Finding Hope in a World Full of Challenges
Reflecting on the past year, it’s easy to feel discouraged. We are facing multiple ongoing crises in mental and physical health, the environment, economic inflation, political divisiveness, civil unrest, and war. Social injustice remains rampant. These concerns should not be dismissed, and I want to start by emphasizing that optimism in no way neglects their importance. Nor do encouraging statistics take away from the fact that every needless death is a tragedy.
However, it’s also important – for our own sanity – to consider the good news. I often describe to my clients how our brains are hard-wired to pay more attention to negative events or feelings than positive ones. This is a well-studied psychological phenomenon known as negativity bias. It can lead to rumination and even depression. We recall criticism better than praise. We remember negative events more strongly than positive ones, and think about bad things more frequently than good things. Counterintuitively, our brains do this for our own benefit. It is far more important for survival to know where the dangers are than to take time to appreciate the wonders of life!
We see this reflected in our news and social media: negative and alarming news grips our attention, and so it gets more airtime. We click more frequently on alarming headlines, so they get published more often. This amplifies the illusion that the world is threatening by default.
We cannot make effective change when trapped in a state of despair. To avoid such a toll, it is important to balance our negativity bias with mindful awareness of what’s going well. And it turns out there are many, many good things happening!
One antidote to the prevailing doom-and-gloom narrative of our time can be found in Matt Ridley’s Book The Rational Optimist. He uses hard data and historical analysis to show that we have made incredible progress in recent centuries, and this trend of increased prosperity is likely to continue as we innovate and adapt to ever-changing circumstances.
Another important book is the late brilliant physician Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. He writes:
“Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless—in short, more dramatic—than it really is.
Uncontrolled, our appetite for the dramatic goes too far, prevents us from seeing the world as it is, and leads us terribly astray.
Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview.”
Such thinking is not new, either. Even back in 1830, British historian Thomas Macaulay posited:
“Hence it is that, though in every age everybody knows that up to his own time progressive improvement has been taking place, nobody seems to reckon on any improvement during the next generation. … On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
So, what exactly is all this progress that thinkers like Ridley, Rosling, and Macauley are talking about? Here are some examples.
Good News for a Change
Poverty is declining.
Globally, the number of people living below the poverty line (defined as living on less than $2.15 USD a day, in 2017 dollars) fell from 2.01 billion people (37.8% of the population) in 1991 to 648 million people (8.44% of the population) in 2019. It is still too early to calculate precisely how the covid-19 pandemic affected this trend; preliminary estimates indicate it may have pushed 70 million people or about 9% of the population back into extreme poverty in 2020. Yet the overall trend continues as it has for past decades. In 2017 renowned economist Max Roser commented that “Newspapers could have had the headline ‘Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 since yesterday’ every day in the last 25 years.” For more insights, see his excellent research website Our World in Data.
Population growth is stabilizing.
Although the global population is still growing, the rate of growth has been slowing down since 1968 in an accurately predicted manner. The population is expected to peak somewhere around 10.4 billion people in the year 2100, and then decline. With reduced poverty comes gains in education and health, and declines in child mortality, all of which are associated with lower birth rates.
The rapid decline in child mortality deserves its own emphasis: Hans Rosling once stated that “child survival is the new green.” According to his educational website Gapminder.org, “saving poor children is an important factor in ending both poverty and population growth. The death of children is not holding back population growth. It is one of the reasons poor people still have many children.” People have less children when they do not need to worry about whether or not those children will survive to adulthood.
Medical advancement continues at an astonishing pace.
Life expectancy is rising everywhere. People around the world are living longer and healthier lives, thanks in part to advances in medicine as well as increased access to nutrition and education. From vaccines that have eradicated deadly diseases like smallpox and polio to new treatments for chronic conditions, the progress in medicine is astounding.
For example, new medical technology allows us to identify cancer and other diseases earlier, leading to better treatment outcomes. Targeted therapies are becoming more widely available, less invasive, and more effective than traditional treatments like chemotherapy. Midstage trials are providing renewed hope for the development of vaccines against various cancers.
Genetics represent another marvel of medical advancement. Knowledge about the genetic basis of diseases helps improve diagnoses and treatments. Researchers are making significant progress in developing gene therapies that can cure sickle cell disease, HIV/AIDS, and other debilitating diseases. Genetic testing is now available for certain inherited conditions, like Huntington’s disease, which can help people make more informed decisions about their health and their future.
We are also making progress towards treatments for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (remember the ice bucket challenge in 2015?) and Alzheimer’s disease. The development of robotics has transformed surgical procedures, resulting in faster recovery times and fewer complications. Telemedicine makes healthcare more accessible and convenient. Wearable tech like smartwatches and fitness trackers can monitor vital signs and alert patients and their physicians to potential health issues.
Mental health care is advancing too!
Technology is helping mental health treatment as well. Our clinic and many others offer secure telehealth appointments, so that remote clients can get the same treatment as everyone else. We utilize cutting-edge measurement-based care platforms such as Greenspace to monitor mental health outcomes and help clients gain insight into treatment progress. Apps like How We Feel and Calm help clients develop emotional intelligence and mindfulness skills in an easy, approachable way. Neurofeedback is another relatively recent technology that provides an excellent alternative (or complement) to traditional talk therapy.
There are many more examples of medical innovation, and it may take time for some of these gains to become sufficiently accessible. But every day we are making great steps towards a healthier world.
There’s still time for the environment.
There’s no denying the reality that ecological sustainability and preservation are serious concerns. It seems likely we will overshoot 2.5°C of global warming, leading to severe weather events, expansion of deserts, food insecurity, animal species extinction, and economic harm. However, we can take solace in the fact that many initiatives are working, and progress is being made.
Many countries have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions while increasing their GDP. The world is making great strides towards clean and sustainable energy. Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydro are becoming more accessible and affordable. Even though nuclear energy has suffered tragic accidents, it remains one of the safest and cleanest forms of energy when compared to death rates from air pollution created by fossil fuels. Fourth-generation nuclear reactors currently being developed will be even smaller, safer, and more efficient with far less nuclear waste produced. Scientists are making important discoveries towards fusion power, which has the potential to radically transform the world’s energy usage.
Another real concern is deforestation, but let us remember the wise words of Mr. Rogers concerning catastrophes: look for the helpers. Organizations like Cool Earth, which I fundraised for in 2019 and continue to support, are doing excellent work in this field. And we have data to support progress: a 2018 study published in Nature (one of the top scientific journals) identified with confidence that global tree cover has increased 7.1% since 1982.
Less harm from natural disasters
Furthermore, improvements in infrastructure and emergency preparedness have significantly reduced annual deaths from natural disasters, which were 3.7 million in 1931 and only 13,008 in 2022. Although we cannot prevent events like earthquakes, we can prevent high losses of life. The numbers prove that our efforts are working.
Admittedly, the tasks ahead will not be easy. But there is strong evidence that human effort and adaptability will allow us to fight current environmental threats and build a more sustainable world.
The world is more peaceful than ever before.
Given the widespread destruction and devastation in the first half of the 20th century, it is notable that the world has not seen a major global conflict in the past 78 years. Even considering the recent Ukraine conflict, warfare today is less frequent, less lethal, and more localized. While nobody knows the future for certain, there are reasons to believe that this calm and stability will persist. The globalization of trade means that the citizens of other countries are worth more to a nation alive than dead. As quality of life improves, we have less reason to engage in the discomforts of violence and vengeance. Institutions such as the United Nations have been developed to foster diplomacy, and cooperation has become more productive than armed invasion.
Violent crime is trending downwards as well. And the number of terrorist attacks and deaths from terrorism around the globe has dropped markedly since the 1970s (contrary to the over-representation of terrorism in the media, it accounted for just 0.05% of global deaths in 2017).
Overall, a person born in the world today is far less likely to be a victim of violence than a person born at any prior time in human history. That’s a remarkable achievement!
Basic needs are becoming more affordable.
It may be hard to believe, but it’s true: basic needs such as food, water, healthcare, housing, and education are becoming more affordable around the world. We owe this development to government and non-profit initiatives to reduce basic costs to individuals and families, as well as advances in technology, transportation, agriculture, and the global economy (lower prices stemming from businesses competing on a global scale).
The International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency, reported in 2022 that the price of mobile-broadband services has dropped to just 1.5% of gross national income per capita. Almost two-thirds of the world population has access to the internet. This number continues to rise, along with ownership of mobile phones. With more accessibility and affordability, the world is also becoming increasingly connected. I believe that will be a very important part of furthering communication and cooperation to solve global challenges.
What Now? “Learned Optimism.”
I hope these examples have conveyed that there are many reasons to see hope in all our futures. Our natural negativity bias can lead to a sense of learned helplessness. I firmly believe in countering it by cultivating learned optimism. We are better equipped to take on problems when we have an accurate, factual view of the world. The overwhelming evidence shows that the future is looking positive!
Here’s another piece of good news: the myth-driven stigma around accessing mental health care is disappearing rapidly.
In my clinical work, I often draw upon dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), which teaches skills to strengthen emotional resilience and build a life worth living. These skills include radical acceptance (seeing situations as they are and focussing on what you can control rather than what you cannot) and checking the facts (developing a more accurate and realistic understanding of a situation rather than relying solely on assumptions and emotions).
Therapy can be useful in overcoming negativity and developing a more positive outlook on life. This is not simply turning a blind eye to suffering. Instead, it is about developing the skills to face challenges with a helpful and more effective outlook.
If you’re struggling with negative thoughts or feelings of helplessness, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to face these challenges alone. Consider reaching out to our team of skilled clinicians to explore therapy options and start building a more helpful future.
As I sat in church this past Sunday, I was reminded that this time of year is supposed to be about hope.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the Nativity Story, the story of Jesus’ birth, is one about hope. Namely, that God came down in the form of a baby to save the world. What’s even more important to know, however, is that this is said to have happened in quite possibly the most awkward, unexpected, and improbably way possible: a virgin birth. This was beyond counter-cultural (and actually dangerous) in the culture at the time – both Joseph and Mary had some seriously difficult decisions to make and actions to take if this was to come to fruition without either of them losing their communities or quite possibly, their lives.
This got me thinking about mental health (yes, my brain goes there more often than not). It got me thinking about how I don’t often get excited about this time of year and wondering why that is. I think this year it simply crept up on me without notice and here I am, apparently in the Christmas season, and I haven’t even had time to think about it. I’ve written some of my thoughts previously, which you can find here. In short, I don’t get particularly excited about the holidays, presents, or otherwise. Some of it stress-induced, some of it is I’m not a particularly excitable person for these sorts of things, and some of it being I’m already thinking about January and it’s barely even December.
I’m Tired of Things That Don’t Last
I think part of my reticence around Christmas is that it seems to have turned into simply a gift-giving season where we give gifts that disappear shortly thereafter. Now, I actually really like giving gifts. When I have time, I tend to get creative and go all-out. I’ve never been one to get particularly excited about getting stuff. This goes for pretty much any gift, but especially the stuff we all give and get that lasts for a bit and ends up in the closet, only to be thrown out the next time we need to move.
Now, I should add to this, I always appreciate the gifts people give me. I appreciate the time that went into them, I appreciate how they taste (most people know I love chocolate and act accordingly), and most of all, I appreciate the time I spend enjoying them with others. For me, the real enjoyment comes with spending time with the people who gave me the gifts. This is what hits home, and this is what I remember.
All I Want For Christmas Is Hope
I haven’t been asked yet, but invariably I’ll get asked soon by people what it is that I want for Christmas. I honestly cannot think of a single thing I want for Christmas. For better or worse, I have every tangible thing I need – I’m very fortunate that way. This takes the discussion from needs to wants. That list is challenging because it’s very small, and generally, very expensive (i.e. I want to renovate my kitchen, there’s a laptop that could use replacing, etc.), and I would never ask for that for Christmas. And even in those areas, I’m fortunate in that I can usually find ways to get what is wanted, or I simply wait until it’s possible.
But there is one thing I both need and want. It doesn’t need to cost money, and it’s in plentiful supply if we’re all willing to give it.
“This Christmas, I need Hope.”
As I sat there in church thinking about anything but the sermon, tears came to my eyes as I realized what it was that I needed. Hope. It seems so simple, yet so difficult. One of the challenges of being a Registered Clinical Counsellor and running a growing mental health team is I am faced daily with the pain, heartache, and trauma that people experience within our community, and in our world at large. This takes a toll.
Before any of the people reading this who know me freak out, this is not a cry for help or a sign of burnout. I’m fine. I’m simply very aware of the degree to which people are hurting and are in need of hope.
This is simultaneously one of the things I absolutely love about my job, and about what we do at Alongside You – that is, we bring people hope, and often in times where they can’t see any hope for themselves.
Bringing Hope Can Mean Some Difficult Decisions
Part of what struck me about the Christmas story and the decisions and actions that Mary and Joseph had to make was how similar they were to some of the decisions we have to make when we’re recovering from mental health. It’s not an easy road, that’s for sure.
This can be a hard one! Relationships are front and centre in any battle with mental health. Whether it’s depression, anxiety, PTSD, trauma, addiction, or otherwise, relationships are front and centre. Sometimes the difficult decision may be to tell a loved one about our struggles. Sometimes it may be to tell a close relationship that what they are doing is hurting us. Sometimes it may be that we need to end a relationship in order to pursue healing and recovery.
Sometimes, like Mary, it may mean telling someone something so personal, and even unbelievable, while simultaneously being scared that it will end the relationship and have significant negative effects on our lives.
On the flip side, sometimes, like Joseph, we’re the one being told something incredibly difficult to imagine or manage. What if our loved one tells us something so difficult that we have a hard time processing it? Staying present with it? Staying in a relationship with them, knowing this new information?
It’s difficult all around. The choices we sometimes have to make in mental health can be full of anguish, and even despair.
There are plenty of potential consequences to the situation Joseph and Mary found themselves in. What about us? I know in my own journey with mental health, there have been many times where my battles have had very significant negative consequences on me and also those around me.
We don’t always make wise decisions when we struggle with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, addiction, or other areas of mental health. In fact, more often than not, we can’t make wise decisions. It’s not that we don’t want to, it’s actually that we can’t. When we’re in fight or flight mode, our limbic system is in control and our cortex has flipped its lid. Other times, we’re simply human and we make bad decisions just like everyone else; it just means that sometimes the consequences are more dire or significant.
This Holiday Season, Focus On Experiences
I want to be excited about Christmas, I really do. I’m sure that once I’m off work (in theory) after December 20th, I’ll maybe start getting excited. My goal, however, is to get excited before then. I’ve decided I’m going to focus on experiences in my gift-giving this year, in the hopes that my gifts will last beyond the season, and selfishly, in the hopes that it gets me a little more excited even before I take some time off.
Why experiences you might ask? Well, because they don’t go to the landfill, for one. But the main reason is this:
Connection is what gives us Hope when we need it most.
As I sat with a client today, I reminisced a little bit about this, and it reminded me of one thing: In my entire history of working with clients, particularly with addiction, I can’t think of a single case where the connection wasn’t the solution. It doesn’t mean that medications, therapy, exercise, nutrition, and all of these other pieces aren’t important, because they are; what it does mean is that without connection, we don’t have hope. Without hope, we lose the point and the motivation for the other pieces.
Without connection, nothing else matters and nothing else works.
I truly believe this. Without connection, I don’t care if you have the best therapist, the best doctors, the best meds, the best exercise plan, or otherwise, it will not work.
Do you know why? Because without connection, the therapy won’t work, the doctors won’t work, the medicine won’t work, and it will all be for naught. The research shows us this fact.
What To Get Andrew For Christmas
So, this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I’m also serious. All I want for Christmas is hope. This is what I get excited about – people. People and hope are what drives me every day. It’s literally all I can think about in terms of what I want for Christmas.
I want people to have hope.
This is why all of my Christmas gifts are going to be experiential in some way. Not stuff. Things that will help people experience themselves, and the world in a more positive way.
So, if you want to get me something for Christmas, give someone an experience, a chance to connect with you in some way. And while what I’m about to say may sound like hyperbole, it really isn’t – you can change someone’s life simply by giving them this type of a gift. It may not categorically change their life at the moment, but maybe, just maybe they’ll believe that you care about them, that they are worth it, that they have meaning.
If you really want to get me something for Christmas, come to our conference in January called Let’s Talk Hope. This is a chance for all of us to get together and find hope for mental health in our community – through connection. If you’re stuck for a present for someone you care about, bring them too.
This isn’t me schilling another conference for the sake of a conference or selling tickets. Between you and me and the rest of the internet, we aren’t running this for profit. In fact, if we cover our costs we’ll be happy. Anything over and above our costs goes straight back into helping people with mental health struggles.
I’m asking you for this for Christmas because I truly believe it could be the start of something that changes the face of mental health in our community. Not in and of itself, not as a one-stop solution, but as a start to something that points towards hope.
If you are alive and are human, we need your voice in the discussion of mental health. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional, someone who suffers from mental illness, a parent, or otherwise. Your voice matters.
If we sell this thing out, and we come together as a community to bring hope to Delta in the face of some of the most challenging times we’ve ever had, it will be worth it.
If only one person leaves and feels more worthwhile and valued, and loved, it will be worth it.
And I guarantee it will be the best $15-30 you will ever spend.
I believe in this so strongly that if being able to afford the cost of the ticket is keeping you from coming, please contact me directly. I will personally cover the cost of you coming to the conference because I believe it will be more than worth it, and I believe you are worth it. No questions asked.
“If I spend all my Christmas money on giving you hope, it will be the best Christmas ever.”
Christmas Is About Connection
As this is my one and only blog post about the holidays this year, I want to wish you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas, and happy holidays as you enter this special time of year. It is full of surprises, stresses, and joys. It is my hope that it will be full of connection for you.
The connection is what brings us together, reminds us that we are worth it, and reminds us that there is hope in all things and in all situations.
No matter what this season brings for you, know that we believe in you and your value, and I look forward to seeing you in 2020.
Last week, I broached the subject of “back to school”. With some insight from teachers, I shared 3 ways to prepare for going back to school in a positive way. We looked at three components: Trust, Teamwork and Transitions. For Part Two of my blog, I want to share some practical tips, the ABC’s if you will, of what to remember when going back to school for both parents and children, and especially students who have challenges with being at school. The ABC’s stand for Advocacy, Bravery and Connection.
Parents Can Be an Advocate for their Child
Parents, please hear me when I say, you have the hardest job in the world. Being a parent is intense, it challenges you to the core, it captures your highest highs and your lowest lows. You have the responsibility of helping your child grow, learn and discover. You are your child’s biggest champion and because of this, you have the privilege to speak on behalf of your child when your child might need some extra support, especially at school.
I recently saw a parent of a child with some behavioural challenges. As she spoke through the tears, she looked at me and said, “I just want people to see what a great kid he is, I don’t want them to see all the challenges. I want them to see him.” This is what being an advocate looks like, painting a picture of who the child is at his/her best and what needs to be put in place in order for this to happen.
Here are some practical ways to be an advocate for your child:
- Be informed. Know the challenges your child faces at school. If your child has a diagnosis, learn about how the diagnosis affects your child’s learning at school. Does your child need an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)? If so, collaborate with the classroom teacher to get it started. Know your child’s strengths and continue to find creative ways to work from a positive strengths-based perspective.
- Keep organized. Gather all paperwork, reports and letters and get a binder where you keep all the information regarding your child. Make sure you have it accessible and bring it to meetings when/if necessary.
- Build relationships. Introduce yourself to the principal. Get to know your child’s teacher. Connect with the support staff. More information about this can be found in Part 1 of the series.
- Talk to your child. What does your child need to learn and share these insights with your child’s teacher:
- Extra time to work on projects
- A different way to show their work ie: typing instead of writing
- A specific place to sit in the classroom
- Time to be able to move around
- Breaks during the day
Emphasize Being Brave, Not Perfect.
A few months ago, I sat with some parents who shared with me a story about their 6-year-old daughter who, despite never trying, did not want to play baseball because she was “not good at it.” I was so disheartened to hear this. How can a precious little person announce that they are not good at something without even trying it?
Let’s face it, not many of us like to fail. Not one bit. But the reality is that we are not going to be perfect at everything. To put it bluntly, we are not going to be perfect at hardly anything.
This coming school year, it is time to exercise your brave muscle. Imagine what your child could experience if they heard that it is better to be brave than perfect? Encourage your child to take risks, even if it leads to failure. Praise your child for the effort they put into a project, not in the grade. Delight in the scraped knees, crushed spirit and tears because it takes bravery to try to slide into home base and get called out instead of waiting cautiously on third.
What might be brave looks like for you and your child?
- Be the example. As the Big person, the model being brave, taking risks and perhaps even failing.
- Asking the new kid to play with them
- Trying a new sport, even if they do not know-how
- Asking for help from a classmate
- Putting up your hand in class and saying you don’t understand
- Telling a friend that they hurt your feelings
- Sharing with each other ways that you tried new things but failed. Maybe even make a joke out of it and share Failure Fridays.
I often tell my clients when they feel like giving up and not trying, remember, “I can do hard things.” This is what brave looks like. It is acknowledging that this is hard, but you can do hard things.
Perfection breeds unrealistic expectations, stress, discomfort and constant striving. Bravery evokes self-determination, strength and resilience. I believe these are the qualities that this school year can foster.
Don’t Forget to Connect
Many parents replay the same scene each day after school. They ask their child, “How was school today?” And the instant answer, inevitably, is, “Fine.” Typically, the follow-up question might be, “What did you learn today?” With the usual answer being, “Nothing.”
I cannot stress enough the importance of connection. Take time to connect after the school day. Take time to be fully present with your child without distractions.
Here are some great alternatives to “How was your day today?” You never know what you might learn.
- What was the best thing that happened at school today? (What was the worst thing that happened at school today?).
- Tell me something that made you laugh today.
- If you could choose, who would you like to sit by in class? (Who would you NOT want to sit by in class? Why?).
- Where is the coolest place at the school?
- Tell me a weird word that you heard today. (Or something weird that someone said.)
- If I called your teacher tonight, what would she tell me about you?
- How did you help somebody today?
- How did somebody help you today?
- What is one thing that you tried today?
- When were you the happiest today?
- When were you bored today?
- If an alien spaceship came to your class and beamed someone up, who would you want them to take?
- Who would you like to play with at recess that you’ve never played with before?
- Tell me something good that happened today!
- What word did your teacher say most today?
- What do you think you should do/learn more about at school?
- What do you think you should do/learn less at school?
- Who in your class do you think you could be nicer to?
- Where do you play the most at recess?
- Who is the funniest person in your class? Why is he/she so funny?
- What was your favourite part of lunch?
- If you got to be the teacher tomorrow, what would you do?
- Is there anyone in your class who needs a time-out?
- If you could switch seats with anyone in the class, who would you trade with? Why?
- Tell me about three different times you used your pencil today at school.
To make this connection time into more of a routine, consider putting the questions in a jar and picking a question each day and even coming up with your own.
Make it a habit to put your phones down and turn your screens off and be present for your child. Make it a priority to spend time together each week. Put it in your calendar so you make it into the schedule.
- Reading a book together
- Playing a board game with some snacks
- Ask your child to teach you something he/she enjoys doing
- Go for a walk around the block
- Go to a coffee shop and order a hot chocolate and play a game of cards
- Write a letter to a family member
- Record each other singing a song
- Go to the gym together
- Take a class at the Rec Center together
Like learning the real ABC’s, being an Advocate for your child, exercising your Brave muscle and making time to Connect takes practice. Please know you are not alone. Alongside You wants to journey with you and your child through this upcoming school year. Please reach out if you need some extra support – maybe that is exactly what brave looks like for you! Together we can help you be a progressive advocate for your child and help you connect in beautiful and tangible ways.
You’ve got this, parents! Happy Back to school everyone!
You know when you meet someone for the first time and you just “click?” So do I. Meg and I just got back from a whirlwind tour of Calgary to go do something with one of these people. We flew out Tuesday morning and got back late last night. Driving back home, Meg even said, “We were here yesterday, it seems like such a long time ago!”
You see, this was a new experience for us. There were a series of firsts – the first time we’d sponsored an event in another province; the first time we’d travelled out of the province to provide a workshop together; the first time we’d tried to bring an art studio with us on a plane; the first time we did any of this with someone we’d only ever met once. All of this, because when we were told about the project and asked if we’d help, we said, “How can we help?”
The event was Let’s Talk Hope, with our new friends at National Hope Talks, and was a part of Bell’s annual Let’s Talk Day. Aside from being a sponsor for the event, our role was to talk about what we’re noticing in our context with regard to mental health and to lead a workshop on resilience and hope and human connection and how to use art as a vehicle to bring hope to ourselves and others.
One of the focuses of the conference was getting beyond talking, and figuring out what to do about mental health, from all perspectives; from professionals in mental health to artists and creatives, to those struggling, and everything in between. All perspectives are welcomed and valued, and solutions are sought – even if they seem like pipe dreams.
I came home on a bit of a high (albeit an exhausted one) because I was so inspired by the crew we joined to make this conference happen, and by all of the over 200 participants and what they brought to the table. Writing this article today, however, is bittersweet for me because today marks the anniversary of a close childhood friend who we lost to suicide. A friend who was immensely talented, had personality in spades, left a child and family behind, and who I assume, could not see a way out or a way to have hope.
This is why hope matters. Mental illness is not just a clever advertising campaign or something for us to feel good about when we do something one day out of the year to raise some awareness. Mental illness can be a matter of life or death.
When we held conversations at the conference about what brings hope, the overwhelming common thread that was repeated time and time again, was the connection. Human connection trumps any other intervention in the books. I want to suggest three ways we can get beyond talking about mental health, and move toward action and creating a hope movement in our communities.
1. We need to get over ourselves and out of our comfort zones.
We’re all here, because we’re not all there, and that’s ok. There, I’ve said it. As someone who has struggled with mental health since the age of 6, I’ve known for a long time that something was different about my brain and body and how that showed up in terms of mental health. I’m now at a place where most days are ok, but this has not always been the case. In fact, there were many years where this was not the case.
Here’s the thing, if we have a mental illness and our belief is that we have to be okay, then we stop connecting with others and cut off the best “treatment” we’ve got. We also stop connecting with each other, which is an invaluable resource and a vital part of our community. If we push this further, even if we don’t struggle with a mental illness, we won’t connect with someone else who is hurting if we aren’t feeling 100% good ourselves for many reasons, not the least of which being our belief that it’s not ok to not be okay, and we can’t possibly help anyone else if we’re not at our best.
Let me tell you, there would be no mental health professionals in this world if this were true, myself included.
2. We have to stop believing that mental health professionals are the only ones who can help someone who is struggling with a mental illness.
Over and over again I was reminded of this while at the conference this week. On our team of presenters and organizers, we had rappers, hip hop artists, spoken word poets, dancers, motivational speakers, visual artists, brain scientists, pastors, business coaches, and more. Guess what? I learned a lot. Some of what others brought out were things that either I wouldn’t have thought of, or really needed reminding of.
Meg presented on using art and journaling to bring resilience and hope, and let me tell you – the feedback was phenomenal. We had one woman come up to us after and explain the role that journaling played for her in her recovery from abusive relationships; moving from wanting to burn all of the entries, to now using them as reminders of where she’s come from, the victories she’s had, and the hope she now has with her new life. It was unbelievably powerful to hear her story and those of many others.
3. We need to remember that there is not a single thing on earth more powerful in recovery from mental illness than relationships and healthy human connection.
This is one of the things that I have been reminded of over and over again in the past few weeks. We now have over 20 years of research proving this, much of it coming from the scientific studies of marriage and relationships from the likes of The Gottman Institute, ICEFFT and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, as well as the trauma research from people like Besel Van Der Kolk.
If we want to give people hope who are struggling with mental illness, we need to be willing to connect with them and be a safe relationship for them. We need to be willing to get down in the mud, or as I often say to clients, jump into the foxhole together. We have to be willing to not be okay with them, and even to suffer with them. This is the core of empathy, which drives connection and healing.
Now, I never said any of this was going to be easy. Being with someone in their hardest times is sometimes incredibly difficult. In fact, sometimes they won’t let us. But we have to keep trying. Our lives and the lives of our loved ones depend on it. We need each other.
One of my new friends reminded me this weekend of a very important principle that can help us with this. She reminded me, after being reminded by a mental health professional in her life, that when someone is hurting, we need to bring them closer, not push them farther away.
If we can all remember to bring the hurting closer, and be willing to suffer with them, and walk alongside them, then we can bring hope. We can give them, and ourselves hope. We can make a difference.
Seems counterintuitive right? How could it be that those seemingly irrational, often painful internal reactions (emotions) have any business in the world of rational decision making?
Many of us have accepted the tradition of believing that reason is the best guide to decision making and that emotions are a nuisance that needs to either be controlled or vented to get them out of the way of higher rational thinking.1
The truth is that we’re all much smarter than our intellects alone!1 Our emotions are a big part of the reason our species has survived for so long. Rational thinking helps us to thrive, but without emotions, we wouldn’t survive.2
For example, as Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy says, “if you decided to never feel afraid again, you’d end up dead pretty fast.”3 You wouldn’t know to avoid dark alleys that seem dangerous. Your rational mind may have heard some news reports on muggings in dark alleys, but without your fear response, you’d be unlikely to apply those warnings into your own life. First, if you feel some fear when listening to the news reports on dark alleys, your brain integrates the warning into memory much quicker and much more effectively than a piece of information that doesn’t generate any emotion. Second, when you approach the dark alley, you might feel some feeling in your gut or a physical instinct to run away from it. This is your fear emotion popping up to quickly remind you to stay away from an important source of potential danger. Once you feel that sensation in your gut or that urge to run, you can then integrate it with your rational thought (which happens much slower than your emotion brain) and determine whether it’s best to go through the dark alleyway or to go around it.
Humans are wired to integrate both emotional guidance with rational thinking. The trouble is that in Western culture, we’ve been taught to dismiss the important messages our emotions send us.
The Middle Path: Integrating Emotion with Rationality
Think of yourself on a canoe, travelling down the river. Over by the right bank of the river are the rapids (your emotion brain) and over by the left side, the river is really shallow (your rational brain). If you veer into the left, rational side of the river, you become reefed and your boat can’t go anywhere. But if you veer into the right side of the river you move too fast and out of control because you’re caught in the rapids! Dan Siegel calls these the “chaos and rigidity banks.”2
Life on the Rigidity Bank
We get stuck on the rigidity bank because without emotions we wouldn’t be motivated to do anything.
Think of the word E-motion – emotions move and guide us. “E” stands for energy, and motion directs us to act on our feelings. Some feelings are full of energy, like anger or fear. These high energy emotions guide us to act to protect ourselves or someone we care about. Other feelings like sadness or shame are very low energy. They guide us to pull back and take time to determine what our next steps should be in the face of a painful situation like losing a loved one. Emotions help us to determine what we need in each moment. The more we understand what we feel and how to move through those feelings, the more likely we can befriend our feelings and allow them to integrate into our everyday rational life.
Furthermore, to stay on the rigidity bank, we have to push our emotions aside, and I’m sure many of us have experienced the way emotions tend to come back with a vengeance when we haven’t listened to them. Life stuck on the rigidity bank simply isn’t realistic long-term, there’s nowhere to go. 1, 2
The Life of the Chaos Bank
On the other hand, if we’re caught in the rapids, we may have a sense of what we need but it’s much harder to determine how to responsibly execute it in a way that will be beneficial to us and to others.2
Remember the question of whether or not to go through the dark alley? If we’re stuck on the chaos bank, then we might run away and panic and have no idea why. When we veer back toward the centre of the river, we can remember some of the reasons that we might have felt that fear and then we can take a look around and determine how to feel safe again.
Floating Down the Centre of the River: Integration
The key to integrating our emotion mind with our rational mind is to remember to take a step back and give ourselves some time. Our emotion mind will tell us what we are needing in the situation, and our rational mind will remind us of what’s realistic.1,2
How to Practice Integrating Emotion and Reason
Take a moment right now to be curious about what you’re feeling in your body; maybe you feel some tightness in your chest, some heaviness in your eyes or even a pit in your stomach. That’s where your emotions are sitting. In other words, when you have a “gut feeling,” your body is trying to tell you something important and you need to take a moment to listen to it.1
It might be really uncomfortable at first, but if you start noticing what’s happening in your body at any given time, you’ll also start having a better sense of how you really feel in a situation. Once you can name what’s going on it your body, you can then name your emotion. Once you have your emotion, you can start to make sense of it an decide what to do with it. That’s where your reason comes in. The magic is in the integration.1,7
This is tough work that you don’t have to do alone. A Registered Clinical Counsellor can help you to figure out how to integrate your emotion and rational mind in a way that makes sense for you. It’s also a great idea to get into the practice of regularly scanning your body for sensations. This makes it easier to know what you’re feeling at moments where it really counts.1,9
Just as Mister Rogers said,
“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”
When we begin to attend to our emotional sensations, we can start to name them. When we can name them, we can learn to manage them and integrate them into our decision making to help us live a balanced life.
To get started, check out some free online guided body scans can be found here:
If you’d like some help moving forward with integrating your emotions, contact us and give us a call. We’d be happy to sit down with you.
- Greenberg, L.S. (2015). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings. American Psychological Association: Washington DC.
- Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P.(2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York: Random House.
- Linehan, M. (2018). DBT Skills. Retrieved from https://app.psychwire.com/courses/c2629l/course
- Living Well (2018). Body Scan. https://www.livingwell.org.au/mindfulness-exercises-3/6-body-scan/
- Neff, K. (2018). Self-Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/
- Rogers, F., & Neville, M. (2018). Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Tremolo Productions:
- Thiruchselvan, R., Hajcak, G., & Gross, J.J (2012). Looking inward: Shifting attention within working memory representations alters emotional responses. Psychological Science, 23(12). https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612449838
- Yip, J.A., & Cote, S. (2013). The emotionally intelligent decision maker: Emotion-understanding ability reduces the effect of incidental anxiety on risk-taking. Psychological Science, 24(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612450031
- Goleman, D. (2017). How emotionally self-aware are you? Mindful, 36. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/emotionally-self-aware/
I admit, the title is a bit tongue in cheek – the saying certainly is better than some of the alternatives such as, “I hope your New Year doesn’t suck,” or, “I hope your year is mediocre.” I sometimes wonder, however, if the phrase has any real meaning, or whether happiness is really something to shoot for anyways?
Over the holidays I was reflecting on Christmas holidays in the past and some of my experiences. 19 years ago, I was living in Ukraine with a bunch of other young people doing things like working in orphanages, teaching sex ed in the local university, and running coffee houses for local youth. I was reflecting on this mainly because it was a very different experience to be in such a different country over a holiday, but also, because the culture is so different there. One of the things they taught us before we went, over and over, was that we had to only say things we actually meant. They used the example of the phrase we so often use, “We should go for coffee.” See, here we say this all the time to simply be polite, as a way of saying goodbye, or, really, for no meaningful reason at all. There in Ukraine, if you say this, they’ll expect you to actually go for coffee and it’s a great insult if you don’t.
This got me thinking about the phrase that we say so often this time of year – “Happy New Year,” is ubiquitous in our communication at the beginning of January. In fact, as I type this, I’m pretty sure I’ve written it in at least 15 emails today alone. What I wonder is – does this phrase actually have any meaning anymore? If I put aside my cynicism over holiday expressions, I’d like to say it does. It’s a positive phrase of encouragement and well wishes for a new season of life. It certainly doesn’t do any harm. Or does it?
I wonder if we should truly be chasing happiness. I know I certainly haven’t had great success in my life chasing it, particularly when I’ve struggled with depression and even with anxiety. I know I’ve had innumerable times where I’ve been around others, seemingly happy themselves or wishing others happiness, and wondering, “What’s wrong with me?” Does this mean I’ve never been happy? Of course not, thank goodness. I’ve had plenty of happiness in my life, but it’s never been the primary focus of my life. I also know that when I’ve chased happiness, I’ve met with very little success.
If I look at my experiences, and the experiences of the clients I’ve worked with over the years, it seems to me that feeling happy is a by-product of a more important process – that is, finding meaning. See, we can find meaning in life even if we’re depressed, anxious, dealing with trauma, in the midst of an addiction, and more. I can’t say that it’s always possible to find happiness in the midst of these things.
So how do we find meaning in our life? I’d like to offer a few suggestions that I’ve noticed improve the chances of finding meaning in our day to day lives, and thus, an increased chance of being happy.
Engage in Meaningful Activities
One of the things my clients hear from me frequently is that sometimes we have to do the things that we know help us feel better before we feel like doing them, as opposed to waiting to feel better and then doing them. In this case, if we’re stuck feeling like life isn’t particularly meaningful, sometimes we may need to do things that we know have meaning for us, even if we don’t feel like it; by doing so, we greatly increase the chances of shifting our mindset and experience into a meaningful one.
Some examples of things people you might find meaningful could be:
- Spending time with friends and family
- Being creative through music, visual arts, dance, or otherwise
- Reading books that get your brain engaged, or are on a topic you have a curiosity about, or books that simply make you laugh
- Volunteering your time and/or skills for a worthy cause
One of the things I’ve realized over the holidays is that I need to spend more time investing in myself, and particularly, in learning. This realization came after reading an article that quoted Warren Buffett, which you can read here if you like. It’s been a wild 3 years here and I’ve been focusing on the business and program development a lot, but my own personal growth has not been as much of a focus. I’ve committed to spending more time reading, and pursuing education and I’ve already taken steps toward that by booking a conference in January, doing an online course, and I’m planning more for the coming year.
What is one actionable step you could take now to pursue a meaningful activity that maybe hasn’t been a priority lately?
Evaluate Your Current Activities
I’m fascinated by metrics, data, and analytics. It’s the geek in me that loves measuring results. I don’t know if I’m such a fan of these same things when they are measuring how I spend my time in the “off hours.” When I look at things like how much time I’ve spent on a screen, how much time I’ve spent on social media, how much of my reading is on Google News versus something I actually care about. There’s a lot of time spent in distraction versus intention.
Being intentional is hugely important when it comes to finding meaning in life. I’ve noticed that I get far more satisfaction in the activities I’ve intentional set out to do than the ones that I just find myself doing out of habit. The beauty of this is that there’s no right or wrong answer as to how you invest your time, but there is an affirmative or negative answer to the question, “Is doing this providing meaning in my life,” and, “By doing this activity, is it adding to my life, or is it taking away valuable time and resources from something that could be?” If it’s not adding to your life, or it’s taking away time and resources that could be providing meaning, consider whether it’s something you want to be doing.
Surround Yourself With People Who Invest In You and Speak The Truth
I actually laughed out loud after writing this title because I caught myself thinking, “Sure Andrew, let the introvert tell others to surround themselves with people.” I wasn’t thinking quantity, okay? I’m thinking quality.
I’ve got two very close friends. I’ve known each of them for 30 years or more, and at the ripe old age of 37, I think that’s significant. We know each other. We invest in each other. We ask each other the hard questions in life because we care enough to. I need people like this in my life because I spend a great part of my life caring for others. I need the same in return, and I need people who speak the truth to me even if it’s hard.
This is important when choosing a counsellor if you’re thinking about working with a Registered Clinical Counsellor this year. I remember when I was looking for my counsellor, I sat down with him and one of the first things I said was, “I need someone who isn’t afraid to call me out when I need it.” I’d been to other counsellors who were warm and caring, but didn’t challenge me and I am definitely someone who needs challenging at times. To his credit, he’s followed through and it’s been a very helpful relationship for me to have.
What Should We Say Instead of Happy New Year?
In a perfect world, I’d love it if we all had a happy 2019. As much as I tend to avoid pushing for happiness, it really is a wonderful thing. I’m a big fan of focusing on things we can control, though, and so my hope for is that you’d have a meaningful New Year, and in turn, that the meaning you create and discover in your life would bring you moments of great joy.
I’m a fan of Viktor Frankl and I’d like to leave you with a quote, in the hopes that it will help you on your journey toward meaning in 2019:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself
From all of us at Alongside You, I hope you have a wonderful start to the New Year, and that 2019 will bring you a renewed sense of purpose and meaning…and happiness.