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.
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.
As a student, you have a unique privilege you may not have considered. Many schools have art galleries on campus that you can visit for cheap or for free, and many off-campus galleries offer student rates, meaning you can see great art on a budget. Have you considered taking advantage? It could be just what you need. Visits to the art gallery allow for the chance to step away from daily life and engage with the world in a new way.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of viewing art in a gallery is the mental exercise of creating our own interpretation toward the art we are observing. This is a practice that encourages the type of creative thinking needed for problem-solving. By practicing this type of creative thinking, we learn better ways to come up with our own unique solutions to difficult problems, a key skill required for better mental health. When we leave difficult emotional problems unsolved, we may end up feeling even more frustrated and stressed. Understanding how to solve problems in a creative way may at times be what we need in order to improve difficult relationships, our own self-esteem, and circumstances within our lives that are causing us stress and anxiety.
You do not need to be a Renaissance painter or a beret-wearing artISTE spewing art-speak in order to reap the mental health benefits of visiting a gallery. The actual act of observing and appreciating art stimulates the same areas of the brain that are involved in processing feelings of pleasure and reward. When we’re feeling especially anxious, stressed, or emotionally down, a visit to the gallery may help us re-focus our attention in a therapeutic way. This can allow us a moment to take a step away from our overwhelming emotions and provides us with the opportunity to revisit these feelings at a time when we are less emotionally drained or anxious.
A gallery visit may also be a source of inspiration and has the power to boost our own personal creativity. Engaging in creative expression has significant therapeutic effects in decreasing anxiety. For example, acting creatively can get us into the mental state known in Positive Psychology as “flow.” It’s where we are totally and completely immersed in the enjoyment and involvement of what we are doing, and it’s why being creative feels so good.
The next time you’re having a difficult mental health day, consider the therapeutic benefits of visiting a local art gallery. It’s a wonderful way to incorporate creativity into your self-care practice!
As we get into the thick of the new school year, if you’re anything like me, you’re pretty bummed about it. Maybe it’s just the chill in the air that spoils my mood, but I sense a change of pace and attitude in folks at this time of year as everybody buckles down post-summer. I already feel nostalgic about those joyful, sunny days when the sun was still shining at 9 pm. Come back, August!
‘Tis the Season to Own Your Shit.
For me, Fall is a season of self-reckoning. I think that’s the effect of two decades worth of spending it transitioning back to school. As a kid, your life is structured for you into a pattern where for two months you can stop and smell the roses while they’re in bloom, and then you’re thrown right back into school’s rhythms of responsibility, filling agendas with homework again, and sitting quietly in a chair doing what you’re told.
That transition was never easy for me. It always took a few weeks of inattention before I could tune in. Instead, I’d stare out the window at the vacant playground while the teacher taught. I’d watch the pathetic seagulls squawk and wrestle over the best trash from morning recess. It all felt sad.
Eventually, I’d tire of wallowing and come to accept and even enjoy school. But to this day, and even in the few years before I went back to school, in late-August a cloud of dread floats in.
Now that I’m back to being a student, my pattern so far has been to let all this dread and anxiety for the new school year turn into unreasonable expectations of myself. A very bossy part of me sees being back as a mature student as a second chance to finally be perfect in every way. This part of me speaks in commandments, like so:
Thou shalt read every word assigned in your course syllabus on time!
Thou shalt not have any fun between Sunday evenings and Friday afternoons for 8 straight months!
Thou shalt be perfect in every way or consider yourself a failure!”
No surprise I dread school every year. Bossy-me sets up these rules that I don’t really want to follow, and I make no plans to manage the difficulty of making change happen, and I expect myself to simply stop—cold-turkey—that laidback summer lifestyle I’ve been enjoying for months. How am I supposed to succeed?
The truth is, I can’t. It’s a setup. It keeps me in a cycle, in the middle of a perpetual wrestling match with myself. I feel like the head of a 90s sitcom actor, while the tiny devil on my left shoulder and the tiny angel on my right bicker back-and-forth about what’s best for me. Shut up already!
“Be the Cookie Monster you wish to see in the world”
This year, I’m taking inspiration from Cookie Monster.
To be clear, I haven’t decided to once and for all to say, “screw it, I give up!”, drop out and eat infinite cookies. Let me explain. About a month ago, I had a moment of clarity while belly-laughing with my six-year-old nephew. I showed him Youtube clips of Cookie Monster, whom I love passionately. Until then I hadn’t considered why. It occurred to me then that the little blue rascal is timeless, full of life lessons, and everybody seems to just get it without judgement.
This seemed very important at the time. So important that later that night, instead of filling out my student loan application, I mulled over what it is about Cookie Monster that’s so great, so universally charming and so inherently worthy of love. I think it’s because Cookie Monster mirrors the little rascal in all of us. Cookie Monster shows us what the experience of desire is like. Everybody knows it deeply. Every human carries a cookie monster within them.
The average Sesame Street viewers may be preschoolers learning for the first time that they don’t get to do whatever they want whenever they feel like it. But we keep learning that lesson our whole lives.
The Temptation of Cookie Monster
The way Cookie Monster is presented on Sesame Street is cute and innocent. I mean, despite an evident incapacity to self-regulate or to love anything other than the pleasure of a good cookie, everybody still loves Cookie Monster.
If Cookie Monster was an adult human, the story would be a little more sinister. We don’t imagine a fuzzy blue puppet with googly eyes might have a traumatic past. We don’t worry that he’ll face the devastating effects of an all-cookie diet. We don’t witness the pain of having only a cookie to turn to. We don’t wonder if he has a family somewhere that he abandoned for a cheap, lousy cookie. We see an ageless puppet, in a sweet little world, protected from consequence.
It’s certainly not the most authentic characterization but it does give us a safe space to see inner demons in a gentler, judgment-free light. For example, do you notice how every child and adult on Sesame Street welcomes Cookie Monster as a deserving member of their community? How often do you laugh with, sympathize, hug, or spend quality time with your cookie-monster-self in the way that those folks do theirs? I don’t. I tend to roll my eyes at mine, call it selfish, weak, careless, ugly, and I often blame it for holding me back from being awesome.
Why do I do that? It’s pointless! Nothing I tell myself makes the proverbial cookies any less tempting. What if instead, I loved my internal cookie monster in the way the Sesame Street community love theirs? What if I accepted that part of me for what it is? If I appreciated that tenacity, that ability to be in the moment and to feel joy, that unabashed will to get every drop of good vibes out of life and share it, no matter the consequences?
What if I didn’t constantly shame myself for my consumption habits and instead did a little bargaining, laughed with myself, listened, took a load off when I need it, and tried to understand what makes this part of me tick? Because—
Truth bomb: it ain’t really about cookies
Heck, beyond just how you treat the cookie monster in yourself, what if the next time you see your friend that’s stuck in a loop and just can’t seem to break out of it, or you see your sibling smoking again after trying to quit for the millionth time, you looked on them with the same degree of love and understanding that we all give Cookie Monster? What if we tried to see the innocence that exists at the start of it all? Life can be so hard and the cookies are aplenty.
This semester I’m going to try my best not to shame myself for succumbing to the occasional “NOM! NOM! NOM!” session. When I do find myself partaking in some unscheduled indulgence, I’ll give my internal cookie monster’s fuzzy blue hair a tussle. I’ll say, “Alright little guy, that was a blast! Thanks for making sure I get to have some fun. Now it’s time to hit the books. We got this!”
Seamus Ogden is a Care Coordinator with Real Campus and a mature student. He has a deep affection for Cookie Monster.
The seasons are changing. The days of layered long-sleeves, sweaters and coats are just around the corner and kids have thrown on their backpacks and headed off to school. I’m not even a student anymore but every year it’s still hard to accept that school’s back in session.
For those who are headed back, adjusting from a summer of doing other things like travel, work or socializing can be challenging. Here are a few tips to help get you back into the swing of school:
1. Rebuild your routine slowly
Start with sleep. If the summer has disrupted your sleep routine, start by spending the first few weeks with a set wake-up and/or bedtime. Consistent and quality sleep will have you recharged and ready for everything the school year throws at you.
2. Make lists
Knowing what you need to do for your classes and extracurriculars is important. When you know what’s coming you can plan for it.
3. Set up a support network
If you’re new, know who you can contact for support on and off-campus. There are often great resources available on-campus for those who look (most student centres or student unions can help you with that information). For those returning to campus, it’s time to get back into the swing of connecting with friends, classmates, and/or student groups. Making sure you have a strong support network will help you get through the midterm and exam seasons.
4. Experiment with your study habits
It’s easy to put off studying in college and university because no one’s there to tell you to get down to it. The best antidote is to get to know your study style. Do you have certain productive hours in the day? What kind of space do you need to study in? Are you a snacker? What kind of learner are you? Contact your school’s learning/academic support center, they can help you learn to study effectively and efficiently.
5. Create a self-care plan
What nourishes and recharges you? Get to know what you need: for some, it might mean regular trips to the gym, daily meditation, or 3 square meals a day, for others it may mean cutting back on work hours, or 2 days off each week for rest. Regardless, have a sense of your unique needs and try your best to meet them so you’re recharged for the more stressful periods.
Remember that adjustments take time. Give yourself some time to get used to the hustle and bustle of campus in September.
I wish you all a wonderful school year. Happy studies!