By Guest Contributor on October 23, 2018
Guest contribution from Dr. Thara Vayali
Resilience is the ability to experience discomfort, recover, adapt and grow from challenge. This does not mean enduring or subjecting oneself to repeated discomfort for the sake of “being resilient”. To strengthen our resilience muscle is to build a buffer between what is happening and how we deal with it.
There are many ways to activate and strengthen the resilience muscle. Variety is crucial: no single direction or exercise will create an agile, responsive muscle. The key is to begin with the basics. A coach would generally recommend becoming adept at the basic skills before you try any fancy moves. Daily training may seem repetitive or minimal compared to facing overwhelming or exciting challenges, but it is the only way to prepare for those challenges. The same goes for resilience.
The primary tool for resilience-building is mindfulness. It has been shown that our ability to navigate discomfort begins quietly, in a daily practice that refines our awareness, focus and self-care. Ten minutes of quiet, focused breathing with the intent of observing and allowing sensation to pass is the practice. The best athletes know that persistent, daily practice is what gives them the framework to excel.
Let’s begin with three common situations where mindfulness can be harnessed.
Notice the auto-pilot moments
Auto-pilot exists to save our brains from consciously choosing every daily decision. Unfortunately, auto-pilot can also drive our actions, reactions, desires and values. As you find 10 minutes of daily mindfulness, begin to notice how your auto-pilot impacts your thoughts, interactions and relationships. The goal is simply to notice, as self-awareness is a primary exercise for resilience-building.
Survival of the focused
Focus may be our most valued resource. Neurologically, the best practice is to observe when, where and why your attention drifts. “Task-switching” gobbles up our energy through notifications, emails, open-door policies and a fear-of-missing-out, along with the urge to always be “doing” something rather than sitting still. Sitting still is a skill. Build a schedule that allows you to have one hour of single-task focus time – with no communication devices or interruptions. Notice how that feels. Ten minutes of daily mindfulness is the very beginning of this practice.
Rest for the weary
Getting through challenges does not mean losing sleep, though somehow we have associated the two. Rest allows us to think more clearly, and quality sleep tempers our reaction time and biases. Some of the major obstacles to our sleep are staying up past our natural sleep time, thinking about difficult situations close to bed time, and having screens too close for too long. Think about where and when you allow phones, computers and in-depth processing in your space – do you have any boundaries? If not, choose times and places where these are off limits in your home and at work. In the hour before bed, avoid screens, leave behind the big thoughts, and take the time for a mindfulness practice before bed.
Consider this your resilience physiotherapy. Practice diligently and you will see a change in how you experience situations and how you respond to and grow from them.
Dr. Thara Vayali is a Vancouver-based naturopathic doctor and yoga teacher, UBC alum and popular guest contributor to our Healthy UBC newsletter who specializes in intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. For more information about Thara, visit www.tharavayali.ca
Photo Credit: Student Communications & UBC Thrive
By Miranda Massie on September 13, 2017
Welcome back! The familiar September hum, indicative of the start of another academic year, is all around us and faculty, staff and students are as busy as ever. In particular, for those of our colleagues working in front-facing, advising or instructional roles, this time of year can be challenging as they are often required to put the needs and priorities of others well ahead of their own.
Our dedicated, passionate and enthusiastic staff and faculty are a huge part of what makes our UBC communities so unique, and in order to ensure that we remain at the top of our game for others, we must not forget ourselves.
Have you taken a lunch break this week? When was the last time that you stood up from your desk and stretched? Did you drink any water yesterday? Have you socialized with colleagues today?
The truth about caring for others is that it can leave us feeling amazing and exhausted. We can feel positive, proud, fulfilled and rewarded, yet experience anxiety, fear, resentment and frustration at the same time. These emotions are natural and even have names :
- Burnout: Gradual mental and/or physical feelings of detachment, exhaustion and negative feelings associated with frustrations or a perceived inability to make a difference
- Compassion Satisfaction: Positive emotions and satisfaction received from helping others
- Compassion Stress (a.k.a. Secondary Traumatic Stress): Negative reaction experienced by a caregiver in response to an indirect event (something experienced by someone else)
- Compassion Fatigue: State of burnout or exhaustion as a result of prolonged compassion stress
When our roles are so tightly tied to the successes and achievements of others, it can be challenging to remember to care for ourselves. To be the most effective and successful in our work, we need to continually maintain our vitality and resilience. 
So how do we find the time to look after ourselves and recharge in meaningful ways? The key is to find small, manageable and affordable things that can be done on a daily basis to promote renewal while reducing immediate stress. A note of caution: we run the risk of setting lofty self-care goals that may not be realistic or attainable. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and failure or make it easy to send goals to the bottom of the to-do list.
This month I invite you to consider your own needs along with those of the people that you are working for and working with. Reflect on what you do for your own self-care and try to find ways to incorporate these things into each day.
Self-care ideas :
- Read a book on your own or with your child
- Listen to a favourite playlist/song
- Savour a bath or shower
- Find ways to laugh
- Keep your work environment bright and cheerful (plants, flowers, pictures, art)
- Snuggle with a pet
- Write in a journal (try The Five Minute Journal!)
- Meditate, reflection or prayer
- Take breaks
- Spend time in nature
- Establish a sleep routine
- Check out this video of people sharing their self-care routines (BuzzFeedBlue)
- Use the Self-Care chart below (@instadoodles)
Here’s to an exciting and resilient September!
All my best,
 Mental Health Commission of Canada (3rd ed.). (2016). Mental Health First Aid.
 Skovholt, T. M., Trotter-Mathison, M. (2016). The resilient practitioner: Burnout and compassion fatigue prevention and self-care strategies for the helping professions (3rd ed.). New York; London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. doi:10.4324/9781315737447
 Riordan, M.M. Self-Care Advice for Caregivers. Human Development, 22(4), 27-31.
Photo Credit: Melissa Lafrance
Posted in Editorial, Mental Health, Miranda Massie | Tagged boundaries, burnout, compassion, fatigue, health benefits, Higher ed, satisfaction, self-care, Stress, stress management, UBC, work, workplace | 3 Responses
By Guest Contributor on September 13, 2017
Guest contribution by Dr. Thara Vayali
Empathy comes naturally to us. From our primate cousins to our newborn babies, humans are wired to perceive and respond to another person’s feelings. It has helped us learn skills, build communities and has saved us from danger. It is our language before we learn to speak a language.
We don’t learn empathy. In fact, quite the contrary: we are empathic and for healthy developmental reasons, we mitigate the impact of all the feelings by building boundaries.
In the context of work, politics, education and relationships, empathy is having its golden moment. Praised as a way to improve employee happiness, international relations, interpersonal conflict and learning disorders, empathy has a lot to live up to.
Since empathy is getting so much attention, I think it is worth being crystal clear on the shorthand terms for describing the ways we experience feeling with others. These definitions are a compilation of research in empathy, etymology and communication.
In its essence, without laying out the nuances and qualities of empathic communication, empathy is embedding your emotional being in someone else’s situation (“Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”)
When you observe someone experiencing an emotion, and you feel that emotion well up in yourself, this is empathy. You have a visceral sense of what it feels like even though you are not experiencing the same situation. (“I feel you.”)
Sympathy (more recently cast aside as unhelpful) is often poorly defined as pity and sorrow, which each hold their own as unique feelings. Instead, sympathy is to be with someone else while they emote, despite not feeling it in tandem. We do this in the context of caring and desiring them to thrive. (“Though I do not/cannot know what you are feeling, I will walk beside you.”)
When you observe someone experiencing an emotion but you do not experience that emotion rise up within you, you can still sit with the person through their challenge – this is being sympathetic. You can hold space for the feeling and enable their resilience without feeling it yourself.
Both sympathy and empathy can support someone through distress. When we have the capacity to recognize and validate someone else’s emotions, we are better able to hear them and be supportive of them.
What doesn’t help us is when empathy becomes be “emotional contagion”, where the line between the original feeling and the empathic feeling becomes blurred. The observer perceives that and acts as if both people are experiencing the same thing. This situation often renders both individuals needing support. Small children (and some adults) experience high permeability of emotional states. One person’s distress becomes another person’s distress because healthy boundaries were not developed/established.
To build boundaries is not to build walls or to shut down emotional responses. To build boundaries is to say, “I respect your experience as yours. This is how much time I have, how much energy I have, how much perspective I have, and I will give to that extent willingly.”
To build boundaries means to know yourself well.
Another reason to be conscious of these boundaries is the relationship between stress and empathic response. In a nutshell, stress both increases and decreases empathy, and empathy both increases and decreases stress. Chickens and eggs everywhere.
Stress is ubiquitous and can mean anything from anxiety to surprise, danger or exhaustion. Statistically, 1 in 4 working Canadians report being stressed, but exactly what the stressors are and how they show up emotionally vary from person to person. It is no wonder that stress and empathy are mired in a never-ending loop.
When we experience personal distress, we tend to decrease our empathic response as a protective mechanism: when the stress feels isolated, we become more self-oriented. We may be more sensitive to cognitively noticing someone else in distress, but less capable of understanding their experience.
When we experience a social or contextual distress we tend to increase our empathic response: when we are “all in the same boat”, we become more oriented to the greater good. We may be able to “get it” when someone is in distress, but less capable of taking space away from that emotion.
Striking a balance between thinking and feeling is useful in our “empathic response.” Too much or too little of either and our actions can be misguided.
A useful empathic response is a set of actions:
- Awareness without assumptions
- Curiousity without demands
- Interest without interference
- Compassion without condescension
- Valuing experience without analyzing or judging
When our empathic response is out of balance, it does us well to remember this:
Empathy can be misguided. We are wired to be empathic, but need more information to get a better sense of another person’s plight. It is only through our own eyes (perspectives, realities, histories, experiences, biases) that we imagine the other person’s situation. Our empathy tends to be specific: toward people we care deeply about or are similar to, for experiences we identify with, and to emotions we are familiar with. Through those eyes and those preferences, our statements/actions can be misguided.
Empathy requires energy. Empathic responses require almost all regions of the brain to work together. Like any mental task, the brain uses nutrient resources to meet demand. Compassion fatigue can occur in situations of high empathic demand, weak boundaries and low nutrient resources. We need to stop before the tank is empty, or replenish and refuel.
Empathy is a limited resource. Limited resources can drain; sometimes we use it all day long and have little left for loved ones at the end of the day – or vice versa. If you recall that no resource is limitless without care and conservation, you might be more judicious of how and when you support others.
How to make friends with empathy:
Take a body break. When you feel yourself picking up on another person’s emotion, notice your body. There is a section of your brain oriented to do just this: what sensations do I feel and where are they? What are they telling me?
Take a breath, and localize the emotion (Chest? Head? Fingers? Gut?) It’s somewhere – that’s part of how we pick up on another’s feelings – through our nervous system. If you can place it, you can also release it. Stretch it, breathe it, squeeze it, visualize throwing it away. Do something so you are not at the whim of the emotion within you.
Check your boundaries daily. How much energy do you have? How have you eaten? How have you slept? How are your personal stressors being managed? How many people are relying on your support today? Know your limit. Stay within it.
Be kinder to yourself. A vital piece of experiencing sustainable empathy is developing a positive self-image. If we can be kind to ourselves and our own emotional states, we have more room for another person’s emotion. If we feel poorly about ourselves, feeling another person’s emotion can feel invasive and depleting. When you feel your emotional tank for others starting to run low, take a moment to let yourself refuel, reflect and remember what you love about yourself. Ask yourself: What could I do to be kinder to myself today?
Empathy is a tool. Like any tool, we need to know how to use it safely to protect ourselves and others. Used wisely and with practice, we have an opportunity to create a beautiful outcome. Practice with your body, boundaries, and being kind to yourself – your empathic response will serve you well.
Thara Vayali is a naturopathic doctor and yoga teacher in Vancouver, as well as a UBC alumna. She is obsessed with intestinal and immune health, hormones and pain-free bodies. She is also the creator of Change Natural Medicine, which offers budget-conscious, membership-based health consulting.
By Guest Contributor on July 6, 2016
Guest contributions by Dr. Thara Vayali
Partners, colleagues, friends and family: the world of other people is a jumble of meaningful connections and challenging dynamics. On a good day, all pieces fit well and we can enjoy our time together. On a bad day, one or all parties involved can be on edge, interact poorly, and create a toxic emotional environment. Unfortunately, a negative interaction can trigger our opinions about one another much quicker than a positive interaction. To build healthy relationships we need to see the good in each other again; we need to “detox” our relationships.
To do that, first let’s uncover what makes a negative interaction. What puts us on alert, what makes a relationship “toxic”?
Generally, negative interactions arise for five reasons:
- Someone is experiencing stress, consciously or unconsciously, and transfers their stress to the current dynamic.
- A misunderstanding escalates or is perceived personally.
- We overextend our time/resources/attention, or cross an unstated boundary.
- Silence becomes a refuge for resentment or to gain power.
- The desire to be seen as ‘right’ overrides the purpose of interacting.
These situations happen every day, not because we intend to hurt one another, but because we are social-emotional beings. We come to interactions from our own perspectives, not noticing that others may have different expectations, desires and information. We can forget to check in with our personal state before engaging with others and the wrong combination can lead to a toxic dynamic. To detox a relationship, instead of calling out or enforcing other people check to themselves, we can lead by example and identify when we fall into one of these five behaviours and use a few tools to start to “detox” ourselves in relationship.
Five ways to build healthy behaviours in relationships
1. Check yourself:
A dysfunctional dynamic occurs when personal stress reactions get transferred onto others. If you feel your “stress thermometer” has been high all day, it is very likely that your “temperature” will influence your interactions, no matter how hard you try to ignore it. Without divulging the details, let people know that you need less pressure right now and more connection and care, or maybe some alone time. Connection to others and to oneself can defuse this pressure.
Recognize that if your thermometer reading is consistently high, you may be building a personal dynamic that takes out internal pressure on others. If this is your situation, your first priority before stepping into conversations with others is to use a mindful breathing pattern to take your temperature from boiling to tepid. Start with six slow five-count inhales and five-count exhales.
Recognize that others might not be working with the same pace or demands as you, and they don’t have to be.
2. Assume you have misunderstood:
When a conversation seems to be going sideways, take a breather and ask yourself – Am I missing something? Have I assumed/interpreted a statement incorrectly? Am I taking this statement as directed at me? Are they using the word “you” when they really mean “I”?
More often than not, interpretation is the culprit. Someone’s statement may seem personally offensive or intended toward criticism, when they have no malicious intent. Learn what language triggers you and let them know. Perhaps others do not notice how their language/tone/comments are affecting the dynamic. If you can listen deeply – pausing your initial reaction – you may find valid points hidden within a poorly communicated but important perspective.
Give your relationships the benefit of the doubt – Pause your response, listen, and ask for clarification of intent before jumping to conclusions.
3. Know your limit and stay within it:
You may be a people pleaser or a boundary crosser, or both. Neither overextending nor over-asking serves a healthy relationship.
When someone asks you for your time/resources/attention, remember that you are not a bottomless cup. Know how much time/energy you have to give, state upfront how much you have to give and stop when you have reached that limit. You are not disappointing anyone when you set expectations beforehand.
If you consistently ask others for their advice/time/energy, you may not notice the boundaries you are crossing. You cannot take responsibility for another person’s unstated boundaries, but you can start your requests by being specific and clear about how much time/energy/attention you would like of them, and allow them to answer honestly.
By taking a moment to start the conversation with boundaries/limits before engaging, we all have an opportunity to take responsibility for what resources we have to share and to be respectful of that boundary.
4. Be heard:
To feel that your voice has space for expression without criticism or judgement is a crucial part of healthy relationships. In a challenging dynamic, this space may not be in the moment of interaction. The time may show up later and the space for expression might be through writing, building, cooking, painting, singing, movement, or communicating directly to the person involved. Whatever it is that your personality/situation needs, ensure that the feelings inside are processed and expressed.
Overthinking/Dwelling/Avoiding magnifies the impact of a situation. Festering or trying to control a situation through quiet contempt slowly destroys “the good” in a relationship.
5. Consider the collateral damage:
When the urge to defend your position arises, ask yourself these questions:
- What is the purpose of this interaction?
- Am I in danger?
- Is being right important?
- Could I allow for the reality of being wrong without being personally offended?
What would it be like to agree to have a differing opinion, without forming a negative opinion of the other person?
Challenging dynamics are inevitable in a social world. Since birth, we have had to navigate our way through expressing ourselves to be understood and balancing that expression with respect, kindness and compassion toward others – and it’s not always easy! Very rarely can we classify a person as a negative force in every interaction – we all have phases along the journey toward healthy communication. Instead of focusing on others, we would be better off if we tried to detox our own communication skills. Begin with these five common communication habits in relationships; then choose healthier ways to interact. To “detox” our relationships takes stepping back from and shifting within ourselves.
Thara Vayali is a Naturopathic Doctor & Yoga Teacher in Vancouver and is also a UBC alumnus. She is obsessed with intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. She is the creator of Change Natural Medicine: Budget conscious, membership based health consulting.
Posted in A Thoughtful Mind, Guest Contributor, Mental Health | Tagged A Thoughtful mind, behaviour, boundaries, challenges, detox, Dr. Thara Vayali, dynamics, emotions, power, relationships, toxic | 1 Response