It appears that the word “pandemic” has struck fear into the hearts of many. As mental health practitioners, the possibility that millions of people around the world are in the grips of fear is more concerning to us than the mysterious disease that is at the source of the panic.
If there is any silver lining to be found in this situation, it’s the attention it places on the importance of practices we should continue to practice to promote and maintain wellness. Washing your hands, not touching your face, and keeping your distance from others when you are sick are some practices that we agree are a good thing to do all the time.
Supporting your mental health is an aspect of staying healthy that unfortunately gets far less attention and yet is one of the most effective ways of boosting your immune system. Here are some strategies you might consider incorporating and maintaining to counter any anxiety you might be experiencing in support of your wellness
- Practice deep breathing/relaxation techniques. These practices boost the part of your nervous system that cares for all of the restorative functions of the body, including your immunity. One of our therapists, Gabrielle Iwaskow has recorded an exercise called Progressive Muscle Relaxation. You can access it here.
- Unplug. The constant pings and notifications that take us out of the present reality too many times to count is a form of stress. Now that more of us will be working from home, the risk of staying connected for longer periods of time is greater than ever. Consider turning your notifications off and checking in at times that you determine and are best suited to you (vs the other way around)
- Be mindful of the information you consume. The 24/7 news cycle is full of alarms and little direction regarding what to do with the information. Consider replacing sensationalized media with evidence-based information. Here is a great article from the Globe and Mail from a medical journalist that strikes a good balance. You can read it here.
- Stay connected with each other. Community is one of the most important resources we have for all aspects of health. One of the risks we are concerned about is people becoming even more isolated. For those fortunate to live with loved ones, take the opportunity to do things you enjoy and that allows you to experience presence, together. Cook beautiful food, enjoy meals, have great conversation, make music, tell stories, play games..whatever will keep you feeling engaged and connected. And if being together physically is not possible for whatever reason, consider using the technology available to have these experiences together through the internet.
- Practice Mindful Presence. Set the intention to focus on one thing for a period of time. It might be your breath. It might be a cup of tea. It might be petting your dog. It doesn’t matter what it is. Just set the intention to focus on it. When your mind wanders somewhere else (and know that this will happen), just gently come back to the intended focus. Notice how you feel. Repeat.
- Practice Gratitude. Gratitude is indeed the antidote to fear. It keeps us grounded in what we actually have and cues the brain to notice positive experiences and lean into them even more. Noticing moments of joy and the things you do well on a daily basis are some additional practices that are proven to foster resiliency. This is why I included them in the Growing Forward Journal, the guided journal I created to help people grow consciously through whatever life brings. You can download a free copy here to use and follow.
- Be present with what is…even if that includes thoughts you’d rather not have. It’s better to allow the thoughts than to resist them. As long as we regard them as just that …thoughts. You have a gazillion thoughts and not all of them are useful. In fact, many of them are nonsense. If that sounds insulting, take that as a sign that you might be too attached to your thoughts, and might even identify with them as being a part of you. They aren’t you. The fact that you can notice them is an indication that there is a “you” that is separate from your thoughts. So just notice them. The practices outlined in the points above will help. Journaling can help too. We are a big fan of journaling because it gives the thoughts a place to go so you can notice them and then decide what you want to do with them. Giving them a physical place also helps to contain them, reducing their chance of making havoc from behind the scenes. If you make this a practice, they are less likely to pop up at times when you’d rather be focusing on something else. And there are some physical benefits for this too. Journaling for 15 minutes a day about anything that is emotionally relevant shows benefits for every indicator of physical health (blood pressure, sugar levels, hormones, you name it). Emotions are energy. When it gets used and processed it frees up more energy that will mobilize you vs weigh you down.
- Practice a Growth Mindset. I developed the Growing Forward Journal precisely for times like these. I consider this game time. It doesn’t matter if you have never practiced. You can start today and learn how to leverage this time of chaos to become even better.
Download the journal here and consider using it in this way…
Start the day with free writing in the space provided and end the day with the 3 resiliency practices of moving moments of competence, gratitude and joy.
After 7 days, you will be prompted to look back and reflect on whatever you notice in your past entries, which is information you can use to inspire how you might choose to grow forward.
Again you can download the journal here.
As this is an evolving situation, know that we remain committed to continuing to be that place of balance and support.
We welcome any questions or suggestions you might have for how we can continue to be of best service to you in the days and weeks ahead.
Be well. Our hearts and minds are with you.
Dr. Stacy and the Design Your Life Team
Someone dear to me thinks it’s just a phase, possibly brought on by a mid-life crisis. Call it what you want. I don’t feel the need to label it or myself. All I know is that I woke up one day and knew that I needed to stop eating meat and dairy, and I haven’t looked back since.
This awareness came after weeks of just not feeling great in my gut. I felt blocked, bunged up, stuck … sluggish. My first thought was to do a cleanse. I had done cleanses in the past, and to be honest, at this time in my life it just felt like too much work to organize. So rather than complain and do nothing, I decided to make things easy for myself and enlisted the help of Belmonte Raw.
As soon as I walked into the store I knew I had come to the right place. Upon entry, I was met by a Cleanse Specialist who walked me through the range of options available. As I had already had some experience with cleanses, he suggested a 3-day Transition Cleanse which essentially involves a series of juices and elixirs plus one gourmet, raw vegan meal/day. All I had to do was pick up my food in the morning and eat (or actually mostly drink) in the order outlined by the numbered containers. Easy Peezy. It was also suggested that I start drinking a litre of room temperature lemon water first thing every morning in addition to 4 litres of water throughout the day at least 20 minutes before or after a meal so as not to impede digestion.
To prep, I was advised to minimize my consumption of caffeine, alcohol, and animal proteins for 3 days prior to the cleanse to allow for a smooth transition without any major side effects. No problem.
And when I say “no problem” I literally mean it. The entire process was incredibly easy and the results were better than expected.
First, on a practical level, it was sooooo lovely to not have to think about what to eat or to have to actually go through the process of preparing food for myself. As the person in charge of feeding two young children and a husband, this part was absolutely luxurious and worth every penny.
But more importantly, I felt amazing. The blocked feeling in my gut disappeared, I had a ton of energy and never felt hungry. The only negative side effect I experienced was the occasional, brief, 30 second pang of a headache. That’s it.
In the two months since the cleanse, I have continued to follow a vegan-ish diet. I say vegan-ish, because I do have eggs on occasion and will have cheese sparingly, typically when eating out on a weekend. But for the most part, I am eating vegan and I am loving it! And based on the changes I have witnessed, my body is too.
Here is what I have noticed so far:
- I am less hungry in spite of maintaining the same level of activity. Previously, I would be feeling pangs of hunger about 2.5 hours after breakfast, sometimes even sooner if I worked out before eating. Now, my breakfast (typically a chia pudding with nuts, and berries, and an almond milk latte) keeps me going for at least 4 hours, even on days that I work out.
- I lost 1-2 dress sizes within about 3 weeks of making the change. I mention this point with a bit of hesitation as I did not do this in order to lose weight and don’t want to be promoting weight loss. But, I would be lying if I did not admit that seeing the last remnants of baby weight literally fall off me feels really good. It’s like I pushed a reset button and returned to my former pre-baby size.
- My habitually dry skin is improving.
- I am excited about food again. I know that this might seem counter intuitive, but it’s true. I am excited to learn about new foods, new restaurants and about new ways of cooking. It’s like an entire new world of food has opened up to me, and the possibilities seem endless. And whether it’s a reflection of my heightened awareness or a sign of a growing trend in the city, there isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t hear about a new vegan focused establishment or food experience happening in this city (case in point: This article in the current Toronto Life Magazine)
As happy as I am to ride this wave and see where it takes me, I need to understand why I have experienced these physical changes. Why am I less hungry? Why did I lose weight so quickly? Is it just a function of me drinking more water? Does it have something to do with the way my body is digesting and processing this kind of food? Or does this have nothing to do with the type of food I am eating at all, and just a positive side effect of my meditation practice and being more conscious and aware of eating out of hunger vs. for other reasons?
This is how my brain works. I need to know. And so, in the spirit of science and exploration, my plan is to investigate these questions and share the results with all of you.
And for those of you, who really don’t care about why and just want to learn more about the yummy food I am making and eating, I plan to share this part of the journey as well. It so happens that I know a number of vegan chefs in this city. So why not invite them to my kitchen to teach me a little about what they know, film it and post it on YouTube? How’s that for multitasking: cooking, learning, socializing, sharing to social media, and getting dinner ready for the family, all at the same time. Booyakashat!
“By the end of this conversation, we are going to fall in love”
How’s that for an opening? My friend Michelle shared this gem as something she often says when meeting someone for the first time, be they man, woman or child. Amazing!
She clarified that she does not mean this in a sexual way. It is simply a beautiful expression of a willingness to be authentic and an invitation for the other person to do the same with the assurance that whatever is shared will be loved.
If you are lucky enough to cross paths with Michelle, you are immediately struck by the obvious. She is a naturally stunning beauty. But even more striking is her big, bombastic personality, her fierce intelligence and her love of life. She is the first to organize the party, and brings the party with her wherever she goes.
As we continued to talk, she dropped some more wisdom. She shared that at some point she realized that she can either put her child to bed and spend her evening flaked out on the couch watching television and stay stuck in a rut, or she can get out and do things and create a life that is interesting and fun. And anyone who knows Michelle knows that any time spent with her is never ordinary.
Along these lines, she went on to remind me of one of the first conversations we had a few years ago. We were hanging out on the steps of our children’s school, the place that brought us together, when she shared that she had noticed she had become quite negative in her relationship with her husband. With this awareness, she had made the revolutionary decision to experiment with just saying “yes” to whatever her husband asked of her. No argument, no discussion, just simply, YES. Wow. “And how is that working for you?” I replied, to which she immediately exclaimed, “Well, my husband is taking us on a month long trip to Italy!” Insert howls of laughter here.
As much as she got something tangible out of it, she did note that her choice to adopt an attitude of YES created a much needed shift. She essentially decided to stop being negative and pushed herself to just do things. We can all make a million excuses and go through the motions of life and nothing changes. Or we can “flip the script” so to speak and create the life we want to live.
Little did Michelle know that the mega talented, and prolific Shonda Rhimes (creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder) has written about how saying YES changed her life as well. Her book Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person is at the top of my list of must reads for this week.
Whether it’s Michelle or Shonda, I hope that these wise, wonderful and vibrant women inspire you to get on with it and Design Your Life.
And if they do, please share your story with me and others. We all need to hear it.
Until next time,
As much as I am calm and even keeled much of the time, there are days when I wake up and carry on like a bull in a china shop. “We have to get going!”, “Why aren’t you ready?” Push, push, push. I have to make things happen – NOW!!
Today started out as one of those days. And could have continued had my dear friend and mentor not called me out and stopped me in my tracks.
As I reflect on our conversation, I realize that my drive to make things happen, and push on through, regardless of whether it feels right tends to come into full effect when I feel unsure in some way. At such times, I retreat into my preferred comfort zone – my head.
Living in my head gives me the illusion of control. When I am not sure what to do to make things happen, I over think, and get distracted by the minutia. I will work on things, like a blog post, for the better part of a day, in order to make it just right. And then the task just becomes… well, overwhelming.
What is the big picture that gets lost? Connection. And the only way to truly connect is to share one’s self authentically. I know this. And I know that things flow more easily when I just “show up” and let things happen. But even I, a professional, who teaches people to do this every day, can get off track.
This is why I am so thankful for having guides in my life who alert me when I am off center and help me to get back to understanding that I am most powerful when I am authentically me.
By the time I left the 2 hour marathon meeting, I was realigned. And the most amazing afternoon unfolded.
I walked around the corner and discovered Homegrown, a produce stand selling the most gorgeous local fruit and vegetables.
I then went down to the lake for a late lunch and was greeted by a trio of dancing swallows, and four Canada Geese floating on the waves.
And as I watched their easy ebb and flow, and listened to the waves against the rocks, I was reminded of my connection with everything around me. The tension eased even more and I returned.
This post is what unfolded. It took about 20 minutes. Easy.
Until next time,
I, like most people, would rather do just about anything before speaking in front of an audience. And yet, in order to fulfill my goals of promoting mental health, public speaking has become increasingly necessary for me.
My typical way of preparing for any kind of public talk is to literally script it in advance, jokes and all, and rehearse the heck out of it so that it comes across as natural. And I pull it off every time. I get the applause, and the positive comments. I succeed at projecting an image of complete confidence in spite of my anxiety.
That’s the thing about perfectionism – it’s usually rewarded. But it’s a lot of work. And quite honestly, as a busy working mother building a business and trying to get on top of this social media thing, I frankly no longer have the time for this level of obsessiveness.
It also occurred to me that my perfectionistic approach essentially made me a hypocrite and had the potential to undermine one of the core messages I am trying to promote: the power of authenticity. How could I speak about the power and importance of sharing one’s authentic voice while hiding behind a script? How could I present a completely rehearsed talk when my goal is to make a genuine connection with the audience?
So when I was asked to be one of 6 presenters at an event called My Epoch, I knew that I needed to take a different approach. The spirit of the event was to make genuine connections with people you might not normally meet with the aim of cross pollinating knowledge and inspiring new ideas. Clearly, there was no better opportunity to challenge myself to truly ‘walk the walk.’ It was time to let go of fear.
You see, I realized that the true motivator behind my pursuit of perfection was not conscientiousness, but fear. Fear that I suddenly would be unable to articulate my thoughts, when in fact I receive positive feedback about the way I convey ideas every day be it with clients or in media interviews. Fear that I would somehow present as not knowing what I was talking about when in fact I am an expert in my field. Fear that I would make a fool of myself…well, that actually happens on a daily basis. But it’s ok. I recover and move on. If that should happen, if I should reveal a flaw, reveal that I am indeed a human being, it would only serve to solidify my connection with the audience.
With this new perspective in mind, I chose to lead from the heart and to connect with the audience by sharing a genuine part of myself, even if that meant that I might stumble along the way.
In the days leading up to the event, I did find myself wrestling with the temptation to draft my talk as I had done in the past. I mean, the people attending paid to come and I wanted them to get something out of it. I did not want to insult them by looking ill prepared. I wavered and thought that I should just forget this little experiment and write out and rehearse my talk.
But rather than give in, I stayed true to my intention and let the anxious thoughts wash over me. I chose instead to just observe my own process. And in fact my internal battle was actually a little amusing.
However, I did not ignore the anxiety gremlin entirely. I did have to do something to prepare. And so I struck a compromise: I would draft a brief outline with the main points I wanted to communicate. Nothing more.
I decided to dedicate my 6 minutes at the mic describing why I am so passionate about my work as a psychologist. I wanted them to understand how privileged I feel to be able to witness and support the human spirit in each client I see, regardless of whether they are suffering or aspiring for something more. I wanted each person to walk away with the understanding that seeing a counselor or a psychologist is not about weakness, it is about assuming control to Design Your Life.
The day of the event was like any other Saturday filled with making meals, working out, cleaning up and taking advantage of some time to take a blessed nap. I arrived at the event early and while I spoke with my fellow presenters and then the guests as they arrived, I found that I was not nervous.
The only time a felt a bit anxious was while listening to the presenter just before I was to go on. This was largely because I was trying to review the main points of what I wanted to say in my head but could not do it effectively while also trying to listen. Recognizing the futility of this form of last minute preparation, I gave up on trying and focused on listening to Dennis and his honest and heart felt talk on the benefits of connecting with people outside of one’s typical social circles. Dennis finished to resounding applause; a hard act to follow. It was now my turn.
To quote one of the participants I “..nailed it”. As I spoke about the privileged role I have of witnessing and empowering the human spirit, I could see… or rather I could feel that the audience was with me. I was able to make eye contact and take in their smiles of encouragement as I scanned the room. It was actually really great.
The comments that various audience members provided me with all the validation I needed for my new approach. All of them expressed feeling moved. I had succeeded.
Not only had I made a connection, but I proved to myself that fear was not necessary for me to perform well. I could listen to my anxiety as a sign for the need to prepare without letting fear take over and push me into obsessiveness. I could keep focused on my own goals, show up, and let the process unfold.
I tried it and now I am sold. There is no going back.
How about you? Is there any way that these ideas could fit for your life?
I welcome your thoughts and comments.
I love being a psychologist. I am passionate about it and know in every fibre of my being that I am fulfilling my life’s purpose.
Every day that I go to work, I have the unique privilege of making genuine connections with people who, in the safety provided by confidentiality, are free to be their authentic selves. And I have to tell you that it is truly inspiring.
You see, when people feel safe enough to be their true selves, something absolutely amazing happens…the human spirit is able to shine. And I am telling you that it is abundantly creative, and resilient and wise.
In fact, I have yet to meet a client that does not have a sense of what it is they need to do to become the best version of themselves.
So what is going on here? If all my clients essentially know what they need to do and have the ability to DESIGN their LIVES why are they coming to speak to someone like me. Well, the reality is they are stuck.
Stuck because what they know they need to do is in conflict with another important need, and they are not sure how to move forward.
They know that they deserve to be treated better by others, but fear that articulating their needs will threaten their relationships.
They know that harsh criticism is generally not the way to bring out the best in anyone, and yet, they have difficulty letting go of their inner critic for fear of losing their edge.
They know they need to take better care of themselves, but ignore their body’s messages because they perceive that there is no room for self-care in their lives. That is, until they have their first panic attack or their child asks them why they yell so much… or worse.
Or sometimes they just know that that life could be better and they are not sure how to make it happen. Some know that the rule book that they inherited from their families is inherently flawed but don’t know how to effectively challenge it and take control of their own story.
Whatever the situation, the individual knows that they have to make a change. They also know that they need to create space for reflection and that they cannot do it entirely alone.
Let’s be clear here – not being able to figure this stuff out on your own is NOT a sign of weakness. It is a sign of intelligence.
Because being able to hear one’s own voice requires someone to speak to. It is in the mirroring back of that voice from someone who is really good at listening that we learn to understand ourselves accurately. In the process, that inner voice that is there to guide each and every one of us gets amplified.
And as we experience someone else giving it the space to be heard, and the respect it deserves we learn to do the same thing for ourselves. We learn how to listen to that voice, and respect it by acting on its message.
Yes, there are often new skills to learn, new behaviours to try, and assumptions to test. But the essential understanding of the type of change necessary is almost always there. It is through the experience of being heard and supported by an empathic listener that the change process is able to unfold.
And you know what is truly amazing, once people start to get good at listening to and respecting that inner guide, things just start to get easier. It is almost as if they wake up to a new world.
For me, being there with someone in that moment when that awakening occurs…well, there is nothing more rewarding.
And so my question for you is this: What are you waiting for?
You know it’s time.
Design Your Life.