Indecision can fan the flames of anxiety and really do a doozie if you have an anxiety disorder. We live in a society that reveres the ‘just do it’ mentality. Allowing confusion to be part of an effective decision making process just doesn’t jive with our ‘expert-self-reliant-I’ve-got-it-together’ kind of attitude.

But here’s the secret. It’s ok to not know; to live in ambiguity. Yikes, you say. Oh god, no. Has your anxiety spiked? I know mine does sometimes when I consider this. As counter intuitive as it may seem to our society’s mandate about always being in control, it’s ok to live in uncertainty. It actually can be much more beneficial than pressuring ourselves to make a choice when we are in fact, in doubt of that decision or don’t have enough information to feel good about our choice. It’s a valuable skill to be able to recognize when we are not in a position to make a wise choice.

But how do you live comfortably with ambiguity so it doesn’t drive you into a panic attack or analysis paralysis? Make it official (the indecisiveness, not the panic attack). That is: choose to be indecisive. With that very statement you’ve made a decision.

But don’t stop there. Instead pick a date, say in three days, a week or a month to revisit the conundrum. Consciously choose to postpone a decision.  Leah Goard, a fab business coach and friend, calls it ‘delayed decision making’. I call it the ‘just park it’ process (and pick up later).

“Basically,” Leah says, “we don’t realize that like physical things in our lives – our thoughts, ideas and decisions need a specific time and ‘place’ to rest so we can let go of them while we literally and intuitively information gather. If we don’t have a way to set them aside and trust that they will wait there for us, our minds will continue to kick that decision back into the forefront of our minds repeatedly because we are afraid to forget about them. Then the swirl of inner chaos ensues”.

Inner chaos, monkey mind, self-eviscerating self-talk. Can you relate? I certainly can.

During this ‘park it’ time (sort of like a kindergarten nap for unsolved decisions), let new information unfold organically AND also do the concrete research gathering that’s needed.

At that next date, see where you’re at. If you still don’t know, but know you must make a choice, make the best decision possible with the information you have. Then take ‘imperfect action’ and remember the mantra: ‘good enough is good enough’. Read more about ‘good enoughness’ here.

Surprisingly or not (I can’t decide – just kidding), when you commit to a particular option knowing you did so to the best of your ability with the information you had at the time, you will find the results are always pretty darn good; great even.

It’s an on-going, moment to moment process really, to relax with muddlement. I have however come to understand each and every thing in life has its own unique wise timetable and often, if not always, it’s not the one I would impose on it. This is particularly true when my scheduling is propelled by fear. Part of learning to be at ease with my own ambivalence is deeply trusting Life’s flow. Rather than trying to push the river; direct the river, I am slowly (oh so slowly) learning to trust the river.

The ‘Just Park It’ In/Decision Making Process Cheat Sheet (or kindergarten naps for unsolved decisions)

1. Remind yourself it’s OK (wise even) to not know
2. Make it official: choose to be indecisive
3. Park it: pick a date to revisit the choice
4. During ‘park it’ time: allow information to unfold and/or gather research
5. At the next date: park it again or take ‘imperfect action’
6. Remember: ‘good enough is good enough’
7. Practice trusting the river

© Victoria Maxwell

If you’d like to read more about the ‘Good Enough is Good Enough’ mantra and create your own, click here to download my free CRAZY NAKED TRUTH e-guide.

Leah Goard is a soul-searching business and life strategist, serial entrepreneur, professional organizer, writer, speaker and independent mom. To learn more visit www.leahgoard.com.

Wabi-sabi. (Whah-bee/Saw-bee). C’mon say it with me. I know you want to. 

Just saying it makes me feel a little better. These two strange words and the concept it encapsulates, has changed the way I look at failure, my mental health, my life, humanity. Seriously. I was introduced to it by the same dear friend who sent me the link of the Thich Nhat Hanh recording about bringing kindness into mindfulness which I wrote in this post.

Yes, she is one wise woman, this friend of mine! You know who you are. 

What is wabi-sabi? Contrary to what I thought it was, it’s not related to wasabi or sushi. Though it is of Japanese origin. 

Derived from Buddhist teachings and ancient Japanese philosophical ideals, wabi-sabi is a world perspective centered on the acceptance of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. 1

Doesn’t that bring you a little bit of relief just reading that? 

Another term for it is ‘flawed beauty’. The modern translation might be ‘perfectly imperfect’. 

The Japanese art form, Kintsugi reflects it brilliantly. Kintsugi is the process where cracked pottery is repaired with gold lacquer to highlight the beauty of the imperfection or damage rather than hiding it. 

Why have I found this idea so powerful? Because in our curated Instagram lives, it celebrates imperfection that inevitably is part of life. That’s my kind of world view. 

When recovering from mental illness, or an addiction, or let’s face it, just plain living life, mis-steps are part of the process, not an exception to it. Like the saying goes: Progress not perfection. Its approach to beautiful messiness is a pragmatic and compassionate one. An approach that, particularly with the creative process or the onslaught of depression, can be sorely absent.

I introduce this concept in my creativity playshops. You’ll also have a chance to experience it in my *FREE* webinar Catalyst for Creativity and Courage: Intro to Telling Your Stories on October 25.

I partner wabi-sabi with an improv exercise that underlines the very essence of it. No, we don’t thwack each other with blobs of gold paint or break glasses and put them back together again with glitter tape. It’s called the Failure Bow.

The Transformative Power of the Failure Bow

The ‘failure bow’ hails from the world of improv, but has wider applications than just on the stage. It, along with understanding wabi-sabi, can reframe failure as part of success and the creative process.

The idea of celebrating mistakes has taken off even in corporate settings. You can find variations of it at MomsRising’s “joyful funerals” for failed projects or FailFest as organized by DoSomething.Org. Beth Kanter’s article explains them in more details. 

Innovation and creativity die if stifled by the fear of failure.  Recovery can be stopped in its tracks, and the joy of living can too if perfectionism isn’t tamed. 

Here’s the exercise. Do it and I guarantee you’ll feel a little happier.

 ‘Failure Bow’ (takes less than 30 seconds) 
1. You can do this alone or in a group.

2. Stand in a ‘super hero’ pose. You know, we all have one – even if we haven’t done it since we were 10. Feet hip width apart; hand on hips, chest out, head up and an ear to ear grin.

3. Then lift your arms in the universal “V” victory position and happily, shamelessly, proudly say: “I failed!”

4. And… you guessed it…take a bow (don’t shy away from it – full on bow, bending at the waist – several times if the spirit moves you).

5. Then if you’re in a group, everyone else around you claps, whoots, and hollers for you, celebrating your gaffe with you.

Variations: 

In the Moment Failure Bow

As soon as you’ve noticed you’ve made a mistake – immediately do the failure bow to counteract any self-judgment that might rise. The smile alone will help.

Intentional Snafu Surrender Bow 

  • Before you get into your super hero pose, think of a mistake you made that you’re still hanging onto (big or small doesn’t matter). 
  • Get in your super hero pose holding that mistake in your mind.
  • As you lift your arms, imagine the energy of that snafu running up your arms to the tips of your fingers.
  • As you yell “I failed” and bend over to take a bow, imagine all the energy and emotion of that mistake drain out of your hands and surrender into the earth. 

Why does it work? 
1. It helps us redefine failure, Ted DesMaisons, Stanford University instructor, suggests, it can “(lead) us to more productive action or more empowered choices going forward.”

2. According to a Beth Kanter’s 2013 Harvard Business review article it “alters our physiological response to failure by removing the demons of self-doubt and self-judgment. Without those holding us back, we can be more flexible and improve results and learning.”

3. Both the wabi-sabi ethos and the simple failure bow exercise gives a positive view of mistakes preventing us from falling into immobility and self-condemnation.

4. They offer a psychological and physical approach to fully embody failure as part of creativity, success, work and life. 

Through wabi-sabi and the failure bow we can learn, flub by flub, to take ourselves and our mistakes less seriously and increase our self-compassion.

Here’s a filmed version of me explaining the Failure Bow. Send me YOUR failure bow videos.

Let’s unite in the love of our failures and create a FAILURE REVOLUTION! The world will be a kinder, softer, more perfectly imperfect place because of it.

© Victoria Maxwell


1 Koren, Leonard (1994). Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. Stone Bridge Press. ISBN 1-880656-12-4.

I’ve been talking to strangers from foreign countries on-line. Wait. It’s not what you think. 

They have prevented me from falling into depression, helped me avoid perfectionism, boosted my productivity, decreased my loneliness and reduced my procrastination. 

Are they therapists? Nope. One has been a journalist, a computer programmer, another a business school student. Even more surprising we actually barely talk and they have no idea they’ve helped me in these ways. 

So how is this happening? With a free on-line tool called Focusmate.1

This is going to sound strange. Bear with me. In a nutshell you schedule a virtual on-camera co-working session with a stranger.

The tool wasn’t designed as a mental health tool, but as Taylor Jacobson, Focusmate Founder and CEO explains, “it was on our radar. Yes, it was designed with productivity in mind, but both myself and my friend who (first) tried this out have had mental health journeys.

It was created to “help independent workers break free of the shame and anxiety caused by chronic procrastination…(and) connect with like-minded individuals committed to holding each other accountable…for the actions contained in those to-do lists, productivity tools, and goal trackers.”

At the first signs of depression my head gets foggy and full, lethargy starts to seep into my body, and a feeling of isolation and dread places its foot on my chest. Perfectionism increases, as does self-critical thoughts which fuels the perfectionism which further drives avoidance. Working productively is difficult. Working period is. Focusmate unknowingly helps counter these things for me. 

Note: I am not affiliated in any way with Focusmate. I just really like the tool and thought you might too.

The Co-Working Model

It’s based on what’s called a virtual co-working model. 

What is co-working? Think back to when you were in school. Some of you may have had study buddies. This is the same thing, except we’re not 12 (or in a school library shooting spitballs through a straw).

Instead you’re in front of your computer for 50 minutes. Camera and sound on. A concrete task to complete (usually a dreaded one) and your “study buddy” from another country set up in the exact same way. 

Whoa…you may be thinking. Me too. When I heard about this, I thought about all the ways this could go wrong. Very wrong. A video session with a complete stranger to do what together? You know where I’m going. But of the 20 and counting work meetings I’ve had all of my work mates have been nothing but dedicated to getting their crap done. 

Jacobson has strict but friendly community guidelines. For some reason, it attracts similar people. Individuals who have work to do, who want to get it done and find it effective having someone working alongside them. 

A Typical Session 

At the start there’s a short but friendly introduction and declaration of what task or tasks each of you will work on. I often write mine in the chat box too. There’s usually some good luck wishes exchanged and then you’re off! 

I sometimes update the chat box when I’ve completed a task. But there’s no other talking. 

50 minutes later, a bell chimes. You check in: “How’d it go?” The answer may be “pretty slow” or it could be “great”. Doesn’t matter. You say goodbye. That’s it. Strange I know. But I can’t emphasize it enough how good this is for both my mental health and my productivity.

My Interview with Founder of Focusmate, Taylor Jacobson

I interviewed Taylor to hear from him how he would describe the sessions and the potential, though unintended, mental health benefits.

Mental Health Benefits I’ve Experienced

1.Combating Lethargy and No Energy:

The 50 minute length is long enough for me to get something done but not so long that I start to tire.

2. Reducing Isolation and Loneliness:

Working alongside a ‘live’ person reminds me that I’m not alone in our oh so very virtual world. The sessions aren’t for conversations, but the quick exchange of words at the start and the end of the call adds an encouraging human touch to my strong sense of isolation that creeps in when I’m beginning to feel depressed. Social contact has long been known to help alleviate depressive symptoms. See research at the end of this article.

3. Keeps me moving and out of bed (not to mention dressed and showered):

This may seem small – but in depression, getting out of bed and having a shower can feel monumental. Having committed to a specific time and to another person, I don’t want to let them down. The scheduled sessions motivate me to get up, get clean and honour my word. It’s only 50 minutes. I can show up for that and go back to bed if I want. But I haven’t yet. 

Note: It’s amazing – There’s no pressure to look marvelous or have awesome video quality. The objective is to show up and get one task done.

4. Teaches me Realistic Goal Setting and Sets Me Up for Success:

That brings me to the next reason I like Focusmate. It helps me set realistic goals and experience success. I’ve got 50 minutes. What task can I do in that time frame?  In order to create a little sense of success and help my lagging self-esteem, I aim to accomplish one or two very small tasks. When I accomplish it, I get evidence that counters all my negative self talk.

I go deeper into much of this, like realistic goal setting and strategies for a balanced life and mind in my workshop Creating Wellness and Reclaiming Self-Care.

Some Science Behind My Experience: 

According to an article in Medium, Patricia Arean, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the University of Washington says: “People with major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder can find it difficult to motivate themselves because of what researchers call ‘cognitive burden’, when your brain is overloaded with distracting thoughts.” 2

I see this tool as a protective factor in preventing depression. Choosing to get up, keep my word and have a work session when I’d rather crawl back into bed is part of a DBT strategy called ‘the power of opposite action’. You take steps in the opposite direction that your depression is telling you to go. Despite your low mood, you still get on with your life and don’t let depression run your life. It’s a technique to help you change how you feel. 3

Research has shown consistently depressive symptoms can be alleviated by interventions that increase social support and contact. 4,5 

Some precautions: 

I suggest this is for those who noticed the warning signs of depression or mild depression. If you’re in a major depression this tool, I believe, wouldn’t be as helpful and could potentially backfire.

Research is needed: 

I have only my experience to go from and anecdotal experience from other users. Focused research needs to take place (sorry no pun intended) to determine if this is indeed true. 

Productive and Possibly Preventative

Focusmate can help us be more productive. But it may also alleviate mild depressive symptoms, act as a protective factor preventing depression from occurring at all, prevent relapse and improve our overall mental well-being. 

Whether you work at home or in an office, it could be a great asset. By increasing social contact, creating experiences of small achievements, and using the power of opposite action as described in DBT, Focusmate might be not just a productivity hack, but a recovery hack to add to our wellness toolbox.

© Victoria Maxwell


References

  1. Shout out to Marie Poulin of Oki Doki, who introduced me to this fab tool.
  2. Productivity Hacks Don’t Work When You Have Mental Illness https://elemental.medium.com/productivity-hacks-dont-work-when-you-have-mental-illness-4635239860c6 
  3. Opposite Action – Marsha M. Linehan https://vimeo.com/101373270 
  4. Feeling connected again: Interventions that increase social identification reduce depression symptoms in community and clinical settings https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165032714000573 
  5. Social group memberships protect against future depression, alleviate depression symptoms and prevent depression relapse https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277953613005194

September is fast approaching. In light of this, I thought it apropos to write a post regarding accommodations for students with mental health issues in a post secondary setting. 

Creating accommodations help students who have mental illness reach their academic potential. Whether you’re advocating for yourself, or helping to advocate for someone else here are points to keep in mind.

1. Accommodations are a right, but are negotiated.

2. Determine what changes would be most effective for your specific illness or illnesses. It may take some experimentation.

3. Role-play asking for the accommodations to gain confidence before actually requesting them.

 With few exceptions, teachers and schools are very amenable and experienced in accommodating students with disabilities. As part of the American Disabilities Act and the Canadian Human Rights Act, they have an obligation to fulfill reasonable accommodations requests.

Dr. Sarah Helm, Diversity and Inclusion expert, cites “according to the National Center for Education Statistics, individuals with depression, mental, emotional, or psychiatric conditions now represent approximately 24% of college students with disabilities and have become the largest cohort of post secondary students who identify having a disability” (Helm, 2012; NCES, 2009).

Despite this, fellow students and teachers still can lack understanding, sensitivity and patience. The more comfortable you are with your mental health needs the easier it will for you to communicate with teachers. In the classroom, you are not required to disclose what illnesses or disabilities you have. But you will need to be able to discuss what accommodations will be helpful. You can, if you choose, to disclose voluntarily. But that is a decision that is very personal, and should be made carefully.

There are both informal accommodations (strategies students can implement on their own) as well as ones that are formalized through disability services on campus. Two people with the same condition may not need the need the same classroom strategies. Here are a few examples of formal accommodations:

– Due date extensions

– Time extensions on exams

– Quiet and/or alone place for taking tests

– Ability to complete work at home

– Advance notice of course expectations

– Study buddy or academic coach

– Alternative forms for assignments

– Alternative types of study resources

– Pre-arranged breaks to get fresh air and move around

Dr. Helm explains “counseling centers and disability services offices have been increasing their level of support for students with psychiatric disabilities; yet despite these existing support structures, students are not seeking assistance from disability services offices due to fear of disclosure and the negative stigma” (Collins & Mowbray, 2005; Helm, 2012).

So it is imperative students with psychiatric disabilities understand they have a right to reasonable accommodation as well as protection from discrimination stemming from stigma. Colleges need to recognize that insidious stigmatizing attitudes towards those with mental illness have subtle yet far reaching ramifications. On-going dialogues about mental health and mental illness on campuses are crucial so stigma and it’s consequences are lessened. In doing so, students can be propelled from the fear of disclosure and requesting support to the freedom of accommodation and academic success.

 An excellent resource is the Higher Education Support Toolkit: Assisting Students with Psychiatric Disabilities from Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation.article continues after advertisement

© Victoria Maxwell


 References:

Helm, Sarah PhD Career Development Experiences and Employment Concerns of Job-Seeking Students with Psychiatric Disabilities PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2012 http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_graddiss/1304

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2009). 2007-2008 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS: 08). Computed by the Data Analysis System (DAS-T) Online Version 5.0 on June 29, 2009

Collins, M. E., & Mowbray, C. T. (2005). Higher education and psychiatric disabilities: National survey of campus disability services. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 75 (2), 304-315.


Music plays a big part in my life. Sunday mornings you’ll find Gord, my husband, and I listening to Ramsey Lewis Trio, maybe Amee Mann or better yet, the sound track to Garden State. We’ll eat our French toast with (real!) maple syrup and I’ll be tapping my toes, savouring both the music and the company.

Gord has set up a great stereo system in our kitchen/living room so we can play our favorite vinyl while making dinner.

But music is important to me for a different reason as well. It’s one of the wellness tools I use everyday to help manage my mood and symptoms.

When I’m dealing with mild symptoms (what I like to call mental illness ‘light’) music helps alleviate said symptoms to a point where I feel back to myself. It helps grounds me when I’m edgy. It comforts me when I’m mildly depressed. It calms me when I’m anxious.

When I’m in the midst of severe symptoms, it doesn’t reduce them so much as help distract me while I’m enduring them. It’s a pleasant, adaptive distraction, rather than an unhealthy, risky one (such as drinking too much, sleeping too long or shopping on-line).

Distraction is an underrated coping strategy. It gives me a focus other than my rumination. It’s important for me to choose the ‘right’ kind of music however. Listening to sad, sloppy blues, or vitriolic death metal won’t lift my mood or shift my focus where I need it.

The music needs to be positive and uplifting. It needs to be something I enjoy – even if I can’t feel that enjoyment with the current state I’m in. Even if I did enjoy heavy metal or lonely emo, I suggest finding other genres to enjoy – at least for the time being.

Listening to music while I work doesn’t distract me, but ironically helps me focus. With mood changes, particularly the upswings, music keeps the beat and rhythm that I can’t stay in tune with.

My fave kind of music is old and new jazz crooners, both male and female. Think Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, Julie London, Peggy Lee, Norah Jones and Diana Krall. I like the simplicity of the sweet 70’s like Hall and Oats, Las Vegas Turn-a-Round, Cat Stevens, Roberta Flack. It’s corny, I know, but I think it’s that naivety that gives me hope when I’m down. Coffee House music is another one. I also love yoga and meditation music, particularly if lyrics of any sort trigger me.

I subscribe to Spotify (a digital music service). It’s the best $10/month I spend. I’ve discovered multitudes of songs and artists I love. If you like a song, you can click to find the ‘radio’ associated with it that has similar music. Besides the typical genre search, you can use a search word like ‘comforting’ or ‘happy’ or ‘gentle’ and get a plethora of excellent choices.

I’ve downloaded playlists to my phone so I can play them when I travel. Pop in earbuds and voila – your very own portable wellness tool. Comfort on the go. Music you can listen to almost anywhere. Yoga – not so much – you can’t do that just anywhere. And frankly I don’t want to.

Here are links to four of my fave playlists:

Lazy Dazy Groovy music:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0y3LfKOgCtXgtwNJH3r6X5

You Make Me Swoon:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/562KCt3dddvASURiIZkm3N

Serenity Music with Water:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5WSFvC61QphFAg6JgQ6rsN

Happy Perky Music:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7vKTdfITavm97oQBLz545x

What’s your go-to song that gets you back to centre? Care to share? I’d love to know.

© Victoria Maxwell



Anxiety has been giving me a run for my money. Diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, I’m used to dealing with my uber easily triggered flight and freeze response. But in the last year anxiety has been screaming at a high pitch for long periods of time in my body and my mind. It is UNCOMFORTABLE. Side note: Having an anxiety disorder it’s rather ironic I chose to be a self-employed public speaker.

Working for myself, which consists of on-going financial uncertainty, and doing the one thing people fear more than death. However, that isn’t driving my current state of dread and sweat. Among other things, menopause has kicked me in the butt.  Since I’ve entered that oh so lovely transition, anxiety has spiked more than I’ve ever experienced it. I didn’t know anxiety was a symptom of menopause. I didn’t know a lot of things about menopause. It’s not exactly a sexy cocktail party topic. Regardless, my husband has been suffering through it with me.

Anyway…the big ‘M’ and other life ‘stuff’ has ratcheted up my adrenals and kept my system revved up for far too long. My usual wellness tools haven’t been working as effectively either. To find some relief, I signed up for a 6-week ACT group course at our local mental health and substance use centre. An ACT group. Sounds like it would be right up my alley, yes? ACT. I’m an actor (or actress depending on your preference) right? Well it’s not that kind of acting group. ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It’s developed from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (or CBT). Its basic premise is using mindfulness to become comfortable with (ie: accepting) your uncomfortable physical sensations and difficult thoughts and distressing emotions. Then use your core values to guide your actions so you can live the life you want.

What’s important to understand is that accepting them does not mean liking them. It means I give them room to ‘be’ without trying to change them. It was a mind stopper this one. Allow myself to be ok with feeling this intense anxiety? Not try to change it? Fix it? Fix me? One of the meditations recommended in the group was the 3-minute breathing space meditation. Three minutes of meditation. That I can do. At the outset it was wonderful. Each time after doing it, I felt peaceful, like a gentle parent holding me. But then weeks later, some proverbial crap hit the fan and I experienced unrelenting anxiety.

This 3-minute breathing space felt more like a 30-hour jail cell. I’d sit and immediately want out. Breathing, and allowing my anxiety, seemed only to magnify it. My heart beat faster, louder, or wait was that a skipped beat? No now all I could hear was the blood rushing in my ears and feel my stomach tighten – even more. I. AM. OFFICIALLY. GOING. CRAZY. Again!!! When the tail starting wagging the dog, and my anxiety overwhelmed me, this whole letting it be and noticing seemed like, well, a really bad idea. Until I listened to a podcast reminding me of one paramount ingredient I’d forgotten to include in my mindfulness practice.

A dear friend sent me a recording of a talk from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, and author of over 100 books. I’ve never been much of a fan of ‘Mr. Hanh’. Not that he isn’t wise, or walks his talk. He definitely is and he definitely does. It’s just that I’ve never quite jived with how he expressed his wisdom. Until this talk. Until, I guess, I needed it. Maybe it will help you. Using metaphor, he describes how mindfulness works. It broke open my heart and changed my practice.

Paraphrased from his dharma talk ‘You are Both Depression and Mindfulness’. This segment starts at around 18 minutes. “When depression manifests, we should invite mindfulness. The energy of mindfulness will recognize the energy of depression. There is no fighting between the two kinds of energy. Because the job of mindfulness is to just recognize things as they are. Then to embrace whatever is there in a very tender way, like a mother would embrace her child when the child suffers.” That is what got me. “The mother is working in the kitchen, but she hears the baby crying. She knows the baby suffers. She goes into the baby’s room and picks the baby up and she holds the baby tenderly in her arms. The energy of tenderness of the mother begins to penetrates into the body of the child. And after a few moments the child feels better. This also happens with the practice of mindfulness. With the practice of mindful breathing or walking we generate the energy of mindfulness. With this mindful energy we recognize the other energy (depression, anger etc.) and we can embrace the other energy with tenderness.

There’s no fighting. There’s only supporting, helping.” When I practice mindfulness, I simply watch what is going on inside of me. But instead of a clinical dispassionate watching, I add tenderness. The watching becomes an embrace of kindness. This way the sensations and thoughts are easier to stay with. A softening usually happens (not always, but often). This loving kindness I practice generating soothes those other energies within me. Like the wise ol’ Mr. Hanh said it would!

Try the 3-minute practice with the pointers from Thich Nhat Hanh yourself. Share your experience and thoughts. I always love hearing from you.

© Victoria Maxwell

Supporting a loved one with mental illness can be trying. I’ve witnessed the toll it takes on my husband. I’ve experienced it as a daughter of a mother and father who both had psychiatric conditions. A chronic mental health condition is like addiction. Even when well managed, its presence is still felt in the relationship.  

My husband has taught me a lot about what it means to support someone. With practice, I do it more and more for myself. Some I already knew, some I only discovered by being with him at my most vulnerable, my most messy.

Think psychosis. Think oozing self-loathing. Think unrelenting anxiety. I know. Yuck.

What Works

Someone who…

  1. Walks beside me on the journey
  2. Watches a movie with me
  3. Can stand my company even when I can’t
  4. Listens without fixing
  5. Listens and helps me problem solve
  6. Sets boundaries and let’s me know when he’s reached his limit
  7. Reminds me it’s ok to take my beta-blockers; that I DON’T always have to tough it out
  8. Talks with me about ‘trivial’ things that have nothing to do with how I feel
  9. Requires honesty
  10. Tells me to un-pretzel myself when I’m in my most challenging yoga pose. You know that one of navel gazing and head up my butt. It’s surprising how long I can hold that posture.
  11. Helps me name things I’m ashamed of – like when he asks ‘peeled grape’ day? Yes – that’s how I feel, frequently, more frequently than I’d like to admit.
  12. Explains naps are good medicine and gives him a break too!

What does your partner do that helps you when you’re in struggle mode?

What do you do as a partner to help your loved one?

© Victoria Maxwell



There are many reasons why people don’t accept a diagnosis of mental illness.

I received an email the other month from someone whose spouse had psychotic experiences and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, the spouse believes they had a powerful spiritual experience.

The spouse has agreed to see a psychiatrist, and continues to see their counsellor, but won’t take medication.

I’ve been in that very position, refusing both the diagnosis and medication. Understandably. The experiences I’ve had (two, quite recently) from a science approach typically are called psychosis. I like to call it non-shared reality. Regardless how you describe them, elements of these experiences are profound for me.

I’ve always had difficulty with the ‘either/or’ perspective. Either my experience is an illness as seen through the medical model OR it’s strictly a spiritual experience as seen through alternative perspectives such as the anti-psychiatry movement or transpersonal psychology.

What I experienced was more nuanced. To cavalierly categorize it as either only alienates me from potential help.

But what to do?

In my case, I encountered a brilliant psychiatrist who helped me understand what I experienced could be both. Or, more accurately, they could exist simultaneously.

I had undergone (and continue to undergo) spiritual experiences meaningful to me. While at the same time I have a mental illness that would benefit from some medical assistance.

I’ve come to understand the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis does not diminish the importance of these personally transformative events. Mental illness and spiritual awakening are not mutually exclusive.

This was life-changing for me. It allowed me to embrace the spiritual path I held so dearly while also accepting much needed treatment for psychiatric disorders which were, in no uncertain terms, ravaging my life and relationships.

I am of the belief, for some people, we need to blend both approaches, spiritual and medical. If either one excludes or denigrates the other, it won’t be helpful. For me, the litmus test is this: does the person have the quality of life they want? Is the approach they are using causing them more suffering or less?

I wanted to be someone who didn’t need to take medications. But I’m not that kind of person. Some people don’t need to or can manage without. For me, I needed to be open to the possibility of needing meds and not needing them. I needed my support circle to be on board with that too. Or to be honest with me about any bias they had. That built trust. Trust in the end is the best bridge to help build a life worth living.

Allowing for ‘Both’ rather than forcing an ‘Either/Or’ stance made getting better, well…better. I am able to comfortably hold both my spiritual and medical model perspectives. It’s a fine line, but that’s fine with me.

The following are resources to help those of you grappling with the ‘either/or’ situation. Whether you are supporting someone who identifies only with the spiritual, even to their detriment, or for those of you given a psychiatric diagnosis and trying to reconcile it with your profound experiences, I hope these shed some light and offer insight.

1. Visions Magazine – This edition focuses on spirituality and how it related to mental illness. Visions is an award-winning magazine that brings together many views on mental health and substance use.

https://cmha.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/visions_sprirituality.pdf

The following I wrote or created in partnership with others. Each describe in different ways my journey integrating both a spiritual perspective and medical model approach to help my life come into balance so I could begin to flourish.

2. Bridging Science and Spirit – a 7-minute documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXq9B9a3sOI

3. Does God* Have A Place In Psychiatric Treatment Plans? – blog

https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/crazy-life/200910/does-god-have-place-in-psychiatric-treatment-plans

Note: I use the word ‘God’ but don’t mean it in the strictly religious sense, per say. I use it interchangeably with Love, the Divine, Universe, Spirit, Goodness, what-have-you. Please replace it with what you are most comfortable with.

4. I Went Off my Meds to be More Spiritual: Spiritual Growth and Psychiatric Medication – an oxymoron?  http://victoriamaxwell.com/i-went-off-my-meds-to-be-more-spiritual/

5. Crazy for Life – My theatrical keynote (aka one-person stage show) focusing on my struggle to reconcile the mental illness diagnosis with profound spiritual experiences. In it, I describe how medication, for me at least, needs to be part of my wellness tool box. Not the only one, but one nonetheless. View a clip from the show here (watch at 1min 25sec): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-CU5DaOl74&t=7s  Also available for download purchase. http://victoriamaxwell.com/product/crazy-for-life-a-story-about-accepting-help-for-mental-illness/

Have you had spiritual experiences within your mental illness? Do you think it is one or the other? I’d love to hear from you to learn about how you made sense of it.  

© Victoria Maxwell

I do it. You do it. Even birds do it. No, not that. I’m talking about sleep.

Anyone with depression or bipolar disorder, including loved ones of those with the conditions, knows how important consistent good night sleeps are to staying well1. They cultivate equilibrium in mood, mind and heart. Sleep is important for everybody. But, doubly so for anyone with a mood disorder.

Lack of sleep (or irregular sleep patterns) can both trigger a mania or be a warning sign of one.2

With Spring, worm moons, new moons, time changes, and solar flares, along with everyday ups and downs, good nights rests have been hard to come by for me lately. Not a good thing.

When I’m hypomanic (I prefer my personal term: the “Spazzy-McGuinty”* phase) I sleep only five or six hours a night. and still I wake up all bright eyed and bushy tailed. But if that goes on for too many days (more than three) it’s a red flag. Luckily, Spazzy McGuinty usually calms down on her own accord within a couple days. *The exact origins of “Spazzy McGuinty” remains unknown. However, I do know it is a ‘special’ term of manic endearment created by my husband Gordon and I.

When dank depression hits me, I sleep too much. I easily log (not necessarily sawing logs) 10, 12 even, 13 hours of sleep each night but still awake leaden and lost. It’s awful. Sleeping too much is part of atypical depression, which ironically, isn’t atypical at all. It’s actually very common. For others, insomnia is the beast of burden when their depression descends.

So how can sleep become a balm, instead of a bomb in your life when you’re living with a mood disorder?

Commonly referred to as “sleep hygiene” (good sleep habits), below are some of my tricks for consistently getting a good nights’ rest. For the record, I never thought my sleep was all that dirty. Who knew? Okay, well maybe the occasional dream, but still…

 Tips to change your sleeping from a bomb to a balm:

 1) Go to bed and wake up approximately at the same time every night and morning. I usually turn out my lights at 9:00 or 9:30 P.M.(sometimes even 8:30 P.M.). Yes, I proudly embrace my inner grandma. I wake up around 5 or 6 A.M. 8 – 9 hours is ideal for me. I can manage on 7 hours but only for a few days. This may seem like a luxury to sleep that long. But, trust me, it’s a necessity. I also don’t have kids – so it’s actually realistic.

 2) Create a pre-sleep ritual. As is the nature of rituals, I do mine in much the same order every night. These cues tell the brain that sleep is coming and accordingly, the brain begins to wind down.

 This is my pre-sleep ritual. Around 8:00 P.M.:

I change into my jammies, take out my contacts, take off my make-up (on a good night), put on my glasses, floss then brush my teeth and take my medication (mood stabilizer and anti-depressant). Then I snuggle into bed with my hubby. I write tomorrow’s to do list, jotting down anything I need to remember or do the next day so I don’t have it in my head to prevent me from falling asleep. I read for about an hour. Then I turn out the lights around 9:30 P.M. If I’m lucky, and I usually am, Gord gently strokes my forehead or arm as I fall asleep. My hubby probably doesn’t know this but he’s the most important and best part of my sleep hygiene.

 3) Keep the room cooler than normal. We keep a window open, just a crack, even in winter.

 4) Block out as much light as possible. Even light from under a door or from a clock radio can make going to sleep more difficult.

5) Use ear plugs and/or an eye mask. Put them on before you turn out the lights or if you wake up in the early morning when you need to get back to sleep. In hotels when I travel, I turn the clock away from me so the glare doesn’t disturb me and unplug the bar fridge so it’s as quiet as possible.

 6) Make it a TV/cell phone/computer free bedroom. This is a hard one from some people. But believe me. It works wonders to not have any electronics in the room. Some say even reading in bed is a no-no. But I’ve found it relaxes me.

 7) Don’t drink caffeinated beverages (if you drink them at all) in the evening. This includes black tea, soda like Coke and energy drinks. I rarely drink soda but do drink decaf coffee, rooibus or peppermint tea. I usually have only one cup per day. If I have more, I don’t have it any later than 5:30 P.M.

8) Exercise, even if only for 10 minutes a day. I do some form of movement every day. I practice yoga, go running or walk to the mailbox. Whatever I can muster depending on the day.

Experiment with these suggestions. See if any work for you. Put them into practice and do them consistently. When you do, your mood and energy levels will become more stable. If however, you’ve been struggling with insomnia or hypersomnia for some time without relief, please see your doctor. Remember: Poor sleep can wreak havoc in the life of someone who is trying to manage a mood disorder. More importantly though, is to remember that establishing regular sleep patterns can also be a heavenly balm.

© Victoria Maxwell

1. Kahn D., Printz, D., Ross, R., Sachs, G., Treatment of Bipolar Disorder: A Guide for Patients and Families; p. 6; Postgraduate Medicine Special Report, April 2000

2. Helmer, J. Slumber Solutions (add hyperlink: https://www.bphope.com/slumber-solutions/ ), bp Mag/ bpHope.com, Winter 2011

 

In a previous post, I described the O.A.R.S. framework (Observe, Ask + Actively Listen, Refer + Support).  A simple protocol outlining how to approach someone in the workplace who may be struggling with a mental health condition. The 4-step system along with the ‘do’s and don’ts’ helps make difficult conversations more comfortable and effective. For a copy of a handout click here .

Besides good communication strategies, employers and co-workers need resources – resources beyond your typical EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs). Mental illness, a multi-faceted issue, needs multi-faceted solutions.

These are some workplace resources I recommend. I’ve chosen not to list the well-known and well-respected Mental Health First Aid or the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s workplace webinars. Likely you’re already aware of them. If you’re not, please do check them out.

I’ve decided to highlight ones that may not be on your radar.

Please note: I am not affiliated with any of the following organizations or individuals. I know them as reputable resources offering services and information to effectively help employers and co-workers address difficult mental health issues.

Mind: A UK based non-profit providing advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem.  Included is a free download about how to support staff experiencing mental health problems: www.mind.org.uk/media/550657/resource4.pdf  

Visit www.mind.org.uk  to find other good resources.

 

Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is a free on-line resource that offers expert and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues.

Unique to JAN is their Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR) system and their A to Z listings by disability, topic, and limitation. The databases lets users search for a specific disability (IE: anxiety disorder, ADHD) and then offers disability-specific accommodations, case studies and questions to consider. https://askjan.org/a-to-z.cfm

 

Not Myself Today: A fee-based program developed by the Canadian Mental Health Association for employers to help create mentally healthy workplaces. It’s evidence-informed, with practical solutions, focused on building understanding, reducing stigma and fostering supportive work cultures. www.NotMyselfToday.ca Visit https://cmha.ca/programs-services for other programs.

 

Mary Ann Baynton & Associates: Mary Ann Baynton and her staff offers various services to improve or resolve workplace issues related to individual or organizational mental health issues. Well-respected across Canada and beyond, she has been a pioneer in workplace mental health consulting since 2008. https://maryannbaynton.com

 

Deborah Connors offers training to develop psychologically healthy workplaces and transform culture. https://deborahconnors.com/

 

 

Hayley Peek Consulting: In partnership with Kim Sunderland, Hayley Peek offers programs that teach people how to have a supportive conversation with someone who may be struggling with a mental health challenge or illness. www.hayleypeek.com

 

Provides various free resources such as tools, training, strategies, assessments for employers, staff, managers to improve workplace mental health. https://www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/

What workplace mental health resources do you recommend? Send me your go-to websites or resources and I’ll list them in a future blog post with your suggestions.

© Victoria Maxwell