COVID-19 has us all stuck inside and exploring different aspects of our mental health. I thought it would be a good time to suggest books that have helped me develop and ground my knowledge on the diverse topics that impact our emotional and mental health.
Here is a short list of books that have had a major impact on me and taught me to think critically and compassionately:
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D.
It Didn’t Start with You: How inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn
Wolynn’s book is an introduction to how family trauma continues across generations. Mark highlights that for many years the medical world has not recognized how serious trauma’s impact is on health, bodies and relationships. Mark grounds his work in modern research and demonstrates that trauma can impact bodies in ways that are beyond our capacity for recognition. The message is that, until we learn to take this insight seriously, we will continue the cycle.
Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life by Allen Frances, M.D.
Frances (the chair of the DSM-5 task force) asks why mental health diagnosis is increasing at such a large rate and considers how Big Pharma is exploiting this market to pathologize normal, everyday challenges. Frances explores the history of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to give the reader an inside perspective of how it has been developed, who is in charge of making changes, and the pressing challenges of diagnosis in the modern age. Frances approaches the DSM 5 with a critical eye and challenges the reader to do the same.
Troubling Masculinity: Reimagining Urban Men edited by Ken Moffatt
Troubling Masculinity explores a variety of ways masculinity might be reimagined in the modern age. The critical thinkers and theorists featured in this work consider issues of race, gender, sexuality, and social class to challenge and “trouble” how we think about masculinity. I believe this book could be an entry point into a discussion about the challenges men face in society and a meaningful exploration of the root causes of toxic masculinity. In this trying time, very few books are offering concrete solutions to the problem of toxicity. This book seeks to evolve masculinity into something to be embraced and nurtured instead of shamed.
A Dialogue on Love by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
When I began reading this book I was having challenges related to grief, identity, and relationships. In this piece, Eve discusses her terminal cancer diagnosis and how she grieves for her body, her family, and her relationships. She incorporates her therapist’s notes, her diary, and keen critical analysis to delve into how identity is formulated beyond the body. This book holds so many crucial ideas that challenge secular spaces to invite in a new spirituality. Sedgwick’s spirituality is grounded in the earth and challenges us to sit with the very real way we intimately hold and impact those around us.
These books have had a major impact on my development as a therapist and I hope they’ll have a positive effect on you, as well.
I am a huge proponent of daily journal writing. Journalling allows us to better process our thoughts and externalize any difficult feelings we may have had throughout the day. It can be a helpful tool in allowing ourselves to get to know what situations trigger us, how we process our thoughts and emotions, and how we might use our creativity to solve difficult problems.
And yes, sometimes writing feels tedious. Or we just have no clue where to start. For those moments, I’d encourage you to try these 6 journal prompts and see where they take you.
1. What’s on my mind right now?
This prompt can allow you to practice mindfulness and awareness of the present moment.
2. What has been going well in my life lately? What has been more difficult? Why?
This prompt motivates us to get more in touch with how situations, relationships, or circumstances in our lives are playing a role in influencing our feelings.
3. What inspires me? Why?
Exploring what inspires us is a helpful tool in determining our values and coming to understand what feels enriching for us.
4. What are 5 things I am grateful for right now?
Gratitude! Practicing a little bit of gratitude can help us feel more positive emotions and relish our experiences.
5. What are 5 ways that I can go out of my comfort zone this year?
There is no better way to grow than by stepping outside of our comfort zones. Experiencing and growing through a new challenge is a great way to boost self-confidence and belief in our abilities.
6. What area of my life needs more love and attention? Why?
This prompt may allow us to recognize where we need to cultivate more care and self-love. It can also be a helpful prompt toward setting small goals to make us healthier and happier.
Counselling is an interactive process wherein you identify your goals and you work toward them together with the counsellor in a safe, supportive, non-judgmental environment. Anything that you share is confidential—kept between you and the counsellor—with some limitations for safety reasons.
Talking to a Stranger
The main focus of counselling is YOU. Sometimes people find it odd to discuss their most personal problems with a complete stranger that they know almost nothing about. But that’s where the beauty of counselling lies—as opposed to talking to a friend or family member, a counsellor offers an outside, third-party point of view. Your counsellor won’t change the subject or start talking about themselves instead. They won’t belittle or judge you, and they can help you at whatever pace works best for you. They might be able to offer options both personally and professionally that you may not know existed. Even though your counsellor will not be a “friend,” a close relationship of a different kind is often developed, where trust, acceptance, and support are key components.
The First Session
For your counsellor, the first session is mainly about getting to know you and learning some background information about you. For you, it’s about getting comfortable talking to your counsellor, and it’s about getting to know one another.
After the first session, you will be asked if you would like to continue counselling, and a second appointment will be booked. It is generally best to stay with the same counsellor because you will have a relationship with them and they will know you, your story, and the plan that you have worked out together.
Types of Counselling
Counselling is often referred to colloquially as “talk therapy,” and while simply talking about problems or issues can indeed be therapeutic in itself, counselling also takes on other forms, such as Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). These are different approaches to counselling that might be used to best help you reach your goals.
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy looks at finding solutions to problems and working on imaging other ways to reach your goals. This is typically a shorter-term method of counselling often used in conjunction with other approaches. By helping you identify what you might want to change in your life as well as what you might wish to have happen in the future, SFBT can help you to create a vision of a preferred future for yourself.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is an approach that helps you look at the thoughts behind your emotions, where these thoughts might have come from, and how accurate they might be. Often times, if we don’t analyze and challenge our automatic thoughts, they can take on unhelpful forms that impede on our way of living and get in the way of achieving our goals. Sometimes we may not even be aware of these thoughts, let alone that they could be untrue. CBT can help you identify more helpful ways of thinking that can then change how you are feeling.
Your counsellor may use these or a number of other approaches to help you achieve your goals. Always feel free to ask your counsellor about their approach or ask them any other questions as you go forward with your sessions.
What kind of issues can a counsellor help me with?
Counsellors can help with a wide range of personal concerns, including coping with anxiety and/or stress, doing better in your courses or at work, time management, learning strategies, homesickness and transition to changes, financial problems, feelings of depression or sadness, body image and eating disorders, self-harm or suicidal feelings, coping with loss and grief, relationship and family issues, sexuality concerns, getting control of your drinking or drug use, confidence and self esteem, working effectively in groups and teams, anger/conflict, problem-solving around issues (advocacy), etc.
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:
- 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.
- 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).
- Start a mindfulness practice. This will help you notice and let go of intrusive thoughts.
- 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.