Category Archives: self awareness

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.

How to Overcome Conflict in Relationships


People are afraid of the dark. It stands for everything that is unknown and frightening. Yet there is something intriguing about it, as people often hesitantly inch into the darkness of the haunted house with a racing pulse and a hint of excitement at the same time.

When it comes to the darkness that is most intimate to ourselves, however, we are more likely to be oblivious. It never leaves our side, it is there whenever light is shed, and there is no getting rid of it—it’s our shadow. The emergence of our shadow is accompanied by various negative emotions, desires, and impulses that usually manifest in horrific dreams, visions, and fantasies. The shadow comprises of everything that we don’t want seen, either by the world or ourselves. In suppressing these emotions into our unconscious, it ends up being expressed through other channels. For example, when interacting with others, a common type of channeling is projecting the shadow onto others. Since the shadow is the part of the personality that we ourselves resent, perceiving these aspects in others with whom we have a relationship will certainly create unpleasant tension.

To use Jung’s wise words, “…It cannot be argued out of existence or rationalized into harmlessness,” which means the shadow is always going to be a part of us, and it is indisputably a reality that the shadow is entirely capable of harm. The result of any kind of willful blindness might just end in yielding control over to the shadow. The notion that repressing the shadow is insidious for our relationships harbors the promise that when it is faced and embraced, the relationships might be better. But it must be done in entirety.

First we need to identify the shadow, and expose it in its holistic form in front of our own eyes. Because of the projection mechanism, one way we can do this is to observe our own negative emotional reactions towards others. Secondly, try to identify the emotions as clearly as possible. By articulating what we are feeling, we are better able to find the root cause, which sometimes has nothing to do with the shadow. Then we need to closely observe ourselves, and ask these questions:

  • Are we exhibiting the traits or behaviours that we “see” and repel in others?
  • What tends to trigger such perceptions of others? What are the precipitants?
  • What kinds of belief might underlie the inexplicable feelings towards such traits?
  • What are the things that can be done to improve the situation? Can this part of the shadow be resolved, or does it have to be dealt with in the company of others?

Lastly, it is always helpful to make this aspect—the rediscovered shadow—of our personality known to those we have a relationship with. It is definitely a scary and by no means easy thing to do, but exposing the shadow, being honest to those we hold close, gives us a chance to be more authentic and will ultimately bring about a sense of relief. It’s an opportunity for open conversation with your partner, which may resolve many of your conflicts. People are more likely to show their vulnerability if we have the courage to show ours first.

To face and to accept the shadow as part of ourselves is a task that makes the fearless crumble. But it is very useful and helpful because when we are challenged with difficult situations we are going to need its strength and the embrace of it promises a better future for us and those closest to us.

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 Acknowledge our Biases


In this modern society, many people are developing a tendency to equate objectivity with better results. Consequently, many people now strive to attain an “objective” mind, utilizing only observable data, driven and guided by logic and reason, free from any personal biases. This goal is definitely one that’s worth attaining since it seems to meet the demands of present and possibly future society. However, what does it mean for a person to be free from personal biases? Is it truly achievable? And how can we do it? Here’s my thought.

There is sometimes the misconception that the way to attain an unbiased mind is to increase knowledge in the area one wants to avoid bias in. It is true that by knowing more about a subject we can be more aware of the biases that exist, but an unbiased or biased mind can only be reflected in our thinking, which in turn is reflected in our behavior and language. In order to do that, increasing self-awareness of our own minds and actions is necessary. It is only when we become aware of what we are thinking and doing, that we being to learn if we are being biased.

However, as we have seen in a multitude of psychology experiments, most people have the tendency of seeing themselves as unbiased. This can lead to a well-known phenomenon called confirmation bias, which is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.

So what should we do? If the increase in knowledge can help, but tends to be trumped by our personal presumptions, then we can start by learning about ourselves from our friends, acquaintances, family, etc. This is not to implicate the role of our predisposition, but to identify a pattern in behavior and thought process. Getting past this step can help us acknowledge any propensities we possess towards certain kinds of biases. The next step is to learn to be more mindful of our behavior and thoughts as we go about our daily interactions and professional endeavours. Without striving to do better in this area, all other efforts would be in vain.

To answer the questions from the beginning: no, we will always have our biases – note that this is why we set the goal to become UNBIASED in the first place; to reduce personal biases, we must know what we tend to biased against (or for), acknowledge that we are under its influence, and then increase self-awareness of our actions and thoughts. To be free, or more appropriately, to loosen the grip of personal biases on ourselves, is to always know that we ARE biased, and always will be.

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.

 

Happiness as a long-term Goal


What helps us stay motivated?
Most people in today’s society have an engrained reward valuation system that either encourages or prevents them from undertaking an activity. Often, a few of the questions that we sift through before undertaking an activity include: will this make me feel good; how difficult is it to attain the reward; what could I be doing in the meantime if I wasn’t engaged in this activity?

To put this in perspective on a small scale, think about the questions that cross your mind when you decide if you should go get a cup of Starbucks coffee:

  1. What effect will this cup of coffee have on my mood and productivity?
  2. How far is the nearest Starbucks and how much time will it take me to get there?
  3. Should I get a cup of coffee from the downstairs café instead?
  4. What else can I get done in the time that I would spend going to Starbucks?

Once we have executed this cost-benefit analysis, we are either motivated to go to Starbucks or dissuaded from making the effort.

Now, picture this on a larger scale. The average student or employed individual has a lot of important decisions to make related to long-term goals. For example, the drive to stay in school after you complete secondary or post-secondary education differs between individuals. While one individual might decide to take an additional 4 years of postgraduate education, another individual might decide to enter the workforce right after graduation and never return back to school.

I believe that societal pressures and cultural influences play a large role in this decision, which can lead someone to conduct an inaccurate cost-benefit analysis that misleads them down a path where they experience no passion. For example, in someone’s cost-benefit analysis, they may prioritize a stable income to support themselves in the future, expectations of their parents and/or culture, and what the current job market is seeking, over what would make them happy in the long-term.

If the justification for why you are gunning for a specific career path doesn’t involve any reason that includes your happiness and subjective well-being, then you might be engaging in faulty reasoning. I’ve seen friends slave away at a job that they hate just because it pays well and they want to move up in the company in the future. Conversely, some of my friends have continued with higher-level education because of parental expectations. Neither of these situations are ideal.

So next time you are making a big decision, consider how you can maximize your future benefits without making your well-being an afterthought in the process. Forty years down the road, you’ll be happy that you did!

By: Parnian Pardis

Parnian is a MSc Candidate at the University of Toronto, conducting research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Her thesis project involves investigating sub-types of treatment-resistance in schizophrenia, and the role of clozapine in their treatment. She aspires to encourage clinicians to adopt best practices within the individualized treatment of each patient. In her spare time, she is a food connoisseur and loves to travel to see new sights!

 

Is it a toxic friendship/relationship?

Many of us have friendships/relationships that are unhealthy for us and may not even be aware. I will list 5 ways that will help you know whether you are in a toxic friendship/relationship.

  1. Lack of trust. One of the most important feelings to have in a relationship is trust. If you feel like you can’t trust the other individual, then this is probably not the best relationship for you to be in. Trust gives you peace of mind when it comes to relationships. Take the trust away, and it is an unhealthy and emotionally draining relationship to be in.
  2. You are always the hero. Saving the other person in a particular situation is great if it happens only sometimes. I am not saying that being supportive is a negative thing, but being supportive at the cost of your own well being might not be the best of situations. If you consistently have to save the person, whether it be emotionally or financially, then you will likely not have enough time for yourself and it is likely not a relationship of mutual caregiving. We all have our ups and downs, so when you hit a low point in your life, it is important to guarantee that you have the ability and the time to nurture and take care of yourself.
  3. Being constantly judged and criticized. If the other person constantly criticizes you and points out your weaknesses, then that is a sign that you are being put down rather than uplifted in that relationship. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, but if your weaknesses are constantly being pointed out and your strengths are being ignored, then that person might not be fully accepting of who you are.
  4. Not being accepted. If you constantly find yourself in a position where you need to defend your opinion or change your opinion in order to be accepted, then you might be in an unhealthy relationship. Feelings of acceptance and belonging are vital for healthy human functioning, and we all have a right to feel accepted without the need to constantly explain ourselves.
  5. Communication issues. Do you constantly feel like you are talking to the other person and they are not listening to you or not remembering what you said? If the answer to that question is yes, then it may be difficult to reach a mutual agreement in many aspects of the relationship or friendship. Furthermore, this could indicate that the other person is occupied with another aspect of their life and are not ready to be an equal partner in your relationship. This type of relationship could easily turn into an “all take and no give” relationship that is unhealthy, and even toxic, for you.

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!

How to Have a Hard Conversation


One complaint that I often hear people making is “How do I speak to that individual?” As humans, we have a tendency to avoid tough conversations because we fear a negative outcome. These hard conversations can create a lot of anxiety, especially when the outcome can affect your work life, education, and/or involve family/friends. Within a professional context, there are all kinds of situations where initiating and engaging in conversation is absolutely necessary. I will list several factors that I believe are necessary for having a successful hard conversation.

1. Manage your expectations. It is important to know that not everyone will always agree with what you have to say. Be open to being wrong and compromising, as the person may perceive the situation in a different manner.

2. Manage your nerves. It is important to know how to soothe yourself in a situation that may be distressing to you. Our minds will often imagine the worst-case scenario when engaging in something this is anxiety provoking. We need to know how to calm our nerves before engaging in the conversation. An approach that I find very helpful is to listen to relaxing music before the conversation.

3. Have an open mind. Enter the conversation with the attitude “I want to learn and get the best out of this conversation.” When you focus on the ultimate goal of the conversation, which is usually to learn about a particular subject, your nerves will subside.

4. Use attentive gestures. I believe that smiling and nodding from time to time during the conversation will signal to the other person that you are carefully and respectfully listening to what they have to say. This will show them that you are paying attention and will also ease the flow of the conversation.

5. Take notes. By taking notes on what the other person is saying, your mind will automatically generate more questions that you probably hadn’t previously thought about. As a result, you will be able to get as much information as possible out of the hard conversation.

6. Believe in yourself. Always know that you have given it your best and that you are a capable person. Even if you think of better ways to reply after the conversation is over, that’s okay! That is a signal that you have learned a new way of thinking about the topic of the conversation. Just by believing in yourself, you are already half the way through the hard conversation!

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!

Coming out: How to Support your LGBTQ Teenager


Coming out can be hard a hard experience, but not just for the person coming out, but also for their family. It is particularly hard when the person coming out is a teenager this is a time of identity development and there are often social pressures to just fit in and not stand out. Sometimes families can also add to the stress by not taking the right measures even if they want to help. Unfortunately, the stress from so many different directions leads teenagers to anxiety and depression. Here are some of the ways you can be a responsible parent to your coming out teenager.

1. Be a good listener: It is very important to give your child the time to explain how they feel to ease the coming out experience. They might not want to explain everything to you which is fine, but do encourage them to come to you if they feel unsafe as the result of coming out.

2. Learn about the LGBTQ community: It is extremely important to take some time to learn more about the LGBTQ community. Learn about what they stand for and what challenges they may face, so that you can be on the same page as your child. This will show that you want to be involved in your child’s life and are willing to go out of your way to know what your child is going through.

3. Be open-minded: This might be the first time somebody in your family came out and you might need a little time to adjust to this new reality which is understandable. However, make sure that your child does not take this as you not being supportive. Let them know that you need some time to process, but that you are willing to support your child along the way. Open communication is key.

4. Be patient: Nothing can be more important than being patient with your child to ease the coming out experience. Do not ask too many questions because your child might not have all the answers. Let them take their time to discuss things with you, as they feel comfortable.

5. Consider family therapy: If for some reason, you feel like your child’s coming out experience can be enhanced through family therapy then go for it. Make sure your child has everything they can to ease the experience.

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.

The Weight of Eating Disorders


American Psychological Association defines eating disorders as “abnormal eating habits that can threaten your health or even your life.” The 3 most common types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating. Anorexia nervosa is an illness in which a person fears weight gain resulting in a restriction of eating to become thinner and thinner. Bulimia nervosa consists of eating an enormous amount of food and then purging almost right after. Binge eating is similar to bulimia nervosa, but without the act of purging.

Although eating disorders only became noteworthy back in the 1980s, the rate of the disorder is on a steady increase all over the world. Eating disorders can affect any race, age, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. As a matter of fact, researchers have noted that there may be a fourth type called “compulsive exercising,” more commonly in men than women, where an afflicted individual may be prone to exercising obsessively. It is crucial to take note of this upward trend, as eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all disorders. One in five afflicted individual’s commits suicide, and every hour approximately one person dies as a result of his or her eating disorder. It is often extremely comorbid as well, specifically with anxiety and depression.

The disorder commonly manifests as an intense fear of gaining weight, resulting in symptoms such as dieting, restricting food intake, pickiness, and preoccupation with body weight and food. Due to a person’s intense fear of gaining weight, a common sign that someone is experiencing an eating disorder is having an excessive amount of measuring tapes and scales around the house, including the bathroom, living room, bedroom, kitchen, and even in their own purses. A research study asked people with an eating disorder to point to the photo that best represented their current body shape (one photo was of their actual current selves and one photo was altered to make them look fatter). They found that people chose the altered fattened photo of themselves, suggesting that a person’s cognitive distortion of their body shape reinforces the classic belief of “I am never thin enough.” Interestingly, although the word anorexia means a loss of interest in food, person’s with this disorder often become more obsessed with food via gourmet cooking, taking photographs of fancy food etc. Their obsession with food acts as a way to regain control and cope with intense emotions.

Eating disorders can be caused by multiple factors including genetic, biochemical, psychological, cultural, and environmental. An example of a prominent cultural factor is the way society has come to view women’s

body as an object of admiration and beauty. In the media there is an overwhelming and consistent depiction of how a woman should look like in order to be considered beautiful. In 2013 a short one-minute video showed an attractive woman with hair and makeup fully done by a professional team getting airbrushed after a photo shoot to the point that she almost looked like two different individuals before and after the photos. The video explicitly revealed the unrealistic and impossible standard regular women strive to reach for. Despite the fact that this clip went viral, the dietary culture remains intact. These societal pressures can lead a young child, who may be going through puberty or getting bullied at school, to develop an eating disorder in order to fit in with their peers and what society portrays as “normal.”

Thinking about environmental factors, it’s important to note that eating disorders do not occur in isolation. According to “Family Systems Theory,” the disorder can be understood by looking at the symptoms embedded within a person’s dysfunctional family structure. Families of children afflicted with eating disorders frequently exhibit the following characteristics: overprotectiveness, a great deal of enmeshment, and lack of conflict resolution. As a result, children do not develop independence or control over their life, leading them to seek control in other areas. The simplest solution is often to control their body shape by controlling what they eat.

The disorder requires meticulous attention to a person’s physical and psychological state. In order to appropriately address the issue of eating disorders, there should be initiatives at both the micro and macro level. Family therapy is a good treatment option because eating disorders affect the whole family, so it’s important to involve everyone’s voices. There should also be more campaigns that work towards redefining the definition of “beauty” to counteract the affects of current media portrayals of beauty.

By: Stella Hyesoo Pock

Stella is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto with a double major degree in Psychology and Neuroscience. She is currently working on three projects that focus on maternal mental health at the Mothering Transitions Lab at the University of Toronto under Dr. Cindy-Lee Dennis. She has various research experiences that range from postpartum depression to LGBTQ members with schizophrenia. She is dedicated to help those who are afflicted with mental disorders.

Down the Rabbit Hole

As Alice, from the classic novel and film Alice in Wonderland, follows the well-dressed rabbit down the rabbit hole, one is left to wonder – why? Most advice would say to stay away from the uncertainty of the rabbit hole. However, the rabbit hole can be symbolic for one’s mind and how we sometimes let ourselves go down the rabbit hole of our thoughts, whether we intend to or not. For example, when your friend doesn’t answer their phone, you might begin to wonder why they didn’t answer, even though the first logical thought is to assume they are just busy. Your thoughts may wander to thinking that they are ignoring you, that they are hanging out with new friends and didn’t invite you, or that they don’t care about you to the same extent that you care about them. If you find yourself going down the rabbit hole here are some suggestions to stop your mind from wandering to these unwanted thoughts.

1. Remember that even though it may feel personal, it probably isn’t. We tend to have a bias towards the negative, which can often make us feel like others are criticizing us, ignoring us, or have some sort of complex plan to mistreat us. But more often than not, what may feel like a personal attack is just someone being preoccupied with themselves.

2. Acknowledge you have gone into the rabbit hole. When you start making assumptions based on insufficient information, take a step back and tell yourself not to worry until you have a chance to talk to the person. If you can’t detect that you have gone down the rabbit hole, you won’t be able to stop it.

3. Focus on yourself to identify the trigger. Notice how you are feeling right before you go down the rabbit hole? Often people go down the rabbit hole when they are feeling overly tired, anxious, stressed, or annoyed. Once the trigger is identified, try finding a way to calm down and distract yourself. I recommend writing a list of things that you can do when your feeling overwhelmed. For example, watching Netflix, breathing exercises, stretching, listening to music, or going for a walk. These can help center you in these moments.

4. Remind yourself of the facts and bring some context into the scenario. Referring to the phone example – what time of day is it? Does this person usually answer their phone? Is it possible they don’t enjoy speaking on the phone? Is there a productive way you can raise your concern about the lack of telephone response with the person? Do you always answer your phone when people call?

5.What can you do in this moment to be productive? This may be thinking about the situation more deeply, or it may be moving on to another task. You can almost always come back to a situation later, let time give you some perspective.

6. Forgive yourself and move on! Sometimes it’s okay to go down the rabbit hole, as it can be beneficial and sometimes even fun to consider multiple scenarios and let your mind wander. You shouldn’t feel guilty when your mind leads you to negative thoughts. Just accept that this will happen from time to time and know that it will pass. Be kind to yourself!

By: Sara Pishdadian

Sara Pishdadian is a graduate student studying Clinical Psychology at York University. You can follow her on twitter to hear more about her research interests https://twitter.com/sarapishdadian.

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.