We all know what it’s like to feel fat.  Let’s try to change that for our next generation.

We all know what it’s like to feel fat. Let’s try to change that for our next generation.

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I could feed you the statistics saying that obesity, eating disorders and body dissatisfaction are serious problems in our society*, but I think you already know it. Why? Because most of us know exactly how terrible it feels to feel bad about our body, to feel fat compared to others, to feel judged, obsessed, and anxious about everything we eat and everyone we see. Most of us at one point or another in our lives have tried some sort of unhealthy weight control behaviour, gotten stuck in a dieting-binge eating cycle, or found ourselves feeling depressed and ashamed because of how we look. We might not admit it openly, but we know.

Why do so many of us know this? Because we live in a “toxic environment”1 for body image and weight-related problems. We are constantly receiving cues to eat high-fat, high-calorie foods on TV, in the grocery store, while driving down the street and we are enabled to be as sedentary as possible with our cars, our escalators, and our ball throwers for our dogs. And yet, within this same environment that facilitates weight gain, we are bombarded with messages that we should be unrealistically thin and fit and everywhere we look we are surrounded with images of thinness that are associated with success, love, popularity, and happiness.

“It is difficult to imagine an environment more effective than ours for producing nearly universal body dissatisfaction, preoccupation with eating and weight, clinical cases of eating disorders, and obesity.” Dr. Kelly Brownell1

But again you already know all of this, why? Because we experience it everyday when we go on Facebook or Instagram. Before we clicked we felt fine but now we feel that sinking feeling in our gut and start thinking “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not fit enough”, etc. We experience it when we’re waiting in line at the supermarket and we read the headlines of the magazines stating how this actress is now battling anorexia and how fat the other one’s butt looks in her bikini and how to lose our own belly fat in just 30 days! And what is all this obsessiveness for? So we can all continue to make the beauty & dieting & fast food industries prosper? So we can all spend inordinate amounts of time on our appearance and thinking about food? So we can all try to look the same? So we can all feel terrible about ourselves? I guess not, but we’re so used to it that many of us don’t even see that our environment is a problem, we blame ourselves instead for not being thin enough, tall enough, fit enough… we think we’ll feel better if we just “fit in”.

Maybe you want to change all of this for yourself. I hope so, because you deserve it. But, one thing that I’m pretty sure of is that you don’t want your kids or kids you care about to feel the same way that you have. You want them to feel healthy and strong. You want them to feel confident about themselves, about their bodies, about their food choices, and about their uniqueness. You want them to take care of themselves, to trust themselves and to be free to be themselves, right?

So, what can we do to mitigate this toxic social environment that we live in so that our children can make healthy choices and feel good about themselves?

Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor, researcher and advocate in the field of obesity and eating disorder prevention has written a great book called “I’m, like, So fat!”2 on how to help our teens navigate eating and body image in this weight-obsessed world. It’s a super helpful read! Here are just a few pointers from the book:

1. Model healthy behaviours and healthy body talk.

a. Model healthy eating patterns, which means eating regularly and not skipping meals. Model healthy food choices, which means incorporating a wide variety of healthy foods. If you have trouble adhering to these guidelines due to your own eating preoccupations try to model healthy behaviours in front of your children. What they see you doing is what matters most for them.

b. Show your kids how to enjoy pleasurable foods in moderation; this is a skill they need to have in this environment! When you have a piece of cake try to show them you appreciate it. Don’t say something like “oh, I really shouldn’t be eating this”. And if you choose not to opt for cake on an occasion, say something like “tonight my body feels like something more refreshing for dessert”, rather than “I’d love to but I can’t, I’m on a diet”.

c. Model healthy body acceptance. Try to show your kids a positive attitude towards your own body. Tell them something you’re grateful for about your body, for example “I’m so thankful that my legs are so strong, they helped me walk all the way to my meeting today”. Help them see that changes in our bodies over time are normal. For example find something positive to say about your wrinkles like how these lines show all the expressions your face has worn over the years. Seeing you accept your body changes will help them think more positively about their own body changes, especially during puberty.

d. Avoid making weight-related comments as much as possible about yourself or others and don’t make weight-related comments directed at your children.

2. Create a healthy environment at home.

a. Make access to healthy foods readily available. Have fresh fruits and vegetables on hand and, if possible, cut up and ready to go.

b. Prioritize family meals. Participation in family meals is related to a number of positive outcomes, including healthier diet, less unhealthy weight-control behaviours, less unhealthy behaviours like smoking, alcohol and drugs and less depressive symptoms in teenagers.

c. Don’t just encourage your children to do physical activity, do it with them. Walking, biking, skiing, going to the park… Make physical activity part of family time together. Start wherever you can and try to make it fun!

3. Focus less on appearance, more on health.

a. Encourage your children to develop healthy habits for the purpose of taking care of their bodies, not for the purpose of losing weight.

b. Establish a zero-tolerance policy for weight teasing or negative weight talk in your home. Help your children realize that weight teasing is not acceptable.

c. Help your children develop an identity much larger than physical appearance. Focus your positive feedback on other aspects of their identity like skills, traits, hobbies, and interests.

4. Talk to them, and listen even more.

a. Be there to listen and support when your child wants to talk about their weight concerns. Empathize with them, you can even tell them you know how difficult it is to feel “fat” or less attractive than your peers for one reason or another. We all feel like this sometimes.

b. When your child talks about feeling fat, find out what’s really going on. Are they being teased at school? Are their friends making comments about being fat that are rubbing off on them? Are they feeling insecure and so they think losing weight would make them feel better? Listen before trying to fix. Often in listening we can help them come to their own solutions. Let them know that you’re always there to listen.

c. Let your child know that you love them no matter what their size, shape, and appearance. That you love them just as they are. Although we think that as our kids reach adolescence they don’t care about what we think anymore, they do. We do have the power to be a positive force for them!

Come to our workshop in March if you want to talk more about how you can try your best to be a positive influence for your children in our toxic environment. And follow our campaign on Instagram @connectepsychology if you want to join the conversation before that!


Jodie Richardson is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

1Dr. Kelly Brownell is Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, where he is also Robert L. Flowers Professor of Public Policy, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, and Director of the World Food Policy Center

2I’m, like, SO fat! Helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD. Guilford Press. 2005.

World Health Organization, Obesity and Overweight Fact Sheet, Updated October 2017

Project EAT studies can be found here: http://www.sphresearch.umn.edu/epi/project-eat/#EAT1

Becker A.E et al., Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls, The British Journal of Psychiatry Jun 2002, 180 (6) 509-514.

*If you’d like statistics here are a few from the World Health Organization as well as studies by Dr. Anne Becker in Fiji and Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer in Project EAT:

Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.

Globally rates of childhood overweight and obesity have risen from 4% in 1975 to just over 18% in 2016.

Project EAT, a large multi-site study of 4700 adolescents in the United States, found that:

  • Almost half of girls and one fourth of boys were highly dissatisfied with their bodies and that body dissatisfaction contributed to a plethora of problems like unhealthy dieting, binge eating, depression, and weight gain over time.
  • Girls who read magazine articles about dieting/weight loss were six times more likely to engage in extremely unhealthy weight-control behaviours (like vomiting, diet pills). Boys who read the articles were four times as likely to engage in unhealthy weight control behaviours.
  • Adolescents with a bedroom television reported more television viewing time, less physical activity, poorer dietary habits, fewer family meals, and poorer school performance. 

When Fiji got television in 1995, vomiting for weight control purposes went from 0-11% among girls over a three-year period, eating pathology more than doubled and girls living in households with a television were more than three times as likely to have high eating pathology.

Avoid Avoiding and Embrace Living!

Avoid Avoiding and Embrace Living!

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Have you ever had the thought, “I never want to feel this way again.” Maybe you did something that you felt was embarrassing, maybe you experienced something traumatic, maybe you ended a significant relationship and felt broken-hearted. Maybe someone made fun of you and made you feel small. Maybe you had a panic attack and you felt like you were losing control. 

After experiences like these, we understandably want to protect ourselves from the difficult thoughts and feelings that come along with them. Why wouldn’t we? So we change our behaviours, a lot or a little, to get ourselves as far away from these painful thoughts and feeling as possible. Sometimes though in our efforts to avoid feeling this sort of pain again, we end up avoiding some of the good things life has to offer. After all, most of the awesome, magical, fulfilling things that happen in life often entail tolerating difficult thoughts and feelings – like running a marathon, writing a difficult entrance exam, or asking someone out on a date. Moreover, the things that we do to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings are sometimes unhealthy – like drinking too much, sleeping a lot, overeating or under-eating, obsessively reading the news, etc.

Here are some examples:

Beatrice played and loved sports ever since her early days of elementary school. During her first year of high school, her swimming coach commented that if she could just lose her “baby fat”, she’d really have a competitive edge. Although you would not have been able to tell by the look on her face, in that moment, Beatrice felt deep shame. She started dieting as a way to lose weight and feel in control, and in an effort to avoid ever feeling bad about her weight again. Eventually Beatrice developed an eating disorder, and much of her time was spent thinking about food, counting calories, and exercising. She would avoid social events that involved food, as she preferred to have full control of what and when she ate. Also, because she was underweight, she felt more tired and had difficulty concentrating, so school became more difficult and her grades were negatively affected.

Rahim had a panic attack in the middle of a crowd at an outdoor concert. It was the most awful feeling he’d ever had. He felt trapped and like he was going to die. The next time his friends asked if he wanted to go to a concert, he made up an excuse about why he couldn’t go. Similarly, he started to avoid going anywhere where there might be big crowds, like sports games. When he was in a crowded environment, like a house party, he would use alcohol to ease his anxiety. Eventually, he avoided going anywhere far from home in case he had a panic attack, meaning he stopped travelling, which was something he loved to do.

Daniella had been in a long-term relationship for 3 years. She had never opened up to a person and been as vulnerable as she had been in that relationship, which ended a year ago when she found out her then boyfriend had been cheating on her. Daniella understandably never wanted to feel those feelings of hurt and betrayal again. She tried going on dates to meet someone new, but had trouble opening up and connecting with people. Eventually, she decided that dating was pointless and spent most of her free time working.

Beatrice, Rahim, and Daniella all changed their behaviours to avoid feeling emotional pain. In doing so, however, other important aspects of their lives were neglected. Their relationships suffered (or in Daniella’s case, the potential for a romantic relationship), as well as opportunities for growth and positive experiences. Beatrice wasn’t able to fully engage in school, and Rahim was no longer doing something that once brought him joy, travelling.

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Additionally, some of the methods they used to avoid were harmful. In Beatrice’s case, she restricted her food intake so much that she became significantly underweight and her health was negatively affected. To ease the worry about having a panic attack, Rahim became dependent on alcohol to feel okay in these situations. For Daniella, it is less clear. Being devoted to work and working hard is something most of us see as a good thing. In some cases though, positive or healthy behaviours or activities, such as sleeping, exercising, or seeing friends, could also be ways of avoiding. We may procrastinate reading that difficult email by reading the news, or working on that paper by cleaning our apartments. We may also avoid our feelings by getting caught up in our thoughts. For example, instead of accepting that a relationship is over and processing the feelings of loss and sadness, we might obsess over what went wrong and what we could’ve done differently.

So what should we do if we think we’re avoiding painful thoughts and emotions at the expense of other important things?

1. Take some time to get to know your negative thoughts and emotions. The more familiar you are with the negative thoughts and emotions that tend to come up for you, the better you'll be at managing them before they lead to avoidance. To get started on identifying your thoughts and feelings, check out these helpful worksheets.

2. Make it a point in your day-to-day life to notice what you might be doing to avoid. Ask yourself if there are behaviours or activities that are hard for you to give up, and why. For example, is it hard to give up a night of seeing friends because you would miss their company, or because being alone with your thoughts causes anxiety? Is it difficult to give up exercise because you would miss the mood-enhancing benefits, or would missing a day of your work-out make you feel like a bad person and cause significant distress?

3. Once you’ve become familiar with the thoughts and emotions you might be avoiding, and the potentially problematic behaviour you might be engaging in to avoid, take some time to identify your values. What are the things that are important to you? Is it growth, relationships, hard work, or fitness, for example? When we are clear on what our values are, we are better able to move toward them even when it’s hard. 

No dress rehearsal, this is our life.
- Gord Downie -

4. Practice moving towards your values even when you’re experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. To help in this process, break down your “moving toward” behaviour into small, manageable steps, and use strategies to self-soothe and manage difficult emotions, such as mindfulness and deep breathing (or “power” breathing!). For example, if Rahim wanted to start going to places with more crowds because he values new experiences, he could break down this goal into small steps, and maybe start by going to a crowded restaurant, close to home, with a friend. To help him reduce his anxiety in this process, he could use the techniques outlined here, such as the 3-minute breathing space.

5. Be nice to yourself! We are hard-wired to avoid things that make us feel bad. Most of us have those days when we want to hide under the covers instead of facing the world. Instead of judging yourself for avoiding, try approaching these difficulties with curiosity and kindness. This compassionate mindset will be more helpful in moving toward your values when the going gets tough :)


Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


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A shout out to Simply Noticing

A shout out to Simply Noticing

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When we feel like something’s not working for us, we want change. Whether you take this on alone or in the context of therapy, the process of change can feel daunting! Creating a space to look inside ourselves and our lives paves the way for reflection on our patterns. For example, you might tend to agree to doing things you really don’t want to do, or overcommit and regret (see Tobey’s latest blog post). Perhaps there are situations in which you consistently react in a way that makes things worse. You might go over what you have done after the fact thinking “I wish I hadn’t done that”. You want to change your reaction but it all seems to happen so fast—you feel like you are not in charge.

In Monthly Picks I posted about Shenpa, which is a Tibetan concept that refers to “getting hooked”—being caught up in something and scratching the itch. In the moment, we rarely notice that this is happening. Often if we’re not noticing, we react and feel powerless to change. When our mind wanders from the present, we allow important choices to be determined by external forces and receive consequences passively.  While mind-wandering can be beneficial in some contexts, it can also interfere with our ability to process information from the environment (Schooler et al., 2011). Wandering away from the moment without noticing can lead down a slippery slope. The risk is that life becomes a series of events we feel helpless over, leading to sadness, anger, anxiety or other uncomfortable sensations that communicate to us that something is not working.

So what’s the first step to taking charge? How do we become more of the driver and less of the passenger in our lives? This endeavour is especially difficult because sticky situations often seem to happen so fast. Taking back your power to participate actively in your life isn’t always easy but starts with simply noticing. Simply noticing is a key element of mindfulness-based meditations (Hölzel et al., 2011). Meditation and other practices based in awareness and noticing (vs. doing) have been associated with improvements in anxiety, depression, perceived stress, emotional well-being and overall mental health (Carmody & Baer, 2008). Simply noticing allows us to live our experiences as they are, rather than through the filters of our biases (Price et al., 2002). The idea is to step back and create space before we choose a response to a situation rather than reacting as we otherwise would (Baer & Krietemeyer 2006).

So how does one simply notice?

1-  Choose your target.

Pick one behaviour that you engage in that doesn’t seem work for you in the long term.  Do you often say “yes” when you mean “no”? Do you often feel compelled to assert yourself but stay quiet instead? Do you beat yourself up for making mistakes at work (or elsewhere)? Perhaps you react angrily when frustrated and say things you later regret? Choose one thing to simply notice.  

2-  Use your emotions as a guide.

When we do something that doesn’t work for us in the long term, it’s often in response to feeling an uncomfortable emotion in the moment. It may be avoiding something that we know is right for us because we’re afraid (e.g., job interview), it may be having one drink too many when we’re feeling sad or anxious. Tune in to those emotions. Ask yourself—is there a pattern here? Is there an emotion that I consistently react to in this way? In what situations do I tend to do this?

3-  Slow the tape down.

Imagine the situation as a scene in a movie. Then imagine playing the scene in slow motion. Although it feels quick in life, slow it down so you can take the time to look at each part of it. Even though time seems to be moving so much faster in these instances, you can slow down your experience and perception of the situation by paying attention.

4-  Simply notice.

Now take special notice of all the elements in the situation—and do this with purpose. Notice your Shenpa (that hook you might feel the urge to bite). Notice your urge to do something. Be present and observe the situation as though you were an outside observer.  Simply take note of what is happening, resisting any urge to do. You may choose to do afterwards, but in the first few moments, catch yourself not noticing, and instead, notice.

You might ask, “I noticed. Now what?”

Noticing is only a first step. However, it’s a powerful one: simply noticing is associated with changes in attentional functions and cognitive flexibility, which are linked to mental balance and well-being (Moore & Malinowski, 2009).  It is a step to ensuring your freedom and becoming aware enough to refrain from biting that hook. Over time, the practice of noticing will empower you to choose your life path through individual choices—ones that may have not been apparent before you slowed the tape down.


Danit Nitka is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Carmody, J., & Baer, R. A. (2008). Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 31(1), 23–33.

Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on psychological science, 6(6), 537-559.

Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and cognition, 18(1), 176-186.

Price, D. D., Barrell, J. J., & Rainville, P. (2002). Integrating experiential–phenomenological methods and neuroscience to study neural mechanisms of pain and consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition, 11(4), 593-608.

Baer, R. A., & Krietemeyer, J. (2006). Overview of mindfulness- and acceptance-based treatment approaches. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications (pp. 3–27). San Diego, CA: Elsevier

Schooler, J. W., Smallwood, J., Christoff, K., Handy, T. C., Reichle, E. D., & Sayette, M. A. (2011). Meta-awareness, perceptual decoupling and the wandering mind. Trends in cognitive sciences, 15(7), 319-326.

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Feeling overcommitted? How to avoid feeling drained and better set your priorities

Feeling overcommitted? How to avoid feeling drained and better set your priorities

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Over the weekend, I took a quick look at my schedule for the upcoming week. My immediate thought was “What was I thinking?!”. Ideally, I have a mix of work, some social activities, and some personal time each week. But more and more often, I’ve been noticing that my upcoming weeks seem to be triggering more feelings of overwhelm in me as opposed to excitement! This realization has been especially bizarre because even if I’m busy at work, I really enjoy the work that I do. Similarly, even if I have several social outings, I love spending time with friends and family! So shouldn’t that be enough of a protective factor to avoid feeling stressed by a hectic schedule? Sadly, it seems that’s not the case (at least not for me). So, the issue with overcommittment isn’t that you’re doing things you necessarily dislike (although that can certainly be part of the issue), but it also happens when we forget that we are not, in fact, the Energizer Bunny. Worse still, overcommittment has been shown to contribute to higher levels of stress and physical tension (Preckel et al., 2005).  So, how can we better manage ourselves to more regularly take a peak at our upcoming week and notice a feeling of interest, excitement, or perhaps even calm?

Start to Prioritize

Each of us have a different combination of interests and responsibilities. Consider this when you begin to figure out how to avoid feeling depleted by overcommitting yourself. What matters to you? Family, school, work, art class? Team sports? Reading? Do you have family that you’d like to see regularly or is it only over the holidays that you’d like to spend time together? Do you have a friend circle that you can see altogether or do you prefer to see friends individually? Consider these, and many other possible combinations, when looking at what you’d like to fit into your schedule.

Make a schedule – that INCLUDES down time and track how it makes you feel

This step doesn’t have to happen each week, but begin by creating a schedule each week that considers your main interests and goals (see step 1) and plan it out so that those priorities are included, but so is time to just do your thing. Essentially, include several hours of non-scheduled, unstructured time into your week. This step has several benefits: 1) It helps you really reflect on how much time each activity you’re committing to takes, so that you’re more realistic in your goals, and 2) it helps to lessen the impression that “doing nothing” is bad! Free time is essential for our mind and bodies to rest, re-energize, and get in better touch with our creative and spontaneous side. With too much structure, we aren’t able to slow down enough to touch base with our passions, and our needs in the moment. In addition, creating a schedule gives you an opportunity to practice different levels of “busyness” – some weeks may be slower than others, or some may be focused on more social than work activities, or vice versa. By keeping track of these schedules and tracking how you feel at the start and end of each of these weeks, you’ll have some helpful data that lets you know what combinations work best for YOU!

Examine what lies beneath our need to overcommit

This part might be a little tougher. Often, if we find ourselves saying yes to everything requested or offered to us, there is an underlying reason that we may not be aware of. For some, it may be the belief that if we say no to a request, or don’t go out of our way to help someone else, we’re failing at being a good friend/partner/employee/etc. For others, overcommittment may stem from a fear of missing out on possible adventure, opportunities, financial gain, or connections. Whatever the reason, it may be helpful to ask yourself what need does overcommittment provide for you, or what does being overcommitted prevent you from feeling? Once you’re able to answer this, you’ll be better prepared to address those needs or fears in a more adaptive and sustainable way.

Get comfortable saying “No (thanks)”

As many of us know, it can be difficult to say no to an invite or a potential work commitment. We may feel guilty, or that we’ll be judged for not putting others first. Even though it can be hard, saying no is really the best way to ensure that we stick to our schedule that helps us meet our needs and goals without feeling overwhelmed. Plus, once you try it a few times, you’ll notice that people tend to respect when people set limits for themselves. The more we all do this, the more we normalize setting limits with our time and the more comfortable it becomes for everyone.

So, next time you notice your schedule giving you mild heart palpitations, take a step back, run through these suggestions, and see how you feel. Hopefully you’ll be well on your way to a more balanced and enjoyable week! 


Tobey Mandel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Preckel, D., von Kanel, R., Kudielka, B. M., & Fischer, J. E. (2005). Overcommitment to work is associated with vital exhaustion. Int Arch Occup Environ Health, 78, 117–122.

Allan, I., Campbell, B., Carter, T., Doyle, M., Goodchild, S., Henderson, R., ….,  & Postans, L. (2006). Balance: Real life strategies for work/life balance. New South Wales, Australia. Sea Change Publishing.

Breitman, P., & Hatch, C. (2000). How to say no without feeling guilty. New York, NY: Broadway Books. 

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 Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head

Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head


Guest post from Dr. Natsumi Sawada, Registered Psychologist (originally published here).

Dr. Natsumi Sawada is a psychologist in private practice in Vancouver, B.C. Natsumi is passionate about using psychology to help people live meaningful, peaceful, connected, and joyful lives. For more of Natsumi's transformative tips check out her blogFacebook or Instagram


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A central feature of one of my favorite therapies, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (aka ACT) is the idea that identifying our “values” and moving towards them even when we are experiencing emotional pain is crucial for psychological health and wellbeing.  

What are values? They are the things in life that are most important to us. They are what we want our lives to be about. They are different from goals in that they are not things that we can achieve or complete and they are not future destinations. They are the the things that are most important to us in life and in the now. Examples might be: Helping, creativity, our relationship, emotional closeness, caring for others, kindness, independence. One way to tap into your values is to ask, “Who or what is most important to me?” I will write more on identifying values in an upcoming blog post.  

So why move towards values even when we feel terrible? 

Well, ACT proposes that pain is an inevitable part of being human (or sea slug for that matter). To experience physical and psychological pain in the form of difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations is to be human. It is not pathological, abnormal, or something to be changed. Our lives cannot be separated from pain. We inevitably experience loss and disappointment; feel sadness, anger, fear, guilt, and shame; experience self doubt and self judgment. We don’t often recognize that everybody suffers especially in the Instagram era when all we see is everybody else’s glowing faces and smiles on our screens while we struggle through the slop. But the idea that everyone is happy is bogus. The truth is, every person feels emotional pain and will feel pain throughout their life. Values are important because moving towards them orients us and give life meaning (and all the positive things that come with it). If we want to create meaning in our lives we cannot wait for the skies to clear because being human can at times be a little like living in Vancouver in November.  

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This sounds grim but it’s actually great news because to be psychologically healthy we need to experience positive AND painful emotions. For one thing, it’s natural to feel painful emotions. Imagine you never felt sad or afraid. I don’t think I need to explain why that would problematic. Painful emotions and thoughts serve important protective functions. We need to experience fear, sadness, and guilt to function in the world and to be human (more on this later). Some people argue we need to embrace this vulnerability that we all share, to connect with and be of service to others. Some research even suggests experiencing too much positive emotion is bad for our health and well being. It can cause us to engage in more risky behavior, impede our performance, and hinder our ability to empathize and take others’ perspectives (something that is crucial for good relationships). Research also suggests pursuing happiness can do more harm than good because the more people pursue happiness the less they seem to experience it. See this article for more. So forget the “don’t worry be happy" stuff. Ideally we have a little of both.  

However understandably, humans don't like to experience pain (and don’t even like to experience the possibility of future pain) so often when we experience it we struggle against it like a fish on a hook and line. We think about it, we worry about it, we dread it, we anticipate it, we question it, we obsess about it, we try to mentally problem solve our way out of it. A large part of the war we fight against our painful mental experiences (such as sadness, anxiety, anger, worries, doubts, obsessions, rumination) often takes place in the form of a why question: Why can't I be happier? Why me? Why am I so weird? Why am I messed up (or insert another insult of your choice here)? Why does life have to be this way? Why is everybody such a [bleep]?  

According to ACT, while this is a totally understandable response to pain, this mental war is problematic because whether you experience a little psychological pain or what seems like a lot, the struggle against it makes things so much worse; It creates pain 2.0 otherwise known as suffering. This is similar to an idea found in Buddhist philosophy, illustrated by the story of the two arrows:  

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“…When touched with a feeling of pain, the ordinary person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows…”   

The idea here is that when we experience pain (it could be physical pain as described here or emotional), we often react to it by fighting against it. We feel anxious and we get mad at ourselves for feeling this way, we feel sad and we feel ashamed, we feel depressed and we ruminate on the question “what is wrong with me?” and then ruminate on the answer, “you are deficient.” This causes us to, in effect, shoot ourselves with a second arrow: We add suffering to pain.  

One goal of ACT is to teach us how to reduce this suffering by learning to let go of the automatic habit of shooting the second arrow when we experience pain and instead move towards our values. Rather than getting caught up in the net of pain and suffering, we engage with and move towards what's important to us even when we feel pain. The idea is that we can experience painful mental events such as sadness or anxiety or the thoughts, “I can’t do it” or “I don’t want to” or “I’m a failure”  AND we can go on bike rides, work in the garden, do our work, paint a picture, act in a loving way, meet a friend, and do other things that create meaning and value in our life. The experience of a painful mental event cannot stop us from doing these things. The idea in ACT is that we recognize these thoughts and feelings with mindfulness AND then we move towards what's important to us with pain in hand.  

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Does it sound hard? It can be! The experience of sadness for example can organize our whole being to want to lie in bed, cry, eat cheetos and ice cream, surf the internet mindlessly for hours, and ruminate about what went wrong. Does this mean this is our only option? No. As difficult as it might be we can mindfully recognize our emotions with kindness and then, with the same attitude of love and care, ask ourselves, “Does acting on my urges take me farther from or in the direction of who or what is most important to me?” We can then do our best to take a small step towards what is important. It is not always easy but with a lot of practice we can learn how to do this. We can learn how to respond more flexibly to emotional pain instead of always going with the knee jerk reaction of resisting it, hiding from it, smothering it, and turning it into suffering. Some of the mental skills that can help us learn to do this are mindfulness, self compassion, and distress tolerance. I will talk more about these skills in future blog posts.    

I’m writing this post because I find this idea of moving towards values with pain particularly valuable and I use it a lot in my own life. When I feel despair, sadness, or anxiety, for sometimes what seems to be no reason at all, one of the most helpful things I've learned to do is to mindfully take note of the emotion and accompanying urges that arise in me, remind myself of my values, and encourage myself to take one tiny step in the direction of my values.  

For example, if I feel despair I might notice the urge to listen to sad music, lie in bed and watch Netflix, or ruminate about the things that are not going well for me and what I’ve done wrong. However, while understandable, these behaviors are designed to numb or escape pain and take me further from my values of learning and teaching, caring for others, developing my skills as a psychologist, being an engaged and loving partner, and creative expression. So, I do my best to notice these emotions and urges with kindness, acknowledge how painful they are, and then if all goes according to plan, I take a tiny step in the direction of my values. I repeat TINY. This is crucial because when we feel anxious or down even “small” steps can seem overwhelming. My tiny step might be washing the dishes in the sink, reading a page of a book, going for a walk around the block, or send a half dozen friends a cat meme (someone usually responds). Although it’s important to note that the point of moving towards values is not to get rid of pain, I sometimes find that after I have made a move towards my values, my difficult emotions loom less large or sometimes even pass. And, at the very least I’m sad but at least I’m sad AND I went for a walk and took a step towards health.  

If you want, try this out for yourself. Write down a few of your values and the next time you find yourself caught up in painful thoughts or emotions, see if you might remind yourself of some of your values and ask yourself the question, “Does acting on these mental experiences or thoughts take me closer to or farther away from what is most important to me?” If the answer is farther you might ask, “What tiny step might I take towards my values?” If this seems really difficult get in touch with a counsellor or psychologist for help. 

It's important to note that what feels tiny to me might feel microscopic to you or it might feel huge. Take a step that feels tiny to you. It might be doing five jumping jacks or washing three dishes or it might be reorganizing your house or running a marathon.  Meet yourself where you are at. The main point is to take a tiny step towards your values, notice that you did it, and see what happens next and repeat. Let me know what happens.