Monday, June 22, 2009

Healing Hobbies...

Happy summer! With our longer days and, if we're lucky, a stretch of vacation time finally in sight, our hearts and minds can turn to activities that ground us in joy and refreshment - our favourite hobbies.

Some people think that hobbies are a waste of time or a way of avoiding the responsibilities of life. For hobbyists, their favourite passtimes are anything but. For us, hobbies are emotional releases, creative outlets, sources of life long learning, ways of building community, ways of contributing to community and means of keeping minds and hands active. They are also a source of Compassion Fatigue recovery and a route to achieving overall wellness.

Most hobbies provide an ideal way to relax and to manage stress. Twenty minutes unwinding with knitting needles, your guitar, or an ax and a pile of wood can make an excellent transition from work to home. An hour's yoga, painting or reading (depending on the content!) can stimulate a relaxation response that will help you to sleep. Focusing on the intricacies of sculpting, cooking a gourmet meal or building a doll house with your daughter can distract you completely from worries over things you cannot change. Planning a quilt, poring over seed catalogues or choosing colourful yarns for a new project bring a sense of peace and hope.

For those of us whose work is always in process, baking a loaf of bread, finishing a wood carving or hearing a motor run smoothly after hours of tinkering provides an end result, a finished product, to balance the ongoing nature of our work.

This weekend, I discovered a great blog for hobbyists called, Craft to Heal, by Nancy Monson, an author, editor and avid quilter and crafter. In her November 22, 2008 post, she writes about how to reap the benefits of hobbies:

"To tap into the healing power of hobbies, follow these guidelines:

Match your hobby to your personality. If you're a detail-oriented person, you might like hobbies that require precision, such as quilting or decorative painting. If you're more spontaneous and like to make a mess, activities that make you do a lot of measuring will cause frustration rather than relaxation. You might prefer ceramics, gardening or photography.

Try rhythmic and repetitive activities such as knitting or sewing. The act of doing a task over and over again breaks the train of everyday thought and relieves stress by evoking the relaxation response, a feeling of bodily and mental calm that's been scientifically proven to enhance health and reduce the risk of heart disease, anxiety and depression.

Make time for your hobby every week, and ideally every day. Experts advise meditating for at least 20 minutes a day, so try to do the same with your hobby to get continuing benefits.

Create a space just for your hobby. Set up a dedicated hobby area in your home, so you can play whenever you have a few moments to spare. If you don't have a whole room or office to putter in, put your supplies in a basket or the car for easy access.

Take a class or join a club to meet other people. Human beings are social animals and research shows that socializing with others helps release stress. Plus: Life-long learning and having a strong social network are two keys to healthy, happy aging.

Enjoy the process. Many people rush to finish a project, but the fun and the healing benefits are in the process. That's when you push worry, anger, anxiety and everyday worries out of the way.

Don't be a perfectionist. Give yourself permission to enjoy your hobby without expecting you projects to be masterpieces. If you make your hobby another chore that you have to accomplish perfectly, you'll lose the therapeutic benefits and the fun.

Don't compare yourself to others. If you're a beginner, let yourself be a beginner. Persevere with your hobby because you love it, and whether you ever become a master at it or not, it will bring you joy. You don't even have to finish your projects if you don't want to. The point isn't to make a ton of stuff. The point is to find what makes you happy, and what helps to relieve your stress.

Be bold! Pursue your hobby for yourself and yourself alone, and to express yourself. Don't worry what other people think of your projects. As Mary Tyler Moore was once quoted as saying, "What other people think of me is none of my business." "

To these wonderful suggestions I would add:

Give yourself permission to change. If you've never had a hobby, allow yourself to try several before settling on something you like. And, if you tire of that, try something else. Having a hobby is not about making a lifelong commitment, rather, about finding what works for you for now.

This week, why not choose a project and take the first steps toward getting started?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Summer Comforts...

Every season has it's particular comforts and rituals. Summer is no exception. When we take time to become mindful of the natural rhythms of the season, we open ourselves  to an almost inexhaustible source of support and nourishment.

With summer almost upon us, why not take a few moments to close your eyes and remember the joys, large and small, of summers past. What are the activities and experiences that brought you the most happiness, the most peace, the most refreshment? Try making a list and choosing one thing to enjoy each week through the summer.

Stuck for possibilities? Maybe you could try...

1.  Reading a whole series of mysteries by your favourite author.

2.  Building sand castles at the beach - borrow a child if it feels odd to do this alone!

3.  Eating cherries and spitting the pits as far as you can.

4.  Getting hot while cutting the lawn then jumping off  the dock into the clear, 
      cool water.        

5.  Making orange popsicles.

6.  Going to a drive-in movie or showing a movie in your back yard and inviting the

7.  Eating breakfast out in the fresh air.

8.  Playing hopscotch in the driveway.

9.  Filling a wading pool or large bucket with water and splashing in it.  Or running under                the sprinkler.

10. Eating strawberries warmed by the sun.

11. Celebrating the summer solstice with friends.

12. Going for a bike ride or a run really early in the morning and listening to the dawn                       chorus.   

13. Having a picnic at the beach.

14. Lying on your back in the grass and watching the clouds.

15. Exchanging responsibilities with a friend so you can each get away for a few days.

16. Going to the farmers market and sipping a latte while you choose fresh vegies.

17. Picking blackberries, dandelion greens and other free stuff to enjoy for dinner.

18. Listening to the Beach Boys while you clean the kitchen or wash the car.

19. Smelling a rose.

20. Making a batch of red plum jam.

You may be surprised to find that the best of these pleasures are the simple ones...         

*  Photo by Bigstock Photos  


Saturday, June 6, 2009


While walking in Santa Barbara, CA earlier this spring, I was surprised to see that the street banners, rather than announcing a local festival or naming a given neighbourhood, bore the outline of a little girl's face, a heart, a home and the single word, "Calm".

"What a wonderful idea!", I thought, as the tension melted away from my neck and shoulders. Had it been that city's conscious intent to create an atmosphere of peace in the downtown core? I don't know. But I do know that every time one of the banners caught my eye over the next few days, I experienced the same quiet sense of calm.

What, exactly, does it mean to be calm and how do we achieve this illusive state? To answer these questions fully, I will direct you to Babette Rothschild's excellent book, Help for the Helper: The Psychophysiology of Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma and Peter Levine's seminal work, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. To give you the short answer, I invite you to read on.

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the part of the nervous system that prepares us to fight, flee or freeze in response to a demand or threat and then to calm down afterward. The ANS has two branches, one that creates arousal to meet the threat (the Sympathetic Nervous System) and one that reinstates calm once the demand or threat is dealt with (the Parasympathetic Nervous System). Working in tandem, these branches create the arousal cycle described by Peter Levine:

- "We are challenged or threatened
then aroused;
- the arousal peaks as we mobilize
to face the challenge or threat
- then, the arousal is actively brought
down, leaving us relaxed and satisfied."

It is important for anyone who has experienced trauma personally, or through caring for others, to be aware of the signs of ANS arousal (fast shallow breathing, quicker pulse, dilated pupils, pale skin, sweating) and the signs of ANS calm (slower deeper breathing, slower pulse, flushed, dry, warm skin). Learning to be aware of our increased arousal is the first step toward reinstituting calm.

Some strategies that can help us to return to a state of calm after a period of arousal include:

1. Arousal awareness

Learn to become mindful of your level of arousal by carefully noticing your internal physical state - the signs listed above, areas of tension etc. Then, practice noticing how that baseline changes when you remember something pleasant in your life or when you anticipate something mildly unpleasant. Move back and forth between the two states, a few seconds at a time, until you get a sense of how varying levels of calm and arousal feel in your body. Use this knowledge to assess your arousal whenever you're feeling uncomfortable. ("Calm" post-it notes, placed strategically at home and in your office, can be a good reminder to check in.)

2. Reducing general arousal

You can reduce your overall level of arousal, over time, through meditation practices, centering prayer, reducing your trauma input (ie how much trauma you see on TV, in the newspapers, in your work), engaging in personal therapy to resolve past traumas, and keeping your muscles fit. ("Relaxed" or lax muscles and "calm" are not necessarily the same thing. We may need a degree of "friendly tension" in order to manage our stress.)

3. Learning to put the brakes on

It is important to know different strategies for "putting the brakes on" when your level of arousal gets uncomfortably high. (This level is different for each of us.) A couple of these include:

(a) Using Peter Levine's instructions for Trauma First Aid to complete the arousal cycle and calm yourself after confronting a traumatic situation. (January 12 ,2009 post)

(b) Finding a Sensory Anchor to which you can retreat when feeling too aroused.

A sensory anchor is an internal image of a safe place/situation. Choose a memory of something pleasant that makes you feel safe and calm. (Don't look for the perfect memory because almost everything can have a negative association if you look hard enough.) Awaken your sensory memory of that place or situation. How does it look, smell, feel, sound, taste? Notice your body responses - has your calm increased? If so, practice switching from mildly unpleasant memories to your safe anchor until you can switch quickly from arousal to calm. (Be patient. As with any skill development, this will take time.)

These are just a few of the ways we can return to the calm I experienced in Santa Barbara. I invite you to try them out and to continue looking for ways to increase your own calm as you care for others.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Chronic Sorrow or Depression....?

This morning, I read a piece on family caregivers in the New Brunswick, NJ, Home News Tribune. It quoted an article in the American Journal of Public Health saying that family caregivers experience depression at a rate six times higher than non-caregivers.

I wondered, as I read the newspaper piece, whether the researchers had considered chronic sorrow in their assessment of the caregivers' moods? Would such a differential diagnosis have altered their findings?

For many of my caregiving years, I countered the concerns of my family and friends with an emphatic, "But I'm not depressed!". It's true that I had no energy, but who would if their sleep was interrupted every night? And I cried whenever I found a moment of quiet, (usually in my car driving somewhere), but I also had days of intense pleasure and beauty. My weight had gone up but that was because I was eating copious carbohydrates to counter the constant tiredness and I had a foot injury that had interrupted my usual exercise program. As far as I could tell, I wasn't feeling much differently from anyone else who was caring, long term, for an ill family member.

When I finally came across the writings of American psychologist, Dr Susan Roos, (Chronic Sorrow: A Living Loss), and of the Nursing Consortium of Chronic Sorrow Research I breathed a sigh of relief. They were describing my experience exactly and they weren't calling it depression.

Chronic sorrow is neither clinical depression nor chronic grief. Rather, it is the normal, but often unrecognized or misdiagnosed set of grief responses experienced by people with chronic conditions and the people who love them. Because this chronic condition is ongoing, so is the sorrow. Susan Roos describes this endless loss as a "living loss" that persists until the person with the chronic condition has died.

At the core of chronic sorrow is the aching discrepancy between our perception of how life is and "how it should have been". This discrepancy leads to a sorrow that is profound, pervasive, and periodically very intense.

Contrary to the experience of clinical depression, though, our daily functioning is rarely affected. We maintain access to a full range of emotions and our spirals into intense sadness are intermittent in nature, often triggered by anniversary dates, missed developmental milestones or recurrences or worsening of our loved one's condition.

Because the source of our sadness is not "resolvable", neither is our grief. We can't expect ourselves to "get over it" or "just get on with our lives". Antidepressants are not the answer unless we're actually depressed. Nor is psychotherapy focused on uncovering the traumas of our childhoods. (Though this can be helpful at another time.)

What many of us find most helpful is "companioning" with empathic support and help with problem solving. Someone who will "be" with us, in our sadness and in our joy. Someone who will walk the journey with us without trying to fix the unfixable.

That is not to say that therapy is unhelpful. A skilled grief and trauma therapist who understands the difference between depression and chronic sorrow can be an excellent "companion" and a godsend. While I don't believe it is possible to "cure" chronic sorrow, it is possible to find healing in the journey - a resolution of posttraumatic stress symptoms, the development of wisdom, a refined appreciation for life, the growth of spirituality and meaning - and that healing can be our goal.


Please remember:

1. Chronic sorrow can lead to clinical depression so, if you feel unsure about your mental health, ask your medical professional to assess your mood - after reading about chronic sorrow.

2. Never stop taking antidepressants without first consulting your physician.)

* Photo by Bigstock Photos