What is Mindfulness?

“Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to things as they are.”  –Williams, Teasdale, Segal, & Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness has its origins in ancient Buddhist teachings that have been practiced for centuries and recently secularized and integrated into Western clinical psychological and medical practices. In this context, it has garnered extensive research support for its efficacy in treating a number of clinical concerns over the last two decades. Mindfulness meditation is a central component of all mindfulness practices and therapies, such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, originating from Vipassana or insight meditation. Mindfulness meditation emphasizes cultivating awareness in the present moment by focusing on one aspect of focus, such as one’s breath or noticing the physical sensations of sitting in a chair. It emphasizes the mindful attitudes of acceptance, curiosity, non-striving, and non-judgment, promoting mental skills that over time contribute to greater focus, compassion, self-awareness, self-regulation, objectivity, and quiescence, among other robust psychological and neurophysiological benefits.

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) integrates the foundational principles of mindfulness meditation with components of cognitive behaviour therapy, teaching participants to shift their relationship with difficult thoughts, emotions, behaviour, and physical sensations. Mindfulness is a skill that can be learned by anyone and takes time to practice and consolidate like any other acquired skill. Mindfulness meditation can be adapted to accommodate learners of all levels and mental styles, making it accessible to everyone.  

The Mind/Body Connection

Here are some discussions from recent graduate coursework…

What is your understanding or philosophy/beliefs of the mind/body connection?

I consider the brain and body to be one interconnected system. Our physiological functioning influences our conscious and subconscious mind, and vice versa. Research demonstrates that the vagus nerve is one physiological mechanism that facilitates bidirectional communication between the brain and body (Porges, 2018). With respect to the mind/body connection, our systems are intimately interconnected, with our thoughts being psychoactive in some respects and capable of altering neurochemistry, and our physiology also influencing our mental activity (Chopra, 2020). Studies in the neurobiology of trauma have revealed how conscious and subconscious traumatic memories and beliefs are uniquely stored in the left and right hemispheres of the brain respectively (Fisher, 2017), as well as in our physical bodies and bodily tissue (Ogden & Fisher, 2015), which illustrates this bidirectional mind/body connection. Such teachings in western evidence-based practices complement my studies in eastern yogic traditions which maintain similar fundamental beliefs. These perspectives inform my holistic view of the mind/body connection.

How might a person’s daily mental practices influence and/or affect their physical health and longevity?

The mental and physical activities we consistently practice grow respective neural and physiological systems to support such activities, which we now understand due to neuroplasticity (Shapiro, 2020). Mental activities, such as thoughts, can have psychoactive effects and can influence the release of neurotransmitters (Chopra, 2020), especially in cases of consistent mental events such as meditation or rumination. Research has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation positively influences neural mechanisms involved in attention and emotion regulation, awareness, memory, sensory integration, and executive cognitive functions (Lavretsky, 2020). Just as meditation can restore telomeres –the encasing of our genetic strands, thus having a protective, anti-aging effect, so too, rumination reduces the length of telomeres, thereby advancing the effects of cellular aging and increasing the risk of disease (Goldstein, 2020). Such findings reflect the impact mental events have on one’s physical health and longevity. Thus, mindfulness, “talk therapy,” and other healthy mental habits have the potential to be much more impactful than they may initially seem.

This appreciation of the mind/body connection influences my heartful approach to psychotherapy.

8 Tips for Youth in the Era of Online Counselling During COVID

Youth may not be as comfortable with structured online appointments as their parents who are more experienced with Zoom work meetings. Online appointments can feel more direct and younger clients can feel intimidated, put on the spot, self-conscious, distracted, and/or nervous about meeting a professional online for the first time, which can lead to a less than inspiring first appointment. Here are some tips to help younger people adjust to online appointments.

  1. Request a free consultation before you book an appointment to get a sense of the therapist’s approach, what steps are involved in online appointments, and to prepare yourself for what to expect. It can help to have a parent guide the consultation while their teen listens and adds any questions they may have.
  2. Know that nervousness is very normal. It can take some time to get used to these kinds of meetings and for you and your therapist to get to know each other and find a rhythm. Think of it in terms of a learning process in which you’re experimenting and learning what does and doesn’t fit for you. Give it a few tries.
  3. Let your therapist know how you’re feeling. It’s important to provide feedback to make the most of your therapy and let your therapist know how to best support you.
  4. Let your therapist lead if you’re feeling on the spot. You’re not expected to always know what to say or have the right answer. Online meetings can sometimes feel more intensive or fast-paced, like we should always be talking, which can cause us to forget that a counselling session can be a time for reflection and brainstorming. You’re welcome to take time to think about things during the appointment. Sometimes it helps to break the ice by simply saying you need a moment to think something over.
  5. If things feel rushed, it could also be a good opportunity to explore a mindfulness breathing exercise together with your therapist to slow things down. (It’s ok to go off-camera for these exercises if that’s more comfortable.)
  6. Feel free to request telephone session or turn your camera off if seeing yourself on video –or being seen– is too distracting or uncomfortable. This might be a way to “warm up” to future video appointments.
  7. Consider having some fidget toys and adult colouring nearby to use at the time of your appointment. Get comfortable! Cozy up with a cup of tea and a blanket. Sit comfortably. Allow yourself to fidget if you need to. These strategies can help deflect nervous energy and replicate some of the experience you’d have if you were meeting with your therapist in-person.
  8. Know that your therapist is genuinely interested in connecting with you and getting to know what fits best for you. They have your best interests at heart.

The Principle of Organicity: You Already Have the Answers Within You

In therapy, there is a theory called “the principle of organicity” which was introduced to me through my training in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, developed by Dr. Pat Ogden. It is basically the scientific perspective that everything organisms do serves a natural adaptive function. Just as each living organism has its own unique intelligence, each client already has the answers they seek within them. Therapy offers a supportive environment to help clients uncover their own natural intelligence. This thinking is in line with Dr. Gabor Maté’s concept of recovery reflecting re-covering (or rediscovering) oneself, as well as Dr. Daniel Siegel’s imperative that the aim of therapy is to facilitate integration within oneself —to integrate aspects of one’s being that have been fragmented and disowned along the way. 

In this light, behaviours that are so frequently pathologized or morally shamed within our societies are seen as having some intrinsic adaptive value or natural intelligence, even if it’s not immediately apparent. The behaviour was likely a coping strategy that made sense within the circumstances at the time and have been since outgrown. When we think of human behaviour from this lens, judgment no longer seems to be relevant or sufficient; compassion, curiosity, acceptance, and understanding naturally follow. No matter how self-sabotaging or cruel our unhealthy habits may be, no “part” of ourself is unacceptable, and we come to thank each part for the survival purpose it served. 

Thus, the reason I am never shocked or appalled by disclosures clients make in therapy is because everything humans do and think makes sense in the right context of understanding. As such, I look forward to working with you from this lens and pointing out the adaptive ingenuity that lies within you! Remember, the antidote to shame is curiosity. Stay curious my friends. 

Coping with COVID

We are all under tremendous stress as our daily rhythms and routines –which so often organize and ground us—cease to exist, and we are left with trying to cope with unprecedented pressures. It’s safe to assume all of us are currently in some low- or high-grade form of a stress response (i.e. fight, flight, or freeze), which may vary depending on the stressor, the day, and the person. We all respond to stress in our own unique ways that help us regulate our systems. While some will binge on news updates, others will avoid them. Both responses make sense for the individual.

If we think about our evolutionary origins, we’ve inherited “a negativity bias.” Our ancestors successfully survived because they attended more to negative and anxiety-provoking dangerous stimuli. As such, researchers have found that it takes us twenty seconds to encode (and experience) positive events compared to those that are negative. Psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson has said that “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” This requires us to intentionally practice cultivating and savoring pleasant sensations, emotions, thoughts, and experiences.

Given the very real safety risks we’re facing and the constant medical and governmental directives to conscientiously attend to physical distancing and personal hygiene practices, it’s only natural to experience heightened anxiety as a side effect. Our survival instincts need to be on alert in order to keep these safety practices top of mind. These are new habits. They require some degree of hypervigilance to prevent them from slipping out of our conscious thinking. The trouble is, if we let this take over, we will be living in a constant state of elevated stress or anxiety, which could give rise to other problems like burnout, depression, or other symptoms of concern.

We are comprised of mental, emotional, physical, (and some believe spiritual) facets. I call these our “spidey senses.” We can’t exist solely in our mental part of being; it’s imbalanced and overlooks our other aspects. We need to practice attending to, nurturing, and being in our other facets of being. We need to acknowledge that our safety instincts and stress responses are there for a reason, but also practice giving ourselves permission to feel safe in our homes, in our bodies, and give ourselves time to be in the present moment. This is a silver lining that has arisen from the unfortunate circumstances. For once the world has slowed down and now that we’re not able to go out, we can go within. Here are some practices I hope you find supportive.

Self Check-Ins. Practice regular self “check-ins” throughout the day: How are you doing mentally, emotionally, physically, (spiritually)? 0-10, how activated are you? Consider setting a bell to remind you to check in periodically throughout the day. This insight gives you information about what you’re needing and how best to practice self-care and determine the course of your day.

Practice self-care. Nutrition; extra sleep; exercise; have a routine; take work breaks; tidy up; get some fresh air. Omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics have been found to support healthy brain health and parasympathetic nervous system function (the “rest and digest” relaxation response). Practice self-compassion (not pushing yourself too much if it doesn’t feel right). If you’re having a tough time, let the “bare minimum” effort be enough for the day. Start fresh tomorrow.

Practice grounding. Yoga; chi-gong; meditation; stretching; breathing; hold a grounding stone; sit on the ground. Come into your five senses. Notice things you hear, see, smell, taste, and feel in the space around you.

Be Mindful of What You Take In. Anxiety is contagious. Keep a “low trauma diet” of stress-inducing content. Limit your exposure to news, COVID-related content, and social media. Be mindful of how much you interact with loved ones who are highly anxious or reactive and set personal limits. Give yourself permission to take time to yourself. Take breaks from thinking about it all. Limit your consumption of psychoactive substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and caffeine that can exacerbate worry, agitation, or low mood.

Use Positive Psychology to Your Benefit. Research on stress mindset theory shows that having a “stress-is-enhancing” (vs. “stress-is-debilitating) mindset can powerfully increase positive emotions, positive thought patterns, and growth hormones. This is an example of how our minds and bodies are intimately connected. It turns out there really is something to seeing the glass half-full.

Focus on what you can control. Keep lists to help you stay on track and remember supportive resources and healthy distracting activities when you need them.

Practice creativity. Tapping into the right hemisphere of your brain can offer a needed break from the constant worry and analytics produced from the left, “logical” side of the brain.

Let it go. Dance! Sing! Laugh! Let yourself cry when you need to. Research has shown that humming and mantra chanting help activate the parasympathetic nervous system (for relaxation), as does laughter, intermittent fasting, massage, sleeping on your right side, taking cold showers, and immersing your face in cold water.

Be kind. Get in touch with loved ones. Share your appreciation for them. Help others when you can. Spend time with pets. Although it can feel like a lonely and isolating time, you may notice that when you make the effort to reach out, others’ love and care is more palpable than ever.

Internal Island of Calm

Bring your awareness inwards and notice what sensations are present in your body. See if you can find an area of calmness or neutrality in your body. It may be in a small part of you that doesn’t feel much, just neutral. It may be a sensation of comfort or relaxation in your pinky toe or eyelid. You may find it in a different spot within you each time. Notice what happens when you sink your awareness into that place of stillness inside you.

Does anything inside you shift?

What is it like to notice that much of your body can feel tense and uncomfortable, yet this tiny area of comfort remains a place you can rest your awareness?

Can you connect to that inner place of calmness throughout the day?

Gratitude for Safety & Support

In these moments, remind yourself of the ways you are safe. Allow yourself to feel safe in your home, in your body, in your city, in your country. Feel yourself empathetically connected to so many people around the world experiencing this together. So many people working for the same cause of maintaining safety and wellness. Those working hard to supply the essentials you need. So many people with kind intentions willing to offer their support. Feel your shared humanity. Cultivate an appreciation for the subtle aspects of magic all around you –the technology that allows you to connect remotely with loved ones and feel a part of an online exercise community. Allow yourself to appreciate these aspects of safety and support around you.


Why Psychotherapy?

“Our brains are extremely social.” We have extensive cortical regions and networks dedicated to what neuroscientists refer to as “the social brain.” “How one brain interacts with another has important effects on how the brain functions…We can come to believe this view not because we are therapists and we believe in this idea; this scientifically validated perspective is true because of evolution…Social interactions are one of the most powerful forms of experience that help shape how the brain gives rise to the mind” (Daniel Siegel). “Attachment science tells us that we are as human beings essentially relational and emotional beings; so then the most powerful way to grow as human beings is to go into that relational emotional channel… and create new experiences that help us learn to regulate our emotions differently; engage with others differently; help us learn to put together our inner reality in a more coherent and positive way” (Sue Johnson). Interpersonal connection through psychotherapy can have profoundly healing and corrective affects on our neurobiology. We’re a social species. 

Why Our Parents Influence Our Relationships Whether We Like it or Not

Have you ever sworn never to be like your parents only to find yourself replicating some embarrassing mannerism your parents do? Maybe you let a dad joke slip, or picked up one of your mom’s habits? You’re not alone; it happens to the best of us –er, actually, all of us. (Fun fact: did you know studies show dad jokes are actually funnier when you follow them up with prerecorded laughter? Anyways, I digress…)

We’re social creatures and have evolved by surviving and thriving in social contexts for hundreds of thousands of years. Because of this, a vast amount of our brain centres are dedicated to processing socially relevant information. In fact, neuroscientists refer to this circuitry as the “social brain,” which encompasses neurological regions responsible for helping us experience others through our senses, recognize and interpret facial expressions, and predict social behavior (largely through our emotions). All of these brain systems begin to come online in early childhood, when our brains are most rapidly developing and being shaped by our environments, a big part of which is usually comprised of our parents!

Because our ancestors started walking upright, which shifted our anatomy, human heads need to be small enough to fit through the birth canal, so a great deal of our brain development and the cortical shaping that will influence us for the rest of our lives, happens outside the womb during our first years of life. Since we’re among the most immature species at birth, we have an innate (survival) need for caregivers. This is why there are built in biological functions like bonding hormones oxytocin –often referred to as the “love hormone”— which gets released during hugging, kissing, sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding. These processes are all natural instincts to foster strong attachments and survival and the nature of our early relationships is thought to shape our attachment style later in life.

Research has shown that the dynamics of one’s attachment with their primary caregiver(s) is the basis of one’s “attachment style,” which greatly influences their behavior in subsequent significant relationships. This is most prominent in romantic relationships, as we learn how to love from our relationship with our parents. Children are also little sponges in that they absorb everything around them, and quickly learn social and cultural norms (e.g. such as gender roles, habits of daily life, emotion regulation, patience/impatience, communication patterns –criticism or compassion, how to argue, how to apologize/or not, etc.) from what their parents model to them (ever notice how fast your kids pick up your unintentional profane slip of the tongue?). Children closely observe their parents’ relational dynamics, which forms the basis of what they know to be normal in relationships. This social shaping, coupled with the child’s attachment style, forms a “relationship template” that they subconsciously go out and seek to replicate in other relationships. Actually, the “chemistry” in romantic relationships has been attributed to this process of relational reenactment, or finding similar relational conditions to what you grew up accustomed to. It’s been said that the greater the chemistry, the more comfortable and familiar the person is to you, and the more likely they are to be like your primary caregiver(s) in some subconscious way, usually in terms of attachment style. If you’ve ever wondered where your tastes and habits in relationships come from, learning your attachment style might be a good place to start (check out a self-assessment quiz at https://www.psychalive.org/what-is-your-attachment-style/ ). You often have your parents to thank in some part!

Love Languages in Relationships…With Personality!

As a couple’s therapist, I often find myself having discussions about people’s love languages and how to help one’s partner translate their expression of love into the other partner’s way of receiving love. The concept of love languages was introduced by Psychologist, Gary Chapman, in his (1995) book, “The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate.” His work has since gained a great deal of traction and has been adapted to a website and a love language quiz, which is widely accessible to couples in need of a relationship tune-up.

 To outline the concept briefly, there are thought to be five predominant ways in which we give and receive love: through acts of service(e.g. pumping your partner’s gas), gifts, words of affirmation (communicating interest and understanding), quality time, and physical touch. While we may enjoy all of these in relationships, usually one speaks us most profoundly –perhaps a type of affection we became accustomed to receiving in childhood, or more commonly, a means of affection we may not have received enough of growing up. I’ve found it’s a wonderfully, simplistic, universal framework for conceptualizing human affection that generalizes well to people of diverse cultural backgrounds, genders, and sexualities.

In addition to this model, I think it’s important to consider each partner’s personality types, as one’s orientation toward extraversion or introversion also tends to influence how they may exhibit affection. For instance, extraverts thrive in social, larger group settings and tend to express themselves better verbally, while introverts thrive in one-on-one or smaller group interactions, can require personal time for self-reflection, and tend to express themselves better in writing. Within the context of affection in relationships, this distinction can help explain a lot, since the modality in which we communicate is becoming more central to our daily interactions in our modern world.

 In real life, this could look like an extroverted partner who expresses words of affirmation a great deal in person, but becomes more reserved over phone, video, or text communication, which can shift the dynamic of the relationship entirely (e.g. in the context of a long-distance relationship that relies heavily on written communication), leaving the other partner wondering. And vice versa: an introverted partner may seem slightly reserved in person but more expressive over phone, video, or text. (E.g. maybe this is why he’s not texting the words she’s hoping to hear, and maybe she’s coming across as more forward over text than she would in person.)  It’s easy for each partner to take this personally if the subtleties of personality style are overlooked, but this added lens offers greater objectivity about what’s transpiring in the relationship: they’re more likely to express affection in a manner consistent with their personality types. This helps the long-distance couple understand that the extraverted partner is likely to resume being affectionate once they’re together in person again, and that the introverted partner really is expressive in their own way. Of course this is just one of many examples of how personality type may manifest in relationships. There are some stereotypical gender and cultural differences, (e.g. men tending to be less expressive over text; some cultures tend to be less emotionally expressive in general), but these generalizations don’t apply to everyone. Another take away is the realization that much of what happens in life and relationships is not personal, but often more about what’s going on for the other person, which is a powerful antidote to counter reactivity in relationships.

Opposite Action

When you feel urged to do something compulsive, do the opposite: practice non-action. This is one of the surest ways to undo patterned behaviour. A practice in non-action could be meditation. Meditation is helpful because it’s an alternative behaviour, which conditions a new response. It also affects neurological and chemical changes in the brain, thereby creating new neural pathways to help you stick with your alternative responses (vs. compulsive reactions) over time.

Urges, such as chemical cravings for substances, as seen in addiction, or behavioural clinging for attachment in cases of relational trauma, only last at their peak intensity for about fifteen minutes. If we can do something else to ride the wave of discomfort, we can allow it to pass without acting reflexively, which gives us greater freedom to choose a mindful response. We may have to practice this again and again throughout a particularly difficult hour, day, or week, but it is not a futile effort, as it will help you gain mastery over the urges that once controlled you, just as one masters a tough meditation.

In this way, much of life can be seen as a walking meditation. Embrace it mindfully and learn to surf the wave of your urges!