmed, please reach out to someone for support.

There is no shame in sharing your feelings, fears and challenges. We are literally all in this together.

  • If you are in crisis and in need of support, calling a crisis line can help. Click here for a list of crisis resources. Contrary to popular beliefs about crisis lines, they exist to provide support for a wide range of distress.

    If you are concerned you may have COVID-19, seek medical attention. If you are unwell and worried that you may have contracted the virus, the Government of Canada and Public Health suggests, “if you are ill and must visit a health care professional, call ahead or tell them when you arrive that you have a respiratory illness. You may be asked to wear a mask while waiting for or receiving treatment to prevent the spread of the illness. If you have travelled abroad and you develop fever, cough or difficulty breathing in the next 14 days: isolate yourself within your home as quickly as possible and call your healthcare provider or public health authority. Tell them your symptoms and travel history. Let them know whether you have had direct contact with animals or a sick person, especially if they have had symptoms.

  • If you are anxious about this pandemic and its impact on you, speak to a therapist. Our wonderful team of therapists at Shift Collab, the crew behind Real Campus, is available for in-person, phone, and video sessions throughout Canada. You can also connect with one of our therapists on-demand virtually by using the Maple app.

7 Tips for Overcoming Dental Anxiety

7 Tips for Overcoming Dental Anxiety

It’s all too common that we avoid healthy changes towards wellness because they push us outside our comfort zones. Whether we’re starting a new workout, updating our diet, or improving our interpersonal relationships, healthy change involves some level of anxiety and discomfort. 

For many, dental anxiety is one of these major hurdles. While securing dental insurance can pose a complex barrier to oral health, data shows that millions of Canadians are avoiding routine dental work out of anxiety-induced fear. Nearly 15 million Canadians — 40% of the population! — have a fear of the dentist such that it prevents them from going for screenings or routine care.

Oral health is an essential part of overall health, and overcoming anxiety symptoms associated with visiting the dentist is a critical form of self-care. (Sorry, binging Netflix and cat videos won’t do the trick!)

Why is dental anxiety so common?

A cruel irony of avoiding routine checkups is that you’re likely to pay for that neglect later with invasive emergency dental treatments. At that point, your anxiety may seem like it was proportional to the experience. However, seeing a dentist for routine care might have prevented the need for invasive procedures in the first place.

From my own experience with clients working through dental anxiety, I’ve found there isn’t one glaring reason people fear the dentist. Rather it’s more of a combination of expectations and fears coming together.

  • Societal stereotypes: TV shows, movies, parents, and siblings all paint a scary picture of what going to the dentist is like. Stereotypes about the dentist often start at an early age and are easy to find everywhere.

  • Past experiences (often at a young age): A scary or painful experience at the dentist — especially as a child — can stick with us throughout our entire life if we don’t address the problem.

  • Fear of discomfort: Many dental procedures can be painful, especially if the dentist doesn’t explain the treatment or offer proper numbing options. Plus, drilling, grinding, and scraping can feel strange and uncomfortable.

  • Lack of control: There’s something about laying on our back with our mouth open while a doctor digs around that just gets to us. A high level of trust is essential.

  • Shame: Some folks who neglect their dental health often feel embarrassed or shameful about the condition of their oral health.

Tips for Overcoming Dental Anxiety

Overcoming a phobia or event-related anxiety takes time. They don’t occur overnight and they aren’t resolved overnight. Here’s a list of strategies to get you started:

1. Run a Cost-Benefit Analysis. Focus on the pros of visiting the dentist: a healthy mouth, a beautiful smile, improved heart health. Make a list and it’s easy to see that the pros far outweigh the cons.

2. Communicate and Build Trust. Most dentists know that people are afraid of them. Most are happy to chat through email or a phone call about any specific fears and insecurities. Building trust and comfort is key. Desensitize yourself by asking the dentist or staff to walk you through the process step-by-step. Staff should understand and want to help.

3. Source Multiple Experiences. Those of us with anxiety tend to overgeneralize, jump to irrational conclusions, and turn into catastrophists. Laws of probability and rationality go right out the window. In this era of online reviews, a single negative review can cost a business 22% of potential customers — even if 99% of the reviews are glowing! We tend to overvalue bad press. Ask multiple people for their most recent dental experience (and don’t pry for bad press).

4. Ask about Pain Management. Dentists understand dental anxiety and have the tools to help patients cope with pain. Be vocal about any concerns and ask detailed questions. If a dentist doesn’t seem to care, go somewhere else.

5. Plan a Sedation Strategy. Sedation dentistry has come a long way over the past decade. Nitrous oxide (laughing gas), pill sedation, and general anesthesia offer various levels to meet each patient’s needs.

6. Try Distraction Techniques. Many modern dentist offices come equipped with iPads, tablets, and TVs to help patients distract themselves during uncomfortable treatments. Progressive muscle relaxation exercises and an awesome Spotify playlist can help tremendously.

7. Talk to a Therapist. Therapy can also be valuable to address dental anxiety that helps you get to the root of the problem. Many people find techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) very effective.

Dental anxiety doesn’t have to be permanent. By laying the groundwork, we can ensure success and have positive experiences at the dentist’s office moving forward. Everyone deserves a healthy smile, and changing our mindset can help make wellness a reality.

How to Cope with Intrusive Thoughts

How to Cope with Intrusive Thoughts

Do you know those thoughts that randomly pop into your head and drag you down a rabbit hole? Or those images that flash in your mind? They seem to come automatically and can fill you up with anxiety. Even now as I write about this experience I feel almost overwhelmed. In the therapy world, we refer to these unwanted and distressing thoughts and images as intrusive thoughts.

You can think of intrusive thoughts as random scraps of paper that don’t really have a place to go but your brain tries to file them away. These random scraps have no meaning but your brain tries to stick them somewhere. What makes them distressing is the sense we try to make of them, the meanings we attach, and the fact that these thoughts (and images) tend to stick in our minds. They stick because they’re often fantasies or thoughts about things we find unacceptable and fear we might act on.

Here are some quick tips to cope with these intrusive thoughts:

  1. Allow yourself to have them. Remind yourself that they’re thoughts, not facts. If you think or see an image in your head, but don’t really plan to act on it, that’s completely normal. It’s not harmful, and not something to worry about. Remember that these are automatic thoughts, so it’s outside of your control whether they happen or not. It might be helpful to try to label the thought as intrusive and then carry on with your day.
  2. Check the facts. Ask yourself how likely it is you will act on this thought. (Disclaimer: If you think you might harm yourself or someone else, it’s important to check in with a medical professional for support. You can access a distress helpline or the local emergency room for that immediate support).
  3. Start a mindfulness practice. This will help you notice and let go of intrusive thoughts.
  4. Keep going! Try to continue whatever activity you were previously doing and allow yourself to move on from the thought.

Intrusive thoughts are common. If they start to feel unmanageable, then it could be an indication of an underlying mental health concern, such as anxiety, OCD, and PTSD, to name a few. It’s important to check with your doctor if you’re feeling highly distressed by these thoughts and images.

Strategies for Coping With Panic Attacks

Strategies for Coping With Panic Attacks

Have you been in class and started to notice your heart rate beating faster? Your palms start to get sweaty and you begin feeling dizzy. You’re grasping for air and it feels like you can’t move or breath. You feel like you’re going to pass out and try to figure out what’s going on. You might think you’re having a heart attack and call 911.

Panic attacks are quite common. Did you know that 1 million Canadians experience panic attacks each year? Thus, if you can relate, you’re definitely not alone! Ever wonder why our bodies are reacting in such a way? Let’s break it down.

As human beings we all experience different degrees of stress at times, however we have a limit on the amount of stress each of us can handle. In psychology, we often use the term “somatization” to refer to the body-mind connection. Metaphorically, we can think of it like a kettle. When we think about stress we can think of it as though it is water we are pouring into the kettle.  This could be any form of stress including psychological stress (repressed emotions/thoughts), stress from transitions/moving, stress from the demands of our work, relationship stress, responsibilities of being a parent etc. Some of us might have smaller kettle, middle size kettles or larger kettles. These kettles represent something we call our “distress tolerance”. Thus, some of us can handle more stress than other (having larger kettle), however again we all have our limits. When our kettles are filled with water, it begins to pore over, leading our bodies to send the message that we can’t handle anymore stress. This can take the form of a panic attack. Alternative ways our bodies can send this message if through the development of somatic symptoms (i.e. getting headaches, stomach aches, pain in our body), or perhaps we might snap more easily at our friend or partner.

An example to illustrate the body-mind connection and how it functions would be the following: let’s say you’re at work and have a headache. We’re working on a project and all of sudden your boss comes over and says, “by the way that project is due tomorrow morning”. Typically, what’s going to happen is that pre-existing headache will amplify. Essentially, we just poured a bunch of water into the kettle and now that pre-existing somatic symptom (our headache) will enlarge. Now let’s say we have a friend who’s our co-worker near by and he turns over and says “why would he ask you to do that, that’s just not feasible to get that done so fast; you must be so stressed and anxious”. Essentially, we have a friend providing us emotional support and giving us validation on our experience. We can turn to this co-worker and externalize what we’re feeling, perhaps restating how anxious and stress we are. Typically what will happen is that headache that amplified will mitigate after speaking with our co-worker.

This example illustrates the function of our body-mind connection. Stress can amplify pre-existing symptoms or create symptoms all together including the development of a panic attack.

In order to pour out some of the water from the kettle when it is getting full, here are some practical strategies to help mitigate stress:

1)   Call a Friend or Family Member: By talking with a family member or friend we can externalize how we’re feeling and get emotional support. Referring to the example above, this can be a great way to pour out some water after feeling validated.

2)    Journal: We can write down what we’re feeling as another way to externalize our emotions.

3)   Name Our Emotions Out Loud: We can say out loud what emotions we are feeling to ourselves as another way to externalize them.

4)   Do Self-Care Activities: We could go running or do a physical activity.

5)   Sensory-Motor Psychotherapy: If we go to the gym and take a medicine ball, we can picture within this ball all of our stress/anxiety or other emotions we might be feeling. Then we can throw the ball down as hard as we can as a way to externalize our feelings by releasing/throwing them away.

6)   Use a Stress Ball Similar to the example above, we can take a stress ball and picture all of our emotions inside of it and squeeze it as though we are mitigating our emotions.

7)   Art: We can draw, paint, sculpture or do any form of art to express our emotions and what we are feeling

8)   Music and Dance: We can also use music and dance as other forms of expression.