Category Archives: meditation

Mindfulness to Self-Regulate when Stressed


We might be achieving our goals when everything in our life is on track, but the moment we have to face an uncontrollable stressful event, it can become easier to reach for something that will immediately soothe our feelings, even if we know we shouldn’t. The ability to regulate impulsive emotional behavior in order to act in favor of long-term, desirable goals is at the core of achieving success in multiple facets of our lives. How can we stop overwhelming emotions and thoughts from resulting in immediate compensatory behaviors? Often times, we talk ourselves into performing short term satisfying behaviors as they provide immediate reward or relief of emotions we cannot cope with – and we feel guilty in the long run, because we know that lack of emotional control is a setback from achieving what we really want.

Mindfulness is a powerful tool to increase self-regulation. Instinctively, we aim to remove sources of pain as quickly as possible (we don’t tend to keep our hand on the stove while it’s burning). Hence, being in the midst of a negative situation that we cannot change can cause anxiety, which, in a desperate attempt to subside, makes us turn to alternative pleasures; that chocolate cheese cake might make us feel good momentarily, but it will not change the fact that it hurts to be cheated on and your pile of work needs to be tackled. We might not have control over unforeseen stressors that fall upon us, but we can control our reactions which in turn will serve us greatly in accomplishing our long-term goals with a clear mind, patience and acceptance.

This sounds intuitive, however, during stressful events, our frontal lobes (in charge of planning for the future) shut down and our amygdala (emotional center) takes charge of our brain. The conjunction of our emotions and skewed thoughts can snowball into a hot mess deviating us from our goals. Studies have shown that mindfulness increases connectivity between the frontal lobes and the amygdala, thus strengthening the connection between our rational brain and our emotional brain. Hence, instead of losing control by acting on emotions or fighting against our emotions, we learn to acknowledge emotions and situation while maintaining reason, this allows us to work through our problems. We can reprogram our mind to accept situations by being mindful – which means experiencing what is really happening and not looking at the situation through the lens of future anxiety or depressive reminiscence. Practicing mindfulness is like a muscle, it takes time to develop, but practicing daily will yield into an effective tool to lean on in times of stress in order to control feelings and increase self-regulation.

By: Teodora Dundjerovic

Teodora graduated in 2016 with a Bilingual Specialized hons. BA Psychology with a neuropsychology concentration. She is currently working in the financial district before going back to school for psychology. She enjoys spending time with friends and exploring alternative passions including fitness, dance, muay thai and yoga.

Are you Feeling Stressed? Try Cooking!


I think we can all agree that few things are more stressful than approaching deadlines when you’re in school or at work. This stress can often decreases your productivity without you even knowing it. You may still get an A on your paper, for example, but it probably cost you more time and effort because your body was stressed. As I started to look for ways to eliminate some of my stress, I found that cooking really helped. I used to never want to cook, thinking that it would distract me from all the work I had to do and thus decrease my productivity. But when I set a goal to try and fit a block of time each day to cook, despite having assignments and exams, I found that it actually improved my productivity.

So how does cooking alleviate stress and anxiety? Let’s consider briefly what you are doing when you’re actually cooking (that is, when your food is heating up in the pan). To ensure that your food doesn’t come out charcoal or raw, naturally you would have to monitor the cooking process. This process requires a lot of attention, which helps distract you from the stress. When your cooking, you become immersed in the current moment and it engages all of your senses – smell, taste, sight, and touch. As a result, your body naturally relaxes and releases some of the tension.

This state of mind closely resembles the state of mindfulness – the focused state on one’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences at the present moment. Mindfulness has been shown to alleviate distress resulting from all sorts of life stressors. This makes sense because stress and anxiety are primarily produced by a constant contrast between the present and a set future, and the feeling that the progress toward that future is hindered or deviated. So naturally, if you immerse yourself in the present, you will feel less of the stress and anxiety.

Although there are many other ways to practice mindfulness, they usually take time to master. Cooking offers an instant source of stress relief, without the time commitment of mastering the task. So next time you are feeling stressed, ground yourself in the present and try cooking – it brings more than delicious food to the table!

By: Ruihong Yuan

Ruihong is a graduate from University of Toronto with a major in Psychology and Physics. He is currently looking to gain either clinical or research experiences in psychology. His goal is to become a clinical psychologist with his own practice and research in order to help people improve their lives and explore the mysterious human mind.

 

How to Improve Your Mental Health as a Student

As an undergraduate student, I know that the first year of university can be both physically and mentally exhausting. Even though we’re always told to “take care of our health”, “eat properly,” and “sleep well all the times”, sometimes it can be really hard to manage everything. Not sleeping properly, not eating well, and not exercising can result in mental distress. Here are some of my tips to help you take care of your mental health during those stressful times in university:

Do something that relaxes you: Whether it be going for a run or listening to your favourite music, doing something for yourself will help your brain not only relax, but also recharge for later.

Finding a hobby: I know during the semester it can be very hard to find time for anything other than school. But even a 10 min break will help. For example, I like to do henna, so during my study breaks I do henna or draw something to take my mind off of school. Hobbies can also increase your creativity.

Treat yourself once in a while: Go for lunch or dinner alone or with friends. Even a half an hour lunch can improve your mood and mental health.

Do meditation: Meditation is not only good for mental health, but it will also help you focus more in school. A lot of universities have free meditation session, so take advantage of them. I personally found meditation extremely helpful in relaxing me.

Go out with friends: It is extremely important to socialize, even when we feel like we don’t have time. We are social beings and taking a break to socialize with friends can reduce stress.

Get good sleep: I know we have all heard how important sleep is, but sometimes it is hard to get proper sleep when there are billions of things going on. I personally cannot function properly without good sleep and it is really hard to focus when you are sleepy throughout the day. Sleep is extremely important not just for recharging our bodies, but also for consolidating all the things we have learned throughout the day.

Ask for help: This point is the most important one that a lot of students barely pay attention to. There is help available for everything. If you are struggling with something that is causing you distress whether it is a low mark in a course or a personal issue, ask for help on campus.

Create goals that are achievable: Although it is never wrong to aim high, your goals have to be achievable. For example, not studying the whole semester and aiming to get an A+ by just studying the night before is definitely not a realistic goal. It might work for some people, but not for most of us. As long as you are willing to put in the effort required to achieve a goal, it is very likely that you will get it. However, just know if you do not end up getting it, you at least tried your best and there is always a second chance.

By: Maleeha Khan

Maleeha is currently doing a double major in Human Biology and Neuroscience with a minor in Psychology at the University of Toronto. Her current research focuses on the sex differences in factors predicting conversion from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease. She is interested in pursuing MD after her undergraduate degree and helping third world countries dealing with neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

Simple Breathing Techniques to Calm Down

Often when we become stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious, the simple act of breathing can become difficult. When our bodies experience these symptoms, muscles that help us breathe tighten and in turn make our breathing faster and shallower. Breathing has the power to affect your entire body. Controlling our breathing, by slowing it down, helps relieve our muscles, lowers our blood pressure, and relaxes our nervous system, which all help us to feel calm!

To feel the benefits of controlled breathing, try out a few of these simple breathing techniques and implement them in your daily routine!

  1. Breathing through your belly: This one is best felt when lying down (especially before bed). Put one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Inhale, expanding your belly, and count to five before exhaling, collapsing your belly. Continue for 1 to 2 minutes.
  2. Alternate nostril breathing: This technique is best felt when at work/when out. Close your right nostril, breathe in, and count for 5 seconds before breathing out. Repeat this step 3 times with your right nostril closed and then alternate nostrils by closing your left nostril and repeating the same steps.
  3. In through your nose, out through your mouth: This technique is best felt at home when lying down or while out! Breathe in through your nose, count to 6, open your mouth and let out a long exhale! Repeat 5 times.

If you find that these breathing techniques are working and you would like to practice longer, more controlled breathing, then you can pull up a breathing video and follow along. These videos are created to provide a visual breathing pattern and are great for focusing on your breathing and nothing else! A great example can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXItOY0sLRY

By: Eliza Watts

Eliza graduated with a degree in Psychology and a specialization in research from Wilfrid Laurier University. She is a passionate mental health advocate whose goal is to help others through her own personal experience.

 

 

 

 

Mindfulness: Work Out if it Matters

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‘With neuroplasticity, extraordinary change is possible.’ Rick Hanson

The human brain is fascinating to me. I love the fact that although we are all very different, we are also very much the same. One of the ways that we are the same lies in our potential to train our brains to rewire themselves and form different loops of thinking. This for me is an important aspect of mental fitness training. Being able to train your brain to work well for you links directly to mental health. Doing this can really support us to work out how to manage anxiety.

What is Neuroplasticity?

Knowing about neuroplasticity matters because it is a step towards self-awareness and this is central to good mental health. Neuroplasticity is the brains ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. We have neurons in our brain and they join up and link together to form thoughts. Everything that we experience, whether it is a thought, a sound, a sight or a feeling, all requires underlying neural activity, and so how we interpret our experiences across the board, all contributes greatly to how we think and feel.

Neuroplasticity and Mindfulness

While this rewiring or reconnecting of neurons happens more easily at a younger age, it is something that is possible at any age, once we make an effort to focus our attention on it. We can’t take our brains out of our heads in order to try to understand them, but we can come to know our brains in various ways by gaining knowledge and by becoming self-aware. By being aware of the neural activity in our brain, we come to know that the more our neurons fire together and join up in particular ways, the more patterns within or brain (like patterns of thinking) develop. These patterns become ‘the norm’ in terms of what our brains routinely do. And if ‘the norm’ is to feel anxious or low, it is possible that focussing on neuroplasticity could help.

We get into habits with our thinking, each developing a style. And just as we can develop a particular style of dress that becomes ‘comfortable’ for us to wear, we can develop ways of thinking that become comfortable for us to fall into. The ‘comfortable’ thinking is akin to our fall back option, the way of thinking that we tend to fall back into when we aren’t really focussing on where our thoughts might be going. For some, this fall back option regarding thought is a really positive or optimistic thinking style. But for others, this fall back option can be more negative, more anxiety-provoking and perhaps very self critical. So if you think a lot or if you tend to worry a lot and become anxious, it can be good to know how to put this neuroplasticity into action in order to make it work in your favour.

One way to take the concept of neuroplasticity and make it work in your favour is to understand what happens to these neural connections during mindfulness practice. When you are practicing mindfulness, your thinking style is interrupted for a moment and that can be a very good thing. The loops of thinking stop running at full speed, your brain gets a chance to slow down and the neural connections loosen. Because the connections loosen, you are making it possible to break out of old ‘comfortable’ habits regarding the way you think, perhaps a thinking style that is contributing to feeling anxious. By practicing mindfulness, you are slowing the connecting of neurons down. You are, in that moment, setting the scene for neuroplasticity to work it’s magic.

My Why for Mindfulness

People have many reasons for practicing mindfulness. When I spoke at the Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit last week about how to incorporate mindfulness into your life if you are super busy, I spoke about the importance of knowing your ‘why’. When super busy, things need to really matter in order for you to make time for them. For me, the reason why mindfulness matters relates to neuroplasticity. Mindfulness is enjoyable, calming and nourishing for the soul, but it matters because of neuroplasticity. I want to be mentally fit. I want my mental health to be good. I believe in the power we each have to influence our own thinking styles and I know that mindfulness creates the potential for neuroplasticity to happen. Work out your why for mindfulness. You will then find the time to work it into your day!

By: Anne McCormack

Anne

Anne McCormack is a Psychotherapist and writer living in Dublin, Ireland. Anne is passionate about adolescent mental health. Her first book on preparing young people for social media is due to be published this year.

To sign up for more information from Anne on the topic of young people and social media, go to www.annemccormack.ie and follow Anne on Twitter @MentalFitnessXX!

Five Steps to Self Care

running1Self Care. What does it mean to you? Considering it pertains to the self, we’re a subjective subject, no? So here’s my take on the care that is the self.

This day in age, our society is full of extremes. It’s almost as if 30% of the population is either vegan, a yogi or a personal trainer of sorts, living what seems to be an unattainable lifestyle for most. The other 70% will follow an Instagram workout for a week, try those shakes for 2 days, and stretch on a Wednesday. It’s so easy to get caught up in trends only to resort back to what we know; what we’ve taught ourselves is normal and natural.

As a citizen, personal trainer and lifestyle coach, influenced by the extremes, I can tell you with confidence that extremes don’t work! Self care, to me, is about finding ways to FEEL GOOD. Feeling good, although sometimes temporary, should not have a “come down” or crash. So please don’t take my suggestion to feel good as a ticket to binge anything. Rather, ask yourself these questions: What makes you feel good? What motivates you? Who are the people in your life that make you better? That make you want to be better? It’s not easy pulling yourself out of a funk, but start by getting yourself off the couch, and I promise you will feel a lot better!

Balance is the key. Finding balance in our lives, I feel, is THE GOAL. Considering work utilizes the majority of our resources (time and energy – sometimes money), let’s start here. We hear and talk about work/life balance. I believe this to be a great start BUT that leaves us susceptible to disappointment due to high expectations and extreme goal setting. So let’s turn the table a bit… What about balance AT WORK? How many of you wake up and go through the motions? Some days are better than others right? Then you come home and are exhausted, but you told yourself you were going to hit the gym and eat salad. I say, throw that notion out the window. What can you do in the morning for 5 – 10 minutes that will make you feel good? What can you do at 10:00 am, 12:00 pm, 2:00 pm and 4:00 pm? Something simple without your phone, that you can associate and pair with something else like a break at work. Maybe it’s closing your eyes and listening to your favorite song while focusing on your breathing. Maybe it’s writing in a journal and only focusing on positive things in your life or aspirations?

Self care has to be one of the hardest goals to achieve because we so often let other things prioritize themselves over our own well-being. So here are my 5 steps to self care:

1. People – latch on those who make you smile and uplift you to greater heights.

2. Find 5 little things that make you smile and rotate them throughout each weekday.

3. Drink half your body weight in water. I know! Tough right? Every two hours try setting a little alarm to remind yourself to chug!

4. Eat protein before bed. The majority of us are protein deficient because we are bombarded with fast, cheap carbohydrates. Eating protein before bed will help you balance your blood sugar and provide you with more energy when you awake!

5. Get Moving! Especially when you don’t want to. We are designed to move so when we are stagnant we naturally feel lazy, tired and our moods follow suit. Ever notice how annoyingly happy the #fitfam is? Go be like them!

Have fun with it!

In Health,

Jenna Brooks

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Dealing With Stress

Nobody thought of bringing a headache pill to the party?Being a full time student while working three jobs I experience stress on a daily basis, whether school, familial or work induced stress, or even simply the stress caused by the strive to reach personal goals. Stress affects several aspects of one’s self, which can negatively influence both one’s physical and mental health. Stress is manifested in an array of bodily responses, as a reaction to disruptions or adjustments. Thus, when these changes are made it upsets an individual’s mental and physical abilities, often manifesting itself into several different symptoms. Some symptoms may be physical, such as: headaches, insomnia, viruses, aches and pains, tense muscles, loss of appetite, and even a loss of sexual ability, while other symptoms may be mental such as emotional instability (i.e., experiencing anger, guilt, and hopelessness). But how do you deal with stress? Everyone deals with stress differently and some methods are not very healthy. Some may become dependent on substances (i.e. alcohol or cigarette’s) and some may simply isolate themselves.

Despite the endless list of negative effects and outcomes of stress, there are a number of strategies to minimize becoming overwhelmed. Personally, I try to make a weekly check list of what needs to be completed so that I can map out my time. This is satisfactory because it allows me to feel like I have achieved something through hard work and commitment. It is very important to have a plan set in place when dealing with stress. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) encourages people to eat healthy well balanced meals throughout the day. They also suggest that physical activity, regulated sleep habits (i.e., getting the proper amount of sleep), and taking breaks when needed are positive stress relievers. They also encourage speaking to someone about your stress, whether that be to your friends, family or to a professional. I personally find that I get more stressed when I do not have someone to talk to, and it is during these times that my stress-induced thoughts keep me up at night.

Exercise is also key when dealing with stress. Two of my favourite exercises to relieve stress include both boxing and yoga. On the one hand, boxing exerts a satisfactory release of energy, which allows for the relief of anger and stress. This ultimately results in feeling calmer. Conversely, the calming properties of yoga through stillness and meditation allow for the gathering of thoughts and elimination of stress and worries for a period of time. It is important to focus on your wellbeing (both mentally and physically) when you are feeling stressed. So next time you are feeling stressed, try going to your local boxing gym and hit the punching bag, or follow a yoga tutorial on YouTube and begin your day with some relaxing, thought-gathering meditation to help set up your stress-reduced day!

By: Bruno Ngjeliu

Bruno

Coping with Change

change-good-now-how-get-employeesOne of my teachers in college taught me that everything we do as psychotherapists can be summarized as follows: pinpoint what change our clients are resisting in their lives and help them stop resisting it.

In Buddhist meditation traditions change or “impermanence” is considered one of the three irrefutable characteristics of reality, the awareness of which is a critical marker on the path to enlightenment.

It would appear that change, or more accurately our relationship to it, is a driving force behind much of our psycho-spiritual aspiration as a society. Why is this? And how can we reconcile ourselves to this ever-present force?

On the one hand we are ravenous for change. We crave bigger paychecks, more harmonious relationships, and healthier bodies. However, when that challenging work assignment comes our way, when our partner invites us to shake things up, or when it comes time to combat our cravings, we often wind up in a state of inner turmoil. The insistence of our conscience meets the uncertainty of the unfamiliar.

So often we block ourselves from experiencing the changes we seek because hardly ever does what we want arrive on a silver platter. Far more often than not we must push ourselves outside our comfort zones to achieve it, or worse yet, face the effects of uninvited change. Our job is pulled out from under our feet, the person we love leaves us, or we receive an unwanted medical diagnosis.

The truth is our minds aren’t very good at contending with new variables. And rightfully so – we don’t know what we don’t yet know. So they will always try to steer us towards what’s worked in the past, or what others have told us will work.  This is why change typically either happens incrementally or gets foisted upon us by outside forces. And this is why it can feel so agonizing – we don’t yet have the evidence we need at our finger tips to assure us that everything’s going to be okay.

The fact of the matter is that we cannot rely on our minds to get us through the most difficult periods of change in our lives. The most natural temptation when things start to fall apart is to try to put them back together again. This strategy may work for a while, but it’s akin to putting all our eggs into one basket. If we don’t allow ourselves to ride the change wave, at least for a little bit, we will never achieve the evidence we need to help us keep moving towards our goals. That familiarity that we cling to will become a rut that we cannot climb out of. Sooner or later change will strike, and we will wish that we had begun to explore outside our box much sooner.

It’s definitely best in times of change to remind our minds that they need to hand over the lead role every once and awhile so that we can allow life to show us more of what’s available to us. Meditation techniques that cultivate a cessation of mental activity can be an amazing tool to assist with this. So can speaking with people who have gone through the type of change that we are experiencing firsthand, or at the very least can hold a completely impartial outlook about our experience. Trained mental health professionals or spiritual teachers can provide a safe space for you to talk about and explore the changes that are unfolding in your life, while helping you stay open to the possibilities that change can hold.

Whatever approach you take, remember that change is a natural part of life. And chances are we’ve asked for it by focusing on the outcomes we would like to experience. So it’s imperative that we relinquish the urge to mentally control it, and instead learn to move with it.

By: Kelly Pritchard

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