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  • Mental Health Matters 3

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     “Control That Anger Before It Controls You!”

    Have you ever been driving down the road only to have someone cut you off at the very last second?  Have you ever come home and noticed that your sibling was in your stuff… AGAIN.  Have you ever tried to rationalize with your parents who just don’t, regardless of how many times you try to explain to them, seem to get it?!?  You feel your face flush.  Your heart starts beating faster and it is a safe bet that your blood pressure is increasing a few notches.  Your breathing becomes fast… you may clench your fists… you feel ready to pounce.

    Anger -- we all know it well (and some of us better than others).  For some of us, it takes a lot to push us over the edge.  For others, it happens all too easily.  For some of us, we have developed techniques to calm ourselves down.  For others, we usually end up in trouble due to this seemingly uncontrollable emotion.  Lucky for the latter group, this does not have to be the case.  Anger is a controllable emotion that, with the right techniques, does not have to be a negative experience. 

    Just a bit about our experience of anger…  anger is, more often than not, what we in the psych biz like to refer to as a secondary emotion; that is, it is the result of another emotion. Think of the last time you were angry… what made you angry?  Think about the event and the people involved.  Consider your reaction and the intensity of your anger.  Now, go beneath that… what else was going on for you?  Chances are there was an underlying emotion driving that anger, such as fear, disappointment, jealousy, sadness, anxiety, loneliness… the list goes on.  Remember the time you were angry when your significant other talked to a member of the opposite sex?  I bet a bit of jealously may have been underlying that anger.  Remember that time when you were angry that you got a failing grade on that test?  I bet ya a bit of disappointment was underlying that anger.  And how about the time your friend did not invite you to the party… you may have raged to her, but I would bet that underneath, you were really quite hurt.    

    So, if another emotion is driving our anger, what purpose does the anger serve?  The answer is this:  when we experience an emotion that threatens our ego (sense of self; who we are), we feel vulnerable.  Rather than allowing ourselves to experience the pain and angst of that raw emotion, it is much easier to become angry.   Anger allows us to feel in control and optimistic for change.  When we become angry, we are motivated to do something, to make a change. Anger, then, can be viewed as a defense mechanism against other, more painful emotions.  It is a shield we use to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable. 

    Now on the surface, this appears to be a wonderful band-aid to our emotional wounds.  Painful emotions manifest, and we slap a little anger on them to take away their power.  However, much like a band-aid does not heal a wound, anger does not heal whatever primary emotion it is defending against.  If you become enraged at your friend for not returning your call, the hurt you are feeling will still be present when the anger melts away.  Failing to address the feeling underlying the anger increases the likelihood that the anger will reappear; prolonged states of anger are detrimental to both your physical and emotional well-being. 

    Another negative aspect of anger can be identified in our responses to this emotion.  Anger itself is not negative; it is just a feeling and feelings are neutral.  It is our responses to such feelings that can have negative effects on our lives.  When that driver cut you off and you had to swerve to avoid colliding into his back bumper, it is not abnormal to feel enraged.  But when you hang yourself out of the window yelling obscenities, thereby endangering your safety a second time… well you get the point.

    I mentioned at the start of this entry that some people have developed ways to effectively deal with their anger… what does this mean?  There are coping mechanisms that people can utilize to reduce the intensity of their emotions and allow then time to “cool down” before addressing the situation in a more effective manner.  Below is a list for you to review.  If you try one and it does not work, do not be discouraged!  Anger is experienced differently from individual to individual and it is dealt with differently. 

    1. 1)      Identify triggers and warning signs.  If you recognize events ahead of time, you can either avoid these situations or identify alternative ways to deal with them.
    2. 2)      Pay attention to your self-talk! What is it you are telling yourself about the situation that is making you so angry?  That guy who pulled you over… yea, he could be inconsiderate.  He also could be driving someone he loves to the hospital.  Changing the way you perceive the situation will reduce your anger. 
    3. 3)      Escape it!  Remove yourself from the situation and take time to think it through and cool off.  After you have done both these things, then you may return to deal with the source.  Or, you may find that you no longer feel the need to return to the situation at all.
    4. 4)      Utilize relaxation strategies.  Relaxation can reduce the stress and tension that you experience in your body, which translates into a reduction of mental stress.  Take long, deep breaths.  Focus on your breathing.  Use imagery. 
    5. 5)      Use distraction!  Distract your mind from the situation that is keeping you angry.  Call a friend.  Watch a movie.  Do anything that promotes positive feelings. 

    For more strategies, you can visit:


    So… here is what I am hoping you take away from this…

    • Anger is just a feeling – neither good nor bad
    • It is felt differently by different people
    • It is a secondary emotion coming from a primary emotion
    • Unmanaged expression of this anger causes intensified primary emotions
    • Unconsciously, some people change their underlying emotions into anger to reduce feelings of vulnerability.  These feelings must be addressed!
    • Anger is not bad – it is our response that can be negative!
    • You can learn effective techniques to deal with feelings of anger

     Quote of the Day

    Anger is a great force. If you control it, it can be transmuted into a power which can move the whole world. 
    ~William Shenstone

  • Mental Health Matters 4

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    The Necessity of Communication for Healthy Relationships

    Love and Relationships

    To love is universal; we all love someone, at some point in our lives.  For many of us, our first experience of love begins in the home, from a parent or caregiver.  For others, love may be realized from a role model or from a very close friend.  Our early experiences of love give us the strength and support we need to develop into the individuals we are today.  Our early experiences of love teach us that love is good – it is something we yearn for.

    As we grow older, we learn that love can take on many forms.  Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love provides us the basis for understanding love in light of this realization.  According to Sternberg, love consists of three components:  INTIMACY, PASSION, and COMMITMENT.  The intimacy component refers to feelings of closeness and connectedness in your relationship with another.  The passion component refers to the drives that lead to romance and physical attraction.  Lastly, the commitment component refers to both the decision to love someone and the decision to maintain that love.  Different relationships can consist of different quantities of each component.  For example, the relationships we had with our parents as children likely contained a balance between intimacy and commitment, whereas the romantic relationships we form with our future spouses likely contains a balance between all three components. 

    While forming new relationships in the context of young adulthood, it goes without saying that we will experience roadblocks in our quest for love.   While we grew up watching Prince Charming dedicate his life to wooing the Princess, we later realize that, in reality, this will not be our experience of love.  While there will be moments of utter joy and pure bliss, there will also be times when you feel like firing your shoe across the room at your partner (but please refrain).  Love is not always a fairytale.  Love is hard work. 

    Conflict is inevitable in the context of a romantic relationship.  Fortunately, we can develop skills that will aid in the resolution of such conflict.  Time and time again, marriage therapists identify a primary source of conflict within the romantic relationship to be a deficit in successful communication between two partners.  Sounds minor, doesn’t it?  While communication skills sound very simplistic in nature, the next time you feel an overwhelming desire to throw a shoe at your partner, you may be surprised when you take a second to realize how many basic communication skills you failed to employ. 

    Communication Skills for a Healthy Relationship

    Many studies have identified the correlation between successful communication and relationship satisfaction.  I have compiled a list of important actions one must take to promote healthy communication within a relationship. 

    1. 1)    Look around you!  Successful communication cannot occur in an atmosphere of chaos.  Find a quiet room.  Turn off the TV.  Put your phones on silence.
    2. 2)    Check yourself!  Is your speaking sounding more like screaming?  Are you making proper eye contact so that your partner feels heard?  What is your posture communicating? 
    3. 3)    REFRAIN!  NEVER, under any circumstance, blame, accuse, call names, make hurtful remarks, or get defensive.
    4. 4)     Identify what the problem is.  It is difficult to communicate successfully unless you both are in agreement as to what it is you are discussing. 
    5. 5)    Listen.  You cannot appreciate what you do not hear. 
    6. 6)    Empathise.  Chances are, if you don’t feel understood, your partner may not feel understood. 
    7. 7)    “I” vs. “You”:  When communicating, communicate using “I feel” vs. “You make me feel”.  Using “You” statements automatically puts the other person on the defensive.  Plus, when you use “I”, you maintain control over how you feel. 
    8. 8)    Focus on appreciation.  As a general rule of thumb, say five nice things for every one complaint. 
    9. 9)    Be honest.  Your partner is not a mind reader.  Maybe you assume that he/she should know that your feelings were hurt when he/she said your casserole tasted like dog food.  It does not mean that they necessarily do!
    10. 10)  Regardless of how angry you are, respect the other person. 

      Quote of the Month: 

    Bad human communication leaves us less room to grow. 
    ~Rowan D. Williams 


    Sternberg, R. & Weis, K. (2006).  The new psychology of love.  New York: Vail-Ballou Press. 


  • Mental Health Matters 5

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    “Oh my gosh, I have like five exams, I am so stressed!”...  Sounds familiar?  In December, we easily succumb to the joy and cheer of the holidays, thinking to ourselves, “I will worry about finals in January… that is a whole month away!”  Then, after the turkey is eaten, the presents are opened, and the waking up at noon draws to a close, we find ourselves rubbing our eyes in disbelief, wondering where December went and thinking, “Oh no! It is January and I have not even cracked a book!”  Your heart starts beating quickly, you might start to sweat a little, and you get that sick, twisted feeling in your stomach. 

    It is going to be a long month.

    First of all, let me reassure you, this response is not abnormal, nor is it a bad thing!  I want to talk to you a bit about the wretched experience of stress and what you can do to ease yourself through the treachery that is January.

    First, let’s define stress.  Stress is generally a state caused by bodily or mental tension that disrupts existing equilibrium.  There are three stages of stress:

    Stage 1:  Your body releases adrenaline, your heart beats faster, you begin to breathe harder. Other physiological changes occur that allow you to deal with the situation that is causing the stress in order to return to equilibrium.  We call this the Fight-or-Flight Response.

    Stage 2:
      This stage occurs if the stress is prolonged.  Your body becomes tired and begins to release stored sugars and fats from its reserves.  This is when you start to feel pressured and tired.  You experience anxiety, poor memory, and due to your compromised physical health, you may easily attract colds and the flu.

    Stage 3:  This stage occurs in response to chronic stress.  Your body has nothing left to give.  You experience insomnia, errors in judgment, and even personality changes.  You are at an increased risk for developing a serious illness, such as heart disease, ulcers, or mental illness.

    Stress can appear in many forms.  It can be acute or chronic.  It can be good or bad.  It can be environmental, physical, social, or psychological in nature.  One interesting component of stress that forms that basis of what I want to discuss today is that stress is a subjective experience.  What does this mean?  It means that your experience of stress – triggers, reactions, coping mechanisms – is unique to you.  No two people experience stress the same way and in response to the same situations. 

    Take Stressed Sally, for example.  Sally has five exams this month.  To Sally, a lot is riding on these exams.  I mean, the outcome of these exams could very well determine THE REST OF HER LIFE!  If she doesn’t get an A in all of her classes, it will be catastrophic.  I mean, she will never be able to show her face in school again.  If she doesn’t get an A in every class, she won’t get a scholarship, she won’t get into university, she won’t get a good paying job, she won’t attract a partner, she will never have kids, and she will die alone.  The thought of studying makes her sick.  She cannot sleep, she does not eat, and she cries a lot. 

    Needless to say, Sally is stressed. 

    Then we have Calm Carrie.  Carrie, too, has five exams.  In fact, Carrie sits next to Sally in all five of the same classes.  Carrie, too, wants to do well, but she does not experience any of the same symptoms as Stressed Sally.  Carrie tells herself that, while it is important that she puts forth her best effort, a mark that is less than an A will be ok.  She tells herself that her life will not be determined by the results of these exams.  She wants to do well, and will surely study, but at the end of the day, a test is a test. 

    Can you identify the difference between Carrie and Sally?

    The difference between Carrie and Sally is in their perspectives.  Sally is engaging in a whole collection of cognitive distortions (see blog entry two) that are influencing her experience of stress:  Overgeneralization, All-or-None Thinking, Jumping to Conclusions, and Magnification are a few of the obvious ones.  Carrie, on the other hand, is a different story.  While she still experiences stress, the stress she experiences is good stress; it will motivate her to study.

    What is the difference between good stress and bad stress?  Bad stress is debilitating; good stress is motivating.  Bad stress is long-lasting and is detrimental to our physical well-being; good stress is short-term and does not affect our physical health.  Bad stress leads to decreased performance; good stress leads to increased performance.  We need good stress; it gives us the motivation to get out lazy butts out of bed in the morning and be productive citizens.  Bad stress, on the other hand, we can do without.

    How we react to stress is also unique to us as individuals.  Coping mechanisms are strategies we mobilize in times of high stress.  Coping strategies can be negative (i.e. smoking, yelling, hitting others) or they can be positive.  Below is a list of positive coping strategies you may want to employ in response to the stress that January will inevitably cause you. 

    RELAX!  Take deep breaths.  Massage tense muscles.  Stretch.

    TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY!  Never underestimate the power of adequate sleep, exercise, and healthy eating.

    BE REALISTIC!  You are not a super hero and you can not do it all.  Set limits.

    CONNECT WITH OTHERS!  While it may seem like you don’t have the time to chat on the phone, support from loved ones is a crucial component of effectively managing stress. 

    MAKE TIME FOR YOU!  Give yourself an allotted period of time to engage in activities that you enjoy.  Let’s be realistic… studying is not a good time.  If you give yourself intermittent breaks, you will return to the material renewed, refreshed, and better able to retain information. 

    Let’s sum this up.

    Stress is inevitable.  Everyone experiences stress differently.  Perceptions/thought patterns influence the experience of stress.  Stress can be good or it can be bad.  Good stress is short-term and motivational; bad stress is prolonged and is detrimental to our health.  How we react to stress can be either good or bad.  Attending to your well-being is crucial in times of high stress. 

    Quote of the Day

    Stress is an ignorant state.  It believes that everything is an emergency. 

    ~Natalie Goldberg

  • Mental Health Matters 6

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    "Don't beat yourself up over the holidays - Awareness of Fat Talk" 

    We live in a society brimming with Fat Talk.  “Do I look fat in this?”… “Look at this gut!”… “Ugh, I hate my thighs!”  These are all comments you have likely heard too many times, whether it be from your mother, father, a teacher, a friend, a sister, a brother, or that evil internal voice that likes to bring you down a notch the moment you start feeling good about yourself. We all engage in Fat Talk, in some form.  Many of us engage in Fat Talk as part of our daily routine.  And, not surprisingly, it leaves us feeling pretty bad about not just what we look like, but who we are. 

    Where does this Language of Fat come from?  Go stand in line at the grocery store and you will be bombarded with a major perpetuator of society’s beauty obsession: the media.  I took a break from writing this entry for you just to Google today’s latest news headlines in the entertainment world.  Here we have it:  “Kris Humphries Called Kim Kardashian Fat;” “Jessica Simpson in for 4 Million Dollar Weight Watcher’s Deal;” “Kate Gosselin Gets a Facelift” … like, seriously?  The media bombards us with messages everyday that translate to this:  if you are not beautiful, you are not worthy.  Sadly, as a society, we have internalized this message. 

    Sandra Friedman, in her book entitled Nurturing Girlpower, has coined the term “grungie” to describe the negative voice that we have developed in response to our overwhelming desire, as a society, to be beautiful.  “Grungies” are the negative things we tell ourselves about ourselves.  They commonly appear in the form of “you are fat” or “you are stupid” or “you are ugly.”  Underneath these statements are real feelings; when we do not know how to express ourselves or are too frightened to do so, we shift our focus from our internal needs to our external image.  We turn to our Language of Fat.

    Take, for example, the simple phrase, “I feel fat.”  Feeling fat is quite different from being fat.  Thin people feel fat and fat people feel fat.  Nobody feels fat all the time. If someone felt fine at 5:00 pm and felt fat at 6:15 pm, that change that occurred was not physical; it was emotional (Friedman, p. 50).

    Why do we do it?  There are many motivations behind this tendency and individual answers may vary.  One commonality, however, exists amongst Fat Talkers and it is related to our natural tendency as human beings to fear the unknown.  Feelings are deep, unseen, and can be pretty difficult to figure out.  Our appearance, however, is superficial, quite visible, and is rather easily manipulated.  Why make yourself feel better by dragging yourself through emotional wreckage when you can simply book a hair appointment, buy a new shirt, and band-aid it all up?

    I have a good reason:  band-aids fall off.

    Through ignoring our internal needs and focusing our efforts on our appearance, while we do achieve temporary relief, it is just that – temporary.  Our internal needs will resurface, our external fix will wear off (or out), and we will find ourselves right back at (minus) square one… now adding frustration and a sense of hopelessness to the mix. 

    So here are the two messages that I am hoping you are interpreting from my rant.

    First, it is crucial that we learn to challenge media messages that promote not only an unrealistic beauty ideal but self-depreciation and self-hatred.  Secondly, it is absolutely necessary that, on a personal level, you learn to identify your tendency towards Fat Talk and refrain from covering your emotional experience with expensive clothing and bronzer. 

    Quote of the Day

    What you do, the way you think, makes you beautiful.

    ~ Scott Westerfeld


    Friedman, S. (2003).  Nurturing Girlpower.  Vancouver, B.C.:  Salal Books. 

  • Mental Health Matters 7

    It Is Okay to Hurt

    I think you can agree that we all live in a society that adores speed and ease.  In other words, let’s get things done quickly and let’s do so in the simplest way we know how.  Seems like a good idea… right?  I mean, why read the novel when you can buy the Coles notes?  Why exercise when you can get liposuction?  Why prepare a healthy meal when you can stop at McDonalds?  When faced with life’s obstacles, we, as a society, prefer simple answers that require as little effort as possible on our part.  As it turns out, we approach our emotions in a similar manner.

    Here are a couple of interesting facts for you: 

    • In Canada, between 1981 and 2000, the percentage of antidepressant medication prescriptions increased 353%. 
    • That is right – in 19 years, the number of prescriptions written by Canadian doctors for antidepressant medications increased from 3.2 million per year to an astonishing14.5 million. 

    Now I hope all of you critical thinkers out there acknowledge that many confounding variables may have played a role in this increase – population growth, revisions of diagnostic criteria, etc.  Nonetheless, it is a staggering statistic and one must wonder if our tendency, as a society, towards the “quick fix” may have been a contributing factor to the sky-rocketing statistic. 

    What we are observing here is a concept that has been termed the medicalization of sadness – pathologizing emotions that are within the healthy range of human experience. Wakefield and Horwitz, in their book entitled, The Loss of Sadness, proposed three essential components of normal sadness:  context-specificity, intensity proportionate to loss, and the tendency for the sadness to end once the situation resolves.  These authors have argued that, historically, pathological sadness was separated from normal sadness based on these three criteria.  Since then, with the focus of the diagnostic manual emphasizing symptomology over context, we are seeing what Wakefield and Horwitz identify as a “bogus” epidemic of pseudo-depression.  Because being sad is rather unpleasant and we, as a society, prefer simple solutions to our problems, is it possible that we are becoming quick to jump on the medication band-wagon as opposed to accepting emotions for what they really are – healthy expressions of our day-to-day experiences?  

    What I am trying to say here is this:  It is okay to be sad.  It is okay to hurt sometimes.

    There are many positive coping mechanisms that can be implemented in times of sadness that may help you begin the process of healing.  Interact with others; isolation promotes depression.  Go for a walk; release some of that negative energy.  Talk to someone; social support is a necessary pre-requisite for a healthy mind.  Journal; writing is therapeutic.  Punch something (like a pillow – not your brother); release your unpleasant feelings!  

    I have adopted an evolutionary perspective on the emotional experience; emotions are functional adaptations that exist because they were of benefit to our ancestors. If certain emotions were not functional, natural selection would have weeded them out many generations ago.  We feel unpleasant emotions at times because they are providing us information about our surroundings and allow us to act accordingly. 

    With this being said, depression is a very real disorder that exists due to a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors.  If your sadness is prolonged and you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, you should schedule an appointment with your school counsellor or family physician:

    • Significant weight gain or loss
    • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
    • Withdrawal from social interactions
    • Feeling of hopelessness
    • Decrease in concentration
    • Fatigue or loss of energy
    • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
    • Change in sleep pattern:  excessive sleeping or inability to sleep
    • Agitation or irritability
    • **Thoughts of suicide

    **If you have had thoughts of suicide, it is important that you seek help IMMEDIATELY.  While feelings of sadness are within the range of normal human experience, thoughts of death or suicide are not and are indicative of a Major Depressive Disorder. 

    Contact number for Children and Adolescent Crisis Line:  780-427-3390

    Quote of the Week: 

    Feelings are not supposed to be logical.  Dangerous is the man who has rationalized his emotions.

    ~ David Borenstein


    1. 1)    http://www.magazine.utoronto.ca/leading-edge/increasing-use-of-antidepressants-in-canada/
    2. 2)    Wakefield & Horwitz (2007). The Loss of Sadness.  New York:  Oxford University Press.