I’ll admit it right off of the bat – I’m a hopeless romantic; always have been, always will be. Little known fact about me is that while Meg and I were dating, I was voted Most Romantic Man in Vancouver by my friend who owned the local flower shop. But that’s a story for another day. Needless to say, I am indeed a fan of love. I suppose that’s why I became a marriage and family therapist – if we’re destined for love, I wanted to have a positive impact on the type of love we have.
Here’s the problem – Valentine’s Day kind of sucks. Or at least, that’s often the impression we’re left with. You’ve probably heard it all by now, “It’s too commercialized…it’s a scam by the retail industry…they just wants our money…I hate pink…,” and so on and so forth. Well, here’s the thing, the people saying these things aren’t totally wrong. Valentine’s Day is very commercialized, retail outlets do scheme to make money on the holiday, and they do want your money, and some people really do hate pink. I’ll even admit that as a self-proclaimed hopeless romantic, I sometimes get tired of the hoopla around a single day, and the fact that I’m often behind the 8-ball and running around last minute trying to figure out what to do.
So, I reflected on Valentine’s Day this year while I was making some of the preparations, asking myself what it is that I find important about Valentine’s Day, and why I make the effort. Here are the three reasons I came up with this year:
Relationships are important, and it’s okay that we celebrate this. Furthermore, it’s so easy to overlook relationships when we get busy and the advantage of having Valentine’s Day is that it forces us to remember the importance of our relationships, and particularly our romantic ones.
Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be about romantic love. Every year, we give our kids Valentine’s Day cards and gifts, but I wanted to do something slightly different this year. I am fortunate to have an incredible wife and two amazing daughters. This year, I gave them each a journal and inside, I wrote a message to each of them about something specific that I believed about, hoped for, and appreciated in them and that my hope was that the journal would be a place where they could reflect on these things in the coming year. I wanted to make sure that each of them knew how special they were, and uniquely so. This is something we can do for anyone special in our lives – a repurposing of the original intent perhaps?
Being reminded of love reminds us of the importance of connection. Attachment and connection are two of the most important things in life, and a reminder to us that we are indeed relational beings who thrive on relationships with others. Also, by loving others, we remind ourselves that we, too, are worthy of love. If we are enamoured with someone we think is incredible and know that they choose to be with us, then either we must also be special, or they must be delusional for spending time with us. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure the former is more likely and true. Sometimes we need this reminder in life, especially if we are struggling.
Now, for some of you, Valentine’s Day is a painful reminder of the romantic relationship you don’t have that you long for. I can only imagine what that’s like. What I do know, is that you are worthy of love, romantic or otherwise. My hope is that while your Valentine’s Day may not have been about romance this year, perhaps there was a reminder of how someone in your life values you.
To take a slightly different spin, some self-compassion can go a long way. I’m going to suggest an exercise here, both for those in romantic relationships and those who aren’t, and it may sound a little weird. I’m going to suggest writing yourself a love letter. Yes, I said write a love letter to yourself. Why? Because self-compassion is simply taking the compassionate stance we find so easy to give to others, and turning around and giving it to ourselves. Most of us are our own worst critics – it’s so easy to see, and pounce on our own faults. We’d never say half the things to someone else that we say to ourselves.
To flip it around, I find it so easy to write a letter to my wife or my kids. I can immediately think of so many things I think are incredible and unique about them, and my hopes and dreams for them. I find it much harder to do this for myself, but it’s an important exercise because it affirms our own worth, our uniqueness, and our status as worthy and deserving of love and compassion.
I know it may sound weird, but I’m going to challenge you to try it. It may sound like a strange counselling exercise that only a Registered Clinical Counsellor or therapist would suggest, and you may be right – but that doesn’t mean it won’t be helpful. If you do try it, I’d love to hear your experience and how it impacted you. Please feel free to contact me through the website with your feedback, even if you just want to reiterate how much Valentine’s Day sucks. That’s ok, at least we’re connecting. But I would be very surprised if you could do this exercise and not find something helpful in it.
If you’re struggling with your relationship with your significant other, or your relationship with yourself, we’d love to be of help. Please contact us or give us a call, that’s what we’re here for.
Yesterday was Bell Let’s Talk day. Last year, it raised over $6.5 million for mental health initiatives. Over $85 million has been donated toward mental health since its inception. I don’t know about you, but that seems pretty significant to me. We talk about ending stigma, and I’m all for it, but I’m also practical and always ask the question, “So how is this doing something to help people on a practical level?” This is what I really appreciate about Bell Let’s Talk Day – that it not only starts a conversation about mental health, and normalizes the experience, but it’s also using the conversation to drive innovation and services to help those impacted by mental health.
I sat down to write this article yesterday, but I just couldn’t. I’d initially wanted to write an article as a part of Bell Let’s Talk, but it just wasn’t going to happen. See, yesterday marked another anniversary for me and for one of my very best friends. Yesterday was the anniversary of my friend losing her life to mental health. I’d known her since I was about 6 years old and her brother is one of my best friends. We grew up together, experienced life together, and both experienced the ups and downs. She was a firecracker of a personality, a talented musician, adventurer, pusher of boundaries, and more recently, a mother.
As many of us do, she tried all sorts of things to deal with her difficulties, some proactive, and some reactive; some helpful, and some not so much. Nothing seemed to work, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. This is the reality for some – no matter what is tried, the symptoms are still there. I know I’ve had counselling clients who have sat in my office saying, “Andrew, I feel like I’ve tried everything, and nothing is making this go away.” I’ll tell you, as a professional, there’s nothing that makes me feel quite so powerless. But this is the reality for some, and I know this from my own personal experience with mental health – sometimes we try everything and nothing makes it go away.
What then? Do we give up? Do we throw in the towel and just come to terms with the fact that mental health problems are here to stay regardless of what we do? Absolutely not. If this was how I felt, quite frankly, Alongside You would not exist. My clients will often hear me say that I don’t believe in hopeless cases, and it’s true. I can’t promise my clients that we can make the anxiety, depression, psychosis, or trauma go away; I wish I could believe me! I do believe, however, that there is always hope – no matter how awful things are, there is always hope. I’d like to propose three things that bring hope for those of us who struggle with mental health, and those who support others in their struggle.
The word empathy has been gaining traction and is being talked about more and more, and I couldn’t be happier about it. See, empathy is very different than sympathy. Sympathy is often our natural reaction, likely in response to our own pain over the suffering of others. We want to make it go away so we try to make it sound less awful. It’s really an attempt to soothe ourselves, but it has the opposite effect on the person we’re trying to help. Brené Brown gives a great definition of empathy in this video, and I encourage you to watch it; it only takes a few minutes. The take-home message, however, is that empathy drives connection, sympathy creates disconnection. A connection is what we need, particularly when we’re in pain because words rarely make something better, as Brené Brown notes, what makes it better is the connection.
A connection is being used as a buzz word in many circles these days (particularly in business), but what does it really mean to connect? It depends on the context. It could send a text message, it could be getting together over coffee, or it could be something deeper. All of these options can be good things to do with people struggling with mental health, but I want to highlight one thing that I think gets in the way of connecting, and that is fear. Mental health can be a scary thing, especially if we don’t have lived experience with it ourselves. What do we say? How do we respond? What if we don’t understand?
The beauty of empathy, and of connecting with someone on any level, is that we don’t need to understand, we just need be with them. Even though I’ve had my own difficulties with mental health over the years, I still don’t understand everything my clients, friends, colleagues, or family members experience. Some of what I come across is scary or makes me feel helpless, or downright confused. But if I remember that I don’t have to understand, I just have to connect, I can get past the fear and be with the person.
If you’re not sure how to be with the person, just ask them. This not only alleviates the pressure of having to figure out what the person needs and understand what’s going on, it empowers the person to tell you what they need, which in and of itself is beneficial. Remember, we are not dealing with issues, we are dealing with people.
Finally, I want to highlight the importance of educating ourselves. I know I just said we don’t need to understand all the time in order to be there with someone, but some understanding sure does help. It also acts as an antidote to fear so that we can be ourselves with others as they are in their pain and suffering. There are so many resources now to educate ourselves on mental health it’s amazing. Here’s a few to start with:
We hope our blog is also a resource for you. If you have topics you’d like to see addressed on the blog, please contact us with what you’d like to know more about and we’ll do our best to address it in an upcoming post.
You Are Not Alone
If you’re reading this and you are struggling, please know that you are not alone. Struggling in silence, while I can completely understand it, isn’t going to get you the help you need. I know from my own journey that if I’d spoken up, and talked about it more when I was at my worst, life could have been a lot better and the suffering could have been much less.
Please reach out; whether it’s to us at Alongside You, to your local mental health team, to your family, your friends, your pastor, or otherwise, please reach out to someone so they can connect with you and ask how it is they can help.
My Love-Hate Relationship With Mindfulness… and why you should really, really consider practicing it
Mindfulness has been a buzzword in the health community of late. I’m hoping that after reading this, you’ll have a basic idea of what it is and why it helps.
Western culture is full of busy-ness – depression and anxiety are more common than they’ve ever been. Typically, I like to simplify depression and anxiety somewhat, down to past and future. Anxiety is the uneasiness and even fear of some future threat – generally, one that isn’t exactly easy to define. We might be really anxious about an upcoming presentation, but have a harder time nailing down where that comes from – perhaps it might come from baggage that we carry around from some intense public shame that we’ve felt in the past, and the risk of putting ourselves out there again heightens us to a degree that feels like it doesn’t even make sense (our bodies remember shame a lot more acutely than our minds do). Anxiety is often designed to warn us and protect us against the threat of more hurt like this.
Depression, often, is oriented in the reverse direction – maybe our past experiences have coloured our world in a way that joy is difficult to experience, and it’s hard to believe that we will experience anything different going forward. Depression tends to affect the innate and beautiful sense of curiosity and wonder that comes with being a human being (think of a young child you know interacting with the world around them).
Please understand that these are simplistic definitions, designed to give a basic idea of where mindfulness comes in. Often, depression and anxiety can keep our thoughts in the future or past, which is exhausting. Constant worry or feeling down can lead us to do a number of things that are very adaptive and reasonable in the moment (such as distracting ourselves from a painful experience), but they are exhausting in the long run. Mindfulness brings us to the present. It gives our brain a short break from the constant worry and just brings us into right…now. Young children (for example) are generally really good at being present in the moment.
Being mindful can help ease stress
Mindful meditation might involve focusing on our breath, the food we’re eating, the physical sensations in our bodies, or the sounds outside. It is inviting ourselves to experience the present moment for what it is – without judgment. I have a lot of tension on my shoulders, for example. I carry it with me everywhere, and I really hate having it around. But when I’m mindful, I’m not focusing on how much I wish it weren’t there. I’m just noticing it and training myself to be OK with it, just for a minute. Or, I’m noticing the sounds of the traffic outside, and I’m not thinking any thoughts at all – just experiencing the present for whatever it is. This is really hard – especially at first, and even more so when we are experiencing physical or emotional discomfort.
If you’d like to know the why behind things, I’d like to tell you about the work of two people I admire (who are just like you and me, and also happen to have a long list of impressive credentials that I won’t outline here) named Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dan Siegel. They’ve spent a lot of time researching and exploring mindfulness, and their work is very impressive.
Benefits of mindfulness
One of the main things mindfulness does is increase left forebrain function. This increased brain activity fosters that beautiful curiosity I was talking about. If we can notice and be curious when we’re stressed, we’ve already won. We start seeing ourselves from an outside perspective, with more grace and compassion (have you ever wished you could see yourself the way you see somebody you care about?). We can learn to calmly respond to things that otherwise would have sent us into a frenzy.
I could talk forever about this, but I’ll just give you a quick list of the amazing benefits you can find in mindfulness:
Direct help with physical symptoms such as chronic inflammation and pain
Reduced anxiety, stress, and depression
Improved immune system function and mood
Healthier coping – an increased ability to bounce back after one of the hard experiences that are so common in life
Sounds too good to be true, right? It is sort of. It’s not a pill – it takes the effort to be mindful. I hate it, actually. In many ways being regularly mindful is a primary component of my job, and I still suck at it. But, I’m getting slowly better – then worse – then better again. But even a little bit helps – if you can manage even 20 seconds a day, you will notice a difference.
If you want to read more about this, the works of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dan Siegel are a great place to start. Jon Kabat-Zinn has a website and a variety of videos on YouTube that are really interesting. I’ve provided a few links below to get you started.
If you want to get started with a mindfulness practice of your own, there are quite literally endless free resources online in both video and audio format, but I recommend the Headspace app. It teaches you the basics and gives you easy, situation-specific guided meditations.
If you want more information on how to actually do the thing, here’s a Harvard blog that covers the basics pretty well:
Lastly, if you want to fact check my claims, I have a resource list of academic papers I’d be happy to share with you. Here’s one I really like (you may need access to an academic database to read it):
Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., . . . Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564-570.
I hope this has been helpful for you. Sometimes we love what helps, sometimes it’s aggravating; one thing is for sure – mindfulness helps us keep calm, be present, and cope. If I, or anyone else on the team at Alongside You can be helpful in working through this with you, please contact us and give us a call.
For whatever reason, whenever I think about motivation, I think about the Sprite commercial from the late 90’s that had some very macho-looking basketball players named Freight Train, Pablo, and Mo-T, with hard-hitting dialogue, interrupted by the director calling, “Cut,” to say that the Sprite can is upside down. Mo-T tells the director off, saying he’d played Hamlet at Cambridge, Pablo complains that once again the director has ruined his concentration, and Freight Train asks the question, “Excuse me, what’s my motivation?” The commercial ends with the tagline, “Image is nothing. Thirst is everything. Obey your thirst.”
Now, clearly, the marketing folks knew what they were doing because I remember this commercial almost 20 years after the fact, and it’s stuck with me. This is somewhat disconcerting because I don’t like to think that I fall prey to marketing because, well, I’m too smart for that. Apparently not. To top it off, all they were trying to do was sell some drinks. So what does this have to do with me, as a Registered Clinical Counsellor and more importantly, what does it have to do with my counselling or coaching clients or anyone else who might be reading our blog this week?
I started thinking about this article over the Christmas break because I knew that the New Year’s resolution discussions were inevitable. Clients would come into the counselling room with all sorts of changes they wanted to make, blogs would be full of articles titled, “How to Make Your New Year’s Resolutions Work in 2018,” and inevitably, products would launch promising to make our dreams come true and help us stick to all of our newfound resolutions. Well, research has shown that New Year’s resolutions don’t stick, and they don’t work for most people. There’s plenty of opinions as to why this might be, and certainly a plethora of articles suggesting how to make sure yours works this year.
My opinion, however, is that most of our resolutions fail because they are tied to an image of ourselves that we want to attain. If only I shed those 20 pounds of weight; if only I was in better shape; if only I could sing better; if only I made more money; and so on and so forth. In other words, if only I could make these changes, and project this image, I’d be a better person, or perhaps more like, and then I’d feel worthwhile.
I have one question for you at the start of this year – and that is, what are you thirsting for? But not in the sense of your image, like how you want to look, how much you want to weigh, or how much more money you want to make at your job; rather, I want to know who you want to be. See, I believe resolutions fail because they are aimed at images of ourselves that automatically tell us we’re not good enough, rather than being aimed at who we want to be and how we want to interact with the world, informed by the knowledge that we are good enough just as we are.
So what are you thirsting after? Who do you want to be this year? How do you want to be defined as a human being, and ultimately, as one who is worthy, and deserving of being loved? I have an exercise for you. I sort of stole it from Mike Mawhorter from Ladner Baptist Church, and I’m not sure who he stole it from. I’ve changed it a bit to fit our purposes here. I’d like you to pick one word that you want to define you this year; to define your pursuits and to define how you interact with the world and ultimately, to define who you are. I’ll give you an example from my own life.
Last year, I picked the word integrity. I decided that I wanted everything I did in 2017 to be defined by and to flow out of integrity. Being a perfectionist by nature, I’m well aware of my shortcomings and areas I’ve failed at this. All in all, however, as I look back on 2017 I am surprised by how helpful this exercise was in three key areas, and I hope they are helpful to you. Picking a word to represent who we want to be, and how we want to operate, allows us to:
Have a metric by which to make decisions. It’s simplistic but effective. As opportunities come up, or decisions are to be made, we can ask ourselves the question, “Does this get me closer to who I want to be, or further away? If it’s the former, go for it; if it’s the latter, say no and don’t do it.
Keep the focus away from the image and toward our intrinsic values and desires, or the things we are thirsting after.
Be motivated by the things that truly matter to us. If we are thirsting after something, our motivation is high. If we simply want to maintain a particular image or lose 20lbs because it’s a good idea, we’re probably not going to stick to it. If, however, we want to lose 20lbs because we want to be healthy, treat ourselves well, and be there for our kids as they grow up, we’ve got a better shot at it.
As I reflect on 2017 and move into 2018, I’m excited. I’m excited for what we’re doing here at Alongside You, I’m excited that we’re going to help more people this year than we have in the years combined since we opened, and I’m excited because if this works, those of you reading this will become closer and closer to a self-definition and motivation that is focused on who you want to be, rather than what you want to do, and reinforcing of the truth that you are valuable, worthy, and deserving of love, just as you are.
“IMAGE IS NOTHING. THIRST IS EVERYTHING.”
So, pick a word that you want to define who you are in 2018. Thirst after it, be motivated by it, and I wish you all the success in the world as you journey toward a deeper sense of self-compassion and self-love this year. You are worth it.
If our team at Alongside You can be of any help as you forge ahead in 2018, please contact us, we’d love to hear from you.
During the holiday season, there are many commercials that pull our attention to items we may want or need, each product or item promising to make our lives easier and better. One of my favourite commercials is the Ikea commercial where the woman is advertising the “deals,” she is getting, and as the car is loaded up with her purchases, she yells to her partner, “Start the car! Start the car!” Essentially, she is communicating let’s go before they find out we got these items at a ‘steal of a price.’
This Ikea commercial reminds me of counselling. Clients come in with a list of concerns and problems, needing relief from pain, as well as desiring a better life. Let’s face it, who doesn’t want this? Sometimes individuals know what they want, and other times they may need someone to walk alongside them to clarify their goals. Sometimes it’s a mixture of both. And sometimes you leave the store with more items than you actually wanted – but didn’t know you needed!
Counselling can be the same way. Sometimes you know what you want to discuss, and other times you only know that something is missing and you just do not know what it is just yet. This is where talking with a counselling professional can be helpful. Yet, counselling is not without risk nor is it without reward. The risk may be coming in and talking with someone for the first time; it may be being vulnerable, learning to trust someone; it may be admitting that your life is not Instagram perfect – despite what the pictures reveal. The risk in counselling can leave us feeling open and fearful that someone may know the ‘real me.’ Yet when we increase our capacity of awareness and have someone safe alongside the journey, someone who accepts you as you are, the path may seem more bearable to make changes, gain confidence, and forge forward.
Individuals and families have the opportunity to leave with mental clarity, heart-wholeness, and awareness of themselves and others that pays dividends in their lives. It’s a steal of a deal! My hope is that in the year to come, you’ll give yourself, and your family the gift of being known, living whole, and creating meaningful lives.
Although I cannot see Ikea opening a counselling office for their shoppers, I can see hope for individuals, families, and communities as we shop for mind and heart essentials. Connect with me if you would like to go over your shopping list for your life!
Kezia is a Canadian Certified Counsellor with Alongside You in Delta, B.C. where she serves children to become more resilient, adults to strengthen their relationships, and families to grow their connections, all in the hopes to bring freedom and healing from pain, disillusionment, and addictions. She is also an avid shopper for fashion accessories (purses, shoes, and fashion), adventure (flying planes, live sporting events, and food), and life essentials (love, joy, and connection)
It’s that time of year again – time for my annual year-end blog. To say that this year has been a whirlwind, full of unexpected greatness, and unexpected challenges would be a gross understatement. We’ve added more staff in the past 6 months than I ever expected; we’ve expanded our Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) services to double our groups, expand our individual DBT counselling, and we’re starting a youth DBT group in January; and we’re starting more programs focusing on chronic pain and chronic conditions. We’ve networked with treatment centres and continue development of our Recovery and Aftercare Programs launching in January. Not last or least, we’re opening a new office in South Surrey. All amazing things, that I’m incredibly excited about, and grateful for.
And here I am sitting in the Jim Pattison Outpatient Care Centre on December 20th, as Meg endures yet another spinal procedure to try to control her pain. I discovered last night that the workstation I have at home from my pro photography days has had both storage hard drives die, and the backup server I used to have copies of all my professional and personal photographs seems to have bit the dust and I’m going to likely have to send drives to a data recovery company and hope that they recover the images of the last 20 years. And I sit here thinking about all of the things I didn’t get done before leaving the office on “vacation,” until the first week of January. And now I’m supposed to relax.
In Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, there’s a concept called Radical Acceptance. It’s a difficult concept to grasp, but essentially, it means having to accept things that are extremely difficult to accept, and often may challenge logic in accepting. Things that occupy our heart, mind, and soul that take up space and challenge our being and wellbeing. Things that are, that we wish weren’t and things that we can’t change, but wish we could.
Sometimes we get caught up or blocked from accepting because we don’t like whatever it is we’re needing to accept. Things like a bad grade in school, a bad review from our boss at work, maybe even events over the holidays with family or friends that we’d rather not go to. The thing is, acceptance does not mean we have to like it, it means we need to acknowledge that it is what it is and we can’t change it, and deciding what to do about it. Radically accepting means to do this with the really big things.
Here are a few tips on how to Radically Accept what you need to accept this holiday season[i]:
Observe when you’re questioning or fighting reality – this may come in the form of you saying or thinking, “It shouldn’t be this way!”
Remind yourself that your unpleasant reality is just what it is, and it can’t be changed.
Practice accepting with your whole self, which may take the form of positive self-talk, relaxation, mindfulness, prayer, or even using guided imagery to go to a place of acceptance.
Practice doing the opposite – do the things you would do if you were able to accept these things – you may find that you start accepting them as a result!
Acknowledge that life can be worth living, and holidays can be survived, even if there is a pain.
For me, this year, there are a few things I’m having to radically accept in anticipation of and to get through the holidays:
I can’t fix my wife’s pain, and she continues to have to endure procedures to try to help it in some way
I can’t fix my hard drives and there’s a possibility that some of the things I cherish over the years in photo form may be lost
I haven’t completed all of the things I wanted to before the holidays hit
But what does this mean? If I accept these things, how does that change anything? Well, it can relieve some of the stress and tension, or anxiety around trying to change any of these things. The reality is that I can’t change these things even if I want to. I can’t relieve Meg’s pain, but I can be there to support her (and this is the main reason I’m taking as much time off as I am this Christmas) because this is something I am ableto do, even if it doesn’t fix her pain; I can’t fix my hard drives, although I can work on making sure there isn’t anything I can do, and I can send it to a company who knows how to recover data and pray for the best; I can’t complete everything I wanted to, but I can pick some times throughout the holidays to get some work done for things that really need doing. Perhaps most importantly, I can be grateful that I have the support in life that I do, an amazing staff (including the lovely Anna Hers who will be in the office through the holidays to take your calls so I can be home!), and we have a community we love and live to serve as best we can, which is why there is so much work to be done!
I’m also well aware that there are many of you who will struggle greatly this year over the holidays for many reasons and many that may make some of the above struggles seem rather trivial. Perhaps you don’t have a family to spend the holidays with, or you lost a family member and that memory will be with you during this time; perhaps you’re struggling with anxiety or depression and now feeling like you have to put on a happy face so you don’t ruin everyone else’s holidays; or maybe you’d simply rather not be here, and the holidays just make it worse.
Holidays can be hard. I didn’t set out to write a downer blog post, but I did set out to write a post that hopefully acknowledges some of the difficulties of life that don’t respect the holiday and give us a break, and some of the difficulties we face specifically because of the holidays. The malls and Christmas carols would like us to believe the world fundamentally changes and everything is glorious because it’s the holidays, but for many people, this is simply not true, or realistic in their life.
You are not alone. We see you, and we hear you.
One of our newest staff reminded me in conversation last night of the importance of being seen and heard, and this is especially true this time of year. We can’t always change the struggles in our own lives, or in the lives of others. One thing we can do, however, is show empathytoward others, and toward ourselves.
Our office will be essentially closed over the holidays, but Anna will be in the office. If you’re struggling, please give her a call at 604-283-7827 ext. 0 and she’ll be glad to set up an appointment for you as soon as possible in January. From all of us at Alongside You, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. May peace, grace, and love surround you this season, and we look forward to seeing you in the New Year!
[i] Adapted from DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition, by Marsha M. Linehan. Copyright 2015.
What is a chronic pain? This term is tossed around so freely nowadays. I don’t think there is one person who isn’t either affected themselves or knows someone who uses this term regularly in describing themselves or their situation. It seems like the pain is all around us!
According to Neil Pearson, who teaches at UBC, lectures worldwide, and has been working exclusively with patients who suffer from chronic pain for over 20 years, “Scientists explain aspects of chronic pain through explanations of neuro-immune plasticity. They are able to show that when pain persists there are relatively permanent changes in neural and immune systems and cells. The problem is that attempting to change these back takes effort, practice, and patience. Our efforts are required, to rewrite this story and to create lasting ‘positive’ neuro-immune changes…and most include disruptions of breathing and muscle tension. For many of us when the story has continued to play for some time, it includes changes in our feelings of competence, difficulties in letting go of tension, being out of balance in life, being disconnected from our life’s purpose, and as such, if we direct our yoga practices (or any contemplative movement practice) towards these, we can rewrite the story.” Persistent, chronic pain requires a different approach for healing than acute pain which usually goes away eventually on its own.
What Yoga Therapy provides is an individualized practice specifically aimed at your needs.This is why it’s important to view yoga therapy as a physical and/or rehabilitation process, not a studio style practice, and also includes integration of practices for mind and breath. We teach students to experience their practice from the inside out. It’s not about how it looks on the outside, it’s about how it feels on the inside.
Viniyoga™ methodology specialist Gary Kraftsow is part of the lineage that I am practicing under. There are several principles that separate this method from others and create its effectiveness in the healing process, and these include:
Somatic Experience – practicing and feeling from the inside out, not focusing on what you look like on the outside, and befriending your body
Moving with your breath – allowing your body and breath to move in unison, learning to follow your breath
Repetition and Stay – the choice to move in and out of a shape or pose, or hold it for several breaths depending on your comfort level
Individual Sequencing – a collaborative approach where you and your teacher create a practice that is unique to your needs and makes appropriate changes as you progress.
The physical part, called asana, a portion of your practice uses a technique to empower you to check in with your body before and during a posture. First, by going to the edge of pain, that is your baseline, or where you start from. This prevents the sympathetic nervous system [SNS] from firing up, thinking you are going to a place of pain or danger and tightening up even more. You will find yourself forming new habits such as asking yourself, “Is this safe, am I going to increase pain, is this working for me, am I ok here?” By always starting from a place of comfort, listening to your body rather than to generalized cues, and by working through a complete practice in this way, you will begin to change your perceptions of your pain, and notice as it decreases. You will learn breathing practices to integrate relaxation and create the space for your body to move into. Your movement will eventually follow your breath and you will practice breath awareness, noticing the quality of your breath. Your thoughts are reflected in the quality of your breath and your breath is a reflection of the quality of your thoughts.
You will also learn positive mindfulness techniques to change how you perceive your pain and start to work from a place of comfort. This allows you to move away from the painful story toward a place of feeling comfortable in your body again and reconnecting with your true self. This part of the learning may also involve surrounding yourself with positive minded friends and supportive people, or be joining a group of others who also want to play a meaningful role in their personal healing.
Restorative Yoga poses are vital to bringing the body into the Relaxation Response,where the parasympathetic nervous system [PNS] replaces the fight, flight or freeze state of the SNS, taking you to a place of deeper relaxation where healing of the body and mind can take place.
There are many studies that are ongoing in support of evidence-based knowledge regarding Therapeutic Yoga. In the International Journal of Yoga Therapy [IJYT], No.26, 2016, Mindful Yoga Pilot Study Shows Modulation of Abnormal Pain Processing in FibromyalgiaPatients, J.W. Carson et al. report that their, “program showed significantlygreater improvements on standardized measures of fibromyalgia symptoms and functioning, including pain, fatigue, stiffness, poor sleep, depression anxiety as well as improvements in measure of relaxation, acceptance, and vigor.”
In my teaching of therapeutic yoga, I have witnessed the physical and lifestyle benefits for my clients. I am currently midway through my Certification of 1000 hours as a Yoga Therapist, (CYT) with Maggie Reagh, founder of Yoga Therapy International, and look forward to many years of service to those who are searching for a path to healing. With loving self-awareness and compassion for yourself, learning to listen to your body’s whispers so that it won’t need to scream, and letting your body know it’s OK to let go and breathe, you will come to know that you are not your pain! Listen to your body more than you listen to your pain.
I’ll be away in India for further training through January and February but I look forward to reconnecting with clients in March. We have brought on another colleague to provide therapeutic yoga in my place while I’m away, Janet Richardson, and I’m excited for you to meet her! Please look for the announcement on our website and social media soon! Until March, may peace be with you and your families through the holiday season, and I’ll be sending warm thoughts from the warmth of India!
Reality is that life is not peaceful. Trauma can arise from any number of daily things, seemingly small to one person, yet overwhelming to another. Having experienced trauma, whether recently or in the past, one can feel like something is broken within us, wrong with us, or we feel damaged. This is not so but is a part of the healing process and a normal response to internalizing a traumatic experience. Trauma Sensitive Yoga Therapy is not about fixing or changing anyone. It’s about learning how to find healing and support within, by empowering yourself to feel safe in your own body and mind and seeing the potential in yourself. By separating yourself from the traumatic event, you are able to witness and self-observe. Through witnessing awareness, you begin to look at it objectively and come to realize that you are not the trauma, it is something that happened toyou.
Through your yoga practice, you can return to wholeness by seeing the experience from a place of comfort and safety within your own body, and in time, finding meaning in it. This will arise when the time is right for you. Post-TraumaticGrowth will evolve, remembering that people don’t become great in spite of their challenges, but because of them. Eventually, your yoga practice will take you to that inner place where you can be the witness, and know that you can return to that place anytime during your practice or in your daily life. The change will come from that untouched true nature when you are operating not from brokenness, but from wholeness.
Trauma activates our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) for survival but leaves us frequently stuck in the fight or flight response. Yoga practices that can help us get back into the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) include Therapeutic Yoga, along with talk and physical therapy, and meditation. In The Relaxation Response: Yoga Therapy Meets Physiology published in Yoga Therapy Today, Summer, 2017, Maggie Reagh, Yoga Therapy International renowned founder and teacher, lists restorative procedures under topics of Relaxing through Positioning the Body; Relaxing through Lengthening the Breath; Relaxing through Stilling the Mind and Balancing the Nervous System.
Utilizing guided meditation of Yoga Nidra allows healing to begin by building resilience to challenging circumstances that arise in our daily lives. In the International Journal of Therapy, No.19 (2009) p.123, David Emerson et al. state in Trauma-Sensitive Yoga: Principles, Practice, and Research, “Trauma exposure is ubiquitous in our society. Over half the general population report having had exposure to at least one traumatic event over their lifetime…research has shown that Yoga practices, including meditation, relaxation, and physical postures, can reduce autonomic sympathetic activation, muscle tension, and blood pressure, improve neuroendocrine and hormonal activity, decrease physical symptoms and emotional distress, and increase quality of life. For these reasons, Yoga is a promising treatment or adjunctive therapy for addressing cognitive, emotional, and physiological symptoms associated with trauma, and PTSD specifically.”
When we get stuck in the SNS, the brain is affected, the amygdala grows, making us more reactive, the hippocampus shrinks and we may lose perspective on time, the frontal cortex goes off-line, making it harder to make decisions or think things through. Trauma often makes us feel detached from our body, and sometimes feeling unsafe in our body. Dr. Herbert Benson of the Benson Henry Institute has found in Harvard University’s research that spending 20 minutes a day in the relaxation response can lower or turn off our stress genes. Through comforting Therapeutic Trauma Sensitive Yoga we experience the relaxation response of coming back to our body and mind. Yoga and guided meditation also help one to understand the significance of the breath. Controlled, yet easily learned, breathing is a powerful trigger to engage the relaxation response. Yoga Nidra supports organization of thoughts and flow of memories and puts us in touch with our physical self.
I hope this article helps explain some of the benefits of a yoga practice, particularly when we’re hoping to recovery from trauma in our lives. You may not think that yoga is for you – and you know what, I don’t blame you. For many, it’s an entirely new concept and outside of the box in terms of thinking of treatment. The research is showing that Yoga Therapy and Trauma Sensitive Yoga can be effective in helping reduce symptoms of trauma and change the physiology of our brain.
At Alongside You, we work as a team and I’m pleased to be able to work alongside the other staff in helping clients, many whom have benefitted from yoga therapy as an adjunct in their recovery. If you’re curious, please give me a call at (604) 283-7827 ext. 709 or contact me through the website here and I’d love to speak with you about how I might be of help.
Many titles have been heaped upon the late Michael White for his development of Narrative Therapy, ranging from genius to prophet to guru. These titles, I believe, provide a framework for the impact that his work has meant to the field of psychology and therapy. He has created a forum for individuals to reclaim their sense of identity and purpose and to begin to live into a new story. As Alan Carr writes, “within a narrative frame, human problems are viewed as arising from and being maintained by oppressive stories which dominate a person’s life. Human problems occur when the way in which people’s lives are storied by themselves and others does not significantly fit with their lived experience…Developing therapeutic solutions to problems, within the narrative frame, involves opening space for the authoring of alternative stories, the possibility of which have previously been marginalized by the dominant oppressive narrative which maintains the problem” (Carr, 1998, p. 486).
A critical component of narrative therapy is the concept of externalizing the problem whereby the person objectifies or personifies the problem as a separate entity from the individual. In doing so, the person is able to “separate from the dominant story that has been shaping their lives and relationships” (White, 1988/9, p.7). When persons are able to externalize the problems they are then able to identify times when their experience contradicts the problem (White, 1988/9, p. 16). In the end, the problem becomes the problem allowing the person’s identity to become separate. The problem no longer represents the truth about who the person is and this realization unleashes incredible opportunity for hope and resolutions to occur as the person is able to step back and view the situation from a less personal and problem saturated perspective (White, 2007, p. 9). Carl Tomm suggests that externalizing the problem provides, “a linguistic separation of the distinction of the problem from the personal identity of the [person]. It opens ‘conceptual space’ for [people] to take more effective initiatives to escape the influence of the problem in their lives (Tomm, 1989, p. 54). Externalizing the problem and then becoming aware of ‘unique outcomes’ where the client finds that their life is no longer tied to these negative conclusions allows them to begin the process of re-authoring their story (White, 2007, p. 27).
The process of re-authoring allows a client suffering from substance abuse to begin to develop their story but to integrate significant unique outcomes that were out of step with the dominant storyline. These unique outcomes are the starting point for re-authoring. The therapist can support the client in exploring alternative storylines by having the client “…recruit their lived experience, to stretch their minds, to exercise their imagination, and to employ their meaning-making resources” (White, 2007, p. 62). In so doing, the client engages more deeply into their alternative stories and begins to root their storyline in a new history and perspective which establishes a new foundation for them to address their externalized problem. As the client steps to becoming the author of their life, they begin to play with the terms Jerome Bruner coined ‘landscape of action’ and ‘landscape of consciousness’ which, “…bring specificity to the understanding of people’s participation in meaning-making within the context of narrative frames” (White, 2007, p. 80). Michael White found that landscape of consciousness encountered too much confusion so he reframed the term to become the landscape of identity which, I believe, aptly describes what occurs when one re-authors their story and renegotiates their own identity. Using landscape of action and landscape of identity allows the therapist to build a context, “in which it becomes possible for people to give meaning to, and draw together into a storyline, many of the overlooked but significant events of their lives” (White, 2007, p. 83) which are crucial for re-authoring.
In January we’re launching our Recovery and Aftercare programs, and we would love to work with you to re-write your story in your recovery. Please have a look at the program on our website, and we would love to hear from you!
Carr, A. (1998). Michael White’s Narrative Therapy. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 20(4), 485-503.
Tomm, K. (1989). Externalizing problems and internalizing personal agency. Journal of Strategic and Systemic Therapies,16-22.
White, M. (2007). Maps of Narrative Practice. New York, W.W Norton and Company Inc
White, Michael, 1998/9. The externalizing of the problem and the re-authoring of lives and relationships. Australia, Adelaide: Dulwich Center Review
It’s been a difficult couple of months holding back on this announcement, but I’m excited to announce that we will be expanding to South Surrey and White Rock in January 2018! We have wanted to get into Surrey for a while to bring our services closer to home for some of our clients, and we have found a great space in the Morgan Crossing neighbourhood. For those of you wondering, yes, it’s right next to the shopping centre some of you love!
One of the challenges in expanding is that our goal is not simply to expand and build a brand. If we were a retail shop, expansion may come down to different goals and principles, but we’re not – we’re an integrated health clinic and our goal has always been to embed ourselves in the community, find out what the needs are, and try our best to meet those needs. So, our expansion needs to be intentional, meaningful, and to model after our growth in South Delta. We’ve been searching for the right location to allow us to do this, and I believe we’ve found a great space that will allow us to do exactly what we hope to do again – that is, get to know the community of White Rock and South Surrey, find out what the needs are, and bring those services that the community is asking for.
Thus, we are starting small. We’ve found a great space that our colleague, Dr. Jeff Morley has graciously allowed us to come into. It’s one large room that will allow us to provide individual, couples, and family counselling, neurofeedback, registered dietitian services, as well as bring our Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) group program to the area. Over the next year, I’ll be spending a great deal of time, along with my wife, Meg Neufeld, getting to know the community better and connecting with key partners to figure out the best way to serve the needs of the community.
Now, we have a bit of a head start. I had the privilege of working with White Rock Mental Health at Peace Arch Hospital for a number of years and have been able to build relationships with many of the agencies in the area. Scott McNeil, our associate, worked there as well as did Share Forde, who provides Dialectical Behaviour Therapy with us. There are some great resources already in the area, and we hope that, like in South Delta, our services will help to fill some of the gaps and that we’ll be able to work collaboratively with the community agencies that are already serving in the area.
Who is going to work in the new office, you might wonder? Well, that’s a great question. We’re kind of taking the same approach as we did in South Delta, that is, jumping off the proverbial cliff. I’ll be in the office there on Thursdays, and likely spending much of my Fridays in the community networking. We are working on hiring staff for the office, but as many of you know, we are very careful with who we bring on because we don’t want to simply hire a bunch of staff, we want to hire the right staff. So, we are building as we go. We have one staff hired, some of our South Delta staff will be working there as well, and we’ll be adding more soon. Stay tuned for more announcements on that front!
All this to say, we’re excited to be entering another community that is near and dear to our hearts. We look forward to bringing the same heartfelt, evidence-based, collaborative community care to South Surrey and White Rock that we’ve been providing in South Delta since 2015. We’d love your help! If you’ve benefitted from our services and know people out that way, please help us spread the word! We’re working on revamping our website and updating things, but in the meantime, here’s a google map of our new location, and the address:
208 – 2630 Croydon Drive Surrey, BC V3Z 6T3
Phone number and fax numbers, emails, and everything else remain the same!
We look forward to serving the community in White Rock and South Surrey as we grow out there, and if you are a service provider in the area and would like to connect with us, please give me a call or contact us; and if you know of one we should connect with, please let me know!