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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.

Dr. Steve Barker, Shift’s NEW Director of Assessment Services


Shift Cognitive Therapy + Assessment is very proud to welcome Dr. Stephen Barker to our team of clinicians. Dr. Barker brings his 40 years of clinical experience and expertise to the Shift team as our Director of Assessment Services, a new position that will help us to provide cutting-edge psychological assessments for children, teens and young adults.

Parents often struggle to understand why their child isn’t succeeding at school, socially, or more broadly in life. The focus of Dr. Barker’s work is to design assessments that give clear explanations about whatever might be getting in the child’s way, and reports that communicate that information to parents in a manner that is clear, easy to understand, and that leads to concrete solution ideas to resolve the issues and help children reach their fullest potential.

We welcome Dr. Barker and will be building our team of assessment specialists over the coming months. Learn about the approach behind our assessments here.


Dr. Stephen Barker, Ph.D., C.Psych., Director of Assessment Services

rsz_20140225_143341A registered psychologist, Dr. Barker has worked primarily with children and adolescents over the past 40 years. This work has involved providing extensive individual therapy for children, consultation to other providers and a long history of doing assessments. Dr Barker has wide experience in many settings including: a residential children’s mental health setting, a group home, a hospital setting, family court and a major school board. In addition, Dr Barker was a Course Director in Educational Theory at York University.

Dr Barker has been in private practice for the past 20 years, where he has developed a comprehensive and unique way to understand how psychological assessments can help children to succeed. His approach focuses on evaluating each child’s functioning in three broad areas known to contribute to success. The guiding principle behind his model is that every assessment should help parents know what to do to help their child become successful, and teach parents how to do it.

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.

“Exercise is Medicine and Physicians Need to Prescribe It!”

We are what we doThat was the gist of a recent article in the Toronto Star’s Weekend Life section. It spoke about the growing list of scientific evidence showing that exercise “is the much needed vaccine to prevent chronic disease and premature death.” While you might say that doesn’t exactly qualify as ‘news’ (who among us didn’t already know that exercise was good for you?) it might be news to some. The article went on to cite the disturbing statistic that “only 15% of Canadian adults are meeting the recommended guideline of 150 minutes of exercise a week.”

Why is there a disconnect between what we actually do and what we know is good for us? The article suggests that a small part of the answer relates a cultural desire for quick fixes that makes it easier for patients and their doctors to focus on cures instead of disease prevention. The bigger reason, it said, has to do with the fact that simply telling someone to change existing habits doesn’t offer enough guidance or direction on how to actually do that. People tend to need support, and maybe even step-by-step instructions, on how to go about changing long-term habits.

Psychologists are experts at helping people change. It is a big part of what we do. We know all about tapping into motivation and willpower, and about how bad habits can persist when we don’t replace them with intentions to change and the actions required to bring that change about. In particular, psychologists know about our built-in habit mechanisms and how to tap into them to bring about lasting change.

Built-in habit mechanisms? Yes, we all possess a brain that frees up processing power by converting complicated behavioural actions into routines and habits that we can perform with barely any thought. Consider driving a car as an example. It’s a highly complex act that many of us are able to do almost automatically. The brain builds the routines and, when we sit behind the wheel those routines come up to the surface and we just drive. Knowing how to use that habit mechanism makes it easier to create new routines, like exercising regularly.

Say you want to walk for 30 minutes, three times a week. The habit mechanism is already in place to do the heavy lifting. All you really need to do with your conscious effort is to set the stage so the mechanism works for you instead of against you. This might take the form of setting the goal of walking by:

  • Scheduling a 30 minute ‘Walking’ appointment in your calendar, with a reminder, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
  • Writing “I want to walk for 30 minutes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday” on a piece of paper and placing that paper in a spot that you see every day.
  • Place your running shoes beside your front door.

Although none of these acts requires much effort on their own, the habit mechanism magnifies their impact by prompting you to take further actions toward walking every time you look at your note or see the shoes by the door. The act of scheduling the time to exercise also pushes you to follow through because it reminds you that walking is a priority in your day.


Because the work of prioritizing the activity, getting the shoes out and finding the time to walk has already been done, the only thing you have to do when your ‘Walking’ appointment arrives is to put your shoes on and step outside. Once you’re outside and walking, the physical and mental benefits of exercise make it easier to continue until you’ve hit your 30-minute goal.

The key to changing behaviour is creating new routines. We can increase our potential for change by mapping out the various steps that will lead us toward the desired routine AND by creating cues that minimize the effort needed to take each step.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
Shift Cognitive Therapy Oakville is a psychology practice that helps people learn to change habits and behaviour.

Dr. Kristina Wilder, Ph.D., C.Psych. (Supervised Practice)

dr-kristina-wilderDr. Kristina Wilder works with clients of all ages and backgrounds, including children, adolescents, adults, couples, and families. She brings enthusiasm, an energetic personality and a sense of fun to her work. Kristina believes in working transparently with clients, collaborating to meet their goals. She works with a variety of issues, including anxiety, trauma and abuse, depression, and relationship challenges.

Kristina received her Ph.D. in Psychology from St. John’s University in New York, an experience that helped her to be mindful of diverse client backgrounds.  She is skillful in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). She is also experienced in Psychodynamic therapy.  With a wide range of tools, Kristina customizes her approach to client needs, helping each person reach their unique aims. She is a member of the Ontario Psychological Association and enjoys camping, Lego and quilting.

Siren Busch, M.A., C.Psych.Assoc.

siren-buschSiren Busch is a Psychological Associate registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario to practice in Counseling, Clinical and Forensic Psychology. Siren is passionate about supporting adolescents and adults struggling with anxiety, stress, depression, anger, substance use, or a trauma history. She is fluent in both German and English.

Graduating with a Master’s Degree in clinical psychology in 2000 from the University of Hamburg, Germany, Siren came to Canada in shortly thereafter to pursue her career in psychology. Her professional background includes positions with the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services, the University Health Network and most recently with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Siren is a member of both the Ontario and Canadian Psychological Associations and the services she provides are covered by most extended health benefits plans.

Managing Traumatic Stress Following a Mass Transportation Disaster

A mass transportation disaster involves the community as a whole, in addition to those who are directly involved. Families, friends, and residents of a community tied to a transportation disaster often experience a ripple effect of grief and sadness. Emotional responses following any traumatic event  may vary from person to person as each individual deals with death, serious injury, and loss differently.

Common reactions

There are many common reactions among those managing traumatic events. Below is a list of a few common reactions. It is important to keep in mind that these responses are normal and even expected by those impacted.

  • Recurring dreams or nightmares
  • Repetitive thoughts about the events surrounding the disaster
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Repeated upsetting memories about the traumatic experience
  • Feelings of anger at the loss
  • Feelings of confusion and blaming of those associated with the event
  • Feeling emotionally numb and withdrawn
  • Loss of enjoyment in usually pleasurable activities
  • Becoming overprotective of family members
  • Social isolation
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Increased conflict with family members, close friends, or coworkers.

How you can cope

A mass transportation disaster can leave survivors feeling helpless, scared, overwhelmed, and unsettled. Below are some suggestions of how to cope with the aftermath of this kind of disaster.

  • Address problems one at a time, prioritizing for importance. This will help to minimize feeling overwhelmed.
  • Put off any major decisions. Allow yourself time to grieve and recover as you may not be able to make the best decisions when you are dealing with grief and loss.
  • Allow yourself to feel sad and grieve. When you have the chance, take time to reflect on what has occurred. Talking with others can be helpful and remind you that you are not alone with your stress or depression.
  • Practice healthy habits. Help yourself with self-care. This can include eating well and getting enough sleep. This is especially important in times of high stress.
  • Reestablish a routine. This can include regular meal times, exercising, or going to bed at a certain time. These will help you feel a sense of order as well as a sense of calm.
  • Anticipate that strong feelings may return on anniversaries. For example, one-month, six-month, or one-year anniversaries of the incident may bring up intense feelings once again. Try to spend this time with family and friends to support and care, rather than spend it alone. For more information about coping with disaster anniversaries, please visit the APA’s Help Center Article Anxiety and Sadness May Increase on Anniversary of Traumatic Event.

How family and friends can help

In the most troubling and uncertain of times, it is very helpful for family members and friends to support loved ones who may be struggling. Some tips for those close to a survivor of a mass transit disaster are listed below.

  • Encourage the survivor to seek out other survivors or others who have been in similar situations to find understanding and support.
  • Encourage the survivor to find a support group for disaster survivors to talk with one another and voluntarily share thoughts, anxieties, and fears resulting from their shared experience.
  • You and the survivor should avoid untimely, inaccurate, and ongoing media coverage of the accident. It can be unsettling for survivors to relive and witness the events they have been through.
  • Identify and consider what factors most troubling to the survivor or could remind them of their disaster experience and limit their exposure to it.

Recovery and the future

Recovery can take time. Life may feel different. It is possible to move on and find new meaning, purpose, and positive emotions. APA’s Road to Resilience brochure describes steps that you can take to build resilience – the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. For more tips on how to manage stress after a mass transportation disaster, please visit the APA’s HelpCenter article How to Manage Traumatic Stress.

If you notice persistent feelings of distress or hopelessness or if you are struggling to attend to your daily responsibilities, consult with a licensed and experienced mental health professional. Psychologists and other mental health professionals are trained to help you successfully manage life’s hardships and pursue a plan for a more positive and meaningful future.



Thanks to psychologists Ester Cole, PhD and Denruth Lougeay, PhD for their assistance with this article. (Article adapted from original.)

Prepared July 2013.


American Red Cross Guide for Families Affected by Transportation Disasters. GuideForFamiliesAffectedByTransportationDisasters.pdf

Raphael, B. A Primary Prevention Action Programme: Psychiatric Involvement Following a Major Rail Disaster. Omega Journal of Death and Dying, 10(3): pp. 211-226.
Call Shift Cognitive Therapy for help with depression and anxiety in Oakville.

Make Your Choices, Whatever They Might Be

On the cusp of the Canada Day long weekend it’s hard not to tFlaghink about perspective – you might view this as the second long weekend of the summer or the second-last; if the weather is hot and sunny you might say it will have been a “good” weekend or a “bad” one if the weather is wet. Regardless of the way you choose to see it, the choice is ultimately yours.

People often wonder about that, whether they truly have any choice about how they view things, because thoughts occur so quickly – almost automatically. This is true. As our sense organs perceive elements of the environment around us, the brain is constantly labeling, judging and understanding everything that’s coming in. Look around you right now and you might be able to appreciate that somewhere, deep inside your head, your brain is quietly rhyming off the names of everything it’s seeing and hearing. But even as it’s doing that, you can also purposely cause certain thoughts to come to mind. For example, think right now about what you did on last year’s Canada Day long weekend. Now think about a summer weekend from your childhood. You have just taken control over your brain!

Because thoughts and feelings are so closely connected (see earlier articles on Reacting AND Responding, Anxiety – Automatic Protection) our emotions and physiology often react to sensory information before we’re aware of it consciously. This can have the effect of leaving us feeling hijacked and out of control. But when you remember that you always have a choice about how you want to view things you can reframe those instantaneous reactions into something that feels more empowering.

A client recently provided a good example of this when he worried that his vacation might be ruined because he had to take his computer and work phone away with him on holidays. Knowing that he absolutely had to stay in touch over the break, he felt better by focusing instead on the fact that technology made it easy for him to be away on vacation AND periodically remain connected with important tasks back at work.

Choose to have a good holiday.
Shift Cognitive Therapy Oakville is a psychology practice that helps people learn to manage anxiety, stress and depression.

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