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Lisa

“Holding Space” for Others’ Distress: How to Be There for your Loved One Without Trying to Fix Their Problems

“Holding Space” for Others’ Distress: How to Be There for your Loved One Without Trying to Fix Their Problems

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Have you ever been with a friend, partner, your kid, etc. and they’re extremely upset about something going on in their lives? For example, they failed a class, lost a parent, lost their job, or are struggling with a health issue? What is your first reaction? My first reaction is often to try to do or say whatever I can to make their suffering go away as fast as possible. If the person experiencing the distress is a young kid, I might have the urge to distract them; for example, by saying, “Check out this cool toy!” If it’s an adult, I might go into problem-solving or advice-giving mode, and say something like, “Maybe it’s time to discuss with your boss the possibility of moving to another department?”. While these approaches can be helpful, there are some ways in which they are potentially problematic.

What is wrong with trying to advice-give or problem-solve our loved ones’ suffering away, or distract them from their negative emotion? I’ve listed a few of the potential problems with this approach below.

1. You might be invalidating their feelings.

By trying to advice-give/problem-solve/distract our loved ones’ suffering away, we could inadvertently be giving them the message that they “shouldn’t” feel this way or that their feelings are “wrong” or inappropriate. In other words, we may, without even realizing it, be invalidating their feelings. Examples of invalidating responses include, “It’s not that bad”, “Big girls don’t cry”, or “You’re probably just over-tired”. We could also invalidate a loved one’s emotions through what we do, not just what we say. For example, when we distract a child who’s crying by showing him a shiny new toy.

2. You might be giving them the message that “negative emotions are bad.”

By trying to help our loved ones get rid of their negative emotion as fast as possible, we could be feeding into the false idea that negative emotions are bad. Although negative emotions can be extremely unpleasant, they do serve an important function.

For example, sadness could be telling us that we’ve lost something important, and therefore help us prioritize for the future the things we really care about. Anger, on the other hand, could be telling us that we’re being treated unfairly, and if we don’t take the time to acknowledge the anger and reflect on it, we may not be motivated to make changes to an unhealthy situation.

So, if we quickly try to change our loved ones’ negative emotions, they may not have the opportunity to get the information that the emotion is trying to tell them, and we may be adding to the belief that negative emotions are simply bad and should be shut down ASAP.

3. You might be implying that they can’t handle negative emotions.

Our quick attempts to problem-solve or advice-give could also be inadvertently telling our loved one that they can’t handle their emotions. To be fair, negative emotions are tough to handle. But, if we are able to sit with our emotions, perhaps using some self-soothing strategies while doing so, like deep breathing and imagery, we may find the emotion will run its course without us having to bottle it up or push it away. Being mindful of negative emotions in this way is beneficial because it allows us to process the emotion (see Point 5) and recognize what the emotion is trying to communicate to us (see Point 2). Additionally, sometimes the strategies we use to bottle up or push away emotions cause more suffering, such as numbing through sleep or alcohol, avoiding situations or people, and keeping ourselves excessively busy.

4. It may be more about us than them.

Our attempts to problem-solve the emotion away may be more about our own discomfort than about our loved one’s suffering. In this way, we might not be providing our loved one with the type of support they’re looking for. They may, for example, simply want a listening ear.

5. They may not have the opportunity to process their emotion.

By helping our loved one push away or bottle up their emotion, they might not have the opportunity to process the emotion. Why is processing our emotions important? As mentioned in Point 2, If we push emotions away, or “bottle them up”, we may not be aware of the important information they’re trying to communicate to us (Greenberg, 2002). Also, emotions that get pushed into the background don’t necessarily go away, but might continue to exist as “unfinished business.” The more unfinished emotional business we have, the greater the likelihood these emotions will build up until they essentially “overflow”, resulting in us feeling, for example, an overwhelming amount of emotional pain (Greenberg, 2002). In these types of situations, when we’re overwhelmed with emotion, we may end up lashing out with rage, or falling into deep self-loathing or despair.

6. You may be feeding into their self-critical thoughts.

Blocking negative emotions can make us feel worse about ourselves. To block our negative emotions, we have to tell ourselves things like, “Stop feeling this way!”, “You’re being ridiculous!” “Get over it already!”. Talking to ourselves and judging our emotions in this way can lead to a bunch of other negative emotions (like shame, anger toward ourselves, etc.). So, if you’re helping your loved one block their negative emotion, you could be facilitating their beating themselves up over their emotions

What can we do to “hold space” for our loved one’s difficult emotions, instead of trying to problem-solve, advice-give, or distract them away? What is commonly known as active listening is a great way to simply “hold space” for your loved one’s distress (Weger, Castle Bell, Minei, & Robinson, 2014).

Check out these tips for active listening:

1. Tolerate your own discomfort.

If someone you care about is really distressed and you just want it to stop, take a few long, deep breaths; remind yourself that this will pass and you can still be there for your loved one without making the emotion go away; and remember that, although it’s really difficult, experiencing negative emotions is a necessary part of learning and growing.

2. Communicate attentiveness through your body language.

Make eye contact, nod your head, and use an open, relaxed body posture.

3. Communicate attentiveness through your words.

Use phrases like, “Uh-huh”, “I see”, and “I hear you” to let the person know you’re listening. Reflect back to them what they’re saying (e.g., “It sounds like what you’re saying is you really weren’t expecting this and that makes it even more difficult.”). This will help your loved one feel heard and understood, and will build trust between the two of you.

4. Be a sounding board and reflect back.

Allow your loved one to bounce ideas and feelings off you while assuming a nonjudgmental, non-critical stance. Summarize their experience, what they’re saying and reflect it back to them. This will allow them to feel heard, understood, and will also correct your perception if you’re misunderstanding them.

5. Avoid advice-giving or “teaching” and interrupting.

Advice-giving and “teaching” can potentially lead to the problems discussed above (e.g., invalidation of feelings, not allowing emotions to be processed). If you sense that your loved one is really looking for advice, and you feel it might be helpful, you could always check in with them first before giving advice: “I can help you problem-solve, I can give you some advice, but I’m also happy to just listen.”

6. Invite the person to say more.

For example, "Tell me about it", or "I'd like to hear more about that if you’re comfortable."

7. Be authentic.

If it’s hard for you to relate to what the person is going through, don’t pretend. Instead, you might say something like, “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through right now, but I want you to know I love you and I’m here for you.”

8. Don’t make it about you.

Try not to relate it to your own experience, unless you ask first. It’s natural to want to share a similar experience, as it can allow us to feel more connected to our loved one, and they may even feel less alone. The problem with this is that it could make it more about you than them, and take away from their unique experience, not really allowing them to feel heard. Instead, you might say something like, “I went through something that I think is similar. I can tell you about it if you like.”

———

I think one of our greatest abilities as humans is our capacity to problem-solve our way out of and “fix” difficult situations. We have probably survived so long because of this skill, which is one reason why we might default to this mode so quickly when someone we care about is struggling. However, as outlined above, there are also plenty of advantages to simply “being with” someone in their distress. I hope you found these tips helpful and can practice them next time someone you care about is sharing their difficulties with you.


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

Greenberg, L. S. (2002). Greenberg Emotion-focused therapy: coaching clients to work through feelings. American Psychological Association Press, Washingoton, DC.

Linehan, M. M. (2014). DBT® skills training manual, second edition. Guilford Publications.

Weger Jr, H., Castle Bell, G., Minei, E. M., & Robinson, M. C. (2014). The relative effectiveness of active listening in initial interactions. International Journal of Listening, 28(1), 13-31.

Getting Grounded and Showing Up for You

Getting Grounded and Showing Up for You

Photo by  Jen Loong  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jen Loong on Unsplash

Whether it’s our to-do lists, a frustrating conversation we had earlier in the day, the constant nagging temptation to check our phones, the guilt over not exercising enough, worries about our loved ones, etc., our thoughts and feelings may be pulling us in various directions all day long. I find it’s easy to get lost among all this chatter, and when I say lost, I mean lose myself and lose sight of what is important to me. Instead of acting based on what I really want and what’s healthy for me, I feel like I have no solid centre and am stuck in reacting mode.

I try to counter this reactive, uncentred way of being by “getting grounded”. I hear the term “getting grounded” often, and to be honest, I’m not sure if it means the same thing to everyone. I’m defining here what it means to me, and hopefully it’s helpful to you too. I think of getting grounded as getting out of the ruminating/worrying/spinning/not constructive thinking that is happening in my head, pausing, and paying attention to what is happening in my body, without judgment. By getting out of my head and dropping into my body, and noticing the sensations that are there, not only do I have more of sense of a centre, of being grounded, but I am more likely to be in touch with what is going on with me, the emotions I’m feeling, the motivations that are driving me, etc. By paying attention to myself in this way, I’m able to get unstuck from distractions and negative thought patterns and show up for myself in a mindful, and maybe even loving manner.

There are plenty of tips out there for “getting grounded” or what clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach might call “the sacred pause”. For example, you might meditate, go for a walk in the forest, or do some yoga. I’ve outlined a simple “getting grounded” technique here that you can do in your every day life, during your busy day.

Pause and Pay Attention

  1. Pause

  2. Drop into your body and notice what is happening there. Notice the sensations in your body (e.g., muscle tension, tingling, heaviness, pressure).

  3. If you have trouble getting in touch with your body, simply try noticing your breath as it travels in through your nose, down your throat, and into your lungs.

  4. Keep breathing and noticing, without judgment and with curiousity.

  5. Proceed

This is a pretty “bare-bones” technique, but I’ve kept it that way intentionally. The purpose of this technique is to simply get us to pause and notice, to check in with ourselves. It may take some practice, but from this place of groundedness and attentiveness, we will likely be better able to recognize what we need to move forward in a way that is healthy and nourishing for us and for those around us.


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

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

Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy to read primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.

Resources

3 Simple Mindfulness Practices for Coping with Difficult Experiences and Emotions in Day-to-Day Life by Dr. Natsumi Sawada

A Shout Out to Simply Noticing by Dr. Danit Nitka

Be Here Now… But How? 3 Steps Towards Experiencing Life More Fully by Dr. Maryann Joseph  

Stressing Out? S.T.O.P. by Dr. Elisha Goldstein

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.

Words Matter: Helping Kids Foster a Healthy Relationship with Food and their Bodies One Word at a Time

Words Matter: Helping Kids Foster a Healthy Relationship with Food and their Bodies One Word at a Time

Photo by  Ali Inay  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash

Imagine this…

Your overweight teen confides in you that he’s getting teased at school about his weight. You have noticed recently that he has been eating more pleasure foods (like chips) while playing video games. You yourself have gained a few pounds, and you’ve decided to go on a little diet. How do you manage this situation? What do you say (or not say) to him?

Helping children foster a positive body image while developing a healthy relationship with food can seem like navigating a minefield. Messages that our bodies aren’t good enough and that our self-worth depends on our looks are everywhere, while at the same time clever marketing is constantly encouraging us to eat high-fat, high-calorie foods. Body dissatisfaction is common among adolescents, and has been shown to predict unhealthy weight-related behaviours that put individuals at risk of weight gain (e.g., binge eating and reduced breakfast consumption) (1). Moreover, our lifestyles are more sedentary than ever before (2), and global childhood overweight and obesity is on the rise (see http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/childhood/en/).

You may feel like you have no power to influence your children in this toxic landscape that overemphasizes being thin while at the same time encourages overeating. Fortunately, there are some things you can do! It turns out that what we, as parents and caregivers, say about food, weight and dieting (even if we’re talking about ourselves or our friends) matters. For example, when we encourage kids to make healthful food choices, and support them in physical activity, they tend to have more positive dietary habits (like eating more fruits and vegetables) and engage in more healthy physical activity (3, 4). At the other extreme, kids who are teased about their weight in early adolescence tend to have poorer emotional well-being (5) and more disordered eating (e.g., binge eating) in late adolescence and young adulthood (6).

So how can we help children develop a healthy relationship with their bodies, while not making them feel like their self-worth is based on the size and shape of their bodies? In general, we want to try to:

  • Ban any form of diet talk and negative body talk from our homes.

  • Encourage healthful eating and physical activity habits.

  • Through our words, try to nurture an identity beyond physical appearance.

Easier said than done, I know. Check out these specific examples below, taken from and inspired by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer’s book, " “I’m like so fat!” Helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world" (7).

1. Instead of DIET TALK like:
• "I feel so fat; I need to go on a diet."
• "No thanks to dessert; I’m dieting."
• "I’m so proud of my friend Stacey for sticking with her diet."
• "Have you ever thought of going on such-and-such diet? It really worked for your Aunt Carol."

TRY:
• “I’ll pass on dessert today and have an apple instead; I haven’t had enough fruits and vegetables today.”
• “No thanks, I’m full.”
• “Yes, I’d love dessert. Just a small piece please.”
• “This is delicious. I’m really enjoying this meal. But no thanks to seconds.”
• “I’ve discovered a million different ways to eat fruits and vegetables.”
• “I’m not going on any more ‘diets.’ Instead I’m going to focus on some long-term changes in my eating and physical activity patterns that can make me feel better about myself.”

2. Instead of NEGATIVE BODY TALK like:
• “I feel so fat in this dress.” 
• “I’m working out so much and not losing weight; I don’t know if it’s worth it all the time?”

TRY: 
• “My body has undergone some changes lately; I think I’ll try on something else that might fit my body better.” 
• “I can really tell the difference in my strength and stamina since I’ve been working out.”

3. Instead of over-emphasizing your kid’s PHYSICAL APPEARANCE through comments like:
• “You look so pretty today.”
• “Wow you look great in that picture. You’re the handsomest kid in the class.”
• “You’re going to break some hearts when you’re older with that handsome face.”

TRY:
• “I love your laugh; it’s just contagious.”
• “When you smile, your whole face lights up. It’s just beautiful.”
• “You have a great, unique sense of style. I admire the way you wear what looks great on you instead of what everyone else is wearing.”
• “You look so much like Grandpa; when I look at you it brings back so many great memories.”

----

For more great tips and information on this topic, check out my colleague Jodie’s blog post, We All Know What It’s Like To Feel Fat. Let’s Try To Change That For Our Next Generation.

Join us…

  • In person! Come check out our workshop for parents and caregivers, Healthy Children: Body and Mind, on March 25th, 2018 from 1:30 - 3pm at the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA (Montreal) to learn more about how to help kids nurture a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Email jrichardson@connectepsychology.com for more information.

  • On social media! Follow our campaign on Instagram @connectepsychology.


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.


NOTES

  • A shorter version of this blogpost was originally posted as a Facebook post here.

  • Learn more about the research discussed in this blogpost here: Project EAT Publications

REFERENCES

  1. Neumark-Sztainer, D., Paxton, S. J., Hannan, P. J., Haines, J., & Story, M. (2006). Does body satisfaction matter? Five-year longitudinal associations between body satisfaction and health behaviors in adolescent females and males. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39(2), 244-251.

  2. Owen, N., Sparling, P. B., Healy, G. N., Dunstan, D. W., & Matthews, C. E. (2010, December). Sedentary behavior: emerging evidence for a new health risk. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 85, No. 12, pp. 1138-1141). Elsevier.

  3. Pearson, N., Biddle, S. J., & Gorely, T. (2009). Family correlates of fruit and vegetable consumption in children and adolescents: a systematic review. Public health nutrition, 12(2), 267-283.

  4. Heitzler, C. D., Martin, S. L., Duke, J., & Huhman, M. (2006). Correlates of physical activity in a national sample of children aged 9–13 years. Preventive medicine, 42(4), 254-260.

  5. Eisenberg, M. E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Haines, J., & Wall, M. (2006). Weight-teasing and emotional well-being in adolescents: Longitudinal findings from Project EAT. Journal of Adolescent Health, 38(6), 675-683.

  6. Haines, J., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Eisenberg, M. E., & Hannan, P. J. (2006). Weight teasing and disordered eating behaviors in adolescents: longitudinal findings from Project EAT (Eating Among Teens). Pediatrics, 117(2), e209-e215.

  7. Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2005). I'm, like, SO fat!: helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world. Guilford Press.

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 like us on Facebook.