Friday, December 11, 2009

Writing, Journaling and Therapeutic Letters

Many of us have at some point in our lives taken pen to paper or opened a Word document and attempted to put our thoughts and feelings into words. Writing is a great problem solving tool. You may be listing the pros and cons of making a decision in your life or may be trying to sort out a variety of thoughts and feelings that seem to be a bit muddled. This kind of writing which promotes self knowledge and self awareness is sometimes called journaling.

There are clear psychological, emotional and health benefits to this kind of writing. Research shows that journaling decreases the symptoms of asthma, arthritis, and other health conditions.
It improves cognitive functioning. It strengthens the immune system, preventing a host of illnesses. It counteracts many of the negative effects of stress and is as effective as yoga or exercise for stress reduction. Journaling about traumatic events can help you process these memories by fully exploring and releasing the emotions involved. By engaging both hemispheres of the brain in the process, writing allows the experience to become fully integrated in one’s mind.

To be most helpful, one must write in detail about feelings and cognitions related to stressful events, as one would discuss topics in therapy. Writing and journaling have additional therapeutic value when the writing becomes the basis of a therapeutic conversation with a counsellor. Sharing your writing and unresolved concerns allows for the additional therapeutic value of feedback from a trained professional. Therapeutic letters from a counsellor in response to your writing or journaling often takes the form of a lengthy but focused correspondence dealing with your key concerns. Some practitioners of therapeutic letter-writing estimate that a good therapeutic letter can have the same therapeutic value as four to ten face-to-face counselling sessions. These therapeutic letters can become a permanent record that you can easily re-access whenever you need to be reminded or reassured. Although therapeutic letters can be a part of face-to-face counselling, online counselling is a great medium for utilizing writing to work though these kinds of life issues.

Warm regards,


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Emotional Honesty –Is it “safe" to talk?

Recently, I have been talking with a number of people who are struggling with the issue of “opening up” about their thoughts and feelings with a significant person in their lives. These people want to talk about their inner experiences and for a variety of reasons are not sure if they should proceed. This can happen to all of us in a new relationship just as it can happen in older more familiar relationships. Here are a few points to consider about emotional honesty:

1)Opening up means allowing yourself to be vulnerable. It is important to understand what you are hoping to achieve by opening up about your feelings and whether the desired outcome is realistic. It is also important to understand what your fears are about opening up about some particular issue. What is the worst thing that you could imagine happening? Importantly, if this worst scenario did happen, despite the uncomfortable feelings, would you be okay and capable of moving on?

2)Intimacy is a two-way street. You can say that there is not enough intimacy in the relationship to feel comfortable talking about the feelings that you want to discuss. However, intimacy is also created by taking the risk and taking your conversations with that person to a new or different level. You can create a more intimate relationship by “inviting” someone to talk about things that you have not talked about previously. You are leading the way down the path of greater emotional intimacy for both of you.

3)Testing the waters. It is possible to talk about talking about your feelings before you actually begin. First, you can let the person know that there is something that you would like to talk to them about and possibly identify the positive reasons that you would like to open up this kind of a conversation, i.e., the relationship is important to you, you want to share more of yourself with them etc. Second, you can let them know what your worries or reservations about talking are, i.e., a fear of judgment, embarrassment, rejection, or upsetting the relationship. This will allow the other person to address those fears. If there have been incidents in your relationship in which you feel that when you communicated your thoughts and feelings and they were not responded to in a way that you hoped for, you may want to discuss this issue before moving forward. Only if and when you are satisfied that these are no longer significant concerns would you then proceed with what you want to say.

4)Why bother “opening up”? Not talking about your feelings is stressful and it causes emotional suffering. It creates emotional distance in relationships and can increase our sense of aloneness and isolation. Not talking about what is going on inside of us keeps us separate from others and our humanity. Not talking is also unhealthy. Stress takes a huge toll on our bodies and is linked to many serious health concerns and illnesses. Finally, not opening up about our inner experiences robs us of the opportunity to experience real happiness and deep connection with others.



Saturday, November 28, 2009

On “Lost” Relationships

Lost relationships can take various forms. There is of course the obvious loss of a significant relationship through death. There are other important relationships that are lost through geographic moves, separations, growing up, growing apart,and other work and life transitions. The loss could be a friend, a colleague, a neighbour, a family member, a partner or anyone with whom you may have enjoyed a strong positive relationship. That person may have been a strong support or source of encouragement for you. He or she likely believed in you and your potential and saw your capabilities and good qualities.

Some of the psychotherapeutic literature over the years on dealing with loss has emphasized the idea of “saying goodbye” or “letting go” of these lost relationships and moving on. This is the process of grief work and healing from loss. Michael White, an Australian therapist, questioned this notion and suggested an alternative idea. He suggested that people “say hello” to these lost relationships rather than saying good-bye.

How does this work? Saying hello rather than saying good-bye is a way of acknowledging the impact and importance of those significant but now lost relationships in our lives. While the physical relationships may be lost to us, they are very much alive inside of us. Our lives have changed and likely have been inextricably altered for the better because of the relationships that we have had with these people. These “lost” relationships are a resource that we have that we carry around inside of us. Furthermore, we can call on these relationships (say hello) whenever we feel the need to do so.

And there are indeed times in our lives that it will be helpful to call on these internalized relationships. We may be experiencing troubles in other relationships, or doubting ourselves or may even be facing uncertainty about what to do when we are grappling with a difficult decision. Calling upon the wisdom of this lost relationship may help us to see and respond to these situations quite differently. For example, what would s/he (the the person you have “lost”) advise you about this present dilemma or remind you about yourself that might be helpful in resolving this situation? Or, if you were seeing yourself through his or her eyes now (the eyes of the “lost” person), what would you be noticing about yourself that you could appreciate? Or, if you were to keep his or her experience of you (the “lost” person’s perspective of you) close to your heart in your day to day activities, what difference might it make to how you see yourself and approach your life generally?

There are of course many other possible questions or experiences that can help to evoke e and “say hello” to the power of these significant but lost relationships. So rather than saying good-bye to these relationships, you can actually strengthening the influence of the positive perspective of these relationships in your life. These relationships are no longer lost – they are now found and have become a part of who you are.

Warm regards,


Suggested Reading:
Michael White. “Saying Hullo Again: The Incorporation of the Lost Relationship in the Resolution of Grief” by Michael White in Selected Papers, 1988.

Friday, November 20, 2009

"Fight or Flight" in Relationships

John Gottman, a psychologist specializing in couple relationships outlines four factors that he sees as predicting the end of a relationship. These include “harsh start-up”, criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and emotional flooding. All of these “reactions” indicate that a person’s “fight or flight” system has been activated. Many couples as well as people in conflict generally, either ignore or aren’t aware that their “fight or flight” system has been engaged and continue with the upsetting conversation. This often has disastrous and catastrophic consequences. Most people aren’t aware of the physiological aspects of the stress (fight or flight response) and how it impacts our ability to respond to difficult situations skillfully. Essentially, the fight or flight response pumps our bodies with hormones that are designed to help us flee a threatening situation or fight. Our rational capabilities are significantly compromised. This is why continuing an upsetting discussion is not a wise decision.

Emotional intelligence is the skill which helps us to recognize that we are getting emotionally activated or upset and that we need to get curious about that perceived injury and self soothe. Emotional intelligence includes self-awareness, self-control and the ability to manage relationships successfully. A wise or “emotionally intelligent” response is to pull away from the upsetting or offending conversation and take care of ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we walk away from unfinished conversations. It means that “taking a break” from the conversation and making a plan to come back to it at a later time might be more productive as well as less destructive to the relationship. Taking a break can mean going for a walk, meditating, listening to music or exercising- anything that helps you shift gears and not continue to ruminate about that conversation. The goal here is to calm yourself down and allow yourself to feel that you are out of danger. This will trigger a relaxation response .Think of the way that you might help a child to self soothe after he or she falls a scrapes a knee or a friend has disappointed them. As adults we need to find ways to self soothe when our feelings have been hurt rather than trying to attack or strike back at the person who hurt us.

Later, from the vantage point of being more centered and relaxed, you may start to understand what precipitated your fight and flight response. In returning to the earlier conversation, you may decide to take an “I position” and talk to the other person about how you felt when he or she said or did “X”. Sometimes we want to request that others refrain from certain words or behaviours that are upsetting to us. At other times, it is important to look at our own “hot buttons” and get curious as to why these are hot buttons. Sometimes we can then use this as an opportunity to heal old wounds.

Becoming more aware of the times when we are emotionally triggered and learning to choose to self soothe around our real or perceived emotional injuries is crucial key step in improving our relationships. Like all skills; take small steps, learn from your mistakes, and remember to acknowledge your successes.

Warm regards,


Friday, November 13, 2009

Lose Your Mind and Come to your Senses

Fritz Perls, a Gestalt psychotherapist is generally attributed with the expression “lose your mind and come to your senses”. When I utter these words to people, I can see that they are frequently taken aback. We often equate “losing our minds” with “going crazy”. It almost sounds like a paradox-how can we lose our minds and simultaneously come to our senses? Although Fritz Perls was doing psychotherapy in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the wisdom of his words very much still applies to our present world. In fact, our culture’s relatively new interest in yoga and mindfulness meditation can be seen as contemporary expressions of this philosophy of living.

So what does it mean to lose your mind and come to your senses? For me, these words acknowledge that the mind not only has the wonderful capabilities of helping us resolve problems, imagine new possibilities and recall special moments but it also has the capability of entrapping us in less than helpful thinking patterns. We’ve all had occasion to worry, obsess, and ruminate about the past and about the future. Also, sometimes our mind becomes so much of a filter of experience (rather than helping us understand and respond to experience) that we live more in our ideas and mental construct s rather than living in real experience. Coming to our senses is literally that –experiencing the world around us through our eyes, our ears, our sense of touch and contact with things. Think about the last time that you walked down your street. Were you really aware of your experience of walking down the street or were you lost in your own thoughts that may have had nothing to do with the world around you. When was the last time you were able to see thinking as one aspect of your experience rather than experience in general?

Coming to our senses, is often the antidote to some of the torturous thoughts that we can have about past events or an imagined future. Coming to our senses helps to expose thoughts for what they are: passing ideas that may or may not have any basis in reality. Coming to our senses reminds us to see reality the way it really is, not through our ideas about how it should be or how we think it really is. Finally, coming to our senses is often a wake-up call that allows us to step away from unproductive thinking patterns for a bit and wake up to the present moment around us.

We often think that our thoughts point to an objective truth about a situation or an issue but that is not necessarily the case. Coming to our senses is not a way of avoiding reality or pushing away unpleasant feelings or thoughts. It’s more of a way of putting our lives in a broader context of living that sometimes allows us to see and experience things differently. For example, you may be having strong feelings about someone who is important in your life and has somehow let you down or disappointed you. You may be engaged in a lot of mental dialogue about your anger or disappointment with that person. How could that person do that? I wonder about this, I wonder about that. Maybe I should do this, maybe I should say that. Maybe I should think this way rather than that way. You may find yourself getting caught up in a lot of mental activity that is speculative, unproductive and possibly harmful to you and others.

While you are feeling that emotional pain, it is also possible to be aware of what else is happening around you. There’s the pain, yet there may also be dinner that needs to be prepared, or the crying of a baby that reminds us that someone needs us, or the beauty of a flower in your backyard that is fully in bloom. Coming to our senses is like opening up or widening the lens on a camera. When our thoughts and emotional pain are no longer the only thing in the photo, we can respond to life dilemmas in a very different way.

Best regards,


Copyright David Boudreau 2009

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A change in any part of the system affects the system as a whole and all of its parts

When I’m not counselling, I teach college students about counselling and social work. One of the defining aspects of Social work (and of family therapy) is its emphasis on seeing the person in the larger systems in which s/he lives. So this includes family, friends, neignbourhood, as well as larger systems such as social class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion etc. Systems can be very large like political systems and economic systems or they can be small like the system that develops between any two people when they are in relationship to each other.

It’s not only that these systems impact greatly in our lives and shape us but it’s that we also shape those systems. Think of inter-racial relationships 20 years ago, Think of the feminist movement changing what it is to be a woman, think of oppressed groups like gays and lesbians being able to expect to be respected, etc. In general, committed people have made significant changes to society and this results in a whole new world for the next generation. On a more micro level, people forget that they have incredible power to shape (and change) their personal relationships.

One of the more frequent reasons that people access counselling is to talk about their personal relationships and sometimes the personal distress that arises from these relationships. People are generally much more vulnerable to stress, depression and even physical infections when their primary relationships aren’t working well. Relationships truly can bring us both incredible happiness as well as incredible pain. Strong positive relationships are an incredibly important buffer for maintaining our emotional and mental health.

So sometimes people access counselling together. At other times, either the person’s partner won’t attend or the person thinks that it may not be feasible to invite the other person to counselling for a variety of reasons. These significant others in the person’s life could be siblings, friends, parents, in-laws, bosses, colleagues etc. So if the “other” cannot attend counselling, the person may wonder if it is worthwhile to attend counselling on his or her own. My response to this question is a resounding “yes”! Even though one’s partner, spouse, or other significant person is not involved in the counselling, it is possible to change the relationship. This is due to the systems principle “A change in any part of the systems affects the system as a whole and all of its parts.”

So how does this work? People forget that it takes more than one person to set up a pattern in a relationship although sometimes these patterns of relationship between people seem to take on a life of their own. But relationships are like an intricate dance between people. For example, think of ballroom dancing or salsa dancing. If you move one way, your partner must follow your lead to stay in the dance. Another example. Think back to your childhood (or perhaps more recently) when you were playing in a playground. The teeter-totter or see-saw has the same principle. If you go up, your partner goes down and vice versa. So relationships are a lot like dancing, and playing see saw or teeter-totter. If one person makes a change in any of these “systems”, the partner will be affected.

This is an incredibly powerful phenomenon! It is also very empowering for people to realize that they can make changes to the relationships that are causing them distress. Sometimes, however people get stuck (possibly because of hurt, anger and even resentment) and feel that the “other person” is the one who needs to change. In this scenario, think of someone who waits for their partner or significant other to change. This can be very frustrating. Unless the other person is really motivated to make changes, the changes may never happen. I personally think that the person who is experiencing a lot of personal distress about a relationship is the best one to “change the dance” simply because s/he is the one who is most motivated.

How do you change the dance? The possibilities are almost limitless. Here’s when a person can be as creative as they like and maybe even inject some humour into the process as well. Basically, the idea is to either initiate or respond to the other person’s behaviour in a different way than in the past. This can mean saying or doing things differently. If a particular relationship pattern or dance has resulted in arguments or hurt feelings, trying something different is a good idea simply because whatever it was that he or she is doing isn’t working. Some experimentation may be necessary – but if you change the dance even in small ways, you are bound to change the relationship simply because “a change in any part of the system, affects the system as a whole and all of its parts”.



Weiner-Davis Michelle. How to Change Your Life and Everyone In It (1996)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Not in the Mood

Never underestimate the power of mood on your thinking and behaviour. Many of us know the experience of being in a good mood or getting carried away by a pleasant shopping environment and being lulled into buying something that we later regret. We’ve probably all had the experience of looking at ourselves in the mirror and not liking what we see or being unable to find that “right” thing to wear. We find ourselves being critical of how we look and being unable to find something to wear that looks good. Yet at other times, we look in the mirror and are happy (or happy enough) with the image that is reflected there. Our physical appearance hasn’t changed. What has changed is our mood. Our mood can be a powerful filter of reality.

When we are in a low mood, we are much more likely to selectively scan our environments and notice things that we might not notice otherwise. Some of us may have been accused of being “picky”, “critical”, or “negative “during these times. Not only are we likely to selectively pick out “irritants” in our environment, we are likely to interpret them more negatively when we are in a low mood. Conversely, when our mood is a bit brighter, we may not notice the potential “irritants” in our environment or we may interpret situations in a different way. In a low mood, a friend being late for a dinner date, may be evidence of their insensitivity or selfishness, whereas when we are in a lighter mood we might be more likely to feel worried or puzzled by their lateness and investigate the situation further.

Our moods can even trigger memories specific to that mood state. So when we are in a low mood, we are likely to remember other times that we had a low mood and all of the details of that time. In that low mood, we may find it more difficult to remember happier times. It’s like all of our happier memories are stored in one area and our sad or angry memories are stored somewhere else. What this means is that memories are unreliable. Our memories can be filtered through our moods. By paying attention to only some memories because of our mood at the time, we are unable to access other memories that might bring more balance to our thinking about a situation.

The failure of so many self-improvement or self-change strategies such as dieting and fitness may be attributable to moods as well. When we are feeling confident and happy, we can easily make goals that may fall apart when we hit a low mood. It almost seems like we can be an entirely different person depending on our mood; with goals, memories and thoughts specific to those different mood states. I think that in setting successful goals for ourselves we need to be “realistic” and not just think from the experience of being in a more elated mood. We may also want to predict and plan for how we are going to stick with these goals when the inevitable low mood hits us.

We likely have little control over our moods just like we have little control over the weather. Trying to fix our moods can be beset with other problems. Becoming aware and even “mindful” that we are vulnerable to experiencing our lives very differently depending on our moods is of critical importance. Learning more about the connection between our thinking and our moods is also an important skill in navigating some of the potholes along the highway of life.



T J. Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale , Zindel V. Segal , Jon Kabat-Zinn. The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness . The Guilford Press, 2007.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Stress and the Mind/Body

Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) has often been quoted as saying: "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it." I have noticed that talking about stress might be a similar phenomenon. We talk about or busy lives, our work, relationship and family stresses. Stress is sometimes almost seen as a virtue – the more stressed you are, the more important or virtuous you must be. A lot of people talk about stress but few people do anything about it. While talking about stress undoubtedly helps to relieve some stress and support , validation and acknowledgement can go a long way, it doesn’t really get at root causes. Like a passing storm, other people simply cling to the hope that the stress will soon pass and blue skies will be on the horizon again soon, however temporarily. More worrisome however, are those people that don’t even notice their stress, or have become addicted or habituated to it. They are neither talking about the weather (stress) nor doing anything about it, but are likely being the most impacted by it.

Even a cursory glance at the research on the impact of stress on the body is enough to generate a stress response! With a stressful situation, our flight and fight systems gets activated so that we can effectively deal with real or imagined threats. However, if we don’t calm ourselves down relatively quickly, our health can be impacted significantly. Many of us have heard the rather cruel anecdote about a frog’s natural response to being put in a pot of boiling water (stress) is to jump to safety. However, if the frog is put in a pot of water that is gradually heated up, the frog will fail to jump out of the hot water, and die. This points to a more insidious type of stress –not those real but dramatic life events such as a relationship breakup, job loss, or the death of a significant person in our lives—but the everyday stresses that we sometimes get more or less accustomed to.

So do you want to know about these effects on your health? I think that this information can be helpful if people use it to think about making changes in the way they live. Otherwise, it may just become another stress in an already stressed-out life. Stress impacts our immune system and makes us more vulnerable to illness. Stress ages us by the wear and tear it takes on our bodies. Stress Impairs cognitive performance, suppresses thyroid function, creates blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia , decreases bone density, decreases muscle tissue, raises blood pressure, lowers inflammatory responses in the body, and increases abdominal fat, which is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body. Some of the health problems associated with increased stomach fat are heart attacks, strokes, as well as the development of, higher levels of “bad” cholesterol.

The significant factor in stress is not the stressor itself but the way that people respond to stress. The same stress may be experienced by one person as a small cloud in the sky and by another as a typhoon. Counselling can of course help us not only with strategies to reduce stress in our lives but also with changing our reactions to stress. Talking (or writing) about stress and not repressing our emotional experiences is an important first step. In fact, not talking about feelings and stress, as well as a lack of social support, have been shown to be characteristic of many people diagnosed with cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and the onset of all chronic illnesses.

The analogy between stress and talking about the weather has one important difference. Mark Twain seems to imply that merely talking about the weather is somehow not constructive. With stress however, even talking, writing or expressing yourself about what stresses you is effective in reducing the health impacts of that stress. While we can have little impact on the weather by talking about it, talking about stress can open the door to solutions.

Stayed tuned for further ideas and solutions for dealing with stress .

Warm regards,



Gabor Mate. When the Body Says No- The Cost of Hidden Stress. Knopf, 2003.