Using Art and Mindfulness for Pain Control

Using Art and Mindfulness for Pain Control

Using Art and Mindfulness for Pain Control

 

“Art gives a face to the ambiguity of chronic pain…it gives a visual expression to something that is often elusive.”

– Dr. Steve Feinberg, American Chronic Pain Association

 

It’s Not Easy Being In Pain

 

How many of us have pinched a finger in a door, have sprained or broken a limb, have woken up with a back ache or gone to bed with a searing migraine? In some form or another, we can relate! After all, we are human. For some of us, however, either due to injury or illness, the pain never goes away. Day in and day out, pain follows us all the time. It is no surprise then, that pain impacts all aspects of our lives: our sleep, our ability to work or go to school, and even our social connections and family relationships. Using art and mindfulness for pain control can be an extremely helpful tool for our journey. Before we get into that, let’s look at some of the information on chronic pain and illnesses.

 

The Statistics

 

Did you know that nearly 8 million people in Canada live with chronic pain (or pain that persists for than three months)?i This means that 1 in 5 people suffer from prolonged pain. 1 in 5 children and youth experience ongoing pain and 1 in 3 adults 65 and older experience chronic pain.ii This can include but is not limited to conditions such as endometriosis, cancer, neurological disorders, fibromyalgia, and Lupus.

Like other chronic illnesses, the chronic pain experience is also impacted by other factors such as poverty, mental health and substance use issues, diversity in gender, race, ethnicity, abilities, and concurrent medical conditions.iii

 

The Stigma

 
Some of us have been on the receiving end of a dirty glare when parking in a handicap space, using the elevator meant for those with physical disabilities, or for not offering your seat on a bus to another person with physical disabilities. If only they knew! Because chronic pain is largely invisible, those affected by it can often feel disbelieved, unheard, or dismissed. The stigma builds as individuals are labeled as a “problematic and frequent patients,” mainly because they seek medical treatment regularly. The huge range of symptoms that one can have related to chronic pain makes it difficult to reach a diagnosis and plan for treatment. What begins is a search for effective, compassionate and quality help.
 

Facing Challenges

 
For people living with chronic pain or illness, getting help is not always straightforward.
In my own pain experience and in my work with others with chronic conditions, this seems to be a reoccurring experience. Navigating through our medical system is complex and confusing at times. For patients with chronic pain it’s certainly not a walk in the park!

To be fair, medical professionals do their best to care for their chronic pain patients but struggle to work within a health care system that is not always well-equipped to manage the complex nature of pain. With nearly 900,000 British Columbians without a family doctoriv, the limited amount of time with each patient, and long wait times in walk-in clinics and emergency wards, medical professionals are not always able to spend the time they need or want to with their patients.

As a result of this, chronic pain sufferers are faced with considerable challenges when seeking help?

  1. The need to review their medical history for every new practitioner. With each new doctor or specialist, patients are asked to review their medical challenges and ‘pain history’ and it is exhausting! If there is no continuity of care or no regular doctor who can follow your progress and prescribe effective treatments, those with chronic pain can be left with feelings of despair and frustration.
  2. Self-advocacy is hard. With many chronic pain symptoms being invisible, those of us with chronic conditions need to be forthright, consistent, and clear when we articulate our symptoms, and defend our state of being and need for treatment. This not a skill that everyone has and it forces already vulnerable people to go outside of their comfort zone or find an advocate who can be their spokesperson.
  3. It is hard to get timely help. It can take many months and even years to see specialists, receive surgery, or gain access to public pain programs. In the meantime, patients are left to cope, to seek out alternative forms of treatments. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to look, and see if they are accessible (financially, geographically, or demographically).
  4. Building a support network is not always easy or within reach. With prolonged reliance on friends and family for practical, financial, physical, emotional, and spiritual support, those with chronic pain may be left with changed or strained relationships. Asking for help regularly or relying on others may not always be an option due to life circumstances. Feelings of loneliness and of being a burden often weigh heavily on those with prolonged pain.

 

How Do We Address These Issues and Improve Quality of Life?

 
How many times have you heard, “You’re going to have to learn how to live with your pain?” We groan, yes, but it’s true. There is no magic wand, so how do we do this? The chronic pain experience is riddled with complexities; because it has both physiological and psychological components, taking a holistic approach in tackling chronic pain is the most effective treatment plan in retraining our body and brain. For a good discussion of the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to pain management, check out this video.

When used together, interventions such as pain medication, surgical procedures, counselling, body work (occupational therapy, physiotherapy, massage therapy, exercise, acupuncture), and the arts (visual, performance, music, dance, literary), can reboot our nervous system, teach us productive skills to manage symptoms, and help us to connect with ourselves and others and have a better quality of life amidst our pain experiences.
 

The Role of Art and Mindfulness For Pain Control

 
Using the Arts and mindfulness for its health benefits is widely becoming a critical component of healthcare to positively enhance, impact, healv and strengthen overall health and well-being.vi Research shows that mindfulness, or the act of paying full attention to the present moment without judgement,vii is a very effective practice to provide relief for both physical and psychological symptoms of chronic pain. Jon Kabat-Zinn, leading researcher of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) advocates that mindfulness can alleviate symptoms of pain, reduce stress in the body, alter our negative thought distortions to more positive ones, create emotional balance, and enhance overall health.viii

It’s no surprise then, that combining the art making process with mindfulness can be an effective way to tackle pain management. The very act of creativity and expression can promote body awareness,ix be an effective practice for rehabilitation and lead to significant life changes. It also offers a tangible and fun way to learn mindfulness skills, and encourage self-compassionate creativity.
 

What types of art activities can we do to learn mindfulness?

 
There are a wide variety of artistic activities that can help us learn to be mindful. Here are a few ideas:

  • Activities such as drawing, paper marbling or knitting can provide temporary respite or healthy distraction from physical symptoms of pain,xi xii and allow chronic pain sufferers to lose themselves in the moment or artistic process.xii xiii
  • Reflective journaling and guided meditation connects both the physical body and the psychological mind, using the art making process to encourage positive self-care, and experimentation and risk-taking, two essential qualities of the art-making process.xiv
  • Creating a self-portrait or vision board is a way to explore understandings of self, improve self-confidence,xv process suffering or significant life changes, and provide a visual representation of the life you want to have moving forward.
  • Making art with others in a supportive environment can help us feel connected and understood by talking to others about pain experiences,xvi building companionship, and having a sense of belonging, and decreasing social isolation and loneliness.
  • Selecting from a range of colours, shapes or images in an art activity encourages experimentation,xvii affirms a sense of control over surroundings and the decision-making process, and builds upon and improves cognitive functions (memory processing and problem solving).xviii

 
Using art and mindfulness for pain control, along with healthy changes to our diet, sleep, and exercise regimes and with attentiveness to empathy and creativity can help lower stress levels, give our nervous system a rest, and helps to promote self-care habits. By using a variety of creative processes, health difficulties can be better expressed, understood, accepted, and help us build our resilience. xix

I hope this article has given you a taste of the benefits of using art and mindfulness for pain control. If you want to try something fun, meet others who understand and support you, and learn how to manage symptoms through the process of creating, join us in our Pain in the Arts class, where we will learn how to make art with a mindfulness lens.

If you want to learn more about our Arts in Health Program at Alongside You, please visit our page on Arts in Health.
 
 


i. Canadian Pain Task Force Report. 2021 Accessed July 13th, 2022. Link
ii. Canadian Pain Task Force Report. 2021 Accessed July 13th, 2022. Link
iii. Canadian Pain Task Force Report. 2021 Accessed July 13th, 2022. Link
iv. Xu, Xiao “Nearly 900,000 British Columbians don’t have a family doctor, leaving walk-in clinics and ERs swamped.” Globe and Mail. April 29 2022. Accessed July 13th. Link
v. Fancourt, Dr. Daisy; Warren, Katey and Augusterson, Henry. “Evidence summary for policy: The role of arts in improving health and wellbeing.” Report to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. April 2020. Accessed July 5th, 2022.
Link
vi. Link
viii. Gardner-Nix, Dr. Jackie and Lucie Costin-Hall. The Mindfulness Solution to Pain. New Harbinger Publicaitons, Inc. 2009: vii.
ix. Callahan, Margaret Jones. Mindfulness Based Art: The Sparks Guide for Educators and Counselors. Friesen Press. 2016.
x. Ann Behav Med. Eds. Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.2017 Apr;51(2):199-213.Link
xi. Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L. & Burney, R. J The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. Behav Med (1985) 8: 163.
xii. Dr. Daniel Potts. How art therapy enhances the life for Dementia Patients. 2014. Accessed September 15th, 2016. Link
xiii. “The Art of Pain Management.” American Chronic Pain Association: Link
xiv. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 41. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.
xv. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 40. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.
xvi. Monti, Daniel W., Caroline Peterson, et al. A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Mindfulness-based Art Therapy (MBAT) for Women with Cancer. Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA, Psycho-Oncology 15:363–373 (2006)
xvii. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 41. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.
xviii. Quintana Hernández DJ et all. The effects of a neuropsychology program based on mindfulness on Alzheimer’s disease: randomized double-blind clinical study. Revista Espanola de Geriatria y Gerontologia [2014, 49(4):165-172]
xix. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 40. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.
Arts In Health – Why We Should Be Using Art In Healthcare

Arts In Health – Why We Should Be Using Art In Healthcare

What is Arts in Health?

 

The idea that The Arts have a role in the health of individuals and communities has a long history in cultures around the world.i Arts in Health (also known as Arts in Medicine or Art in Healthcare) incorporates The Arts (visual, performing, literary, music, and dance) to support and enhance the continuum of care and plays a critical role in the overall health and well-being of people seeking help for various conditions.

This growing field of research and inquiry is developing world-wide, especially in The United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, and across Europe.ii Increasingly, medical professionals are ‘socially prescribing’ non-medical, community-based activities and services that provide patients and practitioners greater health options when faced with complex medical and social problems.iii Though not as developed as in other countries, there are various health initiatives that incorporate The Arts with diverse creative holistic approaches to health across Canada.iv

This multi-disciplinary approach to health is becoming recognized both as an effective and creative way to positively impact health outcomes in both inpatient and outpatient healthcare and community settings, and boost mental, emotional, social, physical and brain health.

Specifically, participating in the art-making process:

 

  • Reduces stress, anxiety and depressionv
  • Improves self-confidence,vi self-awareness and empowermentvii
  • Encourages positive self-care skills
  • Provides a supportive setting to socialize, decreasing loneliness and social isolation
  • Is an effective preventative tool to manage symptoms of chronic pain and illness, and diseases such as Dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease
  • Improves and maintains neuro-spatial functions, memory processing and problem solving as we ageviii
  • Fosters emotional resilience, confidence, and personal growth
  • Is a healthy outlet and distraction tool to heal from physical, emotional, and psychological issues

To learn more, check out this infographic based on the research of Alain De Bolton and John Armstrong “Art As Therapy.”

 

Where does Arts in Health take place and what does it actually look like?

 
If you have ever been to a museum, a hospital, or community-based care home, you have most likely come across both art work and programs that fit under the umbrella of Arts in Health.

Museums and art galleries are accessible places where art can be viewed, questioned, created and bought. Artists and craftspeople are culture makers; they often play a huge role in cultural education and wellness. They are catalysts and bring people together through exhibitions, celebrations, ceremonial performances, and demonstrations. Artists can also showcase their work and sell their handcrafted art pieces.

Art work or painted murals are displayed in hospitals in hallways, waiting rooms, intensives care units, palliative and hospice wards, treatment and operating rooms and children’s wards. Outdoor art installations are also found on hospital grounds, music is played in high stress areas to benefit the patients and health-care staff, art activities are used at bedsides or during treatment (chemotherapy, radiation, and dialysis).

Community-based organizations such as rehabilitation and addiction centres, women’s shelters, day programs for people with diverse abilities, and immigrant services are just a few examples of where recreational forms of art-making are used to strengthen, to heal, and to communicate.
 

Who Benefits from Arts in Health Programs?

 
Along with other therapeutic interventions such as counselling, neurofeedback, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), occupational therapy and physiotherapy, The Arts allows us to discover, explore, practice, connect not only with others, but with ourselves. More specifically:
 

  • Kids and Teens: Approximately 20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder.ix Extracurricular activities such as art making can be especially beneficial for both teens and children because it provides a fun, non-threating, and inclusive setting where they can be introduced to new skills, learn coping strategies, shore up defenses and can develop deeper understandings of themselves and others.x
  • Socially Isolated Individuals: Approximately 1 in 5 Canadians say that are not satisfied with their number of friends.xi Loneliness is real. Making art with others can promote social satisfaction and allow individuals to connect with others with similar interests
  • Caregivers or other individuals with overwhelming stress and anxiety: Using The Arts is good place to begin when coping with the stresses of everyday life. Picking up a paint brush or writing in a journal can be small but positive self-care steps to improve everyday life
  • Individuals with diverse needs, abilities, and diagnoses: People with diverse physical, intellectual, developmental, and emotional needs thrive when art activities are tailored to suit their individual interests and needs. Those with chronic pain or illnesses also benefit from the art making experience which helps in pain management
  • Individuals who just want to have fun! Making art in a beautiful space with a variety of different art, alongside others can really boost our mood. We can also receive individualized and collective support and guidance while working on creative projects
  •  

    Who is considered an Arts in Health practitioner?

     
    Arts in Health practitioners are composed of a variety of individuals: professionally trained artists, artists-in-residence, expressive arts practitioners (who use multiple forms of art), arts or health educators, art consultants, community-based support staff, other health-care professionals, recreational instructors in hospital or community programs, or other creative individuals who incorporate art in health disciplines.xii

    These practitioners provide patients, family members, and caregivers with opportunities for creative engagement in a variety of ways. Many artists are involved in fundraising efforts for health-related causes. From auction items, art commissions, internet sales, art shows, and community events, artists are uniquely woven into the commercial market, bridging artistic development to benefit healthcare initiatives. It is common for artists to work as educators inside schools or workplaces. They lead students, teachers, businesses and organizations in creating collaborative art pieces, and provide training and professional development on how to practice self-care and how to infuse wellness in their classroom or organization.

    Artists have always played a pivotal role in places of religious expression and places of worship, such as churches, mosques, temples and more. They help bridge creative expression (music, building architecture, prayers) with spiritual health and healing.

    Musicians, performance artists, dancers, visual and literary artists play a huge part in improving our collective quality of life, especially during challenging times. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen how The Arts have brought us together and helped us cope anxiety and stress.
     

    So why does Arts in Health matter?

     
    Increasingly, the health-care system is going thought a shift, one that focuses on treating the whole person (body/mind/soul), not just the condition. Medical programs are integrating the arts into training, teaching and research because of the overwhelming evidence-based research that shows a direct correlation between healing and the arts.xiii

    This infographic provides a great visual on the importance of community-based Arts in Health.

    Both on an Individual and community level, at Alongside You, we seek to reduce the burdens of illness, to foster connection, provide hope and build resilience so we can help others live vibrant and thriving lives. It is for these reasons that we offer Arts in Health programs at Alongside You. If you have any questions about how our Arts in Health programs can help you on your journey, please reach out to me and I’ll be glad to hear your experience and talk about how including arts in your health plan could help!
     

    “An active engagement with the arts – whether as a participant, or as a viewer – is one effective way for individuals and communities to address issues of public health. We recognize that prevention and health promotion are important in avoiding the costs and issues associated with acute care later on, down the road. This is where the arts are effective in health promotion.”

    – Sarah Chilvers, (former Program Director for Health and Social Development for the Vancouver Foundation)


    i. Clift, Stephen, and Paul M. Camic (eds). Oxford Textbook of Creative Arts, Health, and Wellbeing: International Perspectives on Practice, Policy and Research. Oxford University Press. 2016. Page 3.

    ii. Clift, Stephen, and Paul M. Camic (eds). Oxford Textbook of Creative Arts, Health, and Wellbeing: International Perspectives on Practice, Policy and Research. Oxford University Press. 2016. Page 4.

    iii. Wouldn’t it be great to have this in Canada?

    iv. To name a few: Dalhousie University’s Medical Humanities Program called Heals, that combines the arts and humanities with healthcare; The University of Prince Edward Island’s Advancing Interdisciplinary Research in Singing (AIRS) Research Environment that connects researchers across discipline with singing and well-being; McGill University’s leading researcher in neurosciences, Daniel Levitin’s work on the impact of music and the brain; Arts Health Network is hub that links research in arts and health knowledge across Canada; In Manitoba, University of Victoria’s Health Initiative (UHI) aims to enhance health research, healthy aging, indigenous health, and mental health.

    v. Repar, Patricia Ann DMA; Patton, Douglas Med. Stress Reduction for Nurses Through Arts-in-Medicine at the University of New Mexico Hospitals. The Departments of Music and Internal Medicine.

    Holistic Nursing Practice: July 2007 – Volume 21 – Issue 4 – p 182-186. University of New Mexico. Accessed July 14th, 2022. https://journals.lww.com/hnpjournal/Abstract/2007/07000/Stress_Reduction_for_Nurses_Through.4.aspx

    vi. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 40. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.

    vii. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 41. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.

    viii. Zeki, Semir. Art and the Brain. Journal of Consciousness Studies 6(6-7). 1999. Accesses September 14th, 2020. Link

    ix. Canadian Mental Health Association Statistics: Mental Health and Mental Illness. Link

    x. Coholic, Diana. Arts Activities for Children and Young People in Need. (2010). P. 11.

    xi. Canadian Mental Health Association. Coping with Loneliness. Link

    xii. Dewey, Patricia, Bettes, Donna et.all. Arts, Health and Wellbeing in America. (2017). Accessed July 15th, 2022. Link

    xiii. This is evident with the growing recognition amongst Canadian physicians the establishment of medical schools such as Queens University, Memorial University of Newfoundland, the University of Alberta that bridge medical training with The Arts.

Persistent Pain That Doesn’t Go Away – Just Slouch More

Persistent Pain That Doesn’t Go Away – Just Slouch More

 
 

Persistent pain that doesn’t go away is a pain in the ____________. Here’s an idea from a Registered Massage Therapist: you have permission to relax and enjoy sitting, standing and moving in any way you feel comfortable and happy.

Pains in the neck, low back and shoulders are a common complaint for massage therapists and all too often our clients come in worried and tell us they have poor posture and that this must be the reason for their pain. These people are often hyper-vigilant and compliant patients – the kinds of people who do all the necessary work to help alleviate their symptoms but unfortunately these symptoms often don’t go away despite the many gadgets, tricks, and ergonomic changes to their desks at work.

 

Why Do These Pains Persist?

 

Unfortunately, pain is a complex concept. Pain cannot be reduced to such ideas as head-forward posture or weak “core” muscles or “bad” habits at work. The way we perceive and feel pain is entirely dependent on a multitude of factors including biological predispositions and sensitivities, stress levels at work and at home, and your own past experiences. We call this model of pain a Biopsychosocial Model, and it is currently the most scientifically supported model for pain. The biopsychosocial model plays an incredible role in pain – we have now learned that stress is the single most important factor in determining how much pain a person is in, regardless of past injury history, health history and posture. When stress is high, pain centres in your brain (cerebral cortex and limbic systems) become more sensitive to signals coming from your body. When stress is reduced, and you feel calm and relaxed, pain centres in the brain are less sensitive.
 

Stop Working On Your Posture

 

Hold on a minute – did a Registered Massage Therapist just say I don’t need to work on my posture?

YEP!

A recent article published in Psychology Today by a leading pain expert states that “Pain is commonly triggered, and amplified, by negative emotions like stress, anxiety, anger and depression.” The reality that your pain can be amplified by emotions and that your emotions can amplify your physical pains means that living through a pandemic has likely increased your physical discomfort and sensations of pain. Adding to this more stress about posture and you can see where this is leading.

Stress is a significant reason for persistent pain that doesn’t go away. If stress is a better indicator of how badly people hurt than your posture is, one might see how it could be counterproductive to tell you to add yet another thing to your plate – particularly given the global pandemic. So instead, I offer you this – if you’re feeling discomfort or pain in your back, neck and shoulders and you’ve got some stress in your life, give yourself permission to move freely and to sit in any position you feel comfortable in. You are not going to cause yourself injury. You are resilient and your body was designed to move you.

Yes, you have permission for even the slouchiest, baddest posture you’ve ever had.

There’s never anything wrong with working on core strengthening or posture improvements, but don’t be discouraged if they do not instantly solve your persistent pains (but if they help, keep on keeping on!). Please don’t feel pressured to add yet another thing to your already too-full cup if you’re feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable.

This registered massage therapist gives you permission to just slouch more.

Need help with your persistent pain or just reducing your stress that is leading to the persistent pain that does not go away? We’re here for you. Give us a shout, we’d love to work with you on how to best help your body to relax, reduce stress, and deal with your discomfort!

You’re Not Broken, You’re Adapting

You’re Not Broken, You’re Adapting

 
 

Many people come to therapy with the belief that something is amiss, broken, or “wrong” with them. Sometimes I wish it were easier to convince people this isn’t true – most of the time, the people that come to sit in my office are “working” just fine. Have they been thrown an unfair number of lemons by life? Sure, maybe. Have they responded to those experiences creatively and adaptively, in a way that has both helped and hindered them? In every case, yes. That said, you’re not broken, you’re adapting.
 

How Does Adaptation Happen?

 

Genetics is one element that explains our wonderful human diversity, and another is environment and experience – we all have a rich tapestry of experiences, and no two tapestries are anything close to alike. Those tapestries, I believe, are all quite beautiful.1, I’ve noticed people generally prefer movies that end happily, but when it comes to art and music, it can be the mournful, the bleak, the dark, the unsettling and unresolved, that has more power and meaning for us.2 The darker shades in those tapestries are worth sitting back and soaking in, they touch us deeply. This is one of the many reasons I love my job so much. Another is that sometimes, one of my coworkers brings in muffins.

Ok, back to the thing. Neuroscience has known for many years now about the incredible plasticity of the brain, an organ that readily and creatively adapts to its environment. Most of us have heard that people who experience blindness have a more heightened sense of hearing and smell. One reason for this is that the brain takes unused real estate – certain areas devoted to visual processing – and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, the neurologist Oliver Sacks shares stories of brain-damaged patients who have responded with unbelievable neurological adaptations. Sacks comments “…there is always a reaction, on the part of the affected organism or individual, to restore, to replace, to compensate for and to preserve its identity, however strange the means may be…” (p.6). Brains find a way to preserve and reinvent themselves in the face of damage, and people find a way to preserve themselves in the face of challenge. Trauma and anxiety are prime examples: a dog bite when you are three years old might give you a paralyzing fear of dogs for the rest of your life. Your three-year-old brain saw that your life was in danger and it made a high priority, instantly accessible file labeled DOGS = DEATH -> AVOID that pumps you full of anxiety and adrenaline when a dog might be nearby.

Many of our adaptations are not all that dramatic and some are more complex. Maybe our dad told us not to be a baby when we cried, and so to preserve that relationship (our brain knew this was more important) we created a file that evokes anxiety when something might feel sad. Now, we are an expert at avoiding not only physical sadness, but things that even might make us feel sad based on our experiences.
 

What Do We Do About Our Adaptations?

 

Your adaptations are there for a reason, and that’s ok. They might not be as helpful as they once were – you’re an adult now, and dogs aren’t all that dangerous most of the time – they’re actually awesome. Avoiding sadness was functional before, but now you find yourself feeling depressed more often than not. In your last relationship, it made sense to be angry with your partner, because it felt like the only way to get through to them – but in your other relationships, that anger is less useful.

Adaptations in our life are unavoidable and necessary, and this is a good thing. If you lacked the ability to adapt, then I might agree that something is wrong with you. But I’ve never met anyone for whom that was true. You see, blind folks don’t tell their brains to reuse that real estate for hearing, brains just do it, which is so cool. And our brains, as wonderful as they are, don’t always make the best long-term choices. They find a way to stop us from driving after we have a bad accident, terrified that we might die, convinced that losing our job is better than death. When we are frustrated at ourselves and sad about the loss of that job, they talk us into pouring a drink, and when it works, they think “Perfect!” and they keep doing it. When people close to us start to bother us, they might solve the problem by helping us avoid relationships altogether (great idea for a week, but not for a year, or a lifetime). When our coworker brings in muffins, they talk us into stress-eating four of them, because the first one was oh. so. good. I think you get the point.
 

Working With Our Adaptations

 

We can get to know our adaptations, and be brave enough to set aside those we no longer need (and adjust the ones we do). We can come to see that our adaptations are actually strengths – the lengths that we go to in order to avoid something can spark incredible creativity. These are some things we might do in therapy. But first, we might work on the belief that there is something wrong with you in the first place – and, wouldn’t you know it, our brains are fantastic at holding onto those beliefs. So, if you take nothing else out of this article, make it the belief that you – whoever you are – are mostly just fine, and you are weaving a meaningful and worthwhile tapestry with the threads you are being given.

If you’re struggling with some of your adaptations, give us a shout. We’re here to help. Remember, you’re not broken; you’re adapting.

 
Notes

1. You’ll have to let me have this one – I’m an incredible, unabashed sap, for better and worse.
2. I have a client who is a fantastic artist, and I sometimes have the privilege of seeing some of what she’s made – it reflects her experiences, and it also connects me to some of my own. Art in many forms has that effect, and those who do it well are a real gift to the world. Meg, who runs the therapeutic art program here at Alongside You, often uses a wide range of colours and tones to create pieces that seem able to capture any mood under the sun – a few seconds soaking these in are seconds well spent.
3. On the tapestry metaphor note, his op-ed in the Times on his terminal cancer diagnosis is a worthwhile read along with this blog post – here’s a link to it.

Pandemic Tips for Teens

Pandemic Tips for Teens

 

My Best Pandemic Tips For Teens

 

I see a lot of clients in the high-school-or-close-to-it age bracket, who I tend to think are getting hit worse than anyone right now by this pandemic. Teens, this article is for you. Some of you love that you spend less time in school now, others hate it; some of you are going insane being cooped up inside, and some of you relish not having to deal with people quite as much. Whatever the case, a lot of us want tools (this is probably the thing I am asked most commonly for). While I love talking to people, if it’s just tools you want (and most commonly it isn’t), here are some of my best pandemic tips for teens!

Your Brain and Your Emotions Play Tricks on You

 

In the 13-22 or so age range, you feel feelings more intensely than your 25+ year old counterparts. It’s just how the brain works. This has both advantages and disadvantages: your lows are lower, and your highs are higher. Your lows will suck, and it’s likely that the adults in your life will struggle to relate to that, try as they might.

What To Do With The Lows

 

Unfortunately, we are a culture that tends to discourage negative feelings, especially strong ones. Many teens I see believe that there is something wrong with them, or that they are mentally unwell, both which are quite often untrue. While it is taboo to say, a good many of our minds will travel to a place that says we would be better off dead, and the world would be better off not having us. I really hope you’re not there, but if you are sometimes, come talk to us about it. Or to someone else – anyone you trust. It’s surprisingly normal. Please trust me when I say that difficult feelings are important, and worth experiencing (though they are best experienced alongside someone we trust). If you want someone to talk to but don’t want anyone else to know about it, send us an email and we will see if we can help, or point you to someone that can.

Managing Your Highs

 

Since your highs will be higher, that’s a good thing to take advantage of. You can enjoy a movie or YouTube clip way more than most of us can, you can get more joy from spending time with friends (please do this), you can laugh harder and longer, your runner’s highs will be higher. You can feel closer to your pet than we can, which I’m a little jealous of – pets are awesome (at the risk of making a few enemies, especially dogs). Use that – when you’re up, relish it and use the energy it brings.

If there was a pill that would cost nothing, that you could take that would help you sleep better, improve your mood, boost your immune system, help your brain and memory function better, reduce anxiety and depression, reduce stress, and generally make you feel better about yourself, would you take it? I think everyone probably would. Surprise, there is. Bet you didn’t see that coming in an article on the best pandemic tips for teens, did you?

The Magic Pill That’s Free

 

There is indeed a mysterious, free pill. Most people get really excited about this until they hear what it is. It’s exercise. I know that trickery was the last thing you probably wanted to hear, but exercise is literally one of the best things anyone can do for themselves, period. Doesn’t matter what it is, just get moving, and if you can, get your heart rate up. It might be hard at first, but the more of it you do, the better you’ll feel. I should also tell you that you should be sleeping more, but you know that already, and you probably aren’t going to. If you want help in that department, talk to your doctor. In addition to exercise, you can also try cutting out screens in favour of books in the couple hours before bed, or at the very least get yourself a pair of extremely trendy blue light blocking glasses.

You Already Have Skills That You Don’t Realize

 

Because you’re a human being, you have a whole bunch of adaptations the you’ve obtained over the course of a long life. These are great at getting you through tough times. One of my adaptations I used when I was younger was daydreaming, and another was making a joke out of everything. Some other common ones are overthinking/rationalizing, using alcohol or drugs, playing too many video games, or gluing oneself to TikTok.

Some of these are better than others, and they are mostly OK if used sparingly. Though we don’t want to overuse our adaptations, you have them for a reason – they’ve worked before, and they’ll work again. Don’t be too hard on yourself for using them, and I would probably recommend expanding your repertoire to include some more healthy ones.

Exercise (again), art, writing, music, hobbies, gardening, spelunking – the list goes on. If you’re feeling angry or stressed and are already not going to do your homework anyway, you could split your time between something mindless like video games, and something a little more mindful like going outside and collecting a bunch of bugs, or baking some cookies. If your parents hassle you about it, tell them a counsellor said you were allowed to. Probably do the bugs and cookies first – video games are hard to stop once you start. Healthier time-wasters will also give you a little mental boost in case you do decide you want to actually do some homework.

Make Good Use of Your Energy

 

Try to notice where your energy is going. Maybe you’re worrying a ton about your grades, and it’s exhausting. Maybe you don’t care at all about grades, but your parents do, and a lot of your energy goes to fighting with them. Maybe someone at school is really bothering you and it is eating you up inside. Maybe you’re in love and can’t think of anything else but that person you want so badly to be with. Maybe you’re putting everything you have into YouTube or Fortnite, hoping to make some money off streaming someday.

There is nothing wrong with any of these, but anything can be a drain on your mental and emotional resources. Make a list of the things that are the most draining: your biggest worries, the things you are committed to (sports, etc.), tough relationships. Divide this list into things you might be able to change, and those you can’t. The things you have a little more control over are great targets, and even the things you feel totally helpless about may not be as impossible as they seem. If you have a counsellor, talk to them about these things – it is likely you are burning more fuel in a given area than you have to be. These are also the things that can take you into dark places, or towards less healthy coping strategies.

Be Kind To Yourself

 

Above all, be kind to yourself. So far, I haven’t spent time with someone I didn’t end up liking, and this is because all of us are likeable. Seriously – I know that sounds stupid, but it’s true. You can’t be perfect, and you’re going to come out on the other side of this ok. As I’ve said already, come talk to us if you would like to – even if we can’t help, we can likely direct you to someone who can.

Art In The Time of COVID-19

Art In The Time of COVID-19

We live in strange and difficult times. When the Covid-19 pandemic made its debut, our world was rocked by devastating loss of life. Our schools, businesses, and essential services were shut-down. Even still, both travel and the distribution of goods has been disrupted. Our medical system is being inundated with those fighting COVID-19 along with other illnesses. Though we are in the process of re-opening some of these things, the reality is setting in; Covid-19 has radically changed every fiber of our society. I wonder, how can art inspire us, and be a force for resilience in the time of COVID-19?

While social distancing requirements have forced the cancellation and suspension of many social, cultural, and artistic events and services, the arts have always been and continue to be a way to illustrate the resilience in our society, foster self-reflection and connection with others in profound ways. The role of artists and the arts is not just to record, commemorate, or comment on socio-cultural events, but to uplift, encourage and give hope to all those who see experience it.

It’s no surprise, then, that this health crisis has inspired artists to create. At this time in history, artists are illuminating the world around us. All around us, we can see a wide range of COVID-19 inspired artistic endeavours.

 

Examples of Art Emerging During COVID-19

 

Painted Posters and Rocks

 
Early on in this pandemic, many participated in the communal effort to cheer on frontline and essential service works with posters and scripted messages of hope and love to isolated populations, such as seniors in care facilities. With children home from school, painted rocks also became one way for youngsters to express their gratitude and connect with a seemingly intangible concept of a pandemic and quarantine. Placed discretely around town, happening upon these gems still reminds us that we are all in this together.

 

Street Murals

 
Across the Lower Mainland, street murals have been springing up everywhere. Murals adorn exterior walls of elementary and high-schools, under over-passes, downtown buildings, and malls. Locally, a mural was recently completed at Tsawwassen Mills Mall by artists Jan Rankin and a Natalie Way. Its beach scene reminds us of the connection we have to the nature around us. In downtown Ladner Village, a recently-completed mural done by artist Gary Nay helps depict the vibrancy of Ladner and the region.

What do these murals do? They help to create a sense of community, offer messages of hope, and add cheer, all of which we need during this time!

Across the Lower Mainland, “Open Air” art galleries are expanding. There is a new-found vigour as artists respond to the issues of today and the fight against COVID-19. Over 200 public art pieces in and around Vancouver are part of The Vancouver Mural Festival and range in subject matter, but they provide overall messages of love, community, strength and resilience. All art pieces are accessible online if you can’t get out to see them.

 

Online and Social Media Platforms

 
From the comfort of our homes, we can tour the world’s greatest museums, historical sites, and have access to online exhibitions. The University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, for instance, gives you digital access to their collections, and a range of podcasts, stories, and research.

Instagram and Facebook have some interesting links to innovative and timely art. On Instagram, the account @covidartmuseum consists of themes and art work related to Covid-19 and shows how, in tough times, art can be used for serious contemplation but also offer comic relief. On Facebook, “Dr. Bonnie Henry Fan Club” tells us of a tribute art show at the Ministry of Health showcasing artwork, such as paintings, signs, mosaics and fibre arts, sent to Dr. Bonnie Henry from people all over the province and world.

We can also peek inside the life of an ER nurse, Anna Trowbridge, who sketches the scenes at work and posts them to her Instagram account. Her drawings show us how things really are on the front lines. Though this may be hard for some to take in, it captures the human side of the pandemic and highlights the heroic nature of our health care workers.

 

The Importance of Art Through COVID-19

 

Making art is one way we can practice self-care and learn positive coping strategies, both of which builds resilience

 
Viewing, and even more so, making art can be an important part of your self-care routine. Setting aside time to do something creative has been shown to reduce stress, protect against depression and anxiety, and can improve self-confidence and problem solving skills. Enjoying the mindful process of creating can help in pain-management, and it offers positive distraction tools and healing. Whether it is journaling, painting, singing, dancing, or knitting, our chosen activities helps to shore up our defences and learn healthy habits that we can use to sustain us during tough times. As we head into Fall, with the possibility of further shut-downs, we need the arts now more than ever. Its times like these where art can make all the different to keep our spirits up.
 

Making art together feeds our needs as social beings

 
Making art with others brings with it social benefits; it allows a space for relationships to be built, fosters a sense of belonging, and provides an outlet for self-expression. As we face COVID-19 fatigue and social distancing measures, doing something together with others is becoming more and more important for our mental health. It is not the art itself that has true value, it’s the ideas, conversations, choices, and connections we have made with ourselves and with others as we create that matters. Whether it’s connecting with a small group of people in person or online, the social nature of art helps us to not only to share our stories or voice our own opinions, but to listen to others with a compassionate ear.
 

Self-expression through mindful making helps us make sense of the uncertain world around us

 
This pandemic has compelled us to look at what matters to us, what we deem as essential, and to reflect on our lifestyle. Tuning into the present moment with self-compassion allows us to stop, breathe, observe, acknowledge, contemplate, and respond to our current state. Approaching the art making process in a mindful way can be very relaxing as well as restorative. Thoughtful experimentation can help us cope with the chaos around us and help us to express our beliefs and opinions and be open to new ways of thinking and doing. Giving yourself permission to question your own thoughts carefully, and without judgment, is an effective way to learn more about yourself and to rest and regroup.

 

How Can We Infuse Art Into Our Lives During COVID-19?

 

Art can be a major benefit for all of us as we head into the the Fall season, and into further unknowns. With school starting up, work shifting, and all that comes with this, we need now more than ever to take care of ourselves. Here are a few ideas on how we can use art to manage through this challenging time:
 

  1. Check in with your local community centres, artists’ guild, or private classes in the arts. There are so many wonderful artists in our communities and many are offering classes or experiences you can take part in.
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  3. Create or buy art for your loved ones. Whether you make something yourself, or buy from a local artist, your gift can show others you are thinking of them. Supporting local businesses and donating to local causes also creates a stronger community! At Alongside You, sales of our jewelry, cards, and art help to fund our Step Forward Program, a program that has become increasingly important in subsidizing services for those in need of financial assistance.
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  5. Learn a new skill online. How we do art has changed, and with many programs facing shut downs, artists and organizations are finding ways to adapt their art making offerings. Online learning tools and YouTube videos are a great way to try something new. Finding a live class can also help connect those who may feel isolated. Learning to dance, paint, draw, sing, knit, write poetry, or play an instrument with the help of online tools is a great way to pass the time as we stay home!

  6.  
    What we’ve learned over time is that the creative arts are essential. They enrich our lives, they help us practice self-care, encourage connection, embrace challenges, share our stories and knit our community together. Creative connection is crucial, especially now. May you be safe, be calm, and be kind.

     

    EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT! Open Studios are Back! COVID-Style.

     
    After long last, we are excited to announce the opening of Open Studio Sessions, COVID-Style. We’ve made some changes to our operations and programming to keep people safe and healthy while being able to open the studio back up! We can not express how excited we are to welcome you into the studio again!

    Click here to read about some of the changes and how to register for Open Studios again. We look forward to seeing you!
     
     


    1. Herring, Daniel. Mindfulness-Based Expressive Therapy for People with Severe and Persistent Mental Ilness. P.171. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 168-179.
    2. Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L. & Burney, R. J The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. Behave Med (1985) 8: 163.
    3. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 40-41. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.
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