The grief recovery handbook: a must have resource for addressing loss

Last year, The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman came into my life in a round about way. I kept hearing it mentioned by colleagues and patients but thought nothing of it.  Then it was given to me at the most opportune time and I realized the universe was telling me it was time to read it.

The authors candidly talk about all the maladaptive ways we deal with our grief such as avoidance, replacing it with something new, focusing our energy on others or our work, and engaging in addictive behaviours such as shopping, eating, drinking. I thought, ‘I’ve done all of this and seen my patients coping with their grief in the same way!.”

The book then goes on to take you step by step through a specific method for recovering from grief and moving beyond your losses.  Personally, it helped me move through the loss of a long term relationship and move forward into a healthy new one.

I now recommend this book to anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one, a beloved pet, loss of a relationship, loss of a job or loss of health.  These situations require you to address and work through your emotions so you can move forward to a positive place.  It doesn’t mean your experience of grief is belittled or forgotten, it means it is honoured and taken as a learning experience so you can grow into the person you aspire to be, your best self.

To learn more check out the Grief Recovery Method website!

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The healing power of optimism

This week I was searching through my old naturopathic textbooks for some new blog topics when I came across a chapter in the book, “Mind Body Health: The Effects of Attitudes, Emotions and Relationships’ by KJ Karren, BQ Hafen, NL Smith and KJ Frandsen about the influence of an optimistic attitude on health status.   The chapter was called, “The Healing Power of Optimism” and it reviews how important your beliefs about a situation are in influencing your health status.

This purpose of this post is to highlight and discuss the main points about the healing power of optimism.

What is optimism?

Looking up the definition of optimism on Dictionary.com I discovered that optimism is:

1.  a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.

2. the belief that good ultimately predominates over evil in the world.

3. the belief that goodness pervades reality.

4. the doctrine that the existing world is the best of all possible worlds.

Overall, an optimist actively chooses to believe that good things will happen and their future will turn out in the best possible way for them.  Since optimism is an active choice, this means that you have control over your beliefs and perceptions of reality.

Once you make this powerful realization, that you have a choice, you can change your perceptions from negative  to positive which can have a beneficial outcome on your health status.

“Happiness, in short, turns out to be more a matter of how you regard your circumstances than of what the circumstances are.”

10 characteristics of optimistic people:

1. An optimist sees the good in a situation.

2. An optimist expects things to go their way.

3. An optimist believes they have the power to control the events in their lives.

4. An optimist will take action to ensure things go their way.  When things do not go their way, they re-evaluate their situation and make the necessary plans to take action in an effort to shift the situation in their favour.

5. An optimist displays perseverance and never gives up focusing on the positive things they are able to control.

6. An optimist can dismiss bad events and interpret them as isolated events without blaming themselves for the negative outcome.

7. An optimist consistently interprets the circumstances in their favour and chooses to internalize the good events.

8. An optimist chooses to view the world through ‘rose-coloured glasses’ meaning that they believe they will be successful and happy in the future.

9. An optimist believes that if something bad were to happen, they will have the ability to easily fix the problem.

10. An optimist knows when to acknowledge they cannot change a situation and successfully manages their unfavourable circumstances through healthy coping mechanisms.

How many of the above characteristics do you identify with and recognize within yourself? If you are familiar with all of them then congratulations, you are laying the foundation for optimal health outcomes! If you can only identify with a couple characteristics, that is ok too since optimism is a conscious choice in behaviour and everyone has the capability to become an optimist if you choose to do so.

This chapter on optimism goes into great detail about specific circumstances where optimism has improved health outcomes.  Here are a few examples demonstrating the potential power of optimism:

1. Researchers at Harvard evaluated the health records and psychological questionnaires completed 40 years ago of a sample of 99 army veterans.  They found that the veterans who, 40 years ago, displayed characteristics of optimism in their responses were significantly healthier 40 years later in both mental and physical health.

2. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center found that the patients with greater optimism had more successful outcomes in a cardiac rehabilitation program where they lowered factors influencing their future risk of a heart attack and stroke.

3.  Studies of university students have found that pessimistic students were sick twice as many days and visited the doctor four times more than optimistic students.  An interesting observation was that most of the illnesses were infectious diseases perhaps providing further support to the field of psychoneuroimmunology.

4.  Optimism may play a role in speeding recovery from surgery in hospitals because optimists are more likely to seek information to improve their recovery after being released from the hospital.

5.  In a survey of physicians who collectively have treated over 100,000 cancer patients, over 90% responded that the most significant factor they have observed in effective cancer treatment was having an attitude of hope and optimism.  An attitude of optimism has also been shown to influence outcomes in women with breast cancer.

A possible explanation for the beneficial outcomes of optimism could be that optimistic people are more likely to pay attention to health risks and behaviours, and then choose to act positively with this information by changing their lifestyle habits in a healthy direction.

Of course, the above examples of optimism influencing health outcomes are extremely complex and the research is in the early stages. Optimism is just one factor in the field of mind body medicine currently being investigated.  Other factors include self-esteem, spirituality, altruism, humour/laughter, guided imagery, the impact of stress and emotional states.

Imagine the power patients would have in influencing their health outcomes by combining the power of their minds with cutting edge medical treatments!

I choose to be an optimist hope that the powerful wholistic approach to medicine which places equal emphasis on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of an individual will be accessed and utilized by everyone in the future.

10 simple ways to reconnect with yourself and reduce stress

Yesterday I gave a brief talk to our detox group about an emerging field of science called, ‘Psychoneuroimmunology’  which basically investigates the relationship between your thoughts and emotions (psycho), the response of your nervous system to these emotions and the neurotransmitters released (neuro), and the effects of these neurotransmitters on the immune system (immunology). In a nutshell, this is the science of the mind-body connection. 

More research is coming out these days to show that there is a strong relationship between mental/emotional health and physical health which suggests that when a person experiences a physical illness, their mental/emotional state should also be explored rather than ignored and viewed as an isolated and separate entity.

Below are 10 ways to reconnect with your thoughts and emotions.  The first step to realizing how your thoughts and emotions are influencing your physical health is to pay attention and increase awareness of yourself.  Feel free to try one or all of the following strategies. You will be most effective at reconnecting with your inner self using the strategy that you resonate with the most.

10  ways to reconnect with yourself:

  1. Take 15 minutes per day and do something nice for yourself like reading something you love, taking a brisk walk, phoning an old friend, or soaking in a warm bath.
  2. Commune with nature: garden/sit with your flowers, go for a walk, go to the beach, walk barefoot on the grass, sit under a tree or smile at the sun. Being present with nature and listening to the natural sounds of the world can help us feel grounded and put us in touch with our inner selves.
  3. Choose an activity like pilates, yoga, meditation, guided imagery, reiki, acupuncture or massage therapy to help manage stress and unwind from the business of life.
  4. Aim to participate in physical activity 30 minutes, 5 times per week.  Exercise helps prevent many diseases, improves anxiety and depression and is a useful tool for relieving stress.
  5. Journal, start a blog or phone a friend.  Expressing your emotions on a regular basis will assist you in the process of working through them and letting them go. Having social support and someone you can bounce your ideas off of or work through your conflicts with is valuable to a sense of well-being.
  6. Set short and long term goals for your personal aspirations. These can range from taking a cooking class, to changing careers or planning a vacation.  Making your personal aspirations a priority is part of balancing the parts of your life.  Breaking down your long term goals into smaller steps can make things more manageable and easier to achieve.
  7. At work or at home, pair up with people you like to be around and can exchange positive energy with.  You can also exchange positive energy with your pets.
  8. Take control of your workplace, don’t let your workplace control you. For example, make your breaks/lunch time a priority and set aside your work.  Schedule specific times to respond to e-mails and phone messages.  Delegate as much work as you can, you do not have to do everything.
  9. Don`t be so hard on yourself and find humour in your life.  Don`t be afraid to laugh at yourself or enjoy a good romantic comedy.
  10. Turn perceived `wasted` time into enjoyable time.  For example, during the commute to work read a book/magazine you love, listen to an e-book or your favourite music, close your eyes and meditate if you ride the subway. Small acts you enjoy can be incorporated into the mundane things of life such as cooking and cleaning the bathroom.  You can turn ordinary moments into extraordinary inspiring ones.

Questions for Self Reflection:

  1. What are sources of stress in my life?
  2. How does my body tell me I am stressed?
  3. What habits do I desire to change?
  4. What emotion is dominating my life right now?
  5. How can I express my feelings more effectively?
  6. What do I really enjoy and how can I incorporate it into my life?
  7. Who are the important people I want in my life?
  8. What am I thankful for today?
  9. What made me smile or laugh today?
  10. How can I make self-care a priority?

 Resources for getting started:

Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine

Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine by Candice Pert.

I read this book in my second year of naturopathic college and it was a great combination of Candice Pert’s personal struggle as a scientist and explaining the biochemical evidence that a mind-body connection exists.  If you are scientifically-minded and think the mind-body connection is all ‘hocus pocus’ this book is a real eye opener because it explains the mind-body connection using hardcore scientific language, rigorous experimentation and evidence-based medicine.  Candice Pert is able to beautifully blend science and human nature in this book.

Mind/Body Health: The Effects of Attitudes, Emotions and Relationships

Mind/Body Health: The effects of attitudes, emotions and relationships.

This was one of our health psych textbooks at CCNM and I still find it a useful summary of research demonstrating the mind-body connection and its relationship to health and dis-ease. Some interesting points include the role of personality type, perceptions of the world and optimisim versus negativity on health status.

Staying Well With Guided Imagery

Staying Well with Guided Imagery by Belleruth Naparstek.

This book is a useful tool if you are a visual person and like guided imagery.  When you use your imagination, your body cannot tell the difference between the imaginary and reality.  Think about watching a movie.  You are only watching events happen, they are not actually happening to you, yet you can feel what the characters are going through and you can leave the movie theatre feeling sad, happy, angry, scared, frustrated, or in ‘shoot the bad guy, let’s save the world!’ mode. Using guided imagery can help shift your emotional set point from a negative one to a positive one which leads to a healthier state of physical well-being.

The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook: 5th Edition

The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook by Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, Matthew McKay and Martha Davis.

I prescribe a lot of the exercises in this workbook to patients to assist them in identifying their sources of stress and patterns of reacting to stress.  There are also great tools to help you develop effective stress management skills. Very simple and easy to understand which is why I love it!

Wherever you go, there you are

Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

 I read this book in my last year of naturopathic college and it really helped me to focus and stay in the present moment, ie to be mindful and aware of what is happening in the ‘now’ versus worrying about what I could have done better in the ‘past’ or what I plan to do in the ‘future.’  The past can’t be changed and the future is not yet here so all we have is the present moment which is where our focus should lie, as it is the present moment which is being experienced and shaped in the ‘now’.  This book as well as Jon Kabbat-Zinn’s meditation CDs are helpful in shifting your attention to the present, therefore helping to decrease your anxiety about the past or future.  There are even mindfulness meditation courses available which are very useful:

Mindfulness Meditation Toronto

Meditation for Health 

Mindfulness Meditation Meet-up Group Toronto