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mental health

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.

WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD? START BY CONNECTING TO YOU: PART 2

WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD? START BY CONNECTING TO YOU: PART 2

This post is a continuation of my last post, which can be summed up nicely by this quote my colleague Andrea recently posted on Instagram:

“You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.”

In that post I asked you to get in touch with all of the reasons WHY you want to keep your cup full. These are your WHYs for taking care of you: the values and people you want to nourish in your life. If you haven’t read it, it’s short, please take a moment to do so: Want to Change the World? Start by Connecting to You.

In this post I’d like to talk about WHAT self-care is for you? I think a common misconception is that self-care is all about tea and massages. These are great ways to recharge if they work for you! But personally I find going for a run or sitting around a dinner table with my friends just as nourishing as going to the spa. Last post I also suggested that you should not start with what other people tell you you should do to take care of yourself or what your inner bully tells you your “lazy butt” should do to take care of you. I think the most nourishing self-care moments are actually when we connect our actions with our values (our WHYs). So, let’s look back at those lists we created last time. Here’s my short list:

My WHYs

Who is important to me? (1)

  • My family

  • My friends

  • My colleagues

What is important to me? (1)

  • Growth

  • Hard work

  • Authenticity

  • Creativity

  • Connecting with people

  • Feeling part of something bigger than me

  • Taking care of my body

  • Being in nature

  • Freedom

  • Fun

I’ll try to give you an example of how you might try to connect your self-care actions with your WHYs in the area of health. Most of us know that exercise is an important piece of self-care, but for many of us it feels like a chore. I was in this boat for a long time. When I was a kid I played many sports, mostly just for fun, because my friends were doing them. But as I got older my friends did fewer team sports and by the age of 18 I was left sport-less. My husband is a professional athlete and when we met at the age of 20 I was inspired to get back into exercise. So, I tried to jump on the gym bandwagon. My husband spent his days at the gym, there must be something good about it right? And so I would go to the gym a few hours a week to work out and it was fine. But then slowly but surely the gym would creep down my priority list and ooops I would find myself months without going to the gym at all. Anyone recognize this pattern? And the pattern continued for years and years until near the end of my 20s when I decided I was tired of feeling bad about not going to the gym and gave up on exercise altogether. Phew what a relief! But then months later, feeling sluggish and unfit, I asked myself “is there another way?” Can I personalize this exercise thing so that I actually like it and it might stick? So I looked back and asked myself what I used to like about exercise? For many sports it was just the social aspect but there were no sports that all of my friends were doing anymore (and I’m not that good at making new friends) so that might not work. But then I realized the two sports I really loved, just for me, were horseback riding and cross-country skiing (neither of which is done in a gym, Aha!) So why did I like them? 1) Because they were both done outside, often in the forest (which connected me to nature), and 2) taking off for hours of trail riding or skiing totally disconnected me from “real life” and rejuvenated me (which gave me a sense of freedom). And so, with less time in the schedule as an adult I decided to try out something similar but more practical: running. I loved it and haven’t looked back since. What I learned is that if you turn exercise into something is meaningful to you, the motivation will come much easier.

Since then I have tried this with different aspects of my life. I’ve broken down self-care into 4 domains for myself: Health, Leisure, Work, and Relationships (1). And asked myself in each of these domains what is a meaningful self-care activity for me? Remember we can find meaning by looking to our WHYs.

Here are some of the self-care activities that work for me (my self-care WHATs):

Domain: Health
Self-care WHAT: Running
WHY: Connection to nature; feeling of freedom

Domain: Leisure
Self-care WHAT: Dinners with friends (especially outside)
WHY: Connection with people; feeling part of something bigger than myself; fun

Domain: Work
Self-care WHAT: Blocking off hours in the morning once a week for writing
WHY: Freedom; creativity

Domain: Relationships
Self-care WHAT: Long weekends up north with my husband
WHY: Connection; nature; growth as a couple, as parents; authenticity; (and freedom from the children!)

If you like the idea try it out and see how it works for you!

“Make a chore into a meaningful decision, and self-motivation will emerge.”
From the book Smarter Faster Better, by Charles Duhigg

I know I promised to talk about finding your lead domino (2) and making daily commitments to action. I did not forget. So stay tuned for part 3 of Want to change the world, start by connecting to you!


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

Great book by Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

Check out this fun video by Dr. Russ Harris: Values vs Goals     

Intrinsic motivation is proven to help us reach our goals long-term. See: Koestner, R. (2008). Reaching One’s Personal Goals: A Motivational Perspective Focused on Autonomy. Canadian Psychology, 49(1), 60-67. 

Also see: Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, Edward L. Deci

1. These are really great questions that Benjamin Schoendorff asks in his ACT matrix training to get at what’s truly important to people and to break down life into important domains. You can find out more about the ACT matrix here. Clinicians can check out his book: The Essential Guide to the ACT matrix.

2. Borrowing this term from Tim Ferriss and The 4 Hour Workweek

The importance of setting boundaries

The importance of setting boundaries

Recently, boundary-setting has been coming up often in conversations, in and outside the office. I noticed that for many, “boundaries” as a concept seems to be ambiguous—yet it plays out in so many domains of life. If you’re asking yourself whether your own boundaries may need a check-up, here are some hints.

Do you ever feel like you invest more than your return in relationships with partners, family, friends, or even strangers? Perhaps you feel resentful, or that you are being taken advantage of. You might feel a little bit annoyed all the time, or you might feel outright mistreated! You worry about the disapproval from others if you were to choose to say no or do what’s right for you.

Perhaps you often feel compelled to “fix things” for those who are close to you (emotionally, or otherwise). Maybe you worry they won’t think you’re a good friend, partner, son, daughter, (etc) if you don’t do what they are asking from you. Maybe worse, you fear that setting a limit would lead to argument or confrontation. So you might say “yes” when you mean “no”—out of habit, or just to avoid unpleasant interactions. At work, or elsewhere, you go above and beyond to ensure that another person’s comforts, wants, and needs are satisfied in a situation (but at the expense of your own!). Although it may feel “unselfish”, you eventually come to feel anger and resentment towards others. In fact, despite your efforts to ensure the other person is happy, relationships may not be working so well. While most people occasionally struggle with boundary questions, if it sounds a little bit too familiar too often, it might help to give your boundaries some reflection.

So what are boundaries?

In the context of psychology, boundaries are a conceptual limit between you and the other person. Simply put, it’s about knowing where you end and others begin. Knowing what’s yours and what’s not. Acknowledging that every adult is responsible for themselves. Having a functional boundary (one that works) means taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, and NOT taking responsible for the actions and emotions of others. Of course, this plays out a little differently when you ARE actually responsible for someone else (like a dependent or a child).

According to personal space theory (Scott, 1993), we have boundaries, and can regulate how permeable they are—meaning what we let in and out—when it comes to the physical, mental and spiritual environment.

Maintaining boundaries is about being the gatekeeper of your life in order to keep yourself safe and well. Imagine you are a castle, with front door, moat, and drawbridge which you can lower open or raise shut at your will (Peck, 1997). If you keep your front door unlocked and drawbridge laid open all the time, anyone is free to walk in, do as they please, and stay as long as they like. On the other extreme, if you keep the door shut and locked, and the drawbridge up, you end up isolated, and miss out on connecting with others. Many go from one of these extremes to the other. However, we know that the healthiest type of boundary is one that is appropriately and purposefully open to some people, in some situations, some of the time, and closed to others, at other times (Scott, 1993). In our day-to-day, how well we communicate these boundaries can either protect or jeopardize relationships (Scott & Dumas, 1995). Think of times you did something you did not want to do because someone asked you and you felt obliged. The simmering anger that ensues could damage the relationship; if you let it boil over, you might say something passive aggressive or even fully lash out. 

How do I keep my boundaries in check?

The first step is to create time to get to know yourself, and practice feeling worthy. Often when we allow our boundaries to be crossed, we feel as though we are being generous. Perhaps because we feel (or have been taught) it’s the only way to ensure being a “good person” or the only way to confirm our worth or value. Practice feeling worthy. Not because of your achievements or generosity toward others, but because like every person—you are!  Show yourself you are worthy by being kind and compassionate toward yourself and taking good care of your emotional well-being (to start, see Andrea’s daily mental health boost tips on Instagram), Lisa’s blog posts about the critical vs compassionate voice here and here, or Miss psychlife’s tips on self-care here. It may feel as though a good relationship means you take care of others at your own expense, and you hope that in return, they will take care of you in the same way. This is what creates boundary chaos. Instead, respect and nurture yourself by taking care of you first. You may be asking yourself whether doing this is selfish—it is not. By meeting your own needs, you respect yourself and the other by taking responsibility for your own well-being. You preserve your integrity so that you can communicate your boundaries to others and maintain equal, respectful, and resentment-free relationships.

The second step is about defining your edges. In each situation, asking yourself what you are responsible for and what is outside your scope. If your partner wants you to do something, asking yourself, “would I like to invest in my relationship in this particular way”? If so, you can do it within your boundary. Then ask yourself, does doing this come at the expense of my well-being in a significant way? And will my resentment grow if I do it? If the answer is yes to either, there is a good chance this is outside the boundary. Give yourself the power to own the choices you make, and avoid doing anything that you will come to resent. Make choices that you feel are right for you—not because you feel like you have to, or fear the consequences, or think “that’s what it takes to be a good person”—but because you feel content with the choice regardless of the outcome. 

The third step is more concrete: Practice assertiveness! First noticing when you want to give in—to do something that would create resentment or come at the expense of your own well-being. Then, communicate your stance respectfully. You can apply this with family, at work, and even with strangers. For example, you might feel guilty because you don’t visit your family as often as they’d like you to. Make a personal choice regarding how often you would like to visit, and express your choice firmly. You are not responsible for how they feel about your choice. At work you might go above and beyond your job requirements at the expense of your own time with friends and family, which can lead you to burnout. Despite your fears (“what if I lose my job?”), you can start by setting limits on how often you work above and beyond (or choosing not to at all) and communicating these assertively (saying “I am not available to work on the weekend”).  To learn more about how to practice assertiveness, check out Lisa’s post here, or these online modules that take you through it in detail.

To summarize, when boundaries are blurry or loose, we do things we don’t want to do, often at the expense of our emotional and physical well-being. This leads to constant frustration within the self and can damage relationships with others. Being responsible for minding our own emotions and actions rather than those of others is essential to keeping our relationships (and ourselves!) healthy. Of course, boundaries are not always simple and can look a little different for everyone, so explore this with your therapist to learn about how it all plays out for you.


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

Peck, M.S. (1997). The road less traveled and beyond: Spiritual growth in an age of anxiety. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Scott, A. (1993). A beginning theory of personal space boundaries. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 29(2), 12-20.

Scott, A., & Dumas, R. (1995). Personal space boundaries: Clinical applications in psychiatric nursing. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 31(3), 14-21.

Scott, A. (1998). Psychometric evaluation of the personal space boundary questionnaire. Journal of Theory Construction and Testing, 1(2), 46-53.

Blog Swap - MissPsychLife on Self-Care

Blog Swap - MissPsychLife on Self-Care


Guest post from MissPsychLife

MissPsychLife (AKA Dr. Brooke) is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Brisbane. She began her blog as a way of sharing her passion for psychology and the promotion of self-acceptance, self-growth, self-care and self-love in other people (as well as herself she says!). For more of Dr. Brooke's awesome tips check out her Facebook or Instagram


We all know the feeling. It has been several months since your last holiday, work is crazy, you feel exhausted every day, perhaps you’re staying up a few hours too late at night to get that extra episode of Game of Thrones in. You aren’t sleeping well because you keep thinking about that presentation you have at work in a few weeks time. Forget about the gym because seriously who has time for that? The dog hasn’t been walked for weeks, and heck- let’s just order a pizza tonight because who has the energy to cook when you are working such long hours and barely have time to scratch yourself?

Hello daily grind and hello road to burnout!

We have all experienced this. Winter is renowned for it when the days are much shorter and colder (yes colder- even in Brisbane. It’s all relative!!) and it doesn’t take long after returning from a holiday for this all to set back in again. Life is busy and it seems to just be getting busier by the minute.

It’s times like this that we might wish we were a yoga or meditation guru- those people who just seem to have their sh#t together and don’t ever get stressed! (I’m sure that’s not actually the case but it does seem that way sometimes when you are in yoga class staring at the instructor thinking “how is she always so Zen?”). But most of us don’t have our sh#t together, let’s face it. Overall, we do ok. But adulting can be hard and stressful and most of us don’t prioritize stress management and take time for ourselves nearly enough. I am guilty of this at times just as much as the next person. So….. How do we find that extra time in an already crazy busy life to look after ourselves?

“Self-care” is a term that is being used a lot on social media at the moment (Yay!) and I know it certainly comes up a lot in my work with clients too. But throwing the term around and actually applying it are two very different things…..So what is self-care and why should you even bother?

Some definitions suggest that self-care is any activity that is purposely enacted to improve or add to physical, psychological and social well-being. Vague I know……. and probably very much open to interpretation. One person might think going into work on a weekend to get more work done is “adding to their psychological well-being” while others (including me in most cases) would disagree and say it’s important to have time away from work. So ultimately, I think the term “self-care” should apply to anything that promotes and enhances the level of balance that we have in our lives.

Evidence suggests that when we spend time engaging in activities that are in line with our values balanced across multiple domains (work, social life, intimate relationships, spirituality, health and well-being etc.) that we tend to be more psychologically resilient. It’s no surprise really…. like most things in Psychology, it is just common sense. When we spend too much time at work, we feel blah…. When we don’t spend enough time at work and only focus on binge drinking on weekends and staying on the couch all day, we feel blah…. When we spend all our time doing for others and never doing for ourselves, we feel resentful and end up feeling blah. So, balance is the key.

I work with clients every day who have lost sight of balance and are now paying for it with depression, exhaustion, strained relationships, inability to continue working… And I have experienced first-hand what it’s like to be totally imbalanced and I certainly will never let myself get back there. When I was in my final years of Uni, I was already working as a psychologist 4.5 days per week. I would go to work from 8am until 5pm. I would do 45-minute bumper to bumper drive home. I would get home, cook dinner, have a very brief conversation with my partner of the time, and then head to the study to work on my doctoral thesis until the early hours of the morning. I’d then get some sleep…. If my mind would let me. Then I would be up again early the next day to do it all over again. I’m no superhero. I’m human. I needed 7 to 8 cups of coffee each day to cope. And by cope, I mean to just get by. Needless to say….. My body and mind suffered. I started needing more sick days.  I lost too much weight (I can’t believe the photos when I look back on them! My arms were so thin even though I was still eating three meals a day). I had headaches nearly every day. My stomach was in knots. I was a bit of an emotional wreck…. and definitely not the most fun person to live with. My work suffered too. Thankfully I managed to still hold it together to treat my patients, but my paperwork was appalling. I fell behind which then made me even more stressed. I withdrew from friends and family because I was “too busy” for that. Overall, it was pretty miserable. But the scary thing is I didn’t really notice how imbalanced I was. It had become my normal.  Thank God my boss pulled me aside one day and asked what was going on. She had noticed things were slipping and she was concerned.

So, after I submitted my thesis, I visited Thailand for three weeks, I ate, I slept, I relaxed, and I reflected. I knew a change was needed and that’s exactly what I did. I rearranged my work and got a different job so that my workload was less intense. I started spending more time with friends and family. I moved house closer to work and my social support network. But most importantly, I gave myself permission to slow down.

It took some time. I think about six months after I went to Thailand I was still having difficulty sleeping in on the weekends. I would wake up in a panic. My mind just didn’t want to slow down. But gradually, with more and more balance, things slowed down and I realized what it meant to be normal and balanced, and truly relaxed.

So, the moral of the story. Slow your asses down, balance your life out and take care of yourselves. It’s important. I’m just grateful I learnt this lesson early on in life, instead of having a breakdown in my 50’s when I would have run myself into the ground.

Here’s some tips for self-care that I often suggest to clients who are burnt out or lacking balance…. Remember. It’s ALWAYS better to be proactive rather than waiting until you are utterly exhausted. I can’t stress this enough. Doing small things towards your self-care regularly is what’s going to ensure you avoid the dreaded burnout.

Tips for self-care:

  1. Check in with yourself regularly – recognizing that you need to up the self-care requires you to regularly check in with yourself and notice early warning signs that perhaps things might be getting on top of you. No this doesn’t mean waiting until you blow up at a colleague at work to recognize you are stressed. It will be more subtle and can be different for everyone. Perhaps you aren’t sleeping quite as well. Perhaps you are feeling just that little bit more irritable in evening traffic or your mind is busier than normal and unable to focus. The earlier you catch it, the more effective your self-care strategies will be. However, nothing beats having regular self-care strategies tied into your weekly routine – it means you have to think about it less and it just happens.

  2. Don’t be afraid to say no – this is something my Mum has always told me and she couldn’t be more right. One of the trickiest things for some people is being able to say no to requests from other people, be it colleagues, your boss, friends, family or partners. Saying no politely but confidently when you don’t feel able to do something is important for maintaining your own sanity, but also healthy interpersonal relationships. Don’t worry- the sky won’t fall down if you say no. The person will survive. I dare you to try it.

  3. Watch out for guilt – if you are someone who struggles with the last point or if you are someone who is used to always being busy, watch out for guilt when you say no or when you consciously choose to slow down. I’ve had to battle this over the last four days. I’ve spent a lot of time at home relaxing and not doing a whole lot and would occasionally get pangs of guilt thinking “I really should be productive”. Notice these thoughts, acknowledge them, and let them go. You are actively choosing to refresh yourself and will be better for it in the long run.

  4. Take time out, alone, at least once a week (or more if you are introverted and need alone time to recharge) – spending time on your own doing something that you find relaxing and fulfilling can be incredible refreshing. What you do is different for everyone as we all enjoy different things. I find working on projects like painting furniture, tidying, or blogging to be enjoyable, as well as reading a book in the sun or having an at home pamper session, or even just a simple cup of tea (Barry’s tea all the way!).

  5. Disconnect – spend a few hours disconnected from technology. This is definitely the one I struggle with the most. We have all become so dependent and addicted to technology that leaving our phone off for a few hours while we have breakfast with a friend (gasp!) can seem impossible. But go on- try it. You will feel more connected and mindful in the moment and will experience your present moment more.

  6. Connect - do something to feel connected with others. If you feel you have been neglecting your family or friends, reach out and connect in some way. Even if it’s just a phone call, or a coffee. Check in with someone you love and really see how they are going. If you can do this in combination with the last point- you will connect even more (yes I just suggested, you connect and disconnect at the same time.)

  7. Be mindful – do a task mindfully- this means, notice every aspect of that task. Touch, taste, sound, smell, sight. This can be very grounding and relaxing. Sit outside for half an hour and try your best to stay focused on the sounds or the feel of the breeze on your face. Yes, your mind will wander, many times. That is ok. Just keep redirecting it back to the present moment and try not to get frustrated with yourself.

  8. Sleep routine – I really can’t stress enough the importance of good sleep. I never used to value it much and always stayed up late. But with conscious effort now to get my minimum 8 hours it makes such a big difference. If for any reason I get less than this now, I feel confused about how I used to cope. Set a bed time, and stick to it. It might take a few nights for your body to adjust but you will thank yourself for it.

  9. Schedule regular mini breaks – having something to look forward to can make the daily grind much easier to bear. Look ahead at your calendar and pencil in some long weekends, whether you go away or just stay home. Knowing you have that little break is always nice.

  10. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – we all need help. We are social creatures who depend on one another. Yet so many of us are bad at asking for it- me included in that at times. Look at your workload and life load and assess where you might be able to get help.

  11. Relaxation/meditation/yoga - this is an obvious self-care exercise. It is shown to reduce stress and is a nice way of scheduling “you time”. In my previous post “10 ways to boost low mood” I suggest a few apps you can use, including the headspace-au meditation app.

  12. Exercise/go for a walk – this is another obvious one. Some of us enjoy exercise more than others and that’s ok. You don’t need to be an athlete. Take the dog for a walk or even just yourself. The fresh air really does work wonders.

Now go forth and care for thy self. Let’s all get on board with self-care and try to do at least one small thing towards our self-care daily. I know I will be!

Dr Brooke @MissPsychLife xx

Getting off tilt

Getting off tilt

I’ve been trying some new things and recently I decided to branch out into poker. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the game - keeping track of the odds, reading the other players, deciding on your risk-taking comfort level - that I’ve actually found to be helpful for me in my day to day life. In fact, probably the most useful thing I’ve learned about so far is being “on tilt”.

In poker, when a player in on tilt, it means that their emotions have taken over and reduced their ability to make decisions. So something negative happens like they lose a big pot, and then they get really upset and make decisions in the next hand that are not ideal. And of course, they get into a bit of a spiral, with negative emotions leading to poor decision making, which then leads to more negative emotions and so on. Sound familiar?

We have all had similar experiences - we get really angry, or sad, or frustrated, and then react in an unhelpful way. Maybe we yell at a family member and say something that we regret, or hit someone and end up escalating the situation. All of us know what it’s like to be on tilt, the questions is, how do we right ourselves?

In the moment, Linehan (2014) recommends that we STOP. So we:

  • Stop what we are doing

  • Take some deep breaths

  • Observe what is happening

  • Proceed effectively

The key is to not react impulsively, but to give ourselves time to calm down. See Natsumi’s blog post for other great ways to handle strong emotions.

This is also a wonderful time to put your deep breathing and other relaxation skills to use. Again, inserting some time between the situation and our reaction can only be helpful.

Once you’ve moved past the initial emotion, engaging with your thoughts can be helpful. Is this the worst thing that could happen? Will this matter six months from now? Why has this affected me so strongly? What are other options for reacting that may be more helpful? In cognitive behavioural therapy, the focus is on the thoughts that lead to the emotions, with the goal of reducing unhelpful thinking.

Sometimes, the urge to do something can be overwhelming. However, it’s important to recognise when we are not in a space to make good decisions, and to take the time we need. After all, as a great philosopher once said “To tilt is human, to break out of the cycle is definitely possible with some practice” :)


Ava-Ann Allman 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

Linehan, M. (2014). DBT skills training manual: second edition. Guilford Press.