Treading Water

September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day.

I have never been a strong swimmer. Despite many years that my parents insisted I take swimming lessons, I rarely advanced to next levels and struggled grasping the basic skills. I remember, from all those years ago, the importance that was placed on treading water. We would be taken into the deep end of the pool, and taught how to keep our heads above water. The rational was always should we ever find ourselves in deep water, we needed to be able to keep our heads above water. With our legs and arms moving rhythmically to the point of exhaustion, sometimes sinking under but popping back up again, we kept our heads above water. The exercise always ended before the point of complete exhaustion, when the instructor would throw us a life preserver of sorts. We would make our way to the side of the pool in relief, letting our exhausted limbs be still.

Today is World Suicide Awareness Day. Despite awareness programs in many communities and schools, suicide largely remains a difficult topic to discuss – shrouded in misunderstanding, denial, and secrecy. Those contemplating suicide often feel unheard, sensing help unavailable. (Please read on for resources that are available.) Those wanting to help often feel powerless, unsure of how to proceed – sometimes reacting in anger or panic.

When I think about the emotional turmoil someone experiences at the point when suicide becomes an option, I think about treading water. I think about the utter exhaustion they are feeling, often building overtime, of not being able to keep their head above water. When a life preserver isn’t thrown at the moment it is needed or when it is thrown but it seems just out of reach. When they feel there isn’t an once of strength left to keep their head above water. This is the reason I write this blog – to help even just one person grab that life preserver, and connect with a glimpse of
hope.

If ending your life is starting to make sense as an option, please reach out for help. Suicide is a permanent solution that we cannot turn back from. All other options may not seem adequate enough in your moment of despair. So many of us are conditioned to be self-reliant and self-sufficient and reaching out for help can seem like a weakness. It might even feel as though you are not worthy of receiving help, or that if you ask for help it will not be given. “Once you choose hope, anything is possible”. If there is no one you feel you can reach out to, please call the helpline, or use an on-line anonymous suicide prevention chat site. Suicide is not the only way out. 

quote_-far-better-things-aheadHere is a list of options if you are feeling suicidal right now: 

 

Reference: the quote “Once you choose hope, anything is possible” is from Christopher Reeve

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You want me to do What??! A Recipe for Creating Presence

I recently started an on-line parenting workshop. My motivation for taking it was 2-fold:

  1. I am a parent, and often have moments of complete bewilderment. I read a quote recently that completely sums it up: “Parenting is like looking both ways before crossing the road, and then being hit by an airplane”
  2. I often work with parents in my counselling practice, and want to ensure I am knowledgeable on age-appropriate approaches and research

It is a brilliant program – based on theory first, with the goal of inspiring parents to work from a philosophical approach that acknowledges both child developmental needs and attachment theory – then branching out to assist parents in understanding how to apply that theory. I am really enjoying it.

However, I have noticed that while the approaches are fantastic, there isn’t mention of why parents often are not able to stick with their best parenting intentions. I’m talking about how often child behaviours can trigger a parent. When a person is triggered, they are no longer in the moment. When a person is triggered, they are experiencing emotions, physical sensations, and thoughts from a past time when perhaps they were hurt in some way. These are the moments when our reactions do not fit the situation at hand. These are the moments when we tend to say things we regret. And these are the moments that as parents, we stray from our best intentions.

Working through our painful memories and experiences in therapy is certainly one way to end the power of triggers. Deep breathing is another tool that is super powerful at moving a person out of a trigger and back into the present moment. I’d like to offer another tool that can be used right away. It’s a form of mindfulness meditation that when used daily, can take both the power out of the trigger and also reduce the chances of your child’s behaviour triggering you. It’s called the Loving Kindness Meditation. While there are many versions, I’d like to share one that was written up by Jack Kornfield, a leader in mindfulness writings.

Here is how it works:

Take a few moments every day – perhaps in the morning, or before you go to bed at night. Read each of the following lines, pausing after each to genuinely visualize what that would look like for you – without judgment, and with loving kindness in your heart. Once you are finished, read the lines again, this time pausing to visualize your child. Genuinely wish these things for your child, without judgment, and with loving kindness in your heart.

May I be filled with loving kindness.

May I be safe from internal and external danger.

May I be well in my body and my mind.

May I be at ease and happy.

Hint: when reading it with your child in mind, change the phrases to read “May you be…”. Taking just a few minutes each day to shift your focus into loving kindness can have a profound impact on how you handle those tough situations. Give it a go – I’d love to hear how you find it!

Loving Kindness meditation from Jack Kornfield,
https://www.jackkornfield.com/meditation-lovingkindness/

Help for Insomnia: Creating a Bedtime Routine

sleepA good nights sleep (and more importantly, consecutive nights of getting good sleep!) is incredibly important, yet it is something as adults we rarely give much attention to. Our brains need sleep in order to function properly and regulate emotion effectively. Learning is easier when we sleep well, and so is decision making. Even coping with change becomes more manageable when our brains have been rested! Jim White (2000) writes,

“Poor sleeping fails to recharge the individual’s batteries. Thus, during the next day, the individual is less able to fight the effects of stress. Stress then feeds the sleep problems the following night and a vicious cycle has developed. Over a period of weeks or months, the individual’s ability to cope slowly declines. Learning how to improve the quality and quantity of sleep will leave the individual in a better state to fight daytime stress. Fighting daytime stress will help the individual overcome sleep problems. A positive cycle has replaced the vicious cycle.”

Read on to learn ideas on creating and implementing a bedtime routine that soothes. Every person is unique, so please do add/edit/modify as necessary to fit your own life better.

It is important to create a bedtime routine that you can be consistent with each night, regardless of the time you go to bed. Anytime we try out a new routine, I always suggest to try following it consistently for 21 days – simply because evidence does suggest that the more frequently we do something, the more likely it is to become instinctual. So in other words, the more a behaviour is repeated, the more likely it will become a part of your routine.

The following is a list of ideas for creating a soothing bedtime routine. No need to incorporate all of them – select the ones that fit for you and your life, and then create your own routine!

  1. Start the bedtime routine about 30 minutes prior to the time you want to be in bed
  2. Take a shower, or even just wash your face/hands – doing so is symbolic of washing the remnants of the day away
  3. Make a cup of decaf tea for yourself, or have a glass of water
  4. Sit down (but not in bed), and take a few minutes to write out any left-over thoughts that are troubling you. Troubling thoughts could go in to a ‘dumping journal’ – which is never kept but instead each entry destroyed in order to create closure, a sense of letting go, and to ensure your privacy. The thoughts that go into the dumping journal are often the angry, sad, or fearful thoughts that you wouldn’t want to look back on.
  5. End with a positive note: use another journal (one that you want to keep and look back on) to finish on a positive note. You could write anything in this one – something you hope for the next day, what you did well this day, what you have learned that you want to remember, something someone did for you that was kind, etc. You could also fill it with beautiful pictures, sayings that are important to you, and so forth. This is the journal that lifts you up and leaves you smiling.
  6. Put the journal away – you have given attention to those troubling thoughts and devised a plan for the next day, so you can be finished looking at those troubling thoughts for the night now
  7. Read.  Not a murder mystery, and not a book that will take a lot of analytical thinking. Try a frivolous read – doing so can help you start to settle.
  8. Still not feeling settled? Lay down in bed and try listening to a meditation for relaxing. Jon Kabat-Zinn (mindfulness meditation) and Paul McKenna (guided hypnosis) have excellent recorded meditations – but there are many other options.

If you find your mind wandering towards troublesome thoughts while you are listening to the meditation, try to bring your awareness back to the meditation, with gentle kindness towards yourself. You are learning something new, after all – and that can take time. If you find that troublesome thoughts are overpowering, you can no longer focus, or if fear is mounting rapidly, get out of bed. Once you are out of bed, return to your sitting place and write or scribble those thoughts into the dumping journal. If you live with someone caring, try talking with them. Afterwards, remind yourself that although looking at these troublesome thoughts is helpful, it is not helpful to ruminate on them at bedtime. You have given some attention to them and you will attend more to them tomorrow!

References:

Jim White (2000). Treating Anxiety and Stress

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Guided Mindfulness
Meditation http://www.mindfulnesscds.com/collections/all-1/products/series-4

Paul McKenna
http://www.paulmckenna.com/sleep

 

Visualizing a Safe Place

flower gardenOur imagination is a powerful tool in our repertoire of resourcing strategies. An imaged safe place is one of these. Everyone needs a place where they can feel safe and each person’s safe place makes perfect sense just for them. It could be in the Swiss Alps, in a quiet country house, an beach beside the ocean, a peaceful garden, or a cozy room. While these lovely places of comfort aren’t usually physically available to us when we need them most – we can still create a mental haven,  accessible through imagery, and available to you whenever you need it. Having an inner safe place has proven effective in helping people cope with stress and increasing their sense of safety and comfort.

The use of an imagined safe place is especially helpful for people who have experienced trauma. When fear, panic, or self-destructive thoughts become over-whelming, you can use your imagination to go to a restful inner sanctuary – a personal haven from the effects of trauma and other life stresses – to regain a sense of safety, to restore strength, and to achieve a renewal of spirit. Once you have grounded yourself with your safe place, you will find yourself feeling more equipped to deal those tough emotions or memories.

Resources:

Cohen, B. M., Barns, M. M., & Rankin, A. B.  (1995). Managing Traumatic Stress Through Art: Drawing from the Centre.

Miller, K. (2012). Mind-body attunement therapy: Clinical Strategies. Mind-Body Attunement Training Centre

Use a Memory Cue

sticky dotsWhen it comes to behaviour changing, remember to use our techniques can be difficult. We can learn the greatest, life-changing technique, but if we can’t remember to use it in the moment we need it the most, well then, it is rendered quite useless. Try using a memory cue to start creating a pattern of use.

I call this strategy the “Sticky Dot Technique” because it involves the use of the small, circular sticky dots that can be purchased at any business supply store. Take approximately 10 sticky dots, and place them in places that will be visible to you (such as on your computer, cell phone, in the kitchen, on a coffee mug, on a mirror, and so forth). When you see a sticky dot, check in on how you are coping. What are you doing behaviourally? What sensations are you experiencing physiologically? What are you saying to yourself? You may want to remind yourself to “just breath”, or to honour your healing journey in another way.

I can not take credit for the genius behind this technique! It was taught to me in 2005 by a practicum supervisor (Derrick Doige), as part of my Master’s degree. Derrick Doige is a Counsellor with Okanagan College in Vernon BC, and also has a private practice.

Deepening the Breath

Anxiety and stress can affect the way you breathe. Holding your breath, as well as breathing rapidly or shallowly may be related to chronic anxiety, which can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress. Awareness and regulation of the quality of your breathing can have several positive effects:

  • Slowing and deepening your breathing allows for adequate intake of oxygen and output of carbon dioxide which is needed for physical well-being
  • Conscious breathing during times of distress allow you to release muscular and emotional tension, thus reducing levels of distress
  • Focusing awareness on breathing can shift thoughts away from flashbacks and non-productive or obsessive thinking, and bring your awareness back to the present moment

Get to know what your breathing patterns are like throughout the day. Take a quiet moment to tune in, and notice the following qualities of your breathing:

  • the depth of your breathing: is it shallow, deep, moderate
  • the rate of your breathing: is it fast, slow, moderate
  • the pause between the inhalation and exhalation of your breath
  • the expansion and contraction of your rib and abdominal areas
  • changes in the overall pattern of your breathing

Here is a simple breathing technique you can do anywhere:

  1. In a moment of calmness, inhale completely, and then count starting at 1 as you exhale
  2. When your exhale was complete (oxygen was completely out of your lungs) what number did you have?– This number now becomes your baseline. When you find yourself feeling anxious, stressed out, angry, etc. focus on slowing your breathing:
  3. Add 2 more numbers to your baseline

** This means slowing the rate of your exhale, not counting faster!

So, if during a moment of calm, your exhale takes you to the court of 6, during a moment of emotional upset, you will want to stretch that exhale to the count of 8.

Want to make that deep breathing more powerful? Add a Visualization to dandelionIncrease your Calm:

For some people, it is helpful to pair deep breathing with a calming vision. As you are learning this technique, it may be helpful to visualize a ship floating on the sea. As you breathe in, waves wash up onto the shore and the ship bobs closer. It bobs close enough to the shore that you can clearly see its details: lettering on the bow, the colour of the sails, people on the deck, etc. As you exhale, the waves pull away from the shore and the ship bobs farther out of view. Or you may want to visualize a feather floating in the air, a balloon, and so forth. Because deep breathing involves the pulling of oxygen into the lower lungs first, for some people it is helpful to visualize a jar being filled with water. As the water is poured in, it splashes into the bottom of the jar, then rises to the top, overflowing over the rim and out onto your hands. The jar symbolizes your torso, and the water the oxygen you breathe.

Resources:

Exhale-plus-2 Idea adapted from Carolyn Costin, MA, M.ED, MFT (2011)

Cohen, B. M., Barns, M. M., & Rankin, A. B.  (1995). Managing Traumatic Stress Through Art: Drawing from the Centre

Haskell, L. (2003). First Stage Trauma Treatment

Mate, G. (2003). When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress

Sgt. Charles E. Humes (2003). Lowering Pursuit-Induced Adrenaline Overloads
http://www.pusuitwatchorg/stories/adrenaline.html

Focusing in the Present Moment

Taming your Monkeymonkey mind

Learning to be focused in the present moment can be challenging. I don’t believe this is just the case for those who have experienced trauma, of for those with anxiety. I believe it is a symptom of fast-paced society, where we are driven to do more and where flashy technology and advertising vies for our attention. Often when we try to concentrate, our minds have a tendency to wander. It just takes some focused attention (and patience with yourself) to learn to be present and in the moment.

A distracted mind has even been referred to as ‘monkey mind’. I imagine this as having a monkey contained in a room – he’d be jumping from one piece of furniture to another, climbing the ways and hanging on the curtain rod or blinds – and all the while chattering incessantly. It is in this way that our minds tend to do the same: engaging in an endless flow of dialogue, jumping from topic to topic. If you are trying to focus your attention in the present moment, please do not be discouraged if your mind wanders! It is natural. Everyone has ‘monkey mind’ from time to time!

Reassure yourself that iI takes practice to become mindful: to be in the moment and aware of your thoughts without judgment.  If you notice while you are doing any of containing and grounding strategies that your mind wanders, be patient with yourself. It’s hard to learn a new skill; do not put yourself down or call yourself names. Most likely there have been enough people across your lifespan who have done that. Simply notice that it happened, be kind to yourself, and return to where you left off.

Resources:

Tolle, E. (2003). Stillness Speaks.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Guided Mindfulness Meditation, Series 1.