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Bring Conscious Awareness to Your Actions

Human bodies are exceptionally good at making complicated things routine, like driving cars down busy roadways at the same time that we’re singing along to music and adjusting the mirrors. This is really useful because it means I don’t have to waste my precious mental resources relearning everyday things, like how to move my hand to some food and bring it up to my mouth. Once I learn how to do it, my body just does it and I’m free to preserve my very precious resource of conscious attention for other really important things, like determining which of those things in the environment is safe or dangerous.

One side effect of this continuous automation system is that once something becomes routine, we basically lose sight of the fact that it’s happening. It’s almost like it becomes invisible and we forget we’re even doing it. This can be challenging when it comes to managing stress. Many people speed up when they feel stressed. They try to cope by getting busier and doing more things more quickly. When we cope like that over and over, without any conscious awareness of what we’re actually doing, we can end up making challenging situations even worse.

Here at Shift Cognitive Therapy + Assessment we work to help you tune in to the kinds of invisible thoughts and pressures that drive you to push yourself too hard, and to those behaviours you might still do even when you’d rather not be doing them. Learning how to pay better attention gives you the chance to make new choices, right now, to decide whether you want to continue performing habits that may be familiar but no longer helpful. Visit us at and see more about how we can help you change behaviours that are getting in your way.
Shift Cognitive Therapy + Assessment helps people to cope with stress, anxiety and depression.

The Teen Trap

We regularly see older teens and young adults who feel anxiety and worry when they think about taking their next steps towards school or career. They tell us they often feel bothered by physical symptoms of stress, like tension, irritability, headaches and anxiety, which makes sense – leaving the comfort of something you know well, like the high school or university you’ve attended for the past four years can feel like a scary thing.

As kids mature into their early adult years, more of their brain comes online, especially those parts that allow them to see the world from a broader perspective. They begin to see how hard the adults in their lives work to succeed and get things done, and they start becoming aware of how some folks do really well, while others struggle.

The ‘teenage’s trap’ is a mental one. It happens when young people put two and two together and realize that they will also have to face the struggles of adult life, but without the benefit of all those extra years of experience that adults rely on to reassure themselves that they’ll be okay because they’ve already made it through so many other challenges before. Young people often make the mistake of believing that they don’t have enough of what it takes to be successful and that’s when they start worrying and feeling the stress.

We work with adolescents in this situation all the time, helping them learn to cope with anxiety and worries and helping them understand that success in life isn’t the one-shot deal they often think it is, but rather the sum total of all the choices a person makes over many years and transcends any single effort that doesn’t go as planned. When young adults can lean in and really get into whatever is they’re doing right then, they’ll find that even the challenges bring their own reward and the anxious worry disappears.

Congratulations to Dr. Kristina Wilder!

rsz_wilder.jpgWe are very happy to congratulate Kristina on passing all of her exams and achieving the full license to practice as a Psychologist!

Dr. Kristina Wilder is now a full member of The College of Psychologists of Ontario, after passing all of her exams and completing the final steps of her formal, clinical training. We value Kristina’s active and thoughtful participation in the treatment and assessment aspects of our clinic and welcome her into the profession!

Kristina works with children, adolescents, adults, families and couples. Read more about her background here.

Introduction to Mindful Living

Next Group January 15 – February 19, 2015

Mindful LivingTake a step toward a greater quality of life with a seasoned teacher and cultivate your understanding of the basic principles of living mindfully. Over six weeks, our Intro to Mindful Living program guides participants through a variety of mindfulness practices in an open and supportive environment.



The workshop covers:

  • How to bring mindful awareness into everyday life
  • How to contain worries and be present in the moment
  • Tools for coping with adversity and life’s challenges

The course is open to all adults — no previous experience with mindfulness or meditation is required. Because mindful living reduces stress and the tendency to get stuck in automatic patterns of upsetting thoughts, it is especially helpful for people struggling with anxiety, depression post-traumatic stress, anger, chronic pain and grief.

$300.00 (Covered by most extended health benefit plans.)
Our next group will run on Thursday evenings, from 7 – 8 pm, starting January 15 through to February 19, 2015.

Call the office at 905-849-1288 for information or to register.
Shift Cognitive Therapy Oakville is a psychology practice that helps people learn to manage anxiety, stress and depression.

Nutrition as a First-Line Treatment for Mental Health? Believe it.

Everyone knows that eating well is good for you, but people (and scientists) are only at the beginning stages of realizing just how important good nutrition is. This is especially true in the area of mental health and mental illness. Dr. Julia Rucklidge, a Canadian clinical psychologist who is a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, offered a sobering review of her and others’ research demonstrating that nutrition may be more effective at treating depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD and post-traumatic stress disorder than the psychiatric medications Western medicine has relied upon for decades. She gave her talk at a recent TEDx conference earlier in 2014.

Dr. Rucklidge emphasized that in Western nations, the typical treatment for mental illnesses follows the established, ‘medical model,’ in which the usual first-step treatment is medication, followed by psychological therapies, followed – if at all – by other efforts, like diet and exercise. This type of approach has been our standard for decades, and for good reason: It tends to work – for physical illnesses. But Dr. Rucklidge summarizes research from over the past 10 – 15 years suggesting that this may not be the best approach for mental disorders. Citing a variety of clinical studies and the very important work of author Robert Whitaker (see his book Anatomy of an epidemic for a comprehensive and somewhat chilling assessment of the over-prescription of psychiatric medications), Dr. Rucklidge illustrates that despite the widespread use of very common psychiatric medications like the SSRIs and benzodiazepines for depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety, and the antipsychotics for schizophrenia, the prevalence of those disorders and the rates of impairment because of the symptoms of those disorders is going up instead of down! She asks:

“If a treatment is truly effective, then shouldn’t the rates of disorder and disability as a direct consequence of that illness be decreasing, rather than increasing?”

and highlights research findings showing that rates of recovery and relapse from depression are no better now than they were 50 years ago, despite our increasing use of antidepressant medications. If that’s not depressing, what is?

Dr. Rucklidge notes that from the traditional view depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia are viewed as serious conditions that require serious treatments, and nutrition plays only a very minor role, if any at all. Yet, she outlines the findings of a growing body of research showing that giving dietary supplements of micronutrients and minerals as a first-line treatment can yield greater benefits than traditional psychiatric medications. For example, she described her 2014 study of adults with ADHD who were randomly assigned to receive either micronutrients or placebo treatment over an 8-week trial. She found that those adults taking micronutrients:

  • were more than twice as likely to respond to treatment than those taking the placebo,
  • reported fewer symptoms of depression along with their ADHD
  • reported that their symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity reduced to normal, non-clinical levels and they reported their ADHD symptoms were, on the whole, less impairing in their lives.

Importantly, those who continued taking the micronutrients over the following year reported maintaining and sometimes improving on their original gains, and that the symptoms of those people who stopped taking the micronutrients or switched over to traditional stimulant medications worsened.

She also reported on the findings of two recent studies she and her colleagues did following the massive earthquakes in Christchurch, NZ in 2011 where they randomly assigned people struggling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress to receive one of two different micronutrient preparations (one of them at either a higher or lower dosage). Again, their results showed that the trauma symptoms of people all three groups reduced in intensity and, in the case of those people who took the higher dosage, the results were quite significant. The average rate of PTSD in the group at the start of the trial was 65%. After one month of treatment with micronutrients that number dropped to only 19%. Amongst those who chose to continue taking the micronutrients over the following year, the rates of PTSD dropped even further, to approximately 10%. By comparison, the rate of PTSD in those people in the control group (that is, those who did not receive any micronutrient treatments) did not change from its initial rate over the one-month trial. What explains these impressive results? According to Dr. Rucklidge “A well-nourished body and brain is better able to withstand ongoing stress and recover from illness.”

Dr. Rucklidge concludes her talk with the observation that poor nutrition is very likely a key contributor to the epidemic of mental illness striking Western populations. Her suggestion? Maybe it’s time to turn that traditional, medical model on its head: When people begin to exhibit symptoms it’s probably best to start by improving their diet and frequency of exercise first, to continue with effective psychological therapies, including CBT, second and then, if they still need the boost, to supplement with the lowest-possible dose of medication required to finish the job. How’s that for an innovative idea?

Congratulations to Siren Busch!

siren-buschWe are very happy to congratulate Siren on passing all of her exams and achieving the full license to practice as a Psychological Associate!

Psychological Associates are members of The College of Psychologists of Ontario and possess a masters degree in psychology. To become licensed, Psychological Associates will typically work in the field of psychology for a minimum of four years and then do an additional year of practice under the supervision of a registered psychologist, followed by the passing of three exams.

Siren is a valued member of the Shift Cognitive Therapy + Assessment team and works with adolescents and adults. Read more about her background here.

What is Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT)?

Emotion Focused Therapy for couples is a short-term therapy, usually lasting between 8 and 20 sessions. Research demonstrates that it is effective, with most outcome studies showing more than a 70% rate of recovery from marital distress in 10 – 12 sessions. The reason EFT works so well is that it directly addresses the three questions that we all want the answers to:

Do I matter to my partner?

Can I count my partner to be there for me?

Will my partner answer me when I call?

The answers to these three questions helps us to measure the security of our attachment connection in a relationship. Human beings are social creatures, so our ability to attach with others (that is, to create emotional connections) is one of our deepest and most automatic instincts; it’s a basis of our survival. We need to matter to other people, so we absolutely need safe, emotional, connections.

Using EFT and other models, Shift Cognitive Therapy + Assessment’s Oakville psychologists help provide a sense of safety in couples’ and family sessions, de-escalating conflicts and helping disengaged members to re-engage. There is no blame within our therapies, only efforts to bring partners and family members closer together so they can communicate what they really need from the relationship.

Often, this takes the form of ‘translating’ behaviours. For example, a husband might withdraw from his wife, seeing her angry face and hearing, “You’re never around!” We would work to help both partners appreciate what might be the wife’s true meaning, that is, protesting what she feels is the emotional distance between them, as if to say, “You’re SO important to me, but your distance feels like you don’t need me.” Shift psychologists understand that humans use detachment for emotional protection (e.g., “You can’t hurt me if I don’t allow myself to care.”) and focus on rebuilding damaged connections with the people we love and care about.

The video below, called the “Still Face Experiment: Dr. Edward Tronick” demonstrates a fundamental aspect of being human: the need to bond. The video shows a mother interacting with her happy baby. When the mother (instructed by researchers) shows the baby a still face—one that looks at the baby but shows no signs of really ‘seeing’ her—the baby quickly becomes distressed and tries everything she can to regain the connection with her mother. When allowed to interact again, the mother soothes the child, almost instantly, with a broad smile and the reassurance, “I’m here.”

Emotional separation triggers panic in mammals, while emotional connections release hormones that stimulate happiness and calm. Infant brains activate connection triggers by creating mental images of caregivers to think of when alone and upset. Adult brains continue to do this, but often transfer the power to soothe from their parents to their partners. While it’s normal for people in close relationships to argue, conflicts become problematic when members turn away, leaving the others feeling alone and unable to find comfort. In fact, the biological need for safe, emotional connections is so great that loneliness can increase blood pressure to the point where it can double the risk of heart attack and stroke in marital partners. Our therapy work is intended to help partners and families remain engaged. Feeling safe and secure with our loved ones, we can resolve almost any issue together.

Connections with others is critical. By helping couples to observe the patterns and vicious cycles that promote fear and distance between them, partners becomes better able to slow down their own reactions and allow more time to reflect on what each person needs within the relationship. EFT is useful for all couples, as well as family groups. We never lose that need to connect with the people we value, and that is at the heart of the couples and family therapies offered at Shift.

Click here to contact the clinic about help for problems in your relationships.

The Importance of Self-Regulation

CBC Radiodysregulated’s program Ideas aired a fascinating documentary on June 16 about the importance of helping children develop their capacity to self-regulate. The broad category of ‘self-regulation’ refers to a group of abilities that includes being aware of and able to change emotional states, moving the focus of attention from any one thing to any other thing, and controlling impulses long enough to get beyond momentary frustrations. Children who can’t regulate their behaviour effectively in a classroom, who can’t ‘switch gears’ and change their focus from recess back to math when the bell rings, and who can’t calm themselves when they feel stressed will struggle to fit in. Rejection from peers and disapproval from adults can be painful and lead to children internalizing the labels of being ‘broken’ and unwelcome, leading to needless suffering over the long-term.

The documentary featured psychologist and child development expert Dr. Stuart Shanker, who spoke about how rates of anxiety are on the rise in North American children. He speculated that might be related to pre-birth factors influencing brain development in utero, like maternal stress and exposure to neurotoxins, and also to the overuse of TV and video games, which “capture attention but do nothing to waken the senses.” Physical, emotional or sexual abuse in childhood can also leave a child’s defense systems on high alert.

Regardless of how it may come about, an overactive nervous system arouses the body’s fight-flight systems to the point where, in extreme cases, the ability to self-regulate and shut off arousal can become overworked. In Dr. Shanker’s terms, it’s like having a car’s gas pedal pushed to the floor for so long that the car loses the ability to brake.

A brain that is stressed (or over-aroused) will protect itself by conserving energy, shutting down other areas of functionaility that aren’t required for life-support, like the frontal lobes. We use the frontal lobes for problem-solving, planning how to make our way through challenges, and for regulating our emotions. See the problem? Children who are overstressed or unable to self-regulate effectively may find themselves unable to use the very parts of the brain that are needed to get along with others, solve complex academic problems like school assignments and social puzzles, like figuring out how to take a bathroom break when the teacher holds the hall pass. From this perspective, self-regulation is at the heart of a child’s ability to learn and function socially. Whereas hyper-aroused states turn on our alarm systems, calm states turn them off, reengaging our attention and learning systems, and enabling us to get something out of education and our time at school. This is at the heart of Shanker’s approach to helping kids self-regulate.

hardtimeShanker proposes that there’s no such thing as ‘a bad kid,’ and points out how people often judge and label children who struggle to fit in. It’s important, he says, for all the adults in a child’s life (that is, family, teachers and others) to be able to recognize and appreciate what that child is doing to self-regulate. For example, some kids need to move around to think; others may fidget as a way to self-soothe. While they may not look like they’re listening, they usually are. Other kids need time alone to collect themselves when they feel overwhelmed. It’s important to see those behaviours for what they are, namely strategies for coping with anxiety and stress, because hostility and inflexibility from adults only makes it worse. A solid psychological assessment can help parents and teachers understand a given child’s strengths and areas that need to be strengthened further.

Listen to the documentary yourself here. Check out Shanker’s book on helping children learn to self-regulate: Calm, Alert And Learning: Classroom Strategies For Self-regulation.
Shift Cognitive Therapy + Assessment Oakville is a psychology practice that helps kids and parents succeed.

New Fear of Flying Program Really Took Off!

Dr. Shulman and some of the group after the flight.


This spring saw the launch of the very first of Shift Cognitive Therapy + Assessment’s new Flying Without Fear program and it was an absolute success. Five people attended the 2-day workshop, which was held in our Oakville offices over 2 Saturdays at the end of April. A few weeks later, we rented an aircraft and flew as a group, taking an exciting tour over Niagara Falls.


Three people in the group had never flown before, two flew periodically, but with terrible fear and only with medication, and a sixth person who joined us for the flight hadn’t flown for many years. All were nervous about attending and almost all were convinced that they would be “the most” frightened. However, fears being what they are, those were exaggerations. Within a very short time, people found that they were in a supportive group of others who understood exactly what they were going through, and no one remained anxious for more than a few minutes.

People got comfortable with the size of the plane.

On Day 1 of the program, we learned about the body and why different people are more and less likely to panic when afraid. We also spent time understanding how perfectly smart and rational people can sometimes feel totally child-like and helpless when they think about flying. The group was reassured knowing they all had such similar types of experiences, despite coming from very different backgrounds in life. Much of that first day was devoted to learning a wide range of tools to use for coping with anxious thoughts and feelings, both before flying and when on the plane. Dr. Shulman challenged everyone to practice using their tools over the week.

At the start of Day 2 people very proudly reported what they had done to practice. One man went up the CN Tower, a place he had avoided for years because of fears he might panic in the elevator (he didn’t!) and a woman drove up the Hamilton Escarpment. She too had avoided going there for many years because of a fear that she might suddenly lose control of her car and crash through the guardrail (she didn’t!). A third person said she challenged her fears of germs and her tendency to ritualize about being prepared for everything by giving up control and eating a hot dog from a food cart downtown. While none of those activities were what most people would consider “dangerous,” they were frightening for those individuals in the group. Every person took great pride in their willingness to embrace discomfort and go for it, even though they felt afraid.

Capt. Joe R, a commercial pilot joined us for a portion of the session on Day 2, and answered people’s questions about flight. The most common included explanations of what turbulence is (just places where warmer and cooler air meet), how frequently airplanes and pilots are inspected and certified, explanations about how aircraft communicate with each other and with the ground, and what takeoff and landing are really like.

About 20 minutes into our flight. Neither of these people had ever flown before!

Early in June, three members of the group plus two others met at the Burlington Executive Airpark for our confirmation flight with Capt. Dave Babiak of DB Air Charters. This was where people really got to practice the tools they had learned. After a brief introduction to Capt. Dave we boarded his plane and spent more than hour on the ground practicing skills for relaxation and coping with anxious feelings and fears. Everyone felt some degree of fear over that time, ranging from mild nervousness to a more intense feeling of needing to escape from the cabin. In each case, Dr. Shulman worked with every member of the group individually and members of the group worked together to support each other. As expected, by the time we were scheduled to depart everyone gave the thumbs up and we taxied to the runway.

Within a few minutes, we were airborne and heading for a tour of Niagara Falls. Most people remained anxious during the first 5 minutes of the flight. Two people were still feeling afraid after 10 minutes, and only one person was still frightened at15 minutes. After that, every single person felt calm and free to enjoy the remainder of the flight without fear.

Our next program will take place April 11 & 18, 2015. Contact us at Shift for details and to guarantee your spot.
Shift Cognitive Therapy Oakville is a psychology practice that helps people learn to get over their fears.

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

We get stuck in habits because we do them automatically, without thought. Doing something differently requires that we bring our awareness to the process and keep working at the changes over time. Things stay the same when we don’t.

The poem below by the late Portia Nelson reflects this beautifully.

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters


I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.


I walk down another street.


From: There’s a hole in my sidewalk: The romance of self-discovery. (35th Anniversary Edition). (Beyond Words Publishing).
Shift Cognitive Therapy + Assessment helps people to change.

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