Stress is Good: embracing stress, not fighting it

May 29, 2018 Leave a comment

Stress-can-actually-be-good-for-me-YAY-300x300We talk a lot about stress as something negative, something to be avoided.  Students tell me all the time how “stressed” they are as if it is something entirely negative.  The reality is that often stress is an appropriate response to a situation.  A student should feel stress, particularly when going into an exam.  If you do not have stress, I would be even more concerned.

Stress tends to have the impact that you expect it to have.  If you believe your stress is harmful it is more likely to be harmful and if you believe your stress is a resource we can use it to activate the energy and focus we need to overcome challenges.

Stress is not something that happens to us, instead, think of it as something that happens within us.  It is a subtle distinction, but if we think of it as something internal rather than external being forced upon us, we feel a greater sense of control and ownership over how we use it.   Dr. Kelly McGonigal, an expert in the field of “science help,” recommends that we do not attempt to directly fight the physiological responses that we have to stress, but instead subtly reframe it in a way that is positive.  Thus, instead of trying to calm ourselves down, we should see the surge of adrenaline, energy, etc that often comes with a stressful situation as an indication of excitement.  Indeed, at times of stress, our bodies and minds are in a state of excitement.  While it may feel unreasonable to convince yourself in those moments to be calm, it is not unreasonable to convince yourself to view your emotional and physiological response as excitement.

Further, it is important to remind ourselves that stress is fundamentally linked with what we care about and what we value.  If we view the stress we encounter in each day as a part of eudaimonic well-being, then we will be have the courage and resilience to grow from stress and realise its critical role in self-realization.  (Eudaimonic wellbeing is an alternative to hedonic happiness; it focusses more on human flourishing including self-realization, values, and purpose and less on the pursuit of pleasure that is associated more with hedonism.)

We can use this perspective on a daily basis when dealing with the inevitable stress that is associated with doing a university degree.  By reframing our thoughts on stress and seeing stress as something we can harness and use to our advantage rather than something that is happening to us and is innately negative, we will be able to help alleviate some of the more destructive consequences that the negative view of stress has on our academic, physical and psychological well-being.

The reality is, stress is an essential part of a fulfilling and productive life.  If we had no stress, we would not have the pressure and motivation to get up and do anything.  Stress is what gets us going, it is what helps us be energetic and engaged at the right moments.  The goal should not be to eliminate stress, but to get better at interpreting stress as a productive tool.

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Finding the light in the darkness. A Reflection on the Humboldt Broncos Tragedy

April 20, 2018 Leave a comment
light in dark

When I googled the word Humboldt, to find an image, for some reason my search returned a whole bunch of images of light shining through trees

When I read about the horrific accident involving the Humboldt Broncos just two weeks ago, I was overcome. My children take a bus to school, my son plays hockey; we drive around Southwestern Ontario in the winter to take my daughter to gymnastics competitions. Those families are my family.

 

The pain felt very real. I could not turn away from the unfolding stories of the lives of those impacted. I felt an obligation to learn about each victim so that I could pay tribute in my heart and mind. The grief was hard to bear even from such a great distance.

broncos

The Go Fund Me Page raised more than $15,000,000 in less than 2 weeks

I turned my attention instead to the Go Fund Me page. I became fixated on watching the donations roll in. Seeing how people from across our country and across the world were expressing their compassion in the only way they felt they could in that moment. Each dollar represented an expression of love and kindness. This shift from dark to light helped me to see that even in the midst of the greatest tragedy that a parent can face, there is love, hope, and light.

 

As a teenager, I worked at a camp for children with cancer. By the time I was 20 I had attended over a dozen funerals for young friends and campers. Seeking a way to reconcile living with the death I was witnessing, I clung to a law of physics that gave me great comfort. It states that energy cannot be created or destroyed it can only be transferred or transformed.

When I thought about this in the context of our physical bodies, it was very easy to reconcile. Our bodies return to the earth or are transformed into heat, fire, and ashes. But we are so much more than our bodies. I realized then that who we are, our spirit, soul, personality (however you want to describe it) is also energy. That energy is, upon our death, transferred and transformed – it cannot be destroyed. This realization helped me to see that I could continue to experience the energy of those that I have lost, just not in the same way that I had before.

With the devastating loss of lives in Humboldt we can see the transfer and transformation of their energy. Each one of those 16 individuals lived lives filled with passion, persistence, love . . . ENERGY. I can see that energy spread now across our country and beyond. I see that energy in each dollar raised, in each sticker placed on a helmet, in each green and gold quilt stitched. It is impressive. I know that for the families and friends of the victims this does not begin to touch their pain. However, I hope that these acts of kindness, love, compassion, this light in such darkness, will give them the strength they need to find new ways of experiencing the energy of their loved one.

When your day is filled with clouds

March 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Clouds Background Cloud High Sky Air

Even when the sky is filled with clouds, the sun is still out and shining, you just can’t see it.  I remind myself of this when I am struggling to find the good in a day.  The truth is that nothing living can survive without rain, so even if we don’t like the clouds, we cannot thrive and grow without them.

With the flood of smiling faces and sunny vacations, the constant façade of perfect lives that we are presented with in people’s carefully curated Facebook feeds, we can feel as though the dull days of our lives are not the norm.  However, when I sit in my office across from students whose lives are filled with clouds and rain, when I connect with friends, who are burnt out, exhausted, struggling with parenting, feeling like they don’t get time to rest or relax, I realise that what we think is the norm is not at all.  What is normal is to struggle.

Well that sounds terrible!  And to be honest, some days it is.  But, if we can re-frame those struggles and also be sure to take the time to find the good in each day, it becomes much less depressing.  It allows us to not just live for those exciting days off in the distance where we know we have a vacation planned, or something special coming up.  It allows us to transform the day to day into something that feels more sustainable and even mildly enjoyable.

One of my favourite quotes about life was brought to my attention by Dr. Brene Brown, a phenomenal expert on vulnerability, courage, shame, and worthiness.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.  Theodore Roosevelt

This paints a vivid picture in my mind of what a great life might look like.  It is not remotely close to Facebook perfection.  It is not someone who looks composed, well put together, with perfectly prepared and well balanced meals, exceptional study habits, impeccable parenting skills: someone who says and does all the right things at the right times, who is loved by all, and admired for his/her restraint and humility.

In fact, this great life, looks a bit more like I do at the end of a day:  holes in my leggings, some sort of food spilt on my shirt, my hair tangled, the kids complaining about dinner, and lunch, and likely breakfast, someone at work claiming that I didn’t do something I was supposed to do.  Then there are those kind words that someone says to me; I went for a walk with a friend;  I totally destroyed (with three stars) that next level of candy crush; I shared a laugh over a stupid you tube video about a dog that bites his own foot and I told someone that I appreciated them;  I made a student feel less hopeless, less ashamed, less like a failure. . . and there it is! My own small triumph. So, no matter how messy or unworthy of a post to my Facebook feed I can see that behind the dullness of the day, the sun was shining the whole time.  I just needed to look for it.

If it were not for the complaining, I wouldn’t appreciate the compliments so much.  If it were not for the less than perfect image, it wouldn’t feel as good to take the time to dress up and do my hair. If it were not for Kraft dinner and hot dogs, those well prepared fresh meals would not taste as good.  If it were not for clouds and the rain, the sun would not feel like such a blessing.

 

 

What you seek you will find

March 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Broaden and Build Theory

What you seek you will find – If you are looking for problems you will find them.  If you are looking for positives you will find them.

I see every day the instant impact that positivity or negativity has on individual and collective outcomes and trajectory.  I frequently coach my students to frame goals as something they want to achieve rather than something that they are hoping to avoid. For example: “I hope I master this course content and get a good grade” vs.  “I hope I don’t fail.”

By focusing on the positive you can feel your entire body change.  A student when talking about possibilities tends to sit up more, make more eye contact, smile more, and  has a visible energy.  That same student when talking about his/her fears becomes not just mentally but also physically closed off.  He/she will slump down more in the chair, has a harder time making eye contact, sometimes I even see nervous twitching like legs shaking etc.

Dr. Frederickson talks about the amazing impact of positive thoughts in her Broaden and Build theory.  This theory illuminates exactly what I have witnessed in others and what I feel in myself when faced with a challenge.

In order to ensure that you are supporting a work/study environment that promotes creativity and innovation, it is important to work hard to protect and encourage positive emotion and perspectives.  One way that I do this is ensuring that when we are working as a team on resolving a problem or improving a service, that we focus first on un-analysed idea generation.  By protecting the brainstorming process from the negative emotion that can result from instant analysis, we are helping people to feel safe in sharing ideas, broadening the thoughts and actions that we will consider, and generating an upward spiral of energy and creativity that is more likely to result in multiple good options.

I recognise that, particularly in a university setting, there can be a strong desire to analyse and critique everything as soon as it is put on the table.  However, if the desire to point out flaws, impracticality, budgetary constraints, etc. can be delayed until a second stage of consideration, then you are allowing for a cross pollination of ideas, and for people to feel open to sharing. You can reassure all involved that we will get to the analysis stage; we can look at all the data points you like, but just not yet.  Furthermore, this focus on the positive not only assists in the short term idea generation and problem solving, but also ensures that as a team we have longer term success, well-being and resilience.

Can you think of a time when you were sitting in a meeting and you or someone else had an idea that was instantly shut down?  “Well we tried that last year and it didn’t work” . . . “We don’t have the budget for that” . . . “There is no way the administration will approve that” . . . . How did you feel?

Neuroplasticity

February 12, 2018 Leave a comment

nNeuroplasticitynoun

mass noun

  • The ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury.

The idea that our minds are not just set, unchangeable, static, makes so much feel possible.  I have grown up in a world that encourages us to believe that talents and abilities are innate, that we are “gifted” or “a natural”.  Further, if we have to work too hard at something it is an indication that we are not naturally gifted in that area and therefore are unlikely to every become really good at it.

Josh Waitzkin states, “The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability we will be brittle in the face of adversity.”  I agree entirely with this statement and see it play out on a daily basis with the students that I council.  If we believe that struggle and effort are indicative of inability, then we will give up when things get hard.  Instead, if we believe as Rick Hanson asserts, that “Failure is the most essential step to success” then we will be able to embrace adversity as a necessary part of growth.

Furthermore, if we use our mind to change our brain, to change our mind for the better, then we will be able to harness our full potential and become resilient when we face challenges.  Hanson, refers to this sort of thinking as self-directed neuroplasticity.  This concept feels very liberating and empowering to me as it allows us to defy what seems to come naturally and instead to master, whatever we set our minds to – quite literally.

I have started talking with students about neuroplasticity.  It is interesting to observe how few of them have heard of this and how many of them hold onto the belief that struggle and effort are a sign of inability and weakness.  Having this dialogue with students I have seen an instant impact on their ability to look at the next week of exams: the struggles, the doubts, the hard-work that lies immediately in front of them, and to see it not as an exercise in futility and self-doubt, but instead as an opportunity to transform their brain, in meaningful ways.  To literally form new neural connections, and pathways, to impact the chemistry, structure and function of their brain in a way that sets them up better for learning, success, and resilience.

Nearly 70% of university students battle loneliness during school year, survey says

September 12, 2016 Leave a comment

National survey found students felt ‘very lonely’ and ‘so depressed that it was difficult to function’

By Teghan Beaudette, CBC News Posted: Sep 09, 2016 4:00 AM CTLast Updated: Sep 09, 2016 4:00 AM CT

A new study of Canadian university students found more than 66 per cent reported feeling “very lonely” in the past year.

A new study of Canadian university students found more than 66 per cent reported feeling “very lonely” in the past year.

As university classes start up this week, officials are already working hard to stave off a major contributor to poor mental health among students — loneliness.

A new study of Canadian university students found more than 66 per cent reported feeling “very lonely” in the past year.

And the problem was worse for female students, with nearly 70 per cent feeling very lonely at least once in the last year, compared with male students at 59 per cent.

More than 43,000 students were surveyed for the National College Health Assessment.

It found about 30 per cent of students “felt very lonely” within the last two weeks.

The study also found nearly half of the students surveyed felt debilitatingly depressed in the past year.

44 per cent said they “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

It’s something counsellors on Winnipeg campuses are well aware of.

David Ness, director of student counselling at the University of Manitoba, said he expects to see students struggling with loneliness come into the counselling centre every year.

“They’re on a campus with 30,000 students, several thousand employees — there’s all these people around, but you still feel lonely,” Ness said. “You have to have the individual skills to connect with someone.”

He said it seems to be worse after the Thanksgiving break, and he thinks the increasing social anxiety rate in youth is a contributor. He also thinks electronic devices are contributing to students having difficulty making connections.

Ness recommends joining student groups or reaching out to counsellors or student mentors.

‘You can feel really isolated’

At the University of Winnipeg, the student association is in the middle of a week of events to try to get students to connect before things get really busy.

“It’s still a scary place for a lot of students. Your first year coming here, you can feel really isolated,” said Kevin Settee, the student association’s president. “You’re in classrooms, then you have to go home and study, and you’ve got to do your research and write your papers, and usually a lot of that happens in isolation.… It can get lonely.”

Students from Northern Manitoba or out of province are often leaving their family and friends for the first time, Settee said.

David Ness, University of Manitoba

David Ness is the head of counselling services at the University of Manitoba. He says every year, students come in struggling with loneliness on campus. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

Some Canadian universities are tackling loneliness directly and not just as a contributor to poor mental health among students. The University of Calgary has developed resources for lonely students to let them know they’re not alone and where and how they can get help.

Jan Byrd, who directs the University of Winnipeg’s wellness and student life program, said the university has first year students move into dorms a week early to help them adjust.

“We do quite a few things differently to welcome our first year students and try and alleviate that loneliness,” said Byrd, pointing to activities like group movie nights, bowling, city tours and appointed peer mentors.

“We know that students are more likely to stay here and persist and do well in their studies if they have a network of supports, so we try and create many opportunities so people can make a network and make connections on campus so that things don’t hit a crisis,” she said.

The university doesn’t want to “medicalize loneliness” because, Byrd said, it’s a perfectly normal feeling, but “there are those students for whom things don’t get better.”

When that’s the case, the university has psychiatrists and nurses on staff to help.

Ness, Settee and Byrd all recommended joining student groups as a way to stave off loneliness. The U of W had more than 70 groups last year, and the University of Manitoba tracks extracurriculars and puts them on students’ transcripts as an incentive to participate.

Ness said counsellors can help students develop coping skills and figure out exactly what is causing them to feel bad.

Ness and Byrd said students should reach out before it reaches a crisis point.

In the past two years, the University of Winnipeg has increased counselling services on campus and changed the student health care program to include more money for mental health services.

Finding Direction at the Top of a Mountain

March 4, 2016 Leave a comment

mountains_960One of our Engineering students who is taking a year off contacted our office about his next steps for his education.  During our interactions he mentioned that he has been doing some personal exploration.  I thought that his story might resonate with other students.  You can check out another of David Zhang’s posts here.

The Calgary Hiking Club – by David Zhang

The weather forecast was terrible. Well the forecasting wasn’t bad but the actual weather — not so much. Thunderstorms in Banff. I had organized our first hike of the summer and it was the morning of. Five confirmed attendants, supposedly. It was 5 minutes passed meetup time. My calls were returned with voicemails.

Luckily, one of them did show up. “You’re a troll”, he muttered, shaking the rain out of his hair. As troll as it was, we trekked on our way through the summer thunder to our hike. Our two-man hike.

At arrival, we were pleasantly surprised. The rain had settled the dust and crisp clean taste of the dew-covered forest lingered with every breath. Birds brimmed the trees, singing and celebrating the passing of the storm. We joined them, immersing ourselves in nature; awe stricken by its beauty, our daily worries seemed to disappear.

The best part: the scenery was silently serene; there were those who made a logical decision to stay home, and there were us.

After a good 10 miles’ up’n’down, I was absolutely exhausted. It was tough. It was grueling. It was amazing.

I loved every minute of it. Even though 3 of our initially planned party didn’t show up, it made me realize that I didn’t need to depend on others for my plans; I was the creator of my happiness. Through a good 9 hours of talking, laughing, singing, and sweating, we began the legacy of the Calgary Hiking Club.

Co-founded by two people, the CHC was originally a joke alias to keep our motivation for proactivity. Our philosophy was “Just do it!”. Might sound familiar but I assure you it’s 100% original. Whenever someone came up with an idea, it was accepted immediately — unconditionally. It was circumstance that had given us the chance to reap our first adventure, and it would be initiative that would keep us going for the next.

Over the summer, we had a few friends come visit and took them along the CHC “Tour de Banff”. With each hike, the club grew. Not necessarily in size, but for my friend and I, the summits had made us stronger. We were eager to embark on new journeys and face new challenges; getting out of our comfort zone began to not feel so uncomfortable.

In four months, our population grew from a measly 2 to a pretty outstanding 5 (yeah I know, not to brag or anything…). Although we weren’t selective in club members, we didn’t chase people to join it. This wasn’t some kind of pyramid scheme or resume builder, this was something for ourselves. Besides, any members that needed to be “chased down” were probably not worthy of the membership. Following the motto, the CHC were full of people with initiative. Those who joined would not be exceptions. When we planned something, there were no maybe’s. Everyone was full of vigor and passion. It wasn’t just about the exercise; there was something about climbing mountains that invigorated us. We wanted to do things. To climb greater heights. To live better lives.


I was an all-star in high school. I was smart, athletic, and popular. I got 2310 on my SATs, won the Canadian Junior Chess Championship, and could bench 205lb in grade 11. I felt like I was on top of the world, with unlimited potential to effervesce. The sky wasn’t even the limit. I was invincible.

However, the past two years of my life have proven otherwise. Once I stepped into university, my slate was wiped clean. Since I moved out of the province for school, I knew no one, and although I didn’t care too much about popularity, in a school with so many people that want to fit in, it’s hard to make real relationships. It felt like I had to choose between putting on a mask to socialize with everyone and taking it off to meet people who wanted to build something genuine.

I bet you’re thinking, Dude, you just gotta’ balance it bro, and don’t get me wrong, I thought so too. In fact, I did try to balance the social aspects of my social life, but it didn’t work. Sure I met a lot of people and found a few good friends here and there, but I couldn’t help but think of how it was like in high school. I didn’t have to try, friends came naturally; everything was authentic — it was just so easy.

In addition, even though I had good grades, the curriculum didn’t stimulate me and the lifestyle was hard for me to adapt to. I began drifting away from my goals and used school as an excuse for doing nothing productive in my time. The enthalpy between high school me and 2nd year me could have saved America two months of gas bills. I began spending all my time thinking about how badly I was wasting it. Along with a heavy backpack of personal issues, I fell down to rock bottom and into a pit of depression. I wanted help, but all I got from psychiatrists were prescriptions for SSRIs and an $80 fine.

So I put it on myself.

I tried to bring myself back up. I told myself that I would get back to where I used to stand. I would climb back up the mountain and reach the summit that I had once conquered before. But this was a fallacious mentality. Instead of pursuing new goals, I spent the past two years chasing after my past successes. With eyes glued to the back of my head, never once did I try to move forward.

It was through the simple joy of going out for hikes that began to change my perspective. By pushing myself out of complacency and into the wilderness, I began to move forward in directions I had never seen before. Just the actions of initiating and committing have given me the conviction to do things I would never have imagined myself doing 4 months ago. I have set goals and put plans in action. I used to wake up at 1PM and spend my day waiting to sleep. Now, I don’t even think I have time to sleep! There are too many things I want to do.

As mentioned before, the CHC is really just an alias. The conception of the club was through a hiking trip, but the real beginning of it all was when we took the dive to shoulder the thunderstorm and just do it. While I’d like to say something like “The CHC isn’t just about climbing mountains, we’re about reaching greater heights! lol!”, the CHC is all about climbing mountains! However, those mountains don’t have to be in the shape of a big earthly mound. Many of them, in fact, aren’t physical ones. In our everyday lives, even the smallest hurdles can impede us from going forward. I’d tell myself that it’s too hot outside to go for a run. I’d give excuses to avoid, push, and procrastinate. I’d say tomorrow instead of today. It’s easy to get comfortable, and that’s exactly where we were when we started.

When we began hiking, we proved to ourselves that any mountain can be overcome with guts and initiative. As long as there is a start, there can be a finish.

Through blood and sweat, the CHC has shown me the power of simply doing things. When life is caving in on you, you either squish, or you push back. I have been bruised, broken, and have fallen down one of the highest points in my life.

Maybe I’ll never climb back up the mountain I once stood upon, but that’s okay, because the next one is right up ahead.

Categories: Career Development
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