I just started reading psychologist Dr. Julie Smith‘s book Why Has Nobody Told me this before? Everyday Tools for Life’s Ups and Downs and I’m really enjoying it. I’m not finished yet, so I can’t do a full review but I do really like her style. The book is full of low-key but helpful reminders that we can build our capacity to deal with most of our everyday challenges and that we can develop the tools to work with our emotions instead of trying to fight them.
Just FYI: She is very clear about the fact that while there are lots of cases in which people need long-term therapy there are also many people who just need access to tools and guidance to help them manage their own mental health and that she is addressing the latter group.
Anyway, as I was telling people about this book recently I was surprised to discover that many people have never heard of Dr. Julie. If you’re one of those people, here are a few of her YouTube shorts that are a pretty good introduction to her kind and encouraging approach. You can find more on her channel.
She started out subtly 😉 glancing back from the door
But when I stood up, she began to implore…
“Come on, Christine, it’s time for a walk.”
Well, I imagined her saying it, if she could talk.
In a few minutes of walking, with deep breaths of fresh air.
I began to feel better, my brain started to clear,
Now, Khalee’s to-do list was short, and she sure took her time,
Sniffing and scouting to see what she could find.
As she ambled along following all her dog plans,
I came to realize I was in good doggy hands.*
By getting me outside, making me breathe the fresh air,
Khalee had banished brain clutter and helped make my thoughts clear.
As we headed to the bridge on the way back to our home,
I shaped my blog thoughts into this Pete-ish poem**
And then I filled it with photos of good Khalee pup,
to divert your attention from where I messed up.
So, my dear friends, if you are scattered, if your brain’s filled with bees,
Please take Khalee’s advice and walk to find ease.
You don’t need to move quickly, an amble will do,
It really helped me, may the same go for you.
*Er, paws are kind of hands, right?
**Pete is my Dad. Back in the day, he wrote this kind of light-hearted foolishness for birthday cards and office Christmas parties. I learned poetry-writing from an engineer, that should explain a few things.
The voice in my head, who I’ve named IO (pronounced ee-yo), doesn’t like the T-word. She says, “Don’t use that word to describe certain events in your life (such as being sexually assaulted by a tennis instructor). You’re going to get all fragile and breakable. All boohoo about shit. You’re a strong woman. I don’t want you to be defined by trauma. Also, nothing that’s happened to you begins to compare to what other people have experienced. What’s happened to you are only flesh wounds. Comparatively. Worse—they’re psychic wounds, which are literally not flesh wounds. Calling them wounds begins with the same letter of the alphabet as wallow.”
IO’s rough assessment is what led to a recent text-versation with a friend, in which she told me that she felt disconnected from me, “in the realm of trauma, because you have let me know that you don’t believe you are traumatized and find the word pathologizing.” She went on to say that she didn’t feel safe or free of my judgment in this context. Her words stung. I felt like a heartless ogre. The next morning, I woke tired, feeling fragile, questioning my relation to trauma—other people’s and my own, which is how I found myself thinking about my tennis instructor while riding my mountain bike.
I was riding up a trail I call True Grit 4. The trail has some steep bits and three short sections on which it’s always questionable whether I’ll make it or not (here making it equals staying on the bike). Questionable section one (QS1) went off without a hitch—smooth and still surprising each time I make it through the steep, sandy S-turn. QS2 was wonky. On a sharp left uphill littered with rocks, I rode up the wrong line, riding over rocks, instead of finessing between them, and almost abandoned hope. But I told myself I could still do it. And I did. A second surprise.
After two successes, I was feeling confident about QS3, so I let my mind wander to the tense text exchange from the night before with my friend. I started thinking about a pickle ball clinic I’d taken the week before. It was the first time I’d been on a tennis court since my long-ago lessons with that coercive instructor. Playing something similar to tennis. The first 15-minutes had brought back a rush of unease that swirled my stomach. IO was in top volume denial, telling me to get over it. As I pedaled, I thought about why I do not want to name that event as a trauma, even as my body was re-experiencing the self-disgust and shame.
And … I whiffed QS3. Normally, I’d just continue with my ride. But this day I was not going to accept the situation. I got off my bike. Hoisted it around on the narrow trail, walked it back 10 meters. Pointed it back up the trail. Gave myself a talking to. Gently. The voice of my centered, compassionate Self said, “You can ride this. Yes, you have every right to feel uneasy on a tennis court and we’ll talk about that. But this is not the moment to think about tennis.” This voice’s name is JG (yes, I name a lot of the voices in my head, because it helps create the distance that I need to get perspective on what they are saying).
I had barely enough time to clip back into my pedals before I was navigating between the rocks on the short steep turn that is QS3. I reassured myself it was okay if I didn’t clip back in. Lots of people ride mountain bikes now with flat pedals, not clipless. I was so focused on relaxing and not worrying about my pedals that I rode up with ease. I wasn’t thinking about tennis.
Later, I checked back in with IO. She told me that since the word trauma was on my mind she had been hitching on my shoulder for the ride. But when I got off my bike to try QS3 again and JG showed up, she went up the trail to watch my second try. IO said, “You looked great, by the way, relaxed and determined.” I was so surprised by her change in tone, I almost didn’t hear her.
On the mountain bike, in that moment on QS3, my psyche and body felt the difference between pushing away the name of trauma and accepting what is with empathy. Psychic or physical, our pain is real, not only a flesh wounds. Oh, and by the way, flesh wounds can be fatal. Why would I discount trauma? Life hurts. Life is not only a flesh wound. It’s a near fatal blow some of the time. Yes, I’ve been lucky, in the grand scheme. I won the lottery in my birth situation. But … my life hasn’t been a cakewalk either. When I insist on thinking of it as a cakewalk, I beat myself up about not being enough. Look at all those people who have overcome bigger obstacles than me to become great fill-in-the-blanks (artists, leaders, entrepreneurs). Why haven’t I done more with my life?!?!
JG says, “Compare and despair. Just stop. You are enough. Keep going, just as you are.”
JG says, “Yes, the tennis incident was hurtful and horrible AND you can keep going, not in denial or minimization, nor in wallowsomeness or exaggeration, but in acceptance and empathy, with confidence, with a spring in your step, with lightness and the grace of heated steel. You are under construction, not broken, and the scars not only make you stronger, they make you more beautiful. Wabi Sabi.”
That my traumas are not as big T as other people’s, does not relegate them to an offsite storage unit. The name of trauma is not in and of itself pathological. My wounds are part of me. Undeniable. Impactful. The key to flow in my life is finding the suppleness of empathic resilience. That’s what got me up QS3. And what got me home with joy and the zeal to write this. That’s what will open my heart to myself and other people. That’s what will get me up the mountain of life. Today and for the tomorrows.
For those of us who celebrate Christmas, or some Christmas-like event, or at least for those of us who end up on a different schedule between December 24 & January 1, we are currently at the time of year when the days all run together.
Routines are off kilter – meals happen at weird times, we’re eating a lot of different foods, and our sleep patterns have gone out the window.
This is when we lose all sense of time and end up in a holi-daze.
An especially dangerous thing for those of us on Team ADHD who have a tenuous grasp on the concept in the first place.
In this odd year, that out-of-phase feeling has been recurring for most of us. The things that give shape to our year have been changed and time has been expanding and contracting around tasks/plans/activities as they mostly moved online.
I think, though, that having that out-of-phase feeling recur so often this year has made me realize (Re-realize? Possibly!) how important schedules are for my mental health.
In previous years, this week would find me with all kinds of lofty ideas about just letting the days progress in any old way, seeing what might appeal to me to do at any given time.
I have encountered some fun days that way in the past but mostly, I end up feeling a bit scattered and let down by the end of the day.
Because, as much as the idea of spending a day drifting from task to task might have appeal, in reality, I know that I won’t drift pleasantly from task to task.
Instead, I’ll spend the whole day feeling vaguely dissatisfied and with a looming sense that I should be doing something else.
So, I create a plan for my week and then a shape for each day so my atemporal brain won’t leave me in the in-between with a feeling of frustrated sadness.
Making a loose plan for my week and then giving each day a shape makes me choose how I am going to spend my time. It helps me notice if I am trying to cram too many different things into the time that I have. And creating that shape lets me do important preparatory things like saving enough time to actually make the meals I plan to eat or to drive to the places I want to be.
And, yes, giving my days a shape does include a (fairly flexible) schedule and some rough time limits for my chosen activities.
I know to some this will sound like ‘Christine doesn’t know how to relax.’ but this approach is actually the key to my relaxation.
For starters, these plans and shapes do not necessarily involve work. My plan for the week includes holiday activities, some special meals, and hanging out with people on Zoom. My shape for a given day might be to read a book for an hour after breakfast, to do some drawing for 45 minutes before lunch, and then to take a long walk at 3pm.
And having that plan, that schedule, is actually restful. It means that time won’t gallop away from me.
It means that I won’t spend the whole week figuring out when to do which activity. And I won’t spend each day continuously trying to decide if now is the ‘right’ time to read, to draw, or to head out for a walk.
And, having that plan, that shape, lets me make stress-free decisions when someone asks me if I want to do something else. If my plan is to go for a walk at 3, and someone asks me to watch a movie at 2, knowing the shape of my day means that I can more easily decide whether to change the time of my walk or to say no to the movie.*
If I know that I have enough time for the things that I really want to do, that I won’t run out of time, that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing at any given time, my brain will stop looping around ‘Now? How about now?’ and give me some ease.
And if that’s not a recipe for a holiday, I don’t know what is.
*Perhaps, to the Neurotypical, this may look like overthinking, or as if I am making a big deal out of something simple, but for my ADHD brain, a holiday schedule is a relief. And, I thought that anyone who finds themselves in a holi-daze might borrow some of these ideas for themselves.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about looking after your mental health and well being during the pandemic. Since I work a lot in the area of mental health wellness and policy, I try to live the practices I learn about to manage everyday stress.
One of the things I have been sharing with friends is the need to grieve the loss. Our way of life has changed, and most likely, permanently. What happens in the next few months and after that is anyone’s guess. Some people may find Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — a useful way to process all the feelings. Also, regardless of how I have listed them here, it’s not a linear process.
The pandemic, though, is not everyday stress even if we are feeling it every day. I thought you might be interested in some of the things government agencies in Canada and elsewhere are offering to help. I’m quite glad to see the variety of material as we have had to deal with a lot of stigma when it comes to mental health and illness.
The relative openness about mental well being is a positive thing we should recognize and is an important part of the WHO’s recent updates. Their focus these days is on emphasizing that physical distancing does not mean social isolation. They also recognize the importance of building psychological resilience. I hope some of the links that follow are helpful to you.
For the science-minded among the readers, here’s an interesting article looking at what we have learned from past epidemics. The authors focus on what we can do better going forward and why we need to also apply psychological first aid when working with people in our communities during this time. The article considers the impact on providers as well as people in the community. They write:
The outbreak of pandemics has a potential impact on the existing illnesses, causes distress among caretakers, and affected persons and leads to an onset of mental symptoms among the young or old, which is possibly related to the interplay of mental disorders and immunity. In order to avoid the mental health effects of the COVID-19 infection, people need to avoid excessive exposure to COVID-19 media coverages, maintain a healthy diet and positive lifestyle, and reach out to others for comfort and consolation that the situation will soon be contained. Everyone should maintain a sense of positive thinking and hope and take personal or group time to unwind and remind the self that the intense feelings of fear, panic, and anxiety will fade. Additionally, seek information from reputable government sources for information and avoid the spread of erroneous information on the internet.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada has put together a website offering evidence-based information and links from across the country. Their focus is on providing information you can trust: “In times of high anxiety and stress, it’s more important than ever to safeguard your mental wellness. That includes stemming the tide of non-essential information (my emphasis) and paring down your news consumption.”
Another Canadian site comes from the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health. They offer a variety of coping strategies to deal with the stress and anxiety you and others may be feeling. What I liked about the site was their recognition that not all tools will work for everyone equally: “Some might apply to you and some might not – or they may need to be adapted to suit you personally, your personality, where and with whom you live, or your culture. Please be creative and experiment with these ideas and strategies.” CAMH also recognizes that a key factor driving ur fear, anxiety and stress is the uncertainty that underpins our lives today with respect to the virus.
I hope you find the material in the selected links helpful. Remember to connect to people you care about, to look after yourself, to take time to focus on the good in your life and to wash your hands and take appropriate precautions. Be well, stay well.
MarthaFitat55 lives and works in St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador.
Almost 20 years ago, I attended a workshop on self-care for front line workers. It was not long after 9/11, an event in which I spent a lot of time helping people stay calm in the face of great uncertainty.
The workshop leader gave us all a great piece of advice. She said, remember the airplane directions: always put your own mask on first before helping others.
In these days of great social change, when upheaval is the new currency, when the lack of a routine or the imposition of a new one with working from home or coping with job loss seems like a burden you cannot attempt to carry, or when the social distance required for public safety has started to unravel the threads in your personal safety net, it can be really easy to forget your own needs.
I have struggled with making physical fitness a priority in the past. I found making a schedule, committing to training, and blocking out the time as fixed were strategies that helped me make it happen.
Part of that was fear that I couldn’t keep up, that I was too unfit or incapable of actually doing the moves required. Part of it was also the expendability of women’s time when there are already so many demands from other sources: child and/or pet care, home care, elder care, work priorities, community responsibilities etc.
It came home to me a couple of days ago that the impact of keeping away from people generally and minimizing social contact when carrying out essential errands also required me to focus on maintaining mental fitness.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the news in our communities, or from places around the world where we have family, friends and colleagues also facing similar fears, concerns and challenges. Over the past week, I have talked with friends and colleagues about managing the stress created by meeting the guidelines for protecting ourselves, our loved ones and our community from COVID-19.
We are not alone in this. In case though, you find asking for help challenging, especially when it comes to building up your mental wellness and fitness, I took a look to see what is out there to help.
The WHO has prepared a comprehensive document you can use to develop your own mental fitness plan. It outlines issues and options by category, from health workers on the front line and those in isolation to caregivers of people with dementia and elders. It has a list of guidelines for the general population:
Acknowledge the global scope and be empathetic to those directly affected
Minimize watching, reading or listening to news that causes you to feel anxious or distressed (set a specific time of time day to gather information so you can avoid a constant stream of data;
Seek information only from trusted sources to take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones
Protect yourself and be supportive of others. Assisting others in their time of need can benefit the person receiving support as well as the helper.
Find opportunities to amplify positive and hopeful stories and positive images
Acknowledge the role frontline carers play to save lives and keep your loved ones safe.
Separate what is in your control from what is not. There are things you can do, and it’s helpful to focus on those. Wash your hands. Remind others to wash theirs. Take your vitamins. Limit your consumption of news.
Do what helps you feel a sense of safety. This will be different for everyone, and it’s important not to compare yourself to others. Make sure you separate when you are isolating based on potential for sickness versus isolating because it’s part of depression.
Get outside in nature–even if you are avoiding crowds. Take a walk. (My note: Or if you don’t want to go far, sitting outside your door or next to an open window so you can feel the fresh air on your face and see sky, trees etc are always helpful.) Exercise also helps both your physical and mental health.
Challenge yourself to stay in the present. When you find yourself worrying about something that hasn’t happened, gently bring yourself back to the present moment. Notice the sights, sounds, tastes and other sensory experiences in your immediate moment and name them. Engaging in mindfulness activities is one way to help stay grounded when things feel beyond your control.
Stay connected and reach out if you need more support. Talk to trusted friends about what you are feeling. If you are feeling particularly anxious or if you are struggling with your mental health, it’s ok to reach out to a mental health professional for support. You don’t have to be alone with your worry and it can be comforting to share what you are experiencing with those trained to help.
This image offers some great things you can do as a reminder.
Image shows a poster with a number of coping strategies. Created by Carie Stephens Art, TheCounsellingTeacher.com
Some things I am doing now include:
jotting down key accomplishments in my diary (can be whatever it means to you — for some that could be getting washed and dressed; for others, it can be walking their dog; remember you do you)
checking in regularly with my circle of friends
setting aside a chunk of time to do something that makes you happy (I’ve been watching cute baby — human and animal — videos before bedtime)
creating an asset map of things I have in my life
normalizing my routines (some are the same and some are new, like handwashing as soon as I get in the door of my house after a grocery run and wiping down all surfaces)
This website offers a great collection of strategies: from meditations and music to journaling and mindfulness activities. How about you? What are the things that you are doing to look after your mental fitness? Be well, stay well.
— MarthaFitat55 lives in Newfoundland, getting her physical and mental fitness on in multiple ways.
From the Independent: “Over the last few years, the theory that walking 10,000 steps a day has become popularised as the key to health and weight loss. However, according to a new study, walking 10,000 steps a day won’t actually prevent weight gain, or lead to weight loss.”
I don’t have a lot to say about this start to the story, except….
WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT THERE WAS A CONNECTION BETWEEN WALKING LOTS AND LOSING WEIGHT?
More on the study: The study took 120 first year university students, all women, and had them walk either 10, 12 or 15,000 steps a day, 6 days a week, for 24 weeks. They also tracked their weights and their calories consumed. On average, no matter what group they were in, the students had all gained 3.5 lbs which is the average amount of weight students typically gain during their first semester of school.
Again, my reaction….
But here is the bit they don’t mention until the end of the story.
“However, the researchers did note that the increased steps meant an overall positive impact on students’ “physical activity patterns,” which they stated “may have other emotional and health benefits””
Why isn’t that the headline? It’s good news. Students struggle with stress and anxiety and all sorts of emotional and mental health issues when beginning university. Why isn’t that the focus rather than the 3.5 lbs they typically gain when confronted with stress and cafeteria style eating?
Probably my biggest complaint about health and exercise reporting is the emphasis on weight loss. If people do it for reasons of weight loss and then don’t lose weight, they quit. And then they miss out on all the real health benefits of physical activity.
I’m with Yoni Freedhoff (again): Exercise is the world’s best drug. It’s just not a weight-loss drug.
Let’s talk about the other benefits of walking lots. I’ve got a post in our drafts folder about the wonders of walking.
This has been making the rounds on Facebook and lots of people say they like it. It’s day two for me… and I thought I’d share with you ten things for which I’m grateful:
1. This blog and the bloggers and the community that’s grown up around us.
2. Avacado on toast. I’m eating some right now.
3. Terrific philosophy departments trying hard to get things right. Here’s looking at you UConn.
4. My family and people close to me who support me in the things that matter most.
6. Beautiful fall colours. It never gets old. Actually I think it gets better with age. I used to puzzle about my mother in law who loved fall colours and who would go on drives to look at them and who photographed them each year. They’re just leaves, I thought. I didn’t appreciate them. Now I do. I’m in Connecticut and the campus is glowing orange in the last days of fall. It’s beautiful.
7. Hugs. I love meeting fellow huggers. Who ask, Can I hug you? Yes, yes you can.
8. Beautiful shoes. Lately I’ve been drooling over new Danskos. I’d love them in brown, red, and shiny black. I don’t need to own then. I’m just grateful they exist, comfortable beautiful shoes.
9. Coffee. I love all the kinds. A cortado is best but even this American hotel coffee tastes good.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had to fight to find myself again, while simultaneously finding the patience to heal. There have been some really low days, but little bit little, I’ve been rebuilding my physical and emotional stamina and energy. Today was a landmark for me as I crushed my former personal best of 37m7s for a 5km race and beat it with a 31m18s!
Today I’m grateful for my health and my body and its ability to move and exercise. Never in a million years would I have thought of myself as a runner! Even more so, I’m grateful for all the amazing people who have stuck by my side and who have inspired me to simply put one foot in front of the other 💜🏃🏻♀️💜
Kaitlyn is an elementary teacher in London, Ontario, black belt and long time Aikido practitioner, recently started cycling, trying to find her groove with running, continually learning how to have patience with her mental and physical health…
I attended a workshop this past week headlined by Dr. John Arden, a Psychologist and author. His regular folk friendly book is called Rewire Your Brain (Arden, J. B. (2010). Rewire your brain: Think your way to a better life. John Wiley & Sons.). In it you will find all sorts of interesting things about brain anatomy, neurochemistry and the oft referred to “brain plasticity” that is all the rage in much of the literature on changing behaviours or understanding why behaviours may be hard to change.
There was a lot about the workshop I liked and a little chunk I hated. I will get that chunk out of the way first because it’s relevant to the blog and then move on to the things I liked that are also relevant to everyone.
Brain health, mental health and physical health are all related (no surprise here). He spent a lot of the time explaining the importance of “neurogenesis” which is essentially the production of new connections in the brain. Making new connections, especially in the front part of the brain and the parts of the brain important in regulating stress, contributes hugely to resiliency in mental health. His position is that without a functioning capacity to create these connections, people have a very much harder time recovering from stress and trauma, leading to various anxiety mediated and mood disorders.
So what inhibits neurogenesis? Aging, Chronically high cortisol, Pot and Obesity.
What promotes it? Excercise, Fasting, Fewer calories consumed, Food Quality (especially the presence of high quality Omega 3) and Weight loss.
Sigh. What is wrong with this list? He didn’t highlight the studies that he based this stuff on but I did pay very close attention to how he talked about these things. The thing that made me very miffed was his constant and consistent conflation of “Obesity” with lack of exercise and poor food choices. He went on for a while about the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines by fat cells and talked about metabolic syndrome. It is believed that these chemicals are a big part of why our moods go to hell when we are chronically stressed and not doing enough good things for the body. The articles you see about depression really being about inflammation are based on this science. These are medical facts. But he basically said “tell your clients they have to lose weight to get better”. Great, a prescription with a 95% failure rate. Set ’em up for failure, I’m in. He didn’t acknowledge that BMI measurements of obesity often don’t mean squat. He didn’t acknowledge that fat people can be fit and lacking any other markers of metabolic syndrome. He even said (astoundingly) that if you are going to put on weight, you should put it on as a pear shape instead of apple, as if this is a conscious choice. I was so angry at this point I couldn’t speak. And what made me angrier was the fact that he was clearly utterly well meaning and a victim of the blank spots in his particular silo of knowledge. ON TOP OF THAT, he was talking to an audience of mostly women.*FEMINIST HULK SMASH*
Okay, enough of that. The good news here, however, was the reiteration of the connection of exercise with improved mental health outcomes. Exercise has been shown to have epigenetic effects on the brain, which means it promotes turning on gene expressions related to nuero-plasticity. It promotes the production of various growth factors in the brain which means more connections are formed. It promotes activity between those connections and, in a fairly dumbed down nutshell, the activity (especially in the left frontal cortex) allows for better mood, learning and adaptivity to adversity. Basically, it’s magic.
However, it is important to note that, like all magic, initiating it requires a clear intent. Lots of my clients tell me they exercise and nothing happens. They do not magically feel less depressed or anxious. That is because exercise is really good at creating optimal conditions for changes but if you just go brood about all the stuff you usually brood about or, more realistically, go back to your dysfunctional life and relationships without questioning them, it’s still hard to change. The role of therapy is to help people change both their physical condition (by encouraging more self care through movement, better quality food and sleep) and to help people reframe their understanding of what is happening relationally in their lives. Sometimes that reframing can be a challenge to a singular poor relationship. Sometimes it can be a more daunting challenge to a systemic adversity that blocks them in the form of racism, class inequality or sexism to name merely a sliver. I understand better than ever how these things work together now.
I wrote a sternly worded evaluation that took up the whole back page regarding my critique of the way he flung the word “obesity” around like we all knew what we were talking about. I hope he takes it to heart.