My cancer experience… as an outsider looking in

My cancer experience… as an outsider looking in

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Friday, August 31st, 2018 will be the last day of my postdoctoral fellowship at the Psycho-Oncology Center of the Sainte-Justine Hospital. Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008 was the beginning of my doctoral studies and my thesis focused on breast cancer and one of my clinical internships was at the Psychosocial Oncology Program of the Jewish General Hospital. Since it has been close to 10 years that I have been involved in cancer research and clinical work, I thought I would share some of what I have learned thus far.

The first thing that comes to mind is how resilient people are throughout their cancer trajectory (diagnosis - treatment - survivorship or end of life). Indeed, it requires great strength to be able to cope with a life-threatening diagnosis and adapt to lifestyle changes that can have permanent consequences. A study reviewed 57 published articles and found several personal attributes and characteristics related to resiliency throughout different cancer phases such as optimism, hope, realistic expectations, social support, spirituality and supportive provider communication, etc (Molina et el., 2014). In sum, it is of utmost importance to promote resiliency to meet the psychosocial needs of patients whether they are undergoing treatment, their treatment is completed or whether they are in palliative care. In fact, several cognitive behavioral and existential interventions have been elaborated to foster resiliency to improve quality of life and enable psychological well-being or posttraumatic growth (Loprinzi et al., 2011; Lee, Robin Cohen, Edgar, Laizner, & Gagnon, 2006). 

 

Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.

― Viktor E. Frankl

 

The second thing that comes to mind is the word distress. I have read, heard and witnessed that word countless times throughout my cancer experience. Distress is the 6th vital sign in a cancer population and it is estimated that 33% of the cancer population suffer from significant distress (Howell et Olsen, 2011). Also, it has been associated with worsened health-related quality of life, lesser treatment adherence and lower satisfaction with care (Howell et Olsen, 2011). Although it is recommended to screen for psychological distress along the cancer continuum, it has been reported that patient’s distress often goes unnoticed and the patients are not referred to psychosocial services available (Cohen, 2013; Johnsen et al., 2013; Mitchell, 2015). Also, patients considered as “survivors” report distress as several struggle to find a new sense of normalcy or cope with adverse long-term effects.

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Considering that approximately 1 in 2 Canadians will receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime and that the survival rate after 5 years is estimated to be 60% (Canadian Cancer Statistics, 2017), it becomes apparent how assessing psychological distress and promoting resiliency is imperative to enable psychological well-being and improve quality of life throughout the cancer trajectory. There are several resources available: several hospitals have a psychosocial oncology department offering several services (psychologist, social worker, spiritual aid, musicotherapy/artherapy, mindulfness/yoga interventions). The Canadian Cancer Society also has a community service locator which is a directory of different services available for patients or caregivers. Lastly, I have suggested several books to patients who have completed their treatment and are seeking support and struggling to find their “new normal”. Please see below for the list of resources and books.

Dans cette tranche de vie, il n’y aura eu ni duel, ni vainqueur, ni vaincu. Juste un magistral coup de poing, des descentes aux enfers sans demi-mesure et ce bain d’humanité

 ― Françoise Stanton, extrait d’un témoignage tiré du livre Tu n’es pas seule

The last point I would like to make is that although my focus has been on the “patient”, I would be remiss not to mention the family and friends of said patient as their cancer experience matters as well. They too show great strength and can experience distress which can go unnoticed, and they too can benefit from some of the above-mentioned resources.

Finally, what I learned thus far is how much I want to keep learning, broaden my cancer experience and share my knowledge.

Stay tuned!


Annélie S. Anestin est une psychologue à la clinique Connecte Groupe de psychologie de Montréal. L’équipe de Connecte aime bien écrire sur les diverses façons d’améliorer notre santé mentale et inclure la psychologie dans notre vie quotidienne. Pour plus de conseils utiles, consultez les blogues de Connecte, les baladodiffusions, suivez-nous sur Instagram @connectepsychology ou aimez notre page sur Facebook.


Books

  • Tu n’es pas seule, L’expérience du cancer : paroles de femmes. Collectif dirigé par Dominique Lanctôt, Les éditions de l’Homme, 2015, qc
  • Man’s search for meaning, Viktor E. Frankl
  • La route du sens, L’art de s’épanouir dans un monde incertain, Jean-Louis Drolet

Links

References

Ministère de la santé et des services sociaux. La détresse des personnes atteintes de cancer : un incontournable dans les soins. Édition: La Direction des communications du ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux. http://publications.msss.gouv.qc.ca/msss/fichiers/2017/17-902-11W.pdf.

Molina Y, Yi JC, Martinez-Gutierrez J, et al. Resilience Among Patients Across the Cancer Continuum: Diverse Perspectives. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2014; 18:93-101.

Loprinzi CE, Prasad K, Schroeder DR, Sood A. Stress Management and Resilience Training (SMART) program to decrease stress and enhance resilience among breast cancer survivors: A pilot randomized clinical trial. Clin Breast Cancer. 2011; 11:364–368.

Lee V, Robin Cohen S, Edgar L, Laizner AM, Gagnon AJ. Meaning-making intervention during breast or colorectal cancer treatment improves self-esteem, optimism, and self-efficacy. Soc Sci Med. 2006; 62:3133–3145.

Howell D, Olsen K. Distress- the 6th vital sign. Curr Oncol. 2011;18:208-210.

Cohen, M. The Association of Cancer Patients' Emotional suppression and their Self-rating of Psychological Distress on Short Screening Tools. Int J Behav Med. 2013: 39;29-35.

Johnsen, A.T., Petersen, M.A., Pedersen, L., Houmann, L.J., & Groenvold, M. (2013). Do Advanced Cancer Patients in Denmark Receive the Help they Need? A Nationally Representative Survey of the Need Related to 12 Frequent Symptoms/Problems. Psychooncology. 2013; 22:1724-30.

Mitchell, A.J. (2015). Screening and Assessment for Distress. Oxford University Press: New York.

Canadian Cancer Statistics, 2017. http://www.cancer.ca/en/about-us/for-media/media-releases/national/2017/canadian-cancer-statistics-media-fact-sheet/?region=on.

Personality Disorders: What’s a “Disordered” Personality Anyway?

Personality Disorders: What’s a “Disordered” Personality Anyway?

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We all have personalities. What makes someone’s personality “disordered?”. Personality is made up of traits; ways of being that make each individual unique. For example, those high on introversion (see Dr. Samuel’s post) feel most gratified when creating space to delve into their thoughts or activities on their own, whereas extroverts feel energized and at their best around other people. Another example: some people think and ruminate for a long time before they make a move, whereas others, who are more impulsive, make the move with little thought of outcome or consequence. Traits like these give rise to patterns of emotions, thoughts, behaviours, and relationships. Now picture these traits like an equalizer on your music player. Imagine the bass being at such a high level that you could hear nothing else and barely recognize the song. Or (perhaps worse?), imagine a song with only treble—no depth. The song could not be heard at its best without a balance of treble and bass. I like to think of personality as formed by the collection of traits at different intensity levels on our own personal equalizer. When a trait is so high or so low that it creates difficulties, it becomes a personality-related issue. For example, Joe often acts before thinking, constantly doing things he regrets and gets into trouble for. Joanne is the opposite; thinking and ruminating about each choice for so long, that she ends up getting nothing done!

When groups of traits are off balance, it can create a pattern of difficulties that can be described as a personality disorder. This is because being extremely high or low on certain traits can lead to day-to-day problems as well as complications with relating and connecting with others. These dysfunctional patterns originate and evolve from an interaction between genetic predisposition and life environment, often becoming more apparent as we reach adolescence. Some of these combinations of trait patterns and resulting problems have been categorized by psychiatrists in the manual of psychiatric disorders (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013). These “personality disorders” are essentially specific groups of traits that whether too high or too low, have come to cause life difficulties.  

So what does that mean?

Is a disordered personality destined to be disordered forever? We used to think personality was stable (Costa & McCrae, 1980)—meaning that it does not change over time. More recently, we are learning that this is not entirely true (e.g., Ardelt, 2000; Caspi & Roberts, 2001; Roberts et al., 2017). While Joe isn’t likely to become a self-doubting ruminator, he can learn to pause before he acts (i.e., lower the level of impulsivity on that equalizer). Joanne will never be the reckless thrill-seeker Joe is; she won’t book a last-minute skydiving trip in a foreign country. But she might learn to limit the time she spends ruminating about decisions, taking the chance to act even when she doesn’t feel she’s done all her due diligence. Even though Joe is aiming to reduce his impulsivity, and Joanne’s goal is to be less prohibitively cautious, they would both aim for what’s in between: spontaneity. The in-between, or the grey zone is often where our traits work best for us. Most people can learn to bring their traits into balance and be more in-between (in Joe’s case, going from reckless impulsivity to reasonable spontaneity). Learning to move away from extremes to a reasonable and workable middle is the key to making personality our best asset. 

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So, how do you begin to make your personality work for you?

  1. Notice which traits might be too high or too low. Ask yourself: What’s working? What’s not? Use your emotions and life experiences to guide you here.
     
  2. Experiment behaving as though the traits were higher or lower to see what the outcomes would be. This will give you more information about what works for you and what does not. What would it be like to be more in the middle with traits that are too high or too low? Does that work better?
     
  3. Seek professional help with someone specializing in personality work. It can be difficult to see the big picture when you’ve always done things a certain way in the day-to-day. This is not a journey you have to take on alone. Although self-help books are an option, having a professional along your side can help you fine tune your equalizer.

Danit Nitka received her PhD from the Clinical and Research Psychology program at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, and is a therapist 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 like us on Facebook.


References and Resources

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.

Ardelt, M. (2000). Still stable after all these years? Personality stability theory revisited. Social Psychology Quarterly, 392-405.

Caspi, A., & Roberts, B. W. (2001). Personality development across the life course: The argument for change and continuity. Psychological Inquiry, 12(2), 49-66.

Costa Jr, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1980). Still stable after all these years: Personality as a key to some issues in adulthood and old age. Life-span development and behavior.

Roberts, B. W., Luo, J., Briley, D. A., Chow, P. I., Su, R., & Hill, P. L. (2017). A systematic review of personality trait change through intervention. Psychological Bulletin, 143(2), 117.

What To Do When Therapy Isn’t An Option

What To Do When Therapy Isn’t An Option

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It’s no surprise that we are big advocates of therapy here at Connecte. Therapy can help us manage stress and anxiety, improve our mood and well-being, and cope with life’s ups and downs. It can also be a powerful tool to help us meet our personal and professional goals and reach our potential. Above all, therapy provides a way to feel seen, heard, and understood.

That said, we’re also aware that therapy isn’t always a realistic option. It can take a financial toll, especially when money is tight and insurance coverage is limited. In the public sector, there are often long waiting lists. Therapy also involves a substantial commitment of our time and energy (contrary to expectations, therapy isn’t “just talking’ and it can be hard work!). And sometimes, we’re just not in a place where we’re ready to face past experiences or discuss the things that are weighing heavily on us.

There may come a point when you feel like you could benefit from taking matters into your own hands and taking ownership of your mental health and well-being. Whether you’ve been in therapy before, plan on trying it out for the first time, or are just looking for some strategies you can use to help you cope and maximize your potential, read on to learn how you can move forward when therapy isn’t an option with a few tips from some of the psychologists here at Connecte.

1. Develop a self-care routine

Self-care isn’t selfish, and it isn’t a passing trend or fad. At Connecte, we’re always striving to find ways to incorporate little acts of self-care into daily life and encourage our clients to do the same. It’s a great way to practice #lifetherapy. Coming up with a sustainable self-care routine can help us cope with distress and improve the overall quality of our lives.

One of my favorite ways to help clients come up with a personalized self-care plan is to brainstorm priorities and activities across different domains, including our physical health (e.g., walking outside, attending a yoga class, coming up with a bedtime routine, eating regular, nourishing meals), our emotional well-being (e.g., mindfulness, meditation, journaling), our need for human connection (e.g., seeing friends and family, appreciating small interactions with strangers), and our thirst for creativity (e.g., painting, drawing, reading, interior design). Maryann Joseph also highlights the importance of pursuing creativity: “Take your pain, take your feelings, and make something with them. Channel them into something creative: write, play music, do some wild, cathartic bedroom dancing, plant something, grow something, build something, repair something, make a fiery tomato sauce.”

Self-care ultimately allows us to learn about ourselves, lead a more fulfilling life, and take care of our basic needs and values. Finding ways to incorporate it into your routine can therefore give you a head start for therapy if or when you’re ready.  

2. Create your personal library

Self-help books and resources that guide us through specific therapeutic exercises or approaches can be really helpful. Like anything, this works best when we actually stick with it. If being consistent is a struggle, it can help to set aside a time each week to check in with yourself and catch up on some reading material or exercises. You can even check in with yourself at the same time each week, much like the way you would in therapy. Finding a therapist who can support and guide you through your own self-help exercises can also be extremely beneficial. Luckily, there are so many great resources available, both online and in print. Some of our favorites include Mind Over Mood and Self-Esteem. Danit Nitka also recommends Reinventing Your Life, which is a schema-therapy based read that is aimed at self-guided change. Online, AnxietyBC and the Centre for Clinical Interventions have many helpful handouts and worksheets for coping with anxiety and depression, building assertiveness, cultivating self-compassion, and targeting self-critical views of ourselves and bodies.  Looking for more? You can always find some of our other favorite resources here.

3. Turn to technology

There seems to be an app for everything these days. And while this can make it easier to incorporate things like relaxation and mindfulness into our routines, it also means putting in the time to find the right apps that will work for you. With the increasing evidence that mindful breathing and relaxation are helpful for treating depression, it really is worth it. Some of our favorites include breethe, Headspace, InsightTimer, and Simply Being. Expectful is another resource to guide you through struggles related to fertility, pregnancy, and motherhood. There are also apps and online resources to help you make new friends and expand your support system, including Meetup, MeetMe, Bumble BFF and Peanut (for new mothers).

At the same time, it’s a careful balance. And sometimes it helps to remember to “disconnect to reconnect”. Making an active effort to check our phones, e-mails, and social media less often, or to unfollow accounts, blogs, or posts that may be triggering for a variety of reasons can do wonders for our mental state and our ability to focus on the things that truly fulfill us in the long run.

4. Attend a group

Group therapy can be a really helpful way to work through issues and, in many cases, is often recommended as either an adjunct to or starting point for individual therapy. Maeve O’Leary Barrett and Stéphanie Landry recommend looking into free support groups or workshops that are available through AMI-Quebec, REVIVRE, ANEB (for difficulties related to eating disorders), or the Mont Royal Cemetery (for grief counselling).

Lisa Linardatos also recommends taking part in an extracurricular group and making sure we set aside time for the kind of play that is typically only nurtured in childhood. Whether it’s participating in a team sport or even a bounce class, a creative arts or improv class, a public speaking workshop, or a book club, joining a group activity can be a helpful way to seek out meaningful social interactions, improve our energy and motivation, and build confidence while learning a new skill. Regardless of whether it’s group therapy or simply therapeutic, having an activity outside of the home and feeling socially connected can be so important for our sense of well-being.

5. Open up to close others

Speaking of feeling socially connected, spending time with loved ones, including friends, partners, and family members, is so essential for our mental health. Simcha Samuel says: “Consider sharing your feelings with those you trust. Notice if there are a couple of people in particular with whom you tend to feel especially accepted, understood or supported. Make sure to let them know how much their support means to you and what about their support in particular you have found especially helpful.”. If you’re wondering who to open up to, Jodie Richardson recommends watching this video on the difference between empathy and sympathy. She adds that speaking with a friend can also be a really powerful way to learn how to be a “wise, empathic friend to ourselves and our emotions”.

If you find yourself struggling to find new friends or maintain the friendships you already have, you can always learn more about my work on friendships here. And if calling a friend isn’t a possibility, there are phone lines that offer a listening ear, words of encouragement, or suggestions for social and community level resources.

6. Challenge your assumptions

Sometimes, our resistance to therapy has less to do with practical obstacles and more to do with personal barriers. It’s not uncommon to have biases about what therapy actually looks like or involves. This can be true regardless of whether we have past experiences with therapy.

  • For so many, the thought of entering therapy can feel like a lifelong commitment. In reality, the goal of most therapy experiences is to help you find ways to cope in your everyday life and to essentially become your own therapist. And while every person and experience is different, it’s absolutely possible to make progress in a limited number of sessions.
  • If the cost of therapy is prohibitive, it might help to know that some clinics offer sliding scales (often with an intern therapist) where the fee for each session is based on your financial situation. It’s also not uncommon for therapy to take place every 2 weeks as opposed to every week, especially as things progress.
  • Finally, if you’re concerned about not “clicking” with a therapist, know that it’s all about fit. Research actually suggests that the relationship between a client and therapist actually matters more than the type of therapy that’s practiced! It’s perfectly okay to find someone else with whom you are more at ease and comfortable. Just try to recognize if you might be too quick to give up on a new person or experience.

Challenging some of the assumptions and unhelpful ideas and expectations you have about therapy can ultimately free up space to help you recognize whether you might actually be ready to take the next step of seeing a psychologist or therapist. Until then, focusing on self-care and meaningful connections and using the many resources at your disposal can be an important way to prioritize your health and happiness.


Miriam Kirmayer is a PhD Candidate in the Clinical Psychology program at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and a therapist 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 like us on Facebook.


References

Cuijpers, P., Donker, T., van Straten, A., Li, J., & Andersson, G. (2010). Is guided self-help as effective as face-to-face psychotherapy for depression and anxiety disorders? A systematic review and meta-analysis of comparative outcome studies. Psychological medicine40, 1943-1957.

Jain, S., Shapiro, S. L., Swanick, S., Roesch, S. C., Mills, P. J., Bell, I., & Schwartz, G. E. (2007). A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction. Annals of behavioral medicine33, 11-21. 

Lambert, M. J., & Barley, D. E. (2001). Research summary on the therapeutic relationship and psychotherapy outcome. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 38, 357-361.  

Shakya, H. B., & Christakis, N. A. (2017). Association of Facebook use with compromised well-being: a longitudinal study. American journal of epidemiology185, 203-211.

Romantic Relationships: What’s self-esteem got to do with it?

Romantic Relationships: What’s self-esteem got to do with it?

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When seeking a romantic relationship, we are often encouraged to focus on what we’re looking for in a partner. Do they need to be funny? Kind? Tall? Smart? Are we hoping they’re going to be older, younger, of similar or different backgrounds? Do they have similar life aspirations? Of course, it is helpful to use our values to guide whether we may connect well with a potential partner; however, this mindset often shines the light on the partner’s qualities or values, and shines the light away from what we bring into a relationship. We each not only bring our own special quirks, we also bring in more significant characteristics like our core beliefs (see Maeve’s blog), attachment styles (see Simcha’s blog), and self-esteem. All of these can relate to how we perceive and experience our relationships, and thus it is crucial that we better understand how these impact our view of our partner and relationship in order to make choices that best serve our well-being.

Self-esteem has been shown to relate to relationship satisfaction in both the short- and long-term (Sciangula & Morry, 2009; Orth et al., 2012; Enrol & Orth, 2013). Essentially, what this means is that how we feel about ourselves impacts how we feel about our partners and our relationships. This dynamic can play out in a number of ways, so let’s consider a few examples:

Example 1:

Max, who has high self-esteem, begins dating another individual. Max soon begins to feel that his new partner does not prioritize his needs or make efforts to connect with him, so he may choose to not continue in the relationship because he recognizes his own self-worth and understand that this new partner is not valuing him appropriately.

Example 2:

Olivia, who has lower self-esteem, begins dating someone who does not make time for her or consider her thoughts and feelings. Olivia, however, assumes that she is the problem, that she is not ‘good enough’ and that it makes sense that her new partner is not valuing her as a result. Olivia then chooses to stay in the relationship even though her partner is not behaving in a way that indicates a healthy long term relationship.

Example 3:

Olivia, who has lower self-esteem, begins a relationship with someone who treats her well. At first, she finds this experience positive and enjoyable. However, as time goes on, she begins to grow concerned that there must be something wrong with her partner if they are interested in her. She doubts that she would interest someone who is kind and respectful. So, she begins to look for flaws in her partner and their relationship in order to make sense of the situation. This tendency puts strain on the relationship, creating distance and disconnection in an otherwise healthy and respectful relationship. 

Example 4: Max, with high self-esteem, finds himself in a positive and caring relationship. He trusts that this makes sense and is in line with what he deserves, and thus he is able to allow himself to enjoy the relationship and be vulnerable with his new partner.

As you can see, our self-esteem can serve as the lens through which we view our partner. When we struggle with low self-esteem, we may be more likely to seek relationships that do not promote mutual respect and care. We may also be likely to reject relationships that are in fact healthy (Murray et al., 2001)! So, what can we do about this dynamic?

Step 1: Notice the lens!

In order to make a change, we must first notice that we are projecting our own self-worth onto how we see the relationship. Once we do that, we can then begin to figure out what we can do differently to take care of our needs rather than settle in or change the relationship.

Step 2: Work to improve self-esteem.

Aim to increase self-esteem in order to address the underlying cause. Self-esteem can be modified in a number of ways, including:

  • Recognizing the ‘inner critic’ (see Lisa’s blog) and learning to notice and challenge or let go of these unhelpful thoughts
  • Treat yourself as you would a good friend, imagine speaking to yourself gently and with respect and care (see Andrea’s blog on self-compassion)
  • Work toward personal goals that align with your values
    • By taking actions to help us move towards the things that we care about, we can begin to feel good about the choices we’re making and the impact it’s having 
  • Challenge your beliefs about your self-worth (see Maeve’s blog)
  • Explore a book (Schiraldi, 2016) that provides step by step exercises to work directly on self-esteem
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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 like us on Facebook.


References

Sciangula, A. & Morry, M. M. (2009). Self-esteem and perceived regard: How I see myself affects my relationship satisfaction. The Journal of Social Psychology, 149, 143-159.

Erol, Y. & Orth, U. (2013). Actor and partner effects of self-esteem on relationship satisfaction and the mediating role of secure attachment between the partners. Journal of Research in Personality, 47, 26-35.

Orth, U., Robins, R. W., & Widaman, K. F. (2012). Life-span development of selfesteem and its effects on important life outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 1271–1288.

Murray, S. L, Holmes, J. G., Griffin, D. W., …, Rose, P. (2001). The mismeasure of love: How self-doubt contaminates relationship beliefs. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 423-436.

Schiraldi, G. R. (2016). The Self-Esteem Workbook: 2nd Edition. New Harbinger Publications.

Community and Mental Health: Healthier and More Fulfilled Together

Community and Mental Health: Healthier and More Fulfilled Together

 Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

I never really thought much about community until recent years. I think I just took it for granted, or didn’t see it as that important. As I finished graduate school and decided to stay in Montreal despite my family being in another province, and many of my friends moved away, I started to think more about what it means to be part of a community. More recently, in my professional life as a psychologist, I’ve noticed that often clients express to me that they feel lonely, they wish they knew more like-minded people, and their lives lack purpose and meaning. All these factors, plus knowing that the need to belong is a powerful human motivator (1), lead me to be more interested in how community affects mental health and well-being.

It didn’t take much looking into the research to find out, not surprisingly, that a lack of social connection is bad for you. In fact, loneliness kills. If you’re lonely, you’re more likely to be depressed and anxious (2, 7), and you have an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and early death (6, 5, 3). For more on this topic, check out: The Friend Effect: Why The Secret of Health and Happiness is Surprisingly Simple. Do we really need community though if we have some solid friendships? Being part of a community has the added benefit of allowing us to feel like we belong to and are accepted by a group, similar to how we ideally feel in our families, a sort of emotional or spiritual “home”. Additionally, often communities are centred on a goal (e.g. training for a marathon) or a cause (e.g., protecting the environment), which can give us a sense of purpose and meaning. Creating meaning in our lives is a key ingredient for a fulfilling life. We know that an important way to create meaning is to transcend ourselves by giving to and helping others or being part of something bigger than ourselves. Check out this article, There’s More to Life Than Being Happy, for why meaning is awesome.

Knowing that community and social connection are good, if not great, for our physical and mental health, what gets in the way of us prioritizing these things? I know what stops me - I feel like I don’t have time; I should be working, exercising, doing errands, etc; I really like being home with my partner and my cats; I’d rather just spend time with the people I already know; meeting new people takes effort and can be awkward; group activities and community organizations could mean having to deal with annoying group politics and dynamics, and who wants to deal with that?!

Thinking of the possible obstacles that get in the way of community building and nurturing social connection, I’ve made some (hopefully) simple and realistic suggestions below.

PRACTICAL TIPS!

1) Prioritize it. You probably ARE too busy to focus much on community building and nurturing social networks. In order to make time for community, it might mean doing less of something else, like working. I used to cringe at the idea of working less to attend a community BBQ, or a municipal council meeting, because being productive at work is important and feels so good! However, just like taking time to exercise ends up enriching your life, taking time for community will do the same, but you need to give it a chance to experience the positive consequences. You might even find that having more balance in your life, and surrounding yourself with new, different people, could breath new life into your work and get those creative juices flowing!

2) Build community at work. Work can be an ideal, convenient place to nurture community because, depending on the type of work you do, you may be spending a lot of time at work and you and your coworkers are often together in the same location. At the psychology clinic where I work, called Connecte, it is one of our goals to make Connecte not just a clinic but a community. Some things we’ve done to make it more of a community are to hire like-minded people who value supporting one another, as well as hold regular meetings and communicate frequently with each other. We even had a morning yoga group going for a while. Not only do we feel supported, but we inspire and motivate each other too.

3) Get to know your neighbours. I grew up in a small, rural community where most people knew each other and no one ever locked their doors. Unfortunately, this is not the reality in most towns or cities! Getting to know your neighbours is the first step to building community close to home. To get to know your neighbours, you might try organizing a neighbourhood potluck, gathering for warm drinks in the winter, offering your neighbours leftover food/baked goods, or simply smiling and saying hi when you pass them on the street or in the entranceway. For some great suggestions on building community in your neighbourhood, check out: 10 Ways to Create Community Where You Live.

4) Get to know not just your neighbours! Check out this ingenious idea for group storytelling dinners, Bring Your Own Story, which aims to bring anyone willing together to have meaningful conversations and share personal stories, in a safe, non-judgmental space.

5) Do group activities that will allow you to “kill two birds with one stone.” For example, if you have young kids, you might join a group that is both fun and enriching for your kids, and where you can meet other parents. Check out Flow Music Therapy’s Music for Mothers and Babies group or the Montreal Families website for a comprehensive list of groups and activities. You will likely not only meet like-minded people, and decrease feelings of isolation and loneliness, but you will feel good knowing you’re creating positive experiences for your kids and loved ones. You might try other types of groups that are in line with your values and interests, like a book club, or a walking or running group. For more ideas on how to create social connections as adults, check out my colleague Miriam’s blog post, How To Make Friends When You Don't Have Play Dates: The Importance Of Friendships In Adulthood.

An especially good activity to do with others is to eat dinner together. We know that eating together as a family is associated with a slew of positive benefits, like eating more nutritious meals and even fewer symptoms of depression (4)! (Learn more about this research here: Project EAT Publications.) To increase your chances of having dinner with friends and fitting it into your busy schedule, don’t be a perfectionist about it! Cook something simple, make it a potluck, or even order in.

6) Do a group activity that is centred on something that you find meaningful. As I mentioned above, we get meaning from helping others or being part of something larger than ourselves. I get a lot of meaning from protecting the environment and connecting with nature, and recently I was fortunate enough to get involved with a local gardening community, so now I’m learning all about gardening while being part of a wonderful community of like-minded people. Maybe there’s something similar in your neighbourhood that you could be a part of?

INTERPERSONAL TIPS!

As I mentioned above, sometimes we might hesitate to join or stick with a group activity or organization because we don’t want to deal with the interpersonal issues that will inevitably arise (e.g., differing perspectives/values, clashing personalities, etc.). I think I could probably write a whole other blog post on this topic, but here are some things that come to mind that I hope will be helpful in navigating group dynamics.

7) Know your boundaries. In any social situation, recognizing and asserting your limits, essentially making sure you’re taking care of yourself and your needs, will help you have more energy and compassion for others. If you notice yourself feeling resentful towards the group or others in the group, this may be an indication that you’re not respecting your own boundaries. Check out my colleague Danit’s blog post on setting boundaries.

8) Take others’ perspectives and embrace a compassionate mindset. Most of us have some challenges, hurt, or pain that we will sometimes act on, and act on in a way that is not the most constructive or pleasant for those around us. If we can take time to consider where others are coming from, what their situation is, or at least give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are trying their best with the tools they have, we will likely have more compassion for them. To help myself get into a compassionate mindset when considering others, I love this story introduced to me by Tara Brach, about how essentially when others are acting in ways that we perceive as unpleasant, annoying, etc., they likely have their leg caught in a trap!

9) Accept that we will all annoy each other. When spending a lot of time with any individual, we will likely get annoyed with them at some point. This is normal! And guess what? We will annoy others too. Yup, we will all annoy each other, and accepting this, while asserting our boundaries and having compassion, will likely make our group experiences more tolerable, positive, and conducive to personal growth.

10) Practice good listening! Good listening is the key to authentic, intimate connections. Nowadays, when it’s easy to pick up our phones and check the weather while our friend tells us a story, we might not be the best at listening. For more on this, check out my favourite video on good listening: Are You A Good Listener?

 

I hope these tips help you squeeze a bit more community into your lives so that your mind and body might reap the rewards. Happy community building!


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 like us on Facebook.


REFERENCES

  1. Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological bulletin117(3), 497
  2. Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., & Thisted, R. A. (2010). Perceived social isolation makes me sad: Five-year cross-lagged analyses of loneliness and depressive symptomatology in the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study. Psychology and Aging, 25, 453– 463.
  3. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science,10(2), 227-237.
  4. Neumark-Sztainer, D., Hannan, P. J., Story, M., Croll, J., & Perry, C. (2003). Family meal patterns: associations with sociodemographic characteristics and improved dietary intake among adolescents. Journal of the american dietetic association103(3), 317-322.
  5. Pinquart, M., & Duberstein, P. R. (2010). Associations of social networks with cancer mortality: a meta-analysis. Critical reviews in oncology/hematology75(2), 122-137.
  6. Valtorta, N. K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., Ronzi, S., & Hanratty, B. (2016). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart, heartjnl-2015.
  7. Zawadzki, M.J., Graham, J.E., & Gerin, W. (2013). Rumination and anxiety mediate the effect of loneliness on depressed mood and sleep quality in college students. Health Psychology, 32(2), 212–222.