Category Archives: relaxation

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.

Is your Lifestyle too Stressful?

In the society and world that we live in today, it is easy (and almost involuntary) to fall into a pattern of life that can be labeled as stressful. Since many of us nowadays are in full time studies or have a full time job and family duties, we tend to experience high levels of stress.

In some situations, stress seems inevitable, and it often is. However, constant and relentless stress can be mentally exhausting and disadvantageous for us in the short-term and the long-term. Work-life balance is what many of us aim for; however, when we fail to maintain this balance and end up working late evenings and weekends, we are putting ourselves at risk for burnout. There are going to be certain periods of our lives (e.g., during final exam periods or a critical period on the job), where it’s necessary to sacrifice our “rest” time in order to meet our education and work goals. However, if this is constantly happening then that might mean that we are taking away a considerable amount of our “rest” time. I am not saying that working hard and sacrificing some of your free time to meet your goals is a bad thing, but I am pointing to the importance of trying to maintain the work-life balance in order to avoid burnout. By nature, our bodies and minds need adequate rest in order to function at their best and help us achieve what we have always dreamt of achieving. Therefore, the work-life balance benefits us by re-fueling our body and mind with the ability to face all sorts of challenges and meet our goals.

One important thing to keep in mind is that it is a good idea to make time for you, which is what I like to call “me time”. This could be a break from a stressful task, which does not necessarily have to be a long break, but rather a break that we genuinely enjoy which helps us get our minds off the task for a while. This simple and enjoyable break will help you regain your focus and return to your task with a fresh mind.

By: Ghinwa El-Ariss

Ghinwa El-Ariss holds an Honors Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Environmental Studies from the University of Toronto. She will be pursuing her Master of Science degree in Psychology at Trent University starting September 2017. She is passionate about Psychology and the Environment. She hopes that her blog posts help you learn a bit about her and her take on certain things. Most importantly, she hopes that you enjoyed what you read!

Embracing the in Between Moments in Life


Humans are creatures of habit. We stick to what we know because it’s safe, comfortable, and give us something to hold onto. Perhaps we don’t even realize how comforting our daily rituals and patterns are until they are no longer there and we have nothing to keep us grounded. But change is one of the many beautiful things about growth, and while it may be difficult, it is also what allows us to learn more deeply about ourselves.

I’m a student at the University of Toronto and I live in the heart of downtown during the school year. For the past two summers, I always returned home to California working and spending the days with my sister and my best friends. This summer, however, I decided to stay in Toronto so I would be able to spend time with my boyfriend. I knew it would be difficult being away from my sister and my friends for an even longer stretch of time, but I didn’t anticipate the feelings that would accompany this decision. It’s often easy to let our expectations take over, the montage clip playing out inside our minds of what we envision for ourselves, our fantasies easily carrying us away. I allowed myself to get wrapped up inside my head, and when my fantasy failed to play out the way I expected, I found myself feeling lost.

I failed to anticipate just how difficult it would be to adjust to a completely new environment. My downtown lifestyle fostered a dependence on instant gratification, anything and everything easily within my reach. Transportation was more reliable and convenient, any store imaginable within a short distance of me. In moving to the suburbs, it was more difficult to get around and things were further apart. I was also less familiar with the area, which made it more challenging to explore compared to my downtown environment. However, my biggest adjustment thus far has been the amount of free time I now have.

University is rigorous – it is rare that you have a moment when you are not anticipating an upcoming exam or assignment. At first the freedom from school was invigorating, but as time passed, it began to leave me with a feeling of anxiety. I wasn’t used to the amount of free time and unrealistically expected that I would have found a summer job by now. I think the feelings of anxiety stem from the deeply ingrained notion that we should always be “doing something.” Relaxation and self-care seem to have been dubbed self-indulgent and lazy, and this mentality left me feeling inadequate. I began to feel antsy, wishing and waiting for “my summer”-the fantasy I had crafted inside my head- to begin.

But through much reflection and sitting with these feelings, I have adopted a new perspective. These moments in life when we aren’t “doing something” don’t have to be considered lazy or unambitious. Sometimes they are exactly what is needed for us to discover what we truly want, or to take the time to reconnect with different parts of ourselves we may have neglected. Life is not linear, not everyone’s path is going to look the same, and people take different routes to get to where they are. There are going to be moments in life when our normal everyday routines are shifted, whether by choice or not. Not everything is always going to stay the same, nor should it. Change is natural, and though it may be difficult to adjust to a new situation, it often is what allows us to grow and to learn more about our strengths and what we are able to handle. Instead of berating myself for not working right away or interning somewhere, I am trying to just allow myself to appreciate this time. I know that life is just going to keep getting busier, and moments like these, where you have free time, will likely be rare in the future. It can be very challenging to accept these “in-between” phases in our lives, but they have the potential to create space for new perspectives, and the ability to rediscover our passions and what we truly care about.

By: Talia Main

Talia is pursuing a degree in psychology at the University of Toronto. She hopes to continue her education in psychology following graduation. She is passionate about ending the stigma surrounding mental health through her writing and education.

 

How Movies can be used to Benefit our Mental Health


The different types of movie genres reflect the different effects that movies have on us. The emotions that movies trigger in us can be very real and have an effect that lasts longer than we might expect.

I consider the different movies that I watched as a repertoire. In different situations, I remember parts of movies that stuck with me. Even some of the movies that seem to be made only for entertainment can have a meaningful message that lies underneath their surface. Some movies seem to be packed with action and adventure themes, but in fact they might have important messages to tell. I tend to find a common thread in many of the movies that I have watched, and this thread is very often the emphasis on family and friends living a happy and healthy life. In terms of psychological significance, many movies stress the importance of sacrificing for your loved ones and the importance of standing by each other through difficult situations.

Furthermore, due to the variety of movies out there, we can easily find a movie to help us through a difficult or unpleasant situation. I will use myself as an example here. When I feel stressed out because of work piling up on my desk, I take deep breaths in order to alleviate my stress and, if time permits, I allocate 1.5-2 hours later that evening to watch a comedy movie. This strategy has generally been successful in alleviating my stress, making me laugh, and boosting my mood. This helps me feel more energized and continue my work with a more positive mindset.

I do realize that many of us have very busy schedules, so my intention is to not limit the positive effects listed above to movies only. I often resort to short (2-5 minute) comedy videos that are posted online, which tend to have the same effect as a longer comedy movie. In general, we tend to know what works best for us and what makes us the happiest. This differs across people and across the emotions that they are experiencing. In my personal life, laughter is the best medicine!

By: Ghinwa El-Ariss

Ghinwa El-Ariss holds an Honors Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Environmental Studies from the University of Toronto. She will be pursuing her Master of Science degree in Psychology at Trent University starting September 2017. She is passionate about Psychology and the Environment. She hopes that her blog posts help you learn a bit about her and her take on certain things. Most importantly, she hopes that you enjoyed what you read!

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.

 

The Pressures that Students Face in our Society


Students in today’s society are indoctrinated with the idea of improving their credentials, educating themselves further, and increasing the pedigree of their resumes. We are taught to weigh every decision we make with the best alternative action and choose the one that gives us the most benefit within the same time frame. We spend countless hours studying and volunteering to get accepted into the program of our choosing, or attain the ideal job when we graduate, so that we can avoid having an unstable financial status. Often this means that we forego opportunities to take breaks to do the things we love, make new friends, spend time with family, or maintain an adequate level of physical activity every week.

My friends who went on exchange last year to various countries in Europe realized the impact of cultural values on our current lifestyle. In our capitalist society, it’s common to desire more money to increase consumerism and obtain luxury goods. In order to do so, we need well-paying jobs to provide the required capital. Based on the sheer number of individuals who all have the same aspirations, any opportunity is extremely competitive nowadays. In comparison, the culture abroad was more laissez-faire and individuals were in tune with what made them happy. They spent less time worrying about their future and wondering whether they would be well off. As a result, their self-image was more compatible with who they wanted to become.

Evidently, unless a major transformation in our culture occurs, the inflation in different product markets will exacerbate societal pressures on students to do more and do better. The notion that “time is money” will continue to place mental health as an afterthought to these pressures. If time wasn’t of the essence, then we would not face this problem.

However, that is not to say that it is impossible for students to tend to their own happiness. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I learned that it’s okay to go out for food, drinks, or a fun activity on the weekend with my friends or family. I can spend an hour at the gym, three to four times a week, and I can squeeze in my favorite TV drama, all without getting a worse mark or giving up on a volunteer opportunity. Allowing myself to do these things gave me something to look forward to when I was frustrated with how much work I had to do. It motivated me to create effective schedules and follow them to ensure that I was putting enough effort into all my responsibilities. Even when I fell behind on schoolwork because I chose to partake in activities that made me happy, I was able to fully engage with my work afterwards. I recognized myself that I needed less time to do the same things I struggled with before simply because I was in a better mood. Ultimately, students need to realize that as important as the future is, they also deserve to enjoy themselves in the present.

By: Parnian Pardis

Parnian is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto with an Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Human Biology and Psychology. In the fall, she will be pursuing her Masters of Science Degree at the Institute of Medical Science at UofT. She is passionate about improving healthcare by incorporating psychological and social factors into individualized treatments for patients, along with the traditional biological approach. She believes that mental health is an integral component to this mission and hopes to encourage other people to engage with healthcare in the same manner.

 

 

 

 

Overcoming Procrastination

Procrastination has been around for quite a long time. We are all familiar with this bad habit that causes us stress and anxiety as the deadline approaches. But why do we procrastinate? One of the individual factors that may make you susceptible to procrastination is low self-esteem or self-confidence. This refers to a gap between the demands of the task or of the person who will evaluate your performance and your self-perceived ability, from which anxiety arises. To cope with this negative affect, your mind tries to relocate your attention to other tasks. Another reason we procrastinate is we often hold this irrational belief about what the world expects from us. In other words, we believe that people expect us to go above and beyond our assigned task and when we can’t meet these unrealistic expectations, we find ourselves feeling incompetent, which in turn causes us to procrastinate.

Based on my personal experience, here are some suggestions to help you overcome procrastination:

1. Try being more mindful and monitor your feelings and thoughts when you’re tempted to procrastinate. If it turns out that every time your in a bad mood you tend to procrastinate, then focus your efforts on self-care in order to get out of that head space, before you attempt to complete the task.

2. Start today, even if it’s just for 10 minutes. When people think of completing a task they tend to focus too much on the final product. My suggestion is to focus instead on the minuscule steps that lead to the end goal. Plan out the steps and aim to accomplish ONE at a time. This will make the task feel less overwhelming.

3. Turn off all distracting stimuli and focus on the task for 30 minutes to an hour, followed by a short break. It is better to work in smaller intervals than to work for longer durations of time, such as working for 6 hours straight. Our brain naturally goes through cycles with peaks and valleys, so it’s important to follow this rhythm in order to maximize output.

4. Visualize yourself starting the task at the last possible moment and what that would feel like. Likely just the thought of doing something last minute will elicit feelings of panic and anxiety, which will hopefully be motivating enough to start early.

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.

Getting Through a Transition Phase

Throughout our lives, we all go through transition phases. Some of these phases are major, like the transition to parenthood, while others are a bit more subtle, like getting through a long day or a challenging situation. However, we tend to place a greater focus on the bigger transitions in our lives, and oversee the smaller ones.

Throughout my university years, I learned how to appreciate my ability to not only strive, but also thrive in situations that I had previously dreaded. I believe that the main reason behind this ability is the fact that I learned how to see every challenge (big or small) as a transition phase. The words “transition phase” imply changing from one phase to another. Although, change can be scary, sometimes it can be for the better, especially when we believe in can be.

When a situation presents itself as a challenge, it is beneficial to wrap your mind around it and perceive it as an obstacle that you will benefit from once you’ve passed through it. By perceiving a challenge as a transition phase, we enter the challenge with the belief that we will learn from it and become stronger and more resilient people afterwards. However, if you perceive a challenge as something you just want to get over and done with, it can be difficult for you to shift your focus to the potential positive results that can come about once the challenge is overcome. In other words, dwelling on how bad the present challenging situation is can make us miss out on the benefits of the transition.

The way we perceive a situation has a large impact on whether or not we will benefit from it afterwards. By perceiving a challenging situation as a transition phase, we can free ourselves from the mental constraints that cloud our judgment and be able to appreciate the lesson that resulted from the challenge.

By: Ghinwa El-Ariss

Ghinwa El-Ariss holds an Honors Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Environmental Studies from the University of Toronto. She will be pursuing her Master of Science degree in Psychology at Trent University starting September 2017. She is passionate about Psychology and the Environment. She hopes that her blog posts help you learn a bit about her and her take on certain things. Most importantly, she hopes that you enjoyed what you read!

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.