Conversations on Compassion Fatigue with a Mental Health Advocate

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Conversations on Compassion Fatigue is a new series where we interview professionals from high-stress and trauma-exposed environments and discuss issues around compassion fatigue, organizational health, vicarious trauma, moral distress and self-care. 

In this first installment, we sit down with a Mental Health Advocate to discuss her real world experience of compassion fatigue on the job.


Can you describe to us what you do as a Mental Health Advocate?

“My day-to-day has a lot of variety but most of my time is spent talking on the phone and meeting with patients, their families and/or their substitute decision maker.  I speak with them to ensure that they know their rights, their liberties and to help them to understand what is happening in terms of their treatment plan. My job is to support the patient and advocate for their wishes concerning what medications they take, what procedures they under-go, etc.

I work separately from the staff at the various hospitals that I visit throughout the region. This is a deliberate model so that I can take my patients’ issues forward to the hospitals without the fear of repercussions that, say a nurse or doctor, may face in a similar situation.

Many of my clients I work with have experienced many obstacles throughout their life; childhood trauma, poverty, unsafe housing,etc.

People who struggle with mental health issues can be very vulnerable – and the medical staff have huge power over their patients (and often rightly so). However, by the time my patients and their families end up with me, they have had years of bad things happening to them and are very angry at the system. I often hear things like – “Why is this happening to me?”

I also do quite a bit of public speaking in my job – ensuring that new and in-coming staff have education around patients’ rights.”

 

Have you heard about compassion fatigue before?

“Learning about compassion fatigue was, for me, a real light bulb moment. I first encountered the term during a workshop at an annual staff training. I was new on the job – just a few years in – when I first learned about it.

A big take away for me was the idea that “if you have compassion, you will have compassion fatigue.” It was also really helpful to learn that compassion fatigue was a normal experience.

I used to think to myself “How do people get so mean?”,“You didn’t start off by being awful to your patients – so what happened?”  Now I see compassion fatigue all over the place.

I think the problem is that, if there isn’t a culture of supporting or recognizing that compassion fatigue happens, it can fester. I’ve seen this manifest in the form of disrespect and staff being dismissive of the people that they are here to care for. If this culture is left unchecked, it can start to taint even the “good” staff.

Learning about compassion fatigue has also been really helpful for me in situations when I’m dealing with staff. It helps keep me from “getting on my high horse” about things. I have more empathy towards the staff. It helps me to re-frame the situation and keeps me from dehumanizing them (which is interesting since that “dehumanizing” is what caused the situation in the first place).”

 

Have you personally experienced compassion fatigue in your work?

“Absolutely. There was a time in my life when a bunch of things had happened – not just work-related. But I was so tearful and I remember always making the excuse of going to the bathroom just to get a break. Anything would set me off.

I did go for counselling but found the experience to be unsatisfactory. Overtime things got better as I paid more attention to my self-care. However, the experience bothered me because of how it manifested. I felt so weak. It was frustrating.”

 

What does your self-care practice look like? Has your work encouraged you to do self-care?

For self-care, I take it solely upon myself. My work pays lip service to it, but it really is up to me. I am, however, lucky that my manager is incredibly accommodating. If I needed to take time off, I could.

In my down time I love to run and I play piano too.

Another thing that helps me is to find the humour in things – even though the work that I do is serious, there are moments that can be quite funny. I look for those.

I also collect quotes – those really help me.

I do think that work-life balance is a bit of myth – it always seems to be skewed one way or the other.

Photo of a quote in her office. It reads: “The Secret to Change is to focus all your energy – Not on fighting the Old: But on Buildling the New – Socrates”

 

In your field, what do you think could be done to help mitigate the effects of compassion fatigue?

“Oh I have lots of ideas for this! *laughs*

One thing that I think would be really effective is to have a rotation system for front-line staff. This way, staff wouldn’t be seeing the same people over and over again, year after year. Everyone needs a change of pace.

The idea that you’re stuck in one place for the rest of your career is really hard. Perhaps we could move people to research projects, professional development, etc. This would give everyone a break – including the patients.”

 

What do you find challenging about your work?

“My job is to advocate and act on what the patient wants – not what I think is the best decision for the patient. This can be really hard when I know that a certain medication or treatment would really benefit them – however, as much as I wish I could help them, that’s not my job.

Another thing that can be hard with this job is navigating the barriers in the system. So, here’s a small example and one that happens a lot – I wish that I could give my clients a drive. Sometimes it will be miserable outside and we’re going to the same place, however, due to liability issues, I can’t offer them a ride. I feel so bad about that.”

 

What do you find rewarding about your work?

When you do work that you feel is meaningful, you don’t realize how much you grow along with it.  After doing this work, I’m so different from who I used to be.

Even though it can be challenging, my job is a blessing. I consider myself to be very lucky. Speaking with my patients and being even a small part of their life is such a privilege.”

 

Are there any resources you would recommend?

“I highly recommend the work of Dr. Patricia Deegan.”


You can find a list of Dr. Deegan’s work here.

Selected articles:

Deegan, P.E. (1996). Recovery as a Journey of the Heart. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 19, 3, p. 91–97.    [PDF available here, provided by the Toronto CMHA]

Deegan, P.E. (1988). Recovery: The lived experience of rehabilitation. Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal, 9, 4, 11-19.   [PDF available here, provided by the Toronto CMHA]

 

Breathe, Reset, Refuel. Rinse, Repeat.

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I have been thinking a lot about energy and pacing lately.

More specifically, I have been reflecting on the fuel that we put in our tanks with the aim to do our best at work, to care for our loved ones and to get a few (or many) of the grown-up things off our list.

I don’t know about you, but I think that, although being an adult has many perks  – like eating what we want, when we want (toast for dinner! Popcorn for breakfast!) and going to bed early or staying up too late to watch our favourite shows (ok, maybe I watched Pippi Longstocking too many times. My goodness, I loved her so…) –  sometimes being a responsible grown-up can feel really overwhelming.

At this very moment, I can hear my washing machine rattling like an airplane taking off. The repair person told me it’s finished, and we need a new one. Well, ok, he told me that in August and that if I didn’t do anything, one day it would leak all over the place. But I got busy, and so it’s on the List.

My furnace too, apparently needs replacing  – on the List.

I have 93 unread emails that all say “TIME SENSITIVE!” – on the List.

Today, my son lost his dorm keys and is asking me to find them in his bedroom at home and ship them to him urgently. My daughter just called. She needs me to call our insurance company about something ASAP. On the List!

A friend just had very upsetting news, and I deeply care about him, so he’s on my mind right now, too.

That’s probably only 1% of my list, but it all rattles around in my head, trying to prioritize and make sure I don’t drop too many balls.

Can you relate to this?

(Note that there is nothing on that list about self-care, it just gets pushed to the bottom, because, you know, it can wait, right?)

 

Are you “the General” in your life?

 

I recently pinched something in my arm which caused this weird impingement all the way from my shoulder, into my elbow and into my hand. It wasn’t horrible, but it was very uncomfortable. I wasn’t able to use my arm to drive or do yoga or carry things or sleep properly.

“Poor posture” was the physio’s diagnosis. (Wow. Thanks!) When that didn’t help, I went to see a great massage therapist and he hummed and hawed and tapped and poked and prodded. After a solid hour of this, he said to me: “Are you the General in your life? At work and at home?”

I paused.

Well, yes, as a matter of fact I am.

I think of myself as an ultra-responsible, reliable, loving, caring person (read “Disappoint Someone Today” for more on this, if you want). I have two members of my family who live with ADHD which can lead to some very interesting and sometimes intense situations for them and for the rest of our family. I think of them as neuro-exceptional as they are super bright, passionate, high energy people – but they also struggle with lost items, low frustration tolerance, intense irritability and a need for order to manage the chaos that frequently enters their brain.

We openly talk about this in my home, and we have developed many strategies over the years to help reduce stress for all of us. But sometimes, it’s a lot.

At the end of our session, the massage therapist gave me this advice: “Less planning, less thinking, more rest, more quiet, long walks, and more expressive arts – use the part of your brain that doesn’t require thinking and being in charge all the time.”

He was basically saying “Slow down! Quiet that mind a bit!”

 

How much is enough?

 

We were training a wonderful group recently, and one participant asked us: “How much self-care is the recommended amount?” This is a surprisingly tough question to answer.

My amazing co-facilitator replied something like this: “I don’t think that the aim is to race through our days at rocket speed and then collapse in a heap at the end of the day on our couch or yoga mat and call that “self-care”. I think that self-care needs to be a moment by moment process, where we notice, we pause, we breathe, and then we keep on doing what we’re doing, if we have to, or we take some time out to refuel and reset.”

I don’t think that the aim is to race through our days at rocket speed and then collapse in a heap at the end of the day on our couch or yoga mat and call that “self-care”. I think that self-care needs to be a moment by moment process Click To Tweet

 

I drove my son back to university yesterday. It’s a stressful 3-hour drive on a major highway. Lots of trucks, freezing rain, bad drivers … you know the kind of drive I’m talking about.

After dropping him off, I drove another 45 minutes through even worse conditions and went to my favourite airport hotel on my way to a gig out-of-province. And, get this – that hotel has a wicker swing in the lobby! You know those big egg-shaped swings from the 70s? I swear, if they get rid of that swing I’m never going to that hotel again.

Anyhow, I sat cross legged in that swing for three hours, answering emails, reading a book and just rocking gently and resting. I could feel my nervous system calming right down and after this lovely pause, I felt completely refreshed. I texted a friend and said “I don’t need a week long trip to the beach, I just need three hours in a swing!”

So, for all of us, what are micro-moments that we can integrate in our days so that we can reset, refuel and take pause when we don’t have a three-hour blissful break from everything?

And yes, I’m going to work on my posture too 😉

I wish you a happy, restful and refueling start to 2019!


Recommended Resources:

[Online course] WTF – Strategies to keep helping professionals grounded and centered by Diana Tikasz, MSW, RSW

[Book] Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much by Tony Crabbe

[Website] calm.com


 

Three Simple Guidelines for Healthy Living

  

We were recently visiting beloved old friends for a rare weekend away. Sitting together over a leisurely breakfast, we could see the warm Fall sunshine pouring into the dining room through the windows  – fresh fruit, yogurt and croissants offered on a beautiful table made of reclaimed wood. Delicious coffee, warm hearts. Real talk.

One them said: “Now that I am almost 60, I have high blood pressure, some other health concerns and I am worried. I know that I need to make changes to my lifestyle, but I don’t know where to start! How do I introduce more plant foods in my diet? I hate veggies. My mom used to boil the life out of veg and I have never liked them. I feel stuck.”

Another friend said to me, just last week: “We are bombarded by information about what we need to do to stay healthy, 50 ways to lose weight, 75 ways to sleep better… and a great deal of the information actually contradicts the previous studies. I feel overwhelmed – Should we fast? Should we eat only protein? No protein? Bubbly water? Flat water? It’s too much!”

They are right – it’s confusing out there.

So many research papers, reports and books on healthy living, weight loss, anti-ageing, debt reduction, decluttering… it’s a multi-million dollar industry for a reason. Nothing sticks and some of the fads are so extreme that very few people can adhere to them for more than a few weeks.

However, there is a way to simplify the body of research to a few essential guidelines. I recently attended a very interesting training on the connection between gut health, the brain and the body. They explored the most recent science on chronic inflammation and its toxic impact on our entire body and soul and how it can have a powerful influence on our immune system, mental health and increase vulnerability to disease.

Here’s a cheat sheet for my two friends (and for you if you are feeling the same way). 

 

 Guideline #1 – Eat more plants. Every day

Try to gradually increase your fresh vegetable consumption – add chopped peppers, cherry tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers or whatever raw veg you enjoy to your lunches and snacks. Bring a small tub of hummus or tzatziki to dip them in if that helps. Add a fresh green salad or lightly steamed vegetables to your dinner. Make a simple dressing from oil and vinegar, not the stuff in the bottles.

Focus on colourful vegetables: beautiful squash, rainbow chard, sweet potatoes, fresh peas, and eat lots of leafy greens, the darker the green the better. If you’re not a fan of plain cooked vegetables, steam them briefly and lightly saute them in a small amount of olive oil and garlic. Start with a small serving and increase over time. Go to the farmer’s markets and try a new vegetable each week.

My family became huge fans of spiralized zucchini this summer (a spiralizer is a little hand-cranked machine that grates vegetables into spaghetti strands). We throw the “zoodles” into a bit of garlic and olive oil in a pan, toss around for about 5 minutes and serve with fresh tomato sauce or pesto I made from the garden with whatever I had around: fresh basil, spinach, arugula, or a mixture, walnuts, almonds or cashews, (doesn’t matter), garlic and nutritional yeast instead of parmesan for my dairy-free daughter, oil, salt and pepper and you’re off to the races. Add some shrimp for the meat eaters or pork tenderloin on the side or tofu for the vegetarians and vegans.

Voila.

By the end of summer, my kids were eating one of those baseball bat-sized zucchinis each. Yes, each. That’s a lot of zucchini, but when the markets are full of them, it’s a cheap and quick source of vegetables.

 

Guideline #2 – Reduce sugar, go for simpler foods

Refined carbs are one of the main sources of inflammation-causing foods. Eating foods in their least transformed states will help you avoid refined carbohydrates, which are often full of sugar, trans-fats and excess salt (breakfast cereal, most store-bought breads, white pasta, crackers, for example) and avoid white sugar in drinks such as pop and anything sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFC). If you don’t eat stuff out of a package, can or a box, you don’t need to worry about this so much.

If you crave something sweet and transformed and full of refined carbs and other goo, go for it! Have a small serving of it. Just don’t do it at every meal.

 

Guideline #3 – Move at least 45 minutes a day

I have a friend who doesn’t seem to age. It’s weird. I know that she is in her fifties, but in the decade that I have known her, she has not changed at all. And, no, it’s not what you think – no weird injections and creepy fillers.

Her answer: she walks. A lot.

(Ok, and she most likely has great genes, probably avoided the sun and didn’t smoke).

But she makes a point of walking every single day, rain or shine. If she is somewhere where she can’t walk outside – like a hotel in the middle of an overpass (don’t laugh, that’s my weekly lot in life when I am on the road), she will do a few sessions up and down the stairs. If she’s in an airport, she takes the stairs instead of the escalators. During breaks, she walks through the hospital where she works.

How much walking? The recommended daily minimum is 45 minutes of walking each day – it doesn’t have to be all at once. You could do two or three shorter walking sessions a day if that works better for you. But you need to walk vigorously enough to be a bit out of breath and not able to carry out a conversation comfortably while you are doing it. So that’s pretty active walking for most of us.

My friend also has another trick: She always wears comfortable shoes that she can walk in. So, no stiletto excuses. Personally, I carry super comfortable little shoes in my briefcase at all times. So then I can switch out of my fancy shoes any time I want to walk.

 

How to stick to it

So that’s it. Three things: more plants, less refined carbs and sugar, more walking. 

But please if you are new to this, don’t go all New Year’s resolution on yourself, just take a look at your daily habits and make one small change each day.

A study by Woolley and Fishbach (2016) explored why many resolutions – which they call “Long Term Goals” – don’t seem to work. They concluded that most of us mere mortals need immediate rewards to stay motivated. An immediate reward, the study explained, could be simply feeling a sense of enjoyment during or immediately after the activity.

An example of this could be listening to your favourite music while doing your power-walk or your favourite book on tape. I like to listen to a great podcast series while I prepare my veggies and healthy lunches for the week ahead. It has become a Sunday ritual and I look forward to it. When I am trying to solve a problem at work and I feel stuck, I make myself leave my desk and go for a walk down to the lake close to where I live. I always come back refreshed and ready to crack the problem that was stumping me.

So that’s it – to riff on Michael Pollan’s famous recommendations:

“Eat real foods, mostly plants and not too much, walk briskly at least 45 minutes per day, not necessarily all at once, and reduce/avoid refined carbs, white sugar and HFC from your diet as much as possible. Do these things while doing something else that you enjoy.”

—–

Good Reads:

Blackburn, Elizabeth & Epel, Elissa (2017) The Telomere Effect

Hamshaw, Gena (2015) Food 52 Vegan: 60 vegetable-driven recipes from any kitchen

Liddon, Angela (2014) Oh She Glows Cookbook: Over 100 Vegan recipes to Glow from the Inside out  – (try the lentil sloppy joes, amazing).

Pollan, Michael (2008) In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

 

Websites for more plant-based cooking:

Oh She Glows  – This Canadian author wrote her first cookbook to introduce her meat eating partner to vegan cooking. Therefore the recipes are highly accessible for omnivores as well as vegans and anyone in between.

The Full Helping – Gena Hamshaw is my favourite vegan food blogger but her recipes are a little more “intermediate” level than Liddon’s. Gena does a lot of batch cooking on Sundays for the week ahead. Her sweet potato hummus is fantastic.

 

 

A Fresh Start for Fall

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Autumn is always a welcome reset time for me. I know that not everyone feels that way about the Fall, and I have some friends who openly talk about it being a rather melancholy time for them, with the weather shifting and the lighter schedule of summer ending, but I love it all.

The farmers’ markets are filled with beautiful late summer produce, which motivates me to start cooking more; the light is changing, which makes for better photos; and I have more energy when the temperature cools. I like getting organised and back to a bit more of a sensible daily routine.

This is the first September without my lovely son at home as he has just gone off to university. There it is – the proverbial and much-discussed “empty nest”.  I coped with this wrenching loss (and excitement for him, of course) by doing a massive declutter of the house. Anyone else out there manage sadness, anger, irritation, lack of control etc. by cleaning? I find it very therapeutic.

When I was driving him to drop-off last week, I told my son that I wasn’t sure if I was more upset about him leaving or more excited about finally getting into his room to give it a deep clean. (I found about 50 single socks under his bed. Impressive).

I was only half-kidding of course.

These are profound life transitions and anyone who has been through it likely knows what I mean. A complex roller-coaster of melancholy, happiness about more free time, worry about my kids being safe and well, missing them, happiness about more free time, (wait I said that already right?) a much tidier house, and the need to make some major adjustments or just sit with this gigantic life event and maybe not change anything at all.

But even if you’re not going through such a profound life transition this Fall, we all need a reset once in a while. I have written a lot about self-care on this blog about the importance of regular good quality sleep, exercise, healthy eating, meaningful social connections and restorative time.

Here are a few things that I am doing this September to reset and get in a healthy place before my busy travel schedule starts.

 

Going on a digital mini-diet

I deleted my Facebook a few months ago (no judgement if you love FB, it was just a time-wasting vortex for me). Instead, I have committed to reading a book before bed rather than watch “just one more episode” of whatever on Netflix. I fall asleep faster and sleep better. (Of course, the truth is that I watched 33 episodes of Inspector Morse this summer, so I sound more virtuous than I really am.)

I’m probably just between shows right now, but I find it a better routine for me. I have been enjoying Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries, a book which was given to me a bit sheepishly by a lovely senior physician at our local hospital as a thank-you for a talk that I gave. He said “sometimes, we just need something decadent and completely superficial” and he was so right. I am almost through the entire brick and love tucking into it once my day is done.

 

Clean up my finances

I have enjoyed several personal finance/frugality blogs in the past. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading financial guru Gail Vaz-Oxlade in the past, I highly recommend her book Debt-Free Forever:

Here is a link to Gail’s website which is full of resources.

Here are a couple of financial blogs I have been reading recently. You don’t need to aspire to their extreme money-saving beliefs to enjoy these. “Our Next Life” has a great blog post about being a road warrior if you fly a lot for work.

Frugalwoods (and they also have a book): 

Our Next Life 

Eat more vegetables

My partner switched to a primarily plant-based diet several years ago for health reasons and became a fantastic cook. Although I am not vegetarian, I have enjoyed lightening my diet (and having a happier gut) by adding more gorgeous fresh vegetables to our meals. Here are some of the cookbooks and foods blogs we like to check out regularly:

Cookbooks

Food 52 vegan: 60 Vegetable-Driven Recipes for Any Kitchen by Gena Hamshaw

A Modern Way to Eat by Anna Jones

Whitewater Cooks Pure, Simple and Real Creations from the Fresh Tracks Cafe by Shelley Adams

Food Blogs

The Full Helping 

Smitten Kitchen

Food52

Exercise

I had hip surgery several years ago to repair a torn ligament and had to completely stop my beloved long-distance running. It took time to find a replacement for this stress-relieving and creative protected time in my day. I now do a combination of cross-training 2-3 times a week and yoga 1-2 times a week when I’m feeling really dedicated. I try to fit in a long walk at least twice a week.

My dear colleague Diana, who is far more disciplined than I am, ensures that she walks 45 minutes each and every single day, rain or shine. My challenge is that when I’m on the road (which is a lot), I get more sedentary and I don’t do as much as I should. I am going to try to add some walking to my schedule. We know it’s good for us and it requires no equipment.

Books

The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer by Elizabeth Blackburn & Elissa Epel

Video

23 and 1/2 hours: What is the single best thing we can do for our health? by Dr. Mike Evans

 

Improve my Sleep

Some people seem to be able to drink coffee right up until bedtime and are totally unaffected. I started feeling “revved-up” when I got to work this summer and was having difficulty falling asleep or would wake up at 3am unable to fall asleep again.

I realised that I had started increasing my caffeine consumption and needed to take it down a notch. Therefore, I have cut back on coffee by using a really good quality decaf coffee bean. I feel much better overall.

That’s it! Those are my Fall commitments to myself. What are you going to do to reset and take good care this Fall? 

Stop. Pause. Play – Using Music for Self-Care

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by Amanda Williams, MTA, MT-BC, NMT

“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.” 

-Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain


It’s Monday morning.

Your car makes the slow crawl down the congested and crowded 401 highway. You’re running late. Even though you know that the clock on your car dashboard is five minutes fast, the visual reminder heightens your anxiety. You have a meeting in 20 minutes.

And to top it all off, you didn’t have time to get a coffee. 

Talk about stressful.

However, this scenario is becoming more and more common in our fast and frenetic lives. We’ve found ourselves with too much to do, too many places to be, and too many people to please. We try to clear our mind, invoke our breathing practice, channel positive thinking – all to no avail. Today it isn’t working. Today is just too awful.

So, when time is short and our tempers even shorter, what’s a person to do? How can we care for ourselves? 

My advice to you – stop, pause, and press play.

Music. 

Music is part of being human

We respond to music on a deep and fundamental level – even below our level of consciousness.  It can affect our bodies and brains in profound ways without us needing to do much more than sit and listen. 

We all have the ability and capacity to respond to music (despite what your crusty, old music teacher might have implied in grade school). This is because music is a human invention – made by humans, for humans – and has been around for many, many moons. There are even some who suggest that humans may have been singing before they ever spoke a word. To quote Oliver Sacks from his fascinating book Musicophillia: Tales of Music and the Brain  – “music is part of being human.” 

And that isn’t just a nice, poetic thought.

In this book Human Universals, Donald Brown includes music as one of the cultural universals – meaning that, although the sounds, instruments and melodies may change across the world, music has been independently developed in every known human culture

 

Music affects the Brain

The study of music and the brain is a growing area of research. Here are just a few of the cool things researchers are discovering about music:

  • Music increases our dopamine levels  – the “feel good” hormone.
  • Music is intimately tied to our emotional memory. Ever have that feeling of being transported back in time when you hear a particular song?
  • Music affects our breathing rate and heart rate. We listen to lullabies to sleep, and upbeat tunes to push us through that last set of squats and burpees. 

As a music therapist, I have the unique and wonderful experience of bringing music to my clients, many of whom face extreme challenges to their physical, cognitive and emotional well-being. I’ve experienced first-hand the benefits of using music as an intentional tool for health and wellness. 

Below are some suggestions to incorporate music into your repertoire of self-care strategies.

Five Tips for using Music for Self-Care

1. Get out of that funk by keeping an SOS playlist

Music is a powerful memory stimulant and can evoke strong emotions – you can use this nifty fact to give yourself a boost when you feel bogged down. Create a playlist of songs that have a significant and positive association for you. Maybe it includes the biggest hit when you were in high school rocking that mohawk. Or maybe its a lullaby your grandma used to sing to you. My top song is “You Make My Dreams Come True” by Hall and Oates (I walked up and down the aisle to this one). 

2. Calm your nerves by listening to music with a slow tempo

Create a playlist of songs with a slower tempo. Try to find songs with a bpm (beats per minute) between 60-80 – the average resting heart rate. There are websites, such as this one, which can help you find the bpm of a song. 

3. Use music to process difficult emotions

Sometimes in our lives and work, we encounter some heavy stuff: whether that be through working with clients facing extreme challenges; hearing a second-hand account of a traumatic event through a colleague; or even seeing something that deeply affects us on the news (which seems to be happening more and more these days). 

I used music for self-care often when I was working on a palliative care unit. This was wonderfully rewarding work. It also left my tank empty. At the end of the day, I was often left with unresolved questions and emotions that needed processing. “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables (the anniversary version only. Sorry, Hugh Jackman) was, undoubtedly, my top played song during this time. It kind of felt like I was talking with someone who completely understood everything I was feeling. It helped me avoid “sliming” my partner with all my difficult stories (to use Françoise’s amazing phrase), as well as tide me over until my next supervision meeting. 

“Low Impact Debriefing – How to Stop Sliming Each Other” by Francoise Mathieu 

4. Have a transition anthem

We all need to be mindful of how we move from our busy time to our down time – else, we run the risk of never having any down time! Music can be a useful tool to help us navigate the transition from work to life by giving us an aural cue that work is done (reminiscent of the school bell), and also help us shift our frame of mind. 

Being from the East Coast (and having an admittedly dry sense of humour) one of my favourite songs for this purpose is “The Idiot” by Stan Rogers. If I feel as though I’m heading home with a heavy load on my shoulders, I’ll reserve the last few minutes of my commute to mindfully listen, and mentally pack up my troubles for the day.

5. Get involved and make some music!

….

Hear me out.

If you’re the kind of person who has sung the “I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket” refrain your whole life, I am here to tell you – you don’t need to be a musician to play music. Don’t let our crazy, elitist, money-obsessed society convince you that music is the domain of the talented (my lest favourite word, by the way). 

Music is a skill which can be learned – just like learning to tying your shoe. 

And it is well documented that participating in music has positive impacts on our mood, self-esteem, cognitive functioning, memory, focus – so much so that musicians even have bigger brains.

“But wait!” you cry. “I’m too old to learn music! You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!’

It’s never too late to learn. Here’s a quote from a great study that was featured in an article from National Geographic:

Jennifer Bugos, an assistant professor of music education at the University of South Florida, Tampa, studied the impact of individual piano instruction on adults between the ages of 60 and 85. After six months, those who had received piano lessons showed more robust gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, planning ability, and other cognitive functions, compared with those who had not received lessons.

Even at 85 years old, people are  benefiting from learning and playing music.

So, you now have full permission to join that community choir, dust off those piano keys, or even just belt it out in the shower. 


Suggested Readings:

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks

Tune In: Use Music Intentionally to Curb Stress, Boost Morale, and Restore Health. A Music Therapy Approach to Life, by Jennifer Buchanan

The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body by Steven Mithen


Do you have a song that “brings you back?” What is your transition anthem? Share your thoughts with us below!

Letting Go

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by Françoise Mathieu, M.Ed., CCC., RP

This is a post about transitions and making time for reflection.

And listening to podcasts.

Yes, it may seem like a strange combo, but stay with me for a sec.

I have been doing a lot of driving this summer: back and forth from my home to the cottage to deal with a septic tank (oh yes, my life is full of glamour), one trip to visit my sister and her gorgeous new baby, one to drop off my son and his buddies on their back-country camping adventure and then to bring them home four days later (the car slightly less fragrant on the way back) and two trips for memorial services and major events in our extended family.

For some of those trips, I wasn’t in a huge rush, and I decided to take some country roads to break it up and skip our major highway which seems to be full of construction and sleep-deprived truck drivers these days.

This is a big transition summer for my family as our youngest prepares to go away to university (in less than 30 days! But apparently, I’m the only one doing that countdown, and no, it’s not because I can’t wait for him to leave), and our oldest goes back to Nova Scotia to complete her final year and starts thinking about next steps.

 

Pic of my son and his friends canoeing towards a forest fire and thunderstorms. Symbolism aplenty.

So, in order to maximize time with my kids while they work summer jobs, I haven’t taken a holiday per se, but I have worked shorter hours so I can be home for a spontaneous BBQ with them and their friends, or a quick trip to the ice cream shop – or, quite frankly, just work from my little garden in the back of our house and grab a few minute to chat as they come and go. It’s precious and sweet, and I cherish my time with these two incredible young adults. Granted, they don’t do many dishes, lose their wallets and keys regularly, and text me “What’s for dinner?” or “Can I have the car?” almost daily.

It’s hectic, but it’s so fun.

One night, we all took the local ferry (20 minutes to cross, free!) to Wolfe Island and had a leisurely dinner with friends on a patio and watched the sun set and the blood moon emerge. It felt like a week-long vacation but we were minutes from our house. Amazing.

 

Kingston also has a gorgeous new urban beach which is just down the street from where I live. I love that everyone in our city finally has free access to a beautiful swimming spot. My friend Amber took this pic a few days ago, and it was likely early in the day as the beach is full to the rafters by midday:

 

When I drive alone, I love to listen to podcasts. Here are the ones I have been listening to:

 


Hidden Brain – NPR: A podcast about social psychology with Shankar Vedantam

Check out these two episodes:


Revisionist History (season 3) – Malcolm Gladwell: Gladwell is back with a third season of his fantastic RH podcast

From their website: “Each week for 10 weeks, Revisionist History will go back and reinterpret something from the past: an event, a person, an idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood.”

Two great episodes that focus on memory and recall (and throws in a great story about a spy and Ingrid Bergman):


Bodies – Allison Behringer: recently launched, Bodies starts each episode with a medical mystery and does a deep dive.

The first episode is called “Sex Hurts” where Behringer explores her own journey with pelvic pain with complete candor and presents some very interesting findings in the literature and expert interviews. She also discusses the ongoing lack of knowledge among medical professionals about women’s health. This is a powerful and important topic.

I am really looking forward to the next episodes in this series.


So anyway, this is all to say that I’ve deliberately carved out time this summer to process, reflect and mull over what this massive change means in my family’s life. 

And I have also decided that mini-breaks and staycations can be sweet and restorative.

I hope that you enjoy these podcast recommendations.

Excerpts from “The San Diego International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment, 2015”

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Françoise presented her “Beyond Kale and Pedicures” keynote at the Chadwick Center’s annual San Diego Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment conference in January, 2015, during which she reviews the history of compassion fatigue research, as well as suggests new directions for the field.

Below are highlights from the keynote: (Warning: Strong Language)

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The San Diego Conference focuses on multi-disciplinary best-practice efforts to prevent, investigate, treat, and prosecute child and family maltreatment. The objective of this annual conference is to develop and enhance professional skills and knowledge in the prevention, recognition, assessment and treatment of all forms of maltreatment. Learn more about the conference here.

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Ask the Expert: Q&A Webinar with Françoise Mathieu

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Last week, Françoise had the honour of being invited to participate in an “Ask the Expert” webinar by CIR – the Centre for Innovation and Resources Inc. The CIR serves those who are working to protect and heal children and families. They work to optimize established services so that children, families, and communities are served in a holistic way based on best practices and current research.

During this webinar, Françoise answers questions from healthcare professionals surrounding the issues of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, as well as offers suggestions on how to combat its effects in our work and personal life.

Some of the questions include:

“I like to watch the news to keep informed, however I’m aware it affects me due to vicarious trauma. I’ve tried not watching or reading any news at all, but that doesn’t work. What do you suggest?”

“What are some tools that I can use to help me with the stories that haunt me?”

“What are some strategies for recharging when we realize that compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma is affecting our ability to connect with the work we do, and our personal lives?”

Find the answers to these questions and many more in the full “Ask the Expert” webinar:

 


Resources mentioned in the video:

TEND Blog posts – Becoming Trauma-Informed, Bridges out of Poverty

TEND Articles – Low Impact Debriefing , Beyond Kale and Pedicures, The Business Case

TEND Training – Window of Tolerance Framework by Diana Tikasz

Online Resource – SHIFT wellness

Book Recommendation – Bouncing Back, by Linda Graham.

 

Taking Its Toll…Paying The Price: Vicarious Trauma in Law Enforcement

Law enforcement; a much maligned field but everyday these wonderful individuals knowingly put themselves in to positions of physical danger so that the rest of us can feel safe. While the potential harm to themselves physically is better documented, what are the long term risks of taking a bullet as a police officer, the mental health aspect of their work and who is more likely to end up traumatized by this work is just beginning to be understood. Enjoy this fantastic article by Dr.Fisher below!

By Patricia M. Fisher. Ph.D., & Mark LaLonde
Blue Line Magazine September Issue, 2001

THE SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM

As Tom’s example demonstrates, law enforcement professionals are exposed to two very different sources of stress – organizational (or systemic) job stress, and traumatic stress. Longterm exposure to systemic job stress results in a wide range of negative effects on individuals and the workplace. Exposure to traumatic stress also results in a characteristic set of distressing responses and symptoms. While both systemic stress and traumatic stress are each serious problems in their own right, when combined they greatly increase the risk for negative effects.

It is now clear that the effects of workplace stress and trauma are critical issues in lawenforcement. We know that the problem affects members, their families, the workplace, and the employer. We also know that the problem is increasing and that the personal and financial costs are escalating.

Consequences to the individual member may include a wide range of physical health problems including cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, increased risk for cancer, and immune system problems. Depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and addictions are all outcomes of long-term high-level workplace stress. Unfortunately, longterm stress symptoms such as poor communication, withdrawal, aggression, mistrust and defensiveness often contribute to family breakdown and loss of the member’s support network.
In terms of the organization, effects include decreased productivity, poor morale, increased staff conflict, absenteeism, increased overwork and overtime. Stressed members are also at risk to “cut corners” and engage in more hazardous practices.

Read More Here

A Comprehensive Approach to Workplace Stress & Trauma in Fire-Fighting

An academic article by our very own Pat Fisher.

Do you have any firefighters in your lives that you know could use this information? Please share.

Excerpt: “Firefighters are exposed to a wide range of workplace stresses resulting in a wide range of negative physical, psychological, interpersonal and organizational consequences. This paper presents a comprehensive approach to workplace stress in fire-fighting. The Complex Stress Model encompasses the full set of workplace systemic and traumatic stresses encountered by firefighters. The risk/resilience factors, effects and outcomes of systemic and traumatic stress are reviewed, followed by a discussion of the challenges these pose to fire-fighting organizations. Within this framework, effective workplace wellness and organizational health initiatives need to incorporate three strategic elements: building capacity, increasing resiliency, and supporting positive culture change.”

Read the full article here.