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.
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.
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.
My name is Nik, and it’s a pleasure to be joining the team at Alongside You for my counselling internship! I will write a little about myself here. In short: I am a highly motivated counselling psychology student and science graduate with hands-on experience supporting people with autism, ADHD, anxiety, and other needs. I am committed to inclusion, mental well-being, and care of the highest possible standard. Please do get in touch if you think I or anyone else at Alongside You may be able to assist you!
Life Growing Up
I grew up in a diverse neighbourhood in Port Coquitlam. I was a quirky kid who did not have many close friends, much preferring the library to the soccer field. My bedroom was full of microscopes, telescopes, and amateur electronics. My love of science was matched only by my love of helping others; I came to be known as a calming and compassionate shoulder for others to lean on in times of need.
After graduating from high school, I had an urge for a change of scenery from Greater Vancouver. My British heritage and innate curiosity about the world helped me decide to study Natural Sciences in the United Kingdom at University College London. This interdisciplinary programme explored many different scientific fields, but I ended up focussing on neuroscience. I was fascinated by how little we knew about the human brain and the magic of consciousness. The brain is still very much “uncharted territory” with many new and intriguing discoveries made each year. However, as I progressed through my integrated master’s degree, I realized that these discoveries come at the cost of long and tedious hours in dark and lonely laboratories. Many of my peers who were a few years ahead in their careers found the work unfulfilling. It is valuable work, and I have much respect for those who do it. Still, towards my fourth year of university I realized I found greater meaning in working directly with real people. I started taking psychology electives and shifted from learning about the physical brain to understanding the mind and the soul.
After completing my M.Sci., degree and researching the presence and impact of autistic personality traits in the general population, I spent several years working in the non-profit social services sector. I primarily supported adults with autism, developmental disabilities, bipolar disorder, depression, and other concerns in various residential and community settings. In 2017, missing my family and the beautiful scenery in British Columbia (and also put off by the rapidly rising financial cost of living in London), I moved back to Vancouver. I started working for Family Services of Greater Vancouver to help children and adolescents with autism, ADHD, and anxiety build life skills and independence.
Finally, in September 2019 I started my M.A. in counselling psychology at Adler University. Now entering my second year of graduate studies, I can say I feel absolutely confident that this is the right path for me. My sincere gratitude to those who join me on this journey!
How I Approach Counselling
My approach to counselling is still very much in development, but right now I find myself oriented towards narrative therapy. This approach helps us unpack the story of our lives, read between the lines to gain new insights, consider alternative interpretations, and regain our sense of authorship to write the next chapter as we wish it to be.
That said, I do not draw exclusively on narrative techniques: the right style of counselling is whatever works best for the client! I also incorporate humanistic, person-centered values, meaning I have absolute respect for your choices, autonomy, and independence. It is not my job to make decisions for you or lead you in any particular direction. We will collaboratively explore options together, but you have the final say in any work we do.
Finally, it is important to me that my work includes well-researched, tried-and-true methods for effective and long-lasting change. Therefore, I aim to offer evidence-based exercises from practices such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing (a style of discussion which helps you prepare for change), and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). I also aim to resource my clients (only if they wish) with proven strategies for building resiliency such as mindfulness, grounding techniques, and self-reflection skills.
My interest in research
As an aspiring scholar-practitioner, I believe it is essential to always work towards better understandings of the human mind. I think that this work should be substantiated by reliable data and evidence (although there is undoubtedly a place for intuition too). I am actively engaged in psychology research, keeping up to date on the latest peer-reviewed discoveries worldwide. I regularly collaborate with experienced clinicians and scientists on my own projects.
My current research interests include:
The impact of exercise on cognitive abilities
Relationship between personality traits and mental well-being
Improving the counselling experience for people in alternative relationship structures
Psychosocial development outcomes of using digital technology (e.g. apps, video games, robotics) versus physical toys and in-person interaction for children with autism in educational settings
Mechanisms underlying the transmission of intergenerational trauma
How social media and concerns (or ambivalence) about mass surveillance impact mental health, particularly in young people
Let me emphasize that my counselling clients are not research participants nor the subjects of experiments. I provide the above information just to give a better sense of who I am and what I engage in.
How I practice self-care through hobbies and interests
My energy, my fire, most certainly comes from music. I enjoy listening to most genres and have played various instruments since I was five years old (primarily guitar nowadays, and saxophone on occasion). I’ve found song-writing and composition to be personally therapeutic.
Travel is a large part of my life, and I also enjoy photography, which fortunately go quite well together! I prefer a more adventurous travel style, intentionally making myself uncomfortable to see what I discover about the world and about myself. In August 2017 I completed a challenging but incredibly rewarding 800km bicycle trek from London to Glasgow in five days. In April 2019 I participated in a charity event called The Rickshaw Run, driving 3,000km across India in a motorized tuk-tuk (essentially a 7-horsepower glorified lawnmower) while raising over $3,000 for cancer research. This past summer, my plans to backpack around eastern Europe were thwarted by the covid-19 pandemic. Instead, I took the opportunity to go on a 9,000km socially-distanced camping road trip to the Arctic Circle and back. I am incredibly grateful to have experienced how vast and beautiful this part of the world is! (Gratitude, I believe, is an important and too often neglected value nowadays)
I am also a big fan of fitness — or at least the idea of it! There are certainly many days when it’s challenging to muster the energy or find the time to exercise. Nonetheless, I’ve come to appreciate how vital physical activity is and that a healthy body yields a healthy mind.
Another significant hobby of mine is aviation. When I lived in the UK I learned to fly glider planes with long wings and no engines. We would launch ourselves into the sky and hunt like the birds for warm air currents to provide lift. It was a continuous fight against gravity, but there was something simply magical about the experience of quietly soaring among the clouds. I’ve not had an opportunity to fly since moving back to Canada, but I hope to resume gliding someday.
That’s all I have to say about that
My commendations if you’ve read this far! When I started writing this introduction, I did not think I would have so much to say about myself! Yet, in some ways, this has barely scratched the surface of who I am; we are all incredibly complex beings with indescribable depth. I know I still have plenty of self-discovery and personal development to do. But I hope this gives you some sense of myself, and if we do end up working together, I look forward to learning more about who you are and who you are becoming. I’d love to be a part of your journey.
I never expected to end up working as a counsellor. For a while, I thought I’d be a teacher, then I thought I’d be a journalist. I’ve worked as a custodian, a camp counsellor, in cramped offices and construction sites. None of these jobs promoted the idea of self-care.
The point is, my life has taken quite a few twists and turns, and it’s been very difficult at a lot of times to find a direction and a sense of purpose to what I was doing. And one major thing I’ve learned through that experience is just how important it is to take care of yourself.
When I was studying in journalism school, I very quickly realized being a reporter wasn’t the career for me. But instead of changing gears, I got mad at myself for not being good enough as a journalist and pushed myself towards a job I had no interest in doing. I was very hard on myself back then, and I blamed myself and my own inadequacies and I figured the only way to move was forward, even though I didn’t like the direction I was going.
I felt like I was trapped in this path I had chosen for myself. It was terrible. I pushed and pushed myself until I completely burned out at the end of my first year.
I took my whole body—mentally, physically, and emotionally—to the breaking point because I didn’t know how to take care of myself; I only knew how to continue doing things and never tell anyone how I really felt.
My Need For Self-Care
It turns out, I suffered from depression, anxiety, and a few other mental health issues that made it all the more difficult for me to take care of and go easier on myself. From a very early age, I felt lonely and sad a lot of the time. Even when I was spending time with friends or family, I would still feel a sense of sadness at not fitting in and not being accepted.
One of the ways I coped with experiencing all these negative feelings all the time was to hold myself to an impossible standard, criticize myself all the time, and blame myself for anything that went wrong in my life. I got used to the idea of being miserable and alone enough that I assumed I’d still feel that way no matter what career path I took, which is why I stayed in school and in jobs I didn’t like for so long.
But over time, my depression, anxiety, and negative self-talk became too much and I couldn’t function at work, home, or in social situations. Faced with inescapable feelings of sadness, loneliness, and self-loathing, I could barely get myself up in the morning and do daily tasks, let alone take care of myself.
It was only after I started going to counselling myself that I learned how hard on myself I was being and that it was actually OK to look after myself, take care of my body, and pursue my own interests instead of forcing myself into a career I didn’t fit into.
Counselling Can Help You Take Care Of Yourself
Counselling was so incredibly helpful for me as I began to better understand myself and make positive changes in my own life. I learned that I had a passion for the entire idea of counselling; of someone who is willing to join you when you’re at your lowest and help you find your own path towards understanding yourself, accepting yourself, and thriving as your best self.
I love being a counselling intern, even though it’s the last place I figured my life would take me. I’m excited to be learning these valuable skills as a counselling intern in an effort to help others. Having experienced mental health struggles myself, I know the value and life-changing power of therapy. It’s so important that we all learn to better understand our own mental health needs so we can take care of ourselves and each other.
When Will You Start Your Journey With Self-Care?
If you’re resonating with anything I’m saying in this article, I’d love to sit down with you. I’d love to be a part of helping you see that you’re not alone in your struggles, and that it’s okay to not be okay. We’ve all be there, and it doesn’t have to stay this way. Contact the office if you’d like to sit down together, I’d be happy to meet with you!
From The Directors: Today on the blog, we’re starting a new series. Our daughter, Ava is going to be writing for our blog from time to time. She’ll be talking about some of the issues she experiences and comes across with her friends, in school, and in life, to offer a perspective from a kid. We professionals can be helpful, but sometimes kids need to hear from kids. We hope this is something that some of your kids can benefit from and see that they’re not the only kid thinking of these things or struggling with things in life. We also hope that some of Ava’s tips will help them too!
My name is Ava. I am a tween, and I have a sister and I have a dog named Buttercup – she is 10 years old. I love to do gymnastics and play with my beautiful dog. I love to bake, ride my bike, read, go skateboarding and last but not least, I LOVE TO PLAY WITH SLIME!!!!!!!!
You may be wondering why I love to play with slime, so here are a few reasons why:
I have anxiety and learning disabilities. Playing with slime helps calm me down when I am nervous. I love the feeling of it in my hands and how the texture changes by what I put in it. It can be really smooth, soft, fluffy, wet or stretchy! Just having it in my hands helps me concentrate better.
It helps me be creative and lets me experiment with ingredients such as, white glue or clear glue (optional), hand cream, glitter, clay (but add in after you activate), foam beads and shaving cream. For activator you can use borax, contact solution and tide, but only use one activator for one slime. Don’t use two activators in one slime.
You can do this on your own or while social distancing with a friend. Or, you can make it online in FaceTime or Zoom – I like to do this with my cousins. It is a very soothing activity but it can get a little bit messy! It doesn’t take long to clean up! If it gets on your clothes just put the clothing in a bucket and put it in hot water to soak for 30 minutes to an hour and it will come right out.
I hope you enjoyed my blog today! Every once in a while, I’m going to write a blog that I hope will help some people. I know that I have a hard time with school and with anxiety sometimes, and I hope some kids out there will hear that it’s ok if things are hard. Life can be hard sometimes! I hope that some of my experiences and ideas might help you!
See you next time!
Ava Neufeld is the newest author on our blog. She is a 12 year old student in the Delta School District and wants to share her perspective on life and challenges in the hopes that it helps others.