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The Three Questions

Blog PostBlog PostAuthor: Jon J Muth. Scholastic (2002).

Based on a story of the same name by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, Jon J Muth’s The Three QuestionsBlog Post invites readers to consider the very big mystery of why we are all here. Intended as a children’s book, but one that can be enjoyed by adults as well, Muth tells the story of a boy named Nikolai who is unsure about the right way to act. He looks to his animal friends for answers to three nagging questions: ‘When is the best time to do things?’ ‘Who is the most important one?’ and ‘What is the right thing to do?’ Each friend has their own ideas but it isn’t until Nikolai is faced with the challenge of helping someone else (in this case a mother panda and her baby) that he discovers his own answers.

The book features Muth’s signature style of water colour illustrations and is one of his many works that presents complex Zen Buddhist philosophies in ways that are accessible and easy for readers of all ages to grasp. His other series of books features Stillwater the panda and include Zen ShortsBlog Post, Zen Ties and Zen GhostsBlog Post. They are at once beautiful pieces of artwork and invitations to reflect on our own beliefs and the ways we choose to relate to other people. It is through this same lens that The Three QuestionsBlog Post crosses the line between children’s book and useful clinical tool.

Common to each of anxiety, worry and depression is the tendency to ruminate, that is, to get lost within our own thoughts, to dwell on the possibility of future concerns, to get stuck in endless loops of doubt and dread and, in the process, lose touch with the real opportunities for calm and connection that are always right there in front of us. In answering Nikolai’s three questions, Muth offers a simple set of lessons that, when practiced, provides an escape from the ruminative traps of anxiety and depression and an opportunity to reconnect with the present moment and those things that really matter.

 

 

 

www.shiftct.com
Shift Cognitive Therapy Oakville is a psychology practice with a focus on anxiety, depression and change.

The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up For Yourself at Work and in Relationships

Blog PostBlog PostAuthor: Randy J. Paterson. New Harbinger (2000).

If you feel guilty saying ‘no’ to unreasonable requests or shy away from expressing your needs and opinions; if you find yourself passively going along with the crowd instead of doing what you want; or if you find yourself exploding angrily after long periods of holding your tongue, then you might be struggling with assertiveness.

Being assertive means communicating your needs, thoughts and opinions in ways that are respectful and preserve the relationship between yourself and the other person. It means really being with another person, listening and connecting with them, and taking the chance to expose more of your true self. Many people never learn to assert themselves and struggle with the consequences of resentment and feeling unappreciated and misunderstood. Not realizing that unassertiveness is the result of our own habits of mistaken thinking we often blame others for our discomfort and fears, weakening relationships and increasing the likelihood of destructive conflicts.

Randy Paterson’s The Assertiveness WorkbookBlog Post is a useful resource to help readers develop the tools and skills necessary to begin communicating more effectively and more honestly. It explains the differences between aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive and assertive forms of communication and offers a variety of exercises to build confidence through regular practice. Coming from a cognitive behavioural perspective, Paterson discusses how thoughts, feelings and behavioural habits all contribute to the ineffective strategies of hiding from and dominating others that people who are unassertive typically rely on. He teaches readers to recognize faulty beliefs that tell us we are inadequate or unworthy of other people’s attention, and structures behavioural experiments to begin changing such ideas through positive practice. He also provides detailed information about how to turn disruptive conflicts with others into constructive experiences that build and strengthen relationships.

The psychologists at Shift Cognitive Therapy regularly work with people who struggle to express themselves and may recommend this book to you as a part of your treatment.

 

 

www.shiftct.com
Shift Cognitive Therapy Oakville is a psychology practice with a focus on change.

 

Core Beliefs – The ‘I’ That is ‘Me’

If you ask people how old they feel, many will say they feel younger than their years, as if they’re still a kid, existing somehow within the body of a much older person. This happens because we all have an ‘I’ existing somewhere within us that never ages and is somehow separate from our physical body. This ‘I’ is the ‘Me’ that we know ourselves to be, the collection of stories and beliefs that have accumulated over the whole of our lives and contribute to our impressions about who we are and what we can and cannot do.

You can get in touch with that ‘Me’ simply by considering whether you would be willing to do something outrageous. Would you go sky-diving right now? Get on stage and sing, dance or tell jokes in front of a hundred people? Would you run a marathon? Would you switch careers and do something totally different? Regardless of whether that little voice in your head said “Sure” or “Never!” the fact that your little voice said anything at all demonstrates that you too have a collection of stories that tells you who You are and what is and isn’t possible in your life. Psychologists call these core beliefs.

Core beliefs are formed in our earliest years when we have only the most basic ability to understand the complexities of the world. When we feel afraid as children, when we’re separated from our caregivers or when they’re angry, our young brains instantly create terribly unsophisticated stories to explain why those things happened. The theme of the stories often goes something like ‘There’s something wrong with ME that made that painful thing happen. It was my fault.’ (Of course, the stories can be positive as well.) The brain accepts those stories as The Truth, carving them into the granite of our knowledge base, and we move on from there forever believing that that is just how things are.

Core beliefs are tenacious and sticky, meaning that they hold onto their existence with a fierce intensity, bending facts to fit them, blinding vision so we cannot see things that don’t fit and convincing us in so many ways that they are the real truth. Negative core beliefs try to convince us that no matter how much we achieve in life or which positive things happen, for some reason or another those things simply don’t count, we’re not really that good, strong or worthy. The beliefs influence our actions, resulting in choices that seem only to confirm what the beliefs say is true.

Examining and changing disruptive core beliefs, for example through cognitive behaviour therapy with a psychologist, can be a rewarding process. The world can suddenly seem much more open and available when we realize that the ‘Me’ I always thought I was is not the only ‘Me’ I can be.

 

www.shiftct.com
Shift Cognitive Therapy Oakville is a psychology practice with a focus on change.

Reinventing Your Life: The Breakthrough Program to End Negative Behavior and Feel Great Again

Blog PostAuthors: Jeffrey E. Young and Janet S. Klosko. Plume (1994).Blog Post

  • Why am I always choosing partners who are no good for me?
  • Why can’t I say no without feeling guilty?
  • Why do I always feel like what I do is never good enough?

Questions like these and the problems they cause are often the result of stable beliefs that repeatedly move us to do some things and not others, even when doing so causes pain and unhappiness. Psychologists Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko call these beliefs ‘lifetraps’ and created the workbook Reinventing Your Life to help people identify and change these destructive patterns. Also known as schemas (pronounced ‘skee-mas’), lifetraps are deep-rooted beliefs about ourselves and the world that we learn in childhood and gradually come to view as ‘Me.’

A good example of this is your own name. When you were born into the world someone gave you that name and, over time, told you and showed you what kind of person you were. ‘Good people do this but not that’ they might have said, or perhaps someone yelled at you when they were stressed out. Over time, your young brain took all of those hundreds of thousands of experiences and cobbled together a complex model that gave you a sense of your identity and your worth as a person. Over your lifetime that sense felt increasingly familiar and you lived as if it was ‘You.’

Using understandable language and case studies as examples, the authors explain how all children have basic needs for safety, connection, self-esteem and self-expression. When the environment allows for those needs to be met, most children develop well enough. However, when a child’s environment is consistently lacking lifetraps can take root. For example, some children don’t have the experience of feeling precious and special; they grow up without a sense of being loved or valued. Some of these children may develop what Young and Klosko call the Emotional Deprivation lifetrap and come to believe that no matter what they do, they will never get the love they need. As adults people with this lifetrap may find themselves being distant in close relationships, not telling partners what they need, and blaming partners for not knowing.

Other lifetraps cause people to consistently believe that they can never truly trust another person, that they are a failure no matter how many successes they experience, that nothing they do is ever good enough, and that the needs of others are always more important than their own.

The real value of this workbook comes in the many tools the authors provide to help readers identify and change their own lifetraps. Each lifetrap is given its own chapter and a questionnaire to determine its applicability. Each chapter also contains useful information readers can use to help change behaviour to change beliefs.

The psychologists at Shift Cognitive Therapy are skilled in working with lifetraps and schemas, and may recommend this book to you as a useful part of your treatment.

 

www.shiftct.com
Shift Cognitive Therapy Oakville is a psychology practice with a focus on change.

Where is My Mind?

‘Where are my keys? My glasses? My wallet? Where was I going just now?’ These are questions that we ask ourselves all the time, to check-in, to make sure that we know we have what we should and are still headed in the right direction. They help us to orient ourselves because the events of daily life are always nudging us off course. ‘Where is my mind at this moment?’ is another orienting question, but one that we don’t usually ask as often.

The mind has a mind of its own and no matter where we put our focus it inevitably moves on to something else. That the mind does this so automatically is perfectly consistent with many other bodily processes that also happen outside of our conscious control. For example, we don’t typically know how to grow hair and fingernails, the body just does it. Thinking happens similarly: You can decide to think about something specific, like the name of your teacher from grade 3 or the route to a particular store, but as soon as you release control of your mind, it will take off somewhere all on its own.

The challenge for people who struggle with anxiety, worry or depression occurs because the body’s fight-flight alarm and defence systems activate all by themselves, depending on what the mind happens to be thinking about. When the mind is off in the future, thinking about difficult things that might happen, the body feels fear. When the mind is back in the past, thinking about difficult things that have already happened, we feel emotional pain. These physical and emotional reactions can occur even when there are no actual threats or dangers in front you in the present moment. This is the same process that allows you to almost taste or smell your favourite food even if you’re only imagining a plate of it floating in front of you.

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Try this exercise to begin coping better with anxiousness and depression. Find a place where you can sit quietly for a few minutes. Starting with your finger on the word ‘Present’ above, move it like a needle on a gauge so it’s consistent with where the focus of your mind is meandering to. You might be surprised by how much your mind jumps from past to present to future and back.

Use this same exercise the next time you feel anxious, stressed, worried or depressed. Check-in with your thinking and see where your mind it at. If it’s off in the future or back in the past, bring it back to whatever is happening right now, in the present moment. The present moment is the only one we have and it’s the only one we need to cope with, ever.

 

 

www.shiftct.com
Shift Cognitive Therapy Oakville is a psychology practice with a focus on change.

The Role of Attachment in Infancy on Later Mental and Physical Health

The opening line from an award-winning video (see below) produced by two Ryerson University psychology students says it all when it comes to the importance of mental health: “It’s not possible to talk about health without including mental health.” Approximately 1 in every 5 Canadians experiences a mental health issue at some point in their lives and the quality of early childhood relationships can both buffer against and contribute directly to such problems. The video, which won the students a scholarship from the Psychology Foundation of Canada, is about the role of attachment in infancy and physical health outcomes later in life.

Attachment’ refers to a system that is hard-wired into humans and other primates that seeks to maintain emotional closeness and physical contact with parents and other caregivers. An obvious physical benefit for very young primates is that proximity to a caregiver greatly increases the chances of surviving infancy. However, from a longer-term perspective, these early, emotional connections contribute to brain structures that enable the individual to be resilient to emotional stressors over the entire lifespan, an important feature considering that issues like anxiety and depression, which can affect both mental and physical health, often begin at times of high stress and significant life events.

Attachment manifests through a caregiver’s responsiveness to an infant’s emotional needs and bids for connections. When infants feel uncomfortable emotions, like sadness, fear and anxiety, they reach out to their caregivers. When caregivers consistently ease that discomfort, children feel soothed and learn that there is a safe haven in the caregiver that the infant can return to when feeling upset. Over time, repeated experiences like this become encoded within a young child’s brain as mental models that say ‘I can handle this,’ ‘I’m not alone in this,’ and ‘I am a worthy person.’ Interestingly, over time, this consistent and positive attention from the caregiver also contributes to the development of brain structures that enable the child to regulate its own emotionality in times of stress and upset. The link between attachment, mental health and overall health come from research that consistently shows that infants who have less certain (also known as ‘insecure’) attachments to their caregivers are more likely to experience colds, have more frequent visits to family physicians, and are more likely to experience depression and withdrawal, anxiety and physical disease, compared to infants with more certain (also known as ‘secure’) attachments to their caregivers.

Child-health experts featured in the video advise that attachment can be enhanced by even small changes in parenting. For instance, they suggest that parents can greatly boost their child’s mental wellbeing and physical health by protecting them from stressors that the child is too young to handle, by striving to enjoy the child and to express that enjoyment both implicitly and explicitly, and by working to ensure that the backbone of the family remains strong by also attending to the caregiver’s own needs and the needs of the parents’ own relationship(s).

 

 

www.shiftct.com
Shift Cognitive Therapy is a psychology practice with a focus on change.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Blog PostBlog Post
Authors: Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney. Penguin Press (2011).

Every once in a while a book comes along that really helps to make sense of why things happen as they do. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength is one of them.

Drawing from decades of social psychology research, psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and journalist John Tierney provide interesting and easily digestible explanations of what we know about human willpower; not just how we struggle with it, but how we can harness it to get us what we want. They explain, for example, that the will is like any other strength: it has a limited supply of energy, that energy is depleted as we use it, and we have a single stockpile of it to use on every one of the various challenges we face. When you appreciate that we spend close to four hours each day trying to control our thoughts and emotions, resisting urges and maintaining efforts towards chosen goals, it’s easy to understand why it can be so hard to find the energy or drive to tackle other challenges, like starting to exercise or finishing chores we don’t really want to do.

The authors present a number of proven strategies to increase the chances of success when changing routines. These include making sure you keep your engine fueled with adequate sleep and quality food, changing only one thing at a time, and learning to ‘play offence instead of defence’ by using limited willpower resources to create sustainable positive routines rather than spending valuable resources scrambling to cope in emergencies.

Making positive changes in life is hard enough. Give yourself a leg up by working with your strengths, not against them. Call us if you continue to struggle. Psychologists are experts at behaviour change.

 

www.shiftct.com
Shift Cognitive Therapy Oakville is a psychology practice with a focus on change.

How Do I Want to Feel?

This is an important question to get into the habit of asking because by asking it we learn that we can actively change how we feel. Yet it’s a question most people often don’t consider because of the idea that feelings aren’t really under our control. In some ways, that’s correct since the activation of feelings happens automatically: When something angers us, we feel angry; when something saddens us, we feel sad, etc. Emotions are biological experiences that just happen.

However, the cognitive model, on which cognitive behaviour therapy is based, proposes that thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all linked, each one able to influence the others.

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 From this perspective, we have the ability to change how we feel by changing our thinking or our behaviour. A concrete example will illustrate the process:

A man is feeling stressed one morning about a presentation he has to give at work that afternoon. He realizes that he’s walking around his house with a furrowed brow, sighing heavily and utterly preoccupied with how challenging his presentation might be. Aware that there are several hours between that moment and when his presentation is scheduled to begin, he asks himself the question ‘How do I want to feel?’ and decides he wants to feel calm instead. With that as his goal, the man begins the process of changing his behaviours to ones that are more consistent with feeling calm. He relaxes his face and other tense muscles, he takes note of his breathing and tries to breathe more calmly, and he slows himself down so he isn’t stressing himself further by rushing. He also changes what he is thinking about to better reflect the state of calm he is looking for. Instead of continuing to imagine all the terrible futures he might encounter, he focuses on the things around him in that moment; he also thinks about a recent time in his life when he felt happy. Because he knows where he wants to end up, the man is able to change his course and get himself there. It isn’t easy, though. When he stops focusing on calmness, his body occasionally drifts back into the stress. But knowing about the cognitive model, he is able to return to that state of calm as many times as he needs to.

Decide for yourself how you want to feel then take the time to change your thinking and your behaviour to bring about that desired state of feeling. We can all do this.

Understanding Depression

Almost everyone uses the words “I’m depressed” to describe how they are feeling from time to time. However, used in this way what it means is often unclear, referring to anything from feeling down or ‘blue’ to being stressed or run down. It is often the way people describe their feelings when they are not even sure what it is they are feeling (e.g., “I’m just not feeling like my usual self. Maybe I’m depressed?”). Everyday feelings of depressed mood become problematic when they interfere with normal functioning and last for at least two weeks. Clinical depression can affect both the body and mind, changing how a person thinks and behaves, and how his/her body functions. It can disrupt some of the body’s most basic systems, making the person feel unwell.

Signs and Symptoms of Depression:

  • Feeling worthless, helpless or hopeless
  • Overwhelming feelings of sadness or grief
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Increased alcohol and drug use
  • Staying home from work or school
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Thoughts of death or suicide.

Causes of Depression

There is no single cause of depression. Rather, a number of factors make some people more prone to it than others. These include upsetting life events, a genetic or family predisposition and psychological factors, like a negative or pessimistic view of life.  Depression tends to recur. Between 50% and 85% of people who have had one episode of depression will experience others in their lifetime.

Effects of Untreated Depression

People who are depressed cannot simply “pull themselves together” and feel better. They often delay seeking treatment because of concerns that having those feelings means they are giving up or are weak. These beliefs are untrue. In fact, more than 17% of American adults will experience depression at least once in their lifetime1 and the World Health Organization lists depression as the 4th leading cause of disability worldwide2. Untreated, depression can interfere with relationships and one’s ability to function at work, and can increase the chances of drug or alcohol addiction. In severe cases it can also result in suicide. Without treatment clinical depression can last for months or years.

Systems Affected by Depression:

  • Sleep-wake cycle
  • Hormonal system
  • Stress response system
  • Immune system
  • Gastrointestinal system

Notes:
1 Blazer, DG, Kessler, RC, McGonagle, KA, & Swartz, MS. (1994). The prevalence and distribution of major depression in a national community sample: The national comorbidity survey. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 151, 979-986.
2 Depression. Retrieved June 26, 2008, from www.who.int/mental_health/management/ depression/definition/en/

The Trouble With Automatic Thoughts

When we begin working with new clients, the psychologists at Shift Cognitive Therapy focus first on identifying why problems are occurring. A significant component of this process involves teaching clients to appreciate their patterns of automatic thinking. We have some control over our thoughts (if you want proof, go ahead and think of something, then change your focus and think of something else) and we use that to harness our brainpower every day. But there is another part of our thinking that we can’t influence quite as directly. An example of this can be drawn from the everyday process that our brain uses to categorize things.

If you saw a person walking a teacup poodle down the street your brain would instantly match that animal with others you have encountered before and let you know that what you were seeing was a ‘dog.’ It would do the same thing if you saw a much larger animal, like a Great Dane because the brain possesses a mental model for ‘dogs’ that is broad enough to include both breeds. The brain consults this model all by itself, without any need for conscious thinking (this process is automatic because it’s part of the life support system we call the Fight Flight Reaction). The brain is continually taking in new information, sorting and collating it, and learning new things along the way. It is also using that same information to confirm what it already believes to be true.

Automatic thinking can be dysfunctional when it’s based on old or incorrect information. For example, a lesson learned in childhood that one is weak might no longer apply once the person grows into an adult and learns how to ask for what they need. However, the brain might be so accustomed to believing that lesson is true that it no longer questions it and continues to act as if it is true. Such thoughts can influence behaviour in negative ways, resulting in life problems that appear to reinforce the incorrect belief and contribute to further challenges.

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Once our psychologists understand the specific nature of each client’s automatic thinking patterns, we can begin the process of teaching skills to challenge such thoughts and develop more adaptive ways of living.

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