Ask a Therapist: Column #3

Q: I always feel so emotional towards the end of my summer vacation.  How do I make the transition back to regular life less difficult?

A: To begin, tell yourself that it is okay to have mixed emotions about the end of a trip, a cottage getaway, or a mini-break weekend.  There is a certain letdown that is a normal part of transitioning back to “real life”.  Note that you may also have some feelings of joy or merriment.  Sometimes you will have lingered in deep connectedness to others or to nature.  You will have had times of laughter and times of frustration while vacationing. These mixed emotions are natural reactions to the lived experiences your time away has afforded. To have strong feelings of connection to a place or time means that it mattered, that it was meaningful, that it restored you, and that’s precisely why you prioritized your time away.

Having said that, to keep some more positive vacation vibes alive, here are 5 tips that might help:

Have something to look forward to as soon as possible upon your return.  If you know you are just headed home to an empty fridge, an inbox full of unread emails, and piles of dirty laundry, it might not feel so appealing to be on route. Consider purchasing tickets to a local event soon after your arrival at home to give you that feeling of anticipation.  Maybe you could book a dinner with friends to share about your vacation.  Perhaps there is a house project that you’d like to start.  Whatever you plan, make sure it is something that feels inspiring and motivating to you so that you get that excitement energy working for you. You want to be coming home to something not just leaving from something.

Reflect on why the vacation was so meaningful for you and try to incorporate some of those elements into your regular life.  If time in nature was a restorative factor, make a point of taking more walks in the local park or visit nearby areas that provide that same atmosphere – even if it is just your back porch!  If the slower pace was a welcome reprieve, consider eliminating hurry by being mindful and present and less rushed as you move through your daily routine.  Perhaps the quality time you had with spouse, family, or friends was a joy to you; if so, put a date night, a bonfire with friends, or a planned phone call on the calendar and make room for continued connection. Maybe sleeping in and napping was the best part!  Give yourself permission to rest on the weekend or to take naps on your lunch hour in a way that sustains you.  If having time to reflect was a bonus, create space in your life for some journalling and meaningful conversations with friends so that you don’t lose touch with that valuable insight.

Reminisce throughout the year and anticipate the next getaway.  Vacations are not only enjoyed while on them, the mental boost of anticipation and the joy of reminiscing extend the impact of that holiday on your mental health.  Make a slide show or a photo album of your favourite pictures and revisit them whenever you feel like it.  Share funny anecdotes from your time away or recount the details of your adventures to a friend to remind yourself of the memories you created and how much they meant to you.

Play tourist in your own area. If seeing new things inspired you, then plan some little staycations. Take a drive to a new town or park on a Sunday afternoon.   Book dinner at a local restaurant that is new to you.  Visit local attractions with fresh eyes.  Go out for ice cream or take a walk on a local beach to experience those summertime flavours, sights, and sounds. Train yourself to look for opportunities to take advantage of tourist attractions in your town and that will bolster the vacation vibes at home.

Practice gratitude. Make an ongoing list of all the things that you love about your home and your life there. Count the blessings – large and small – that punctuate your beautiful, day-to-day life. Remind yourself how much you love your own bed, that you get to attend your local farmers’ market, or that you can cozy up in your favourite chair again. Don’t forget to give thanks for the opportunity to have had a vacation and remind yourself of the luxurious gift that it has been.

Of course, it is perfectly normal to experience some mixed emotions at the end of a holiday; but, naming and validating those feelings along with some intentional planning for at-home fun will lift your spirits and help you feel more like re-entry to regular life is not so bad after all.

To submit YOUR question for consideration in a future column, or for more information about psychotherapy services that could help with emotional well-being or life transitions, email sarahjoycovey@gmail.com.  

Ask a Therapist: Column #2

Q:  My work seems to be taking over my life.  How can I create a better work-life balance?

A: We live in a world where busyness is a badge of honour and overwork is rewarded with greater opportunities professionally.  Unfortunately, this culture around work is not conducive to a healthy life.  More and more people are taking leaves from their jobs to recuperate from the toxic stresses of the workplace environment and the pressure of unrealistic expectations.  It is becoming increasingly imperative that individuals take steps to guard their wellness to promote sustainability in their careers and to ensure that they are effective in the work that they do.  Of course, wellness is also an important factor in the ability to enjoy your life outside of work! As mentioned in last issue’s column, self-care is the foundation of a healthy life, but we can only practice self-care if we make space in our lives to do so.  Creating margin and time to rest is essential to maintain work-life balance and establishing boundaries is the best way to ensure that work doesn’t continue to take over your life.

Boundaries on your time: Work will expand to fill whatever time it is allotted and so you need to set reasonable time limits on your working hours, especially if you find yourself in a career that doesn’t have a fixed work day.  Studies have revealed that the quality of one’s work (and, consequently, one’s life) diminishes significantly after more than 50 hours of work in a week; interestingly, the optimal work week for personal health and professional satisfaction is actually slightly under 40 hours a week.  The message is clear: working long hours is neither helpful nor healthy.  Unhealthy workers are less effective and engaged, make more mistakes, and tend to miss more work due to sick time.  In contrast, productivity and quality often increase when we work smarter with fewer hours rather than harder with a never-ending slog.  Many find the practice of sabbath-keeping, even if it is not for religious reasons, a helpful boundary to ensure that at least one day in seven is protected for rest and rejuvenation.  Taking regular vacations from work is important but even something as simple as actually taking your lunch break and getting out of the office for an hour can be an excellent way to promote balance in your work day.

Boundaries on your technology: Another common challenge in creating balance in our work schedules is the way that technology – primarily the smartphone –  has made it possible to be accessible 24/7.  However, just because this is possible, it doesn’t mean that it is beneficial.  Technology is a tool to be managed; it should not manage us.  If you find yourself compulsively checking work emails, consider blocking the notifications so that you are not alerted each time an email arrives in your inbox.  Decide in advance when you will check your email and how much time you will allow for that part of your work.  Maybe your job requires you to do some overtime or work from home but make a conscious decision to say how much is reasonable and when that time is up, shut down and walk away from the computer. Designate a spot in your home where your phone is left each night so work doesn’t go to bed with you. You may decide to only start work after you have had your own personal or family time each morning, even if you could log in earlier. Technology use in the bedroom can cause significant sleep difficulties and going to work well-rested is an important part of minimizing your workplace stress.

When it comes to managing your work, you have the power to make changes through the implementation of boundaries.  Taking action that will protect your time and accessibility will bring more life back into your work-life balance.

If you’d like support in creating a better work-life balance, to submit YOUR question for consideration in a future column, or for more information about psychotherapy services, email sarahjoycovey@gmail.com.  

 

Ask a Therapist: Column #1

Ask a Therapist with Sarah Joy Covey, RP

Q: I hear people use the term “self-care” all the time, but what does it really mean? 

A: When we are practicing self-care we are engaging or disengaging in ways that are truly restorative to mind, body, and spirit. Often people confuse self-comfort (sometimes called self-soothing) with self-care and wonder why they are not refreshed after an evening spent binge-watching Netflix.

The true test of whether something is contributing to your self-care is the outcome: does this activity (or lack of activity) provide genuine rejuvenation? How do you feel during and after the activity? Self-care will lower stress levels and give back energy, focus, productivity, and emotional reserves. Many self-comfort activities may not exacerbate stress, but they act more as numbing agents than genuinely restful activities. They may be a type of blissful avoidance, but they will keep you feeling stuck or depleted if what you really need is self-care. In that sense, self-comfort is not a worthy substitute despite the fact that many people confuse these distinctions by using the terms interchangeably.

Foundational self-care revolves around eating nutritionally healthy food, getting adequate sleep, and moving your body. Neglect in these areas will certainly undermine your wellness, but self-care involves more than just meeting those basic needs. Common self-care practices include time in nature, prayer, meditation, journalling, meaningful connection with others, and/or artistic or creative pursuits. Therapy is often an integral part of a self-care regimen because it allows space for supported emotional processing and for thoughtful reflection. Psychotherapy nurtures healthy neurochemical connections in the brain and can alleviate the effects of stress and trauma. Therapy can help individuals establish and meet goals for improving the quality of their lives; often, therapeutic and interpersonal goals are dependent on an effective and intentional self-care plan.

While there is absolutely a place for self-comfort, – who doesn’t need a few episodes of Gilmore Girls and some Häagen-Dazs once in a while? – it is self-care that is essential to holistic wellbeing. Practicing authentic self-care is one of the best protective and restorative factors in overall health.

For more information on Sarah’s services as a Registered Psychotherapist or to send YOUR question for consideration in the next column, email sarahjoycovey@gmail.com.  

Dust to Dust: a spiritual grounding

Image result for stained glassIt’s Ash Wednesday.

If you already knew that, chances are you grew up in a Catholic home or are affiliated in some way with a Protestant church that follows the liturgical calendar.

I’m not Catholic and I don’t attend such a church but I did attend an Ash Wednesday mass at a local Catholic church today.  For many, this service is a normal spiritual practice to usher in the season of Lent; for me, it was new and intriguing and I sat quietly in my pew soaking it all in (especially the stained glass).

I have never attended a formal mass and so it felt a bit like an initiation into a ritual that is foreign to me.  Except that it’s not.  Not really.  In the last few years I have been drawn to the contemplative traditions and more traditional spiritual practices and so I have already been practicing Lent.  And I have attended services of one kind or another almost every Sunday of my life. But the idea of marking the start of this season of reflection and reorientation with ashes seemed fresh and profound and I wanted to explore it further.  I felt compelled not to let this Wednesday day pass without due acknowledgement.  So, I showed up and opened up to this experience.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” 

These are the words pronounced over each congregant as she receives ashes which are gently placed on her forehead in the sign of a cross by an elder in the church.  This moment is embedded in a liturgy of song, prayer, and scripture which reflects on the importance of remembering our humanity and the fact that our lives are but a vapour (James 4:14).

Some might say that reflecting on one’s mortality is a depressing way to spend a lunch hour! Not to mention the confusion about why someone would willingly enter into a melancholy season of deprivation typically marked with giving up chocolate, caffeine, or – God forbid – social media!

But Lent is actually a season of joy!  It is a time that marks the goodness of God to us in that we are offered a loving reminder to draw close again.  To be set free again.  To become dis-entangled with the weeds that have overgrown and smothered our lives.  To come face to face with our idols and to cast them off.  To make space again for the Holy Spirit to move and restore our dry bones.

Lent is a 40-day journey throughout which we can reaffirm and re-experience our needs being met fully in God.  We don’t have to depend our fragile and fragmented selves to make us worthy of that divine gift.  We don’t have to image manage or perform to gain our belovedness.  We can lay down our anxiety and rest in the shelter of His wings where we are secure.  We can relinquish our need for power and trust in the sovereignty of our Saviour to dissolve our illusion of control.

In this season of fasting and prayer, we are reminded that we need deliverance from a life of worldly passions and when we release our grasp on these things we will not be left wanting. We are not deprived.  We are filled to overflowing with God. We have all that we need and this abundance leads to generosity.

When we reflect on our dusty origins we are reminded that Creator God forms us and His breath – the Holy Spirit – re-vitalizes us and brings us back into the land of the living.

“The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7).

Thus remembering that each life is but a breath (Job 7:7) is a healthy practice. Acknowledging that we came from dust and will return to dust grounds us.

And as we turn our eyes back to Jesus, the things of earth grow strangely – but appropriately – dim. And we remember who we are and what really matters.

Are you practicing Lent this year?  If so, what makes it meaningful for you?  How will you remember that you are dust and allow God to breathe life into you again?

 

 

 

A New Leaf

My last blogpost was published on September 5th, 2015 (wow) and so much has happened in my life since that point that it is hard to even know where to begin as I sit to bring my thoughts back to the page. But, to have a new beginning, you have to start somewhere and so I am choosing to show up and turn over a new leaf.

In June of 2015, I made the bold and somewhat unconventional decision to retire from my 15-year career as a public high school teacher to pursue my Masters in Counselling Psychology with the goal of building a private psychotherapy practice.  I called this my #midlifeopportunity because it came on the eve of my 40th birthday.  This major shift in direction certainly accounts for much of my absence on the blog.  Primarily because completing my Masters in a compressed timeframe meant reading and writing copious pages and that necessary focus used up every ounce of my thinking and writing energy.  But that formal academic writing left a vacancy for me.  I missed being here.  I missed the creativity.  I missed the reflection.  I missed the part of me that found expression through writing freely.

Today, I am returning to this space after having studied, researched, learned, developed, and ultimately graduated and achieved all the requirements to become a fully licensed Registered Psychotherapist.  For now, suffice it to say that it was quite a journey, fraught with many challenges to overcome and joys to celebrate.   It is with a great sense of accomplishment that I look back on the last three and a half years and realize how my life has changed for the better.

As a part of fully conceptualizing my practice, I have renamed it (and, consequently, this blog),  “A New Leaf”.  This name encompasses so much about what this next chapter in my life represents both professionally and personally.  Professionally, I am committed to offering counselling services that help individuals and couples envision and implement a new way of living that brings greater integration and health.  Personally, I realize that I have turned over a new leaf and am showing up to a life that, until recently, I had not fully imagined for myself and my family.  From a writing perspective, I am reconnecting with this passion and pleasure as part of my own new leaf journey.  I believe in the power and potential of a blank page and know that each day – each moment – is a fresh opportunity to write a good story.

I know that writing is good for my soul.  I know I need it to be part of my life again in a more consistent and thoughtful way.  So, I intend to make space to re-prioritize it and to see how it shapes and brings clarity to my life again.  I hope you will visit from time to time and be encouraged or inspired by what you find.

I’m not much for new year’s resolutions (I am into the #oneword movement – more on that later) but I do think a changing calendar naturally invites us to reflect on our past and look into our future. Perhaps you are thinking about a fresh start?  Do you have a  #newleafpractice?  Can you identify one thing that helps you take a step towards greater wholeness in your life?  How can you begin (or return to) something that feels fresh and invigorating even today? Comment below and let me know how you are turning over a new leaf.  

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Lessons from the Lake

As we wrap up another summer of freckles, sandy toes, and ice cream cones what wisdom can we take with us from our lazy days of reflection by the lake? Here are a few lessons that we learned (or remembered) this year at the cottage:

  1.  Less is more.  If we can fit 6 people and all that we need to live for 3 weeks into a mini van we must have too much stuff at home.  All the fussing about with our wardrobes and our decorations and our kitchen gadgets and, yes, even our bookshelves can be a distraction from the things that matter most (which are actually not things at all).  Living simply allows us to be fully being present in the moments of our lives.  Consider the true cost of the stuff you bring into your homes in terms of the time and energy it will sap from other worthy endeavours.
  2. Water IS therapeutic.  It turns out that the inner calm you derive from the sound of crashing waves on the shoreline physiologically and psychologically relieves your stress.  We are more at rest when water surrounds us with its healing powers. Water also reminds us of the living water that is promised through Christ in Scripture and this elemental connection is no coincidence. As Canadians, we are blessed with beautiful waterscape that we shouldn’t take for granted as we cultivate #bluemind.
  3. You are doing too much laundry.  Although this may also be a positive byproduct of the limited options of a simple wardrobe (see #1), we manage to do very little laundry with limited cottage facilities and somehow we still have clean clothes. I don’t know about your kids but mine have thought on occasion that cleaning up their room meant putting every article of clothing that was on the floor into the laundry basket.  In response to this sweeping and unnecessary overload of the laundry basket we instituted a new rule: unless something is stinky or stained it can be worn again.  (Underwear and socks are, of course, always laundered – without inspecting stink or stains!) At the cottage, this rule is diligently followed; at home, it is a work-in-progress.
  4. Wasting time is not a waste of time.  My daughter recently purchased a shirt that reads, “I waste my time wisely” – isn’t that a great slogan?   An extended sabbatical is a wonderful respite from the daily grind but we can’t always wait for a vacation to take a rest.  Coming home to a Sabbath-rhythm is essential. Just be sure to waste your time wisely by filling it with the things that rejuvenate your soul.
  5. Boredom fuels creativity.  When my kids use the b-word I remind them that I am not their entertainment director and that boredom is a gift for their imaginations. I can’t remember the last time I was truly bored but I long for boredom because it is in those moments where we pause to be still that we open ourselves up to new burst of creativity.  At the cottage, songs were composed and stories were written as the kids mined the beauty from the boredom. Just today my “bored” kids decided to set up a comic book studio, assigning appropriate roles to all siblings based on age and natural talent.  I would not have come up with that idea as entertainment director, I assure you, and if I had rushed in with another suggestion, they would have missed out. And this is not just about children; each of us needs a chance to be bored in order to fuel our creative genius.
  6. Art is imitation.  When an artist attempts to capture the beauty of a landscape s/he is first inspired by the Creator’s canvas.  Even the photos I took at the lake did not begin to capture the grandeur of the vibrant double rainbow or the vast starry sky – the scenes that took my breath away.  Beauty and wonder surround us, no matter where we are. Look for it. Revel in it. And let even the most creative imitations remind you of the original artist.
  7. Even rainy days are full of joy.  The sound of rain on the rooftop or droplets dripping from heavy-laden leaves are further examples of #bluemind. But beyond that, on rainy days, or snow days, or any other days that the weather drives us indoors we have a valid excuse to stay in, to stay put, and to readjust our agendas.  These days permit freedom from the pressure to “get out there” and provide opportunities to “get in there”.  Instead of seeing inclement weather as a spoiler of great plans, choose to see it as an unexpected opportunity for a different kind of day, one that can be full of the joys of reading and reflection.
  8. There is a song in the stillness.  There is so much noise around and within us every day that we can’t enter into the quiet with much ease at all.  On those rare occasions that we manage to hush the noise we’ll find that there are still sounds in the silence.  A bird’s song, rustling grasses, and lapping waves -natural music that is muted by the usual cacophony – are rediscovered when our ears are tuned in.  Life is so much richer when we rediscover the still small voice in the wind and can finally hear it again.
  9. A different view offers a different perspective.  When we take ourselves away from the things that we typically look at we begin to see our circumstances in a new light.  There is something real and honest in our need to get away to regain perspective; a different visual space will promote a different mental space. Frequent breaks from our usual surroundings will freshen our outlook and help us to see things anew.
  10. Families who play together stay together.  My favourite moment in our entire vacation was the spontaneous outburst of the Covey a cappella rendition of Celebration – complete with back-up vocals and multiple harmonies. Though our Dutch Blitz game was temporarily interrupted by this flash mob, a fun-loving spirit that we had been searching to reclaim was revived by its energy.  The fam jam on the porch overlooking the lake fostered the same closeness; banjos, guitars, vocals and a stack of chord sheets will set the stage for memories that last a lifetime.  Play – games, music, sports – together and you’ll strengthen the ties that bind.
  11. Rent is not a four-letter word.  Too often we (in North American Society) see rental options as “throwing our money away”.  We choose to rent our cottage and many people have questioned us in this decision; yet, it makes all the sense in the world to us.  It functions like an all-expenses-paid family vacation:  we budget a set amount and show up to relax and enjoy it. When you own a property you cannot get away from the obligations to furnish, maintain and fix. We go away to get away from all those obligations at home.  Why would we want to double our to-do list at a time in our lives when keeping one lawn cut is a challenge? Rental options can provide a wonderful level of freedom that ownership does not.  Besides, even the things we think we own are only borrowed for a time; they’ll all go back in the box.
  12. Second breakfast is as important as first breakfast.  Experts have always encouraged us to eat a healthy breakfast to start your day properly.  But we really don’t hear enough about second breakfast.  At the cottage, the day really doesn’t start with much activity until after second breakfast and this seems like a habit worth bringing home. Another expert on living well, J.R.R. Tolkien, put it this way:  “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

How did your adventures teach you about life this summer?  What did you learn (or remember) that you want to apply at home?

#40×40 Manifesto

Last year, I spent most of my – precious little – reflection time working on a Sanity Manifesto to identify key aspects of my life that need attention and focus. (I recently used Wordle.net to create a lovely visual collage of it.  Incidently, if anyone knows how to get a downloadable digital copy of these lovely word clouds, please share your wisdom in the comments below. Suggestions for other fun apps or websites that will create such things are also most welcome.)

As part of my #40×40 project, I’m adding 10 more statements of intention to the 30 I previously crafted to create my #40×40 Manifesto.  Here are the next 9 to bring me to a grand total of 39.

I’m saving #40 to see how the Spirit moves in the next year.

1. No guilt in life no fear in death.  The truth is, I live under the weight of false guilt and irrational fear far too much of the time. I’m learning that God has a different plan for how I ought to live as His beloved child:  forgiven and free of fear. This is the power of Christ in me.

2. For such a time as this. This is Queen Esther’s version of “bloom where you are planted”.  Sometimes I forget that the positions and roles I have are at the centre of divinely ordained spheres of influence.   Sometimes – though God doesn’t need me to accomplish His purposes – He gives me the privilege of bringing His voice into the conversation and the opportunity to be a part of his Divine Conspiracy.

3. Take it off the table.  I have been exploring the importance of abstinence disciplines (fasting, solitude, silence, simplicity, frugality) as they are often neglected in the Christian life.  For the sake of growth and margin, I am learning that it is liberating to take things off the table, to abstain from certain things – even if it is just for a time – to jolt me from my complacency.  For example, for Lent this year, I am fasting from bread and wine and, recently, I have been contemplating what I can do – or NOT do – to break the hold that consumerism has on me. More on that in subsequent posts, I suspect.

4. Opt out to buy in. I’m learning that releasing some things I am holding onto too tightly will allow me to open my arms again to embrace the things that really matter. Instead of being worried about missing out, I’m opting out of lesser things to buy into joy.  #jomo

5. There are no perfect decisions. Lisa Terkeurst’s, The Best Yes, has offered some timely wisdom in my life of analysis paralysis and people-pleasing. I am learning to make “wise decisions in the midst of endless demands”, as her subtitle encourages. I’m learning that sometimes I just need to choose and not be worried about it being the perfect choice because “not making a decision is actually a decision.  It is the decision to stay the same.”

6. Live like an overcomer.  I often live defeated, as if I have no choice about my behaviour.  I don’t feel much like a new creation.   However, when I succumb to this temptation, I am believing a lie.  We have been promised that old things have passed away and that the power of the Holy Spirit is within us to give us hope.    So I do NOT need to live as a slave to my weaknesses, I’m more than a conqueror.  Lord, give me strength to live the overcomer life.

7.  Work the slight edge. I believe I have dangerously underestimated the impact of small steps in the wrong direction. Though it may seem like those little choices don’t add up in the short-term, in the long-term small increments add up to large outcomes in the direction of your choices.  As my friend Bob Wiley would say, “if you’re baby-stepping, you’re doing the work!” The slight edge offers encouragement to those of us who might be afraid we are incapable of making big changes because the big decisions seem overwhelming.

8.  Be thrifty. There are many good reasons to shop at second-hand or consignment stores, not the least of which involve the stewardship of environmental and financial resources and the lessening of one’s slavery footprint.  (I am saddened by the estimate of how many slaves work to support my lifestyle and I want this to change.  Determine your own footprint by answering the survey here.)  Most of my house is furnished and decorated with free or thrifted hand-me-downs (or salvaged items on their way to the dump).  With very few exceptions, my living room is decorated with someone else’s cast off items and I find it quite warm and inviting, don’t you? The truth is,  I don’t have to spend what I often think I have to spend and I want to remember that new is overrated.    

9.  65, stay alive. At Queen’s, we had this slogan to remind us to keep our priorities in check and not let school work steal our lives away; as long as we maintained a 65% average, we could stay in our programs and on track, academically.  Giving 110% is basic over-spending in the energy department and it is not a sustainable plan if I want my relationships to have priority.  Andy Stanley’s small but mighty book, Choosing to Cheat: Who Wins When Family and Work Collide?, offers important wisdom to those of us who need to learn to cheat properly. Work is not the place to spend myself.  65% is reasonable.  65% is good.  65% is enough.

So, those are the updates as I head into my 40th year.

Can you relate? Any suggestions for my 40th intention?  What are some of the statements that you would include on your manifesto?