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Ask a Therapist: On Lack of Productivity

Q: I am really having trouble with motivation these days and I feel really bad about it because I am surrounded by all of the productivity and New Year’s Resolution voices – can you help?

A: First off, let me say that you are not alone. While the beginning of the year tends to feel like a fresh start for so many typically, lots of people are feeling drained and unmotivated at the start of 2021. And that’s okay. It is to be expected, really.

We have been through a tremendously challenging year in 2020 and based on the first couple of weeks in 2021, the challenges are continuing and, in some cases, worsening. So many people in my counselling office are expressing that they are decision-fatigued, tired of problem-solving, weary from pivoting, and totally drained from the never ending acclimatization and adaptation to the unknown and unexpected.

As a culture, we have been navigating a global pandemic, an economic crisis, polarized and intense political unrest, ongoing social isolation, chronic uncertainty and anxiety, and low grade depression. As individuals we are swimming in this cultural pool while still contending with our own personal health issues, parenting struggles, job and financial stressors, and relationship dynamics.

When you back the camera up and take a broader view of your context and circumstances, it makes a lot of sense that you are not feeling particularly productive! I think we have all, understandably, lost some focus, some energy, and some pep in our step, given our current situation. It is highly unlikely that we would enter into 2021 with the same eager visioning and goal-setting that might otherwise characterize a new year.

When we are living in that level of low grade stress constantly, our nervous system is working overtime and it is difficult to muster up a lot of other energy or motivation to do much more than the basics. The productivity gurus want us to be constantly exerting energy and that’s not what is needed at a time like this. The more distress your system is under, the more truly RESTorative care it needs.

We have to have compassion with ourselves in times like this and set much more reasonable expectations for our day-to-day functioning. Be careful of “shoulding” on yourself and watch out for the voice of shame that can kick in and tell you that you are not doing enough.

If we are all learning one lesson for certain through these trials it is that we need to take it one day at a time. Be gentle with yourself and take good care, moment-by-moment. And don’t hesitate to reach out for help along the way. We are all in this together and we can help each other through.

A New Leaf: Resources for Growth – our psychotherapy practice and wellness shop – located at 21 B Queen Street West in Elmvale is open at this time for virtual psychotherapy and virtual retail therapy and curb side pick up only. Email Tanya at info@sarahjoycovey.com to book an appointment or to inquire about our products and services. Follow us on Instagram @sarahjoycovey for the latest updates!

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Ask a Therapist: On 2020 Hindsight

Q: How do I reflect on the past year in a way that will help me move forward in the new year?

A: I’m sure that most of us can’t wait to let the challenges, losses, and isolation of 2020 disappear in the rearview mirror! But, one thing we can say is that, somehow, we made it through! And, if we want to have a clear sense of direction for 2021, it’s important not to dismiss 2020 outright – at least not just yet!

In order to find your way to a particular destination you must first get your bearings and understand your starting point. So, learning to navigate our way into 2021 requires reflecting productively on and reviewing where we have been in 2020 as an important first step.

Before you set goals or intentions for the new year, take some time to answer the following questions independently in a journal. Don’t rush the process. Sit with your responses and add to them as more thoughts come to mind over the next week or two. There is value in percolating for a while to really mine the depths of your experience and current mindset. It may help to scroll through your calendar or your photos to recall highlights and challenges from this past year.

  • What surprises were a part of your experience in 2020?
  • What did you find the most difficult in the last 12 months?
  • What lessons did you learn this year that you want to carry forward?
  • What is one thing you determine to leave behind in 2020?
  • What habits or wisdom do you want to stay with you in the new year?
  • In what ways do you feel you have grown through your lived experience in 2020?*

Once you have completed this journaling exercise, consider gathering a group of trusted friends to talk through your reflections or book an appointment with your therapist to further explore and expand on your learning and to begin to envision next steps for your new year. You will find that making space for productive thinking and reflection is an excellent tool to find meaning and hope for all that 2021 might bring.

After all, hindsight is 2020.

*Note: The questions above are adapted from Mel Robbins’ online workshop series available to download for FREE at melrobbins.com/incredibleyear. If you are looking for a great resource to start the year off with intention, this one is an excellent choice.

To submit YOUR question for consideration in a future column or for more information about therapy services that could help you navigate this unprecedented time, email Sarah@SarahJoyCovey.com. We are expanding our team to serve the community better! You can follow us on Instagram @sarahjoycovey for mental health encouragement and for the most current updates related to A New Leaf: Resources for Growth – our psychotherapy practice and wellness shop – located at 21 B Queen Street West in Elmvale. During Lockdown, we are open for virtual appointments only for therapy and shopping (curb-side pick up and limited local delivery available). Email Tanya at info@sarahjoycovey.com to book an appointment.

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Ask a Therapist: On Emotions and Covid-19

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Q: The isolation and changes that we are facing with Covid – 19 are affecting me emotionally in ways that I don’t understand. Can you help provide some insight about the variety of emotions I am feeling and why they come in waves with some days so much worse than others?

A: Life as we know it is not the same these days. This global pandemic has caused ripple effects in too many areas to count and every individual, family, workplace, organization, house of worship, and school has been affected all across the globe. The culture is changing around us and we find ourselves in the midst of a situation that we did not expect and certainly did not invite.

Many of my clients (and friends) are expressing challenges with emotional regulation as they seek to navigate these unprecedented times and they are having difficultly identifying the source of those feelings. Most people tend to associate grief only with the loss of a loved one but grief is the healing pathway that we have through any kind of loss, and every single person has lost something in this global crisis.

Grief comes in waves and is unpredictable. Every person’s situation related to Covid – 19 is different so it is difficult to predict how the grief will show up specifically for you. Remember that whatever you feel is normal and okay. There is no formula or timeline for grief so be gentle with yourself as you walk this path. In many ways, we are experiencing a “living grief”: one where the losses are continuing and we don’t know when they will come to an end and what it will mean for us on the other side of all of it.

As noted in a previous column, to help people understand some of the most common feelings associated with grief, clinicians often refer to a Stages of Grief model, usually the Kubler-Ross method, in which 7 stages have been identified in the journey through grief. Although these stages are listed in a particular order they are often not experienced chronologically. And, in fact, in response to Covid – 19 impacts, people will find themselves jumping in and out of different stages and/or circling back to certain stages as they work through ongoing losses, uncertain situations, and new ways of doing life.

It should be emphasized that this model, like all models, is flawed and will not account for everything that you experience during this (or any other) time of grief and you may not experiences all of the stages. Hopefully, however, it can help to bring some clarity and validation to some of what you are going through. As we explore the 7 stages, take stock of your own emotions and see if you have noticed these feelings in your experience over the last few months with the Covid – 19 crisis.

The first stage is often shock and disbelief and this reaction is your system’s protection against being overwhelmed. You might find that you feel numb, disoriented, or foggy in your thinking. You may feel like you are living a bit outside of yourself and this can be distressing. To navigate these feelings, do your best to ground yourself to the present moment and take things in small steps. You can pay attention to your five senses to bring you back into your physical body and your immediate surroundings.

Denial can also be a part of the journey and, in this situation, it is really more about not being able to make sense of what has happened and is happening. Sometimes people deny the reality of the situation and some deny the complexity of their emotional reality. This is a stage where their experience of loss needs to begin to be sorted out in their hearts and minds. It is often a good time to talk with a good friend or to seek personal counselling so that thoughts and feelings can be ordered in a helpful way that leads towards healing.

People who are grieving can begin to wish that they said or did something differently, or that they hadn’t missed an opportunity before it was too late and they can feel a sense of regret about their lack of action or intention before the the crisis hit. This guilt often causes people to be hard on themselves and to blame themselves in some way that is typically irrational. People might say things like, “If only I had build my emergency savings up before this crisis hit, then I would be okay right now.” Getting a healthier perspective involves cultivating self-compassion instead of shame and blame. You will also benefit from telling yourself the truth about the fact that no one can prepare perfectly for this (or any other) crisis! As you begin to reframe your thoughts to a kinder and more helpful interpretation, you will move into a better space psychologically.

Anger can be a scary stage, especially for those who tend to be peaceful and stable most of the time. This intense feeling that things are not right can be directed at the situation, others, or yourself. Sometimes you may find yourself bargaining with God or others in an attempt to change the situation by trying to set up new terms. Again, try to work through your anger and look for healthy ways to express it and for next steps to deal with it. Be careful not to let your anger be directed in ways that cause damage to current relationships as it can be a powerful emotion and you won’t want to further complicate your situation by causing harm.

Grieving individuals may feel particularly alone – especially with this ongoing quarantine – and deeper reflections on the the losses all around us can lead to a stage of depression. This can make it difficult to cope with regular daily activities and can lead to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, isolation, and melancholy. Moving your body can help significantly to manage these feelings and prevent them from overwhelming you. Don’t dismiss your sadness, though; crying and mourning is a natural way that our bodies process loss and it’s important to be kind to yourself as you move through this time.

At some point, you may move into a stage that indicates that you are ready to move forward or to pivot your response to the changes somehow. You may be able to take care of the practical details of life again and sense more than before that there is some forward motion in this reconstruction stage. This relates to the steep learning curve that many are experiencing as a result of having to change their plans and familiar ways of doing things and figure out new alternatives to keep things going forward.

Gradually, you may experience some acceptance and begin to feel like yourself again. You may be able to chat more about how Covid – 19 has changed and is changing your day-to-day life and move through your days without feeling emotionally overwhelmed. You realize at this stage that your life is forever changed by this pandemic but you will begin to feel hopeful about a new way of doing life after this situation subsides. This is the part of a journey that seeks to understand and find a “new normal”.

Depending on what stage you are experiencing (or sometimes re-experiencing), try to practice self-compassion and self-care to navigate the challenges you are facing due to Covid -19. Always be patient with yourself and reach out for help as needed. There is no formula or timeline for what we are going through – we have not done this before so we are all figuring it out together! Grieving acknowledges that what was lost mattered so it is important to actually feel your emotions (rather than resisting or stuffing them down) along the way in order to facilitate healing.

Don’t be afraid to talk about your feelings with others openly and honestly. We have the unique experience of going through this collectively and sharing what you are feeling will certainly be met with genuine understanding and empathy. Be sure to connect with others for (socially-distanced) support and consider getting some additional mental health support if you are having trouble managing on your own. Be encouraged. Try to focus on what is good even in the midst of such a hard time. We will find our way on this journey together and there is hope for the future.

To submit YOUR question for consideration in a future column or for more information about psychotherapy services that could help you navigate this unprecedented time, email Sarah@SarahJoyCovey.com. You can follow us on Instagram @sarahjoycovey for mental health encouragement and for all the most current updates related to A New Leaf: Resources for Growth – our new office and storefront – located at 21 B Queen Street West in Elmvale. Also, sign up for our FREE NEWSLETTER by visiting sarahjoycovey.com.

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A Meditation in the Midst of COVID-19

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Sabbatical

Maybe we all needed
to slow down
to press pause
to notice
to find ourselves
to find faith
to be home and at home
to rest
and to wake up
again.

Maybe we needed this to remind us
of stillness
of solitude
of silence
of sabbath.

We are a forgetful people.

Maybe one day a week
has not been received
has not been observed
has not felt like enough.

Maybe sabbath’s holy work
has been neglected
dismissed
forgotten.

Maybe we have been
shallow-breathing
for much too long
and depth is overdue.

Maybe it isn’t really that surprising that
a respiratory virus
has brought our lives
to a halt
for a season.

Maybe it is for a rest-orative purpose.

And so,
now that we have to
we realize that we get to
and we inhale
and we exhale.

And we are reminded that
our doing doesn’t define us
that we are human beings.

And though we are pressed
and grieving
and isolated
and burdened
and weary
we are not alone.

Maybe God has always been there
and we needed to stop
long enough to draw near.

Maybe now we ponder
that our life is but a vapour
that His breath sustains us
that He fills us
that He is already as near
as the air we breathe.

Did you forget?

We can remember together.

One breath at a time
through this sabbatical.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What does it mean to truly be at home and at rest? To what extent do you experience that feeling?
  2. In what ways do you find yourself waking up or remembering during this time of slowing down?
  3. What role might sabbath-keeping (or this extended sabbath) play in the restoration of your soul?
  4. What feelings are emerging as you experience a prolonged break in your regular routine? How are you processing them and making sense of them?
  5. How might the spiritual imagery and the physical reality of full and deep breathing anchor you to the presence of God?
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Ask a Therapist: On COVID-19

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Q: Can you provide some tips to help us navigate these uncertain times in the current COVID-19 situation?

A: With the onset of this global pandemic, we have all had to adjust our lives to protect our own health and the health of our neighbours in ways that we did not expect. Many of our freedoms have been taken away as a necessary measure to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of this virus. Many of the ways we were connected and found structure to our days have changed and many are left floundering and feeling a general heaviness that they can’t quite identify.

Here are just a few tips to help us all find our way as this situation unfolds:

Be prudent but don’t panic. There is a tendency at a time like this to over- or under-react rather than respond with wisdom and clarity. Some will maximize the problem and stock pile toilet paper and pantry supplies while others will minimize the situation and dismiss it without taking things seriously. Both of these cognitive and behavioural reactions are unhelpful. As we move through these days, it is important to “right-size” the problem. This is a serious situation that requires our attention and compliance with government direction; staying at home and practicing social distancing are responsibilities that we must take seriously. However, we don’t want to act out in behaviours or responses that are motivated by fear. Exercise prudence: take precautions and actions that are right-sized, based on facts and a clear understanding of risks and try not to overreact.

Choose your voices. Ultimately, you get to choose who has the right or the access to speak into and inform your understanding of the situation. Scrolling mindlessly through news media can be incredibly damaging to your mental health. Curate your social media feeds by following voices that are promoting accurate, positive, and helpful information and mute or unfollow others. Practice good boundaries in conversations with family and friends and limit the rumination and negativity that is not supportive or healthy. Pay attention to how the media content you are consuming (even the choices you are making on Netflix) is affecting you and make mindful choices based on what is healthy and helpful.

Watch for the good. This is not a directive to dismiss the honest challenges and difficulties of this time. This crisis is real and it is hard and it is okay to be upset about what is happening. Acknowledging and naming those mixed feelings is crucial but it is also important to expand your observation. There are stories that we are living and telling ourselves that are authentic to the situation and they are heavy but there are also wonderful stories of people helping, creating, reprioritizing, and reconnecting in ways that demonstrate great resilience and hope. Be sure to learn about, share, and tell yourself these stories as well. As we accept the reality of a time that is both hard and good we will craft a more complete narrative to shape our hearts and minds.

Limit anticipatory anxiety. It is easy to get too far ahead of ourselves in a time when we really don’t know how things will play out. Our mind might have a tendency to look into the uncertain future and begin to worry about all the “what ifs”. Catastrophic (worst case scenario) thinking is not an ideal way to address the current situation. Instead, focus on the present moment and doing the just next right thing in your home and work. (Thanks to Frozen 2 for this timely reminder!) When you are navigating a crisis, you do have to take things moment by moment. Think about what the next step is and try to create healthy forward motion by taking baby steps that are within your control.

Find your silver lining. Not all of the changes related to COVID-19 have to be dark clouds. There are signs of the light breaking through all around us. Literally, as spring brings forth new life and longer days, the birds are reminding us of the hope we have for seasons to change: this too shall pass. Some people are embracing this time of “house arrest” to stop and to reorder their lives in practical (cleaning a closet, organizing a room, completing a home renovation) and spiritual (reflecting on priorities, beliefs, and values, starting new healthy habits, bringing new practices into their daily routines, reconnecting with nature and family) ways. Challenging times always bring with them new learning, creativity, and clarity. Reflect and take action to welcome these silver linings in the midst of the storm.

To submit YOUR question for consideration in a future column or for more information about psychotherapy services – AVAILABLE VIA PHONE OR VIDEO – that could help you navigate these unprecedented times, email sarah@sarahjoycovey.com. You can follow on Instagram @sarahjoycovey & visit sarahjoycovey.com for more resources & helpful content. While there, subscribe to the FREE e-newsletter which will keep you informed about all the exciting news at A NEW LEAF: Resources for Growth – COMING SOON TO 21 QUEEN STREET IN ELMVALE!

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Ask a Therapist #13: On Trauma

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Q: I don’t understand what people mean when they say they have gone through a traumatic experience. Could you help me understand what trauma is and how it affects people?

A: The truth is, every person has experienced trauma to one degree or another whether they realize it or not. Trauma is a complex topic so this short article will not even attempt to provide a comprehensive overview. Let’s simply open up the conversation with a few helpful introductory thoughts.

As a psychotherapist, I work with a fairly broad definition of trauma: if a person experiences an event that overwhelms her nervous system and makes it difficult to cope, I would characterize that experience as traumatic. Somehow, the trauma lingers with her as a kind of stuck point in her system and can have psychological, emotional, physical, relational, and spiritual repercussions. These trauma-induced impacts can vary greatly in type, intensity, and frequency.

Aundi Kolber offers a helpful distinction between big T trauma and little t trauma in her book, Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode – and into a Life of Connection and Joy. She suggests that traumatic experiences exist on a spectrum and can be better understood by considering severity. On one end, big T trauma might be attached to a major singular event like witnessing a murder or other heinous crime, experiencing sexual violence, enduring a natural disaster, or losing a loved one suddenly or unexpectedly. On the other end, little t trauma may be a result of a smaller or less dramatic exposure like hearing a harsh word of criticism, feeling a sensory overload in the workplace, receiving a shocking bit of news, or navigating the day-to-day challenges of a toxic relationship.

Big T trauma can lead to symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) almost immediately whereas little t trauma often has more of a cumulative affect. Accumulation of little t traumas over time can lead to similar psychological and physiological outcomes to PTSD and a combination of big T and little T traumas can produce their own mix of results based on a number of factors related to the particular person. Common PTSD symptoms include hyper-vigilance, hypersensitivity, nightmares and flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, emotional outbursts, and the like. In short, big T trauma can feel like someone has cut off your hand in one blow whereas little t trauma is more like a death by paper cuts.

An individual’s perception of the challenging event has a significant affect on how things linger in a client’s thoughts behaviours moving forward. For example, two people who experience the same car accident may have incredibly different reactions to it and that is perfectly normal. Also, how an individual remembers the event can have an impact as well: a traumatic experience can be relived as if it is happening in the present even though it is technically in the past. A client may feel like she is re-experiencing the event viscerally which can be incredibly overwhelming and cause the traumatic impacts to be sustained in her system. It is also important to consider the client’s background and personality as these factors contribute to her experience of trauma and her resiliency. Some clients will find ways to cope and manage day-to-day but they may not be able to fully heal without some additional support.

As stated, trauma is complex and there are many factors that contribute to how someone recovers from these lived experiences, regardless of whether we are addressing big T or little T trauma. In trauma-informed therapy, a client would work through some emotional regulation and distress tolerance skills at the onset of the therapeutic work in order to create some stability and healthy coping. After that safety and security is established, the therapist would support the client in exploring the traumatic events in a way that helps her restore her nervous system and find a way to become unstuck. This journey of healing and liberation from trauma can take some time but there is hope for renewal and freedom from these events that often seem to highjack one’s day-to-day life.

If you have experienced something that has overwhelmed your nervous system and impaired your ability to cope, it might be time to seek out some support to deal with your trauma. There is a way through and you don’t have to be stuck in this suffering forever. Take a step to learn more about trauma, to talk to a trusted friend or family member, or contact a therapist about what you are going through and continue to move in a healing direction.

As a side note, in the field of psychology, I am noticing a trend towards the label of PTSR instead of PTSD where “Recovery” replaces the word “Disorder”. I think this is a helpful shift because – when we experience trauma – stress is a normal result of undergoing an abnormal experience; so, we may feel disordered as a result of trauma but we do not necessarily have a disorder. I think this is a more accurate and empathetic distinction that offers hope to those seeking healing paths through trauma.

To submit YOUR question for consideration in a future column or for more information about psychotherapy services that could help you work through trauma, contact sarah@sarahjoycovey.com. You can follow on Instagram @sarahjoycovey & visit sarahjoycovey.com for more resources & helpful content. While there, subscribe to the FREE newsletter which will keep you informed about all the exciting news at A NEW LEAF: Resources for Growth – COMING SOON TO 21 QUEEN STREET IN ELMVALE!

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Ask a Therapist #12: On New Year’s Resolutions

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Q: I’m losing momentum with my New Year’s Resolutions for 2020 and I’m not sure why? Can you offer some tips for creating sustainable habits?

A: As many fitness centres would attest, it is expected that enthusiastic people will flock to the gym with renewed dedication at the beginning of January but those same, once-energetic crowds may have already dropped out of their workout routines by February! It sounds like you are experiencing this similar challenging downturn in inertia with your goals and intentions for the year. Don’t lose hope – you are not alone! You can still get back on track and make 2020 a year of amazing change!

Whether you are looking for positive momentum in the area of exercise, self-care, relationships, work skills, creative pursuits, or other worthy goals, below are 5 tips to help you reorient to the changes you are trying to make and build a plan for healthy habits.

1. Go Smaller: If you make your goals for the year too big or too numerous you will find it harder to be consistent and will often give up altogether. Many great resources on habit formation recommend small, consistent changes over time in order to see the best results. Generally, it is also easier not to try to do too many things at once. Perhaps you need to simplify and start with one area or one small change. Once you have built some momentum there (21 days to form it and about 3 months to maintain it) you can layer on another area. Try not to overwhelm yourself as it can often yield poor results. Tackle one area at a time and start small and then build up once the consistency is in place.

2. Slow and Steady: Building slowly from a reasonable starting place helps establish the healthy foundational patterns that can support your ultimate goals. For example, if you are wanting to start your own mindfulness or centering prayer practice, consider starting with two minutes each day for a month and then move to 5 minutes the next month until you build up to your goal for the time. Two minutes is manageable and anyone can fit in that tiny a mindful moment but it may seem way too daunting to start at the 20 minute mark. Maybe just eliminate one unhealthy food each month from your diet and keep it out and start with something that is easier to overcome the natural resistance to change.

3. Understand the Barriers: You may find it helpful to spend some time sorting out what factors are holding you back from consistency. Determining some of the underlying resistance to change and/or the factors that contribute to your ability to implement a new direction is an important step in finding your groove. Particularly with trying to break bad habits, it is often important to discover why an ingrained pattern of behaviour is hard to let go before you can move forward in healthier ways. A therapist is trained to help you walk through some of these cognitive and emotional roadblocks that may be difficult to ascertain without some guidance. She can also support you along the way as you conceptualize and implement healthier patterns.

4. Phone a Friend: Social support is a key factor in all successful change so, when you are trying to implement a new habit, consider joining a group or setting up a partner who will cheer you on and keep you accountable. There are some great apps to do this easily, like Habit Share, that allow you to track your habits and share your daily success with friends. There is strength in numbers and having someone that will give you a gentle nudge to stay on track when you need it can be a crucial component in staying the course.

5. Be Flexible: As a fun tip for this particular year, when you are trying to create a daily habit that requires a longer time commitment, try the 2020 rule: 20 minutes, 20 times a month. Even though your goal may be to walk daily, give yourself some grace and know that some days it just won’t happen but that doesn’t have to mean that you can’t reach your goal. Also, it’s important to avoid an all-or-nothing mentality about your habits. For example, if you have decided that you will do a 20-minute run first thing every morning but you wake up and it’s icy or you have overslept, you may feel like all is lost for exercise now for that entire day. A more flexible approach would be to create the goal of simply moving your body daily. Then, on the days that you cannot get out for a run, you will have the option of doing indoor yoga or weights, or even taking a walk on your lunch break at work, or going skating at an outdoor rink with your kids after supper. Don’t give up on the whole day’s opportunity to meet your goal just because the exact form of exercise and/or timing doesn’t come together. Try to reframe your goals to give yourself more ways to be successful and let the rigidity drop away.

While many of these tips are simple they are not always easy! It can take a while to get a sustainable rhythm for the new year but it can be done! Remember, success in one area will beget success in another area so let that positivity fuel long term change. Hopefully then, when January 1st rolls around, you’ll have even more to celebrate!

To submit YOUR question for consideration in a future column or for more information about psychotherapy services that could help you build healthier habits, email sarahjoycovey@gmail.com. You can follow on Instagram @sarahjoycovey and @anewleaftherapy or visit sarahjoycovey.com for more content and to sign up for the newsletter which will keep you informed about all the exciting news @anewleaftutoring and @anewleafbooks – COMING SOON TO QUEEN STREET IN ELMVALE!

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Ask a Therapist: Column #11 On Grief

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Q: I lost a loved one this year and with Christmas coming I am finding it hard to feel emotionally stable. Can you help me understand how grief affects me?

A: It is common for the holidays to be a difficult time for those grieving a loss. Losses come in complex forms. Most commonly, people associate loss with the death of a loved one but people can experience grief as a result of a move, a job change/loss, a medical diagnosis, or a break-up, among other life experiences.

Grief comes in waves and is unpredictable and everyone’s journey is unique so it is hard to predict how circumstances will affect you and trigger mixed feelings. Remember that whatever you feel is normal and okay. There is no formula or timeline for grief so be gentle with yourself as you walk this path.

To help you understand some of the most common feelings associated with grief, clinicians often refer to a Stages of Grief model, usually the Kubler-Ross method in which 7 stages have been identified in the journey through grief. Although these stages are listed in a particular order they may not be experienced chronologically.

It should be emphasized that this model, like all models, is flawed and will not account for everything that you experience in grief and you may not experiences all of the stages. Hopefully, however, it can help to bring some clarity and validation to some of what you are going through.

The first stage is often shock and disbelief and this reaction is a system protection against being overwhelmed. You might find that you feel numb, disoriented, or foggy in your thinking. You may feel like you are living a bit outside of yourself and this can be distressing. To navigate these feelings, do your best to ground yourself to the present moment. You can pay attention to your five senses to bring you back into your physical body and your immediate surroundings.

Denial can also be a part of the journey and, in this situation, it is really more about not being able to make sense of what has happened. Sometimes people deny the reality of the situation and some deny the complexity of their emotional reality. This is a stage where their experience of loss needs to begin to be sorted out in their hearts and minds. It is often a good time to join a support group or to seek personal counselling so that thoughts and feelings can be ordered in a helpful way that leads towards healing.

People who are grieving can begin to wish that they said or did something differently, or that they hadn’t missed an opportunity before it was too late and they can feel a sense of regret. This guilt often causes people to be hard on themselves and to blame themselves in some way that is typically irrational. Getting a healthier perspective as you make sense of these feelings and telling yourself the truth about all the good in the relationship might help you reframe things into a better space psychologically.

Anger can be a scary stage, especially for those who tend to be peaceful and stable most of the time. This intense feeling that things are not right can be directed at the situation, others, or yourself. Sometimes you may find yourself bargaining with God or others in an attempt to change the situation by trying to set up new terms. Again, try to work through your anger and look for healthy ways to express it and for next steps to deal with it. Be careful not to let your anger be directed in ways that cause damage to current relationships as it can be a powerful emotion and you won’t want to further complicate your situation by causing harm.

Grieving individuals may feel alone and deeper reflections on their loss can lead to a stage of depression. This can make it difficult to cope with regular daily activities and can lead to feelings of isolation and melancholy. Moving your body can help significantly to manage these feelings and prevent them from overwhelming you. Don’t dismiss your sadness, though; crying and mourning is a natural way that our bodies process loss and it’s important to be kind to yourself as you move through this time.

At some point, you will move into a stage that indicates that you are ready to move forward. You may be able to take care of the practical details of life again and sense more than before that there is some forward motion in this reconstruction stage. It is important to recognize that there still will be a shadow that comes and goes as you begin to rebuild because the loss will always be part of your story.

Gradually, you will experience some acceptance and begin to feel like yourself again. You may be able to chat more about your story and move through your days without feeling emotionally overwhelmed. You realize at this stage that you won’t ever fully move on; rather, you will begin to feel hopeful about a new way of doing life after loss.

Depending on what stage you are experiencing (or sometimes re-experiencing), try to practice self-compassion and self-care to navigate this season. Always be patient with yourself and reach out for help as needed. There is no formula or timeline for what you are going through. Grieving acknowledges that what was lost mattered so it is important to actually feel your emotions (rather than resisting or stuffing them down) along the way in order to facilitate healing.

Doing things to honour the memory of your loved one can be meaningful and particularly important this time of year. Perhaps you’d like to add a special ornament to your Christmas tree or attend a memorial church service to remember them. Writing a letter, journalling, and honouring a special tradition or place during the holiday season can be strategies for keeping your memories alive.

Don’t be afraid to reminisce and talk about your feelings with others along the way. Be sure to connect with others for social support and consider getting some additional mental health support if you are having trouble managing on your own. Be encouraged that you will find your way on this journey and there is hope for the future.

To submit YOUR question for consideration in a future column or for more information about psychotherapy services that could help you navigate your grief journey, email sarahjoycovey@gmail.com. You can follow on Instagram @sarahjoycovey and @anewleaftherapy or visit sarahjoycovey.com for more content and connection.

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Ask A Therapist: Column #10 On Mindfulness

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Q: What is mindfulness and why does it seem to be so popular lately?

A: There is a lot of buzz about mindfulness these days and for good reason! To a certain extent, mindfulness is defined differently depending on the context. Mindfulness is often understood as the meditation practice developed by Jon Kabat Zinn. And, though mindful living certainly may include meditation, mindfulness can be broadly understood as a healthy orientation in daily living and is not limited only to one strategy.

For the purpose of this column, I will try to address it as a broad topic representing a philosophical approach but feel free to send more specific questions for future columns if you want to know more!

Simply put, mindfulness is a way of being in the world that values attention to the present moment. It is an intentional strategy that helps to minimize distraction and support healthy brain functioning. It creates the space to consider how we want to respond in a situation rather than acting impulsively or thoughtlessly.

Viktor Frankl observed that, “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” When we are practicing mindfulness we are creating space for reflection, healing, and growth, and that pausing and paying attention liberates us from many negative thoughts and habits.

One way to think about mindfulness is as a necessary and countercultural alternative to mindlessness. When we are moving through our days mindlessly on autopilot we are often disconnected from our surroundings and our relationships. We tend to fall into unhelpful habitual patterns of thinking and behaviour that don’t always serve us well, and so we find ourselves feeling fragmented and overwhelmed.

When we are mindful, we are living fully in each moment, giving attention to the present reality and experiencing our full engaged selves-mind, body, and spirit. We feel more integrated and calm and we are paying attention to what matters in the moment, free from anxiety and worry.

When we are mindful, we are able to use our curiosity to make sense of our thoughts and feelings. We can pause, reflect, and move forward from a responsive rather than a reactive place. We tend to operate out of a healthier, more balanced emotional world because we are listening to our bodies, hearts, and minds in a nonjudgemental and compassionate way.

I often encourage my clients to create a rhythm of simple “mindful moments”, perhaps three or four, at regular intervals throughout the day. These pauses can be tailored to suit each person’s specific needs and personality but they usually consist of just checking in with mind and body, and reorienting themselves to the present moment.

Often, mindful moments will be anchored around some deep breathing and a mindful scan that notices and attempts to release tension in the body. In these brief moments, typically less than 5 minutes in length, the key is to return your attention to the immediate realities and to touch back down into the body.

Sometimes people find it helpful to choose a mantra for the day and repeat that word or phrase as part of their mindfulness practice. These mantras can be as varied as the people who choose them and could take the form of a declaration like “today is a day full of promise and possibility”, a reminder like “it is well with my soul”, or a significant word like “peace”.

Grounding is another tool that mindfully connects people to the present moment through the five senses. Pausing to name a few things that you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste will effectively move you into the experience of the current moment because sensory input happens in real time.

These mindful personal check-ins are often seen as sacred pauses. People welcome a spiritual layer, like a breath prayer or a meditation on a sacred text. This enhances the experience because they are not only being mindful of self, they are also focusing attention on the presence of God in that moment.

Of course, people can choose to build mindfulness practices that include several minutes of mediation but that doesn’t always feel accessible or realistic. Mindful moments are a good way to begin to experience the health benefits of mindful living. Once you begin to pay attention with intentionality you may find that you want to linger more in those moments, and so you should.

Mindfulness is that orientation to life that says, “I’m here and I don’t want to miss it!” Maybe today is the perfect day to begin to move away from mindlessly sleepwalking through life in order to enter into the fullness of the present moment by paying attention.

To submit YOUR question for consideration in a future column or for more information about psychotherapy services that could help you move from mindless living to mindful living, email sarahjoycovey@gmail.com. You can follow on Instagram @sarahjoycovey and @anewleaftherapy or visit sarahjoycovey.com for more content and connection.

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Ask a Therapist: Column #9 On Overreaction

Q: I feel like I overreact to the smallest things and I don’t understand why!  Could you help me figure out why I seem to flip my lid so easily?

A: Perhaps the best place to start is to note that emotional regulation is a complex issue and certainly hard to address in a short column.  Having said that, overreactions are one way that our emotions provide information that gets our attention because there is an underlying need that is not being addressed.  The first step to understanding your extreme reactions is to start to be curious about them and to begin to ask questions to seek greater understanding!  So, you are already on the right track!

When people experience disproportionate reactions, especially if they are recurring, it is important to explore the combination of factors that could be contributing to their ability to respond with greater emotional control.  Typically, it is not just one thing that will cause people to feel like they are out of control so a holistic look at the whole picture is a good idea.

If we start by looking at personality, we know that people are wired up in different ways and will have different operating systems, if you will, as it relates to handling emotions.  Often the most challenging emotions that people will experience fall into the broad categories of anger, fear, and shame, but not everyone will experience those emotions in the same way, the same order, or with the same intensity.

You might find that even if you access one of those emotions more often than the others, you may fail to recognize all of the other emotions that are a part of the reaction you are observing on the surface.  It can be helpful to think of that emotional reaction of anger, for example, as only the tip of the iceberg with many other emotions occupying space below the water line. Even though you may appear to be angry, that anger may also have elements of fear, disappointment, sadness, or other feelings that need to be identified in order to provide the full understanding you seek.  Exploring what is beneath the surface and helping to make sense of emotions is a key component of psychotherapeutic work.

Additionally, stress is a huge factor in someone’s ability to regulate emotion.  As we all know, there are many stressors in our lives and our ability to manage them well is a vital component of self-care.  Stress will naturally fluctuate in our systems but living at a consistent state of stress with no decompression or release is a significant overall health concern, not just in terms of the emotional effects. However, if your stress levels are moderated, you will find that you have a greater ability to be patient, flexible, and responsive.

To a great extent, our lifestyle choices have the power to significantly impact our stress capacity but there are situations that are outside of our control that can also be contributors to our emotional responses.  An unexpected diagnosis, an accident or injury, relational discord, and the loss of a job or a loved one are only a few examples of situations that will certainly impact your ability to hold it together emotionally.  It is important to have compassion and grace for yourself in these circumstances and to seek to unpack how these events may be, understandably, causing you to feel overwhelmed or emotionally unstable.

It is not uncommon for people to struggle with overreaction or extremes as a result of a personality disorder or a traumatic experience.  Often, these specific concerns present particular challenges for individuals that will need to be addressed with a coordination of medical and mental health supports, like prescription medication and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, for example.

Of course, increased or problematic consumption of alcohol or the use of recreational drugs may also have negative affects on emotional control and should be taken into consideration as another potentially contributing factor. Regulating, limiting, or abstaining from the consumption of alcohol or the use of drugs is vital to support mental health.

At all times, to the degree that you are able, prioritizing consistent sleep, nutritional meals, and exercise is essential to overall health, including emotional health. If there have been significant changes in any of these areas, a person may find themselves overreacting as a result.

You might be thinking, “okay, so I can see some of the factors that might be causing some overreaction but what do I do about it?”

There are lots of helpful tools and strategies that can be learned and practiced with the support of a therapist to help individuals listen to, understand, and regulate their emotions. So, reaching out for help makes a lot of sense if you continue to struggle in this way. It can take some time to get fully to the heart of the issues so finding someone to talk to that can help provide education, encouragement, and guidance is a great next step to help facilitate change in this area of your life.

In general, disproportionate recurring reactions are your system’s way of communicating to you that you are not functioning optimally and that you need to pause and consider how to move towards rest, healing, and the rebuilding of emotional resilience.

To submit YOUR question for consideration in a future column or for more information about psychotherapy services that could help with emotional regulation and stress management, email sarahjoycovey@gmail.com. You can follow on Instagram @sarahjoycovey and @anewleaftherapy or visit sarahjoycovey.com for more content and connection.