The Power of Habit

A book review by Jennifer Foster, MSW

I recently read a book called The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. It is about why we have habits and how they can be changed. I was interested in this book because I have some habits I want to break and I was curious to learn about why they exist in the first place and how to change from having bad habits to good ones.

The author, Charles Duhigg, describes habits as “the choices that all of us deliberately make, at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing”. The idea is that at one point we all make decisions that help us get through the day and once we decide we stop thinking about it and proceed with the behaviour automatically. Scientific studies have found that habits happen to prevent us from becoming overwhelmed by all the decisions we would otherwise have to make each day. They are a way for our brain to save effort.

While habits help us conserve mental energy, a key point is that our brains do not always test out and choose habits that would be in our best interest, but rather habits are borne out of urges or cravings. Sometimes we may not recognize or understand an urge and why we respond to it in the way we do, which can make habits difficult to control.

These two points – that we develop habits based on urges and that once we develop a habit we behave without thinking, are important, because it means that if we want to change a habit, we have to be deliberate about it.

Duhigg describes how habits work as a loop that is made up of three things – cue – routine – reward. When we associate cues with certain rewards a subconscious craving emerges that starts the habit loop. Let me tell you about one of my habits – at the end of my work day, I walk down the street to a coffee shop and buy a coffee and a cookie to eat on my way home. The craving that drives this habit is a desire for comfort to end my work day. While I do derive comfort from this habit I also experience guilt because I know it is causing me to gain weight. So this is one of the habits I want to change. Duhigg lays out four steps for changing a habit:

  • Identify the routine (in my case this is walking down the street to a coffee shop)
  • Experiment with rewards (listening to music also brings me comfort)
  • Isolate the cure (in my case this is the end of my work day)
  • Have a plan (I have decided that when my work day ends, I will walk directly to my car and put on music that makes me feel comforted).

One additional point that I want to highlight is that willpower and belief are important in changing habits. Duhigg describes willpower as a skill and muscle. He says that when you learn to force yourself to make a healthy choice, part of what is happening is you are changing how you think. He said the more we use willpower the more our brain is practiced at helping to focus on a goal. He also says habit replacement works pretty well for people until the stresses of life get too high. He says replacement habits only become lasting new behaviours when they are accompanied by an individual’s belief that they can change or belief that they can cope without needing to satisfy a craving in a particular way.

In summary, habits are something we all have and many of them serve a useful purpose but most of us have some that are unhealthy. The good news is that wile change may be neither fast nor easy, by understanding your habit loop and with willpower and belief, almost any habit can be changed.

Posted in General

Up In Flames – part 2

About three and a half years ago I wrote the article: ‘Up In Flames’ that can be found at It was written shortly after my apartment burned down and shares my experience navigating through that challenging life event. This article is the follow-up.

It took over three years to rebuild my home. I recall the first few weeks as the most difficult, as I was coming to terms with the scope of the loss. As time went on, I discovered lots of silver linings: I got to experience a new community to live in, I got to live in a place with a superb view, and I got to enhance various relationships/connections that led to many memorable experiences. Not having content insurance posed some challenges but slowly but surely i rebuilt my collection of clothes and unique items, with the help and generosity of my family, friends and colleagues. I often say that my place burning down was the best thing to ever happen to me since it sent my life on a new and fruitful trajectory.

The day before I got the keys to my apartment the anticipation and excitement was stifled: I got word that our family cabin outside of Pemberton had burned down. It was likely an electrical fire; the flames destroyed the house, the surrounding outbuildings on our property, and about an acre of forest next door to our property. I experienced a juxtapostion of feelings; there was gratitude and relief that no one was hurt and the flames didn’t spread to our neighbours’ cabins but the shock and uncertainty was dilapidating as i along with each family member tried to grapple with the situation. We had owned the cabin for just under a year but the connection we had to the place was strong and the sense of loss was significant.

As the days went on, I realized that my experience three years ago helped prepare me for this situation as I began to pivot my mind and explore the positives, shifting my focus to the future. I quickly realized though that my family wasn’t on the same page with me and required more time to process the experience. It once again emphasized how critical it is to talk about challenging situations or write or express the feelings in some creative way. Doing so helps settle the emotions down. It enabled me to be there for them, the way they were there for me three years ago. There was nothing specific or special I said while connecting with my family; I just focused and listened. I provided some feedback, based on my prior experience, when the situation warranted it or when input was invited. As the weeks have passed, the sadness has slowly subsided as I have observed each family member slowly making a shift in their minds towards the future.

A few ideas to assist with challenging moments such as this:

  1. Take the time to process it. Allocate 20 to 30 minutes a day to chat or write. Look at photos; share stories and memories; focus on the way you are feeling.
  2. make self-care a priority. Get out for a walk, have a good meal, spend time with friends, watch a movie, do some mindfulness, etc.
  3. Focus on the next steps. what needs to be done to rebuild or get your life back on track?
  4. Start to explore and highlight the silvers linings. There are always positives! Focus on the moments you are grateful for, no matter how small they may seem.
  5. If the intense thoughts and feelings persist, seek professional support. How someone reacts to a situation is impacted by his/her perception or beliefs which are developed from biology, genetics, temperament and experiential factors.

I look forward to a year or so down the road when my family feels he excitement I feel right now moving back into my apartment. It’s brand new, feels more sturdy, has better sound proofing, and everything has been upgraded to today’s codes and standards. I have realized first hand that challenges can enhance resiliency. As Viktor Frankl suggested, it’s through those challenges we can find meaning and purpose

Posted in Depression, Family & Parenting, General, Grief, Marriage & Relationships, Personal Growth, Stress & Anxiety, Therapy

Five Habits of ‘Anxiety Resilient’ People

Why are so many people struggling with anxiety? This was the question posed to me by a good friend over coffee this week, who was concerned about the levels of anxiety she was seeing in her workplace colleagues.

With all that is happening in the world around us – natural disasters, immigration crises, worldwide political unrest, political shenanigans, housing affordability issues, ethical and moral failures-a more appropriate question might be – Why wouldn’t we be anxious?

According to the Statistics Canada (2012)*, anxiety costs the Canadian government $17.3 billion dollars a year, affecting almost one quarter of the Canadian workforce. Improving accessibility to viable treatment for working Canadians would most definitely be part of the solution. On a personal level. Canadians need to commit to engaging in constructive action to manage anxiety before it becomes debilitating.

Anxiety begins as a normal and adaptive response that can alert us to threat. It is an unpleasant state where we have “a vague sense of apprehension, often accompanied by such autonomic symptoms such as headache, perspiration, palpitations, tightness in the chest, mild stomach discomfort and restlessness”.**It results from anticipation of a future threat, and should be differentiated from fear, which is an emotional & physical response to an imminent threat (either real or perceived). Fear can trigger a full scale “fight or flight” response, but anxiety symptoms are more pervasive, such as muscle tension, hypervigilance, worry and ongoing sleep disturbances, just to name a few. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety, Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia and specific phobias are a few of the diagnoses given under the “Anxiety Disorders” umbrella when the symptoms become debilitating.

Anxiety symptoms are commonly experienced in normal everyday situations, often if these are outside of an individual’s typical comfort zone. Their initial function is helpful, in that the body and mind are alerted to pay attention to matters at hand. Trouble begins, however, when individuals misperceive what their symptoms mean. thoughts such as “these symptoms are dangers”, and “I won’t be able to function if I become too anxious” elevate and become self-fulfilling prophecies if not curtailed and replaced with truthful cognitions.

Without understanding the function of our symptoms, we may seek to alleviate discomfort by avoiding situations that make us anxious. But in the long term, when the situations are avoided, the greater our anxiety response becomes. Avoidance reinforces anxiety. To overcome it, we must be willing to endure uncomfortable sensations and tell ourselves the truth about them. We must allow ourselves to become comfortable with our discomfort.

What about those people who seem impervious to anxiety? In reality, it’s not that they don’t have anxious symptoms when faced with new or challenging or threatening situations. Rather they may actually use their anxious symptoms as cues to increase their alertness, prepare for the challenges ahead and ultimately “up their game”.

Taking into account learned behaviours and genetic predispositions that may increase one’s proclivity to anxiety, there is much that can be done to step out of the patterns of being anxious. People who are resilient in the face of anxiety tend to:

  1. Recognize their physiological symptoms are just that: Symptoms of increased adrenaline and physiological arousal. they know these will pass.
  2. Maintain awareness of their incorrect misperceptions, challenge them constructively and replace them with more constructive beliefs. They may also limit negative information and media influences, instead looking to sources of information that inspire, encourage and support potential, in themselves and for others.
  3. Offer themselves no excuses. They do not allow their mood of the moment to constrict them. Instead, their motto is similar to that of my 94 – year- old father: “get up, Dress up and Show up!” Despite how they feel, they make commitments and follow through on goals and plans which have been set. Their habits and life choices reflects values of honouring and respecting themselves and others.
  4. Engage in intentional self car. They find ways to take themselves out of stressful life circumstances with activities and people they truly enjoy on a daily and weekly basis.
  5. Not shy away from challenging life circumstances. Rather than procrastinating and letting minor stresses grow into major ones, they deal with problems when still small and manageable . They look for ways to make constructive and meaningful differences in their work, family and community life.

Our normal physiological responses to challenge can limit us, or we can choose to use them to help us take on life’s challenges. The choice is ours.


*Global Anxiety and depression cost the Canadian economy almost 450 billion a year. September 2, 2016.
**Sadock, B.J. & Sadock, V.A. 2007. Synopsis of Psychiatry. (10th Edition). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, PA. (p.579)
Posted in General, Personal Growth, Stress & Anxiety, Therapy

My Child Won’t Listen

Parents often complain that their children “do not listen” and that is frequently a concern parents describe when they visit a child psychologist. When I met the parents of six year old Charlotte, they described daily power struggles over routine tasks – getting ready for bed at night – and essentially whenever they asked her to do something. Charlotte’s resistance often escalated into full-blown tantrums that occurred several times a week. This behaviour was disruptive to the whole family and sometimes interfered with family activities. Anticipating conflict whenever they asked Charlotte to do/not do something left her parents feeling tense and largely unable to enjoy their otherwise smart, imaginative and playful daughter.

Learning to comply/cooperate with the expectations of trusted adults (e.g. parents, teachers, coaches) is a critical part of a child’s social – emotional development and is essential to the child’s self image and overall well-being. The child needs to understand that he is cared for by adults whose wisdom and life experience can support him as he grows. Those adults responsible for his well-being also have the right to set boundaries for him and to have expectations of him.

Compliance occurs when a child follows through with an adult’s direction within a reasonable period of time. Defiance, conversely, describes an intentional and often overt resistance to an adult request; for example, when the child says NO and stubbornly refuses to comply. While Non-complicance does not always reflect Defiance, both contribute to frustration and conflict in the relationship between parent and child and furthermore undermine any sense of harmony and wellbeing within the family.

There is good news- Improving Compliance is an achievable goal! These worthy principles can support success in developing better cooperation from your child:

  1. Recognize that learning to cooperate with adult authority is a developmental task. Partner with your child, setting your child up to be successful in achieving this goal.
  2. Ensure that you are in close proximity to your child and have eye contact upon making requests.
  3. Communicate requests that are clear and reasonable for your child – requests that are based upon your child’s age, temperament and skills.
  4. Focus attention on your child’s Compliance = praise his “cooperation”. Help your child see himself as a person who Does cooperate, who Is a “team player”.
  5. Identify the most important requests you have of your child. Avoid “nit picking” and over controlling – allow your child to make independent decisions appropriate to his age and level of development . (This will minimize opportunity for resistance and also allows your child to learn from experience).
  6. Avoid engaging in power struggles with your child. Remember that you are on the same team – your intentions for him are benevolent! You have the right and responsibility for authority and you can respond wisely to your child’s otherwise immature (ie inappropriate) responses. When your child is defiant, understand that as reflecting his immaturity and choose to respond in a calm and authoritative manner – let him know you can handle his poor behaviour (and that you are intent on supporting him developing more appropriate behaviour).
  7. Set Compliance/Cooperation as a Target Goal for you and your child. Keep a record or tally of compliant behaviour and work towards a prize – a privilege, activity together or small gift that can acknowledge both your child’s efforts to Cooperate as well as your effectiveness as a Parent – Child team.

A defiant child can cause chaos not only at home but also at school and elsewhere. The roots of defiance can include the child’s genetic background, his temperament, and developmental history as well as certain parental characteristics. Where defiant behaviour persists, consultation with a child psychologist or counsellor specialized in treating children can be indicated. That specialist would be expected to assess the child, rule out other potential factors, thoroughly conceptualize the reasons for the child’s oppositional behaviour and then work with the family as they support their child’s healthy emotional development.


Recommended Reading: Your Defiant Child by Russell A. Barkley and Christine M Benton. Guilford Press, 2013
Posted in Family & Parenting, General, Marriage & Relationships, Personal Growth, Stress & Anxiety Tagged with: , , ,

The Mental Health Boot Camp

Think about it. Your mental health plays a role in EVERY area of your life: relationships, work, physical health, spirituality, even sex. Isn’t it time you made it a priority? The Mental Health Boot Camp is a new and engaging way to accomplish just that.

Created by Joanna Boyd, Dr. Brooke Lewis and Chris Boyd (along with their friend from Los Angeles, Dr. Ryan Howes) the project is the first of its kind and combines the commitment of a traditional ‘boot camp’ with a mental health focus.

The Boot Camp’s comprehensive and varied curriculum is hand-crafted to boost your awareness, self-control, and well-being. Each day you’ll complete 4 or 5 activities that only total the length of one episode of your latest binge program!

The program includes: thought provoking articles, inspirational videos, soothing meditations, and stimulating activities to experience, reflect upon, and integrate into your life. Topics include: psychoeducation on common emotions, cognitive re-framing, character strengths & virtues, Big Five Personality Test, communication, gratitude exercise, acts of compassion, and spending time in nature, and much more! The various strategies utilized in the program have been shown to help decrease feelings of anxiety, sadness and anger.

After signing up, you’ll have 30 days to complete the 25-day program. This is meant to motivate you as the Boot Camp involves a commitment of time and energy to complete. By the time you’re finished, you’ll have an increased awareness of yourself, knowledge of your healthy and unhealthy patterns, and tools to help you live your mental-healthiest life!

This program was designed to boost your well-being and should complement, not replace, existing mental health supports. The program has a cost of $39 USD. To learn more, go to: 

Posted in General, Personal Growth, Therapy Tagged with: , , , , ,

Smartphone Addiction

The headline in the Globe and Mail read, “Your smartphone is making you stupid, antisocial and unhealthy. So why can’t you put it down?” by Eric Andrew-Gee.

As I began to read the article I became alarmed by the research quoted.

Internet companies have spent “billions of dollars” trying o figure out how to hook people into their programs. They have come up with strategies which access the same neural pathways as those affecting gambling and drug usage.

The natural drug that interests the internet industry is a “feel good” one by the of Dopamine. This is a neurotransmitter which is released when the brain “expects a reward or accrues fresh knowledge.” A human vulnerability is being exploited by the internet industry and we are the victims.

Ex-employees of Google, Facebook and Apple have become alarmed by the technology they helped to develop and are now sounding the warning bells we need to hear. One of these past employees was quoted as saying “The short-terms, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave.”

Professor John Ratey (Harvard Medical School), an expert on attention-deficit disorder, is quoted as saying “We are not developing the attention muscles in our brain nearly as much as we used to.” He went on to say that the symptoms of people with smartphones and those with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) are “absolutely the same.”

Research into attention span is sobering. In 2000 the average human attention span was 12 seconds. In 2013 another study found that this time had shrunk to 8 seconds. If the investigation were to be done today, five years later, it is estimated that there would be further decrease. Here is food for thought: the average attention span of a “goldfish” is 8.5 seconds!

Parents need to be particularly cautious with their smartphone usage, as the quality of their relationships with the children is being compromised.

When a mother nurses her baby (or holds a bottle for the little one), there is an opportunity for eye to eye contact with the child; this contributes to the bond between parent and child. It has been determined that, through this interaction, the brain waves of the baby and the mother will synchronize.

Mothers who are distracted with their devices are missing precious moments of bonding with their newborn and only time will tell the impact of this distraction.

Catherine Steiner-Adair, a psychologist, interviewed 1000 children between the ages of 4 and 18. She used the data she collected to write a book entitled “The Big Disconnect” in which she stated that kids said they no longer run to the door to greet their parents because adults are so often on their phones when they arrive home.

Andrew-Gee in his article added “And it gets worse once they’re through the door. One of the smartphone’s terrible mysterious powers from a child’s perspective, is its ability ‘to pull you way instantly, anywhere, anytime.’ (quoting Stiener-Adair).”

“To children, the feeling is often one of endless frustration fatigue and loss.”

Other research findings indicate that “family time” has dropped one third between 2006 and 2011 from 26 hours a month to 18 hours. It was also determined that children are more at risk today due to distracted parents with a 12% increase in injuries for children under five from 2007 and 2010.

Even when families gather, there is no guarantee of healthy interpersonal interactions. A friend recently relayed a situation he observed wile out for dinner with his wife. A mixed generation family arrived and sat at a table nearby. He observed them from time to time and noticed: “They sat around the table and were all engrossed in their phones or tablets for the entire time they were in the eatery.”

I recall dropping into a coffee shop one morning and observing a father with his two kids having a visit together. The kids were quietly drinking their hot chocolate while their father was busy paying attention to his cell phone.

On another occasion, a couple of old friends and I were having lunch in a pub a couple sat down nearby. Once seated there was minimal conversation before the guy pulled out his phone to check messages while his table-mate sat looking bored, more or less twiddling her thumbs.

After a bit, the woman brought out her phone and began to scroll through while the fellow put his away and sat looking bored. He then took his phone back out and they spent the bulk of their time physically present but mentally miles away. An opportunity for some good relationship enhancing interaction was compromised drastically. (And of course I was distracted by what was happening!)

TD Bank is on the right track with a poster it has created for it’s downtown centre in Toronto: “Disconnect to Connect. Put your phone down and be present.”

Posted in Addictions, Family & Parenting, General, Marriage & Relationships, Personal Growth Tagged with: , , , ,

Why do we Lie?

Lying destroys relationships and damages the bonds between human beings.

The Journal of Intercultural Communication Research (2016) states that “we all lie, but not all lies are the same. People lie to achieve a goal: WE LIE IF [we believe] HONESTY WON’T WORK. Essentially the truth comes naturally, but lying takes effort and a sharp, flexible mind. Lying is a part of the development process, like walking and talking. Children learn to lie between the ages two and five, and lie the most when testing their independence.”

While it is a normal developmental process for children to lie, many adults get stuck in the same pattern and do not seem to grow out of a need to lie in order to achieve rewards or avoid perceived punishment.

Below is a list of possible motivations for lying.


Personal Transgressions:                         Cover up a mistake or misdeed.                        22%
Avoidance:                                                 Escape or evade other people.                         14%


Economic Advantage:                               Gain financial benefits                                        16%
Personal Advantage:                                 Bring benefits beyond money                             15%
Self-Impression:                                        Shape a positive image of ourselves                    8%
Humour:                                                     Make people laugh                                               5%

ALTRUISTIC:                                            Help people                                                            5%

UNKNOWN:                                              Motives are unclear, even to ourselves                 7%

SOCIAL OR POLITE:                               Uphold social roles or avoid rudeness                   2%

MALICIOUS:                                              Hurt other people                                                  4%

PATHOLOGICAL:                                      Ignore or disregard reality                                      2%

The research of David Leys PHD. (Psychology Today) can also help readers gain some insight into the way liars think.

“Believe it or not, their lying makes some sense, when you look at it through their eyes.

  1. The lie does matter…to them. People lie when it just doesn’t matter because they actually do think it matters. While everyone around them thinks it’s an inconsequential issues, the liar believes it is critically important.
  2. Telling the truth feels like giving up control.  Often, people tell lies because they are trying to control a situation and exert influence toward getting the decisions or reactions they want. The truth can be “inconvenient” because it might not conform to what they are trying to achieve.
  3.  They don’t want to disappoint you. It may not feel like it to you, but people who tell lie after lie are often worried about losing the respect of those around them. They want you to like them, be impressed, and value them. And they’re worried that the truth might lead you to reject or shame them.
  4. Lies snowball. If you tell a little lie, but then to cover that lie, you tell another one, then another, and another – each gets bigger and bigger. Finally, we’re arguing about the colour of the sky, because to admit anything creates the potential of the entire house of cards tumbling. If a chronic liar admits to any single lie, they feel like they’re admitting to being a liar, and then you’ll have reason to distrust them.
  5. It’s not a lie to them. When they say something, it’s often because they may genuinely believe, at that moment, that it is the truth. Their memory has been overwhelmed by stress, current events, and their desire to find a way to make this situation work. Sometimes, this can become so severe that the person almost seems to have created a complete alternate world in their head, one that conforms to their moment-by-moment beliefs and needs.
  6. They want it to be true. Finally, the liar might want their lie to be true so badly that their desire and needs overwhelm their instinct to tell the truth. Sometimes, liars hope that they can make something come true by saying it over and over.”

Most people who lie may not be aware that others see through the facade of their lies. This is an entirely different subject to be addressed and begs the question of why the recipient of the lies does not compassionately address their loved one’s lies? It is likely for the same reasons the liar lies. To avoid conflict, deny reality, or having to confront an uncomfortable situation.

Facing the truth of why we lie and becoming dedicated to dismantling this behaviour allows us to stop hiding behind a cloak of desperation and fear. We learn how to become an honest and authentic human being. If you recognize yourself or a loved one who engages in these behaviours, consider getting therapy to stop the devastating cycle that destroys integrity, safety, trust, marriages and relationships.


Posted in Depression, General, Marriage & Relationships, Stress & Anxiety, Therapy Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,

Empathy and Mirror Neurons

Empathy differs from sympathy. Sympathy reflects an understanding of another person’ situation- but viewed through your own eyes. In contrast, empathy is what you feel when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of another person. You experience the other’s emotions and conflict without abandoning or losing your own perspective. It involves being able “to see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, to feel with the heart of another” (Alfred Adler).

Two people have a disagreement. They lash out or walk away from the other. It is possible that due to each of their life experiences, they learned that anger can equal harm, a dissolution of a relationship, an attack upon their view, or some perceived threat of which they are not really aware. With empathy they would STOP, and try to understand and experience the other’s position. A baby cries, the caregiver is upset and angry they can’t stop the screaming and crying. Stop! Imagine what it is like to be in the baby’s position, which is feeling emotions or discomfort they cannot describe. This is empathy.

Research has shown that individuals have what are described as “mirror neurons”. When we witness or hear another’s experience, these mirror neurons trigger memories in the brain of the listener. This may stimulate emotional experiences connected to those memories. If the memories are negative we may respond in anger and fear consistent with our own experience with respect to what we observe in other’s behaviour. At the same time, if we can suspend our own experiences, and try to see it through the lens of another person, then these neurons contribute to the deepening of an empathetic understanding of individuals.

Mirroring helps dissolve the barrier between self and others. It is the way nature facilitates caring about other people. One could ask why we experience tears when someone is kind to us? why do we feel at peace when someone understands us? Why that simple “are  you ok” can so move us? It is because empathy validates and lends to a deeper understanding of another’s experience.

Empathy can be used when we seek to understand someone better, argue unproductively, have difficulty connecting emotionally to another, or when trying to calm our temper and manage our own emotions. A loved one who is experiencing depression, anger or any conflicted emotion shows greater healing when levels of understanding are deeper through empathy. Being told ‘get over it’, or lashing out, by a loved one, does not reveal empathic understanding.

Think of an upset child, partner, stranger, anyone for that matter. Instead of responding in anger, use those mirror neurons that generate empathy. what is happening with that person in this moment of time? Don’t judge, just imagine. Are they frightened, did they receive bad news, are they feeling unwell, stressed, did their partner break up with them, etc.?

Are their views of life or behaviour different from yours? Do not become threatened by the differences, it does not mean either of you are right or wrong. Think of ways you are similar to that person beneath the surface differences. Empathy does not mean letting them walk all over you. Rather, Empathy gives you a stronger and wiser base for resolving conflict. You can bridge differences more effectively and with less destructiveness.

Empathy allows us to be mindful of our commonality and connection with fellow humans, rather than emphasizing the differences between yourself and others. Try to understand or imagine the feelings and attitudes of others by reflecting who he or she is and the forces and influences and choices that have shaped their life. Even if you do not know that person, just imagine.

The more one practices empathy, the more it is reinforced to become a natural response. While a person’s empathy can be attributed to genetic factors, research shows us that empathy can also be taught and learned.

The result is not applying empathy is personal conflict, communication breakdown and the development of adversarial attitudes – even hatred – toward those who differ from ourselves. Without empathy we exist inside a self centred world, that can breed emotional isolation and disconnection.

Instead seek to understand first before ensuring you are understood. Ask ” How are you doing…What is that like for you?”

People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. (President Theodore Roosevelt).


Posted in Depression, Family & Parenting, General, Marriage & Relationships, Personal Growth, Stress & Anxiety, Therapy Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Getting to Optimum Health

There are many books written about overcoming depression and anxiety, most of which are excellent companions to helping us move forward out of these difficult experiences in our lives. However, if we learn to practice proactive habits of self care and life engagement, we can inoculate ourselves against these debilitating conditions and build resilience for life’s adversities. Here are a few of the daily life habits I recommend to anyone wanting to move out of depression and create a physically and mentally healthy lifestyle for themselves.

Daily Self-Care

  1. Get into a regular routine of sleep patterns
    *  Work with your body’s natural circadian rhythms: Wake up before 8, work, eat and sleep at consistent times. Keep a consistent daily routine.
    *  Get enough sleep (7 – 8 hours) but not too much. REM sleep is important, but also stages 3 & 4, which are the deep, restorative stages. Avoid too much caffeine–over 250 mg (1.5 cups) disrupts these sleep stages.
  2. Get regular exercise – at least 3x weekly. Include cardio, weights and stretches.  Exercise uses up stress hormones and produces the happy hormones – our endorphins!
  3. Take care of yourself nutritionally. Use food as fuel, not stress relief.
    *  Drink 4 – 8 glasses of water daily to prevent dehydration, irritability, fatigue and headaches.
    *  Take 1000 mg of fish oil daily ( as well as Vitamin D through our BC winters)
    *  Eat balanced meals and small nutritious snacks throughout the day.
  4. Connect with a supportive person every day…And be a support to someone else daily.  Take initiative to be social and consistently connect with others.
    *  Once a day, do or say something kid for another.
  5. Plan something to look forward to every day.
  6. Practice good personal hygiene and care.  As much as we may not like to admit it, appearance is important.  Be clean and smell good!
    Healthy Thinking Habits
  7. Face your fears. By willing yourself to do what you need to do, you will actually change your brain as well as change the image you have of yourself — and move from feeling helpless to  feeling strong.
  8. Be aware of when you worry and obsess about the same things repeatedly.  Move on to more productive thinking and action.  Talk to someone wise who can give you objective perspectives.  Learn strategies from reading or listening to skilled professionals.*
  9. Give yourself the opportunity to be listened to and understood.
  10. What negative thoughts do you keep telling yourself?  Write them down so you see what they are, and challenge them.  DO NOT believe everything you think – especially if it is negative.  (This is key to combatting despondency.) Focus on what is good and positive and true.
  11. It is OK to feel sad, and to acknowledge what you are feeling, but don’t allow yourself to stay there. Instead, recirculate your joyful states: Remember wonderful times and people.  Revisit photos, listen to and tell stories of positive memories and people overcoming challenges.
  12. Each day, ask: “What are three things that went well today?” OR “What three things am I grateful for today?” Write them down. Every. Day.
    Life Engagement
  13. During stressful times, having fun, self-nurturing and humour are the first things to go.  So keep doing these!  Keep engaging in positive activities and take initiative to plan them with others.
  14. Try new things! …new foods, new activities, talk to new people…Don’t let yourself get into a rut!
  15. The most effective treatment for depression is “Life Engagement!”  The opposite of depression is not happiness–it is feeling alive!
  16. Step back from resentment that attaches itself to the difficulties that others have caused us.  Practice Forgiveness.  Make it a habit.
  17. Have daily contact with nature and other living creatures. Get outside!


Keep focused and working towards valued goals – meaningful, purposeful things in life.  Live with integrity, treating yourself and others with respect.  Keep clear about what is truly important and how you can impact others for good.  In that sense, your life is not your own – you are here for a purpose – to make an impact for good in your world.
Determine to be an influence for good in your world.

*check out the writings of David Burns (“The Feeling Good Handbook”), John D Preston (“You can beat depression”) and Martin Seligman (“Flourish”), among others.
Posted in Depression, General, Personal Growth, Stress & Anxiety Tagged with: , , , ,

Using Pop Culture to Impact Positive Change – Part 2

Welcome back! In Pop Culture Part 1, I discussed how, when connecting with children/youth, I utilize pop culture to: 1) develop and enhance rapport, and 2) gather information in regard to values, traits and indicators of resiliency. Please go to if you haven’t had a chance to read Part 1; it would be like watching the Empire Strikes Back without watching Star Wars! In Part 2 I will discuss the third way I have utilized pop culture: to help facilitate positive change.

Working with children and teens can be a humbling experience. I can prepare for a session for hours and then watch the plan fall flat within seconds or minutes. To help avoid this happening, I try to creatively get the message across by using an avenue the client is interested in. You may not be able to personally use the following examples, but I’m hoping they will spark some creativity when connecting with your child or teen.

A 14-year-old client was referred to me by his social worker but truly did not want to be in therapy; his lack of participation during our sessions reflected this. One day he came into my office wearing a Tupac shirt. I was pleased to see this because I knew that Tupac’s music has several messages of strength, resiliency and advocacy in the face of adversity. When asked, my client shared what he knew about Tupac and his favourite rappers and what he respected about their music. For the next session, I decided to create a game. I gathered 20 different lyrics from various rap songs and had the client guess what rapper sang each specific lyric and the message he or she was trying to convey in that lyric. For the first time in 4 sessions my client was engaged and interested in the task at hand. He did well with the guessing game and spoke effectively about the themes. He decided, as a result, to start creating a song of his own that described some of the challenges he faced in his own life. Writing is a beneficial, cathartic way to process past situations and the counselling sessions progressed well after this break-through.

A 9-year-old client was referred to me, along with a diagnostic list of various mental health disorders, including oppositional defiance and attention deficit. The little guy would get angry and say horrible things to his mother, teacher and peers. This was extra distressing for the boy because he felt regret afterwards for saying and doing these things, especially for his behaviour towards his mom. One day he saw a ‘Where’s Waldo’ book on my desk. We ended up having a look at it and I was impressed by how patiently and systematically he scanned each page. Upon finishing I provided him with some positive feedback and explained how he can use these great scanning skills to notice sensations and thoughts in his body, a great lead in to a mindfulness exercise. A few weeks later my client and his mother came in for a session and his mom said that the yelling and extreme reactions had decreased significantly. Although I can’t take credit for the improvement (there could have been many confounding variables), my client did mention that he now notices the thoughts popping into his mind but now he chooses not to say them.

I used to work with a 10-year-old client who had significant feelings of depression and anxiety. He had a hard time connecting with peers and spent a lot of time alone at school. During our sessions, he would routinely give me one word answers or stare off when I started talking about techniques. One day I asked him to explain ‘Pokemon Showdown’ to me, a video  game he frequently played in his spare time. He lit up as he shared his expertise. In this game you select a team of 5 Pokemon characters, then select a range of abilities and moves for each character. Once you have selected these preferences, you go head to head with another player and their team of Pokemon characters. Pokemon Showdown became a metaphor for assisting my client navigate through challenging situations at school and home. Using the same framework, we came up with abilities and moves that he could use when facing difficult moments or adversaries. It made sense to him to conceptualize life circumstances in this way and it increased the probability of him using the techniques we discussed in our sessions.

Pop culture can be utilized in many ways to assist the ones we care about. The possibilities are endless!

Thanks for tuning in!

Posted in Depression, Family & Parenting, General, Grief, Internet, Personal Growth, Stress & Anxiety, Therapy Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,