Bird Nerd I am.

I’m a bird nerd. They make me happy. Just watching them hop around, flitting here and there, puts a goofy smile on my face. I really love watching the ones in those small wee groups, like juncos, sparrows and robins. Oh and chickadees! Who doesn’t like chickadees? They’re so plucky!

And how cool is that to be named after the sound you make! Chick-a-dee-dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Wait that wouldn’t be so good for us humans, would it? The sounds we mostly make are burps and farts. Yes we talk, but our ‘organic’ noises aren’t our voices.

Anyway, moving on… I found this scientific tidbit about watching birds (see below to geek out on the research). It confirmed something I was already experiencing.

Simon Science Says: Just Add Birds!

Watch birds – any kind – from a window, in a garden or around your neighbourhood. Doing so is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety & stress, according to a study from the University of Exeter in England.1

Everyday I work at my desk in my home office. I’ve purposely positioned it near a window that overlooks our back porch and old growth trees. Each morning I dribble a little bird seed on the railing. The aforementioned juncos, and others, enthusiastically gobble it up. See photo. Each time they jostle, doing their version of bird sumo wrestling to get access to the best feeding point, I smile. I feel like they’re my feathered co-workers. I don’t have to do anything except watch. I get this happy, present-moment-kind-of-feeling seeing them. Life feels simple and that feels good.

Try it out and see if you get the same benefit.

What does Simon Science Really Say?

According to a University of Exeter study which involved hundreds of people from both urban and rural settings, being able to see birds from windows, and on a daily basis around their neighborhoods, was associated with reduced rates of depression, anxiety and stress.

Drawing from the ‘attention-restoration theory’ which posits that being in nature, and even simply watching nature, promotes healing and lessens stress, researchers explored the potential benefit of nature to improve mood.

The researchers found no correlation between the species of birds seen, but instead the number, indicating that seeing common birds such as robins, crows and blackbirds on a regular basis is a key factor.

Evidence shows it’s not about identifying bird types, but instead, interacting with birds.

The UK Health Spectator rightly cautioned that “while the correlation between mood and nature was highly significant….(doesn’t explain) the cause of the relationship. For example, do happier people actively seek nature more or does a lack of exposure to nature lead to higher rates of depression, or is there some other factor?”2

As a fairly low effort and no-cost tactic that potentially could reduce anxiety and depression and boost mental wellness, it’s worth a shot, I’d say.

Do you already do this? What’s your experience? If you haven’t, try it out and see if you get any benefit. Email me or comment below and tell me!

For more Mental Health resources, tips & tools, sign up for my newsletter.

© Victoria Maxwell

References

1 https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/2/147/2900179

2 https://health.spectator.co.uk/just-looking-at-birds-may-help-to-keep-you-happier/

When I was a kid, Halloween scared me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved trick or treating (mini Oh Henry Bars in particular). I loved creating costumes from scratch. I loved making multitudes of Kleenex ghosts and hanging them in our front window.

What I didn’t like was walking home the weeks before and after the day. Why? Firecrackers. Those freakin’ things seemed to be everywhere. Local bullies took no small pleasure at lighting them near me and threatening to throw them my way. I didn’t have any confidence to stand up to these blokes. Nor did I have friends or siblings who walked home with me to help stave them off or at the very least to reassure me and steady my nerves. Nope. It was one long scramble uphill – the whole entire way no less – back home. If I had even one friend with me during the traipse back to our rented house, the string of those lightning snaps that gave me such panicked pause would have been easier to face.

Super Fan Steve

That’s why when I read an article in our local paper about Steven Guinter-Plank, also known as Superfan Steve, I was moved.

Steve travels to countless minor league hockey games and there, cheers on every kid by name – on both teams. He flips through the program or gets a roster from the manager to make sure he doesn’t leave any player out. He even cheers for the refs.

You’ll find him switching jerseys throughout a game and shouting chants for each side. He started in his hometown and was motivated to continue because of the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy that claimed 16 people’s lives and injured 13. In an interview, he says as he shouts “Good job! Here we go everybody!” he can see a little more jump in their step.

His enthusiasm is contagious. Hockey parents, supporting only their son’s or daughter’s team, once witnessing what Superfan Steve does, often start cheering for both sides.1

It’s this kind of social support that was key to my recovery from mental illness. It continues to be key to maintaining my mental health.

The benefits of social support to mental and physical health

Numerous studies show the benefits of social support to mental and physical health and the consequences of poor social support.2 Generally speaking, social support refers to the different ways in which we’re helped by others, both physically and emotionally and in particular, during times of need.  

Superfan Steve shows the big impact small but specific gestures of support can make.

When I was in the deep throes of depression early in my struggle to find recovery, it was spending even just an hour with my friend Kerry that made a difference. Having him walk alongside me, so to speak, talk about things other than how to feel better and instead talk about our favorite TV shows. THAT’S what helped me. I didn’t need any fancy answer or new fangled resource. I just wanted a friend to hang out with for a bit.

Recently while experiencing bouts of intense anxiety, it’s been my husband who’s stalwartly and lovingly had my back. Grocery shopping together, a short walk around the neighborhood, a spontaneous hug during my workday, a surprise cup of coffee: these small deeds kept me glued together when I felt like I was falling apart.

The gestures don’t have to be grand or costly. Simple and personal work best – at least for me. Like Steve calling out the name of each individual kid – that’s what makes it special.

Imagine how I might have felt if I had a Superfan Steve of my own shouting ‘You got this Victoria! You can do this!’ on the sidewalk sidelines as I walked home while those firecrackers were exploding? I think I would have felt like a champion.

If you’re stymied as to how to show your support for someone keep it simple, keep it small, and personalize it. Does your friend love dark chocolate? A tiny bar left on her doorstep might be a good pick me up. Is your sister an avid science buff? Pick up a few National Geographics at your local thrift store. Does your neighbor enjoy hiking? See if they would like to walk through a local park. Maybe it’s saying hello and introducing yourself to the elderly man on the motorized scooter. You may be the only person he talks to today.

Your simple but powerful acts of kindness offer social support that has positive ripple effects in people’s lives. Science proves it. I’ve experienced it. Recovery, wellness and resilience are born from these small seeds of attention.3

Superfan Steve shows how easy it is to be a super fan and how important it is as well. You don’t have to travel to countless towns. It may just be knowing someone’s name. After hearing about Steve I’m now a superfan of his! I guess that makes me a ‘Superfan Steve’ Superfan.

How are you going to show your support for someone today?

For more Mental Health resources, tips & tools, sign up for my newsletter.

© Victoria Maxwell

References

  1. Bantam Bauer interview
  2. Ozbay, Fatih et al. “Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practicePsychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)) vol. 4,5 (2007): 35-40.
  3. Southwick, Steven M et al. “Why are some individuals more resilient than others: the role of social supportWorld psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) vol. 15,1 (2016): 77-9.

For all the talking we’re doing, for all the well-meaning campaigns, I still believe we are woefully under-trained (or untrained for that matter) in how to effectively and comfortably talk to someone about their mental health, particularly in the workplace.

This was the focus of a workshop I facilitated at the recent, successful Working Stronger conference hosted by the Canadian Mental Health Association – Alberta provincial branch.

The heart of this annual event is to bring together leaders and staff from various sectors and companies to acquire skills and engage in dialogue to increase the psychological health of their workplaces.

I performed my “Funny, You Don’t Look Crazy” about my lived experience with mental illness and my eventual return to work. Then I led an enthusiastic group of individuals in an interactive breakout entitled: “Ready, Set, Recognize: Detecting Mental Illness and How to Help”.

To be quite frank, I was nervous. I had several years employed in the not-for-profit health sector. But my corporate experience has consisted of a two-year stint in a small company (really small – 6 people including me!). 20 years ago.

I was hired as a marketing-assistant-slash-receptionist. Heavy emphasis on the receptionist part. Well, actually, heavy emphasis on the slash part. It was my first job since getting my “sea legs” back after being in the psych ward several times over the previous 5 years. Handling conversations, let alone their phone system, was going to take courage.

I held jobs both when I was struggling and in denial of my mental illnesses and also after when I was learning to manage them. It wasn’t easy for me. I know it wasn’t easy for my bosses or co-workers either.

4 simple steps to make the conversation easy and effective.

Working with well-meaning but misguided managers, and exceptionally talented ones, I’ve learned some strategies about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to addressing mental illness in the workplace.

The result is the framework I created called: O.A.R.S. (Observe, Ask + Actively Listen, Refer and Support). A simple protocol to support an employee or co-worker who may be facing a mental health issue.

The steps of O.A.R.S. are simple, but not necessarily easy. We aren’t used to having these conversations. The only way we’ll get confident is by practice.

One solution for companies is to offer safe learning opportunities and ‘rehearsal’ time for these dialogues in low-stake/no-stake situations.  We can be as awkward and unsure as we need to be and gain experiences of success that we can take into real-world scenarios.

I call the framework the Wizard of O.A.R.S. because, well, who doesn’t like a nice play on words? (Actually, I do know several people who don’t. But that’s beside the point.) And because oars bring balance, stability and direction to a boat. Just like oars, people can give support and guidance to those around them who may be facing mental health issues.

This is not a quick fix. The steps don’t work instantaneously. They can in rare cases. But they will gradually, over time, make a difference.

Observe – Changes in behaviour, length present + document

Ask + Actively Listen – Discuss concerns in terms of behaviour, its impact + needs

 Ask open-ended questions

 Mirror + validate

 Be patient + wait

 Be curious

 Discuss impact of behavior

 Focus on collaborative problem solving + actions

Refer – To resources in the workplace and/or community

Visit my resource page to download a Mental Health Resource Guide for additional tools.

Support – Continue to communicate and encourage; find agreement + set healthy objectives

Click here to download the detailed step by step O.A.R.S. e-guide with links to a fun video of Everyone Loves Raymond using active listening!

Observe, Ask & Actively Listen, Refer and Support: the Do’s & Don’ts

Before you have a conversation with someone at work about their mental health, here are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind.

DO…

  • Set the conversation up for success
  • Check in with yourself: is it a good day for YOU to speak to them?
  • Check in: is it a good day for THEM?
  • Play it out: where, why now, how, what will you say, what might they say, how will you respond?
  • Have the facts: make sure the facts you have are correct
  • Determine your objective
  • Focus on building trust, rapport, safety + open dialogue so they feel free to talk
  • Speak to them as early as possible
  • Document behavior changes + note impact
  • Be clear about what you need from them
  • Prepare for own internal emotional reactivity
  • Plan + prepare for resistance
  • Listen without judgement
  • Use an icebreaker

DON’T…

  • Avoid talking about impact of behavior
  • Make assumptions about the behavior or jump to conclusions
  • Interrupt
  • Minimize or dismiss feelings
  • Try to fix or offer advice
  • Enable

Please note: The O.A.R.S. framework is for non-urgent situations. If you feel the individual is at risk of harming themselves or others, immediate care should be sought at the nearest emergency ward. If the individual refuses help and is actively suicidal or at risk for harming others, the police should be called to assist. Please consult your company policies and guidelines.

Do you want to make a positive impact? Have that conversation NOW.

Effectively talking to someone who you think may be struggling with a mental health condition at work can be fiddly and unclear. As a result, managers and supervisors postpone or avoid these conversations, especially if we think the person is going to respond with resistance. Maybe we hope the issue will resolve itself. It almost invariably doesn’t though.

Sometimes individuals dealing with mental health issues aren’t ready to admit it to others or themselves. I certainly wasn’t. It’s not an easy thing to accept. The stigma of mental illness, especially in the workplace, has decreased but it still exists. This can lead people to refuse assistance or refuse to acknowledge the problems directly.

Unfortunately, if left unaddressed, behavior resulting from mental illness may cause difficulties at work and result in discipline, termination or other negative workplace consequences.

As a manager, co-worker or ally you can be proactive and discuss the behavior with the person before it escalates into discipline or termination. The earlier you speak with someone, however uneasy this may be, the higher the chance for optimal outcomes. Early conversations also offer the best opportunity to prevent a condition (if present) from escalating or becoming chronic.

Letting a person who you’re concerned about know you’re willing to listen without judgement, support them and problem solve can open the door for discussion.

This is what Liz, my boss at the marketing company did when I went to her for help. Even before that, she prepped the ground for positive interactions. From the start of my time there, she focused on building a personal rapport with me. One based on trust, respect and active listening. She was frank, firm, fair, kind and honest. When I had difficulties, I knew she was the person I could go to and receive wise counsel and fair treatment.

My experience with Liz gave me confidence that has influenced me to this day. THAT is the kind of impact you can make.

 

 

© Victoria Maxwell

Could your workplace benefit from learning how to comfortably address mental health issues? Contact Victoria to discuss the Workplace Mental Health Awareness package: a performance of ‘Funny, You Don’t Look Crazy’ followed by the ‘Ready, Set, Recognize’ workshop. You’ll learn the simple O.A.R.S. protocol to make those awkward conversations easy and effective. Contact me.

For the past month, I’ve been practicing a breathing meditation my Chi Kung teacher, Renate, gave me.

Each time, I’m amazed how calm, relaxed and alert I feel after about 5 minutes of this controlled deep breathing. Like really peaceful. And for someone who’s recently been as anxious as a hummingbird on cocaine, this is pretty cool.

Then just last week I went to see my GP, Dr. Yee, to get my medications renewed. While there, she also reminded me about Box Breathing (also called 4 square or tactical breathing).

“Tell me about it again.” I said.

“Pretty simple. Breathe in through your nose for 4, hold for 4, exhale through your nose for 4, hold for 4. And repeat it a few times. There’s good evidence it kicks your parasympathetic nervous system into gear and you’ll feel relaxed.”

Huh? A little light bulb went on for me. That’s almost identical to my 9 Breathings Tibetan Meditation.

I got home and went on ‘the google’ (as my husband and I like to call it).

Box Breathing, or controlled deep breathing, activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘rest and digest’ system) and regulates the autonomic nervous system.

In other words, it helps get me out of the stress response when my anxiety is high, my trauma is triggered or I’m heading into a challenging work project even.

It’s called tactical breathing because, get this… Navy Seals are trained to use it. 1 Special forces, law enforcement and first responders use it when there’s a crisis or a threat is perceived. When their stress response is activated they need something that will bring them back to calm, and clear their head, so they can act effectively.

You’re probably quite familiar with the fight or flight response, yes? Or the lesser known “fight, flight or freeze” response. Heart rate increases, adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, eyes dilate, muscles tense and senses sharpen.

Military personnel, even athletes, learn box breathing to calm their system so they can think more clearly and operate effectively in high stress situations.

Who knew ancient yogis and Navy Seals shared a common practice to reduce anxiety?

The Mayo clinic has found deep breathing effectively helps with PTSD, generalized anxiety, depression, even insomnia and pain management.2, 3 It’s also been shown to decrease the release rate of cortisol, trigger the release of pleasure-inducing neurochemicals and eliminate toxins by bringing more oxygen into the bloodstream. 4

Box Breathing in a nutshell:

After some practice, it can be used anywhere, anytime if you’re feeling stressed, say before giving a presentation, about to have a difficult conversation, if you feel a panic attack coming on or feel yourself triggered.  Do this while seated comfortably.

  1. Close your eyes or soften your gaze. Inhale through the nose for a count of 4 until your lungs and belly are full.
  2. Hold for a count of 4. Try not to clench your jaw or muscles.
  3. Exhale through the nose for 4, emptying your lungs and belly.
  4. Hold for 4.
  5. Repeat at least 3 times or as much as you like.

Tip: If counting to 4 is too difficult, use a count of 3. If it’s too easy, increase to what feels right. As you get practiced, increase the length of the breath and hold.

My meditation includes additional elements: hand and finger postures (mudras) and visualization with colour, but the basic framework is the same. As are the results: clarity and calm.

I highly recommend using this practice when you feel generally stressed, or for more acute stress if a traumatic memory has triggered reactivity or panic.

Try it yourself or share it with your clients. Tell me if you found it effective. I’ll be practicing most mornings as part of my meditation and prayer practice (and if my computer crashes or I can’t find my cell phone! 😊).

For more Mental Health resources, tips & tools, sign up for my newsletter.

© Victoria Maxwell

References:

1. https://thepreppingguide.com/box-breathing/

2. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321805.php

3. https://ritualize.com/box-breathing-military-secret/

4. https://unbeatablemind.com/7-tangible-benefits-of-breathing-exercises/

Watch Mark Divine, former Navy Seal, teach his version in this video here.