What is Mindfulness?

by: Tatijana Busic, PhD. Candidate

Welcome to our blog on mindfulness. This is the first in a series of upcoming blogs in which we’ll introduce you to the concept of mindfulness and talk about the incredible benefits of this simple, yet, powerful way of living! 

In this first blog, we’ll define mindfulness and talk about some important distinctions between mindfulness and meditation. In our second blog, we’ll explore the psychological and physical benefits of a simple mindfulness practice in everyday life. In our third blog, we’ll talk about how mindfulness can be used to enrich and deepen your relationships at home, school and work. Finally, we’ll tie things up by introducing you to some very basic tools and strategies that you can start practicing, as well as, share some helpful resources. So let’s begin!

To start, lets talk about what mindfulness actually is. Some folks may think of mindfulness as meditation, and this can be scary! Rightly so! We might imagine spiritual gurus spending years of their life practicing and honing the powerful skill of meditation. Although these two concepts are closely related, there are some important differences.

Similarities: The beginning stages of learning mindfulness and meditation are virtually identical. We are learning how to do two very important tasks – How to consciously relax and how to consciously direct our attentional processes. Essentially, we’re learning how to relax our bodies and control where and how our mind wanders.  

Differences: Basically, meditation stems from Buddhist philosophy and spiritualties that derive from ancient monastic traditions. Learning how to meditate involves learning the values, beliefs and traditions that are embedded within various traditions. Mindfulness, on the other hand, emerged from the discipline of psychology, scientific research and modern day language and culture. Learning to be mindful, doesn’t necessarily involve learning the practice or values of monastic traditions. In many ways, mindfulness is far more applicable to our complex, modern society and therefore, a lot easier and faster to learn. 

Some other differences include:

  • In meditation we sit still – In mindfulness we can be engaged in any task.
  • Meditation takes time. Mindfulness can be switched on at any time.
  • In meditation we focus inward on the body. Mindfulness involves thoughts, feelings, actions and any state of mind!

So, what is mindfulness, exactly?

Mindfulness has become a key focus in psychological and educational research and practice since the 1980’s. Our busy, modern-day lifestyles have steered our minds and bodies toward a constant state of frenzy. We’re always doing – multi-tasking, multi-thinking and multi-moving!

It’s like the autopilot switch in our brain has been turned on permanently. At times this kind of intensity is great! We need it to get a job done while under high pressure. However, when chronically activated, over time, our brains and our bodies become hungry for, addicted to constant stimulation. We may find it hard to switch off or we may become uncomfortable when things are quiet. At other times, we may miss the beauty that surrounds us. Have you ever been on vacation or even just walking through an autumn kissed park and found yourself worrying about other things? Things you have no control over in that moment? Have you found yourself unable to take-in the serenity?  Notice it, feel it and reap the rewards from it? 

Put simply, mindfulness is about slowing down our stimulus-bound attentional processes and taking the time to consciously, with self awareness, choose what we pay attention to vs. automatically responding to whatever is going on around us. 

Like any skill, learning how to live a more mindful life, takes time and practice – about 100-200 repetitions or three months to consolidate this new and wonderful practice in your brain, your mind and your body. 

In the next blog, we’ll talk about the physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness. And explain how and why this practice can help alleviate psychological issues such as anxiety and depression.  How it helps us sleep better, feel better and see our selves and the world around us in a different and healthier way.

Stay tuned!

Read more about our Anxiety, Stress & Obsessive-Compulsive Treatment Service.

Perfectionism vs. Healthy Striving

by: Dr. Marie-Pierre Fontaine-Paquet, Psy.D., C.Psych.

In this post, we will define perfectionism vs. healthy striving, describe when perfectionism is a problem, and we’ll offer strategies for overcoming perfectionism. 

Defining Perfectionism 

Wishing to do things well and having high standards is often adaptive and can help you to pursue and achieve your goals in life. This healthy striving can be contrasted with perfectionism, which is a felt need to do things perfectly and to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable. To help clarify the distinction between healthy striving and perfectionism, here are some characteristics of each one.

Characteristics of Healthy Striving:

  • Striving for high but achievable standards that result in feelings of satisfaction and increased self-esteem
  • Motivated by enjoyment of the process, enthusiasm, enjoyment of what you do, and desire for success and mastery
  • Efforts (not just results) give you satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment
  • Self-esteem is not based on accomplishments and performance
  • Rewarding self or others for good performance
  • Seeing mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
  • Bouncing back quickly from failure or disappointment

Characteristics of Perfectionism:

  • Repeatedly setting goals for yourself that are beyond reach and reason and not being satisfied by anything less than perfection
  • Motivated by fear of failure, obligation or duty
  • Driven to be the best, but unable to enjoy accomplishments
  • Feeling that your sense of self-worth and acceptance is based on accomplishments and performance
  • Criticism and judgment of self or others
  • Seeing mistakes as evidence of unworthiness
  • Becoming depressed when faced with failure or disappointment

When is Perfectionism a Problem?

Like many things, perfectionism can be viewed as a problem when it interferes with a person’s wellbeing and happiness, relationships, or functioning at school or work. This is not always easy to know. If you struggle with perfectionism, the high standards you hold for yourself or others may be so long-standing and ingrained that they may even be unconscious and outside of your awareness. You may have a self-critical internal voice that constantly judges and berates you for not being “______” enough (fill in the blank: smart, hardworking, rational, strong, attractive, thin, sexy… and the list goes on), but you may be more aware of ensuing feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, inadequacy, anxiety, helplessness and hopelessness. You may also be aware of feelings of anger, frustration and resentment when others fail to live up to your expectations, and perhaps this has caused difficulties in your relationships.

Perfectionistic thoughts and behaviours can place an individual at higher risk for depression (see blog ‘Depression: How Your Thinking Can Lead to the ‘Blues’’) and anxiety. Research shows that perfectionism is associated with several psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, worry about being judged by other people, excessive anger, body image and eating disorder problems, and obsessive-compulsive behaviours.

Strategies for Overcoming Perfectionism

Building Awareness:

The first step to change is to first build awareness of what it is that you want to change. Since perfectionistic thoughts and behaviours can be automatic and unconscious, this may not be an easy task! One way of identifying perfectionistic thoughts is to notice situations in which you experience emotions such as anxiety, sadness, anger, frustration or shame, and to reflect on thoughts and interpretations that may be contributing to these feelings. You can also pay attention to situations in which you find yourself engaging in  perfectionistic behaviours (e.g., checking and rechecking your work, spending too much time cleaning, excessive organizing and list making, difficulty making decisions, procrastinating, exercising excessively to stay thin, etc.), and notice what you may be thinking and feeling in these situations.

Evaluating Your Standards

Here are some questions to consider when evaluating whether your standards are serving you well or whether you might benefit from challenging or altering them:

  1. The excessiveness of the standard (e.g., Can this goal be met?)
  2. The accuracy of the belief (e.g., Is it true that this standard must be met?)
  3. The costs and benefits of imposing the standard (e.g., Does it help me to have the belief or standard?)
  4. The flexibility of the standard or belief (e.g., Am I able to adjust my standards and change my beliefs when necessary?).

If you determine that a particular standard cannot be met or that the costs of having a particular standard or rule outweighs the benefits, you may want to consider loosening your standards for that particular issue. If you are unsure, you may consider asking the opinion of a friend or loved one whom you trust.

Making Changes to Perfectionism:

Rather than being unwilling to accept anything less than perfection, remind yourself that no one is perfect nor do we need to be in order to be worthy, lovable and valuable as human beings. Think about what is good enough and possible in your current life situation rather than how things should be in order to be perfect. Work on developing self-compassion in place of harsh self-criticism and perfectionism, and more compassion for others. Coping statements like “It’s okay to make mistakes” and “Nobody’s perfect” can be helpful in challenging perfectionistic thinking. People who struggle with perfectionism tend to go to great pains to control many different aspects of their lives, including their own behavior, the behavior of other people, and the environment in which they live. Because you often cannot control or predict things that occur, it can be helpful to find ways to tolerate some degree of uncertainty and ambiguity in your life.

If perfectionism is a problem for you, chances are that the high standards you hold for yourself or others are long-standing and ingrained. The thought of giving up these standards may be very frightening for a number of reasons, and changing these long-standing patterns can be difficult. You may find that it is too difficult to overcome your perfectionism alone or with the help of your family and friends. A psychologist can help you better understand your perfectionism and the role it plays in your life, and support you in changing these long-standing patterns. A psychologist can also support you in addressing problems often associated with perfectionism, including anxiety, depression, anger, eating disorders and relationship problems.

This blog is based on some parts of the book: “When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism” by Antony & Swinson (1998)

Read more about our Anxiety, Stress & Obsessive-Compulsive Treatment Service.

Anxiety and Your Relationships

Written by Dr. Dino Zuccarini and Tatijana Busic

Welcome to our third blog on anxiety! Today, we’ll be sharing some interesting information about anxiety and your relationships to others, such as your partner and children.

Several decades ago a British psychiatrist, John Bowlby, developed attachment theory, which provides a framework to understand how we experience our self and others in our relationships. Attachment theory helps explain the anxiety we can experience in relationships.

Attachment theory suggests that as human beings we are biologically hard-wired to seek out others and to connect to them—emotionally, psychologically and physically. These connections provide nurturance, soothing, contact and comfort to help us ease distress in everyday life.  Attachment is from the ‘cradle to the grave’—-beginning with the soothing, non-verbal communications between a mother and child (e.g., comfort of a mother’s sound, smell and gaze to newborns) through to the nurturing, caring and intimate moments in our adult relationships with our partners (e.g., emotional, physical and sexual intimacy). Our experiences in these close relationships—from childhood and throughout our lives—play a role in determining something psychologists refer to as our attachment style.

When we have experiences in which our primary attachment figures (i.e., mother, father or whomever took care of us when we were younger) have been generally responsive to our feelings and needs growing up, we learn to be securely attached to others.  In these circumstances, we develop a positive sense of our self— we see ourselves as competent, worthwhile, and lovable. We are also more likely to see other people in a positive light— reliable, dependable, and trustworthy. Early attachment relationships are the primary mechanism for developing our capacity for healthy relationships with others. We learn how to tune into our own feelings and needs and express them to others. We also learn how to empathize with others — the ability to tune into what others are feeling and respond appropriately. We also discover how to create closeness with others, while being independent and tolerating distance from our loved ones. 

When we are raised in inconsistent environments — too much or not enough attention from our caregivers — then we might become anxiously attached to others.  An anxiously attached person may have a negative sense of self —and may see themselves as unlovable or unworthy of care — while continuing to hold out hope that others are trustworthy, reliable and will eventually respond to their connection needs.  An anxiously attached individual may experience fear about the availability of important people in their lives—they become preoccupied with how available their partner, friends or family members are to respond to their feelings and needs. These individuals may express a lot of emotional distress to communicate their feelings, needs and concerns to others, and at times, may come across as demanding in their efforts to solicit attention, care and support—this kind of anxious attachment can be overwhelming for others. 

When you are anxiously attached, you also tend to overly rely on your children and partner for reassurance, affirmation and validation.  You overly seek out others to reassure you and to soothe your anxiety about others not being available to you. You may need too much closeness and those around you might feel smothered. Your children and partner may get a sense that there is not a lot of room for them in the relationship — and stop sharing with you as a result — or they themselves might have to increase their expressions to been seen and heard. 

If we are raised in environments where others were harsh and rejecting, we may become avoidantly attached to others. This attachment style makes expressing needs or feelings really hard—the other person is viewed negatively as unreliable and undependable during a moment of need. Avoidantly attached people  experience significant amounts of anxiety as a result of the unavailability of their caregivers—however, their strategy is different than the anxiously avoidant—they learn how to avoid emotions to deal with emotional distress. 

When distressed, avoidantly attached individuals struggle to express their feelings and needs—and, dependency on others for care and support does not seem possible during these moments. When dealing with difficult life moments they dismiss their own and others’ emotions as a strategy to cope—expressing themselves feels risky and may subject them to painful rejection once more.  As a result of this strategy, children or partners may feel that you are unavailable or unable to tune into or attend to their emotional needs while you seek even more distance to avoid difficult feelings. Given these difficulties avoidantly attached individuals often over focus on tasks, rules and duties in their relationships—while struggling to understand others’ feelings and needs. This avoidance often results in significant others becoming anxious and distressed because they feel you are unavailable and unable to connect with them. 

Here are some tips on how to deal with attachment anxiety or avoidance in your relationships:  

For the anxiously attached:

  • If you are anxious and preoccupied in your relationships, start working on developing a greater sense of yourself — learn how to enjoy a good book, find a hobby, keep yourself busy with activities—as opposed to being overly preoccupied with your children and partner.
  • When you are worried about whether or not others are there for you, remember a time that you felt connected to others. Reframe how you think about the absence of loved ones. Try not to get overwhelmed by negative thoughts about their absence (e.g., I’m alone, I miss them), and focus on positive thoughts and feelings (e.g., I look forward—and feel excitement—thinking about my beloved returning home).
  • Try to notice when you may be seeking too much closeness or reassurance from others and try to slow this process down. Although you are feeling fearful or doubtful about whether those closest to you love you—the more you do this, the more they might push you away. Learn to recognize themental and physical cues of anxiety and learn to calm yourself prior to communicating to others.

For the avoidantly attached:

  • Notice what you are thinking and feeling in these situations. Practice giving your feelings and needs a label—What do you feel and need? Take a risk to express these feelings and needs to a close friend or your partner. 
  • Learn how to recognize and attune to others’ feelings and needs. If you are not sure, ask them what they need or how they feel. Remember that the more you distance in moments of distress (yours or others), the more distress you create in your relationships.
  • Recognize when you are distancing from yourself and others. Try to observe yourself inmoments of emotional discomfort and to catch yourself in this distancing strategy. 

A psychologist can help you assess your attachment style and its impact on important relationships (i.e., relationship with family, partner, children, friends and colleagues). After identifying your attachment style, a psychologist can help you to understand your own emotional reactions and needs and communicate to others more effectively. A psychologist can also help you learn how to respond to others’ feelings and needs so your relationships feel more secure and more satisfying. 

Read more about CFIR’s Anxiety, Stress & Obsessive-Compulsive Treatment Service.

Anxiety and You

by Dr. Dino Zuccarini and Tatijana Busic

Welcome to our second blog on anxiety. Today we’re going to talk about how anxiety affects your relationship to yourself.

We all experience anxiety at different times in our lives — sometimes more than others. When anxiety gets the better of us — or when our brain’s fight-flight-freeze response kicks in — it’s hard to slow down our mind and our thoughts, feelings and body can become very uncomfortable!

You’ll recall from our first blog, when anxiety is unhealthy it becomes tough to accurately assess threat or danger — when you can’t calm down enough, it’s difficult to reflect on your experiences in a healthy and adaptive way — and if the threat is real, feeling anxious can make it hard to plan how to deal with danger. It’s as though our mind becomes a rollercoaster with no brakes to slow things down — the rollercoaster feels out of control and going in one direction — and we can’t change direction easily. When this kind of anxiety kicks in, our relationship to our self becomes challenging. 

So today, we’re going to share with you some important information about how anxiety affects your relationship to yourself — we’re referring to how you think and feel about your self — body and mind. When the fight-flight-freeze response is in overdrive it affects how we think, feel and behave. We’re also going to offer you some practical tips to deal with anxiety — we hope to show you how psychology can help you slow down your mental motor. 

Anxiety causes us to get stuck on fearful, recurring negative and critical thoughts (e.g., overthinking about the past, excessive self-criticism and worry). You may become scared of what you’re feeling (e.g., intense anger, loneliness). Sometimes anxiety can cause us to become overly self-conscious about expressing ourselves or dreading certain sensations (e.g., pounding heart, sweating, flushing, muscle tension).  When this happens our mind and body tells us we aren’t safe! And we get stuck in a negative feedback loop — our negative, fearful recurring thoughts create more fearful sensations in our bodies, and our sensations indicate danger. This cycle continues to fuel our worry and negative thinking — this is the cycle of anxiety! When your mind and body are in overdrive like this and running on fear, you can’t stop this negative feedback loop — the capacity to reflect and respond appropriately to the threat becomes compromised. It’s as though, you can’t dislodge from the thoughts and sensations that crowd your mind.  There’s no inner peace, relaxation or safety. You become uncertain, self-doubting, and feel unease.

Eventually, anxiety can start to drive your entire world — it’s persistent! When you can’t slow down your motor — it’s hard to sit alone with yourself with all that bodily tension — you’ll have to do a lot of things to calm yourself down eventually. You try to discharge the tension (e.g., distract, exercise, run), you avoid people, places, and/or situations, you lose focus and get distracted, you do repetitive things to calm yourself, you get aggressive with others who you perceive as threatening, you don’t show up to work, school, and even go outdoors to keep yourself safe! Maybe you over or under eat, over or under work, procrastinate, drink alcohol too much, have too much sex or risky sex, use illegal substances — these behaviours are in response to too much anxiety related tension!  Or maybe you think about things you’ve said or done, mistakes you’ve made during the day, over and over again — trying to think about whether what you’ve done or said during the day will bring about bad things for you. Either way, it’s hard to feel good and confident about yourself when your world becomes more and more confined, and you feel like you’re losing control. 

The good news is that psychology can work for you by providing you with strategies to deal with your anxiety! Here are some tips to lower the physiological response of anxiety!

Slow down your motor! 

It’s important to deal with all the fear and stress-based negative arousal going on in your body. Learning how to do this gives you a sense of mastery over your own self and body. Here is a site to help you learn to breathe and relax so your muscle tension is not so overwhelming. http://www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_relief_meditation_yoga_relaxation.htm

Observe and let go of distressing thoughts and feelings! 

Learning how to observe and let go of negative thoughts and feelings also helps reduce distress. It is important that we learn how to stay in the present — not let the anxious brain get the better of us; by staying focused in the present (i.e., learning how to stay with our breath, and observe our thoughts, with some sense of detachment and focus on the present so we don’t jump too fast in anticipating bad things happening). Visit this site to learn how to be mindful, more present and aware, and let go of distressing thoughts. http://www.mindfulness-solution.com

Explore the ‘truthfulness’ of the negative and fearful thoughts!  

Ask yourself, how real is the danger I am anticipating? What evidence do I have that my fears will actually transpire? Is there any possibility that my fears won’t transpire? 

Mental health professionals at CFIR administer scientifically based treatments in the area of anxiety, and can offer you many more strategies to deal with your anxiety. We also can help you to address the underlying emotions, and patterns that are at the root of your anxiety.  Typically, it’s more difficult to get to these underlying emotions, needs and patterns — at the root of your anxious thoughts — on your own.

Read more about our Anxiety, Stress & Obsessive-Compulsive Treatment Service.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Anxiety

Welcome to our blog on Anxiety.  There is so much we want to share with you on this topic. 

Anxiety is often experienced as a powerful reaction. Our hearts race, we sweat, we flush and our breathing quickens. We also start to think and feel negatively about our selves, others and the world around us.

Anxiety touches our lives in many ways – it affects our ability to think clearly, it makes us want to avoid people or situations, and important relationships can be seriously affected. When anxiety gets the better of us, it can become difficult to function at home, work or school.

Today’s blog is  the first in a series of three blogs on anxiety. Through these blogs we’ll be sharing with you how anxiety can be a healthy or unhealthy factor in your life. In our two next blogs we’ll discuss the impact of anxiety — on your self, your partner, your children, and those you interact with everyday at work. Following this, we’ll be sharing some scientific-based simple solutions. Stay tuned. You don’t have to live with anxiety forever!

For now, we’re so glad that you’ve joined us for our initial blog. We’re hoping that what you’ll read here today will help you make sense of this powerful experience.

The first thing we’d like for you to consider is that anxiety can be healthy! Research in psychology and neuroscience has uncovered anxiety’s vital role in survival. It’s a signal that tells us that we might be in danger — it also helps us to start protecting ourselves against whatever is threatening to us. A powerful fight-flight-freeze reaction – an important evolutionary response originating from our ‘old’ brain (i.e., the brain stem and amygdala) – occurs and prepares us to take action — this response is largely automatic, extremely fast and happens outside of our awareness. When this system is turned on, we experience fear and anticipate and look for negative things that might endanger us.  Anxiety prepares us to survive — to fight, flee or freeze to escape the danger. This response would have helped our earliest ancestors to flee from a sabre tooth tiger to ensure their survival!

These signals are, therefore, adaptive because they promote survival — they help us take protective action in moments of danger. With the development of the ‘new’ brain (i.e., the frontal cortex), we developed the ability to think and assess whether a situation is really dangerous. For example, our ‘old brain’ may be sending us a strong signal about an impending threat at work. Our mind might be screaming for us to run away from the situation — but first we must evaluate the reality of the threat. This process is really important because we don’t want to overreact but we also don’t want to ignore our anxiety. It is an important source of information. Even when the threat is real, we have to assess the situation and plan action that addresses the threat in an appropriate way. For many people, learning how to assess and deal with this can be challenging.

Anxiety can be unhealthy then — and become a problem for you — especially, when your ability to assess the situation is compromised. People who have experienced stressful events, may be particularly prone to these types of difficulties. Stress can cause this system to be overly active — the switch is always turned “on” even when not needed — in these cases, it becomes difficult for a person to calm him or her self down, and objectively assess the reality of the threatening situation.

When we’ve faced a lot of threat and danger in our lives, we tend to anticipate the possibility of it happening again — we may over-interpret the world as a dangerous place.

Anxiety signals to us that there is threat and danger — when this signal is constantly on, your capacity to think, reflect, and assess the perceived threat and to make appropriate decisions is impaired.

The good news is that scientifically supported treatments have been developed to help those who struggle with anxiety, which we implement in psychotherapeutic treatment. For example, you can learn how to notice physical cues that can alert you that anxiety is coming! This allows you to “catch” important moments and engage in coping behaviors to deal with strong sensations, and negative thoughts and feelings. Essentially we can learn how to calm our selves and manage these experiences in more effective ways. There is a lot to learn about anxiety and we want to share so much more with you so that you can begin to master this powerful force.

You won’t want to miss our next blog where we’ll share important information about how anxiety affects your relationship to your self, others and your workplace — we’ll also provide you with tips on how to deal with anxiety at home. We’ll look forward to connecting to you again in our upcoming blogs!

Read more about our Anxiety, Stress & Obsessive-Compulsive Treatment Service.