The Search for Understanding

Sometimes we can’t find an answer to our questions. It may be that they are existential in nature, or perhaps the person we need to gain understanding from is not capable or willing to answer. It is a theme that is often repeated in therapy – from a mother who wrestles with understanding the loss of her child, to a young woman who fails to comprehend how, despite her effort, her mother chooses to remain distant, to a young man who wants to understand why his girlfriend treats him with such casual indifference.

Often, in our quest to understand the Why? we default into carrying the weight of its answer. The grief feels heavier and we lean into wondering what is wrong with us to have deserved such circumstances. It is a natural response to want to own what is happening, as it allows us to temporarily believe that we have control.

And yet we don’t. At least not over the circumstances, or the behaviours or choices of others. What we do have control over is our response and our eventual decision that perhaps acceptance is the healthiest option. Acceptance doesn’t make what happened okay; we can accept and still feel the unfairness of the situation. Acceptance allows us to set aside the Why? and lean into the reality of the situation.

By moving to acceptance, we place greater emphasis on movement and process. We become compelled to strive for experiences that are meaningful and purpose driven; we lean into the grace of healing.

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The “Poor Me” Cycle

There are times when we get into a “poor me” or “why me” train of thinking. Sometimes it comes from a lot of stress that we are under, chronic pain can bring it on, or our life circumstances are feeling particularly challenging for whatever reason. And although it is perfectly okay to recognize and accept that this is the way we are feeling, we must be cautious not to stay there. Defeatist thinking tends to create a cycle that can lead to feeling stuck, and if we give the “poor me’s” too much care and attention, we can begin to live in the “poor me cycle.”

Characterized by thoughts such as “Why does this always happen to me? How come I can’t get ahead? What is wrong with me? How come I can’t catch a break?,” we begin to lean into helpless thinking. And when we begin to feel helpless and hopeless, we have moved into identifying as a victim; someone who moves in a place of complacency and eventual apathy; about their situation, their experiences, and sometimes their life in general. As cycles like to build on each layer, the apathy feeds both lethargy and procrastination which equals, feeling stuck.

We are much better served to give the “poor me’s” only a tad bit of attention. To acknowledge that, yes, I am feeling a bit down on myself, but then to push away from those thoughts and to lean into ones such as “One day at a time. I can make decisions that affect and move my life forward. No matter what, I’ll be okay. I can do this; I can make choices that are support me moving forward.”

By leaning into a more healthy way of thinking, we stay out of the poor me cycle, moving towards the type of change that facilitates growth and a feeling of pride and accomplishment.

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How to Deal with Difficult Emotions: Post 2

Building from yesterday’s post in which we looked at some key steps to managing difficult emotions, today we look at the “0 to 60” response. Very often, people will remark that they can’t control their emotions- that when they feel something, their need to act on it is immediate. That might be anger by means of a quick or short temper, fear – which can produce a panic attack or immediate tears when triggered to something sad or overwhelming. As we touched on yesterday, every feeling that we have is meant to be there. Feelings produce action urges, and it is often the follow through on those action urges that can get us into trouble. In order to temper the “0 to 60” response, we can begin by:

  1. Understanding that it doesn’t have to be that way. Question why you have that type of response. What are your triggers? Is this a learned behaviour? Was it something that you used in childhood that protected you but now doesn’t work for you as well? It is important to begin to understand that just because something has been one way for a long time, doesn’t mean it can’t change.
  2. Take a deep breath. Or maybe two, or three. We know that shallow breathing quickens the response part of our body to react. We also know that a deep breath resets that….taking that moment will remind us “Hey, it’s okay to slow this down. It’s okay to think about how I want to react.” Deep breathing inhibits anxiety, anger and impulsiveness.
  3. Sleep on it. Hard to imagine not reacting? Just try it the next time you are feeling especially overwhelmed by your emotions. Give yourself permission to slow it down long enough to say “How do I want to react to this? Do I need to act right away?” Sometimes giving ourselves time allows our rational brain to contribute it’s two cents worth, tempering the emotion and need to act.

It is not always easy to manage difficult emotions but it is possible. It will take some practice and patience – be compassionate with yourself for your efforts. 🙂

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How To Deal with Difficult Emotions: Post 1

We all have them – difficult emotions. Sometimes the struggle is with anger, sometimes it is with fear, or shame, or deep sadness. The difficulty is often in what feels uncontrollable; a reaction that feels out of our grasp and all-consuming. But we can learn to help control and contain difficult emotions.

  1. The first step is to simply begin to be aware of your emotions. It is to understand that it is not the feeling that gets you into trouble. Every feeling that you have is meant to be there. It is either instinctual, you learned it, or through experience, associations to feelings were formed. And so, the first step is simply to begin to notice how we are feeling. Simply observe and describe – no judgement. “Hearing that makes me feel sad.” “I am so angry right now.” “Everything feels tight.” “I can feel the calmness inside.”
  2. Understand that feelings are impermanent. They come and go. They have the ability to pass. When we focus on simply observing our emotions (without having to act on them right away), we begin to understand the impermanence of emotion.
  3. Move towards acceptance. The feelings that you have are meant to be there. This doesn’t give us permission to give in to the action urge of the feeling, but it does give us the important understanding that our feelings do actually work for us.

Tomorrow’s post will look at the “0 to 60” reaction that often accompanies difficult emotions and the steps we can take to slow that down.

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Grief and How it Grows

It has been 26 years since my grandparents died. They passed away within 3 months of each other and they were the first people in my life to pass away that I was close to and loved dearly. May of this year marked 9 years that we said goodbye to my father, and this November, it will be 3 years that I exist without my mom. Sometimes that is so hard to believe and yet there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about her; my grief for her is profound. I smile when I am reminded of her and a song on the radio can at times bring instant tears.

We often think that grief is a process that we go through and then let go. Rather I would argue that it is an integrative process. Grief must enter all of our cells; it must do the work of reconciliation, incorporating all of our complicated feelings into something that eventually will feel somewhat okay. Grief comes with its own suitcase, it needs to move in.

Grief, as in everything else, exists on a continuum and it tends to be relative to the relationship. Processing the loss is the important work of grief – but it isn’t something we go through and let go. Rather we grow around grief. Knowing this can help with the process – it can remind us that grief doesn’t need to be an unwanted house guest, but instead a lovely inhabitant of the guest house. One that we will need to visit from time to time but we can also take our space from; knowing that by growing around grief, we continue to do our healthy work.

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Pain is in the Driver’s Seat

For anyone living with chronic pain, they are forever challenged by the fact that try as they might – taking medications on time, getting the right amount of sleep and exercise, eating healthy – if pain decides to take over on any given day, they get bumped out of the driver’s seat. The dissonance that gets created as a result, lies not in the fact that you are having a pain day, but rather that you had expectations for the day. If we can’t get done what we had planned, or get less done than we usually would have, we can be quite hard on ourselves; resulting in feelings of discouragement, and we open the door for the blues to set in.

We are much better served to understand that “when I am having a pain day, my tank is full.” Waking up uncomfortable and sore lets you know that your body and mind are allowed to focus on what needs to happen in order to best alleviate the pain. That might include cancelling plans, doing less than you would normally do, going about tasks at a slower pace, taking more breaks. It is acknowledging that you have woken up with a full tank, and its not going to take much to spark a tipping point. If we can give pain its space, we can begin to celebrate  the fact that “anything I get done today is a bonus.”

When we can begin to be kind to ourselves where our expectations are concerned, we begin to feel that we have some control in our pain day. We may have had to let pain take the driver’s seat, but we can darn sure still give it directions! 🙂

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The Deceiving Side of Abuse

I see many women who come to therapy because of domestic violence; and there are two things that consistently form an observable pattern among their stories:

  1. Full clarity only comes after they leave. In Canada, DV charges are now laid by the police and gone are the old days when a spouse could go into the station and drop the charges; an immediate no contact order is put into place, and both parties can be charged with breach if they contact one another.  This is brilliant – this space is often enough for a woman to be able to recognize the full effects of the abuse; it is very often after greater clarity that she will begin to ask the question “Why did I stay?”
  2. Abusers have a nice side. Sometimes it is even a child-like side. It is the side of them that can be quite charming, it is the side of them you feel sorry for, it is the side of them that does nice things for you after the abuse, it is the side of them that makes it easier to forgive them; this is the part of them that lands you into a place of hope that “this time, things will change.”

But they won’t. And for many women, that is where the clarity comes into play.  Leaving is not an easy process, lots of conflicting emotions and a combing through of the damaging effects of mixed messages, but the facts remain – abusers need to feel superior to their partners, they need to own their partners, they need to blame others for their own inadequacy.

It is not always easy to understand why someone stayed and we can be pretty quick to blame ourselves or to perhaps judge others, but we must always be mindful of the deceiving side of abuse.

If you are in an abusive relationship, please ask for help. Some resources include:

In Renfrew County: http://www.wsssbmh.org/en/

Domestic Violence Agency website in Canada: http://www.hotpeachpages.net/canada/index.html

USA Hotline: https://www.thehotline.org/

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Being Mindful About Grief

In an article entitled “Mindful Grief: 3 Ways to Manage Your Sorrow” by Ashley Davis Bush and featured on GoodTherapy, we read about how to be more mindful about the grief process. Bush notes that we tend to have a tendency towards avoiding painful feelings which can lead to complications when we are actively grieving. I especially enjoyed reading the three thoughts she had in trying to give grief its due course:

  1. Intention: Set your intention to welcome the feelings, to learn from them, and to be open to finding the wisdom embedded within the process.
  2. Attention: Pay attention to the natural rhythms of grief. Notice the waves that ebb and flow. See grief rising and falling, washing over you and receding.
  3. No tension: Suffering may be minimized to the degree to which you are able to drop your resistance to the feeling that ‘is’.

As you can see from these tips, we are trying not to avoid our painful feelings, but rather acknowledging their presence. It is okay to give ourselves permission to simply feel the sadness in the moment; have our tears, say our prayers, get an extra squishy hug from a loved one, smile at a memory (even through the tears), write our thoughts down in a journal. It is simply about allowing the active portion of grief to come in so as to go out; when we have given grief some space, we also experience the inherent sense of momentary relief and peace that tends to accompany it. 🙂

To read the full article: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/mindful-grief-3-ways-manage-sorrow-080814

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Removing the Emotional Load

People often come to therapy to work through a trauma; a past or present experience is plaguing them and taking up too much space in themselves. Perhaps they have spent too much time avoiding the after-effects of the negative experience, and it is now creating trouble in their relationships or with the way that they regulate their emotions.

The goal in trying to heal from traumatic experiences is to remove the emotional load. That isn’t to say that recalling the event or being triggered doesn’t bring those emotions up; the emotions that are tied to a negative experience become embedded in our survival brain in order to forewarn us as to a possible re-occurence. What healing from trauma does is allow us to live with it; integrating it into our story, allowing it to co-exist with our strength, resilience and courage.

We can work through our negative experiences by going to therapy, writing about them, thinking about them when we are walking in nature. We can decide to no longer be the secret keeper and tell our trusted loved ones about what happened to us. We can decide that the trauma is no longer going to carry so much weight. By processing the negative experience, we remove its emotional load – leaving more room for seeking joy.

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Chronic Pain; A Function Centered Life

Building on yesterday’s post about how chronic pain can affect someone’s emotional health as well, we can see how chronic pain can often lead someone to living a pain centered life. Prolonged pain can be quite stealthy, invading our system in an insidious way. Often times, we continue to live our life as we always did, ignoring the pain as we plow through our day. This becomes a pain centered way of life, forcing us to eventually face the pain when we have pushed ourselves too far.

So how do we shift it to a more function centered life? One in which we work with our chronic pain and not against it:

  • Get informed. Working with your GP and possible specialists to discover the source of chronic pain is only the first step. Identify with symptoms by researching, join groups online that share similar diagnoses, seek both medical and alternative methods of treatment and look into online resources that can help to understand not only your specific condition but how chronic pain affects you as well.
  • Know your limits. Begin to notice just how much you can do of any activity and re-adjust. This takes some acceptance, but you will be better served by it when you begin to honour your body and just how much it can take. Shorten, tweak, or limit your activities according to your pain.
  • Stay active. Very often, chronic pain can be isolating; even a 10 minute walk around the block is better than staying in bed.
  • Keep your established social connections. Chronic pain can often lead us to say no to activities based on our pain levels; friends are more understanding than we think and keeping them in our life is an important and healthy coping strategy. It just may mean some adjustments – hiking with friends for a day might be out of the question, but how about a spa day instead?
  • Work towards acceptance. Working with our chronic pain is a proactive versus reactive position. You will feel more in the driver’s seat as a result.

A great online course is available from Living Healthy Champlain: https://www.livinghealthychamplain.ca/en/LAHLchronicpain

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