Navigating Life in Mental Health Recovery

Navigating Life in Mental Health Recovery

Navigating Life in Mental Health Recovery

Navigating Life in Mental Health Recovery

For many people, 2020 has been surreal, challenging and upsetting. There has been no other time in recent history where so many significant events, from natural and man-made ecological disasters to political, cultural and social upheaval, have felt like shared experiences with people from all over the world. Each of these can build anxiety and contribute to stress that affects our mental health.

With the added complications of COVID-19, extended durations of isolation and quarantine, the need to wear personal protective equipment, economic challenges, and the constant reminders to keep your distance to avoid transmission can further erode already fragile mental health. People who are feeling particularly vulnerable and have already experienced poor mental health may find that their symptoms worsen or amplify. They could have difficulty processing distressing information. They may be susceptible to triggers that cause relapse and create mental health emergencies, affecting any progress they may have made towards recovery. The reality is that the pandemic is indiscriminate: We are all vulnerable and we need to provide support to one another.

What we may not realize is that, in some form, we all have feelings and concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced factors that are fueling added stress and anxiety and our capability and methods to process them. It’s also crucial that we acknowledge the differences the pandemic has brought to the ways we can access mental health treatment and supports.

In response to the need for additional support, Homewood Health was proud to be selected as a preferred partner in the Wellness Together Canada initiative funded by Health Canada. Free to all Canadians, the website provides access to innovative resources including online and text-based supports, coaching, counselling, courses, self-assessment tools, and other helpful resources to explore. If you aren’t familiar with these services, yet, they are worth looking into.

The pandemic has accentuated mental health challenges

Achieving good mental health takes a lot of focus on improving your physical and emotional well-being. Introducing structured time, routines and therapeutic activities help to develop healthy patterns of behaviour that clarify thinking and help you feel more energetic as you navigate through recovery. With the pandemic, this has become increasingly difficult because impactful factors are now more unpredictable.

Where we may have had regular checks and balances in place to help reinforce positive structure and activities, some of these supports have been affected or unattainable during the pandemic. Think back to earlier in the year when nearly everyone was staying at home, and there was a lot of unstructured time. For some, work, school and home routines were in limbo. We feared the unknown, job losses, and financial difficulties for both ourselves and our country. For those who were able to work from home, juggling childcare, online learning, and our jobs was and remains a delicate balance and often poses unique challenges. We questioned how effective our situation was going to be because it was exhausting. We didn’t know how to move forward and wondered what things would look like and feel like when patterns resumed, and restrictions gradually began to relax.

Coping with the pandemic forced feelings of isolation and loneliness to the forefront. At the same time, we were introduced to an awareness that focused on proximity and interactions and made us feel like we were losing autonomy. At home, personal space was lacking, and in public, hand washing, distancing, face masks and even the direction you were moving in all mattered.

One expert spoke about how we have been under a “steady stream of threat cues…that convey to your conscious and unconscious mind that you are in danger.” As a result, we’ve been in fight/flight/freeze mode. These triggers are “more likely to capture the attention of people who are already anxious and depressed,” and can “result in sharp increases in negative thought patterns, emotions and behaviour towards self and others.” (1)

As all aspects of life continue to move forward, there will be more worry about contending with returning to work, school and all of the other activities that we participated in with ease before the pandemic. We’ll re-enter these spaces with distractions and more stressors created in part by information and misinformation. At work, we’ll be sensitive to the cleanliness of personal and shared areas. We may react if we hear or see someone cough or sneeze. Remember, implicitly, our brains remain on high alert. One way to reduce stress and anxiety is to avoid spending too much time on social media, as it’s mostly unfiltered and can introduce narrow perspectives, false narratives and negative thought patterns.

While the cumulative affect can be frustrating and distressing, don’t forget that it’s important to always look at recovery as a long-term continuum. Remember that spending time on improving your mental health requires dedication and sustained effort. The resources you work with, and the path you take will evolve. Even without the influence of a global pandemic, there will be many twists and turns since no one’s recovery follows a straight line. You’ll have good days and bad. Acknowledging these realities and the effort required is an integral part of the process of feeling well. One of the best things you can do is be open to access a variety of supports. It can help tip the scales in favour of having more good days than bad.

Mental health recovery, pandemic style

Access to resources that help people work through their mental health challenges has been one of those evolutions. In-person supports such as therapists, meetings and support groups, and social gatherings with friends and family may have moved to telephonic or digital mediums. Embracing alternate treatment methods and accepting both the positive and negative aspects is important for you to be able to adapt. You need to bring in tools that will continue to support how you recover.

Spending time figuring out how to access these through new technologies such as video conferencing (even the notion of sitting “on camera” on a video call) can induce anxiety. Long hours on video calls and teleconferences can also be tiring. While the benefits of participating in the discussion are many, there is also an appreciation that adding more stressors puts people in active mental health recovery at further risk.

During the pandemic, being able to do something as simple as renewing a prescription comes with increased complications. Still, everyone is working together to address these. For example, many insurance companies have relaxed limits on the quantities of medication that can be dispensed at one time. People can continue to access their prescriptions so they can continue to take them as prescribed. (2) It may seem like a little thing, but it can provide a release of worry and relief.

Accumulated stress can create dangerous health emergencies where the next steps to take can seem unclear. In healthcare emergencies like a heart attack, or a mental health crisis should you try to visit a doctor or go to an emergency room? Will you be exposed to COVID-19 along the way? To help ease your thoughts, it may be worthwhile getting clarity on different scenarios. With this information, you will be able to plan and have a better idea of what will happen. It also gives you a chance to discuss how any special arrangements or necessary supplies you could require can be accommodated.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to your regular support system. You can still speak with friends, family and even colleagues when you need to. While it may not be in person, being willing to adapt to different methods puts this vital network within reach. Don’t be surprised if people reach out to you because they care.

Tried and true ways to continue on your recovery journey

Helping yourself move forward is also important to maintain. Don’t forget that one of the healthiest things you can commit to is movement and regular exercise, whether it’s going for a short walk, dancing to a song or doing laundry. Ensuring that you are eating well, maintaining good nutrition, and getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night can work wonders for your mental health. Nourishing your body and mind will help you propel forward.

While it may be more difficult to practice self-care, look at new examples that you may not have considered before. Dressing up for a special dinner at home instead of staying in your comfy clothes can give you a pick-me-up. Perhaps you’ve embraced a new hair colour or longer hairstyle due to restrictions. Here are additional considerations and more subtle ways of being kind to yourself:

  • Make a list of 20 things you want to do and then commit to doing just one of them each day. It will help give you direction and renew your focus. Plus setting the goal of completing one a day will relieve the pressure on you.
  • Create a gratitude journal where you take time to notice and record the little things that inspire happiness and bring you joy. This practice takes only a few minutes each day. Still, it helps you develop good coping behaviours and strategies and avoids unhealthy ones which may put you at risk.
  • Acknowledge when you need to retract or retreat from information or people whose viewpoints don’t line up with your own. These interactions can be toxic and bring up trauma that triggers long-term effects. It’s more than okay to take extended breaks from social media and news in favour of your mental health.

Being gentle with first responders, front-line workers and caregivers

The pandemic has certainly created painful and stressful circumstances for first responders, front-line workers and caregivers. They have experienced personal risk and significant grief. These factors have served as the catalyst to a host of health issues and trauma that have may amplified mental health concerns. While many would say that this is simply part of their jobs, healthcare workers and caregivers may have experienced a loss of life for patients where family members could not be present, bridging a tough time being the intermediary. With an increased need for workers, they will have lost time and made significant sacrifices to protect their friends and families. They may have missed out on important events in their lives to help protect someone else’s. They may feel despair and anger at non-essential workers and members of the public who are laxer in minding public health recommendations. They need time to decompress and try to work through what they have experienced. Listening, showing appreciation and paying attention is essential. Empathizing with their pain, sorrow, and hearing about what they are grateful for can help. Again, it’s the kindness in the little things that will start their recovery process.

We remain connected so that we can help each other

Reaching out when help is needed is part of human nature. Historian, Rutger Bregman, argues that we’ve proven time and time again that our true nature stands outside of the negative views most often presented by news media. He explains that scientific studies have revealed that “in a moment of crisis, there is an explosion of altruism,” and people want to help. (3) Offering a conversation to check in on others during these unusual times is critical. It can mean the difference between someone suffering in isolation and being able to feel heard, valued, appreciated and have a plan created to help move forward in recovery.


  1. Vieten, Cassandra, Ph.D., ( 2020, March 22). Living With Mental Health Challenges During the Pandemic. Psychology Today. Retrieved on June 3, 2020 from…
  2. Ibid.
  3. Bregman, Rutger. ((June 12, 2020). [Interview] Historian Rutger Bregman Uncovers Humankind’s Biggest Misconception, related to Humankind, A Hopeful History.

Surviving September

Surviving September

Surviving September

Surviving September

For many people, it’s hard to find a reason not to treasure our summers.Time seems to move differently. We tend to slow down and relax more, enjoying outside spaces, and basking in the bands of sunlight that stretch effortlessly right into the evening. Summer typically represents a time to gather with family and friends and enjoy each other’s company, too, usually enjoying outdoor spaces. We play games, splash, paddle and swim in the water, and stay up late around bonfires looking at the stars lighting up the night sky. It’s a chance for us to renew our spirits and build-up our mental health. As August rounds the bend, it’s a bit like we’re savouring the last moments of that summertime vibe. We’re then faced with the new challenges and goals September brings. It requires a new focus and preparation. It’s a month full of change and transition, and we don’t just mean the leaves.

While many people manage transition well, for others, change and getting back into the September swing of things can build cumulative stress to the point of feeling completely overwhelmed.

We’re sharing some ideas about how to recognize those stressors at this time of year, not just in ourselves but also in the people we care about; how we can move through the month feeling well supported; and how the COVID-19 pandemic has and is affecting our mental health. Perhaps we need to re-evaluate how we don’t just survive the month but thrive.

Have you ever experienced Stresstember?

It’s natural to feel emotional, physical, and mental stress, and there are certain times when pressure tends to be heightened. September, with all of its anticipation, expectations and realizations that we’re in the bottom third of the year, can trigger stress responses during all of the preparation to get back or into new routines. But being able to recognize how we react and respond to stress is most important to learn so that we can shape a response and not let anxiety or fear take over.

Stress affects “your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behaviour” and can contribute to more complicated health problems like “high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.” (1)

Stress shows up in our bodies as:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Upset stomach
  • Sleep problems

Stress shows up in our thoughts and feelings as:

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sadness or depression

Stress shows up in our behaviour as:

  • Changes in appetite – overeating or undereating
  • Angry outbursts
  • Drug or alcohol misuse
  • Tobacco use
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of interest in exercise and reduced frequency (2)
  • Changes in sex drive

In children, stress can appear in behaviours such as moodiness, clingy or uncharacteristically emotional or aggressive behaviours. Being afraid of the dark, afraid to go to sleep because of nightmares, of being alone, or being around strangers can all be signs of stress in children. Look for nail-biting, hair twisting, cheek chewing or other nervous habits too. Also, having trouble focusing or concentrating and toileting accidents may be signs your child is under too much stress.

Stress can show up in your co-workers behaviour as changes in performance or productivity, increased consumption of coffee or alcohol, being away an unusually high number of sick-days, an increase in workplace accidents, being defensive, being argumentative, or even sharing a low mood and cynicism.

September typically introduces a trifecta of stress response triggers: time, school or work, and finances. It’s been recognized as one of the most “anxiety-inducing” months of the year – even leading to a new social media #Stresstember hashtag in recent years. (3) Commutes can be unpredictable as everyone is adapting to revised schedules. There’s a fear of the unknown with new routines and new people – at school, it’s new teachers and new classmates, and at work, it could be new job duties, new bosses or co-workers and a rush towards end-of-year objectives. It can also be an expensive month with increased spending on items such as school supplies, seasonally appropriate clothing for cooler weather, and fees for new or resuming activities. It can also be a mental shift for people and show up as seasonal affective disorders that coincide with seasonal changes.

What’s happening to a stressed-out brain?

It’s interpreting your stress as a threat. It’s kicking your behavioural and emotional responses into high-gear by flooding your nervous system with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to get you ready to react to the perceived emergency as quickly as possible. Your blood pressure rises, your breathing becomes more rapid, and your heart beats faster. Your senses are then primed to take in the slightest change in your surroundings so you can make a split-second decision to either fight, flee, or freeze. Once you determine that the threat has passed, it can take you up to 30 minutes to clear those stress hormones from your body and return to feeling calm. (4)

Why September 2020 is a really big deal

Let’s face it. This year has not turned out as anyone expected. With the reality of the global pandemic response to the Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19, and subsequent upheaval of the lives we led before mid-March, we collectively have been experiencing extremely high stress on many levels, and it has been taking its toll.

The lockdown; quarantining; self-isolating; physical distancing; online learning; working from home; losing a job, business, or other sources of income; cancelling unessential travel; missing graduation and rites of passage; postponing special events; mass social reaction and protests; dealing with financial challenges and so very much more that we haven’t even accounted for the traumatic, stress-inducing events that are affecting people’s lives seemingly all at once, without any chance to pause, reflect, and process what has happened.

What we thought we’d be doing this summer was not what we did. In many instances, things we thought we would be doing this spring didn’t happen, leaving many loose ends that may never be tied. Everyone is sensitive, wary, tentative, frustrated, upset, and angry, and it can be awkward.

We still need practice getting back to the business of being around others socially, even if that means adopting virtual or telephone routines and/or learning how to interact safely. We need to acknowledge that for some people, what they expected for their September has put their lives on a completely different path than where they assumed they would be. Post-secondary students, eager for their first taste of young adulthood and campus life, maybe in programs that are still learning off-campus.

People who were looking at retiring are now wondering how they can manage to do so with the economic situation potentially, a long way from returning back to pre-pandemic levels. Everything has changed so significantly, it’s almost like we can add the “lost summer of 2020” to a very long list of disappointments that have accumulated throughout the year. It’s emotional. It’s not okay. One of the worst parts of this shared collective experience has been the uncertainty. Even now, we don’t have all of the answers or solutions that feel airtight yet. But we can recognize that we are experiencing stress. We can realize that this is all a part of grieving that needs to happen. However, we can still very much determine how we respond.

Tried and true coping strategies that can always help

There are always things we can do to help us move forward through this challenging month. Being aware of what could potentially heighten stress and create those body, mind, and actions that are our stress-detecting alarms is one way to feel better supported and more in control. Creating small goals that break down everything that happens in September into more manageable pieces can help too. By looking at how you are moving through the small stuff, you can feel like you can keep moving forward.

You should also try to recognize the need for flexibility in your life and the lives of others as well. Being able to press pause on something and pick it back up later can release some of the pressure we put on ourselves or others. Flexibility can make people feel less anxious, happier, grateful, and more satisfied.

Getting enough sleep, especially now that routines are potentially restarting, is essential to help you feel well-rested, confident, and attentive. Sleep can help with creativity, as your brain will be ready to be stimulated and can be both focused and relaxed when you need it to be. One study showed that people who doodled while they were “listening to a list of people’s names were able to remember 29 percent more of the information later.” (5)

Taking time to get organized in advance for what might cause the most considerable stress during the month will help immensely. Make a list of your top priorities and top problems. If it’s time, look at your schedule on a calendar. Add others’ schedules there too. If it’s finances, work on a budget and create a financial roadmap for yourself for the rest of the year. Having a big picture view of everything will allow you to break everything down into those smaller, more manageable parts and relieve you of the stress in the moment of feeling like you’ve forgotten something.

It’s okay to say no. September tends to bring on a mindset that overwork is routine and just part of what happens during this month. Stop before it starts. Don’t take on more than you need to. You don’t have to participate in something that isn’t a right or comfortable fit for your time or your feelings. Know that you’re full, and you don’t need to feel pressured to take on any more.

Take time for yourself to be present. Breathing, meditation and visualization exercises, and yoga are all important activities that heal your mind, body and spirit.

Eat well, with foods that nourish rather than foods that create stress. Putting healthy fuel into your system will give you more endurance, stamina and energy to keep going.Partnering proper nutrition with a simple exercise — such as walking — is even better, making you more resilient and helping you feel that you’re at your best.

Other considerations to help

Recently, we’ve been relying on technology to provide a kind of surrogate connectivity, a way to stay in touch socially. But it’s important to recognize that in combination with some other not-so-healthy activities and/or behaviours, it can also be responsible for increasing stress triggering anxiety and depression. Spending a lot of time online is exhausting. People may be feeling fatigued and experiencing eye strain. Watch how much time is spent on social media, video conferencing, and playing games. It’s all screen time, and it can wear you down, zapping your energy because it “doesn’t completely fill the void of socializing.” (6) Make time to get outside and get a change of scenery. If you can do it with a friend in a safe and permitted manner, that’s even better. Try talking about subjects other than what’s been happening in the news. Listen to one another and simply enjoy each other’s company.

It’s also important to acknowledge our losses – social, environmental, assumptions and safety, trust in systems and institutions, and recognize that you may also be empathic for what other people may be grieving. Talking about how you feel and what has been happening from your experience is a necessary step to take in working through that grief. You may want to explore different workshops that can transform your feelings into a work of art, or help you create something that captures the “intense, painful energy…[and placing it] into an inanimate object that [can] be symbolically” thrown away. (7) A part of healing from the pain and processing the grief is to recognize things you are grateful for in your life. It can go a long way towards helping you shift perspective to a more hopeful position.

Help is available for mental health and substance use support

In addition to your EFAP program, all Canadians can access Innovative resources funded by Health Canada, such as Wellness Together Canada. Free to use, there are online and texting-based supports, coaching and communities, counselling and courses, self-assessment tools, and other helpful resources to explore. If you aren’t familiar with these services, yet, they are worth looking into. You might find what you’ve been looking for and feel better and more supported.


  1. Mayo Clinic Staff. (N.D). Stress Symptoms: Effects on your body and behaviour, Healthy Lifestyle Stress Management. Retrieved on May 19, 2020 from
  2. Ibid.
  3. Moss, Jennifer. (2019, September 3). How to Help Employees Overcome September Stress. SHRM. Retrieved on May 19, 2020 from
  4. Moyer, Nancy. (2019, April 22). Amygdala Hijack: When Emotion Takes Over. Healthline. Retrieved on May 19, 2020 from
  5. Ibid.
  6. Gray, Dan. (2020, May 4). Yes, “Quarantine Fatigue” is Real. Here’s How to Cope. Healthline. Retrieved on May 19, 2020 from
  7. O’Neill, Stephanie. (2020, March 26). Coronavirus Has Upended Our World. It’s OK to Grieve. NPR. Retrieved on May 19, 2020 from

Importance of Sleep

Importance of Sleep

In need of a comfortable, restful night’s sleep?

Quality sleep – the kind that makes you look refreshed and feeling energized – is exactly what the doctor ordered. In fact, sleep is as important to your health as diet, nutrition and exercise.

The right amount and quality of sleep improves attention, behaviour, memory, and overall mental and physical health; it also helps the body maintain and regulate many vital functions.

A 2015 report from the National Sleep Foundation identified that most adults need between seven to nine hours of sleep each night to function at their best during the day, and to keep their body and mind in optimal shape.1

Lack of sleep has been linked to a range of negative health and, social and performance outcomes which can impact an individual’s personal and professional life. Not surprising, a 2017 report found the majority of Canadians generally don’t get enough sleep on a daily basis, thereby affecting their health. Approximately 20 per cent of the country sleeps between six and seven hours every night and six per cent sleep less than six hours per night.2

Signs that you’re not getting enough sleep

Here are 10 signs that your mind and body require more sleep:

  • You’re experiencing unexpected variances in mood. When sleep deprived, you’re more susceptible to crankiness, irritability, and have greater difficulty coping with stress.
  • You’re noticing weight gain. Sleeping fewer than six hours a night can increase the hunger-stimulating hormone, ghrelin, which makes your body crave sugary and fatty foods.
  • You’re more impulsive. When sleep deprived, you’re generally less inhibited, causing you to act or speak without thinking or evaluating first.
  • Your reaction times are slower. When fatigued, it takes you longer to process situations, as your concentration is lowered, resulting in longer response times.
  • Your noticing lower levels of performance and productivity. Fatigue can negatively affect your ability to focus, reason, and even find the correct words to describe simple things.
  • You have little or no interest in intimacy. When tired and exhausted, many people are not in the mood nor have the energy for meaningful connection or displays of affection including sexual contact at the end of the day.
  • You’re unable to remember things. When you’re tired, you’re not exerting the amount of attention required when trying to form a memory.
  • You’re having difficulty making decisions. With chronic sleep deprivation, your brain’s ability to process information, emotions and the ability to read social situations can decrease.
  • You get sick more often. By not getting enough sleep, your immune system is impacted, which can lower your body’s ability to fight off viruses.
  • You’re not looking your best. If you don’t get enough sleep, your skin doesn’t have the time to repair itself. Your skin can look older, dark under-eye circles may appear, as well as red, puffy eyes.

Steps to take to maintain healthy sleep habits

Your life may feel busy all the time, and perhaps your current sleep habits, arrangements and quality are less than ideal, but there’s hope! There are many ways to improve your rest, and consciously incorporating even a few of them will likely lead to a more restful and enjoyable sleeping experience.

Create a relaxing evening ritual. Do things that relax you to create a pre-sleep routine that removes some of your daily stress. Over time, a routine may act as a signal within your brain that it’s time to sleep. Use common favourites like a warm bath or massage or try other calming activities like meditating, breathing exercises or listening to soothing music as you wind down.

Stick with a routine that includes a predictable sleep schedule. Keep your meals, bedtime and morning alarm consistent, even on weekends. Maintaining sleep patterns conditions your body to expect and react accordingly to appropriate times of rest and wakefulness.

Use your bed for sleep… and sleep alone. Keep electronics, food and any other stimulating activities out of your bed. This will cue your brain to sleep – and not prepare itself for eating, reading, TV, video games, studying or chatting on the phone when you lie down.

Remove electronics from your bedroom. Screens and electronics are an integral part of our daily lives. The activities associated with them, the light they emit, and the stimulus they provide, make televisions, computers, tablets, phones and other digital items a major hindrance to sleep. Try to unplug at least an hour before bed and keep electronics out of the bedroom.

Keep your bedroom quiet, cool, and dark. Remove light and sound distraction and keep your space at a constant temperature to mimic your ideal sleeping conditions.

Steer clear of caffeine and other stimulants. In the hours before bed, but also throughout the day, be mindful of your caffeine intake. Remember that coffee and tea aren’t the only caffeine-laden beverages: many soft drinks, chocolate, common medications and herbal remedies also contain caffeine.

Exercise. A well-known stress-reliever is regular exercise (30-60 minutes, three times weekly). People who exercise regularly have better quality, deeper sleep, and are, overall, healthier. Of course, exercise is a natural energy-booster as well, so be sure to get in that workout at least three hours before bedtime.

Limit your napping. If you absolutely must nap, keep it short – 15 to 20 minutes in the early afternoon.

Avoid going to bed on a full – or empty – stomach. Balanced, healthy meals during the day will help keep your body and blood sugars balanced for optimal sleep. If you’re hungry, have a light, nutritious snack (low-fat dairy or turkey) that won’t sit heavily in your stomach or boost your energy.

Sleeping is such an important part of a mindful, healthy, balanced life and most of us could use more of it, and its benefits. So, make a point of implementing some new sleep strategies, jump into those PJs and sweet dreams!

Serious health risks associated with lack of sleep

Not surprisingly, over time, a lack of adequate sleep can be associated with a shortened lifespan. Multiple studies have shown that sleeping less than five hours per night may increase mortality risk by up to 15 percent.3

As our lives are crowded with familial, professional and other activities, many of us overlook the potential consequences, squeezing more and more into our days and nights, leaving quality rest as an afterthought. Even reducing that optimal eight hours by two or three per night can dramatically increase the odds of developing some of the following physical and mental health conditions:

  • Alzheimer’s
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Compromised immune function
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Obesity
  • Susceptibility to injury

In order to live a healthy and balanced lifestyle, you need to ensure sleep is a priority. Lack of sleep can cause you to get sick mentally and physically, so be aware of the symptoms of lack of sleep, and actively work each night to ensure you keep your sleep schedule.


  1. Roussy, Kas. “Experts unveil new sleep guidelines for children .” CBC News. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 13 June 2016. Web.
  2. National Sleep Foundation. (2015). How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? Retrieved July 1, 2017, from
  3. Not getting enough sleep? You’re not alone — and that’s bad for all of us. Pete Evans –
  4. Quantifying the Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep. (n.d.). Retrieved January 25, 2018, from
  5. 7 Sneaky Signs You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep. (n.d.). Retrieved January 25, 2018, from
  6. CMHA BC, and AnxietyBC. “Wellness Module 6: Getting A Good Night’s Sleep.” HereToHelp. Canadian Mental Health Association BC, 2016. Web. < wellness-module/wellness-module-6-getting-a-good-nights-sleep>.
  7. Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and WGBH Educational Foundation. “Sleep and Health.” Get Sleep. Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, 16 Jan. 2008. Web. <>.

Self-Care: Time and Attention for you

Self-Care: Time and Attention for you

Self-Care: Time and Attention for you

Self-Care: Time and Attention for you

With evolving demands, challenges faced in our everyday lives, and with recent global disruptions, including isolation and quarantine measures, self-care has received increased profile and attention. Most people realize that it’s a big part of living well. But have you ever thought about what good self-care looks like? If you look beyond rewarding and treating yourself, you can explore a more profound purpose that could be life-changing.

Developing a healthy self-care practice means that you are willing to do some work to discover what makes you feel fulfilled. You’re also willing to try and achieve a better balance between your physical and mental health. There are a lot of aspects that help you form a sense of self that you may not have explored. How they interact and support your beliefs about the concept you have about yourself is a big part of understanding why self-care is so important.

Most often, these are components you use to determine how you operate in the world and whether or not you feel whole:

  • Self-acceptance – This is how much you “embrace all facets of yourself– not just the positive, more “esteem-able” parts.” (1)
  • Self-compassion – This is about how you act towards yourself when you are feeling challenged, having a tough time, or being critical of something you don’t like about yourself. (2)
  • Self-confidence – This is a feeling of how much you trust yourself to do things.
  • Self-esteem – This is how much value you attribute to yourself after you act on or experience something. It’s influenced by other people’s reactions to you and by how you compare yourself to others.
  • Self-love – This is how much kindness, caring, and respect you exhibit for yourself.
  • Self-understanding – This is how well you know yourself, your feelings, your likes and dislikes, your abilities and capabilities.
  • Self-worth – This is your steady-state opinion of yourself. It’s derived from self-understanding, self-love and self-acceptance. When it’s high, you feel worthy and deserving of great things. High self-worth can protect you from outside influences that try to bring you down. (3)

Self-care is intentional and taps into self-realization

Having a good self-care regimen means that you perform deliberate actions to help you feel your best. It means

that you are in tune with the physical, emotional, social, personal, spiritual, security, financial and work aspects of your life. It also means that you attempt to find balance in each of those areas because you recognize it as part of your responsibility in life.

If you’re not used to doing this, it can be difficult to start. You might even be self-conscious or shy to do so because there may be a touch of the stigma associated with self-care. Fundamentally, self-care is an essential part of being human and living your best life. But other people may think that the actions associated with self-care are selfish. This may be an indication that they are lacking in their self-care practices and could benefit from developing a practice of their own.

Sometimes, society can influence our thinking too much and change how we view self-care practices. With predetermined ideas of socially acceptable self-care, this presents its own set of challenges. People can be stuck on the notion that many self-care activities are gender-stereotyped. For example, does it make a difference if someone wants to recharge with a bubble-bath, manicure/pedicure, or by racing an all-terrain vehicle through a muddy bog? The truth is that self-care activities, no matter what they are, can help promote a better sense of self and overall wellness, and therefore apply to everyone.

Unfortunately, self-care is also a lucrative industry

Interestingly enough, some self-care activities continue to be affected by a noticeable difference in pricing, often referred to as the “Pink Tax.” It means that the cost of the same activity can be higher for people who identify as female. It’s something so ingrained in our culture, we don’t often recognize it. Since self-care is also tied to body sensations such as stress and anxiety, we often feel more vulnerable and our decision making can be easily influenced.

It’s important to see beyond the promotional and commercial aspects within the $10 billion a year self-care/wellness industry. Falling into that trap can have harmful effects and counteract the intentions to pursue something personally restorative. For someone with untreated alcohol addiction, for example, one glass of wine may not just help them unwind. That glass could become more damaging to their psyche and be a catalyst to them unravelling. Similarly, influencer and celebrity culture can make people begin to think that self-care is out of reach because it is “exclusive, elusive, and also expensive.” (4)

Unfortunately, social media provides a very effective forum for people to express visceral comments related to self-care activities, regardless of who is sharing. If you review the comments on many posts, you’ll see evidence of shaming and punishing people. Still, others feel compelled to share “proof” of their participation in self-care activities through social media.

This can be an incredibly harmful reason to publicly share something that, in essence, is a very private exercise. Don’t feel that you have to agree to things you wouldn’t usually agree to or being nice to everyone. If you aren’t entirely comfortable, you may want to call into question your motivation to be so public about your self-care activities.

Consider that your fear of missing out (FOMO) and need to share luxurious indulgences may actually be influenced by insecurities around social interactions and socializing. Listen carefully and critically to messages from the diet and cosmetics industries. They’ve capitalized on mass marketing self-care products through words that promise things that seem too good to be true. Recognize these as inauthentic and do your homework before spending your hard earned money.

You may also want to think for a moment about how, culturally, we have normalized alcohol and drug consumption and masked it as self-care. What we know to be addictive behaviour can sometimes be overlooked when shopping for retail goods, viewing beloved television shows and characters, and attending gatherings or events. Those tea towels with the humorous saying about why it’s okay to pour yourself another glass of wine or to chuckle at a story about how a character accidentally ate a particular batch of brownies feel harmless. However, we need to consider that this has the potential to overlook how dangerous this can be for someone who struggles with addiction as part of their daily life. In these circumstances, purported self-care activities can be self-destructive.

Creating a plan for regular and long-term self-care

It’s important to recognize warning signs or indications that you need to take time for self-care. Feeling distracted, burnt-out and having difficulty concentrating, experiencing brain fogginess, or being unusually emotional are all indicators.

Thankfully, developing a good self-care practice in its purest form consists of four things that won’t cost you a lot of money, nor a lot of time:

  • Getting enough sleep – Aim for between 7-8 hours at night, and if you can manage it, plan for a mid-afternoon nap of 20 minutes. Rest is essential to reset our brains after the events of each day. Going to sleep is like a deep cleaning. Physiologically and mentally, it can work wonders.
  • Eat well, be inspired by proper nutrition – Get inspired to add more healthy foods to your diet and reduce consumption of things that are not nourishing. Having a special favourite meal or food is excellent, in moderation.
  • Make time to lead an active lifestyle – The least expensive way to exercise is to go for a walk. You don’t need any costly equipment or memberships. You can head out the door and explore the world or take the dog around the block. Plan for at least 30 minutes of exercise each day as part of a good self-care practice.
  • Enjoy the silence – We’re often convinced that if we aren’t doing something, we’re wasting time. In fact, being present in the moment with stillness and silence is something we all need. Plan for at least 15 minutes a day to meditate, bird watch, or even just sit and listen to your breath. Our fear of boredom is over-exaggerated. It’s an essential part of human nature and allowing yourself to feel bored sometimes stimulates, “contemplation, daydreaming [and] it can spur creativity.” (5)
  • Do things that work for you

Ultimately, determining what motivates you to care and change your behaviour is crucial, and developing the commitment to regular self-care practices is, in fact, essential.

Yes, if spa days, bubble baths, star gazing, cooking, listening to or playing music, massage therapy, painting, knitting, reading, and watching your favourite tv show are your thing, that’s wonderful! You’re practicing self-care, as long as they are cognitive choices that you are making that will help you recharge your sense of self. It’s the key to motivation. If you’re doing any of these for the wrong reasons, you aren’t going to derive the full benefits.

But don’t be afraid to try new things or recognize little things that you’ve perhaps always done as self-care measures that benefit your physical and mental health. Grounding yourself through focused breathing has been proven to have significant effects by reducing stress hormones, inducing calmness and easing hypertension. Singing can be a natural anti-depressant, improve your memory and give your lungs a workout. If you’re shy, sing in the car or the shower. Finally, laughter is good medicine and is linked to vascular health and good hormone and neurotransmitter levels.

In the end, you should aim to reduce worry and manage stress. Practicing instinctive self-care (without even knowing you are doing so) can lead to a healthier, more balanced and fulfilling approach to life.


  1. Seltzer, Leon, F. Ph.D. (Sept. 10, 2008). The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance. Psychology Today [Blog] Retrieved on March 2, 2020 from…
  2. Neff, Kristin, Dr. (2020). The three elements of self-compassion. Self-Compassion [Website] Retrieved on March 2, 2020 from…
  3. Sincinski, Adam. (2019). How To Build Self-Worth And Start Believing In Yourself Again. IQMatrix [Blog]self. Retrieved on March 2, 2020 from
  4. Goodman, Whitney. (July 12, 2019). When Self-Care Becomes A Weapon. Psychology Today. Retrieved on March 2, 2020 from…
  5. Steward, Jude. (June 2017). Boredom is good for you. The surprising benefits of stultification. The Atlantic. Retrieved on March 2, 2020 from…

Technology and Screen Time

Technology and Screen Time

We are living in a time where there is convenient and simple access to a constant stream of information generated from all over the world that is literally within reach instantly. Scientists who study earthquakes and their effects use data collected from Twitter in addition to standard sensors to help them “identify earthquakes felt by humans” and “trigger an alert typically in under two minutes.” (1)

Doorbell cameras allow people to see and speak to someone who has knocked without ever walking to the door, regardless of where they happen to be at the time. Digitized billboards serve up live-action advertising, but they aren’t just relegated to giant structures we pass by along the side of the road anymore; they’re often in the palm of our hands. Amazing, isn’t it? What’s the common link between them all? Screens and technology.

Believe it or not, smaller tablets have only been around for a decade and smartphones, or rather mobile phones with touch screens, were available beginning in 2007. Today, reaching for a device is now almost automatic. At the same time, there’s growing concern about how these technological marvels are seemingly affecting our every move and interactions, with some people showing signs of struggling to disconnect that are similar to drug and alcohol abuse.

Is technology addiction worthy of panic, or are concerns unfounded? It depends on who you ask. While it’s agreed that our lives are forever changed by the brilliant hand-held computers nearly everyone carries, one researcher argues that “technology addictions generally are symptoms of other, underlying disorders like depression, anxiety, and attention problems.” (2) We’re going to examine the fine line between habits and cause for alarm, look at tools you can use to audit yours and your family member’s relationships with technology, and explore some methods you can use to improve the quality of your interactions. Essentially, it’s about finding the right balance.

Before and after 2010

Apparently, as a species, humans had better concentration, focus, and longer attention spans before 2010. Time Magazine famously published a story in 2015 congratulating readers on being able to make it to the end of a 220-word article. While it would only take about a minute to read, at that time a study purported that people’s attention spans had dropped by four seconds in five years, which was “now…a shorter attention span than a goldfish.” (3) Incidentally, that study also revealed some interesting observations: (4)

  • People who use screens a lot have a hard time filtering out distractions.
  • Our attention spans are evolving to become shorter because of the influence of mobile devices and ready Internet access.
  • Just over ¾ of young adults (18-24) look at their phones when they have nothing to do. By comparison, only 10% of people over age 65 do the same.

Fast forward to 2020, and we’re even more conditioned to stay connected to our screens. Whether it’s because we’re glued to online shopping, or worried that we’d miss out on something important, also known as FOMO (fear of missing out), on average, we check our smartphones every 12 minutes. (5) Still, while devices may not be getting any less expensive, service providers have introduced more flexibility by integrating the cost of the technology with a wider variety of plans to meet people’s needs. Manufacturers also do what they can to ensure people feel they should upgrade their devices frequently. Alarmingly though, it’s created interesting playground conversation where tweens, age 9-12, chatter eagerly anticipating a new rite of passage: the age they will get their first phone – that is, if they don’t have one already.

Screens are here to stay. They’re hard to avoid. In 2019, YouTube shared a startling statistic: more than 500 hours of new content is uploaded each minute. Doing the math, that equates to over 82 years of video each day being consumed on T.V. screens, computers and mobile phones. (6) Live streaming is also on the rise. When you think about it, there’s so much available content that you could do nothing else but watch it and still not catch up.

How much is too much?

Unfortunately, the way screens are so ingrained in our lives is having a significant effect on our physical, mental, and even our financial health. With everything so accessible, delayed gratification has nearly disappeared. You can probably think of someone you know whose screen time has gone past what might be described as a bad habit and is verging on addiction. They may have even expressed their use in those terms. The reality is that when technology usage is starting to interfere with the activities of daily life, it’s a problem.

Similar to drug or alcohol addiction, screen addiction changes brain structure and makes it more difficult for people to remember details, pay attention, participate in planning and prioritize tasks. (7) People can become lost in what they are doing on their devices to the point where they lose sleep, develop unhealthy eating habits, and end up with little to no physical activity in a day. Psychologically, they can be so engrossed in consuming content that they don’t see how damaging it can be. Viewing can trigger anxiety and become a contributing symptom of depression. People can be more vulnerable to harmful or toxic interactions with both people they know and people they aspire to know – like celebrities, or even strangers. Technology addiction can be further broken down into categories such as Internet addiction and Internet gaming disorders. Additionally, persons with technology addiction are more likely to exhibit symptoms of Body Dysmorphia.

While it’s challenging to gauge numbers for adults, the Canadian Pediatric Society has recognized the effect that screen time has on children’s development and mental health. They’ve established screen time guidelines to help parents determine what’s appropriate for children from ages 1 to 19, identifying both benefits and risks of different kinds of content:

  • For children under two years old, screen time is not recommended.
  • For children two to five years old, screen time should be limited to less than one hour a day.
  • For children older than five, they recommend limiting screen time to less than two hours a day.
  • Teens are better able to cope with the effect of more screen time, but there are also nuances that parents should be aware of.
  • Teens can be both positively and negatively influenced by social media and can experience deep friendships online, but also be subject to bullying.
  • Inquisitiveness and relatively easy access to adult-themed content on the Internet often exposes teens to pornography and can create socialization problems related to self-worth, body image, and social interactions.

The general advice encourages parents to distinguish between content that is age and subject appropriate and prioritize academic sites or platforms, enhancing knowledge, literacy or cooperative skills, rather than allow free recreational screen time. Further, the study recognizes that parental and family interaction can affect how well children are able to respond to screen time they receive and that things will continue to evolve based on the child and the popularity of content itself. For school-age children, the recommendations recognize that it may not be realistic to expect no screen time as a response, but instead enforce stricter limits of perhaps one hour per day if parents have cause for concern.

Remember that kids and teens existed before the ages of smartphones and tablets and survived shopping trips and long car rides without tuning into screens: they simply looked around and observed the world around them firsthand.

What’s included when we talk about screen time?

Watching T.V. or movies, working on a computer, using a tablet or smartphone, playing video games through a variety of devices are all contributing to the amount of time we spend interacting with screens. In fact, for many of us, our lives flip seamlessly throughout the day between many screens without us even realizing it.

Awareness is also at the heart of what’s being termed as “secondhand screen time,” where the actions and behaviours demonstrated by parents and caregivers as they use their devices are affecting children and, in turn, influencing their understanding of what normal technology usage is. The problem is that they are observing adult models that aren’t age-appropriate when it comes to what is being accessed and for how long. (8)

Conducting a technology-use audit

Part of the challenge with determining how much screen time is too much and being able to respond with a reduction in usage is that we don’t necessarily have good self-awareness about how much we use this technology each day. We’re also being influenced by manufacturers and developers who are purposefully creating scenarios to increase usage to meet their business objectives. And physiologically, using technology does trigger dopamine to be released, which keeps our brains trained to come back for more. Some companies have recognized that they need to improve awareness around technology usage, and they are demonstrating responsibility with respect to try to help people moderate the use of their products. (9)

Tools such as Apple’s Screen Time and Google are built into the devices that you can use to bring transparency to what your own screen time looks like. There are even ways to apply restrictions to the device or limit access to individual applications within the settings. Seeing these reports can give you a real sense of whether you could call yourself a frequent user or whether your usage is cause for alarm because it is consuming so much of your time each day. It can be shocking to see a breakdown of how much time you spent on your device each day. The reports can show the number of times you’ve picked it up, how many notifications you received that may have alerted you of something, what kinds of activities you completed based on categories such as social media, gaming, productivity, and even health and fitness.

Again, the notion of screen time extends to T.V. viewing too. Keep a log of what you watch on-demand. Streaming services have made it easy to get instant gratification by releasing full seasons of programs all at once. We don’t necessarily need to wait a week to view the next episode of an ongoing story because we can binge watch it.

Once you have had the chance to see how much screen time you accumulate, you can reflect on the repercussions and how the time is affecting your life. You may want to consider responses to questions that allow you to contemplate your relationship with technology and generate some interesting discussions:

  1. How has the amount of time you spend using technology impacted your relationships?
  2. How have your spending habits changed?
  3. In what ways are you using technology as a distraction to avoid dealing with something difficult in your life?
  4. Be honest about whether or not you are still on track to complete milestones for any personal goals you have formally or informally set for yourself.
  5. What kind of physical, emotional, social or financial fulfillment are you getting from your technologically-based activities? Are these healthy?
  6. How does your relationship with technology help you live your best life?
  7. What would you choose to do if you replaced one hour of screen time with any non-technologically related activity?
  8. How would your days be different if you didn’t use technology?
  9. When was the last time you read a book – not on a screen or listening to an audiobook?
  10. What do you like about your use of technology?

Confronting the elephant in the room

Many people aren’t happy with what a technology audit reveals; how all-consuming screens can be and how much

it is affecting their lives or the lives of people they care about. They may discover deeper issues, such as Internet addiction, gaming addiction and social media addiction, or have generalized concerns about how their activities are affecting their physical and mental health. The question of whether technology is fundamentally changing our brain structure is complicated because we see that language and conversation skills, the ability to interact and collaborate with other people, and confidence, can all suffer.

Currently, researchers haven’t found enough evidence to give full support to that theory. It’s more of a case of technology use affecting “cognitive performance.” (10) There’s a bit of irony in the fact that, despite how technology has expanded many people’s worlds, at the same time, it has constricted others’. Many people struggle to interpret non-verbal communications in social settings. Findings reported in many studies, especially concerning the effect on children and teens, are sounding the alarm and warning of the seriousness of what is becoming “a public health issue.” (11)

Nature Canada’s report showed: (12)

  • 87% of pre-school children and 85% of school-aged children do not meet the guidelines for adequate sleep, physical activity and limits on screen time;
  • Students in grades 7 to 12 are spending up to 7 hours a day on screens, more than three and a half times the recommended limit of 2 hours per day;
  • Higher durations of screen time were linked with poorer behavioural conduct and lower self-esteem;
  • Adolescents who spend more time on social media and smartphones are more likely to report mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

While spending too much time interacting purely through technological means can be detrimental, like anything else, it’s not all bad. There are also some people whose lives have been affected quite positively through the use of technology. They’ve experienced increased confidence and found that they have been able to thrive and have positive and highly gratifying social interactions by joining online communities. We’re not talking about online dating. There are incredibly complex online communities that work out social-political structure, order, and collaboration within gaming communities, for example. While most people would be alarmed at the degree of personal disclosure and trust often seen here, people from all over the world join teams to play within a community that has developed a set of shared beliefs, rules and objectives. It’s also reflected in the use of apps such as “Be My Eyes” which recruits sighted volunteers with visually-impaired people or those who have experienced total vision loss, to help them through smartphones when they are in need.

It could be that they need someone to literally “be their eyes” to find a hat they dropped while working outside or help them see the direction they should be walking, for instance.

How do you change behaviours?

It’s important to understand that any change in behaviour regarding technology use will require conscious and dedicated effort because so much is ingrained in our daily lives. Ultimately, you want to be moving to shift usage to foster desired and healthy interactions.

  • If you know you will be tempted to look at your device if it is close by while you are working, remove it from the area so that it isn’t easily accessible.
  • While created as tongue in cheek, you can purchase “jail cells” with a lock and key for your phone to put it away for a while.
  • When gathered with friends, make a rule that all phones must be face-down in the centre of the table so everyone can focus on enjoying social interactions.
  • If you attend concerts or other live performances or events, make a point of experiencing them firsthand, not through a screen while you try to make a recording.
  • Finally, allow yourself to be bored and do nothing for a while: it’s healthy for your mind.
  • If you are worried about addictive behaviours, seek professional help.
  • Create device/screen free activities with friends, family or peers such as any outdoor activities, board or card games, sports or even conversation or debate.


  1. @Elaine, (2015, October 7). How the USGS uses Twitter data to track earthquakes. [Blog} Twitter. Retrieved February 14, 2020 from…
  2. Ferguson, Christopher J., (2018, May 23). A psychologist explains why technology’s impact on your brain is probably overblown. Quartz at Work. Retrieved, January 27, 2020 from…
  3. McSpadden, Kevin., (2015, May 14). You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than A Goldfish. Time Magazine. Retrieved on February 14, 2020 from
  4. McSpadden, Kevin., (2015, May 14). You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than A Goldfish. Time Magazine. Retrieved on February 14, 2020 from
  5. TimeToLogOff (n.d.). The Facts On Our Digital And Internet Addiction and the need for Digital Detox. TimeToLogOff.…
  6. Hale, James. (2019, May 7). More than 500 hours of content are now being uploaded to YouTube every minute. Tubefilter. Retrieved on February 14, 2020 from…
  7. Gregory, Christina., PhD. (n.d.) Internet Addiction Disorder. Psycom. Retrieved on February 14, 2020 from
  8. Renstrom, Joelle, (2020, February 2). Is secondhand screen time the new secondhand smoking? The Herald-Dispatch. Retrieved February 14, 2020 from…
  9. Nandi, Anisha, Patterson, Dan. (2018, December 19). Addicted to your smartphone? How to keep track of your screen time. CBS News. Retrieved February 14, 2020 from…
  10. Pasquinelli, Elena. (2018, September 11). Are digital devices altering our brains? Scientific American. Retrieved on February 14, 2020 from…
  11. Nature Canada (n.d.). Screen Time vs Green Time. Nature Canada. Retrieved on February 14, 2020 from…
  12. Nature Canada (n.d.). Screen Time vs Green Time. Nature Canada. Retrieved on February 14, 2020 from…

The Science of Addiction and Mental Health

The Science of Addiction & Mental Health

Addiction was always understood by scientists as our brains being like large circuit boards that passed information through electrical signals over a network, however recently research has changed our understanding of the brain.

Everyday living and cumulative life experiences cause changes in our thinking and affect general brain function.

Historically, scientists thought that our brains were like large circuit boards that passed information through electrical signals over a network. The messages told our bodies what to do and how to behave. Recently, research has changed our understanding of the brain. Researchers now look at how everyday living and our cumulative life experiences cause changes in our thinking and affect general brain functioning. We’re learning about what healthy brains look like through tools like brain imaging, brain stimulation, and genetics.

Through evolving research, we are getting a better picture of how stress changes our brains and makes us more vulnerable to brain diseases. Those on the forefront of research are now looking at how our brains react to social interactions and environmental influences. What they’re seeing is how all of these factors shape people’s experiences as they live with addiction and mental illness. The research is pointing to “true underlying causes” allowing scientists to “design precision treatments” addressing the unique and individual needs of many people.

Stress takes its toll

The effects that stress has on our brains and bodies are significant. It sets off reactions that flood our bodies with hormones and neurotransmitters that create exaggerated responses and affect our brain’s ability to self-regulate. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk is a psychiatrist who is well known for his research on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He talks about how we are hard-wired to stay safe. His studies show that people who have suffered compounded stress and trauma have a hard time relaxing the parts of their brains that monitors for danger. Instead, their threat response is always on. This state of constant activation means that the slightest occurrence can trigger intense over-activated reactions. Living in continuous fear makes it difficult to self-regulate and be able to return to a calm state where we are comfortable with ourselves. With addiction and mental illness, many people learn to “rely on external regulation — from medication, drugs like alcohol, constant reassurance, or compulsive compliance with the wishes of others.” That’s why broadening the scope of therapy and treatment is so critical. No single thing can be pinpointed as a sole cause for addiction and mental illness, and we continue to learn about the multiple influencing factors at play in cycles of addiction.

Neurobiology is helping develop better treatment

At its most basic level, our brains are motivated to do something that creates a reward that makes us feel good: in brain chemistry, that’s dopamine. In theory, we humans, with our big and complex brains, are supposed to be able to make decisions that chase the rewards and avoid punishments. It’s this belief that has created so much of the damaging stigma around addiction and mental illness: that people should be able to “just say no.”

Neuroscientists and clinicians are working together to understand how it’s much more complicated than mere behavioural modification. It has more to do with the way the brain reacts to stress and creates situations where negative emotions, environmental stimulants and learned associations with social situations take over. With addiction, responding to those influencers – smelling something, travelling past a place where someone purchased or used a substance – makes the brain want to return to that pleasurable state.

Recovery is about learning how to respond to those cravings so that the brain is still getting its reward. Instead of using a dangerous and addictive substance, it might mean re-training the brain to appreciate other, “sources of pleasure – say a good conversation with a friend or a beautiful sunset.” That’s also where pharmacological treatment can help, as part of a comprehensive treatment approach. Medications help “stabilize the craving brain while the planning and reasoning processes get back in shape.”

But medication isn’t the only way. There are newer approaches, such as behavioural therapy which is another crucial part of treatment that needs to be part of a full treatment plan. It’s versatile because it can help individuals, groups and families understand how behavioural choices come into play as part of natural responses to stressors and affect relationships. Participants learn how to be aware of and then change behaviours to help regain control of their lives. For instance, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been proven as an effective treatment for both addiction and mental illness when it’s combined with medication and other therapies. It helps people identify unproductive patterns of behaviour and thinking, then using those recognition skills to recognize vulnerabilities and redirect towards more productive, positive responses. There are many other therapies that leverage incentives, build positive approaches through community engagement, and encourage motivation through dialogue and reinforcement of positive behaviours. Combinations that include one or more of these techniques plus other treatments and therapies help keep people engaged and interested in recovery.

Are substance abuse issues and mental illness related?

While it’s not a matter of one causing the other or vice versa, there is strong evidence that linkages between the two are more common than people think. When they go undiagnosed, it can make things significantly worse. People often don’t want to believe that it’s possible to have both, however:

  • About 50% of people with severe mental health disorders are affected by substance abuse.
  • 37% of alcohol abusers and 53% of drug abusers also have at least one serious mental illness.
  • 29% of people diagnosed with mental illness abuse either alcohol or drugs.

Instead, someone may self-medicate to relieve a mental health disorder and deal with difficult emotions, reduce stress and changes in their mood.

Substance use can also increase the risk of developing mental health disorders by inducing psychosis or accelerating and prolonging periods of depression. In effect, it can push someone who has been struggling over the edge. Drug interactions could mean that medications for mental illness could become less effective. The symptoms that were being treated could become worse or new ones could develop.

Symptoms and treatments are often different

When you’re trying to understand whether there’s a situation where substance abuse and mental illness are happening at the same time, you need to have patience. The symptoms aren’t usually the same.

Someone with an addiction might have pretty clear thinking about their need to control their drinking or drug use. They could realize that they are going through prescription medication faster than expected. They might feel ashamed about their actions or have said something they regret. Or they might find that their relationships are strained because they are trying to hide their consumption.

Mental health problems could show up as depression, anxiety or mania without full awareness. Feeling helpless or hopeless; being restless, worried or on-edge; experiencing changes in energy levels, sleep, appetite or weight; having trouble concentrating, being extremely irritable, having racing thoughts and impaired judgement; and feeling nauseous, dizzy and tense can all be signs of more serious mental illness.

Treatment for addiction might include “detoxification, management of withdrawal symptoms, behavioural therapy and support groups,” while mental health therapy could focus on “medication, counselling, lifestyle changes and peer support.”

What to keep sight of in recovery

Knowing the kind of situations that make you feel uncomfortable or vulnerable is a significant first step to managing stress. It could mean avoiding places, people or even particular times of day that trigger feelings associated with drugs and alcohol. Look for ways to meet new people or try a new activity you’ve always been curious about.

Staying in touch with your support network is particularly helpful to be sure you feel well supported during recovery. Doctors, nurses, people in your group sessions, friends and family are all there to help you when you feel lonely, depressed or anxious. Talking with them could help when you think you have nowhere else to turn.

Remember the foundations of good physical and mental health:

  • Get regular exercise
  • Eat nutritious foods
  • Practice mindfulness by focusing on the present
  • Participate in activities that make you feel fulfilled
  • Explore interests to learn new things

All of these will help you relieve stress and live well.


  1. CAMH (n.d.), Understanding the Science of the Brain. Retrieved on July 30, 2019 from…
  2. Van der Kolk, B. Dr. (2015). The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking Books.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Bierer, M. MD. (updated 2017, July 25). Is addiction a “brain disease”? Retrieved on July 30, 2019 from…
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Help Guide (n.d.) Reports published in the Journal of the American Medical Association as cited in Understanding the link between substance abuse and mental health. Retrieved on July 30, 2019 from…
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid

Beyond Stigma

Beyond Stigma

Have you ever purchased a bunch of daffodils to support cancer research? Or pinned a pink ribbon on your shirt as a fundraiser for breast cancer? Or participated in a walk-a-thon for multiple sclerosis? Throughout the year, we are exposed to, and participate in, many campaigns which profile and raise funds for diseases of all types. However, there are noteworthy gaps in regards to illness which do not receive the public spotlight, and which, given their prevalence, don’t get the support they deserve.

Can you think of awareness raising activities which support mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety or substance abuse? Can you identify a symbol, a ribbon, a bracelet or a flower that you associate with a mental illness or an emotional disorder?

Mental health researchers and epidemiologists estimate that between one fifth and one quarter of us will experience a mental health illness in the course of our adult lives. That’s between 20-25% of all of us! That’s you and me, our friends, our families and our colleagues who are experiencing these problems. We are many in number, but collectively we still maintain a deafening silence about our experiences of mental illness.

Historically, Western civilizations have identified diseases by classifying them by their symptom patterns, and then developing appropriate treatment processes. And when the symptoms go away, we collectively identify the restoration of health. Mental illnesses have not been as amenable to diagnosis. There isn’t a standard blood test that can identify depression or addiction in the way that we can easily tell whether or not our cholesterol level is elevated. It’s also harder to see when a mental or emotional illness has healed – a cast isn’t removed, and there aren’t any stitches to be taken out to let it be known that healing has taken place.

The “invisible” and “unseen” aspects of mental illness extend beyond the level of diagnostics and treatment. Although it’s not uncommon for us to discuss our experiences with heart disease, diabetes and even prostrate cancer, typically, we don’t talk openly or publicly about mental and emotional concerns. A cloud of shame and embarrassment is still associated with these illnesses. We often believe that they must be the result of a character flaw or some other personal vulnerability. We tend to internalize the causes of mental illness (and ascribe them to personal or familial causes) but externalize the causes of physical illness (and attribute them to a virus, a germ or a genetic cause).

Our silence speaks more to our limited understanding of mind/body processes than it does to the nature of disease. Surely being genetically predisposed to diabetes is no different than being genetically predisposed to anxiety? Both conditions interfere with daily life, and both are treatable. Both can be managed in ways that allow for full and satisfying life experiences. We don’t hold individuals personally accountable for their genetic makeup. So why is it more acceptable to acknowledge diabetes than anxiety? Why do we openly acknowledge one condition, whereas we tend to hide the other?

With the advent of MRI technologies and other sophisticated and sensitive diagnostic tests which map the biochemistry and electrical circuitry of the brain, our ability to link mood and behavioural activity to brain function has grown beyond recognition. It’s quite possible that one day we will be able to concretely and objectively identify mental health symptoms. But given the cost and limited availability of these types of testing, we’re not there yet!

To reduce stigma, we need to become aware of how effective current treatment practices can be in addressing depression and anxiety. We need to change how we view mental illnesses and recognize that, in most cases and when treated appropriately, these conditions can be readily managed and healed. Mental health concerns fall along a continuum of severity, and most of these illnesses are amendable to treatment.

So where does stigma come from and what can we do about it? Most importantly, how can we reduce the myths and misconceptions that are associated with mental illness? How can we create acceptance so that when we experience a mental health crisis, we can step forward and receive the help we need, rather than trying to hide the illness from both ourselves and others?

The historical and cultural roots of stigma lie in our culture’s split between mind and body, and the fear we associate with conditions that are not concrete and tangible. We don’t have to look back very far to find asylums as the “treatment of choice” for those suffering from mental illness. The images associated with these institutions are dark, frightening and painful. It’s only in the last 100 years that effective therapeutic interventions, both pharmacological and psychotherapeutic, have been available. We still have much to learn about how to “heal” and “recover” from mental illness, although the progress we have made in recent years is astounding.

To reduce stigma, we need to become aware of how effective current treatment practices can be in addressing depression and anxiety. We need to change how we view mental illnesses and recognize that, in most cases and when treated appropriately, these conditions can be readily managed and healed. Mental health concerns fall along a continuum of severity, and most of these illnesses are amendable to treatment.

We need to educate ourselves about mental illness. When we become aware of our stereotypes, judgments and prejudices, we can examine them and change them. Mental illness is not a life sentence – it’s a common and treatable health condition. In just the same way that someone one who has a knee replacement may need to modify certain aspects of their lifestyle, so may someone who is prone to anxiety or someone who is bipolar. In either case, the condition itself, whatever it is, does not define who someone is, or what they are capable of doing.

We need to normalize illnesses that have historically been hidden and ignored. When we speak about our experiences of mental illness, we help to remove the internalized shame that is associated with mental illness. This is not an “us” and “them” situation. We are all “us”. We are all potentially vulnerable to suffering from mental health problems, and all of us have the potential to heal, or at least to manage, these issues and lead a full life.

It has been said that suffering can be defined as pain multiplied by resistance. In the case of mental illness, pain results from the inner turmoil and relationship distress that are part and parcel of the course of these illnesses. However, if we can remove the resistance we have to mental illness by addressing the stigma, shame and judgment that we traditionally associate with it, then we can reduce the suffering. It’s time to speak openly and normalize our experiences of mental illness and for mental health issues to receive the public recognition they are due.

Postpartum Depression

Postpartum Depression

In a review of forty-eight papers from eight longitudinal studies focusing on women’s social and emotional health in the first year after birth, postpartum depression (PPD) was found to be a severe condition that potentially affects ten to twenty percent of women worldwide. (1)

The same review found that the two strongest predictors for postpartum depression and anxiety were the previous history of depression and poor partner relationships. Additionally, while becoming a mother at a young age is by itself not a risk factor, it could be when coupled with social disadvantages. We can’t ignore that research has shown single mothers to be at higher risk for both physical and mental health disorders, as compared to mothers that are in established relationships. (2)

Rates of PPD can be as high as 1 in 3 among the subpopulations of adolescent, veteran, or socioeconomically disadvantaged women.

It is important to remember that depression during and after pregnancy (also called perinatal depression) is treatable, and women with the proper treatment do recover. There are several treatment options to explore depending on the severity of the indicating symptoms and socio-economic factors. In this article, we identify indicators, long-term risks and courses of action for the treatment of postpartum depression, including talk therapy. There’s a growing awareness among obstetricians and pediatricians about the need to address perinatal depression. Still, like all other mental health disorders, it is something the family must work on together.

Symptoms and signs of postpartum depression

The common, mild postpartum mood changes known as “baby blues” can be caused by the effects of sudden hormonal withdrawal. The postpartum mother may experience mood swings, crying spells, anxiety and difficulty sleeping.

The baby blues can be expected to last for a few weeks unless the mother has a pre-existing mood disorder that allows this period to linger slightly longer.

On the other hand, postpartum depression and its myriad of mood disorders is an amplification of these symptoms that can come on stronger and last longer than postpartum mood changes. Symptoms can include a persistent low mood, accompanied by trouble performing daily tasks, and the mother feeling detached from her newborn baby. Left untreated, postpartum depression can become chronic and, in some cases lead to thoughts of harming one’s self, spouse, or child, and suicidal ideations. Think you’re experiencing postpartum depression? You are not alone. About one in seven women experiences depression during or after pregnancy. The sudden hormonal withdrawal after a woman gives birth is just one factor in this universal and unpredictable condition. Individual experiences with postpartum mood disorders will vary between mothers, sometimes even between pregnancies.

Poor maternal-infant bonding and the long term implications

National Public Radio recently produced
a segment for their podcast, Life Kit, which talks about five things families need to know about perinatal depression, its symptoms and treatment options. In this podcast, Jennifer Payne, a psychiatrist and the director of the Women’s Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins University is quoted as saying, “I always say if mom’s not happy, no one’s happy.”

Perinatal depression has been associated with certain conditions like
premature delivery and low birthweight babies, and studies have shown that PPD is associated with cognitive delays in the child. However, one of the more fundamental processes affected by perinatal depression is breastfeeding, where the condition results in a mother experiencing less satisfaction from their infant feeding method, and are more likely to stop breastfeeding. (3)

Like many mood disorders, the impact is felt throughout all relationships. In regards to PPD specifically, we focus on the effect it has on the maternal-infant bonding, but the spouse sometimes gets forgotten because it is accepted that this relationship is already established.

What gets buried are the hurt feelings, distorted thoughts, misinterpreted intentions and lack of clarity and joy that depression can bring into the home.

Trusted literature highlights some
approaches to keeping the partner bond intact and strong during times when either parent is experiencing depression. These approaches include open communication, compassion, and taking steps to keep the depressed partner healthy when depression makes it difficult for them to engage in self-care.

Causes, outcomes and how PPD differs from other depressions

Mental health problems are never considered the mother’s fault or failure. They are complications of pregnancy and childbirth, like preeclampsia and gestational diabetes, with PPD being even more prevalent. Researchers don’t fully understand what causes PPD, but like all mental illnesses, biology and environment are contributing factors to how a mother experiences its symptoms.

Hormones play a significant role in PPD cases. Levels of certain hormones, mainly progesterone and estrogen increase throughout pregnancy. Once the baby is born, the levels of progesterone and estrogen fall dramatically. That drop in hormone levels is likely responsible for the mental health symptoms many women experience during this time.

Exacerbating factors that affect PPD specifically are the constant needs of the newborn baby that tend to disrupt the regular routines of life that keep our mental health stable. Childbearing is challenging and in some instances expecting mothers may face complications. Add in sleepless nights and various lifestyle and personal sacrifices to take care of a new baby. If they lack the family support and financial means to distribute duties of care, these exacerbating factors can create pressures from the complex emotions facing new mothers.

Young, single mothers in precarious economic circumstances are more likely to experience mental health conditions. Other risk factors include marital stress, birth trauma and a history of abuse.

It is very easy in some cases for postpartum depression to go undiagnosed, unacknowledged, and untreated. Psychotherapeutic modalities, pharmacologic and psychosocial interventions cost money and are less accessible to vulnerable populations like young, single mothers. Another reason is that the mother may already have a mood disorder that masks, dovetails with, or confuses the symptoms of PPD she might otherwise be able to identify. Her depression may also set in during pregnancy, upsetting what we think we know about PPD, that it only occurs after a mother gives birth.

Postpartum depression isn’t a weakness of character. It’s merely a complication of pregnancy and giving birth. The anxiety and excitement over baby wanes and the hard work begins. Low-energy, lack of rest, lack of motivation, no time for self-care, and resources may be rationed in order to put baby first. If you have or suspect you have postpartum depression, getting treatment early can help you manage your symptoms and help you bond with your baby.

One major hurdle that many women face in seeking treatment is convincing their families that they have an illness and that they need help. The stigma alone, along with feelings of helplessness, guilt, and anxiety, can create an overwhelming barrier between the mother and the dedicated treatment she requires and deserves.

How to move forward & manage treatments

It has been concluded that women in low and middle-income situations are more susceptible to experience medically unexplainable physical symptoms known as somatoform disorders with anxiety and depression. (4) Physician recommendations suggest you look for these risk factors: a history of depression, current depressive symptoms and socioeconomic risk factors like being low income, very young or a single parent.

In Canada, we have many professional resources at our disposal, most of which are covered by provincial health care programs.

OB-GYNs, pediatricians and general practitioners can screen for depression and help women get treatment at the earlier signs of perinatal depression, or in the case of prolonged postpartum depression that requires outside help.

Midwives also play a critical role in the identification, support and referral of women experiencing mental health problems. (5) Many women do not seek help from mental health services when needed, therefore the potential for a midwife to have an impact on women’s mental health warrants further examination, and a possible recommendation for treatment

In terms of psychotherapeutic modalities, two kinds of talk therapy — cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and
interpersonal therapy (IPT), may prevent PPD in at-risk women. (6) CBT works by changing a patient’s thought patterns and actions, and IPT helps a patient improve relationships by assisting them in improving their communication skills.

Pharmacologic and psychosocial interventions also exist. Antidepressants, for instance, maybe considered as effective and safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Medication, in combination with talk therapy, is more effective than medication alone. We are all unique and may react differently to medications. Before taking medications, consult with your physician or primary care provider to ensure they are safe for both you and your child.

If consultation with a physician is not possible, what can you do?

You can turn to an organization like Postpartum Support International, a nonprofit that helps women and their families find support for postpartum depression, to learn more and connect with others in a similar circumstance.

On your own, making a routine of self-care has been shown to improve mental health symptoms like those experienced in PPD by improving overall health, so you can cope better with the stress of taking care of a newborn. Self-care means eating regularly and staying hydrated, getting adequate sleep, and taking breaks during the day when possible; exercising, which can be solo-time or used to bond with the baby; seeking out community and social support.


  1. Maternal mental health in Australia and New Zealand: a review of longitudinal studies. Schmied V et. al.
  2. Single mothers have a higher risk of mood disorders. Subramaniam M et. al.
  3. Does maternal postpartum depressive symptomatology influence infant feeding outcomes? Cindy‐Lee Dennis Karen McQueen. 22 March 2007.….
  4. Association of somatoform disorders with anxiety and depression in women in low and middle income countries: a systematic review.
  5. Shidhaye R et. al.
  6. Maternal mental health in Australia and New Zealand: a review of longitudinal studies.
  7. Schmied V et. al.

We're in This Together: Thoughts on COVID-19

We're in This Together: Thoughts on COVID-19

By Alexis Winter - Director of Nursing at Homewood Ravensview

While there is a lot of negativity, fear mongering, and general panic being widely broadcast during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a lot of positivity that has come out of it as well. While some people are hoarding goods and looking out only for themselves, others are lending a helping hand, sharing with their neighbours, and generally looking out for one another. Daily we are inundated with statistics of new cases and new deaths and it is easy to get overwhelmed and start to believe that everything is bleak; but sometimes focusing on the positives can change our outlook and help us feel better about our fellow humans. Focusing on problems and deficits and trying to find solutions can sometimes be counterproductive and hinder social constructivism (Cooperrider & Srivstva, 1987). For those of us that are problem solvers, trying to solve the unsolvable can be very detrimental for our mental health. What we pay attention to becomes our reality and grows in our consciousness, while what we pay less attention to becomes less powerful. In other words, focusing on strengths begets strengths (Bushe, 2011). So in this time of the unknown, it can help to honor those that are working hard to help one another. There are many examples of people stepping up in selfless ways to help those that are unable to do for themselves.

Thousands of people have come forward to volunteer to do things like pick up and deliver groceries to those that cannot leave their homes. Some grocery stores have changed their hours to ensure vulnerable members of society are able to get what they need during less crowded times. Grass roots Facebook and other social media groups have been set up to connect those that need help with those that are willing to give help and many people are offering their time, resources, and money. We have seen videos of musicians in Spain and Italy, as well as China, Lebanon, and Israel playing and singing from their balconies to give the gift of music to those stuck in their homes. Computer experts are remotely lending a helping hand to those that suddenly find themselves in need of a home office and don’t have the skill or expertise to set it up themselves.

Addiction workers, therapists, and physicians have set up remote access applications so they can still see their patients and clients without the fear of spreading the virus. Local distilleries have focused their energy and resources on creating hand sanitizer rather than producing their regular products and making them available to disenfranchised people and health care workers. Restaurants that have had to close their doors are offering free food to employees that no longer have an income.  Radio stations have set up virtual sing-alongs and dance parties for those cooped up at home. NBA players have donated money to help arena workers who suddenly find themselves out of work. Large companies are donating money to support people in their communities that do not have the means to see them through a period of unemployment.

As the virus passes through China and on to other countries, Chinese officials are donating medical supplies and other goods to countries in need, while sharing their knowledge, expertise, and scientific discoveries with the world in an effortto help the rest of us prepare. Police officers continue to work in order to serve and protect. And closest to home for me, nurses, doctors, and medical support staff are taking a very big step forward as the rest of the world takes a step back in order to ensure people continue to get the care they need.

This global pandemic has caused a lot of stress for a lot of people. We feel stress in direct relation to our coping strategies and our belief about our ability to affect outcome (Lazarus, 1991). While a lot of what is going on is outside of our control and therefore, very stressful, some is within our control such as our attitude and our response. So as we are inundated with scary statistics and bad news, don’t forget that the world continues to be a place full of altruism and kindness. People continue to help each other and pull through a crisis together with an attitude of caring and cooperation.



Bushe, G.R. (2011). Appreciative Inquiry: Theory and Critique. In Boje, D., Burnes, B., & Hassard, J. (eds.) The Routldedge companion to organization change (pp. 87-103). Oxford, UK: Routledge.

Cooperrider, D., & Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. In Woodman, R.W. & Passmore, W.A. (eds). Research in Organizational Change and Development, Vol. 1 (129-169). Stamford, CT: JAI Press.

Lazarus, R.S. (1991). Emotion and adaption. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Financial Stress

Financial Stress

Financial Stress

Financial Stress

Nearly 1/3 of Canadians spend about one hour each day worrying about their finances. [1] Financial worries often top the list of people’s concerns, even more than thinking about their health.[2] It may not be surprising given the world we live in today. Uncertainty concerning economic conditions, cost of living, growth in salaries, and the increasingly precarious nature of work create vulnerability and uneasiness. It’s compared with an interesting phenomenon that could be argued is partially self-inflicted: Globally, there’s an undeniable fixation on consumerism. Social media provides a constant showcase of luxury products and ideals that influence purchasing decisions and spending habits in a way that many people find hard to ignore. The problem is that it’s causing many people to get caught up in lifestyles that are outside of their actual financial means.

Whether we’re browsing online or visiting a physical store, shopping has overwhelmingly moved from a need and want basis, to one of entitlement that is conveniently disguised as self-care. Marketers and retailers offer encouragement by telling us repeatedly that we deserve to be the proud owner of the objects of their campaigns. They tempt us to escape from some aspect of our daily lives by participating in intense sessions of retail therapy. The irony is that all of these behaviours are not making us feel better over the longer term. The items you bought that you really didn’t need are actually contributing to a far more debilitating risk: existing and daunting amounts of financial stress.

When bills arrive that can’t be paid; when you worry how to create a meal with the insufficient groceries left until next payday; when you realize that the products you happily bought no longer provide that sense of euphoria, these are all times when financial stress peaks and affects people’s physical and mental health.[3] In fact, while you may think of financial stress as something that happens in the moment, studies show it affects us chronically, manifesting as poor health, relationship difficulties, crippling debt and uncertainty about the future. At its most severe, financial stress can trigger anxiety and become a contributing symptom of depression.

While a little bit of stress in your day is healthy and can be the catalyst that motivates you, chronic financial stress is “especially toxic” and persistent.[4]

Physically, financial stress can show up initially as a cold or the flu and then escalate to include stomach aches, generalized pain and headaches. The longer the stress continues, the more people are at risk of developing hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and even experiencing flare-ups of auto-immune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis.[5]

From an emotional and mental health perspective, chronic financial stress can trigger anxiety and depression. Untreated, people can resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms that bring added complications. Behaviours such as stress-shopping, engaging in harmful substance use, or even gambling, can compound underlying mental health issues. It’s also possible for people to develop unhealthy relationships with food or within family relationships as reactions to growing and seemingly unmanageable levels of stress.

Addressing your financial situation is essential because as you learn how to manage it better, the sources of stress are reduced or eliminated. You’ll feel like you are regaining control of your life and can look to a defined and more stable financial future.

One of the best ways to understand your financial situation and begin to reduce stress is to start with basic budgeting. Making a list of all monthly income and spending, break it down into non-discretionary (musts) and discretionary (nice-to-haves) categories. Once you look at where your money is going and how you are spending it, you can begin to understand your cash-flow, learn about your spending patterns, and see where your spending traps exist, which can allow you to formulate a plan of change. Initially, you might want to move to using cash-only until you get a better idea of how to work within a budget. Seeing where and what you are spending on is important. Many financial transactions today are cashless, and overspending can occur with ease. Put your debit card away for a while so you can observe the rate at which you spend. That might include an audit of money wasters that tempt us every day – like upscale coffees. It could also reveal how much can be saved in invisible spending, like bank fees.

Another area to focus on is managing credit responsibly and wisely. You should know your credit score and understand the significance it has in your personal economy. It’s used to grant you credit for vehicles, housing, and even as a measure of responsibility and trustworthiness by some employers. You can request your credit report from Equifax Canada and TransUnion Canada. These are the only two credit bureaus that operate in Canada, and they offer information about both your credit history (credit report) and credit scores (creditworthiness). Be smart and hold only the necessary amounts of credit that you can manage so that you can pay these bills on time. It is in your best interest to pay off any credit purchases monthly, so you will not accumulate interest charges. However, many Canadians do carry a balance on their credit accounts. Regardless, you should investigate what fees, interest rates, and limits are there as controls on your account. You should also look at what kinds of purchases you are making on your credit card. If you are shocked by any of these, contact your credit card lender. You may want to see if there is a different product available to help you manage your credit better. They will also be able to help you if there are fraudulent charges billed to your account.

You can pay off multiple credit card debts using what is often referred to as the “snowball” method of repayment. With it, you start aggressively paying off the smallest debt with extra discretionary funds, while continuing to make the minimum payments on each account. When the smallest debt is gone, close the account. Next, put everything you had been paying on that card onto the next-smallest balance, in addition to the minimum payment. Keep repeating this process until you work through all of the debt on your credit accounts. Ensure that you only use credit for emergencies, large purchases, or travel and that you have the funds to pay the debt off as soon as possible. Some people have been known to stop carrying their credit cards and freeze them in a block of ice to avoid temptation. While you may not need to go to that extreme, evaluating your knowledge and use of credit is still an essential part of reducing financial stress.

Developing better awareness of your finances may help you re-evaluate whether or not you actually need to spend your hard-earned money. Avoid temptations presented through social media. Trends such as subscription boxes and “free” prizes often require you to provide your credit card information to receive these “limited-time offers” and exclusive deals for you alone. Do you really need to belong to a product-of-the-month club? Know that online advertising is targeted using complex algorithms that are based on your browsing activities. You may be able to configure some user settings to increase privacy and reduce the frequency and types of advertising that pop-up online.

Here are some other things to watch for:

  • You should also be wary of luxury products being marketed by celebrities and influencers. They are often too good to be accurate and do not stand up to their claims.
  • Avoid using online and app-based food delivery services. Prices are often inflated to build in some profit for the service. Consider limiting the frequency of eating out or “ordering in” to once a month or every few months. Preparing and eating home-cooked meals is much easier on your finances and often much healthier.
  • Online shopping can be swift and tempting. Consider unsubscribing from marketing emails that are sent to advertise sales and encourage you to shop deals offered during “flash sales” because you likely don’t need the products. Don’t get caught up in corporations trying to influence your buying. You need to be the one in control. It doesn’t mean you can’t ever shop online but do so on your terms. If you are considering purchasing garments, evaluate both the quality and the value in terms of “cost per wear” to determine when you will have gotten good use from the item of clothing. If it’s something you will only wear once or infrequently, try to avoid high costs, as you won’t recoup the value with multiple uses.
  • Similarly, don’t get caught up in the marketing around upgrading technology with each new release that a manufacturer issues. Think about the purpose of your devices, like computers and mobile phones, and whether the current model is still meeting your needs. The same holds true with vehicles. You should aim to get as much use from these products as possible while they are performing the job you need them to do. Plan to conduct a review every few years or when something is no longer operating or serviceable.

Another area to explore is the surge in popularity in the second-hand/up-cycling economy. There are many online tools available to purchase gently-used or sometimes like-new goods from sellers. Thrift stores also can be a good source for many household and clothing items. As demographics shift, many households are downsizing and having an estate or garage sale. You may consider selling or donating some of your own goods through these tools to de-accumulate things you no longer need.

A final step on the path of reducing financial stress is actually looking ahead. Consider realistic needs that you may have in both the short and longer terms. Are you considering a vacation? Why not set aside savings within your monthly budget to help pay for it without creating financial strain. Do you have an upcoming event where you will need to purchase something to wear? Again, work within your budget to save in advance so that you don’t overspend. You can also apply this methodology to celebrations throughout the year. Establish a budget for gifts and save in advance so that you are well prepared and know exactly how much you have to spend. Then, turn to longer-term savings for retirement through investments. Developing a financial plan might sound intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. You can start by saving as little as $20 a week. The point is that you are breaking bad financial habits and developing healthy ones. You can work towards expanding your retirement or investment savings more fully once you have alleviated immediate stressors such as credit card debt.

Overall, reducing financial worries and managing the stress positively and proactively by facing challenges head-on can help people develop a healthier, more balanced approach to finances – where stress is minimized – and a healthier self. Taking control of your financial situation and making many small improvements in managing your finances will help you gain momentum. Don’t forget to celebrate little goals along the way as you take control!


[1] Hay, Susan. (2019, November 16). Most Canadians worry about their finances every day for about an hour. Global News. Retrieved January 6, 2020 from

[2] Hay, Susan. (2019, November 16). Most Canadians worry about their finances every day for about an hour. Global News. Retrieved January 6, 2020 from

[3] Kondo, Marie. (2016, January 5). Spark Joy – An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up. Ten Speed Press.

[4] Scott, Elizabeth. MS. (2019, December 1). Coping With Financial Stress in Your Life. Retrieved January 6, 2020 from

[5] Gallo, Linda, Ph.D. (n.d.) Speaking of Psychology: The stress of money [Podcast]. Episode 22. American Psychological Association. Retrieved January 6, 2020 from