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Emotional avoidance: Make it go away!

Emotional avoidance: Make it go away!

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Lately I’ve been thinking about the various ways that people try to avoid their emotions. And it’s understandable. Emotions can feel pretty scary, especially when they get intense. Intense anxiety can elicit a sense of impending doom, the physical symptoms that accompany panic can generate a sense that one is having a heart attack, and individuals overcome with anger can feel like they are going to explode. So it makes sense that we would want to avoid negative emotions. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to cite getting rid of an emotion like anxiety as their initial goal for therapy.

Problems with wanting to eliminate negative emotions

Although it’s understandable to want to avoid negative emotions, either by numbing ourselves when they arise, or wishing we could eliminate them altogether, there are several reasons why this isn’t actually a good idea.

1. Our emotions are useful signals. A helpful analogy here is to think of physical pain – although many people wish they could avoid or prevent physical pain, pain signals give us useful information that we need to protect ourselves (indeed, people who do not get these pain signals often develop serious injuries; see link). In a similar way, our emotions are there to tell us something. For example, when we feel threatened in some way, anxiety alerts us to the possibility that we may need to protect or prepare ourselves. Without any anxiety, we might take risks that put us in physical danger, or we might shirk our responsibilities altogether.

2. It’s often not possible. When we suppress an emotion, it doesn’t typically go away.

a. The emotion might actually intensify over time (have you ever tried to push away feelings of frustration about something only to blow up about it later on?). In this way, our emotions are not all that different from children asking their parent for something – what do they do if they don’t feel heard? They raise the volume (sometimes very, very loudly!).

a. Or the emotion might come out in a different form, which can be hard for those around you to understand (e.g. if you become passive aggressive) or in ways that might confuse even you (e.g. you might be unsure of why you feel tense, irritable or drained).

3. The ways that some people try to avoid negative emotions, including drugs or self-harm, can lead to more suffering. Sometimes people avoid thinking about negative emotions by throwing themselves into projects or focusing on the world outside of their inner experiences (e.g. with to-do lists, focusing on other people’s problems); this can be a hard one to detect because we might trick ourselves into thinking that we are being productive when we might also be avoiding (the motivation behind our action is the important distinction here).

So, you want me to just…what? Sit with my emotion?

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Although this might seem crazy at first, allowing ourselves to sit with a negative emotion provides us the opportunity to see that our emotional wave (although very uncomfortable) will decline in intensity over time and will not destroy us. Also, by not trying to “do something” to get rid of the emotion at the peak of its intensity, we might avoid doing something impulsively which we might later regret (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007).

Rather than telling ourselves that our emotions do not make sense, that we should not be feeling that way, that our emotions are dangerous, or that we should try to get rid of them, we can try to identify what emotions we are experiencing in that moment (e.g. I feel angry), validate for ourselves that our feelings are understandable in light of the situation or context (e.g. it’s understandable that I’m angry because this situation is unfair), provide ourselves with words of compassion (e.g. I know this is really hard right now, and I know I will get through this), and ask ourselves what it is that we might need - not what we need to get rid of the emotion, but what we need to take care of ourselves (e.g. restorative activities like a nap, working toward boundary setting)…and if we’re really up for challenging ourselves, we can even thank our emotion for drawing our attention to this need and for giving us the opportunity to take care of ourselves in a more compassionate and present way (Neff & Germer, 2018).


Simcha Samuel 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. https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/congenital-insensitivity-to-pain

2. McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

3. Neff, K. & Germer, C. (2018). The mindful self-compassion workbook: A proven way to accept yourself, build inner strength, and thrive. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

“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

Back to the Present! One Time-Travelling Hack To Be Here Now

Back to the Present! One Time-Travelling Hack To Be Here Now

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Do you remember the DeLorean travelling through time in the Back To The Future movies? This post is going to be just like that...only different.

In my last post, I wrote a bit about how my experience as a mom to newborn twins was, um, how shall I put this, an effective new form of psychological torture not quite how I had pictured it was going to be. My mind slipped into functional zombie mode and I felt like I was flipping past chapters of my own life.

Time rushed by but I was tangled up too far away to notice all the casual magic unfolding around me. I needed to find my way back to the present. Back to the NOW.

Contact with the present moment

Contact with the present moment is a core aspect of mindfulness and a key skill we practice in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It's about being fully here now, even for a moment. It's being consciously and flexibly aware of our inner and outer world, as opposed to the very common state of being tuned-out of our experience or caught inside certain thoughts and feelings.

You can check out my last post about contacting the present moment to see if you might benefit from this skill. It also covers three basic steps to get you started, plus a brief practical exercise that you can do anywhere, anytime to reconnect with the moment using your physical senses. That exercise is essentially a “bottom-up” approach; we start with all the little sensory building blocks of experience to build up to a more richly detailed picture of here-now.

Presently, I'd like to share a complementary “top-down” approach; we start with whatever is precious to you in the big picture of your life to come into closer contact with little elements of the current moment that may otherwise be flying under the radar.

To The DeLorean!!!

To practice this “top-down” way of contacting the present moment, we can start by packing for a little time-travelling exercise. We can travel light. Start with your intention to make better contact with the present moment and just add the following 3 concepts to your inner carry-on bag:

1) Hedonia and Eudaimonia

Think of hedonia and eudaimonia as two separate but interconnected paths to well-being. A hedonic orientation involves seeking happiness, positive feelings, life satisfaction, and reduced negative feelings. On the other hand, a eudaimonic orientation includes seeking meaning, authenticity, excellence, and personal growth (Huta & Waterman, 2013).

Basically, there are many difficult moments in which you might not feel happy, but in which you might find some sense of personal meaning (Frankl, 1963). In ACT we explore this by not getting too hung up on a perpetual search for pleasant feelings (nor a constant mission to avoid unpleasant feelings), asking instead, “Who and what is important to you?”

2) Acceptance

“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”
--Eckhart Tolle

For me, this quote captures something essential to mindfulness and the capacity to be present in the here and now.

In ACT, acceptance is the idea that instead of playing tug-of-war with challenging elements of your experience, you can choose to “drop the struggle”. The key idea here is to accept and then act so that you work with the moment and not against it.

3) Shift Perspectives on the Present Moment

One way to shift perspectives on a situation is to wonder what it looks like from a different point of view, taking on the vantage point of a different person, a different place, or a different time.

ACT encourages us to shift perspectives as a means of increasing psychological flexibility (i.e., having awareness and responses that are more adapted to a given situation and more in line with your values). Compassion-focused therapy (CFT; Gilbert, 2010) encourages shifts in perspective as a means of increasing self-compassion (relating to yourself with kindness and non-judgment).

That's why this next video blows my mind. It's an incredibly poignant perspective shift:

“We take it for granted that life moves forward. But you move as a rower moves, facing backwards—you can see where you've been, but not where you're going. And your boat is steered by a younger version of you. It's hard not to wonder what life would be like facing the other way…” – John Koenig, Avenoir, Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Koenig's brilliant video points out that we naturally look at where we are in relation to where we have previously been. He offers a seismic shift in perspective by wondering what the present moment would look like to your older future self, with all of your additional life experience already within you.

 

Well. The DeLorean is fully charged now and you have all you need to hit 88 miles an hour. So let's put it together and experiment, shall we? Drawn from ACT and CFT, may I present:

The Back-to-the-Present Time Travel Hack!   

Imagine that one day, far far ahead in the future, there is a much older, much wiser, more compassionate Future You. Future You has lived your whole life and knows every page, every chapter, start to finish. Intriguingly, Future You can time travel (!) and specifically chooses to come back to this very moment, right here, right now.

What challenging elements of your current experience can Future You see with wise, compassionate understanding? (e.g., difficult thoughts/feelings/sensations?) 

What important sensory elements of the present moment does Future You want to experience one last time? (e.g., what is meaningful or precious to you in this moment and how do you experience that with your senses?)     

What does Future You want to do right here, right now? (e.g.,Is there something Future You wanted to tell you? Perhaps there is something Future You wanted to do again? Perhaps there is something Future You needed to go back and do differently?)

I challenge you to give it a whirl yourself right now or anytime you want to practice contacting the present moment, especially in a moment that is a bit challenging for you on some level. Notice what might shift in terms of your sensory, mental, and emotional focus of attention.*

I was trying not to let this post get too long, so consider that the end of the official post!

You've got the goods now. But of course you're welcome to read on if you'd like an example of how it all played out in my case:

Original Experience of The Moment: Scene 1 Take 1

It's the middle of the night and I feel like I've been awake for eons. I'm standing in a dark room just big enough for two cribs, trying to block out the grating sonic loop of two babies bawling in tandem. The twins are a few months old and it's a particularly difficult night.

It goes like this: I pick up baby 1, eventually soothe her, put her down, pick up baby 2, eventually soothe her, put her down; meanwhile baby 1 is crying again, and rinse, repeat, on and on. I feel hopelessly inadequate to mother these two at the same time and I just want all the crying to stop.

Sensory focus of attention: 

  • hearing crying
  • seeing darkness
  • feeling physical exhaustion

Mental/emotional focus of attention: 

  • trying to block out the crying and wanting it to stop
  • thinking I will be stuck here for ever
  • thinking I'm failing them during a critical developmental period
  • thinking I'm not meeting the needs of either baby and it will screw them up for life
  • feeling hopeless and inadequate
  • feeling the heartbreak and guilt of not being able to give each of them my undivided time and attention in their time of distress

Back to the Present! Scene 1 Take 2

Then I imagined Future Me choosing (whaaaat?!) to come back to this very moment and everything started to shift. Wise Old Future Me saw my exhaustion and feelings of inadequacy with compassionate, understanding eyes. Then she just went straight to drinking in what she knew to be the ephemeral beauty of the situation: me standing upright in my relatively young, strong body, holding the girls in their temporarily tiny form.

Sensory focus of attention via Future Me:

  • the soft warmth of baby skin, especially the top of their heads
  • the tiny dimensions of their small delicate bodies, especially their hands
  • a decrease in my muscle tension
  • noticing the vitality still coursing through my middle-aged body and holding me upright
  • special shout out to the strength in my arms and legs

Mental/emotional focus of attention via Future Me: 

  • feeling a strong sense of surprise and wonder at how tiny the babies are (after all, I was used to seeing them as the biggest they have ever been relative to The Past)
  • feeling waves of gratitude for another moment with my babies
  • thinking the cries no longer sound so loud and so laced with reproaches--rather they have a certain nostalgic sweetness somehow

Soaking up all the parts of the present experience from Future Me's point of view, my harsh judgments dropped away. Instead of wasting my time struggling against feelings of inadequacy or trying to block out the crying, I instinctively shimmied a little closer to what is truly precious to me.

It was the difference between pulling away from the discomfort of a challenging moment and the willingness to lean in and experience it.

From the outside not much looked different. The epic crying relay continued on. But on the inside, if only for a limited time, it made all the difference in the world. It was a radical gear-shift out of zombie auto-pilot and back into my own experience. Back to The Present!

 

(*Figurative DeLorean and flux capacitor included. Some psychological flexibility may ensue. See your own experience for details.)


Maryann Joseph 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

Forsyth, J. P. & Eifert, G. H. (2007). The mindfulness and acceptance workbook for anxiety: A guide to breaking free from anxiety, phobias, and worry using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. [This is a great ACT self-help workbook and there are others in the series, e.g., for depression.]

Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Washington Square Press. [A poignant classic, as relevant today as ever.]

Gilbert, P. (2010). Compassion Focused Therapy: Distinctive features. New York: Routledge. [A richly theoretical clinician's guide to CFT.]

Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy to read primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. [This is an excellent, accessible resource for any clinician.]

Huta, V. (2015) The complementary roles of eudaimonia and hedonia and how they can be pursued in practice, in Positive psychology in practice: Promoting human flourishing in work, health, education, and everyday life, Second Edition (ed S. Joseph), Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. doi: 10.1002/9781118996874.ch10. [Conceptual, research-based aspects of well-being.]

Polk, K. L., Schoendorff, B., Webster, M., & Olaz, F. O. (2016). The essential guide to the ACT matrix: A step-by-step approach to using the ACT matrix model in clinical practice. Oakland, CA: Context Press. [Clear, concise, and wonderfully practical ACT resource for clinicians.]

“Life therapy”; what the &%$!@# is that?!

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“Life therapy”; what the &%$!@# is that?!

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“Life therapy”. The term or expression came about when talking with a couple of my colleagues a few months ago. I had recently been away for the weekend and mentioned having really enjoyed going for long walks on the beach while looking for sea glass: “It felt so good; long walks outside in nature really are MY therapy.” We started talking about the importance of finding something that you enjoy, that nurtures you and helps you to feel your best as being one’s “life therapy”. This idea of “life therapy” isn’t meant to replace traditional therapy in the office; what we refer to as “life therapy” are simply actions or things that you can do that allow you to care for yourself with kindness and help you feel your best. In other words, these are small things (they add up!) that can help us to be in a better position to enjoy life and navigate through its occasional challenges.  Essentially, the idea of life therapy is what is often referred to these days as self-care; something we are hearing more and more about in the media. The term self-care is sometimes misinterpreted, however, as being indulgent, and can have a negative connotation, as was well explained by Brianna Wiest in this article: “True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from".

We believe that traditional psychotherapy (what happens in the office) is most often best suited on a short-term basis (not for life!); and one of the things we strive to assist our clients with during therapy is to help them to identify the things in their lives that allow them to feel their best. We like to call this “life therapy”. “Life therapy” refers to anything you do that helps you to feel well, healthy, balanced and generally happy. It’s a series of actions or behaviors that contribute to your overall health and well-being. I like to encourage my clients to experiment, and try different things until they find whatever it is that works best for them and helps them to feel their best.

I’m not suggesting that “life therapy” can protect anyone from experiencing harder times; challenges and ups and downs are a natural part of life (and some are more difficult than others), but the idea is that there are things we can do to care for ourselves that help us to navigate through the tough times and can help us to cope better. Ideally, we have a number of things we do that help us feel our best; things that are accessible and sustainable. Naturally, these things may change over time based on our needs, interests, etc., but the idea remains the same - taking time on a regular basis to prioritize yourself and to slow down, showing yourself kindness and connecting with yourself so that you can be attentive to your needs and honor them in a way that feels right for YOU. Of course, this will vary enormously from one person to another, because we all have different needs, interests, etc. The idea is to find what works for YOU and that whatever you choose as your “life therapy”, that it will be something you can realistically fit into your routine and commit to making happen fairly regularly as a practice (and YES, it’s totally normal to get off course; the idea here is that we catch ourselves when we get off our regular course of action and then choose to come back to our practice). Whatever that action may be, it will be something that has the effect of helping you to feel balanced, gives you a sense of well-being and a sense that you are working towards living your best life. There will be times when it is tougher to commit to our practice, when we might neglect to actually do the things that help us feel our best, (like when life gets tougher or busier, which is often when we could probably most benefit from it, - but this is LIFE!). The idea is to try and commit to noticing and catching this happening, and then choosing to restart your practice even when you fall off your “self-care wagon”. At Connecte, we encourage our clients to take time to connect with what’s important to them, with their needs and to honor them in whatever way is appropriate for them. For some, this may mean taking regular baths while reading a good book and for someone else it might be going for regular walks in nature or even getting outside to enjoy a long run. For more on helping identify what self-care/life therapy means to you and on how to make your self-care sustainable, check out Jodie’s blog post, Want to Change the World? Start by Connecting to You.

Thanks and Credit for use of photo : @ keswickandweldon

Thanks and Credit for use of photo : @ keswickandweldon

Keep in mind that our needs are likely to change over time, and it’s important to be flexible and in tune with our bodies, ourselves and to adjust and adapt as needed. Explore this idea of being flexible when it comes to our self-care further in Maeve’s blog post, Those Times When “Being Healthy”…. Isn’t. How To Integrate Self-Care Into Our Exercise Goals.

We want to hear from you!!

Some readers may not like the term “life therapy”; our idea was to find a word to refer to the thing(s) that one can do to help care for themselves and feel their best. It refers to what others tend to call self-care, but perhaps has a less negative connotation as being something indulgent. The idea of including the word life in our term “life therapy” is essentially that “life therapy” is something we intend to do over the course of our lives. It refers to something we prioritize and are committed to making happen (sort of like taking care of our teeth throughout our lives with regular visits to the dentist and daily brushing and flossing, etc.,). We would love to hear your thoughts about this idea of “life therapy” and hope you will share with us!

  • What sorts of things do you consider to be your “therapy”?
  • What do you think of the idea of “life therapy”?
  • What do you think of what we have chosen to call it (for now!)?

If you have suggestions for what this could be called; something other than life therapy or self-care, we would love to hear from you below in the comments or you can hop on over to Connecte's Instagram and leave your suggestions there, or tag a picture of your #lifetherapy moment!


Andrea Martin 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.


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