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A Mindful Moment for Conscious Breathing

A Mindful Moment for Conscious Breathing

Throughout the day our attention is often scattered among countless responsibilities and tasks. At times this can leave us feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

Taking a mindful moment within your day can help to combat stress and bring a greater sense of calm so feel more confident in taking on these daily tasks. But with our busy schedules, we often ask how can we even find time in our day to do this?

Deep breathing practices are one of the most simple but effective ways to relax and lower stress. Best of all, most practices can be done in as little as 30 seconds!

Why is deep breathing helpful? When we are stressed, our body responds to this stress as a threat. To protect ourselves our sympathetic nervous systems kick in and our body goes into the fight-flight mode. We find our heart beating faster, blood pressures increases, our breathing quickens and becomes shallower and our body tenses up. Breathing practices are aimed to teach you steadiness and support a gentle shift away from this fight-flight mode. This is because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. Your brain then sends this message to your body to engage your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as our rest and digest function. Those things that happen when you are stressed, all decrease as you breathe deeply. This practice grounds and stabilizes an overactive system, so the mind and body can relax again. Many breathing practices include counting breaths, as this counting provides focus and feedback to let you know if your mind is drifting from the practice.

The “Equal Breathing” exercise, which focuses on steady inhalation and exhalation of equal duration is a easy but effective deep breathing practice which can be almost anywhere. It is an effective tool to help when you find yourself anxious, overwhelmed, or simply disconnected from your body/mind, or just needing a moment of calm. It is also so simple that it can be a great practice to teach children to help them when they are experiencing anxiety that can support you in experiencing the benefits of deep breathing.

Here’s the step-by-step process to help guide you through this practice:

  1. First, find a comfortable seated position. You can sit on a blanket, pillow or in a chair to support the diaphragm to be open for easier breathing. You may also do this practice lying down for greater effortlessness. You may choose to have your eyes open or closed, whatever is most comfortable.

  2. Begin to notice your natural inhale and exhale. Notice the length, the sensations in the body and how the breath is flowing. Notice the transition between the inhale and exhale.  If you notice tension, try to slow the breath so it is quiet, gentle and smooth between the transitions.

  3. Then, start to count the inhale. Start by breathing in slowly for three steady counts. Gently turn to exhale, breathing out for three steady counts. Continue this for several rounds.

  4. If this counting feels too short, slowly start to increase the count working your way up to a steady count of 10 (ie. breathe in for 6, out for 6, breath in 8, out 8, breath in 10, out 10). Only go to a count that you maintain comfort and ease in the body and mind. Most important to just ensure your inhalation and exhalation are the same lengths.

  5. You can Do 10 rounds of this breath, or if you would prefer you can set a timer for 30 to 60 seconds so all you need to focus on is breathing at a gentle pace, continuing to relax and remaining present. If you lose count, simply begin again.

  6. As you finish your practice, let the breath return to normal. Pay attention to the relaxation you feel, and the changes you notice in your body and mind after this balanced breathing.

When first starting to introduce breathing exercises into your day, it might be helpful to set a reminder to help you remember to take a moment to practice. With time, these practices will eventually become a more natural part of your daily routine.

Dealing with Today’s Election Anxiety

Dealing with Today’s Election Anxiety

Today marks the 2020 US election. 😱

Okay, take a deep breath. 

Now, as a Canadian company, you may think… well, why are you thinking/writing/worried about the US election?

A couple reasons. First, we deliver a ton of mental health training in the US and have a ton of American clients. Second, personally, I consider the US my second home having lived and worked there. Third, we can’t deny that this is a global moment or reckoning of the kind of world that we want to build.

While that sounds heady, it’s not really. This election has very real consequences for us in Canada, the kinds of behaviour that’s normalized among our leaders, and the validation (or rebuttal) of the worst human impulses.

Feeling anxious yet? If you are (like me), here’s what we can all do today…

Trust our gut

Over the past four years, we’ve been exposed to a firehose of hate, division, fear-mongering, alienation, and cruelty in a way that was previously unfathomable. Many of us have become addicted to staying up to date on each development (see John Mulaney’s bit on comparing the Trump Whitehouse to a horse in a hospital). The emotional scars of the past four years are immense, let alone the anticipation of an election that could make this chapter history.

All of this is to say, there’s no need to feel guilt or shame in how you feel about this election. This anxiety runs deep. So trust whatever you’re feeling — because you’re feeling it with good reason.

Take any action

This kind of nervous-jittery-anxiety is best countered by taking civic action. What kind of action? Well, anything really, so long as you are using that same fire that’s within you right now for good.

Write something on Facebook about how you’re feeling about today. WhatsApp your American friends and ask how tensions are in their community. Use this as an opportunity to reconnect with old peers or friends. Moments of collective anxiety are ripe for reconnection. Take advantage of that.

If you’re hungry for more, shift your focus to what’s local, even if you’re in Canada. Know that crosswalk in your neighbourhood that’s dangerous? Write to your counsellor. Know that provincial proposal that’s frustrating you? Sign a petition. Know that issue you’ve been meaning to learn more about? Dive into it. Action beats inaction. Choosing our focus is an act of control. And when we feel a sense of control, our anxiety can be tamed.

Limit the scrolling and reloading

Refreshing CNN or FiveThirtyEight all day won’t make a difference. Nor will scanning Twitter incessantly. The results will come in as they do (or don’t… looking at you Pennsylvania!). Make a plan to consume coverage in a measured way and stick to it. That means, for example, checking out the news once an hour for five minutes. Later tonight when results start coming in, pick a channel you’ll watch and set a window for when you’ll tune in. Don’t be afraid to break up that CNN time with something funny — like an episode of It’s Me or the Dog.

Find solace in like-minded voices

I’ve found a great deal of comfort in the content from Crooked, the media juggernaut launched by ex-Obama staffers that include podcasts like Pod Save America. On these big nights, they do something called the “Group Thread” where they broadcast their own Slack channel with a feed from MSNBC on YouTube. Their team shares their candid, hilarious reactions to each development in a way that humanizes the profundity of the moment. It’s a great normalizer, reminding us that if you’re outraged, scared, or hopeful that there are millions of people out there just like you. If you’re looking for something lighter, Steven Colbert is doing a long livestream over on Showtime. And if you’re looking for something insightful, The Daily is doing their first-ever live show starting at 4pm EST.

Accept that we’re not done yet

Regardless of what happens, tonight won’t be the end of the past four years or the messes that it’s caused. There will be uncalled races, heightened tensions, and a — at a minimum — a president that won’t be out of office until January. Accept that there’s still a lot to happen beyond this evening — and believe that you have more control over your anxiety than you might think.

And if you need support at any time in the aftermath of tonight, we’re always here for you.

What to do about Burnout?

What to do about Burnout?

Ever wondered if there’s anything you can actually do about burnout?

It can feel hopeless but there are a number of ways to address it. Here we’re going to explore one possible approach to overcoming burnout.

Wait, what’s burnout again?

That can be tricky to answer. There are multiple avenues to explore when attempting to define this thing we call burnout. One of the challenges of defining the concept is that it typically involves aspects of a variety of mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorders. Here, I’ll use the term to highlight someone who is experiencing:

  • A lack of satisfaction in their work

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Negative attitudes and separation from the vocation

And why do we need to talk about it?

Burnout is important to discuss for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it affects those working in helping professions as frontline workers to an exponential degree. This includes and is not limited to:

  • First responders (Emergency response workers and firefighters)

  • Social workers

  • Nurses

  • Teachers

  • Doctors

This is problematic because the folks most at risk often went into their careers because they are empathetic, caring, and compassionate individuals. Therefore, it is important to note some of the signs and risk factors for burnout so we can be vigilant in navigating if we are at risk for burnout. Some risk factors include:

  • High stress at the workplace

  • Increasing cuts to funding

  • Dangerous work environments

  • Understaffing

  • Isolation in the workspace

  • Limited access to support

  • Sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia existing within workspaces

What would therapy look like?

Even if it’s challenging or downright dysfunctional, we can’t always change our immediate environments to suit our needs. There are, however, practices that can be applied in everyday life that fundamentally impact how we manage stress within challenging environments. One approach is applying cognitive behavioural skills and practices. It might look like this:

1. Explore phase

The beginning of therapy would be around assessing and identifying triggers such as:

  • Organization-related challenges (budget cuts, system gaps)

  • Client-related challenges (vicarious trauma, challenging population)

  • Personal challenges (emotional demands)

  • Setting-related challenges (high caseload, dangerous work environments)

By identifying some of these stressors we will be able to target what is challenging us most at work, at home and in our relationships and adapt and respond appropriately. Although, we will not be able to change all the factors contributing to burnout, by identifying some risk factors it will help us focus in and eventually identify areas we can intervene.

2. Identify phase

The next stage involves cognitive restructuring, which is a fancy word for identifying our moods, thoughts, physical sensations and behaviours. This would look like identifying:

  • What situation triggered emotions

  • What are thoughts and beliefs tied to situations

  • What feelings and emotions are prevalent

  • What behaviours are present (lack of concentration, in ability to sleep) and noting how these situations trigger “dysfunctional thinking”

By first identifying these triggers we can then look inwards and highlight that there is some dysfunctional thinking that causes us greater challenges. Therefore, therapy would look to:

  • Assess the advantages and disadvantages of our thought patterns

  • The impacts our thoughts have on our emotions

  • Labeling cognitive distortions that we hold (overgeneralizing, mental filters, etc.)

  • Identifying implicit rules and assumptions we carry

  • Generating alternative viewpoints

3. Armour phase

The last stage would be to assist in enhancing protective factors. This can include, but is not limited to:

  • Exploring areas of “purposeful” self-care

  • Exploring self-regulation skills like deep breathing, meditation, grounding exercises

This isn’t the only way therapy for burnout can be modelled, but it’s one way that it can be used to assist those most affected by burnout. The goal is to build a strong self so that we are better able to take care of ourselves and those that we assist in our careers, families, and relationships.

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(2), 103–111. doi: 10.1002/wps.20311

Sean works from a strengths-based perspective — centering your unique strengths and supporting you as you build on them— and uses modalities such as cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness-based approaches, narrative therapy, and rational emotive behavioural therapy.

[re:tell] Reflections on the COVID-19 Pandemic

[re:tell] Reflections on the COVID-19 Pandemic

Several weeks ago now, I can remember going to school and noticing increased safety precautions being implemented as sad news spread of the growing negative effects of COVID-19 on the health of humans around the world. 


I had a conversation with my statistics professor about what life might look like if we were not able to come to school in the coming weeks. I wasn’t sure and he wasn’t either. Our conversation was hopeful. We spoke like it was all just hypothetical. He concluded by saying, “we’ll see when the time comes.” Just hours later, Ontario declared public schools would close after March break. Post-secondary institutions soon followed suit and with that, our lives turned upside down. I haven’t seen my professor in person since our conversation.

It’s weird how life works, even though we’d been hearing reports of this virus spreading for weeks and knew it was only a matter of time until it came to Canada, the thought of seeing the country shut down and daily life stalled never settled in until the hammer dropped that Thursday evening. The school closures and the countless government actions that followed brought along fear and panic as anxiety and confusion about the situation escalated rapidly. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind, with ups and downs, moments of hope and feelings of despair.

At first, I tried my best to stay informed with what’s happening in the world by watching CBC’s The National newscast on a daily basis. It felt important to keep up with what was happening to understand how best to protect myself and others, but as the days went on, with my usual schedule disrupted, I felt little motivation to do anything else but watch the news. It stopped serving any positive purpose. Every time I tuned in, I heard the sadness and fear in the stories that grew hour by hour as more Canadians were affected and strict government action increased. The feelings of despair and anxiety increased. Survival instincts had kicked in. It was clear we were at a pivotal moment.

At home, I started a serious cleaning regimen to be extra safe. I wanted to do everything I could to stop the spread. After a quick weekend trip to the grocery store, I was in for a surprise to see how people had forgotten the basic grade school lesson, sharing is caring. I walked into the grocery store prepared for a messy situation, instead it looked like it had been struck by a tornado. My neighbours managed to ravage every aisle of the store as if preparing for years in lockdown. I stood in the middle of the shop and took a deep breath. It seemed like the worst in humanity was coming out. Without the guidance of public health education and calm leadership, I thought, this could lead to disaster.

While I sympathized with these emotional reactions to uncertainty and instability, it became very clear to me that in times of difficulty, we need to learn to do better for ourselves and for each other. The challenges we face dealing with COVID-19 as a collective aren’t going away any time soon. In the weeks and months ahead, some things will improve and some things will get harder. It doesn’t mean we can’t make the most of the situation and try to find the silver lining in a catastrophe.

Here are a few hopeful reflections I’ve had over the past few weeks that I’d like to share:

  • People are mostly kind, love to socialize and desire human connection. Though we’re all at home helping to flatten the curve, checking in on each other regularly through technology is what will help spread positivity and joy in our current way of living.
  • We are fortunate to live in a country with some of the best doctors in the world doing the best they can to help save us from this difficult dilemma.
  • Some of the things that have helped get me through might help you too: read a book (I recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma), learn a new skill (Cooking? Baking a cake?), catch up on family stories. Try to nurture your spirit. 
  • Given the loneliness and other difficult feelings that social isolation can cause, sometimes we need something that excites us to draw our focus away and get us motivated and energized. In the past few days, I’ve turned to goal-setting and planning and I’ve taken up passion projects like joining student advocacy groups. Joining these groups with like-minded individuals has helped me develop a creative outlet to brainstorm new ideas and get involved with the greater community. Isolation can take a toll but I firmly believe that by engaging in projects that get your creative juices flowing, mental health and happiness are boosted.
I understand that a call for positivity may not speak to all the struggles and stresses that you may be facing, whether with finances or family separation. I’ve been reminding myself time and time again that, although the anxiety associated with the pandemic will stick around for some time, staying true to my values and listening to public health advice is the way to weather the storm. 

I want you to know, we will get through this and this too shall pass! Together as fellow students, Canadians, humans, let’s be sure to have each others’ backs!


Himanshu Luthra is a George Brown College student. This is his second contribution to re:tell.

5 Great Mental Health Books to be Stuck Inside With

5 Great Mental Health Books to be Stuck Inside With

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.

  • Bessel Van der Kolk takes the reader on an exploration of his career and the tools he developed to assist his clients in healing. His transformative trauma research began when he was working with soldiers coming back from Vietnam and noted that typical talk therapy wasn’t having the expected results. He was disillusioned but he challenged himself to go deeper and seek alternative therapies to respond to the challenges he was finding in his practice. This book is essential reading if you’re interested in how human bodies have evolved to respond to stress and trauma. It explores how we hold trauma in our bodies and offers helpful solutions for healing journeys.

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.

The Key to Great Video Therapy

The Key to Great Video Therapy

The benefits of feeling seen and heard in life, and in therapy, have an incredibly positive effect on helping each of us cope through stressful or uncertain times. In fact, when it comes to what makes your therapy sessions the most effective, it’s the therapeutic rapport—feeling heard, seen and understood by your therapist—that predicts success.

The good news? The format of the session doesn’t impact the outcome. That means that while in-person sessions may be on hold for the time being, our video and telephone sessions have just as positive an impact as the times we spend sitting in the same room. The great news? Doing the session from the comfort of your home can increase feelings of being seen.

As therapists, we are used to seeing you and learning all about your loved ones, hobbies and spaces you feel safe in. Although remote therapy may lead you to feel vulnerable initially, it also allows you to deepen that feeling of connectedness with your therapist. How cool is it that you can be right there, comfortable in your quiet space, while your roommates or family do their own thing in another room? I think it’s great. The flip side of that is that your therapist too feels seen. You will see me at my home office, my taste in artwork or my pets wandering around in the room. While we could see these as distractions, we could also reframe that and use these changes as a way to deepen our relationship.

Needless to say, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of feeling seen as the world changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The power of being able to share a moment of vulnerability can also be a powerful therapeutic experience. This can help us feel more safe and secure which is super helpful at a time when many of us feel confused, isolated, or in chaos.

In my work, I find tremendous growth occurs when we are pushed outside of our comfort zones. I’ve been privileged to witness this happening more than ever this week. From clients who have never used a webcam in their life, or those that were anxious to turn on their webcam for fear of me seeing them in their comfy clothes, we’ve moved through the fear together. We’ve broken down barriers to connection, perceptions of what “should” be, and embraced the ‘what is.’ How freeing was it to come away from a session with a sense of lightness for both of us, almost forgetting the anxiety that preceded only 60 minutes prior?

If you are a current client or a brand new client, I encourage you to challenge yourself to show up as you are in our new social formats. By doing so, you may not only feel connected to your world but may hopefully also feel more connected to yourself.